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Where do you want to go today?
Not past the ACT border. The true advantage of home and night games to the Canberra Raiders was evidenced on Monday night in their spirited, although not entirely comfortable, win over Brisbane. After being accounted for without much riposte by Penrith in Round 1, the Raiders needed the two points at home if they are to launch any sort of assault on the NRL Top 8 this season.
Expansion teams having trouble away from their one-team towns is nothing new, but with Melbourne and Brisbane seasoned travellers, and the Gold Coast already performing well on the road, it would appear that whichever of New Zealand, North Queensland and Canberra can first get their act together away from home will be the team most likely to upset the pre-season tip that all three will miss the finals.
Why the Raiders are so impressive at home and so impotent away is hard to fathom. Whereas New Zealand and North Queensland suffer from culture shock when travelling, the Canberra climate isn't yet so different to that of Sydney or south Queensland. And even more perverse, the cold and slippery conditions that affect Canberra, especially at night, should be more devastating to their freewheeling, expansive play than those in the more mild east coast venues.
David Furner's job, therefore, is to cure the mental block that stops Canberra performing as well when the conditions are actually easier. Having Mark Webber in the box every week would be a good start.
Straight to the second half. The phenomenon of block scoring isn't new to the NRL, with the trend being evident as far back as the 2001 Grand Final. That it would become such a feature of the first two rounds of 2010 highlights just how influential referees are becoming in the game.
Whilst it's not so simple as two referees equal more penalties, the addition of the second referee has made it harder for players to get away with infringements that, whilst technically illegal, weren't affecting the unfolding of the game too dramatically. For example, the increasing number of play the ball penalties, where the referee could just as easily let the play continue, is noticeable. With repeat sets and field position come points. Get a few penalties in a row, and you're suddenly out to an 18-0 lead without actually playing that much better.
Such block scoring was evident in seven of the eight games played in Round 2.
Parramatta was outplayed in the first half against Manly, but only because of penalties and a couple of schoolboy handling errors. With the errors out of Parramatta's game in the second half, all it took was for a couple of penalties to get the ball rolling. Parramatta were able to secure victory in this game, but Daniel Anderson shouldn't be celebrating.
For starters, had the referees correctly disallowed Joel Reddy's 73rd minute try, victory would still have require two tries in 7 minutes.
Furthermore, Parramatta's inability to compete in the first half is not a one-off. In Round 1 against the Dragons, Parramatta let St George Illawarra get out to a 12-0 lead. Last year in the Grand Final, Melbourne were comfortable for 65 minutes. This week will be interesting because Parramatta are up against:
Straight to the second half. Even taking into account the hot conditions that affected the Tigers loss to Sydney Roosters, there is little excuse for the 'defence' not on show in this game. Nor is there for Wests Tigers catnap between taking a 12-0 lead on 13 minutes and being down 38-12 at 58 minutes.
That Warren Ryan actually contemplated the realistic prospect of the Tigers storming back into it during ABC Radio's coverage of this match just shows how much the game has changed since his dour coaching ruined the game as a spectacle during the 1980s.
One of the players running around then was Tim Sheens who, despite having coached 694 top grade games, still hasn't mastered how to instil defence into any of his teams.
It may be entertaining for the neutral, and frustrating for the spectator, but for the players, if they're to win any games against genuine contenders this year, they mustn't let their opposition take any more 20 points starts.
St George Illawarra...
Top of the class. Two games, two wins. With the theme being big starts and big comebacks, there was something ominously proficient in the way the Dragons refused to let the Bulldogs back into their game. When Ben Barba crossed to cut the deficit to 10, it would have seemed very much in tune for the Dragons to then concede a few more tries, if just to make the game more interesting. But alas, neutrals watching on could only admire how St George Illawarra regrouped to defeat any prospect with 10 more points of their own.
