On the Road: Big guns brought back to the field

IT’S taken them three days to reach the same crossroads we in the NRL spent 31 years getting to.

After Melbourne’s 21-4 AAMI Park win over Sydney Roosters in Monday Night Football, Tricolours coach Brian Smith described the style of football right now as “unpleasant” and “grinding”. Notwithstanding the number of penalties his young side conceded, Smith had plenty agreeing with him – at least in relation to Friday and Saturday night’s matches.

Scheduling has rarely been a bigger issue than it is now, with the positioning of club matches in relation to the State of Origin series being closely examined by administrators.

But in England, where the first “International Origin” match was played on Friday night, the problems we have reacted to so gradually were as plain as the nose or rugby league’s face, almost immediately. With players backing up after the Exiles’ 16-12 win over England, none of the top four – St Helens, Wigan, Warrington and Huddersfield – managed to win on Sunday.

"We all know it's a crowded calendar but I think the match deserves some space in the fixture list if we can get it,” said Rugby Football League executive chairman Richard Lewis.

The NRL’s top sides have enjoyed varying fortunes during the Origin period.

Wayne Bennett’s belief that the unavailability of stars (dubbed 'Key Position Players' by Craig Bellamy on Monday and, as a result, 'KPPs' by commentator Peter Sterling) artificially evens up the competition in mid-season was backed up by his own team’s result at WIN Jubilee on Friday night. Gold Coast triumphed 28-14 over a bits-and-pieces Dragons line-up to leave their table leadership under threat.

Breathing down their necks – just one point adrift – are Manly (24-4 winners over North Queensland at Brookvale on Saturday) and the Storm. What’s more telling is that before Origin III, St George Illawarra have to play without their Origin stars once more while both the Storm and Sea Eagles have a bye.

The joint venture’s next opponents are also far from easy-beats: the Brisbane Broncos. After beating Canberra 25-24 with a Peter Wallace field goal in overtime at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday, Broncos coach Anthony Griffin indicated he would relax his policy of leaving out representative players when he faces the Dragons on Friday.

“If the players from Wednesday night tell me they are OK then I will look at including them,” Griffin said. Look out Wayne.

There’s a four-point gap between fifth and sixth, with Wests Tigers moving to 16 competition points following a performance that was anything but “grinding” or “unpleasant” to beat the Warriors 26-22 at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday. They came back from 22-4 down with a quarter of the game to go. On the other side of the Tasman, the Raiders were eating up a 24-0 deficit to tie the scores at the end of regulation time.

We all thought Toyota Cup players would grow out of such grandiose scoring rushes and comparative lapses in concentration. In fact, it looks like they’ve just grown old enough to bring those things to first grade.

“It’s probably the way the game’s going,” said Raiders prop Brett White. “There’s not as many old heads in the competition these days. You go back five or 10 years ago, there seemed to be a lot of old heads. Now there’s so many young players.

“There’s a big emphasis on attack, a lot of flair. It probably has a lot to do with the generation ...  a lot of confidence, they can do some wonderful things.”

Footnote: Because of the title of this column, you may have been expecting dust clouds and long airport delays to figure prominently. But my Virgin Australia flight from Brisbane to Melbourne left a little late on Monday and arrived early! Sorry, no tales of woe this week....