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Monday Smelling Salts Round 7

Monday Smelling Salts Round 7
Canterbury's English front-rower James Graham continues to push his claims as the best player in the NRL. Credit: Grant Trouville. Copyright: NRL Photos.
British Bulldog is best
Time for some bruised pride, fellow Australasians: James Graham – the Bulldogs’ pasty, red-headed English prop – is the best player in the NRL on current form.

Over the opening seven rounds, no player has brought their A-game on a more consistent basis than Graham. The super-charged Pom’s hunger for work rivals that of a kilogram-burdened kid for Easter eggs. Or, to briefly address the one blight on his career, his appetite for Billy Slater’s ears on GF night.

His latest outing against the Rabbitohs on Good Friday reaped 177 run metres, 38 tackles and a man-of-the-match gong, which is standard fare for the brilliant Brit these days. If you're a footy fan, he was bigger news than Prince George on the weekend.

Graham arrived in Oz for the 2012 season heralded as arguably the world’s best front-rower. With his development since then, you can drop the arguably.
Graham is never out of the game and beyond the vast stats, there is pure quality.

He can find extra metres on most runs either with strength or by using clever footwork to pop his head through the defensive line. In defence, every one of his many tackles carries the intent to bruise.

And the ball skills – perhaps not to the level of a starting NRL halfback, but better than a few back-ups, and utterly priceless as a 106kg third ball-playing option alongside the recognised halves.

While the Bulldogs will be living down the Andrew Fifita debacle for a while, re-signing Graham for four more years in March was a sensational bit of business.

Just to rub it in, Aussies and Kiwis: you could mount a solid argument for Sam Burgess as runner-up in the best player stakes. The Rabbitohs giant is clearly intent on leaving the NRL with a bang – and HOW GOOD was that full-throttle dropout return on Good Friday?!

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The Origin player who never will be
If you're a NSW fan, Kieran Foran’s Kiwi heritage is almost worth a day of mourning.
Daly Cherry-Evans has claimed most of the headlines out Manly way recently but Foran – what a player.

His call to ignore the field goal on Manly's last roll of the dice against the Cowboys on Friday, instead putting Jamie Buhrer over for a try, was immensely ballsy and a show of ice-cold class. He’s an Origin player who never will be, and the Blues are so much poorer for it.

Happy heartland
So shoot us – we’re feeling sentimental.
How good is it seeing Eels v Wests Tigers assume blockbuster status, thanks to their brilliant form reversals after a couple of dismal seasons? Reduced to battler status in recent times, seeing both clubs mixing it with the big boys again is terrific.

At the other end of the scale, there was something comforting about the resurgent dynasty of Brisbane romping home in Newcastle on Friday. The Broncos weren't born to be bad, more born to rule, and the NRL looks much better with them back amongst the heavyweights.

In defence of Junior Junior...
Mitchell Pearce haters – watch the replay of his match-winning effort against the Sharks on Saturday.

The Roosters halfback bombed from one side of the field, chased to the other side to collect the bat-back from his kick, made the clutch call to switch to the short side, then made a perfect pass to lay on the crucial try.

Sure, the jury remains out on whether he is the answer for NSW Origin. But claiming he can't play – that's just crazy talk.

Origin Watch
The whiff of Origin is in the air, so Paul Gallen told Cronulla’s medical staff:  "Get nicked, I’m playing." He punched out 80 minutes on a barely recovered ankle, as NSW rejoiced like the kids who found the creme eggs on Easter hunts.

Wade Graham was terrific for the Sharks, as was Boyd Cordner for the Roosters. James Maloney found some form for the Chooks to hit back at the sustained five-eighth assault from Doggies ace Josh Reynolds. Josh Dugan found terrific form for the Dragons against the Warriors, with Brett Stewart and Jarryd Hayne breathing down his neck for the fullback spot.

Red V rake Mitch Rein put his hand up for a possible start as Blues hooker with an admirable shift. Jorge Taufua was again dynamite on the wing for Manly. Knocking on the door with a sledgehammer while blowing an air horn are Bulldogs halfback Trent Hodkinson and Raiders centre Jarrod Croker, though they’re probably too far down the pecking order.

Last week we said Ben Barba was no chance for Queensland this season. That stands, but scratch the bit about his form being lousy, thanks to a romp for Brisbane against the Knights. Barba’s rival for a long-shot utility gig, Anthony Milford, was brilliant for Canberra on Sunday.

Possible X-factor for an already almighty Queensland side this year: Broncos lock Matt Gillett, already well versed in Origin but on the brink of becoming a major player. Wowee, that lad can play and he looks in career-best form.
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