Never say never, boys
Dying stages of a game, the last roll of the dice; some teams are at exponential odds to make the winning play, a select few you would damn near put your house on. So who else was banking on Manly snatching victory from the Eels and the Roosters robbing the Broncos over the weekend? Hey, they were the 2013 grand finalists for a reason. Both fit neatly into that special category of Teams That Make Rival Fans Feel Nauseous When Given A Chance To Steal Victory At The Death. The common denominator is simply class, with a dollop of unshakable self-belief.
Just which teams can make the step up into the elite band this season, joining usual suspects the Roosters, Sea Eagles and Storm, will be intriguing. Much-improved Penrith earned a last-gasp win over the Bulldogs through the cool-headed experience of Jamie Soward and the youthful bravado of Matt Moylan. The rising Wests Tigers romped home against the much-vaunted Rabbitohs but you get the impression Luke Brooks and James Tedesco will be giving opposition defences nightmares late in games for years to come. The Warriors have had a rough start to the season - but who could ever forget that Shaun Johnson preliminary final try against Melbourne in 2011? Most of the teams battling to elevate themselves have the prerequisite talent to be a threat at the death - see Parramatta's Jarryd Hayne, Canberra's Anthony Milford, Brisbane's Ben Barba and Gold Coast's Albert Kelly. The self-belief is key and it's rugby league's eternal chicken-and-egg ingredient - you've somehow got to win a few clutch games to get belief, before it becomes standard fare to own the glorious moments just shy of full-time.
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Widdop is his own man
Gareth Widdop: Riding the coattails of the Storm’s Big Three? Boy, didn't that pre-season talking point get blown out of the water quickly! It was always apparent the Englishman had considerable class but whether it was adequate to boss his own team seemed unclear. His retort? 3-0, baby, with a team tipped for another poor season.
Like the best playmakers, Widdop has time. On the odd occasion he doesn’t, he just pops out a wrong-footed field goal for kicks and giggles, or puts in a cross-kick for Brett Morris to score the try of his life.
A story doing the rounds about Widdop is that he was one of the few players not to have wilted like a frightened school kid while telling Storm coach Craig Bellamy he was leaving the club, instead confidently conveying he was off to make a name for himself in a team that he would control from the halves. What a start to the mission.
Talented to a fault
Does anyone out there truly understand the Cowboys, aka the Mark Philippoussis of the NRL? North Queensland has all the weapons, all the potential in the world, with nothing but a few near misses to show for it. To spell it out: Test front row. Mix of genuine strike-power and defensive grit in the back row. Clever hooker, with a pair of decent back-ups. Speedy outside backs, led by Test star Brent Tate, who can find the try line. Mobile and powerful back row (Jason Taumalolo, Tariq Sims etc) arguably the envy of the league. A very good halfback in Robert Lui, with another terrific No.7 in Michael Morgan capably covering an injury hole at fullback. And JOHNATHAN FREAKING THURSTON. Not to mention adoring one-club town support. Cue domination, you would think.
But so far this season the Townsville team is following the same underwhelming script that cost former coach Neil Henry his job. The one significant hole in Thurston’s epic playmaking CV is that he hasn't commanded his own premiership, as opposed to being a bit-player for the Bulldogs in 2004. He seems to have the side to do it and complete his legend - but then again, maybe not.
Pre-season whipping boy and water-skiing enthusiast Steve Price is grinning like he just won the Bridge to Bridge - or perhaps like a punter riding the unstoppable Brett Morris first try bandwagon - after his Dragons took their perfect record to 3-0. Price Is Right banners are in, Slice Price signs are out among the delirious Red V faithful. Meanwhile, Matt Elliott can leave his necktie in the drawer for the time being after his Warriors held on against the Cowboys but his side still looks an ice bag short of a chilly bin. Tigers boss Mick Potter all of a sudden looks like a genius in charge of the NRL's most exciting young team, with the finals a chance for this year and fortune and glory beyond. John Cartwright’s Titans are sitting a healthy 2-1 after showing some grit in Canberra, where Ricky Stuart’s Raiders extended a bad run of results for the club at home. Brad Arthur... ouch, but at least his Eels showed some ticker in a thriller at Brookvale. And Wayne Bennett, who deals with pressure as a golf club-wielding Queenslander does a canetoad, will nonetheless find his Knights in plenty should they go down to the Storm tonight.
Cowboys boss Paul Green - see above. It's very early days but the talent on his roster won't allow him the leeway he would have had in taking over a lowly side.
RADRADRA! This column has fallen hard for the NRL's latest cult sensation, Eels winger Semi 'Trailer' Radradra, the Fijian dynamo who drinks nothing but kava and bicep curls Fuifui Moimoi to sculpt the massive guns that swatted away Manly defenders on the way to two tries. Sure, Parramatta lost, but rugby league was the real winner after being taken for another high-octane ride on the peak performance vehicle that is the mighty Semi. To pinch a line from Saturday Night Live, we got a fever, and the only prescription is more Semi. Bula, highlights reel, our man RADRADRA! will be paying you regular visits.