From the Couch - Number Two 2005

Thankfully the NRL have already decided the future of John Hopoate by handing him a 17 week suspension for his karate chop like ?shoulder? charge on Sharks prop Keith Galloway in Round 2. Had the NRL and or Manly somehow dragged out the incident, ?Hoppagate VII? could have overshadowed the first half of the 2005 Season. Remember Danny Williams somehow managed to avoid being suspended straight away after king hitting Mark O?Neill last year, and the shadow that hung around the latter stages of the regular season failed to lift until the semi finals. Hopoate was a very good winger on his day who could share the workload of the forwards early in each set from dummy half but no matter what he brought to the game in terms of footballing skill, he let himself and his clubs down with other skills that we?d rather not see on the same field.

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With the Dragons propping up the ladder with something closely resembling a wooden kitchen utensil, Coach Nathan Brown remains under severe pressure in some footballing circles to make things happen sooner rather than later. While the Dragons were appalling against the Storm and the Bulldogs (in the first half) they resumed some normality with a competitive if still disappointing display against the Panthers on Saturday. But the simple fact is the circle that actually makes the decision about Brown?s coaching future is firmly entrenched in their support of him and it would take an extension of this losing streak past the 6 game mark to change their stance. But on the other hand while half a dozen losses in a row is terrible, the Dragons are halfway there. ...

Since FTC is an online medium and given you are reading this there?s a mighty good chance you have the internet, you are probably aware that NRL.com has become a fully fledged advertising agency for Telstra Bigpond. But instead of just ramming the advantages of broadband down our throat the NRL and Telstra have decided to make all video content on the site only accessible if you have a Bigpond account. Now that in itself is a major slap in the face of fans who have endured a very ordinary ?official site? for the majority of the NRL?s existence online, but the fact of the matter is you won?t be missing out on all that much. I sat down in front of my computer (with a different broadband provider ? so I?m in trouble come May 1st when the elitist mantra takes effect) to view the ?highlights? of the Souths-Parramatta and Manly-Cronulla games from Round 2. Both games were high scoring affairs and given I didn?t have time (or the download bandwidth available) to view both games in full (having missed them on Fox Sports) I decided to take advantage of the advertised ?highlights package? and hope to see every try scored and get a feel for the match. Sadly the roughly 3 minute duration for both games failed to show each try and I ask you if that isn?t a highlight then I fail to see what is. Now I?m probably making a mountain out of a molehill regarding the highlights package but if NRL.com can?t offer a complete review of each game and the tries scored (something NRL Scoreboard used to do a few seasons back which was outstanding... but again is no longer the case) then I don?t think I?m missing out on all that much ?exclusive content? when it comes to May 1st and only those with Telstra Bigpond will have access. ...

Five most impressive players of the season so far (players that were not considered stars prior to the season or have changed their roles within their sides to maximise their contributions): Roy Asotasi, Bulldogs ? with the departure of Captain Steven Price the Bulldogs were forced to turn Asotasi into a run on prop after he was so valuable to them as an impact player from the bench. The broad shouldered Kiwi has been the Dogs best player so far this season and in all three games has been the best go-forward merchant in the ranks. Is playing 50+ minutes each week and looks fit enough to turn that into 60 minutes as he is relied upon more and more by Steve Folkes. Tim Smith, Eels ? has stepped up in the pressure role as the Parramatta #7 and has not let his team down. Behind a badly beaten pack against the Bunnies, Smith still shone while he orchestrated three tries in the Round One defeat of the Tigers. Against the Sharks he threw some lovely passes and should Brian Smith keep the faith should lead the Eels back out of the depths in the coming weeks. He?s no Sterling but he?s proving to be a good option as his coach waits for young Marcus Perenara to mature in Premier League. Iosia Soliola, Roosters ? early favourite for Rookie of the Year with the young centre three-quarter impressing with his willingness to get involved and showing he can mesh with the Roosters defensive structure. He is the reason the Roosters let Justin Hodges walk out of his contract, and despite Hodges impressing on Good Friday, you can?t fault the Roosters for the decision. Nathan Fien, Warriors ? while the Warriors may be 1-2 it has not been from a lack of effort from their new rake. Converted from halfback where he directed the Cowboys into the Finals last season, Fien has thrived in his new role combining newfound toughness with his smarts and skills honed from his days as a #7. Forget the blood bin controversy, Fien has been close to the Warriors best player after three rounds and although I think he could probably do a fine job in the halfback jumper with Stacey Jones moving to five-eighth, the Warriors are getting an instant return from their investment. David Stagg, Broncos ? the Gary Larson comparisons are probably a tad stat induced because of his mass tackle counts but the Broncos have found yet another player from their system who is developing at a rapid rate in a new position. Originally a centre, Stagg made his debut at the back end of 2003 in that position but entering 2005 whispers from up north had him pushing Tonie Carroll from lock forward into the second row. As it turned out Stagg has started and while Carroll kept the #13 jersey his role changed from defensive lock to a more rounded running forward. With Stagg?s ability to play 80 minutes he also allows the Broncos to rotate their big men and keep their go-forward flowing. Shortlist: Liam Fulton, Tigers; Johnathan Thurston, Cowboys; Troy Thompson, Raiders; Ryan Hoffman, Storm; Anthony Watmough, Sea Eagles.

