Monday Bunker Round 11 wrap up.
Monday Bunker Round 11 wrap up.

Coaching call throws door to NRL race wide open

WITH Round 11 of the competition now done and dusted, our team of rugby league writers analyse the NRL's talking points in the Monday Bunker.

SLIDING EELS WILL RUE COSTLY SLIP-UP

Eels v Panthers: 

Was this the worst game of rugby league ever?

Maybe not.

But, geez, it was a bludger.

And really we should just leave it at that.

However Parramatta fans certainly have every right to feel more than a little nervous about this Thursday Night Footy effort.

Despite starting the year strongly, the Eels have now lost four straight, including this latest one against a Penrith outfit which had themselves dropped six.

We were told the re-signing of coach Brad Arthur and skipper Clint Gutherson would be something of a Cure All. Yet it hasn't been. And so we wait.

Clint Gutherson and the Eels react during the loss to Penrith. Picture: Getty Images
Clint Gutherson and the Eels react during the loss to Penrith. Picture: Getty Images

Elsewhere, you have to wonder how badly this loss could bite Parramatta come September.

With the 2019 NRL season proving incredibly unpredictable - and tight - you have to think the difference between making the eight and missing for a host of sides not named the Roosters, Souths or Melbourne will be a couple of points at best.

And the Thursday Night Football loss against Penrith, undoubtedly, is one the Eels let slip.

Worse, the Blue & Golds find themselves on a horror run of four-straight losses, the latest of which comes against a Penrith side that themselves had lost six straight.

ARE MANLY AT THEIR BREAKING POINT?

Sea Eagles v Titans: 

The fact the Sea Eagles are on the verge of the top four with the serious number of injuries they've sustained is a credit to the players and returning coach Des Hasler.

Tom Trbojevic has played a game and a half all season, Daly Cherry-Evans hasn't been sighted for a month, Addin Fonua-Blake is suspended as often as not and yet Manly are still here, fighting and contending, and setting themselves up for their best season in several years.

Manly players look on after conceding a try to the Titans. Picture: Getty Images
Manly players look on after conceding a try to the Titans. Picture: Getty Images

But there is a natural breaking point. The Titans are no heavyweights themselves and yet they were able to overwhelm the bit-part Sea Eagles and condemn them to defeat.

Along the way Manly lost Brad Parker to a broken jaw and will now lose Cherry-Evans and Jake Trbojevic to the long representative season. They are brave and they are defiant, but how much is too much, especially for a roster already as top heavy as Manly's?

Manly face a tricky run in the next few weeks - Penrith, North Queensland and the similarly ravaged Dragons, and will not return to Brookvale until the last of those three. Perhaps they can grit their teeth, tighten their belts and grit out a couple more times, but the roster is growing thinner and the margin for error shrinks all the time.

COACHING CALL THROWS NRL RACE WIDE OPEN

Knights v Roosters: 

Trent Robinson inadvertently did the NRL a massive favour with the decision to rest Cooper Cronk last Friday night.

Because what it has done is throw the door wide open in the race to this year's title, showing it is not nearly as clear cut as many assumed.

Robinson took ownership for the decision that backfired badly on the Sydney Roosters in the 38-12 thumping by Newcastle.

In fairness, Robinson could not have predicted Luke Keary would be knocked out so early, and you also can't ignore the reigning premiers were without Jake Friend and Zane Tetevano's impact off the bench.

Kalyn Ponga makes a break for the Knights against the Roosters. Picture: AAP
Kalyn Ponga makes a break for the Knights against the Roosters. Picture: AAP

That left Brock Lamb to try and run the show with Latrell Mitchell playing five-eighth.

While the Roosters had their excuses, the Knights were exceptional.

The Mitchell Pearce-Kalyn Ponga combination is already as good as any and it is only going to get better.

But across the park the Knights dominated with David Klemmer, Daniel Saifiti, Lachlan Fitzgibbon and Sione Mata'uti'a all terrific.

No doubt the Roosters' decision to rest Cronk also provided the Knights extra motivation, although Robinson was adamant it was not a sign of disrespect.

"I got asked that before the game but it was more a respect for all over our squad," Robinson explained.

"It will take 25 players to play how we want to play."

For that part Robinson was right on the money. Injuries will play a massive part in the charge to September.

And the performance from both teams also highlighted how turning up with the right attitude every week is equally crucial, no matter how talented a squad is on paper.

Since the opening rounds most have viewed the Roosters, South Sydney and Melbourne as the only genuine contenders.

I reckon you can now throw in Newcastle and potentially Canberra, Cronulla, St George Illawarra and Manly when they are all at full strength.

Brisbane and North Queensland for mine have also shown they have stacks of improvement to come, and would back themselves against any opponent when they turn up with the right attitude.

Which is exactly what the Roosters didn't do on Friday night, regardless of Cronk's absence or the early injury to Keary.

UNSUNG HERO HELPS KEEP COWBOYS ON TRACK

Raiders v Cowboys: 

Tom Opacic has been the Cowboys' bargain buy of the year.

The former Bronco has been one of the most unheralded players so far this season and has found some good form since Cowboys coach Paul Green dropped him back to the Queensland Cup.

The North Queensland centre has put on back-to-back strong performances against Parramatta and Canberra, helping his side to their first consecutive win this year.

