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Monday Morning Halfback: Round 6 NRL Review

Weird game at the foot of the Blue Mountains yesterday.
Monday Morning Halfback: Round 6 NRL Review
by NRL

Weird game at the foot of the Blue Mountains yesterday. In front of a 11,000 strong crowd (a disappointing number for a sunny Sunday afternoon versus one of the best teams in the competition), Penrith showed very good effort and kept the score close for the majority of the contest. However, it never felt like Melbourne were in danger of being upset.

Let's start with the positives for Penrith. After a hard-fought loss in Brisbane and a thumping of Canberra at home, they put in a competitive and spirited showing for the 3rd week in a row.

(What's that you say? Shouldn't professional sports franchises do this week-in, week-out? Baby steps, people, baby steps)

And you can call off the search and rescue teams because we finally had a Timana Tahu sighting! After sleepwalking through his first few appearances, Tahu actually provided some decent impact yesterday with some nice runs and a ferocious shot on Bryan Norrie that energised everyone in the stadium.

How does that old saying go again?...Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

Newly-signed Nafe Seluini is providing excellent spark for 30 minutes per game spelling Kevin Kingston. The rookie rake, inexplicably let go by the Warriors despite nabbing player-of-the-season honours for their premiership-winning Under 20s, is eerily reminiscent to fellow gun Kiwi hooker Issac Luke. For a dummy half to run for 97 metres in 31 minutes vs a Storm side, well-known for their wrestling expertise that slows down the ruck, is a formidable achievement.

With that out of the way, lets look at the harsh reality of the Panthers' situation.

In commentary, Phil Gould remarked that he "technically doesn't like (Penrith's) attacking structure."

Technically.

Hmm. What could he be trying to get at?

Given that Gus made his debut for Penrith way back in 1976 and established his reputation as a superstar coach with them in the early 90s, you can understand his reluctance to publicly condemn a club that he shares such a strong affinity with.

But it doesn't take a genius to figure out that bagging the Panthers for their technicality is a thinly-veiled shot at their Coach Matthew Elliott.

It's actually depressing watching this Panthers team with the ball inside the opposition 20. In the first half vs. Melbourne, they had 16 plays in the red-zone and never looked even remotely threatening.

Every time they got down there, they were just going through the motions and looked extremely negative. All of their goal line plays seemed preconceived, like they're decided before the ball is played and before the defense has showed it's hand. There is virtually no reading of the play on the fly and it appears that they're just waiting for last tackle to arrive so Luke Walsh can put his trademark kick in.

Which was one of the main criticisms of the Panthers last year during their unexpected winning season. That they were too one-dimensional, that far too high a percentage of their tries came off the boot and that it was not sustainable for the long run.

Well, it appears this criticism was spot on. In actuality, this Panthers side is extremely similar to their 2010 counterparts, and for the last 3 weeks have been playing with the same passion and intensity as their previous squad. But the difference is, all of those lucky bounces that came in spades last year have unsurprisingly dried up.

Luke Walsh is a very good kicker, just a level below the elites such as Lockyer, Mullen, Cronk and Prince. But unfortunately, this is the only string in his bow.

His running game is non-existent. In 5 games this year, he's made an absymal 69 total metres, after averaging only 21 metres-per-game in 2010. Because he poses such little threat to run through defenses, they pay him no respect with ball-in-hand and just wait for him to pass or kick. Consequentially, he's almost completely stopped taking the ball to the line and finds it difficult to put his runners into holes because defenses ignore the threat of him running and cheat to his support.

Now, your team may be able to scrape by with this sort of halfback if you had a world-class five-eighth who's a genuine triple threat ala former mountain man Freddy Fitler. Alas, Travis Burns is the antithesis of that.

Burns is a superb defender, vying for the title of best defensive half with Trent Hodkinson and Peter Wallace. But it's the same deal as his partner-in-crime: one excellent skill does not make up for major deficiencies in all other areas of his game.

