THE WEEKLY: Papen-mania
Titans lost and won, Broncos won and won, Cowboys lost and lost, Dolphins lost, Papenhuyzen returns and the gutless IRL
NRLM Round 23
GOLD COAST: The final score was flattering to the Titans. The Warriors blew at least three tries and gifted Gold Coast one of theirs, turning what should have been a five score win into a two score win. Even with twelve on the field1, and an alleged obstruction in the immediate future, there's no way the Titans defensive line should look like this. A younger Shaun Johnson would have simply accelerated and scored.
Given the relative trajectories of both clubs in 2023, this result tells us a lot more about the New Zealanders than the (nominally, at least) Queenslanders. The Warriors are already seven wins ahead of last year’s campaign, with a few more games in hand. It’s all house money from this point on, especially for a freshman coach who will presumably be thinking about the next couple of seasons being premiership-contending years but this performance would suggest the Wahs lack the polish to finish this off in 2023. For the Titans, at least they didn’t capitulate.
TOWNSVILLE: The history of these two teams dictate that if the Cowboys, especially if they are fielding Kyle Feldt, are within spitting distance of the Broncos as time expires that everyone expects the worse for the southern franchise. The Broncos need not have worried. The scintillating attack that defined the Cowboys’ Origin phase seems to have deserted them and North Queensland were forced to rely on an old man that they don’t think is fit to start for them most weeks while Dearden and Drinkwater tried to jig their way around the Broncos’ goal line defence. The Steel Grey middle showed their soft underbelly, conceding line breaks at an appalling rate, until the final quarter of the game when there was a sniff of a result.
Brisbane blew plenty of opportunities to put the game beyond doubt and a score of 30 probably should have been a score of 40. Most of the bad things that happened seemed to involve Jock Madden in some way, a player who was not capable of finishing off a Kotoni Staggs break and required Reece Walsh to do it for him, and who played on the edge that conceded the tries and yet had a significantly improved outing on his last appearance. It was a composed performance from the Broncos. Despite not quite hitting their marks in attack, the endless, hyperactive need to push the ball seems to have dissipated. The calm resolve in defence on the goal line remains a feature and may well carry them to a premiership2.
The Broncos’ victory confirms a top four finish with, at worst, a 16-8 record, their best since 2017. The Cowboys’ loss pushes them out of the eight, with an 11-10 record and +32 points difference, and it’s unclear whether North Queensand can rediscover the form (and fix their defensive issues) that have brought them this close to finals after such a slow start.
PERTH: For the second week in a row, the Dolphins’ inability to close out a tight contest has made me sad. Their run at oval venues - The Gabba, Salter Oval and now Optus Stadium - has seen the Red Fish go 0-3 but for a combined points difference of -11 points. Last week, Redcliffe needed just a little bit more. This week, they had it - Jamayne Isaako couldn’t be stopped, scoring a hattrick in nine minutes with some absolutely spectacular athleticism - but couldn’t stop the march of the Knights or find a deathblow in the final minutes when the opportunity of field position presented itself.
It has long been the official position of this newsletter that the Dolphins have exceeded all expectations in their inaugural season, but winning is good and not finishing in the bottom four would be better. The Dolphins can still be a trapdoor team for any of the Roosters, Tigers, Cowboys and Warriors and a win or two would go a long way to cementing this as a positive, albeit losing, season.
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Moment of the Weekend
Former Capras teammates Joel Holdsworth (Ipswich 12) and Jack Gibbons (Sunshine Coast 11) engage in some light violence, as a fracas instigated by Rhys Jacks settles down in the early phases of Papen-mania.
NRLW Round 3
TOWNSVILLE: As sometimes happens, Broncos fans will be justified in asking where the hell that has been for the last two weeks. It seems someone worked out that if Broughton gets the ball to Hufanga early enough that the latter can run riot as effectively, probably more so, than the former freestyling her way along the defensive line. In that scenario, Hufanga’s lack of defensive mobility becomes irrelevant. The Cowboys’ edges were perforated with ease by the Broncos. Hufanga had the field day we’ve been waiting for, joining seven men as Broncos who have scored four tries in one match3. Dibb did her best but there’s only so much one woman can contribute and her teammates were mercilessly picked apart by the Broncos.
We’re only three matches into the season and both North Queensland and Brisbane are 1-2 but because the season is so short, we’re forced to extrapolate wildly from these data. Considering my record so far, I’ll be staying silent until we see more of this from the Broncos and more of last week from the Cowboys, or not.
