Monday Smelling Salts Round 24

Defence the best form of attack for Cowboys

When Paul Green walked into his first pre-season as head coach of the North Queensland Cowboys last November he may at first have thought that he had stepped back into the Intrust Super Cup. There was no Johnathan Thurston nor Matt Scott, the Sims boys, Ashton and Tariq, were on World Cup duties as were Kane Linnett, Ray Thompson, Brent Tate, James Tamou, Rory Kostjasyn, Antonio Winterstein and Jason Taumalolo. The talent-laden squad he had signed up to mentor were predominantly on the other side of the globe so with that in mind he went to work on their defensive patterns.

Defence wasn't a major issue for the Cowboys under Neil Henry in 2013 but having been involved with the Roosters' premiership season Green knew all too well that the best defensive teams in the competition were invariably the ones playing latest in the year. No team in the NRL concedes fewer offloads per game than the Cowboys and their tackle percentage of 92 per cent is second only to the Rabbitohs, who are also the only team to have missed fewer tackles than Green's men. 

Starting with their Round 19 win over the Sharks, the Cowboys have scored 192 points at an average of 32 points per game over the past six weeks and if not for the Roosters' big win over the Warriors no team would have scored more points than them through 24 rounds. Green knew the attack would come but it was the pre-season spent working on their defence that will have the greatest pay-off in September.
 
– Tony Webeck

40/20 tweaks go off without a hitch

There was plenty of controversy over the 40/20 ruling late in Parramatta's 18-16 loss to the Bulldogs in Round 23. The fact Chris Sandow did not tap the ball after receiving it should have scrubbed any suggestion the ball boy or the rule itself cost the Eels the match – but the fact remained that there was, theoretically, the potential for an 11-year-old to affect the outcome of an NRL match.

The NRL acted swiftly, the Competition Committee deciding unanimously during the week to tweak the rule. While many had expected them to revert to 2013's scrum restart, the committee elected to update the 40/20 restart to remain a quick tap but to only take place on the referee's whistle – after the official deemed the defending side had had "reasonable" opportunity to get back into position.

The man who kicked the 40/20 that started it off was quick to give the new rules a try, when Eels halfback Sandow kicked, amazingly and coincidentally, his sixth 40/20 of the year early in the second half of Parramatta's comeback 22-12 win over Manly at Pirtek Stadium on Friday night.

There was an argument that Manly winger Peta Hiku actually took the ball into touch in attempting to prevent the 40/20, which should have meant a scrum restart anyway, but that's a separate conversation.

The officials could clearly be heard yelling "wait for the whistle, wait for the whistle" as the Eels rushed up for a quick restart. While the Eels seemed slightly frustrated with the slight delay, you couldn't argue Manly weren't given a fair chance to reset, or that the Eels were denied an attacking opportunity, or that there was any confusion or ambiguity.

Overall, the tweak to the rules seemed to be a massive improvement all round.

Chris Kennedy

Still nothing is certain with opportunities missed

In a weekend of opportunities taken and opportunities missed, we still have very few guarantees in terms of ladder positions. But for almost every side in contention, at least they can comfortably say (and in fact have been saying): "our destiny is in our own hands".

In a testament to the remarkable evenness of the 2014 competition, with just two rounds (plus one game) left in the regular season, we don't yet have a settled top four, top eight, minor premier or even wooden spooners.

Manly and South Sydney, the two benchmark sides of recent weeks and the two favourites for the minor premiership, each suffered hiccups at the hands of the very impressive Eels and Cowboys, respectively.

That keeps both of those sides, as well as the Roosters – the only heavyweight to enhance their claims so far this weekend – and Panthers all in with a shot at finishing first. It also means none of those four sides is quite yet guaranteed a vital home final. Manly mathematically are a chance of still finishing outside the all-important top four, although simply preserving their for-and-against would keep them in the top four even with successive losses to finish the year.

Big wins to the Broncos and Dragons over the Knights and Titans, respectively – kept their faint finals hopes alive. The Warriors remain in the mix but a horror fortnight with losses to Newcastle and the Roosters has seen them dip from top-four chances to top-eight outsiders.

The Eels and Cowboys are the big winners out of the weekend, having each won impressively against more-fancied opposition.

The Eels, for the first time in a long time, are not only inside the eight but two points clear of any of the teams outside it, and with matches against two of the weekend's less impressive performers in Newcastle and Canberra remaining (albeit away in both matches), they have a gilt-edged opportunity to earn a remarkable finals appearance on the back of consecutive wooden spoons.

The Cowboys, as seems to be their habit, are coming home with a wet sail in a fashion that will have every side above them nervous after putting paid to the previously unstoppable Rabbitohs and are pressing for a vital home final to kick off September and the defending premiers, after struggling for fluency for most of the year, are stamping their credentials right when it counts.

And even at the bottom of the ladder, a desperate and embattled Cronulla took a big step towards claiming the unwanted cutlery for the first time since 1969 with their loss to 15th-placed Canberra, but can still theoretically climb back up to 15th if they somehow win their last two games against the Cowboys and Wests Tigers.

Chris Kennedy

Dally M Watch

Another week, another pair of outstanding performances from Dally M frontrunners Johnathan Thurston and Jarryd Hayne, who are surely shortening by the minute in what now looks to be nearly a two-horse race.

Ben Hunt likely fell further off the pace despite his side racking up almost a half century against a woeful Knights side with Ben Barba and Justin Hodges in scintillating form, plus big games from Corey Parker, Jack Reed and Josh McGuire, among others.

Fellow outsider Sam Burgess also fell further off the pace as his side was outmuscled by the impressive Cowboys and while Burgess, like Hunt, did not play badly, there is no way he was in the best three on field.

Someone who was in the best three on field in that game is Thurston, who reached into his bag of tricks in a typically dazzling JT masterclass. In-form prop Matt Scott was irresistible, but Thurston surely polled three points.

And then there's the unstoppable Hayne. While our hypothetical three points (and the Channel Nine man-of-the-match award) went to impressive mid-season buy Isaac De Gois, Hayne was heavily involved and again instrumental, and like Thurston, would have polled either two or three points.
It's very tough to split the two match-winners at the top of the Dally M count at this stage.

Chris Kennedy