Burns would be a suitable "18-25" squad member: a guy who isn't regularly in your starting 17 but can jump in at a number of positions for a few games per season when the need arises. A starting 6 he's most certainly not. While he shares the fiery persona of a Kieran Foran or James Maloney, he lacks the cool head that is a crucial accompaniment for any half with an angry streak.

The reality is, it was a miracle this club came within a couple games of the minor premiership last year with a Walsh/Burns/Wade Graham combo at the helm. But despite the overwhelming indicators that 2010 was a mirage, Elliot seems content to keep blindly marching into the unemployment line.

Absolute best-case-scenario, the Panthers just manage to scrape together enough consistency grab the 7th or 8th spot on the ladder (unlikely, I know) from where they'll be summarily dispatched in the first round of the playoffs. With Elliot off contract at the end of the year, no way would this be enough to secure him a new deal from Penrith after 5 years of mostly mediocre results.

Much more likely, the Panthers will finish near the bottom of the ladder and Elliot will be fired before the season is out, making way for a Mal Meninga, Nathan Brown or Brad Fittler to come in, scrap everything and rebuild the club from scratch.

Notice a common thread? Either way, Elliot's a dead man walking. His only hope now is to do something completely drastic, like give NRL bicycle Arana Taumata a chance to show his wares at 6. Or even better, give young Luke Lewis-clone Blake Austin a shot at stand-off. The 20 year old NYC captain has been carving up the Toyota Cup and has bundles of promise and potential.

Why not give the kid a shot? Sure he may crash and burn, but at this point you have nothing left to lose!

But no, Coach Elliot continues to stubbornly guide his troops over the cliff's edge. Little wonder, despite their loud public protestations that Elliot is a great coach, that the players started the season with such poor effort. Their coach's plan is so lifeless and uninspiring, it's hard to get excited playing under it.

Ironically, Elliot seems like an interesting, unconventional and pretty nice sort of bloke. In interviews, he comes across as engaging and personable; it's not hard to see why his players like him. He employs some out-of-left-field motivational tactics such as the pre match one-on-one stare-down between the entire squad.

Yet between the white lines, he's more conservative than George Dubya. This was a major factor in him wearing out his welcome in Canberra and history has repeated itself in Penrith. Surely this time there will be no NRL club willing to employ him as head honcho. Look for a Super League club to snap him up in an effort to replicate the success he had with Bradford in the late 90s.

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A Star is born

Meanwhile, their opposition continued their ruthless exploitation of inferior teams. Just like how they punished Parramatta mistakes the week before, Melbourne made the Panthers pay for their miscues and were solid enough in defense to prevent their unusually high 14 errors from hurting them.

Penrith's inability to wrap up the ballcarrier saw the Storm pop 16 offloads, none sweeter than gorgeous ball around the corner from Jessie Bromwich to Gareth Widdop, who found Cronk in support to open the scoring.

Or it was Michael Gordon, easily his side's best player on the day, feeling massive pressure as the only attacking weapon and pushing a miracle offload that was intercepted. 2 plays later, another Storm try after Widdop poured through a gaping hole created by Walsh failing to push up with the D-line.

Or poor Sandor Earl (who had a career-worst outing despite an outstanding 90 metre catch-and-run) dropping a simple long punt despite no defenders being within 30 metres of him. The very next play, Michael Jennings made a terrible read and left his outside man David Simmons with a futile 2-on-1 situation he had no chance of stopping.

So being Melbourne, it was obviously the big three of Smith, Cronk and Slater that won the game for them, right? Not exactly. They didn't play bad, quite well in fact. Slater even managed to rob a certain teammate of the Man-of-the-Match award. Who did he steal it off? An unassuming 22 year old international from the North of England: Gareth Widdop.

Widdop is actually the closest thing the Storm have to a 'homegrown' talent, having relocated with this family to Melbourne at 16 years of age. But in spite of his still-noticeable Yorkshire twang, Melburnians will be more than happy to call him their own if he keeps ripping NRL defenses to shreds.