SYDNEY: Holli Wheeler displayed huge loser and extremely Doesn’t Get Origin energy by nearly starting a fight over a marker penalty. The Sharks scored on the following set and, in stark contrast to their male counterparts, the Titans responded by ramping up the intensity in defence. Emma Tonegato was ironed out by Rilee Jorgensen on the kick off return set; it should be no surprise that Jorgensen is rapidly rising through the ranks of my favourite players4. The intensity paid off, as a Wheeler strip provided the assist for Shaylee Bent to score the first Titans’ try, early in the second half.
On a damp day, the Sharks over-celebrated every Titans error without ever actually looking like they might turn those advantages into points. It simply boggles the mind to consider a Titans side that can actually defend. The Tans’ attack is hampered somewhat by relying on teenager halves but even then, Kiria-Ratu’s kicking game has improved out of sight in just two weeks, and it was simply a matter of getting enough of the ball. That only came with 90 seconds left in the match as Evania Pelite sucked in enough Sharks defenders, got an offload to Ormond-Maunsell to score the match winner.
The women’s Titans have now won three in a row. The men’s record is five5 and, if the women are legit and can overcome the Knights and Roosters, as unlikely as that may seem, it is possible that record will fall in only the third women’s campaign.
I couldn’t log in to QPlus on Saturday evening. The QRL’s streaming platform was clearly groaning in the afternoon, loading far too slowly for the short pockets of time I have available in between making sure neither of my children are choking, etc, and then gave up entirely as the kickoff of the Falcons-Jets clash edged closer. In the year and a half I’ve been a subscriber, I’ve never had an issue logging in to QPlus.
Maybe that was just me, even though every other service was working just fine, but when I did get the stream going with about 20 to go, I discovered the QRL had put on special commentary and there was a very healthy crowd at Sunshine Coast Stadium. Stories on NRL dot com, Code and the SMH followed the next morning. The return of Papenhuyzen had some real pulling power. I haven’t seen anything quite like it and it’s really suggestive that there’s something to be leveraged, if the QRL can show an insight and a foresight that is completely foreign to rugby league.
It’s appallingly embarrassing that with all this interest that Sunshine Coast’s opponents were the winless Ipswich Jets, who looked like a bunch of A-graders because that’s what they are and none of them, other than Gerome Burns, have played regularly above replacement level all season. The commentators suggested that the aforementioned fracas might have been the Jets’ resentment at being used as a get-right game for Papenhuyzen but the Jets aren’t actually good enough for that. Papenhuyzen will have to wait for next week’s game against Norths for a proper fitness test.
For what it’s worth, Papenhuyzen played the first half. He was frequently lurking around the ruck, did all the kicking, including three conversions, and had some nice touches.
The gutlessness of the IRL
Gavin Willacy in the UK Guardian had a few more details about the international calendar and changes to the World Cup that had either bypassed what I'd read on Thursday night or I had bypassed in my seething, specifically around the scheduling of Tri-Nations and women’s internationals, but the more I read about what Troy Grant has to say, the more pissed off I am.
“Exposing nations to a competition above their standard may be exciting, but doesn’t actually improve them on the field,” said Grant. “Losing 90-0 every four years won’t help build the sport. We need to find the best way to bring up the standards in the northern hemisphere and give teams regular exposure against nations they can compete with.”
Actually, it's not at all exciting but those of us who care enough to sit through the blowouts do so because we know that nations at different stages of development have different goals and are working towards something better in the long term. Regular competition with nations at an appropriate level and a quadrennial appearance at the World Cup are not mutually exclusive, as should be apparent to anyone putting three seconds of thought into it, and both should be part of national development.
If the streamlined format is better for everyone, why were there 16 teams at the last World Cup? Why was the money spent and the time invested in a format that’s not suitable? The answer is either the old guard were wrong, or the new guard are wrong. That is, the new guard of Grant, Lacoste and co that, until six months ago, were supportive of an “inclusive” 16 team World Cup in France in 2025. Lacoste is gone and so is France but those who remain are now supportive of an “elite” 10 team World Cup in the southern hemisphere in 2026.
There is no credible way to have that significant a change in philosophy unless there are ulterior drivers. It does not take a genius to guess what those drivers might be but I’ll lay them out anyway: Peter V’Landys is a tight ass and a bootlicker, and rugby league administrators don’t know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.
A brief glance at the history of rugby league would show why this approach is wrong. If you apply this logic 35 years ago, when the World Cup was Great Britain, Australia, New Zealand and France and the commercial imperatives aren’t all that different to now, then the World Cup would still be those four nations and the rest deemed insufficiently competitive.
