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Time for fourth NRL title contender to surge

WITH Round 10 of the competition now done and dusted, our team of rugby league writers analyse the NRL's talking points in the Monday Bunker.

PAPENHUZEN EMERGENCE SHOWS STORM STRENGTH

Storm v Tigers: 

Why is it the Storm have so many damn fullbacks?

Jahrome Hughes has enjoyed a strong first season as their full-time custodian, Ryan Papenhuyzen has spent the last two weeks looking like rugby league's best-kept secret and Scott Drinkwater, the best player in the Queensland Cup last year, is on the sidelines.

They also just signed Nicho Hynes, who has been dazzling for the Sunshine Coast in the same competition, and have another gun fullback in waiting if Cameron Munster ever decides to return there.

What Melbourne do perhaps better than any other club is make full use of their feeder teams. Hughes and Drinkwater both played plenty of Queensland Cup before they cracked first grade and Papenhuyzen played his share as well.

In the under-20s era reserve grade fell by the wayside somewhat but smart clubs understood that some players will always be late bloomers. Two or three or four years at a secondary tier can do wonders for a player who isn't first-grade ready straight away.

Ryan Papenhuyzen is the latest fullback to star for the Storm. Picture: AAP
Ryan Papenhuyzen is the latest fullback to star for the Storm. Picture: AAP

Of course, when there's been such stability at key positions for Melbourne for so long they can afford to take their time with these things. It's not a luxury available to every club.

But part of Melbourne's enduring excellence is how they use every resource at their disposal and right now they are the reaping the rewards - a bountiful fullback crop which should be the envy of every team in the league.

- Nick Campton

PANTHERS' MOST CONCERNING ISSUE LAID BARE

Panthers v Warriors: 

Penrith is a club in crisis but at least Ivan Cleary can have faith in the fact he has a five-year contract. What this means is that Cleary won't be sacked any time soon.

Given the Panthers' recent history of sacking coaches, this would probably give Cleary cold comfort.

But at least it also gives him the power to do exactly what he needs to do to get this team firing, and it won't matter who Cleary upsets to get the job done, from the board down.

You can only wonder how Anthony Griffin would be feeling privately watching on, given Griffin was not afforded the same luxury.

Yet what is happening at Penrith right now only adds to the debate about how poorly Griffin was treated.

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary. Picture: Brett Costello
Penrith coach Ivan Cleary. Picture: Brett Costello

This is a team most experts rated a top-four certainty coming into this season with a squad and facilities as good as any club in the game.

This time last year under Griffin the Panthers had won seven games out of 10 and actually led the competition after 12 rounds.

Yet after 10 rounds in 2019, under a new coach but with virtually the same squad, the Panthers' hopes of playing finals football have virtually vanished.

No team has ever made the play-offs after winning only two of their opening 10 games.

Penrith fans certainly let the players know exactly how they felt as they booed them from the field at half-time and again at full-time on Friday night after watching their team capitulate to an embarrassing 30-10 loss to the Warriors.

While I have never been a supporter of this type of crowd reaction, I totally understand the frustration of Penrith fans right now.

The most concerning point Cleary made in his post-match media conference was that the Panthers are not playing as a team.

It is not a lack of talent or skill. It is a glaring lack of commitment and trust in each other.

But perhaps it is understandable given the lack of leadership that has been shown at Penrith from the top down for too long.

- Paul Crawley

BOOM BRONCO READY FOR ORIGIN FURNACE

Broncos v Roosters: 

This could be the win that proves a season-defining turnaround for the Broncos.

Brisbane's epic 15-10 upset of the premiers was the most significant triumph of coach Anthony Seibold's Red Hill career and a potential springboard for a mid-season surge towards the top four.

Brisbane still have a lot of work to do at 4-6, but beating the top dogs will give their posse of young guns a huge shot of self-belief ahead of a tricky road trip to face the Warriors in New Zealand this Saturday.