Truth be told, it almost didn't work out for Widdop at the Storm. While he sparkled in 2009 as custodian for their Under 20s side, picking up club player-of-the-year and national fullback-of-the-year awards, he could have scored 50 tries and still wouldn't have had a hope of supplanting Billy the Kid. So it seemed inevitable that Widdop would leave for greener pastures once his contract expired at the end of 2011.

However this latest offseason, in an effort to conjure up a replacement for Brett Finch, Craig Bellamy decided to switch Widdop to five-eighth. He wasn't handed the role; he faced stiff competition from Maurice Blair and Luke Kelly. But a combination of injuries and patchy form from his competitors saw Widdop given first shot at stand-off. Never in his wildest dreams could Bellamy have imagined that Finch leaving the club could actually be a good thing in both the short and long term for Melbourne.

Widdop did start off a little shaky in the season-opener versus Manly; he was hesitant, unsure how much to involve himself and shanked a couple of last-tackle kicks he was forced into making due to Cronk being out of position.

But he gradually eased into the game and begun playing to his strengths, and in the 68th minute he delivered a beautiful late-at-the-line pass to send Dane Nielson over for the game-clinching score. That one play seemed to unlock a reservoir of brimming confidence in the young man as since then, he has gone from strength to strength.

The next week versus the Titans, he caused havoc down the left edge as part of a team that destroyed their opponents.

He had a slight hiccup vs the Cowboys when Tariq Sims made him his personal speed-hump yet he still managed to score Melbourne's only try with a great individual effort that showcased his silky smooth footwork.

The next two weeks vs the Bulldogs and Eels, he emerged as a legitimate 2nd option to Cronk, even calling for the play down his side on multiple occasions and showing that he wasn't overawed by playing with megastars like the big 3.

But it was yesterday at Centrebet Stadium where he truly flourished and announced to the NRL he wasn't just a spare part in the well-oiled Storm machine. Despite only receiving the pill 21 times, he set up the first 3 Storm tries.

The first was due to his innate support skills; he was rewarded for sniffing around Bromwich and broke the line at his own 40.

In open space with only the fullback to beat, Widdop glided along while slightly slowed up, giving Cronk a chance to race past several Panthers forwards and position himself in support.

But this was much harder than just draw-and-pass. By this time, winger David Simmons had made his way back along with Matthew Bell, Michael Gordon and acting fullback Sandor Earl. All four players surrounded Widdop, with Simmons blocking the passing lane to Cronk.

Widdop, who by this stage had run 50 metres since catching the ball, patiently waited until the very last moment when Simmons and Earl were forced to converge on him, wrapped his arms around the body of Simmons and threw what Andrew Johns himself termed a 'phenomenal' pass to Cronk for the opening meat pie.

In the 2nd stanza, he broke the game wide open when he received the ball just 9 metres out from his line and sharply straightened play to burst through a hole left by an uneven D-line.

This time, he ran 50 metres and made a simple draw-and-pass to Slater. Because he turned the fullback inside out, he probably could have dummied and run the last 30 metres himself, but he made the correct and unselfish play which coaches lap up in their youngsters.

The 3rd try was by far his simplest, another misread on D by Penrith meant all he had as 2nd receiver was straighten then draw-and-pass to put Matt Duffie over in the corner. But he nailed it to perfection and showed that he can properly execute the basic set plays as well as create his own opportunities off the cuff.

The magic of Widdop is that he hasn't overplayed his hand at all. Cronk is still by far the dominant playmaker, controlling direction along side Smith and taking all of the kicking. But when Widdop has injected himself, it has paid off at a ridiculous ratio. Widdop's points-created-per-touch must be head and shoulders above everyone else in the NRL.

To wit, he is 2nd in the competition in Line-breaks with 7, towering over all other halves and only trailing his teammate and line-breaker extraordinaire Slater.

He has 8 try-assists already, good for third in the league and trailing only Co-MVP favourites Johnathan Thurston and Benji Marshall. Another way to illustrate just how impressive this stat is: Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith have 5 try-assists...combined.

