The title race has become a little clearer after the Magic Round.
The title race has become a little clearer after the Magic Round.

NRL title race: Three teams and then the rest

WITH Round 9 of the competition now done and dusted, our team of rugby league writers analyse the NRL's talking points in the Monday Bunker.

Titans v Sharks: 

John Morris for Dally M Coach of the Year?

Maybe, not yet.

But it's undeniable the rookie Cronulla coach is having a huge impact with the Sharkies in his first season as a head coach.

In consecutive weeks the Shire club has scored emphatic wins against the Gold Coast and Melbourne despite missing a host of players through injury.

Undoubtedly, this mob is playing for their coach.

Against the Titans, Cronulla lost both their starting props in Andrew Fifita and Matt Prior in the first half. Fifita after less than 10 minutes. And still they got home.

Morris is doing an outstanding job with not only a host of young guys, but the polarising pair that is Fifita and Josh Dugan.

John Morris is off to a flyer in his career as Cronulla coach. Picture: Getty Images
John Morris is off to a flyer in his career as Cronulla coach. Picture: Getty Images

CAN CLEARY FIND ANSWERS TO PANTHERS WOES?

Tigers v Panthers:

Penrith are nearing crisis point after falling to their fifth consecutive loss against the Tigers on Friday night.

The club plans to undergo a review of players and coaching staff alike following their 30-4 mauling at Suncorp Stadium.

The Panthers began the season as finals favourites but they now share the bottom of the ladder.

Coach Ivan Cleary admitted after the match that he would look for answers - which would begin with a review of his current personnel.

They were blown off the park in their Magic Round clash when the Tigers piled on seven tries to one.

The Panthers were hammered by Wests Tigers at Suncorp Stadium. Picture: Getty Images
The Panthers were hammered by Wests Tigers at Suncorp Stadium. Picture: Getty Images

Robbie Farah, Benji Marshall, Luke Brooks and Moses Mbye put on a masterclass at Suncorp Stadium and combined to outscore the clock in the opening 25 minutes.

The Tigers will need to look at improving their consistency after a slower second half, where they were only able to find the tryline once.

FUTURE ORIGIN ACE EMERGES AS BRONCOS REBOUND

Sea Eagles v Broncos: 

It wasn't a performance that stamped Brisbane as a premiership contender but at least they have a shot of confidence going into Friday night's blockbuster against the Roosters.

To beat the premiers, Brisbane cannot afford to replicate the insipid first half that allowed an injury-ravaged Manly side to lead for 35 minutes.

Still, there are signs of promise. Broncos pivot Anthony Milford has developed a dangerous short kicking game and in Payne Haas, Brisbane finally have a big bopper who can dominate the midfield.

For a 19-year-old to amass 236 metres from 20 hit-ups is simply phenomenal and stamps Haas as a future Origin player.

Jack Bird's season-ending ACL injury is a devastating blow, but it opens the door for James Roberts to revive his NRL career after being dropped by coach Anthony Seibold.

His match-up against Roosters sensation and NSW Origin centre partner Latrell Mitchell will be a beauty.

Payne Haas was immense in Brisbane’s win over Manly. Picture: AAP
Payne Haas was immense in Brisbane’s win over Manly. Picture: AAP

The Sea Eagles showed immense character at Suncorp Stadium and they should welcome back Dylan Walker for Sunday's away clash against the Sharks.

One shining light for Manly has been former Titans playmaker Kane Elgey, who is rediscovering the confidence of his rookie year at the Gold Coast in 2015.

LITMUS TEST AWAITS FOR RESURGENT KNIGHTS

Bulldogs v Knights: 

When Newcastle coach Nathan Brown first analysed the 2019 season draw, he would've circled wins around the club's last three starts.

Confident of beating Parramatta at home, backing themselves to beat the yo-yo Warriors away and the class in key positions to take care of Canterbury, is how Brown would've viewed rounds eight through 10.

But this Sunday in Mudgee against St George-Illawarra is the litmus test for Newcastle.

Brown's side has grown up before eyes in recent weeks.

In each of their past three wins, they've played with the vital ingredients of a side that wants to play finals footy; maturity, toughness and patience.

And the coach knows that if the Knights are to beat the Dragons, nothing less than those three non-negotiables will suffice.

Kalyn Ponga celebrates scoring a try with his Knights teammates. Picture: AAP
Kalyn Ponga celebrates scoring a try with his Knights teammates. Picture: AAP

"Every game we've played where we've carried the ball direct and kicked and chased well, we seem to give ourselves a chance,'' Brown said.

"But when we turn up with limited energy and don't want to get into the fight, we get what we got in the first 20 minutes against Manly and the Gold Coast game.

"So I think we seem to understand what works for us now, hopefully we can keep doing it.

"It's a tough business to keep doing it, that's why the good sides are where they are and we have to try and get to that level.''