In recent years, the Broncos have lacked a monstrous big bopper in their pack, but they now have that in front-row pillars Matt Lodge and Payne Haas.

Broncos forward Payne Haas is ready for State of Origin. Picture: Getty Images
Broncos forward Payne Haas is ready for State of Origin. Picture: Getty Images

The pair combined for a staggering 407 metres with Lodge's menacing first hit-up setting the tone for the night.

The 118kg Haas should be picked for NSW. Yes, he is only 19, but his 206 metres and rampaging first-half solo try is proof Haas has the size and confidence to handle the code's toughest stage.

The Roosters will be disappointed not to have seized the clutch moments but they looked down on energy after performing so consistently for two months.

Luke Keary was well contained and has one game left against the Knights this Friday to prove he is ready for a NSW Origin debut in the No.6 jumper.

- Peter Badel

FORAN FIRING DOGS BACK IN RIGHT DIRECTION

Titans v Bulldogs:

The return of Kieran Foran is proving to be the difference between winning and losing at the Bulldogs.

The Canterbury five-eighth is only in his second game back from a serious ankle injury but is growing in confidence every time he touches the ball.

The narrow loss to Newcastle in his first game back in the Magic Round was amended with a come-from-behind spectacle on Saturday afternoon.

He was slick, clinical and level-headed in the Bulldogs' 22-16 win over the Titans at Cbus Super Stadium.

Trailing 16-0 after 18 minutes, Foran stepped up when his team needed him the most, conjuring a clever kick on the tryline to send centre Marcelo Montoya over for a four-pointer.

Kieran Foran has helped to spark the Bulldogs’ attack. Picture: Getty Images
Kieran Foran has helped to spark the Bulldogs’ attack. Picture: Getty Images

With every touch from there, Foran threatened the dismal Titans defence.

A beautiful cut-out pass to winger Jayden Okunbor just six minutes later allowed the Bulldogs to go into half-time down 16-12 and brimming with confidence.

His experience proved the difference from there on, taking control of the match as the Titans bumbled their way through the second stanza.

Canterbury will head into this weekend's clash with the Storm full of confidence on the back of their win and will look to Foran to lead them around the field.

- Chris Honnery

COWBOYS WIN BUT SKIPPER STILL HAS TO LIFT

Cowboys v Eels: 

North Queensland are a different side in the post-Johnathan Thurston era. Guts has replaced glamour.

The loss of a champion is never easy, but the Cowboys showed some courage to engineer a come-from-behind defeat of the Eels. Tom Opacic's matchwinner was just reward for his weekly commitment, while Jake Granville and Matt Scott are right in the mix for Queensland Origin jumpers after their best performances of the season.

However, another potential Maroon, Michael Morgan, needs to lift his game for Saturday's tough away trip to Canberra. The Cowboys skipper was largely disappointing in his 150th NRL game and his intercept pass for Josh Hoffman's 90-metre runaway try could have easily cost his side victory.

Michael Morgan needs to lift for the Cowboys. Picture: Getty Images
Michael Morgan needs to lift for the Cowboys. Picture: Getty Images

The jury is out on Parramatta as a top-eight side. They lack mental toughness when it matters, as evidenced in the 73rd minute when Blake Ferguson inexplicably knocked on coming off his tryline, leading to Opacic's try.

Now they face a huge derby against Penrith at home on a short turnaround this Thursday. Mitchell Moses sums up the Eels' erratic ways.

The 24-year can be brilliant but if he plays like he did against the Cowboys, the Eels will be top-eight also rans.

- Peter Badel

CAN THREE BECOME FOUR IN TITLE RACE?

Raiders v Rabbitohs: 

According to most, the premiership is a race of three.

The Roosters are out in front, with the Rabbitohs either level or just a bit behind. A step further back are the Storm and then, many steps back, is everyone else.

But between the peloton and the chasing pack, neither of one nor the other, are the Raiders. Canberra are without John Bateman, Joseph Tapine and Jordan Rapana, they will be without Joey Leilua for quite a long time. They're a full four points behind the top three and are only ahead of Cronulla/Manly on for and against.