After letting his nerves get the best of him in the season opener with 3 errors, he's made just 4 mistakes in the following 5 games. And he's averaging 17 tackles per contest; he's frequently the first chaser on the scene after a long Cronk punt.

But best of all, even more impressive than the gaudy stats he's amassed, is the cool calm and collected way he's carried himself. Even in his uneven first game, he never appeared outwardly flustered, instead projecting a quiet determination that is sure to inspire those around him.

He's one of those rare players that things just seem to happen for; in his debut test match versus France in June last year, he scored a try with his very first touch of the ball.

With each passing week, Widdop's star grows brighter. And with that, the value of his next contract grows larger. While Melbourne would have no doubt initially planned to let Widdop play out the season and finish his deal before deciding whether or not to offer him an extension, at this point in time Widdop is just adding $10,000 per week to his average salary for his next deal.

Don't be at all surprised to see Widdop locked up to a multi-year deal with the Storm in the coming weeks. He's already playing as good as Brett Finch ever did for the Storm, all while learning a completely new position.

Time to secure him before Stephen Kearney gets any (correct) ideas that his team would operate light-years more efficiently with Widdop than with the current incumbent, whose top credential is his famous surname.

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Gut-wrenching deja vu

For the 2nd week in a row, Cronulla lost a last-minute heartbreaker to an in-state rival. And for the 2nd week in a row, they got absolutely no favours from the men in pink.

After leading Manly by 13-0 with less than 20 minutes remaining, the Sharkies self-destructed to even let the Sea-Eagles back in with a chance. But regardless, they still would have won if a blatant 79th minute forward pass from T-Rex Williams to Daniel Harrison had been picked up by the officials.

Seconds later, Daly Cherry-Evans slotted a field-goal off his wrong foot to tie it up and, well, out of concern for the health and well-being of Cronulla fans we'll leave out what happened next.

Yesterday at Ausgrid Stadium in Newcastle, it was more of the same for the boys from the Shire. They did manage to cut their error/penalty count almost in half (just 11 combined compared to 20 last week.) They also did a very good job securing possession, completing 33/38 sets at an 87% clip.

But sometimes things just don't go your way. For example, three of Newcastle's four tries were legitimate yet all required varying degrees of luck to make them happen.

James McManus' try in the 33rd minute was just reward for a 70 metre line-break from dynamo half Jarrod Mullen. But the manner in which it ended was very fortunate; Kurt Gidley caught the ball 10 metres out as first receiver, floated across to his left and misfired what ended up being a triple cutout pass, one which bounced up perfectly off the grass into the waiting arms of McManus.

And 5 minutes later, just before halftime, Mullen launched a regulation long kick from halfway which looked set to roll over the sideline 10 metres out. But the pill took an sharp bounce back in-field which forced Nathan Gardner to play it and get tackled in-goal for the line-drop-out. 2 plays later, Shannon McDonnell twisted the knife in deeper to put the Sharks down 8 at halftime.

Junior Sau's try in the 49th minute was incredibly skillful but rather lucky all the same. Mullen threw a rare bad pass that was behind and to the left of Sau. But the Kiwi test centre managed to slow down and trap the ball against his body using only his left arm!

While those tries were all indisputable, it was the opening try to Akuila Uate that received the benefit of a very large doubt. A pinpoint Mullen kick saw Uate and Matt Wright contesting for the bomb. Despite replays showing that the ball brushed Akuila's right wrist, a try was awarded (not even a benefit of the doubt try!)

That was bad. The 61st minute penalty on John Williams for being in front of Gardner (the man passing to him) was ludicrous. Although Williams initially overran the ballcarrier, he slowed up and actually moved backwards to receive the pass. No question at all that the ball traveled backwards out of the hands. Yet a penalty, not just a scrum, was given.

2 plays later, Kade Snowden was pinged for a tackle-continuation penalty after referee Jason Robinson called held while the ballcarrier Matt Hilder was in the air being driven to the ground. As Gary Belcher astutely pointed out "You can't pull out of a tackle while he's calling held when the player's in the air!" The penalty negated what should have been a fumble by Hilder just 30 metres out from his own line.

