NRL Power Rankings: Round 15
Thurston sparks the Cowboys, the Panthers are on the hunt and the Warriors and Bulldogs show signs of life. Here's the unofficial form guide for all 16 NRL clubs after this week's matches.
1. Storm (Last week: 1)
It's a bold team that rests their star halfback for an away game against the reigning premiers but that's what Melbourne did on Thursday night. But as they showed last season the Storm only need two of their big three available to beat anyone on their day, and with Cameron Smith kicking 40/20s and laying on tries and Billy Slater saving tries at the other end the visitors got the points against their rivals. Smith's performance was a masterclass and he's odds on to win the Dally M this season while the Storm are opening up a gap on the rest of the field.
2. Sharks (Last week: 2)
Having already beaten the Storm once this season in Melbourne and with the permanent bragging rights of winning the 2016 NRL Grand Final, the Sharks had a golden chance to lock in a psychological edge over their rivals on Thursday night. But home ground advantage and the absence of Cooper Cronk wasn't quite enough, with Cronulla conceding two early tries and a late match-winner after going ahead 13-12 via a James Maloney field goal. Attack is still the team's main concern – they've only scored more than 20 points just four times in 13 games, half as many times as Melbourne – but they'll be in the race in September.
3. Roosters (Last week: 3)
Dispatched the Wests Tigers 40-18 to make it four wins from their last five, or four from four if you discount their Round 12 loss to Canberra minus their Origin stars. Latrell Mitchell was a standout on the end of a backline that just seems to be getting better (and one that could be genuinely scary with James Tedesco at the back next season). They've got a bye this week ahead of their blockbuster against Melbourne.
4. Broncos (Last week: 4)
Their six-point win over the Rabbitohs was overshadowed by a six-week injury to star pivot Anthony Milford, who is a big loss especially after being one of the few impressive players for Queensland in his State of Origin debut. Fortunately for the Broncos not only is there plenty of time for Milford to regain full fitness ahead of the finals but they are also blessed with depth in the halves with Ben Hunt and Benji Marshall on call to replace Milford in the starting side.
5. Sea Eagles (Last week: 5)
They started warm favourites to thump the last-placed Newcastle at Brookvale but Manly relied on a dubious try to former Knight Akuila Uate to get the job done 18-14 in terrible conditions on Friday night. Still, the tight calls tend to go your way when you're winning and the Sea Eagles are doing just that, going into this week's bye on the back of five wins from their last six games.
6. Cowboys (Last week: 7)
If the rugby league world needed any reminding of the value of Johnathan Thurston they got it on Saturday night in Darwin, with the returning superstar scoring a try and laying on three others in a sublime performance. Thurston inspired the Cowboys to an emphatic 32-6 win over a talented Eels outfit and they're looking like genuine premiership contenders again.
7. Dragons (Last week: 6)
It's impossible to deny St George Illawarra's season has been a success so far – they sit in fourth place on the NRL ladder and their attack has improved massively despite injuries in key positions. But they now find themselves in a tricky situation, having won just two of their last five including a narrow victory against the struggling Wests Tigers last week. They failed to find the try line against the Bulldogs on Monday and this week's battle with the Eels should be an intriguing one.
8. Panthers (Last week: 11)
The NRL's comeback kings set a new standard for the big finish on Saturday night, somehow escaping with a win despite trailing 20-12 with a couple of minutes on the clock. Having already scored a solo try earlier in the game, Matt Moylan took the game by the scruff of the next to set up both Penrith's late four-pointers as his team made it four straight victories. With Moylan rapidly approaching superstar status the Panthers could yet become a finals contender this season.
9. Eels (Last week: 8)
Corey Norman's return for Parramatta didn't quite have the desired effect, with the Eels' chief playmaker overshadowed by North Queensland's own returning superstar. In fact the return of Norman has created a bit of a headache for coach Brad Arthur with Mitchell Moses new to the club and Clint Gutherson – arguably the club's form player of late – shifted out of the halves and into the centres. Getting the best out of the trio will be a top priority for the Eels in the back half of the season.
10. Raiders (Last week: 10)
Canberra were good on Saturday night, particularly in defence – for the first 78 minutes at least – and hardly deserved to be beaten by one of the game's most remarkably comebacks. It's a real body blow heading into their first bye with the team having now lost five of their last seven and while the ingredients are still there, the Raiders still look some way off the team that finished the last regular season in second place.
11. Warriors (Last week: 14)
Now that's more like it. With the all-star spine performing well – Kieran Foran was excellent before succumbing to an ankle injury, Shaun Johnson had a couple of try assists, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck scored with a solo effort and Issac Luke was strong at hooker and kicked goals – the Warriors made light work of the Titans on Saturday. But their real weapon was their willingness to pop offloads, with their second-phase play repeatedly bringing their opponents undone and helping them to four first-half tries. The Warriors will never be the Melbourne Storm, no matter how clinical Foran's passing game is, so they might as well embrace the razzle dazzle footy they're best known for.
12. Bulldogs (Last week: 13)
After a month of four straight defeats the Bulldogs were desperate for a win on Monday and while they're still hardly a slick force in attack they worked their hearts out against the Dragons and took a hard-earned 16-2 victory. Canterbury's defence was excellent and their heads didn't drop after being held scoreless in the first half despite dominating possession in the early stages. There's still a lot of fight in Des Hasler's side.
13. Titans (Last week: 9)
More injuries – this time to Kane Elgey (sternum), Konrad Hurrell (ankle) and Karl Lawton (shoulder) – were added to the Titans' never-ending casualty ward list this week but for once the team didn't lift with their backs to the wall, instead easily outgunned by a star-studded Warriors side. Ash Taylor had a rare off day with the boot and with Tyrone Roberts out of the side it hurt the Gold Coast, who were never really in the contest.
14. Rabbitohs (Last week: 12)
After a cruel loss to Brisbane earlier in the year the Rabbitohs finished just a converted try behind the Broncos last week, and their second-half performance was certainly something to build on. Unfortunately after losing six of their last seven games it's hard to see Souths playing finals footy this year even if they're still only two wins behind the eighth-placed Panthers.
15. Wests Tigers (Last week: 15)
After four straight losses, few expected the Wests Tigers to pose a serious threat to the Roosters… and they didn't. The Tigers were still in the contest at half-time but conceded four straight tries in the second half on the way to yet another defeat. They do have a chance of stunning a Cronulla side playing without their Origin stars this week though.
16. Knights (Last week: 16)
Seeing a former Knights legend in Akuila Uate – who remains on the club's bankroll this season – score twice against Newcastle for Manly must have stung on Friday night, and the fact one of those tries was dubious at best would have stung more considering the final 18-14 scoreline. Newcastle defended well for much of the contest against one of the league's most improved teams but their attack remains a work in progress. They can get off the foot of the ladder next week with the bye at least.