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Five Things I Think (I unashamedly borrow this idea from Peter King, the superb Sports Illustrated NFL writer who actually has ten things each week)

1. Does anyone else share my lack of confidence in the new Bulldogs bench forwards? Ben Czislowski, Chris Armit and Nate Myles appear to be the three players Steve Folkes is pinning his immediate faith in to carry the load while superstars Willie Mason and Mark O?Meley are injured. Against the Cowboys particularly none of the three have showed any genuine gusto taking the ball forward. The area in which the Dogs rely on heavily from the interchange bench. Sure it is early, but you can only call it as you see it and possibly only Armit will keep his spot in the squad when Mason, O?Meley and Reni Maitua return. 2. Did anyone else catch Phil Gould?s frustration with Mario Fenech on the Sunday Footy Show? Whether you love Gus or hate him, the bloke doesn?t mind letting off some steam when he hears the kind of overused clich?d talk that the Falcon was spouting during a wrap of the weekend?s football so far. Fenech might be the nicest bloke in the world but like Gus I feel there is only so much of the same regurgitated footy talk about how a team is going after a loss, you can take. Gould lacked some professionalism sure but he summed up how I think the majority of footy fans feel when a commentator dribbles on with the kind of comments that state the painfully obvious or comments that have little or no context to the events that actually transpired and suggest the commentator didn?t actually see the game/incident in the first place. 3. Paul Vautin is the most gifted host fronting any Rugby League program. Why? Because the former Manly forward (yes boys and girls he did play football even if the success of the Footy Show could have the younger generations thinking he?s just some red headed goose who has the greatest job in the world) simply keeps a show that has been attacked from all sides recently about being past its used by date ? flowing. It might be hard to watch at times when they try a hard at doing set gags but when Fatty gets in the flow of things the Footy Show is entertaining television. Considering the premise of the Thursday night version appears to be a ?variety show loosely based around football? and forces Fatty and co. to pull the gags out for ?entertainment?, the Sunday version is where Fatty really shines. When the team is talking football (well for the most part - see above point in relation to Mario) there is no better show on television (Fox included) for a genuine fresh look at the footy. Plus Fatty is genuinely funny and can crack a joke off the cuff better than most. I think NRL on Fox and NRL Scoreboard are good quality programs but when you can mix Fatty, Sterlo and Gus together to chew the fat on Rugby League ? you are rarely disappointed. My only advice to people who now refuse to watch the Footy Show is don?t expect Thursday and Sunday?s shows to be the same, but I agree with the sentiments that more Sunday-like content would make the Thursday version easier to watch if that is what you are after. 4. How good is it to see another week of strong crowds at the footy? On Sunday Brookvale had 15,470 raving mad Manly fans getting their team home over Melbourne who had dominated more fancied opponents in the first two rounds. And although Telstra Stadium could stage a quadruple header and still not look full, the 19,984 patrons who attended the thrilling Tigers golden point victory certainly got value for money. Plus there?s a good chance that no more than 12,000 would have made the short trek to the Sydney Showground had the game been played there (yes I realise the Easter Show was on thus eliminating the use of the ground but for arguments sake...). Good Friday delivered a strong 23,157 crowd to a most entertaining Roosters-Broncos clash and 17,187 packed Penrith Football Stadium to see the Panthers break their duck against the winless Dragons. If there was a disappointment it was the 12,103 who attended the Eels first home game of the season against Cronulla. The Eels faithful should make up for this when they host the Panthers on Friday night but even with the Easter Long Weekend a first up crowd of just 12,000 showed that the Parramatta fans were not impressed by their drubbing at the hands of the Bunnies. Then in the final game of the four day schedule, the Rabbits had a healthy 14,455 turn out for their 7 point loss to Canberra at Aussie Stadium. While that is a strong crowd it magnifies the belief of Souths management who decided to take guaranteed money from Telstra Stadium instead of relying on 15,000+ crowds each week at Aussie to make a significant profit. Oh and before I get blamed for leaving out the Auckland fans who were treated to yet another home loss for their Warriors, it was encouraging to see that 13,388 of you still turned out given your team hasn?t won a game at home in what seems like an eternity. 5. Pause for a second and check out the NRL table. You?d be forgiven for thinking it was 1995 all over again with Manly and Canberra sitting atop the ladder with 6 points each. But before anyone gets carried away it is Round Three after all, and premierships are not won in March. But your season can certainly be taken on an unwanted detour this early as St George Illawarra and Newcastle have found out. The Dragons once again a popular pre-season pick as a premiership favourite have lost three straight, while the injury hit Knights were exposed badly at stages against the Storm and Raiders. Both teams have quality players returning and the Dragons in particular are not foreigners to rescuing a season that seems lost and making a run on the Finals. Having predicted Manly to finish 14th I?m looking silly after three rounds, but remember I did pick the Raiders to finish 5th. Either way with my 6th and 10th selections in 16th and 15th respectively, it highlights just how difficult selecting final positions can be this far out from the end of the season. But remember as much fun as it is to bag a team out for struggling in March it can also come back to bite you on the butt when it comes to August and your March Glory is but a distant memory and your charges are sitting well out of the Top 8 and firming for the spoon. The moral of the story here? Wait til Round 8 or 9 before you start boasting about your team because it can all fall apart (or turn around in other cases) in the same short few weeks it took to build up.