Then in the 77th minute, with Cronulla having fought back to make it 24-20 on their penultimate set of the game, Luke Douglas returned the kickoff to his own 15 metre line and Richie Fa'aoso applied a textbook forearm to the throat which commentator Mark Braybrook pointed out "could have easily been a penalty, we've seen those penalised today quite a bit."

Immediately after, Paul Aiton went for a quick scurry out of dummy half and made 10 metres to his own 25. Steve Southern made the tackle from behind and proceeded to get back to marker by going straight through the ruck and literally over the top of Aiton's back, pushing him down. The reason Aiton immediately got up while staring daggers at Robinson and throwing his hands out in exasperation is because we've seen dozens of far lesser ruck infractions draw a penalty this year.

2 plays later, with the Sharks having advanced all the way to the Knights' 25 metre line, Gardner put a chip through for himself on 4th tackle. As he attempted to pierce two Newcastle forwards, (Southern and Fa'aoso) Southern closed the gap and turned and dropped his outside shoulder in, straight into the upper chest and neck of Gardner. It was borderline high, but there is no doubt in the world that it was late.

It was so flagrant and conspicuous that after receiving the kick, the Knights' Tyrone Roberts slowed to a jog and stared at the referee just like all the players around him did, assuming a penalty would be blown. It was only after the ref yelled 'play on' that all the players restarted, both sides obviously shocked at the no-call. Belcher's instincts served him well again, immediately yelling "How's that alright?" after the instruction to play on. Upon seeing the replay, he simply said "You are kidding!"

Now of course if any of the last 3 penalties were given, there's no guarantee that Cronulla would have scored. But the tide of momentum was certainly with them after scoring the last two tries while looking much more threatening over the final quarter; in my opinion they would have been slightly favoured to at least tie the game at 24-all with the kick to come.

So despite thoroughly outplaying their opposition for the 2nd week in a row, all the Sharkies ended up with was another stomach-churning defeat clutched from the jaws of victory. It would be hard enough for a championship team such as the Dragons or Storm to bounce back from this agonizing 2 game stretch, let alone the Sharks whose fragile psyche has been exposed all too often over the past few seasons.

But this Cronulla team has a different feel to it than the ragtag bunch of the two previous seasons. This will be an enormous test of character to see if they can bounce back a vengeance. With two winnable games remaining before their week 9 bye: versus North Queensland and at Souths, the Sharks have to at least split if not win both, just to prevent a 5 game losing streak going into the bye which would wreak havoc on the players' minds over the week's break.

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Prop Crisis? Hardly

If you've been paying attention to the Sydney league media lately, you'll have noticed the widespread panic over the apparent lack of Origin-level props available for the Blues.

Not to mention the Martin Kennedy saga which sparked an interstate pissing-contest to try and determine which state had stolen the most players from the other. But I digress...

More than a few articles have been written about a young prop who has come on gangbusters this year at his new club: the Bulldogs' Aiden Tolman. He's been racking up the stats for Canterbury, averaging more than 150 metres and 36 tackles per game, and has been the best player at his club (along with Michael Ennis).

Now, Tolman is an excellent club-level prop, his lunch-pail attitude and excellent stamina mean he can be relied on every week to give consistently solid performances and tally up big minutes for a prop (generally anywhere between 50-70 minutes).

But to any man who thinks that Tolman should play Origin? Tell him he's dreamin!

The simple fact of the matter is, Tolman would get eaten alive by Scott, Shillington, Petero and company. While Tolman has boundless energy, his physicality is actually below-average for a prop. He can get away with this at club level but at Origin, the big boys come out to play and there's nowhere to hide. Tolman would get pole-axed on virtually every hitup he attempted.

He's just not physically ready at this point in his career for the toughest footy match on earth. Another offseason spent in the weight-room putting on 5kg of muscle and things may be different.