At the start of the season, the Dragons appeared to have the hardest start of any team: Parramatta (a), Bulldogs (h), North Queensland (h), Melbourne (a), Brisbane (h), Gold Coast (a). Considering the Dragons' predilection for slow starts, and this formidable opening six, three wins would have been a solid enough foundation for embarking on the gruelling midseason.
There are two ways, then, to look at the Dragons' 100 per cent start. Either they already have the foundation, and the top is where they belong, or Parramatta and the Bulldogs aren't actually going to win that many games this season. Fans of all three clubs will yell for the former, but this column actually suspects it's the latter.
ANZAC Day. The Roosters are having it very nicely right now. A perfect start, attractive footy, a reformed playmaker and tough forwards. Plus, because they've played and dispatched two of the lesser lights, there's not the same focus on their achievements as that of St George Illawarra.
Brian Smith, unlike Daniel Anderson, used his post-match conference to voice his disappointment at the team's 32-point concession, rather than talk up his fullback's mercurial skill: further proof that the Roosters are taking this season very seriously. This week, the Roosters are playing the Bulldogs, then it's their annual Good Friday clash with Brisbane, away at Penrith and home to Canberra.
It's altogether possible that the Roosters will be undefeated come 25 April, and it will be then that their form can truly be assessed.
The Caulfield Cup. One of this columns least favourite horses is Master O'Reilly. The Master has an incredible knack of getting itself 10 lengths behind the pace setter, and then shows little urgency even as it rounds the turn for home. Such is the horse's last sprint, the Master does have a very good record, and until his age started catching up with him, this column regularly lost money on the horse that famously wears the South Sydney colours.
North Queensland has so far found itself 18 points and 14 points down in its two games before finally seeing the winning post and deciding to make a move. In Round 1, the Cowboys nearly forced Brisbane into Golden Point, last weekend they went one better, sealing victory in the 76th minute. Master O'Reilly managed to take its last-to-first strategy to victory in the 2007 Caulfield Cup, but it's a costly strategy, and the horse hasn't won a race since. Can the Cowboys players really expect to race in Spring when they spend the first half of matches as paid spectators?
North. The poor old Sharkies are going south fast this season. Residents of Sydney's south, they have so far lost to the NRL's two southernmost teams, and this week they play South Sydney. To make it a little more interesting, the Sharks risk recording their unlucky 13th straight defeat this Monday night.
People who have sat through both games this season can attest that the Sharks are not actually playing that badly, and last year the players battled manfully during their season collapse, so perhaps the odd win here or there will come during season 2010. The first step is to break the losing streak, and a home game on Monday night is the perfect opportunity. Don't let Souths' comeback against the Gold Coast fool you, the Rabbitohs are not a semi-final side: this game is there for the Sharks to win.
Over the black dot. This column made the point last week that the Bulldogs need to find a suitable replacement for Hazem El Masri. Ennis has now given up the job, with Bryson Goodwin the new man with the kicking tee. But the Bulldogs aren't the only team with kicking troubles.
Across the 16 clubs, only Penrith, Parramatta and Cronulla have truly top-class kickers. Jamie Soward, Jamie Lyon, Kevin Locke and Corey Parker all missed relatively easy kicks during their Round 2 games. In Lyon's case, his poor kicking lost Manly the game.
Conversely, Cronulla's Scott Porter's perfect boot was able to keep Cronulla in the contest. Now Cronulla aren't scoring enough tries to make his kicking the issue, and Manly's problems run far deeper than Jamie Lyon's waywood boot, but with games this season closer (at least on the scoreboard) than in previous years, it won't be long before a bad kick from Cameron Smith, Wes Naiqama or Chris Sandow cost their team a deserved victory.
Pick The Margins Punters...
The 1-13 Box. The average winning margin this year so far is just over 9.5. After two rounds last year is was 10. In 2008 it was 12.3. Ten years ago it was 12.5. Games are getting closer.
Patrick Avenell welcomes your criticisms, corrections and contrition: send him an email!