And yet in the last two weeks they have come within a failed Nick Cotric pass of taking the Roosters to golden point and a freakish Corey Allen strip of, at least, doing the same to Souths. This is without three Test players and their most damaging outside back.

Jack Wighton and the Raiders have impressed in 2019. Picture: AAP
Jack Wighton and the Raiders have impressed in 2019. Picture: AAP

There are two ways to look at these losses. One is to commend Canberra for their fight, their newfound toughness, their ability to come so close to beating the competition's best while so undermanned. The other is to focus on the results and note that Canberra had both games in their hands only to lack the final composed touch.

Both are true. This Raiders team has turned its back on the glass cannon ways of the past. Points no longer fall from the sky like rain, but there is a new, tougher edge and an iron will to match. Unheralded forwards like Hudson Young and Corey Horsburgh are suddenly big contributors.

There's not a Raiders fan alive who wouldn't take a bullet for Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Jack Wighton's progression at five-eighth has been as impressive as it is rapid.

There is no guarantee that Canberra will meet any of the big three on a grander stage or even if they can fulfill their early promise and turn that three into four. But everything they need is in front of them and with a run of winnable games coming up it is time for them to surge towards the leaders or flounder with the rest.

- Nick Campton

PEARCE PUSHES CLAIMS FOR UNLIKELY RECALL

Dragons v Knights: 

Mitchell Pearce is back in the NSW Origin debate.

Discuss.

For isn't this what happens every time Pearce and Blues is mentioned?

Undoubtedly the most polarising Blues player ever, the Newcastle halfback is suddenly back in the mix after a crackin' month of footy continued with a thumping of St George Illawarra Sunday.

With Blues coach Brad Fittler set to name his side for the series opener this Sunday night, 30-year-old Pearce has undoubtedly made an 11th hour push for the jersey he last wore in 2017.

Mitchell Pearce has continued his hot run for the Knights. Picture: AAP
Mitchell Pearce has continued his hot run for the Knights. Picture: AAP

Apart from starring for the Knights over the past month, Pearce has also played alongside several Roosters players involved in Origin, including likely five-eighth Luke Keary.

While Fittler wants to remain loyal to Cleary, the fact his Panthers have now dropped six straight is more than a little worrying for both he and fellow Blues incumbent James Maloney.

- Nick Walshaw

MAD SCIENTIST WORKING MORE MANLY MIRACLES

Sharks v Sea Eagles: 

Des Hasler has just about done it all in rugby league.

The Mad Scientist won two premierships with Manly in a 300-game playing career.

He notched a further two as Sea Eagles coach, and led Canterbury to another two deciders with a revolutionary forward-oriented playmaking game plan.

But the 2019 season to date could be his most polished year on record.

Manly don't have to win the comp. Nor do they have to reach the grand final.

This rag-tag group of misfits - missing multi-millions in injured talent - are matching it with the game's best every week.

Brendan Elliot scores a try for the Sea Eagles. Picture: Getty Images
Brendan Elliot scores a try for the Sea Eagles. Picture: Getty Images

Remarkably, they sit fifth on the table.

Hasler's ability to instil belief in an underwhelming roster he inherited deserves serious appreciation.

Journeyman Brendan Elliot hasn't missed a beat filling in for Tom Trbojevic, safe as houses under the high ball, schooling one of league's greatest defenders Josh Morris for a stunning solo try, and saving a further two with freakish efforts on his own line.

Brad Parker was the subject of many Sunday afternoon pub gags coming into the season.

He's left the jokers with egg on their face with quality performances week after week.

Then there's the 20-year-old debutant Cade Cust - Manly's fourth string five-eighth - who went toe-to-toe with 118kg behemoth Andrew Fifita and held his own.

The Sea Eagles are making an unlikely charge to September in what would be one of Hasler's finest achievements.

- Tim Williams

News Corp Australia


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