The Good – Parramatta Eels and Canberra Raiders
The Eels have surprised many with their 3-1 record to open the year, and seemingly put to bed the negativity that has clouded the club recently.
The Eels plummeted from a 16 win season and a top four finish in 2017 to just six wins and a wooden spoon last year, with no legitimate reason to pin such a downfall on. Perhaps it was the team’s culture stemming from the front office, or the capability of Brad Arthur as a coach. Whatever it was, it led many to believe it would carry over into this year and those same people, which includes myself, wrote the Eels off for this season.
Though what sounds like a summer focussed around bonding between coaches and players, and leaders taking ownership and looking to step up – mainly Mitchell Moses – has been the big instigator for a good start to the year.
Four rounds in, the Eels have beaten the Panthers, Bulldogs and Sharks by an average of 13 points a game. Their one loss to the Roosters, undoubtedly the competition’s best side, was a close match right up until the final quarter. Their attack has been at the heart of such success, ranking 3rd in points scored and tries, and 4th in running metres.
Meanwhile like the Eels, the Raiders have also taken many by surprise thanks to their quick start to the year.
The Green Machine have became infamous the last couple of years for slow starts (1-3 and 0-4 to open 2017 and ’18 respectively) and inconsistent performances. By contrast, they’ve gained three wins from their opening four games this year, beating the Titans, Knights and Cowboys by a combined 46 points. Within those wins their defensive struggles and lack of composure that we’ve all become accustomed to have been near-inexistent.
Such improvement was most notable against the Cowboys last weekend, where they ran out 30-12 winners in Townsville. They were polished and dominant from start to finish, with the right edge combination of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana a particular highlight.
The Raiders lead the competition in possession, arguably the most important statistic in the game, at 54 per cent, an area they ranked 15th and 14th the past two seasons.
What makes their strong start more pleasing is doing so considering the calibre of players they’ve lost. In the summer five eight Blake Austin moved north to the Super League, while forwards Shannon Boyd, Junior Paulo and Charlie Gubb also shuffled off. Incoming Englishmen Ryan Bateman and John Sutton have been surprise packages in filling part of that void in the middle.
The Bad – Brisbane Broncos
With a 1-3 record, the Broncos have been nothing short of abysmal. Their performances have been incredibly underwhelming, particularly from their promising forwards.
The Broncos have struggled early in games, particularly with handling errors, unnecessary penalties given away and lacklustre defence. As the games wear on they tend to brush up on these issues, yet their ability to convert opportunities continues to evade them. This has contributed to them sitting last in the competition when it comes to possession, 1st in missed tackles and ineffective tackles, and rank in the bottom four when it comes to points scored and points against.
However given their losses have been mainly at their own hand, their season should be easily fixed. Anthony Seibold is the reigning Dally M Coach of the Year for good reason, and he’s inherited a side which is the most promising in the competition. Inexperience will be their Achilles heel early on.
Off the field issues around James Roberts on the drink and Payne Haas being stood down have also casted a negative light on one of the game’s great clubs. So things need to improve fast up in Red Hill.
The headscratcher – North Queensland Cowboys
Regardless of Johnathan Thurston’s retirement, the Cowboys have all the tools to return to the finals and contend for a top four spot. Yet so far they’ve been disappointing with one win from four. Particularly alarming is the sum of points they’ve conceded in three games at home with 84, while also losing by a combined 44 points in their two recent home losses to the Sharks and Raiders.
Those last two games are winnable for the Cowboys. Which makes for the big headscratcher – uncharacteristic performances.
Halfback Michael Morgan’s been underwhelming despite getting the freedom to lead the team himself with Thurston gone. Outside of him the spine is granted relatively new, but misfiring on every cylinder immaginable.
The forward pack is the strength of the team, with the addition of Josh McGuire in the offseason cementing their status as, in my mind, the best in the game. However like Morgan, they too have struggled to meet their expectations. While ranking 6th in all runs, the Cowboys rank a lowly 14th and 7th in running metres and post-contact metres, two integral stats that often show a forward pack’s presence.
It’s all there and their form should turnaround soon, but it’ll take more work than expected to click.
The ‘let’s see how this goes’ – Manly Sea Eagles
Manly suffered losses to the Wests Tigers and the Roosters, starting the year 0-2. Since, they’ve won twice, thumping the Warriors by 34 points in Christchurch and outlasted the previously unbeaten South Sydney Rabbitohs in golden point to sit 2-2.
It may be a stretch but it appears Des Hasler’s arrival has already worked its early course.
The forward pack, which has become a staple of Hasler coached sides, has vastly improved. It was on full display against the Rabbitohs last weekend, where front-rowers Martin Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake ran for 206 and 175 metres respectively, while fellow middle forward Jake Trbojevic managed 45 tackles, including a pearler which set up the side’s second try.
However it’s fair to say the quality of the Sea Eagles roster isn’t up to standard to compete for a finals spot. The outside backs aren’t as menacing as they were a year ago, with no Dylan Walker, Akuila Uate, Brian Kelly or Matthew Wright to call on. What looks to be another lengthy stint on the sidelines for Tom Trbojevic will also test the depth out wide.