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Is anyone else as perplexed as I am with the lack of depth in this competition? Call me cynical, but the number of inconsistent sides this season in comparison with past seasons is unprecedented.
The most alarming aspect of the competition table after 23 rounds is the fact that the fourth placed side, the Parramatta Eels, have won 11 matches and lost 10. I know the Eels have been in great form recently but of their 21 matches this year, to have won 11 games would usually place a side in the bottom half or on the fringes of the top eight.
Not this year. 11 wins out of 21 matches have the Eels sitting in the top four, vying for a home semi-final.
I guess now you?re expecting me to say that a top five finals system would better serve the NRL. I won?t, because even a top five this year would consist of sides that don?t deserve to play off in September!
Even for Manly, a side sitting in third position, a record of 12 wins and 9 losses from their 21 appearances this season illustrates their standing is somewhat flattering. Usually a side with that sort of record would be sitting in sixth place, fifth if they?re lucky.
The only just way to determine this year?s title fairly, would be to play the grand final the weekend after round 26, between the Melbourne Storm and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Olympic Park. This grand final will probably eventuate, but given Melbourne?s superiority to the Bulldogs on the competition table, I feel that the only way to see a fair contest would be to play the match in Melbourne, given their six-point lead on the Bulldogs at the moment.
How naive of me to even contemplate that the fairest way to contest finals would be the way the NRL adopts. Reality is that in most years, we get three or four genuine contenders who deserve a shot at the title, another two sides which have been reasonably consistent and another two which are making up the numbers.
Not this year. This year, there are only two with any right at all to be there. Melbourne should play Canterbury at Olympic Park in the only match of the finals series, and maybe Manly have earned the right to carry the water out to the players.
Nevertheless, with the way the competition is designed, everything starts again when the finals begin and if momentum is given any credence, the Parramatta Eels will have a fair bit to say to those who feel that the Storm and Bulldogs will barely need to revert from second gear to qualify for the 2006 decider.
Parramatta?s resurgence has been a feature of the 2006 premiership. Jason Taylor has taken full advantage of his brief first grade appointment but something tells me he won?t have to wait too long before slotting into a more permanent first grade coaching role.
Some highlights have been the emergence of rookie Jarryd Hayne, the relentless ability of Nathan Hindmarsh and a more controlled role from halfback Jeremy Smith since his return from suspension. These three stars have each greatly contributed to the Eels? recent success. Smith has flourished under the tuition of Taylor, and his decision to follow the Eels coach to South Sydney, at which Taylor is taking up an assistant?s role, came as no coincidence.
The only other place left for me to look this week is the other end of the scale ? the North Queensland Cowboys. I find it astounding that a side can go from competition leaders and favourites after eight rounds, to missing the top eight in the same season. They have continued to deny any off-field dramas, but from the outside looking in, it seems that those sorts of accusations may have affected the club regardless of whether there was any truth to them.
Admittedly they have had injury concerns and coach Graham Murray was involved with the State of Origin series this year but there seems to be more to this fall from grace than meets the eye. A 26-0 defeat to the lowly Warriors was nothing short of spineless. They can certainly kiss their finals chances goodbye for 2006.
Some may think I need to get off my high horse after these comments but here?s one to think about. Are referees becoming the scapegoats of every team?s close loss? Coaches, players and ex-players alike simply cannot find anywhere else to point the finger after a loss than the man with a whistle. It?s never a sub-standard effort from the side, or a lack of discipline, or poor execution. Now, it?s just the referee?s fault.
In the current climate, who in their right mind would become a referee? I would like to applaud the NRL?s decision to charge Andrew Johns over the incident in which he allegedly swore at touch judge Matt Cecchin. You simply cannot speak to match officials in the manner which he has in the last few weeks.
Another example was Nathan Brown?s outburst at referees after the Dragons were penalised heavily against the Parramatta Eels. Brown was rightly fined for his comments. We all know the real problem with the Dragons is their own lack of discipline.
This continued acceptable culture that the referees are to blame does nothing for our game. All this mentality does is provide more reasons not to become a referee. I have heard many pundits blame referees over the last week or so, but none have offered valid alternative solutions to improve their performances.
Referees don?t grow on trees. It?s time some of our most respected figures commented more laterally rather than shoot their mouth off at the man in the middle for good measure.
You can hate the referees all you want. But if they stop refereeing, the game simply cannot operate.