Monday Morning Halfback: New era
The Canberra Raiders are well placed to make a charge at the NRL top four, Cooper Cronk joins rugby league royalty and a new trend is emerging with clubs evolving to having their own unique ways of playing the game.
Here come the Raiders
Canberra's win over the Titans at Gold Coast on Sunday was their fourth from their last five games and put them just one competition point behind the third-placed Cowboys in The Telstra Premiership. The Green Machine now have a golden opportunity to press for not only a finals berth, but also push for a crucial top four finish. Sound far-fetched? The Raiders next three games are all at home and are against the last placed Knights, the Cowboys without their State of Origin stars and the Warriors. If the Raiders want to be premiership contenders, they are all games they should win. They round out the next month of footy with a game at ANZ Stadium against the struggling Rabbitohs. If the Raiders can successfully navigate through the next four weeks of football they'll be entrenched in the top four and well placed to make a charge towards September.
Cronk's personal record
Cooper Cronk notched an extraordinary personal milestone on Sunday afternoon when his field goal iced a dramatic clash with the Wests Tigers. It was Cronk's 200th win in the NRL. Considering only 309 players have managed to play 200 games or more in the history of the game, it is an amazing achievement from one of the game's most professional players. Cronk joins an elite list. Darren Lockyer has the all-time record with 238, followed by Storm captain Cameron Smith 224, Bulldogs legend Terry Lamb 213, Penrith and Roosters icon Brad Fittler 211 and Manly cult hero Cliff Lyons 201.
Different styles of play emerge
The modern era of rugby league has often been criticised as somewhat of a clone war, with teams accused of essentially playing identical and predictable brands of footy. But a new trend is emerging - teams are evolving and forging their own unique identities.
You can see different distinct personalities growing and it is creating fascinating viewing.
The obvious place to start is the ultra-professional Melbourne Storm, who have carved out their own metronomic style of play. Led by a very strict structure, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk tear teams apart meticulously piece by piece. Every player works within their given role and they rarely waiver from the Craig Bellamy script. Control the ruck, field position and tempo and never let up. They are probably the smartest football team in the competition and have the best game awareness and game management. The Storm tried to play more adlib football at the start of the year and quickly realised it wasn't 'their' way, it wasn't what we have come to expect and they reverted back to the successful mode of play that has them at the pointy end of the Telstra Premiership again.
The Cowboys are the most adaptable team in the competition. They are just as adept at grinding out a hard-fought low scoring win through their forwards as they are piling on tries in a point scoring blitz. Their forwards lay an incredible platform and depending on the nature of the game Johnathan Thurston can push the 'go' button and set a path for an attacking masterclass, or he can in turn determine his edge forwards through the middle is the key to victory. The Cowboys are chameleons, they can adapt and change on the run due to the brilliance of Thurston and his support cast of Michael Morgan, Lachlan Coote and their unbelievable forward pack.
The Warriors are predictably unpredictable. Long accused of not being able to get in the grind or compete consistently, they do have their own panache and flair that can be devastating when they click. There isn't a team like them.
The Wests Tigers best and worst was laid bare in 80 dramatic minutes on Sunday afternoon against the Storm. Hopelessly outclassed on both sides of the ball in the first 40, the Tigers conceded 26 unanswered points. But they came out of the sheds a different team in the second half and showed that they are a team that loves to play with speed and momentum. At their best, they were shooting the vaunted Storm defence to ribbons. The sheer pace of James Tedesco and the exuberance of the backline really threated to cause one of the great boilovers. It was only the second time this year the Storm had conceded 20 points in a game. To do that to the best defensive team in the competition shows the potential the Wests Tigers have when they are on song.
The Bulldogs have long played their own brand of footy, one dominated by a ginormous forward pack. The return of Tony Williams to his destructive best has added another dimension in recent weeks and they were simply too big and strong for the Broncos in what could be a season defining victory.
Then we have the Sharks who have slowly been evolving. While once they played a big, gritty power game, some shrewd movements in the player market means they now have one of the best attacking sides to go with their grunt up front. They still have one of the most formidable forward packs, but it is also quite mobile and then they have excitement machines Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird, Ben Barba returning to his best led by Chad Townsend and James Maloney. Michael Ennis is the link between the old and the new, there isn't a player that better epitomises the edgy 'take no prisoners' aura of the Cronulla side. Ennis is crafty enough to know how to get the best out of the young, exciting players in the squad while keeping the ferocious approach to football in the middle of the field.
The Panthers are the offload kings and look to be building a young squad that could do anything in a few years, while the Raiders are also emerging as a premiership force thanks to one of the game's best hookers in Michael Hodgson, an incredible hard-working forward pack and outside backs hitting the peak of their powers in Joseph Leilua, Jordan Rapana and the all-time points scoring record holder at the club, captain Jarrod Croker.
There is plenty to like about rugby league at the moment, and we'll continue to see interesting match-ups as we hit the business end of the season.
Which team will hit pay dirt with their style of play to go all the way? We'll have to wait and see.
Back to the juniors
It's often easy to forget the simple things, the important things. Over the weekend the NRL went 'back to the juniors' with staff members going to their local junior footy clubs to volunteer for the day. It's amazing the different perspective this can give you on not only the game, but life in general. To see volunteers setting up the fields in the early hours of the morning in the freezing cold, the young kids playing and learning the game for the first time, often running the wrong way or around in circles. The joy the parents had watching their young kids have fun with their mates. It's what makes rugby league great and it can often be forgotten when you concentrate on the mad world of the NRL. Well done to all those who give their time each and every week. You are doing amazing things in the community.