Careering down the straight for the first time in the 2019 NRL Cup, teams probe and jockey for position. The unfancied Raiders, Eels and Tigers are there or thereabouts as the pace holds with the Storm, Roosters and Bunnies juggernauts perfectly positioned, signalling their usual intentions.
After this weekend, 20 per cent of the games will have been contested and teams can take stock. The Knights will have played four of their allotted 12 at home, and unless they can pluck the Sea Eagles will have enjoyed only a meagre two-point return from the investment. This will prove critical when the final eight is decided.
All of which gives a special import to the latter-day Manly derby at McDonald Jones Stadium on Sunday. A must-win affair as the region celebrates its long and proud rugby league and mining heritage.
Knights by two.
This week's top 8
1. Tevita Pangai junior went from the penthouse to the basement in a few weeks after NOT picking on someone his own size. Sure, belt your opposite number but when you resort to late shots on the smaller men, the lynch mob comes out. It's all about balance and timing, big fella.
2. The NRL's Graham Annesley said post-game that Pangai junior should have been sin-binned. Pandering to the Roosters maybe, but a hard one for the on-field referees who have been told to put their whistle in their pocket of late to speed up the spectacle. After the significant gains on-field last season, it's confusing why the play-the-ball has degenerated into a subjective mess, the defensive space between the sides has reduced, and penalties are at an all-time low. It's one reason the Knights are struggling to get into tryscoring field position of late.
3. The Storm v Bulldogs last week was my match of the round. An epic battle that could have gone either way. Great to see Dean Pay's Bulldogs pull it together, successfully delaying Cameron Smith's all-time pointscoring record. The Dogs of war showed fleeting glimpses of what they may be capable, but they must improve in the absence of injured Dylan Napa and Kieran Foran.
4. Korbin Sims, the baby of the famous rugby league family, spent four years at the Knights before, like many, sought refuge elsewhere. It's no wonder, therefore, he's in for something special each time the relationship is renewed. Last Sunday was no different as he ran the ball forward from a kick-off only to have his hat handed to him and be driven 10 metres backward. Made of sterner stuff, he remained on the field for 15 minutes, with a broken forearm. Something armchair critics should consider next time they disparage the commitment of NRL players.
5. We can only thank Allah for the exciting golden point drama as the Tigers fought hard to hold off the entirely unimpressive Panthers last week. Completing their sets at a disastrous 50 per cent, Penrith triumphed after most of the hometown faithful had left with the lowest (winning) completion rate in NRL history.
6. What's the best spot for Kalyn Ponga? Vindication appeared to arrive in moving KP back to fullback, where he sets up two trademark tries last week. Matter settled? Maybe, maybe not quite, because both were produced on the left and executed regardless of whether he was the nominal fullback or five-eighth. Perhaps the real problem is that we pigeonhole all positions these days to within an inch of their lives and fullback remains the last bastion of free expression and bon vivant in rugby league.
7. Refreshing to see Roosters and Broncos determine they wouldn't be slapping their players with crazy fines and sanctions this week after Latrell Mitchell and James Roberts we're caught out on the town. Mind you, neither club has great consistency after the Mitchell Pearce poodle-gate affair, or the more recent Payne Haas "you can choose your mates but not your family" debacle. Rules for some and not for others, maybe?
8. In the same vein, I gather as part of the NRL v Jack de Belin case set down for next Monday in the Federal Court, the NRL prepared a brief of evidence supporting their claims that adverse player behaviour financially disadvantages the earning capacity of the game and its senior clubs. And thus, they are entirely within their rights to fine, suspend, vilify and or castigate any player, as they see fit, who might bring "the game into disrepute".
Such a brief will no doubt describe the how, when and exactly what bad player behaviour impacts the game's bottom line. And precisely what economic loss is currently absorbed by the game as a result of those pesky players playing up.
They'll cite fewer bums on seats, dwindling broadcast eyeballs and debased sponsorship value. They'll argue this must be reasonably and ruthlessly contained. If not with punitive penalties and over-reach, then what? Fair's fair, right?
All of which makes perfect sense and should play well, until, of course, some smart-alec lawyer for de Belin asks the NRL to explain the income bonanza reality.
My understanding is the NRL season kicked off with record round-one crowds, TV ratings and membership numbers.
It's a similar story closer to home, where I find myself pondering the economic-loss argument that underpinned the decision by Knights officials to impose significant fines on two of their employees.
Crowds of close enough to 20,000, increases in membership, sponsorship and corporate hospitality, suggest the massive fines are more an "embarrassed-parent" response than anything that might stack up in more considered forums.
All up, it's the wild west, in my opinion, and may be shown to be next week.
Sounds like a crock?
Better left to the lawyers then, hey?