He has been hard to handle in attack, making strong runs and has scored three crucial tries for the Cowboys already this year.

Tom Opacic has impressed for the Cowboys. Picture: Getty Images
Tom Opacic has impressed for the Cowboys. Picture: Getty Images

He worked hard in support against Canberra to score North Queensland's first try while his four-pointer against Parramatta proved to be a matchwinner.

But his tryline defence has been equally impressive.

Against Canberra, Opacic muscled up against young star Nick Cotric and refused him any space with the ball.

The Cowboys centre ran for 102m and broke three tackles in the nation's capital and will prove a valuable player for North Queensland this season.

BRONCOS CHARGE BACK INTO TITLE CONTENTION

Warriors v Broncos: 

Hear that sound? It's the Broncos charging back into the premiership race.

Brisbane looked legless at 2-6 after eight rounds but three consecutive wins has not only put the Broncos back in top-eight territory, it has given their posse of young guns a shot of self-belief.

Saturday night's 8-2 disposal of the Warriors was a tribute to Anthony Milford's match-winning magic and Brisbane's defensive guts.

Filling for injured Andrew McCullough, Jake Turpin has been a revelation at hooker with his clever touches and workrate, while Matt Lodge and Payne Haas have finally given the Broncos the big boppers to consistently win the midfield.

Anthony Milford celebrates after scoring a try for the Broncos. Picture: Getty Images
Anthony Milford celebrates after scoring a try for the Broncos. Picture: Getty Images

They charged for a combined 371 metres, giving Milford the platform for his 60th-minute match winner. The Broncos five-eighth has copped brickbats over his $1m price tag but Milford's kicking is vastly improved and he is developing into a more consistent performer.

How the Warriors would have craved Milford's game-breaking brilliance. The home side should have scored at least four tries but simply lacked the attacking polish to convert pressure into points. And while they have some hardworking forwards, the Warriors need a big man with finesse to give them a point of difference.

BUNNIES ARE DOWN TO THEIR BARE BONES

Rabbitohs v Tigers: 

In the win over the Tigers the Rabbitohs played a back-rower in the centres and had two rookies filling out the rest of the backline and they lost their halfback before half-time.

South Sydney did not miss a beat, staving off a strong challenge from the Tigers and secured their place at the top of the ladder.

It's a buffer they'll sorely need given their heavy State of Origin representation. Damien Cook, Cody Walker, Cam Murray and Dane Gagai are all assured of playing in all three matches if fit and Adam Reynolds could be there or thereabouts depending on results.

The Rabbitohs squad is reaching breaking point. Picture: Getty Images
The Rabbitohs squad is reaching breaking point. Picture: Getty Images

Wayne Bennett has ample experience in managing a roster through a heavy representative season and he knows that premierships aren't won in June. The Rabbitohs will draw deep into the darkest corners of their roster to even field a team against Parramatta next round and victory, even with their strong forward pack intact, is far from guaranteed.

That is why wins like this are so important. A 9-1 start and a two-point buffer at the top is important because it allows that room to fall should the strains of this time of year become too heavy.

FLYING FOX SOUNDS WARNING TO MAROONS

Bulldogs v Storm: 

Look out Queensland. Storm speed machine Addo-Carr delivered an ominous Origin warning when he turned on the after burners with a scintillating performance for in Melbourne's win over Canterbury.

Addo-Carr scorched the Belmore turf with a fantastic 60m first half solo try and early in the second half the player nicknamed "Fox" crossed for his 50th NRL try that came shortly after another electric charge on the sideline.

Josh Addo-Carr in full flight for the Storm. Picture: Getty Images
Josh Addo-Carr in full flight for the Storm. Picture: Getty Images

Addo-Carr ran for 198 metres, busted four tackles and made three linebreaks against the Bulldogs.

Now he turns his attention to State of Origin, where he'll be looking to add to the two tries he scored in last year's series triumph with NSW.

MOYLAN RETURN GIVES SHARKS MORE BITE

Dragons v Sharks: 

Cronulla look primed for an assault on the NRL top four after the scintillating return of Matt Moylan.

Moylan helped spark the Sharks to a local derby win over the Dragons and back into the top eight.

Playing in his first game in seven weeks due to a hamstring injury, Moylan had a hand in two tries in the Sharks' 22-9 win.

Cronulla were a vastly more dangerous side with their star fullback on the park, adding the polish to his combination with Kyle Flanagan and Chad Townsend.

The victory not only lifted Cronulla to eighth spot, but gives coach John Morris a selection headache when Shaun Johnson returns after next week's bye. Morris predicted a slower start from his first-choice No.1 in Wollongong, but his creativity appeared to kickstart the Sharks' weapons in attack. Rookie Bronson Xerri was the main beneficiary, finishing with his first hat trick.

Matt Moylan was superb for the Sharks on his return from injury. Picture: AAP
Matt Moylan was superb for the Sharks on his return from injury. Picture: AAP

"(Moylan) helps our halves, and Chad and Kyle to be a bit more composed with their shapes in attack," Morris said post-game.

"And just that x-factor around him. The boys get more belief and confidence with Matty Moylan in our side. It was a good comeback.

"He spent seven weeks on the sideline with a pretty decent hamstring injury, so it's hearts in your mouth - when's the right time to return him to play.

"He could've played last week but I'm real happy in our decision to rest him from last week to make sure we got a better outcome today from him."