Working against the Knights for their Mudgee match-up are foot injuries to five-eighth Connor Watson and winger Edrick Lee.

Mason Lino is the frontrunner to replace Watson with Kurt Mann capable of filling a gap in the backline created by Lee's anticipated omission.

WARRIORS' MAGIC MAN STRUTS HIS STUFF

Warriors v Dragons: 

All eyes were on Kodi Nikorima's return to Suncorp Stadium but they soon turned to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's magic feet running riot on rugby league's hallowed turf.

Any fears of the Suncorp pitch losing quality after four consecutive Magic Round games was put to bed when the Warriors No.1 tiptoed and sidestepped around the St George defence with ease.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was brilliant again for the Warriors. Picture: Getty Images
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was brilliant again for the Warriors. Picture: Getty Images

The Kiwi international proved once again why he's one of the best in the competition for linebreaks (9) adding one to his tally on Saturday night.

The Dragons dominated the first half in their clash, leaping out to an 18-6 lead at half-time.

But Tuivasa-Sheck and Nikorima steered the Warriors back into the contest.

RTS finished the match with three tackle busts, a linebreak, three linebreak assists and a try assist.

His 201 running metres was a game high and he looked dangerous every time he touched the ball.

The Warriors come up against a resurgent Wests Tigers side next and fans will be hoping for a try-scoring bonanza judging by both side's Magic Round performances.

'SOFT' EELS NEED TO FIND CONSISTENCY

Storm v Eels: 

Brad Arthur summed it up best when he labelled the Eels as "soft".

The Eels were blown off the pack and humiliated by the Storm.

Arthur gambled by starting Reed Mahoney off the interchange bench to go with an extra forward. But the plan backfired with the Eels starting poorly and they never recovered.

Parramatta are a much better side than last year but need to find some consistency if they are going to mix wit with the big boys.

Parramatta players look on following another Storm try. Picture: AAP
Parramatta players look on following another Storm try. Picture: AAP

The Storm were outstanding, led by their two Cameron's - Smith and Munster. Smith looks like he is in career best form despite closing in on 400 games while Munster's unpredictability makes him one of the most dangerous attacking players in the game.

Melbourne responded to a post-game spray by coach Craig Bellamy following their Round 8 loss to Cronulla in style.

RICKY'S CHALLENGE TO REPAIR REAL-DEAL RAIDERS

Roosters v Raiders:

Canberra's lethal pairing of 'Leipana' is dead.

Raiders coach Ricky Stuart will need to do some serious surgery on his right edge after losing winger Jordan Rapana (PCL) in Magic Round.

It follows the recent sidelining of centre Joey Leilua with a neck injury.

Undoubtedly the Raiders are the real deal this year - and, despite their injury woes, should have beat reigning premiers, the Roosters on Sunday afternoon.

Jordan Rapana looks set to join partner in crime Joey Leilua on the sideline. Picture: AAP
Jordan Rapana looks set to join partner in crime Joey Leilua on the sideline. Picture: AAP

But how Sticky chooses to fill his right edge will have a big impact on the side's next few games, starting with South Sydney.

Journeyman Michael Oldfield looms as at least part of the answer and could prove the unlikely hero for Raiders fans.

BUNNIES SHOWS HOW FAR COWBOYS ARE OFF PACE

Rabbitohs v Cowboys:

Some of we Queenslanders have tended to kid ourselves over the past few weeks that our NRL teams are closer to the pace than they are.

South Sydney have in the space of 10 days put into proper context where the Broncos and Cowboys are in the 2019 premiership race in which the top three teams are heading over the horizon.

"We are struggling with combinations but that is no excuse - we just didn't get it right defensively,'' Cowboys coach Paul Green said.

Michael Morgan and the Cowboys were taught a lesson by South Sydney. Picture: AAP
Michael Morgan and the Cowboys were taught a lesson by South Sydney. Picture: AAP

The Cowboys are a marginally better chance to make the final eight than Brisbane, because their pack is more experienced and Michael Morgan is the best playmaker either club employs.

But their 32-16 loss to the Rabbitohs on Sunday to close the NRL's first Magic Round underlined North Queensland's deficiencies over the opening nine rounds.

"You score 16 points, you should give yourself a good chance to win the game," Morgan said.

Both the Broncos and Cowboys have won three of their nine games and are two wins behind Parramatta, who play in Townsville on Saturday night.

The Broncos have the advantage of two days more rest than Sydney Roosters when they meet at Suncorp Stadium on Friday night - and need every bit of edge they can get.

It will mean, in addition, that skipper Boyd Cordner will not be cleared to play after failing a head injury assessment in their win over Canberra.

"Melbourne, Souths and the Roosters are the top teams then there is a gap, but there is not a lot between the rest of them," Green said.

News Corp Australia


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