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Feedback Two questions sent in will be selected and answered here.

Q. Can the Storm play any better? Everyone talks about Slater, Orford, Hill and Smith but who else makes the Storm tick?

Brian, Belmont NSW

A. The Storm would be hard pressed to dominate their opponents in the coming weeks like they have the Knights and Dragons. Things didn?t necessarily fall apart with their loss against the Sea Eagles but it showed that up front unless Robbie Kearns has Alex Chan by his side the team can lack quality go forward early in the match. The Storm centres Steven Bell and Matt King both pass under the radar but are quality players in their own right they are a big reason the halves are so effective because they have options on the outside. When Jamie Feeney and Dennis Scott return the Storm will improve because youngsters like Ryan Hoffman, Dallas Johnson and Glen Turner will have less pressure to carry the forward pack themselves something that proved tough against a fired up Manly side. The wildcard in the forwards is David Kidwell, who on his day can tear teams apart on the right hand side of the field but he has yet to hit form despite the Storm?s great start.

Q. I think Brett Stewart could be the next great Manly fullback, and some of my fellow Manly supporters think he could be the next Australian fullback, is that realistic?

Shane, Dee Why NSW

A. Next great Manly fullback ? possibly, next Australian custodian ? doubtful. As far as his talent and potential go ? Stewart has loads of both, but he has some seriously strong competition for even a NSW jumper let alone the Green and Gold. Queensland have a glut of classy fullbacks which they have uncovered after moving Darren Lockyer to five-eighth including Karmichael Hunt, Rhys Wesser, Billy Slater, Matthew Bowen and Clinton Schifcofske. While NSW have the likes of Anthony Minichiello (the incumbent Australian fullback), Brett Hodgson, Ben Hornby and Luke Patten to choose from, all of which are more established than Stewart (with the possible exception of Hunt although he has played more NRL games than Stewart). As quick and exciting as Stewart is he must wait for his chance to even get a look in on the representative scene. Given his junior club was Wests Wollongong he might be a chance for country selection this season if his performances continue to improve but I think realistically Shane you and your Manly colleagues should stay focused on the chances that Stewart becomes the best fullback since the great Matthew Ridge of the mid-90s.

2005 NSC CONSISTENCY RATING - CR? - ROUNDS ONE, TWO, THREE

The CR for Rounds One to Five will be added to the NSC website upon the completion of Round 5. Due to pictures being unable to be inserted in this spot in the article, I will delay releasing the full table until Round 5.

In Summary, Manly have the best CR with a +7, from Melbourne with +6 and Canberra with +5.5. Only Brisbane (+2.5), North Queensland (+2) and Sydney (+1.5) have positive CRs while Cronulla have a CR of 0. St George Illawarra has the worst CR with a -8 and Newcastle are hot on their heels with a -7. Full table soon.

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As FTC signs off the column this week, you may be interested to know that Canberra coach Matthew Elliott sent a personal email to some Raiders supporters who attended the Easter Monday game at Aussie Stadium thanking them for their vocal support. It is just another example of how people within your favourite club DO VALUE your support at the game. However is it any wonder these same people want to distance themselves from fans that constantly criticise and pull down their club because in their opinion things aren?t being done right. Which leads to the question ? what type of attitude helps your club? The positive or the negative?

From The Couch will appear on League Unlimited every Thursday morning, and is archived on the Nicolson Sports Consultancy Website www.nsc.leagueunlimited.com. You can reach Warrick Nicolson via email at [email protected] and an assortment of correspondence will be featured each week in FTC.

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