Is Des even in the coaching box? Is Dugan on the bus? Is Dugan on the piss? How did the Dragons blow that? Does Mary McGregor still have a job? Is Cronk coming north to lace up, for love or just to escape the brutal Victorian winter? Is Thurston done? Is Moylan wearing a Sharks jersey next season? Is Maloney moving west? Is Hunt worth less now that he’s not really a halfback anymore? Are we seriously considering Brad Fittler as our State Of Origin saviour?
And, most importantly, is it strange that so much of the current chatter surrounding rugby league focuses on games beyond the forthcoming finals series?
No. Because at this stage only one question remains for the 2017 NRL season — who will Melbourne beat in the grand final on the first Sunday of October?
Despite being a sport where statistics are rarely presented without accompanying asterisks (supplements, salary cap infringements, key player injuries), Melbourne Storm’s 2017 by-the-numbers dominance is startling. Six points clear, plus a for-and-against margin 133 points better than their nearest rival. Vunivalu’s 23 tries, the Cronk/Cam/Cam/Billy foursome all featuring in the top twenty try-assisters. A 20-4 season record, two of those losses coming in the talent vacuum that is State Of Origin, only one at the hands of a team outside the finishing top five and an average losing margin of just seven points — which includes a 16-point “blowout” against the Eels when the Storm fielded a fourth-string side (there’s that asterisk).
But beyond all that data, from the very first whistle of 2017 the Storm have — all across the park, from one through to thirteen — consistently felt just a cut above their opponents. Half-a-yard faster, more organised, more game-plan focused, significantly sharper and altogether more professional (that isn’t a dog-whistle at their wrestling tactics either).
And yet the fact remains — it’ll eventually boil down to just two halves of footy. Seven opponents line up to challenge, first to make it to the big game, then to try and produce the greatest eighty minutes of their lives required to topple the rightful premiers. Here’s how each of the big eight square up.
While the comp’s clear favourites come into the opening weekend on a seven-game winning streak, they’re facing up against Parra who, as mentioned, at last start gave them their biggest defeat of the season (at AAMI park no less). The good news for the Southerners? A significant number of the Storm’s starting 13 weren’t on the paddock that day. Stepping in for those Jersey Fleggers will be The Spine, who have been expertly minutes-managed by Coach Bellamy this year. Primed for more rest as well when they earn a weekend off following their sure thing first-round victory on Saturday.
From second-last to second, it’s been a season of redemption for the tricolours with their halves combination of Keary and Pierce leading with a steady hand, letting the big boppers of Napa and Waera-Hargreaves bash through the middle and pacey wildcards of Mitchell, Ferguson and Gordon run free on the edges. Plenty of attacking options across the park, and almost-as-organised as the Storm, Easts are deservedly the front-running Sydney-based favourites.
Rule one of rugby league — never write off a Wayne Bennett-coached side. Hell, even when Newcastle didn’t qualify for the finals it still felt like they were an outside hope with the Supercoach at the helm. So, even with the odds stacked against the Brisbane boys (most notably: captain, organiser and key attacking option, Darius Boyd, out for at least this week’s clash against the Roosters) few should be brave enough to bet Wayne doesn’t have at least a few tricks up his sleeve. Enter Benji the Saviour?
It seems nobody took the Western Sydney side seriously as a top four finisher until their formidable fifty-plus performance in Brisbane a fortnight back, proving their ANZ Stadium win over Bennett’s boys back in July wasn’t solely due to the usual Queensland Origin-depletion. Aside from a minor misstep against the Knights in August, Parra have been heading in the right direction throughout the season’s second half and momentum (and with it, confidence) is always key in the finals mixer.
It’s been an up-and-then-mostly-down season for 2016’s fairytale premiers, who limp into the finals series with a 2-3 record from their last five starts. Graham and Bird return to the flock, giving them the attacking variety they’ll need to cause upsets from the second week on, assuming they’ve got just enough to get past the Cowboys on Sunday.
Manly Sea Eagles
Few (including us) gave the Silvertails much of a chance this year, but an ambidextrous Cherry-Evans and his strong forward pack have proved us wrong. The Eagles’ last month lead-in has hardly been smooth — dropping games to the Tigers, Dogs and scraping home against the Warriors — but they should find some confidence in their recent 18-point flogging of the Roosters, proving that when they’re firing they can knock over any side.
The best team in the league (on their day) will go into the finals without Matt Moylan, the young skipper ruling himself out for the rest of the season due to personal issues. Appointed fill-in Captain Wallace will be key — Cleary Junior even more so — if the men from the foot of the mountains are going to match the constant high expectations that surround them and make their mark in the postseason, which starts with a knockout clash against Manly on Saturday night.
North Queensland Cowboys
The Cows started their sans-Thurston second half of the season well — with a spirited 2-point victory over the Panthers. Maybe, they’ll be ok then? No such luck, as the Northerners failed to lodge another win against any top eight side since. They scrape into the final post-season spot thanks to a St. George last round implosion, are on the wrong side of a 1-4 home stretch run (that one win coming against the cellar-dwelling Tigers), plus a guarantee they’ll host no games at the Townsville Fortress. All of which makes it hard to see how they’ll make it past the opening do-or-die game against the Sharks. That said, the underdog script is a well rehearsed one in the theatre of rugby league, so we’d be stupid to completely write the gutsy Queenslanders off.