Likes, Dislikes: Best team in the NRL
OUR rugby league writers reveal what caught their eye - good and bad - in Round 22 of the NRL.
SEA EAGLES V TIGERS
LIKE: All hail Hasler. That's the triumphant chorus being sung on Sydney's Northern Beaches in honour of coach Des Hasler's impact at a resurgent Manly this season. Hasler deserves huge praise for Manly's return to form. The veteran mentor has instilled a belief in his players that anything is possible with hard work and dedication. This mentality is on show in spades every time the Sea Eagles take the field. Hasler is now the overwhelming favourite to claim coach of the year honours following his remarkable revival of Manly this season.
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DISLIKE: The 7.50pm time slot on a Thursday night has got to go. Thursday nights are already a tough sell without forcing young families to sit in the cold until late on a school night. I understand traffic in Sydney is terrible, so an earlier time like 6pm makes it hard for people to attend matches but something has to change. It's the perfect opportunity to take more Thursday night games to the country. This will provide a valuable injection into bush footy, which is crying out for exposure to the game with junior numbers dwindling. - Matt Logue
TITANS V EELS
LIKE: Mitchell Moses, who is undeniably becoming the player everyone hoped he would be. While the Parramatta No.7 jersey has long seemed cursed, Moses is right now enjoying his best of six seasons in the NRL. If the Eels are to be a genuine finals threat - and on that one, the jury remains out - then their $2.5 million playmaker is certainly the man most likely. In 2019, the Ryde product boasts more try assists than any other player. A case of watch this space come September.
DISLIKE: Gold Coast Titans. As a resident of that wonderful oasis otherwise known as the Central Coast, it will forever hurt to know one of rugby league's true heartlands missed out on an NRL franchise for this mob. Sure, the Gold Coast once gave us Captain Charger. But outside that … well, in the past five seasons the Titans have finished higher than 14th just once. Currently, the club is on a run of eight straight losses. Worse, there's no sign of it ending anytime soon. Against Parramatta, the home side not only had more ball over halfway, but were also tackled 30 times within the opposition 20m zone - compared to the Eels 18. And still, the Titans were outscored six tries to two. - Nick Walshaw
BRONCOS V PANTHERS
LIKE: How good is Payne Haas? Seriously. What a freak. Glenn Lazarus, Shane Webcke and Petero Civoniceva were Brisbane's greatest props but Haas can be better than that superb trinity. No prop in the game today has Haas' fusion of fitness, power, skill, toughness and workrate. His 43-metre solo try to sink Penrith stole the newsprint but there was also 195 metres, a trysaving tackle and two clean-up efforts diving on loose balls on his tryline. With the 19-year-old in such blockbusting form and getting good support from Matt Lodge and Tevita Pangai Jr, the Broncos have the forward firepower to make the finals. Now comes another litmus test in a grudge-match against Wayne Bennett's Rabbitohs this Friday night.
DISLIKE: It's the same old story with Penrith. Yes, they are young. Yes, they are gifted. Yes, they have power runners. But until they learn to play with composure and some discipline in defence, the Panthers will be lucky to get past week one of the finals. The Panthers missed 65 tackles against Cronulla the week before and backing up against Brisbane, they missed 38. They allowed the Broncos to generate too much momentum with second-phase football. And when in possession themselves, Penrith were too manic. Their 67 per cent completion rate underscored their lack of patience and willingness to score off every play. Nathan Cleary was very good again but his halves partner James Maloney needs to improve his timing in the run to the finals. - Peter Badel
KNIGHTS V COWBOYS
LIKE: Wasn't it great to watch Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce return to form on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Hunter? The Origin pair have copped a fair bit of criticism over the past month, but they silenced their critics against North Queensland. Questions were raised whether Ponga is worth a $1 million price tag, but he proved his value with a masterclass performance, which included two tries, six tackle-breaks, two line-breaks and a line-break assist. He looked dangerous with every touch and his dazzling footwork was on display again. Pearce also had his best game since the Origin period as he bagged two tries and set up another. The pair at full flight is a delight to watch.
