As the NRL season marches inexorably toward round 8, one could be forgiven for thinking the ladder might have a slight case of the upside downsies. Particularly when considering the plight of the Queensland teams clinging to its various rungs. The highly fancied Cowboys are languishing at the bottom, the Titans are higher than might have been expected, the Broncos are leading the whole thing, and the Dolphins are right up there with them. If you find anyone who tipped these current ladder positions in the pre-season, you should definitely ask them for some lotto numbers.
After round 8, all four Queensland teams will have squared off against one another. There's no Provan-Summons trophy on offer and no discernible finish line in sight for this unofficial intrastate tournament, but amid a reinvigorated battle for hearts and minds; ascendancy will be worth a great deal. Whichever team can dominate their state based rivals will work hard to capitalise from a commercial and squad building perspective. It's a significant subplot within the NRL premiership. For lack of an official title, let's call it the the 'CANE TOAD SLAM.' The rules are simple. Play one another during the regular NRL season. Whoever wins the most, wins.
The first round of the 'CANE TOAD SLAM' will end this Sunday, when the Dolphins and Titans complete the initial round robin of Queensland derbies. Both are entitled to expect to come away with a win, while both would also be wary of the ramifications of defeat.
"Are we done?"
These were the words Wayne Bennett used to terminate a prickly press conference in the aftermath of the Dolphins home defeat to the Rabbitohs in round 7. In a viscous twist of irony, they're also words that could be derisively deployed by many of the doubters. Sure, the ledger has squared itself somewhat after the remarkable trifecta of wins that kicked things off. Yet Wayne wasn't frustrated by the journalist's questions, he was far more irked by the fact his team conceded 30 unanswered points to wilt in the face of a Bunnies onslaught.
Nearly 1,000 games into his coaching career, Bennett can accept losses. It's submissions that have never sat well with him. We've heard plenty about the Dolphins injury list and less than favourable judiciary record. We've also heard zero excuses. This is why Wayne was filthy. The Dolphins -- for the first time -- played like a team searching for excuses.
Are they done? Doubtful.
The future focus on the Redcliffe peninsula has secured Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow for four more years. While not many are questioning the post 2023 prospects of the new franchise, Bennett will be desperate to see some consolidation of their brilliant start in the hands of the current roster. Felise Kaufusi and Jarrod Wallace will bolster the ranks for the Titans game, and Wayne will be licking his lips at the prospect of some more starch in the middle. The record was 3-0 when Kaufusi was suspended, it slipped to 4-3 in his absence. It would be silly to suggest the presence of the international backrower would have changed all of those results. It was discipline that cost Felise, and it's been discipline costing the Dolphins as the grind of the season sets in. There's irony to the fact his return comes via a straight swap with Kenny Bromwich, who is now suspended.
While the Dolphins retain an overall completion rate around 80%, errors and penalties have crept up, and there are two factors of concern. No.1 -- ill-discipline is a collective effort. No single Dolphin is in the top 10 for handling errors or penalties conceded. Not even close. Kenny Bromwich has conceded more than any of his teammates, sitting 36th in the NRL with five individual penalties. Which leads us to No.2 -- timing. The timing of Bromwich's careless hit on Taane Milne couldn't have been worse. It was widely deemed a crucial call; one which saw the scoreline blow out in uncontrollable fashion.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow has been far and away the Dolphins best this year. He's right up there for line breaks, tackle busts, run metres -- all the hallmarks of great attack. Seven errors sees him topping the Dolphins, sitting 29th in the NRL, while he's also scored eight tries. While a deluge of touches will lead to a higher error rate, this can also be viewed as a great revealer of the Dolphins' plight. Fast starts, gritty and resilient defence, sharp and polished attack, terror in the middle third; coupled with brain fades and ill-discipline. Collective prosperity, not without collective blemish. Errors have been coming when they're trying to get out of their own end, penalties have been conceded when games are in the balance, and the price has been an inability to remain up for 80 minutes. The Dolphins got away with a fade out against the Cowboys, not against the Rabbitohs.
It's also clear this is a squad still getting used to playing alongside one another -- anyone who saw Euan Aitken's inexplicable decision not to pass to Michael Jennings for a certain try on his Dolphins debut will attest to this. This team has shown the potential to control its own fortunes, now they just need to remain cohesive for sustained periods in a game, then for the next five months. They're definitely not done yet.
The Broncos have shown very few signs of being done. You might even say they're just getting started. Reece Walsh shares the league lead for try assists (eight), alongside Adam Reynolds. He's got the solo lead for linebreak assists (11) through the first seven rounds. Impossible to dispute his impact; but what should get Broncos fans more excited, is the fact he's not going alone. Like the Dolphins there's a collectivity to the Broncos' fortunes this season; albeit arguably a more positive one.
Payne Haas has travelled more than half a kilometre after hitting the defensive line this year, also leading the league. Patrick Carrigan isn't far behind him. Haas has also popped 20 offloads; some of them genuine game turners. He leads a crop of talented men who can't be considered 'baby Broncos' anymore. Herbie Farnworth has been consistently excellent, Cory Paix is showing glimpses of a long term Broncos No.9. Kobe Hetherington returned from a torn bicep in round 7 and immediately set about matching the workload of his peers, charging for 94 metres in his 20 minute cameo. It smacks of desire right across the board.
