NRL: five things we learned from round 16

Rugby Ball

No doubt the game of rugby league has become increasingly sanitised.

The game is still as tough as a $2 steak

The boot-flying anarchy of the scrum has been jettisoned for the charade we have now, shoulder charges have been outlawed, and things have got so nanny state that, get this, you can’t even punch an opponent in the face anymore without sanction!

It’s a scandal, right? Yet as much as some might bemoan the cleaning up of the game it’s ridiculous to suggest, as many do, that the game has gone soft, that’s it’s now an 80-minute game of tiddlywinks, as if any of us would be happy to have Paul Gallen approaching at speed with his cold and pitiless reptilian eyes drawing a bead on us.

Evidence that league has lost none of its toughness is everywhere but the weekend’s action gave us Exhibit A: Steve Matai’s ferocious (legal) hit on Souths’ Dave Tyrrell. Approaching Tyrell’s blindside like an careening Land Rover Matai hit the South’s forward along his driver’s door and crushed him like a can. To paraphrase from Seinfeld, it was a loathsome, offensive, brute of a tackle, yet you couldn’t look away, and on every replay, though I knew it was coming, I had the wind knocked out of me again and again. Is rugby league still tough? Ask Tyrrell. He got up and played on.

The Dragons look wobbly

Parramatta’s battling 16-12 victory over St George Illawarra on Saturday night brought some respite to an Eels organisation which, following the Kieran Foran contract malarkey, has increasingly come to look more like a disorganisation.

With that win — secured on the back of hat-trick to the eminently exciting Semi Radradra (who has now scored 38 tries in 40 games) — the Eels have now won two on the trot, and three from their past four. They are still on shit creek but they seem to have found a paddle.

The Dragons, however, have now lost their past three matches and in that time have gone from having an equal share of the lead to fourth place, just two points above the eighth-placed Canterbury.

Encouragingly in all three losses the Dragons have been highly competitive; there’s been none of the white flag-waving, turnstile-like defending that suggests deep-seated problems. It could also be argued that they’ve had little luck with the video referee, such as on Saturday night when they had two tries denied by ’im upstairs.

On another day, they may have been awarded both of them. Of course none of that matters on the table, and six points have been dropped. Still, the effort is still there, and that will console coach Paul McGregor as he attempts to work on the Dragons’ recent poor execution in attack, something partly due to the sudden deterioration of Benji Marshall’s kicking game which now resembles that of a donkey in a burning stable.

More worrying is that the Dragons’ relatively poor depth has been exposed by injuries and rep duties. There’s no reason to panic, however, and every team tends to get in a funk at some stage in a season, but how the Dragons respond over the coming weeks may be the difference between a top four finish and a scrap for the lower places in the eight.

The Sharks love a comeback

Since being towelled up 42-6 by the Dragons in round 12 the Cronulla Sharks have now won three on the trot. On Saturday night in Townsville they overcame an 18-0 halftime deficit to defeat a Cowboys team that had been on an 11-game winning streak during which time — thanks to Johnathan Thurston — they manufactured a season’s worth of last minute escapes.

But with Thurston on the sidelines the Cowboys were always going to be a lesser team — not that it seemed that way when they carved the Sharks open in the first half. However, it’s down the stretch when Thurston’s influence is most important and with Michael Morgan struggling to replicate Thurston’s control and tactical kicking the Sharks couldn’t be repelled once they sniffed blood in the water.

It also didn’t help that the home team ended up with 36 missed tackles, which could be interpreted as a sign of complacency. For all that you have to admire the Sharks’ willingness to overcome such a deficit — and when they do this sort of thing (last year, you’ll recall, they came back from 22-0 down to beat the Broncos and then, a week later, overcame a 24-0 deficit to beat the Roosters) it gives the unloved runt of the NRL litter some time in sun.

It also suggests the Sharks, who have now edged into a share of eighth spot, have the team and the ability to be doing better than they are.

The Panthers aren’t done for just yet

Could it be that the Penrith Panthers have weathered the worst of the storm and are now positioning themselves for a negative split and a run at finals football?

After a frustrating and dispiriting first half of the season in which they struggled on the field due, in large part, to a terrible run of injuries to key players, the Panthers resembled their 2014 selves on Sunday afternoon when, with Jamie Soward, Peter Wallace, Dean Whare and Josh Mansour all on board — and David Simmons racking up four tries — they cut up the Wests Tigers 35-12 at Leichhardt Oval.

It certainly helped that Tigers coach Jason Taylor stuck with Kyle Lovett in the left centre defensive position even through the Panthers were funnelling more traffic his way than a government in the thrall of a toll road operator, but there were signs that Penrith could be about to recapture the verve that saw them get so close to a grand final berth last season.

With Matt Moylan and James Segayaro still to return to the side there’s potential for more joy if they can stay healthy but the need to overcome their poor start to the season will add considerable pressure. The Rabbitohs, Roosters and Storm await over the next three weeks. It’s make or break time.

Heartlands matter

My colleague Nick Tedeschi flagged it in his column on Friday but it seems worth noting the roaring success of the Bulldogs’ return to Belmore Sports Ground, their spiritual home, on Monday night.

Though it has all the aesthetic appeal of a Soviet-era labour camp Belmore was a thing of beauty as it heaved with the Bulldogs faithful, and every man, woman and child in attendance (and even not in attendance — there were fans perched in trees outside the ground looking in) seemed euphoric at the long-awaited home coming.

So euphoric that when Josh Reynolds began warming up on the sidelines in the 63rd minute they rose to their feet as one and cheered as if Terry Lamb himself had just flown in on a magic carpet.

With the northern side of the ground cordoned off the packed crowd topped out at ‘just’ 16,764 — a number which, if transplanted to ANZ Stadium, would have ensured the contest had all the atmosphere of a card game in an airport hanger — but it fairly crackled in the suburbs of south-west Sydney.

Rising to the occasion, the Bulldogs were brilliant in beating the Storm 20-4 and it’s sad to note that their two best players on the night — David Klemmer and newcomer Shaun Lane, a corn-fed giant of a 20-year-old — were just starting primary school when Belmore last hosted their heroes in the top flight.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Paul Connolly, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 30th June 2015 01.45 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010