DISLIKE: They may have been out of the running for the finals, with a number of key players out injured, but North Queensland showed no heart against the Knights. The Cowboys players had declared they were playing for club veteran Matt Scott, who will retire at the end of the season, but it looked like they had given up in the second half on Saturday afternoon. Not one forward cracked 100 metres and the team totalled a staggering 32 missed tackles, compared to Newcastle's eight. They return home this week to face Penrith and coach Paul Green will be demanding an improved performance. - Michael Blok
STORM V RAIDERS
LIKE: A popular, and infuriating, take doing the rounds in recent weeks is some version of "none of this matters, because Melbourne and the Roosters are the only teams that can win the competition". Not only is this inaccurate it's downright fatalistic - the Storm and the Roosters will likely finish in the top two but that doesn't mean they're the best two teams in the competition. Canberra's last fortnight has shown they're right in the mix to win this competition and in coming back from 18-0 down in Melbourne they silenced all the doubters regarding their record against the best teams in the competition. The Raiders may have had your curiosity, now they have your attention. This was one of the greatest regular-season wins in the club's history and proof only fools will overlook Canberra come finals time.
DISLIKES: It's easy to understand why the NRL eradicated punching from the game (thanks for nothing, Paul Gallen) and for the most part their "zero tolerance" policy has been a success. However, Joseph Tapine's sin-binning on Saturday night, while correct by the rules, showed the flaws of their approach. Tapine was baited in a scrum by Melbourne's Nelson Asofa-Solomona, who did everything but throw a punch in an effort to put the Raiders firebrand off his game. It worked - Canberra surrendered prime field position and the ball, and Tapine was correctly sin-binned. The Raiders man should have been smarter about it (I once had a coach who said it didn't matter if you have your nose bitten off, you never throw a punch while you have the ball) but it was a cynical manipulation of the rules by Asofa-Solomona. He started something, then Tapine was binned for retaliating. It was technically correct, but in a practical sense it did not feel like natural justice. - Nick Campton
RABBITOHS V BULLDOGS
LIKE: The running game of Kieran Foran. The much-maligned Bulldogs star played easily his best match as a Bulldog since joining the club last year. He laid on Canterbury's two tries - but more than that he took the ball to the line and worked the short-side multiple times. When he was at his best, Foran was a short-side specialist. The Bulldogs are showing great resolve, winning their past three games - a first since Dean Pay took over as coach. They are showing good signs heading into next season. And if Foran can stay fit they will finish the year off strongly.
DISLIKE: Everything about the Rabbitohs at the moment. They are a shadow of the side which looked like a top four certainty before the Origin period. The form of five-eighth Cody Walker has evaporated and their forwards aren't making anywhere near the dent they did to start the season. They now have injuries too. Braidon Burns is almost certainly gone for the season while Sam Burgess is no certainty to play on Friday night. A grudge match against former coach Anthony Seibold's Brisbane looms as a season definer on Friday. - Michael Carayannis
ROOSTERS V WARRIORS
LIKE: It's difficult not to be impressed by the Sydney Roosters. They are clearly, in my view, the best team in the NRL competition. The Roosters soaked up some early pressure from the Warriors and then let loose in the second half, scoring 30 unanswered points. It was made to look all too easy. Their backline is all class - one of the finest of the modern era. And what was equally impressive was a Roosters defence which was committed and structured. The Roosters missed just nine tackles all match. They will be bloody hard to topple.
DISLIKE: The Warriors continue to disappoint in yet another season of failure. A one-country side should be in the finals every year. Yet here we are, with three rounds remaining, and New Zealand will fall short again. A bad knee injury to centre Gerard Beale didn't help but their second half was bitterly disappointing. Sometimes you have to question whether the Warriors have any pride in themselves, their jersey and their country. - Dean Ritchie
SHARKS V DRAGONS
LIKE: In a game featuring 33 errors and what appeared a match-defining video ref blunder there weren't a whole lot of positives to come out of Cronulla's 18-12 win over St George Illawarra. But the standout was Wade Graham who terrorised the Dragons' right edge defence with another performance that just highlighted why the gun backrower is the Sharks' key in the run to the finals. It's no coincidence young Bronson Xerri looks 10 times more dangerous when Graham is on the field and his ball playing, running and kicking really takes the pressure off the halves and in particular Chad Townsend. In a year that has been interrupted by injuries, Sunday's game was only Graham's sixth of the season but it has left him looking fresh and charged for the most important period of the club season.
DISLIKE: You can't accuse the Dragons' for not having a go in this one but some of their fundamental errors were just embarrassing. Poor Makaele Ravalawa had a forgettable afternoon but he wasn't on his own. More than anything this was just another overall performance that highlighted why some tough decisions need to be made in respect to the make-up of this Dragons backline. The reality is they just don't have the back five fire power to cut it - and the other major worry that is becoming more obvious by the week is that Ben Hunt is just not a $1 million playmaker. The problem is Hunt's lucrative deal runs until the end of 2022. - Paul Crawley