The Broncos have defeated the Cowboys, Dolphins and Titans on their way to ascendancy in the 'CANE TOAD SLAM', yet long-suffering fans might still be holding fire on declaring the certainty of their overall premiership hopes. Brisbane has had the majority of the ball in all its victories this year; leading the league in tries and points scored, line breaks, supports, post contact metres, running metres, kick return metres -- the list goes on. They're 14th in completions though, at 75%.
Canberra showed glimpses of a Broncos-beating blueprint in round 6, frustrating their opponents despite having less possession. Brisbane completed at 71% that night, and couldn't find a way through when under scoreboard pressure in the second half. Queensland coach Billy Slater led the observations of potential vulnerability in the grind, suggesting the Broncos will be in trouble every time they can't find a way to unleash their breathtaking attack to blow a team off the park. The critique was washed away by an avalanche of second half points against the Titans, but it remains relevant. Slater won't be the only one remembering the sight of a backpedaling Brisbane, clutching at thin air in the middle of the ruck, and unable to muster points under pressure.
Conceding 26 points against the Titans -- including two late tries -- might also raise some eyebrows about Brisbane's commitment when a game appears iced. They have conceded plenty of late tries you wouldn't expect from a defensively resilient premiership powerhouse this year, combined with some sluggish starts. What Walters needs to be very much dwelling on, is educating his men about keeping feet on opposition throats; both when the going gets tough, and when the hard work appears done.
While their overall hopes remain a ways off, the Titans' 'CANE TOAD SLAM' prospects shouldn't be written off. The sin-binning of skipper Tino Fa'asuamaleaui in his 50th NRL match has been widely reported as the turning point in round 7.
"I think it ruined what was a good game of footy," coach Justin Holbrook lamented post-match.
In truth, the momentum had well and truly shifted before Tino's triple-foul in the 61st minute. In front of a packed CBUS Super Stadium, the Gold Coast were already submitting a very difficult to watch final half hour in the face of a Broncos avalanche. Earlier, they were electric. Jayden Campbell, Alofiana Khan-Pereira and Brian Kelly are all consistently dangerous, with Kelly perhaps needing to work on his tendency to get ruffled and submit to brain snaps. Like the Dolphins, the Titans can't afford to deal with repeated lapses in control and discipline.
A fit Keiran Foran provides the class -- and service for the likes of Khan-Pereira -- that should see them fighting for a top 8 berth come September. The work in extracting the most venom from David Fifita on the left edge is also progressing beautifully. In short, they've shown plenty with the ball in hand. Defensive resolve is the area Holbrook needs to be meditating on. The Titans are third in the league for ineffective tackles, and have compiled 230 misses in seven rounds. A few of their games have been high scoring, entertaining affairs, but the results haven't all fallen their way. With 136 points scored, 161 conceded, it's enough for 10th place ahead of the Dolphins derby. It'll be followed by showdowns with Manly and Parramatta. We'll know more about the Titans by then, and whether they can hope to improve a current 0-2 record against Queensland teams.
Are we worried about the Cowboys? Maybe. Much has been said about luck, and just how close they've been to compiling a better record and improving on their current 16th placing. It's a fair argument; they've had two one-point margins and a largest losing margin of 14 points. An 81% overall completion rate speaks to how close they've been, while 253 missed tackles indicates Todd Payten's men remain a ways off.
Round 8 against the Knights is officially a must win, as the season approaches the chaos of State of Origin; a period in which the Cowboys ranks will be stretched. The real head scratching element of their fortunes so far is the fact they've struggled at very close to full strength each week. Jordan McLean returns from his hamstring injury in round 8, slightly offsetting the loss of Jason Taumalolo. More significant is the shifting of Reuben Cotter from prop to lock; a positional reprieve that should see the talented Mackay native recapture the capacity to play at the line and target the edges. This is a dimension that just might make a crucial difference for the preseason premiership favorites. Two wins overall, and just one win in a full round robin of the 'CANE TOAD SLAM'. There is work to be done in the North.
The Broncos are edging the Dolphins in the early battle for Queensland supremacy. They know it, but certainly aren't letting the early momentum go to their heads, at least off the field. The club announced a membership milestone this week, passing 38,500 souls days after the Dolphins drew just over 23,000 for the Rabbitohs loss. Steele Tallon is the Broncos marketing and communications director, and a guy who grew up as a supporter of the Redcliffe Dolphins. He understands the seriousness of the threat, and confirms the high degree of vigilance that's coursed through the walls at Red Hill since the Dolphins came along.
"It focused our attention on connection with our community," Tallon tells ESPN.
"We've always been Brisbane's team, and Queensland's team. (The Dolphins arrival) probably made us go back and check in on the work we're doing in the community to make sure it was where it needs to be, and then our connection with our fans. We've got a pretty young team, so we want to make sure our younger players are known to our fans."
It's an ongoing battle, and a fascinating one. And it's not done yet.