The nations that are likely to make up the other half dozen places in 2026 have had their breakthroughs into the international stage at the World Cup. It’s the prestige of the World Cup that gets Taumalolo to switch to Tonga. It’s the following World Cup that Samoa does likewise and makes it to the final. It’s the three World Cups prior that Fiji made the semi-finals. It’s the 2017 World Cup in PNG that rams home what had been obvious for decades before. How can you repeat those successes with new nations when you’ve cut off any potential for future growth? The answer is you can’t and it’s all bullshit.
This gets to the crux of it:
“The message from NRL clubs is they don’t want their players playing in thrown together games in what they called Mickey Mouse competitions,” said Grant.
You're the chairman of the International Rugby League and you're taking your talking points from domestic clubs about international football. The NRL clubs shouldn't be listened to. Do you remember the selfish, cowardly and parochial cancellation of the 2021 World Cup that stuck a financial harpoon in your organisation? Putting aside the obvious conflict of interest that has held back the development of the game since 1908, most of them are barely capable of running themselves. They would have all resisted State of Origin had anyone been dumb enough to ask them. Their chosen leaders are the ones who negotiated the current broadcast deals that don't pay anything for internationals. These are the last people who should be consulted.
Then it gets laughable:
“The calendar enhances our broadcast value and provides opportunities,” said Grant. “They don’t want one-off events, they want a narrative. That’s what they’re buying.”
You haven’t actually delivered anything yet. You’ve had some ideas and it’s a far less detailed and impactful approach that a random lunatic on Twitter would have given you with an hour’s notice. You’ve sat on this for nine months now and it’s the absolute bare minimum.
Moreover, this is exactly the same as the last three attempts at this exact same exercise. You’ve learned nothing from the past and you’re doomed to repeat those mistakes. The tournaments didn’t fail because they were “Mickey Mouse” and didn’t provide “narrative”, they failed because no one had the guts to stick to it to ensure they weren’t one-offs. Guess what? These Tri-Nations or the World Series are going to fail the same way the Oceania Cup did and the same way the previous Four Nations did. They’re inconvenient to the NRL clubs and those clubs have no patience, no foresight, no sense of anything other than themselves and you’ve just put them in charge.
Grant sounds cautiously optimistic. “I’ve not seen a collegiate approach in my four years like I did over the last three days. It’s a real turning point in our game.” Let’s hope he’s right this time.
No shit. You gave the NRL what they wanted, so of course they’re not going to fight you. That’s how you know you haven’t done your job!
Pathetic, just gutless stuff.
Justin Holbrook appears to have landed at the Roosters. Just what that club needed.
Origin is going back to Perth in 2025 and 2028.
I had two-thirds of a rugby league-related take to the imminent dissolution of the Pac-12 that probably belongs on Sick, Sad World of Sports but as this newsletter is already long enough talking about actual footy, it will have to wait for another time.
Northern upset Tweed at home with a big second half, 34-24. Fort Moresby saw some sick tries (the ones the broadcast didn't drop out for at least) and got PNG over the line against Redcliffe, with a last minute Benji Kot try to win 26-22. Western won their third game of the season, moving clear of Mackay and Ipswich, defeating Norths 42-34. Townsville scored two late garbage time tries to make their big loss to Central a little more respectable, 44-22. Sunshine Coast won Papen-mania comfortably over Ipswich, 24-10. Souths Logan’s last minute dash to the finish fell short against Easts, 26-24. Burleigh whomped Wynnum, 35-6.
NRL North Standings
The Broncos and Titans have played out their divisional games. All that remains to be decided is whether the Titans or Cowboys will finish last and that will be decided in three weeks when Redcliffe and North Queensland clash in the final Queensland derby of the 2023, the second Battle of the Bruce.
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That was a bin - at most - but no one cares as long as the result is perceived to be punished without regard to the process. Fotuaika can only control his shoulder, which he did poorly, and not any part of Nicoll-Klokstad or the quantum disentangling of his axons shearing against the inside of his skull. If the idea is that harsher penalties will cause players to change behaviour, you could hardly go about it a worse way. The focus on appearances makes the punishments as inconsistent as the outcomes, and so doesn't uniformly and appropriately punish the behaviour to be eliminated. Given this is sport, that inconsistency will see big men continue to push the limit in the hope that they get away with it. Some will get it wrong and be punished but others won’t and will continue the dangerous behaviour. The NRL needs to figure it out and make sure the referees fall into line but they won't.
I still don’t believe, but the Broncos are probably the only team that can stop the Panthers.
Steve Renouf the only one to do it more than once and he did it five times.
It’s hard to believe we have an entire career ahead of her of just absolutely folding people ahead of us. Give her a year or two to take over as ball playing lock from Georgia Hale.
Achieved three times, most recently to finish the 2020 season.