Five and a kick: An all-Dogs edge for NSW, Manly’s predictable collapse and why Benji’s old boys should know better


How many weeks are left until we stop caring about the NRL again?

This is the golden period of the season, with every team having its own narrative, but it’s about to be subsumed by chat about the Parochial All Stars – and, this time, we’re having our cake and eating it.

NSW have a new coach and a load of positions up for grabs, not least because everyone keeps getting injured.

It’s our jumping off point this week, because something very strange might be about to happen. We might be on the cusp of watching the NSW Bulldogs.

1 – An all-Doggies edge?

Back in the hazy days of 2022, Josh Addo-Carr lost his place in the Blues squad because he played for the Bulldogs.

He hadn’t been that bad, but everyone else that he played with was, so Brad Fittler left him out. That’s how rep teams work, right?

Two players who did get selected that year were Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton, who started in the centres in Games 2 and 3, because by that point, it had become socially acceptable to pick a Bulldogs player again.

Now all three are together at Belmore and playing well, which raises the possibility that new coach Michael Maguire might combine the three on one side for the Blues.

It wouldn’t be the worst idea. Burton mightn’t be the best five eighth around, but he does bring a lot that the other blokes in contention don’t.

Jarome Luai was spectacularly ditched last year, and while it’s a new regime for NSW, it would be a brave move from Madge to bring him back even if his form has been excellent so far in 2024.

Nicho Hynes has also been good, but very much while playing as a 7 and not a 6, which mightn’t be the best combination with Nathan Cleary, who will play halfback and run the team.

The other options are either out of form – Cody Walker – or injured – Mitch Moses – or so hilarious that they won’t be considered – Luke Brooks – leaving Burton in a decent spot.

He’s the biggest body of the three serious contenders, which always helps, and the best defensively. He’s got that kick, which is excellent in exits, and a left-footed one at that, which coaches always love when the principal kicker is a righty.

As a runner, he’s also probably the best of the three and he plays in combination with the two blokes that might well end up outside of him. It’s not the worst plan in the world.

“I’ve had a taste of it and it’d be nice to get back in there,” said the man himself.

“I’ll just keep doing what’s best for the team and hopefully something comes from it. (Crichton) is playing outstanding footy and it’d be good to see him back in those colours.

“I’ll play anywhere. I had the camp back in January but that’s about it.”

So far, so modest. Coach Cameron Ciraldo was a bit more strident.

“Matt Burton at his best should be in those teams,” he said.

“But that’s up to Burton. Everyone is searching for consistency and if Burton finds that consistency and does it for 80 minutes and for a few weeks in a row, we won’t be talking about if he’s in those teams, he will be in those teams.”

Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad is tackled. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

2 – We warned you about the Wahs

This column likes to claim spotter’s badges where possible, and we were among the first to point out serious structural issues in the Warriors’ attack.

Namely, they have two moves and when they don’t work, there’s not much of a Plan B.

Against Newcastle, the shift to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak was far too easy for the defenders to pick and much too risky to operate on a very wet day. It requires a high degree of difficulty to pull off on a normal day, let alone in a storm.

Defences have noticed the weak point, too, which is Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad.

CNK has been a revelation at the Wahs but he’s not an elite ball-player and Shaun Johnson, so far at least, has opted against the harbour bridge pass, meaning a centre who shoots on the fullback can stop the main move in its tracks.

It’s not a criticism of Charnze, who is elite in lots of other areas, more a request that SJ play more of his hand. He’s got that ball in him, but doesn’t throw it enough.

That might be because he’s being told not to. When the Wahs were at their best in 2023, it was when they got the right balance between a fundamentally quite conservative attack and enough flair to score points. At the moment, that part is well out of whack.

Joseph Suaalii makes a break. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

3 – That Roosters backline is purring

Manly coach Anthony Seibold has spoken a lot about ‘breaking the cluster’, by which he means the group of teams who are quite good but not the best.

It’s the Sea Eagles, but also the Roosters and Sharks as well, as you’d have thought at least, Souths and Parramatta.

The Panthers are the Panthers and the Storm are the Storm – they’ll be around it somewhere because they invariably are.

The Broncos are the most likely to break that duopoly, but are currently held together by sticky tape.

The best of the rest, at the moment, looks like the Chooks. They were assisted in their win at Brisbane by that injury to Adam Reynolds, but were well worth it regardless.

They won, sure, but also did it in style thanks to the sort of attacking footy that they were never really able to put together in 2023 but which has always been in there somewhere waiting to come out.

On swallow does not make a summer, but a statement win against a competition heavyweight is worse something, especially when it comes on the back of a demolition job the week before. 100 points in two weeks is not to be sniffed at.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

4 – Canberra gonna Canberra

Was that comeback from Canberra coming?

The Raiders have often confounded predictive modelling, because the stats tend to suggest that they should lose more than they do, yet Ricky’s men keep defying the data.

On Friday night was a case in point. Even though Manly lead 20-4 at the break and were winning all the statistical categories, it was clear to anyone watching that both were wrong.

Canberra hadn’t been 16 points worse in performance levels, but had been a little unlucky with two tries from their own mistakes and a heap of calls against them, whether deserved or otherwise.

When they came back, it was a surprise in that they were able to pull off the miracle, but it wasn’t that surprising on the run of play.

Sticky has built a career on intangibles and this was all of them. Seibold identified the comeback of Elliott Whitehead, Emre Guler and other more experienced players ahead of time, but could do little to counteract it.

5 – Manly gonna Manly

On those Sea Eagles: Seibold said they lacked a hard edge on Friday teatime, which is coachspeak for not stamping on the jugular when they got the chance.

Manly play some outstanding football at times, but their commitment to the bit is such that they aren’t playing game state enough.

Seibold will have known that 20-4 wasn’t a true reflection of where his team was, but that didn’t preclude shutting up shop and forcing the Raiders to play the expansive footy to make their way back.

Momentum is a huge factor in 2024 footy, but Manly did very little to arrest the change when it came in.

They could have kicked early in sets, forced Canberra to play long, shifted the field position dial and used the fact that they were three tries ahead in their favour. Instead, they kept their style the same and opened the door.

It’s not the first time, either.

Against Parramatta in Round 3, they failed to take a penalty goal that could have slowed the game down, gifting the Eels a route back.

Against the Warriors, Brooks through a Hollywood pass for an interception on the brink of half time that shifted the momentum when he could have played the percentages and got to the interval intact.

In wins over the Titans and Parra at home, they did similar things but got away with it.

‘Was that comeback from Canberra coming?’ can be read in two ways: yes, Canberra weren’t as bad as they looked, but Manly had also shown signs that they had this collapse in them.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Kick – Benji’s veterans

The Tigers are a young side, we’re told, and in some senses that is correct.

They have an average age of 25.35, which is the youngest in the NRL, and considerably lower than the league mean, which is around 27 flat.

On Saturday, the Tigers fielded a spine that included two 19-year-olds, Lachlan Galvin and Latu Fainu, and two 22-year-olds, Jake Simpkin and Jahream Bula, and with that profile, you expect a certain type of play.

What you don’t expect is a total dereliction from those on the field who should know better.

33-year-old Aiden Sezer pulling off the most obvious hip drop of the season in the shadow his own posts earned himself a four-week ban and, more pertinently at the time, gifting two points that allowed the Dogs to take a lead they would never relinquish.

Whatever you think of Badger’s performance with the whistle, she didn’t deserve to spend the second half being berated by John Bateman, who is 30 and has over 250 games of senior football behind him.

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