The game of rugby league has evolved this season. No longer is it good enough to belt it up the middle and grind out victories, relying on kicks and mistakes from the opposition for your points. Teams that have been slow to accept this have struggled all year while several that have embraced it have excelled.
Des Hasler has the Bulldogs flying at the top of the table and it’s no coincidence that they are playing some of the most creative football of any team in the competition. They don’t have a single robot in the team with each and every player capable of playing the game as they see it. Michael Maguire has the Rabbitohs playing a similar brand of creative, yet remarkably almost mistake-free, football.
Wayne Bennett has taken a while to settle in at Newcastle, as he did when he first arrived at St George Ilawarra. He has the Knights playing a bit less structured of late and they are really starting to benefit. As well as the Bulldogs are going at the moment I can see Newcastle upsetting them this week in what should be a fantastic game at Hunter Stadium. The nine-game unbeaten run of the Bulldogs might come to an end, but I think it will give them a shake up and they’ll go on to win the minor premiership. The Knights themselves will charge into the finals, but they don’t quite have the team to go all the way this year. Still, the signs are good that Bennett has them heading in the right direction.
I also think the Rabbitohs could stumble this week against Gold Coast. Ashley Harrison returns for the Titans and they have been playing really well lately. The Rabbitohs often monster teams out of the game with their size and strength, but this won’t work against the equally impressive Titans. Souths will also recover from an upset at his point in the season and with Greg Inglis and Issac Luke returning they will go a long way towards winning the premiership.
The masters of the instinctive style of football that is proving so successful this year are our indigenous players. Something about the way they have grown up with a football in their hands, playing attacking ad-lib footy in their backyards or down at the local park has these guys proving a complete handful every week. It’s not something you can coach and it’s just about impossible to coach against. Players like Ben Barba, Matt Bowen, Nathan Merritt, Chris Sandow and Inglis just have a special ability to be where they need to be when they are needed. Barba against the Cowboys last week was just freakish. Two of his tries came from situations where the play looked just about dead, until he came streaking through to carry the ball all the way to the line. Merritt was also incredible in filling in for Inglis, no one can find the try line like he can.
Sandow played well in Parramatta’s two recent upsets. The Eels are playing like they have nothing to lose now and a huge weight has been lifted from their shoulders. They don’t want to send Nathan Hindmarsh out with a wooden spoon and they will prove to be a thorn in many higher-ranked sides as the finals approach.
The way Parramatta trampled Brisbane last week indicates a bigger problem that many have overlooked. Melbourne Storm are another example of what I think is the biggest Origin hangover I have seen in many years. I think the Origin series this year was so closely contested and so deeply emotional that a lot of our star players have come out of it a bit flat. I’m not sure the Storm can turn things around now, they have been really struggling. It all makes for an interesting few weeks as the finals approach.