On the Road: Chasing the top five
In 1978, rugby league administrators had an idea which was, in all honesty, not very good.
All the teams that missed the finals would play off for a trophy in September. It was the first thing North Sydney won in half a century, beating South Sydney 23-14 in the final.
For boneheaded-ness, this "Challenge Cup" was only outstripped by a 1997 proposal to hold a "Wooden Bowl" between the team that finished last in Australasia and the one that came stone motherless in Super League Europe.
But after watching round 19, it might not be a bad idea to rekindle the Challenge Cup. Because while the top five teams – Melbourne, Manly, St George Illawarra, North Queensland and Brisbane – have settled into a steady habit of flogging the lesser lights, when those lesser lights play each other we have had superb entertainment.
Witness the South Sydney-Sydney Roosters and Penrith-Parramatta clashes each going into overtime at the weekend – while Melbourne nilled Canberra at home for the first time in the club's history, Manly led Newcastle 22-0 at halftime, St George Illawarra streeted Cronulla 24-0 in as many minutes Brisbane easily accounted for Gold Coast, 30-10.
Seven weeks out from the finals, there is not so much a gap between the top five and the rest as a chasm. But if you're looking for a contest, best go see the rest play amongst themselves.
As Dragons utility Nathan Fien pointed out after Mark Gasnier's last game at WIN Jubilee Oval, a 38-8 triumph over the Sharks on Monday, the top five "are all starting to play against each other, so it's going to be interesting".
"But we're really focused on what we're doing here at the Dragons," Fien said. "It's been a tough period for us and tonight ends that."
Cronulla's John Morris, who played opposite Fien for much of the night, is also on the opposite side of the chasm. "I think (the others) have a bit of a hope but there's clearly a difference there," he said.
"We found that out today. That's what we came here to do. We came here to get a real test of where we're at and that's good – it shows us exactly where we're at. (But) we're much better than that."
Television stations traditionally rank the desirability of games by adding up the teams' position on the table. The lowest number is the best game. But no-one wants to watch a blow-out – so perhaps Nine and Fox should go for the highest total instead, as there's a good chance of a thriller and even golden point.
Using this formula, Parramatta-Canterbury on Friday night shapes as the match of the year. These teams are still rank outsiders for Channel Ten Cup this year or a shot at the 2012 wooden bowl – but a few injuries and some nights in the pub will rocket them back into contention.
Back in 1978, of course, we had a top five. No doubt the fact three other teams can sneak into the 2011 play-offs would leave them reluctant to take part in a revived Challenge Cup – even if it would allow Matthew Ellliott and Kevin Moore to briefly have their jobs back.
But since every television network wants rugby league, why not test their enthusiasm by offering a seven-week round robin competition involving just Canberra, Sydney Roosters and Gold Coast?
I'd watch it.
PS. Fien remarked that Gasnier had "a tear in his eye" as he was afforded a guard of honour off Kogarah Oval on Monday night. But when interviewed, Gasnier was shocked to learn it was definitely his last game at his favourite stadium because the Dragons' home final will be played at either the Sydney Football Stadium or ANZ Stadium.
The tear came from an accidental poke in the eye from Wade Graham!