This theory was no better illustrated than on Friday night versus the Eels and fellow Origin candidate Tim Mannah. Despite being part of a dominated pack, Mannah not only (as expected) thoroughly out-muscled Tolman, he also outworked him despite playing 6 less minutes than his Bulldogs counterpart.

Hitups: Mannah: 15 for 131m Tolman: 15 for 103m

Tackles: Mannah: 35 (1 missed) Tolman: 32 (2 missed)

Although Mannah also lacks the traditional physicality possessed by most Origin props, he can get away with it due to his superb body control. He is able to contort his torso to break tackles and avoid heavy contact. He owns one of the quickest play-the-balls in the NRL, due to the fact he virtually never gets put on his back; he's always falling on his stomach and is fast to rise.

It is for this reason Mannah should get the 4th prop spot behind the 3 obvious front runners: Kade Snowden, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Michael Weyman (assuming he's healthy.) That four-prop rotation would hold their own versus the established Queensland front row and quash the media-created myth that NSW doesn't have to horses to go toe-to-toe with the Maroons.

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*If you want to know how on earth the Tigers ended up losing on Friday night after taking an early 14-0 lead versus the hurting Titans, click here for in-depth analysis*

Fantasyland

Rising:
Cameron Smith

If you don't have this guy as captain of your Dream Team, you're not going to win a brand new Toyota. After smashing out a 75 and 76 the past 2 weeks, he rose to another level yesterday with an insane 83 at the Panthers. Whatever trades you have to make, whoever you have to sell to get him in, make it happen. He'll only miss 3 games due to rep duties this year, and even if his minutes are reduced over Origin (not guaranteed as Storm have less depth than in previous years), he'll still score 50-60 points per week in the same amount of minutes.

Elijah Taylor
Any serious Dream Team player traded him in sometime over the past 2 weeks (before his price rise). Even if you somehow missed the boat, pay the extra 35k and get him in this week. He's still a relative bargain at around $120k for a guy who'll get you 30 points per week at the notoriously difficult Centre/Wing position.

Sam Rapira
Appears back to his best (or very close to it) now, played 49 minutes at the Sea-Eagles and led all Warriors in metres gained (127 on 14 carries). Although many traded him out during his early season slump, he looks like excellent value now at around $205k with byes falling on good weeks.

Michael Gordon
'Flash' ran for over 300 metres versus the Storm, he is obviously relishing playing his favoured position of fullback. In fact, he's playing so well that rumours are spreading that Lachlan Coote has a Beau Ryan-type 'injury' and that Matthew Elliot is waiting till Coote is 110% healthy before reintroducing him into the line-up. As long as the hyperactive Gordon remains at FB, he is fantasy gold.

Falling
Mitchell Aubusson

From being the pre-season consensus top-scorer at the CTW position to being stuck out extremely wide on the Roosters left hand edge, waiting for action to come anywhere near him, Aubusson's latest score of 13 continues a disturbing downward trend for 2010's fantasy darling. Drop it like it's hot.

Ben Smith
Another favourite from last season is really struggling to get decent minutes in a below-average Parramatta forward pack. Having only received a combined 61 minutes from the past 2 games, Smith owners are strongly advised to bail considering the pending return of Reni Maitua and Justin Poore will only further diminish his minutes, if not remove him from the 17 altogether.

Kevin Kingston
Some had speculated that Kingston may be in line for an 80 minute role given how terrible Masada Iosefa has been. But with the emergence of Nafe Seluini as a must-play for Coach Elliot, Kingston will be lucky to get more than 50-55 minutes which will make 40s seem nigh-on impossible

Sam Williams
Played admirably in his 2nd top-level game, setting up 2 tries and rather harshly getting sin-binned, but rumours are swirling that Matt Orford is in line for a recall. Stay tuned to team lists tomorrow for more on this situation.


Who I like tonight

-Despite St George apparently being afflicted with the 'Monday Night Football' Curse, they are still favourites in my mind. And although the Bunnies have 'something to prove' to Mr Bennett, I can see that helping them for the first 20-30 minutes before the Dragons start slowly chipping away and methodically grinding them down. Dragons by 7.




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