Rugby League Recap
So I seem to have missed two weeks of Rugby League Recaps. Sorry about that. I’m going to attempt to get back on track with a combination of recapping the two weeks I missed as well as this past week’s action. I will look to highlight more of the big news stories and focus a little less on the specific game analysis, but ultimately you should feel completely brought up to speed. To accommodate, this recap will have a bit of a different format than normal.
State of Origin
It’s the most wonderful time of the year! The biggest and most intense series in rugby league returns for 2018! For those of you who are new to rugby league, State of Origin is an annual series played between the Queensland Maroons and the New South Wales Blues. Queensland and New South Wales are the two dominant rugby league states in Australia. With the exception of the New Zealand Warriors, all the NRL teams are based in these two states and the majority of players hail from them as well. State of Origin is the most competitive and exciting series in rugby league. The teams will play 3 games starting on June 6th. Game 2 will take place on June 24th. The final game of the series will be July 11th.
The teams are comprised with players who made their senior debut in that state, however those players must still be able to represent Australia in international matches. The player’s birthplace is not necessarily taken into consideration. Where you first play a senior level match as the primary source for eligibility has created some interesting situations, such as brothers being eligible for different states.
As of late Queensland has dominated. The Maroons have won 11 of the past 12 State of Origin series. NSW last victory was in 2014. Prior to Queensland’s dominant reign, the series was quite even. NSW had their runs and Queensland had theirs. The series started in 1982 and at the conclusion of the 2005 series NSW had 12 victories to Queensland’s 10 (2 series were tied). Queensland’s run has catapulted the series score to 21-13 in Queensland’s favour. There is plenty of pressure on Queensland to keep the streak alive, and equally as much on New South Wales to end the run.
Last week the NRL unveiled the rosters for the 2018 State of Origin Series.
So obviously I have to address the Wolfpack connections. Congrats to Tariq Sims, brother of Ashton Sims for being named to the New South Wales reserves. The highlight of the New South Wales Blues roster for me is Melbourne Storm winger Josh Addo-Carr. Addo-Carr has been one of the NRL’s most electrifying players this season. In just his second year in the NRL, the 22 year old sits tied with David Fusitu’a for the try scoring lead this season with 12. Addo-Carr leads the Storm with 1183 metres ran this season. A part of the reason for his ball carrying success is his speed. According to the Telstra Tracker, Addo-Carr is the fastest player in the NRL. He has been tracked at speeds in excess of 37 km/h on the field this season. The scary thing is the two men right behind him are also featured on the Blues. Jamie Roberts and Damien Cook each clock in at 36 and 35 km/h respectively. This should allow for some very quick ball movement form the Blues.
The legendary Billy Slater has announced that this will be his final State of Origin series. Slater made his State of Origin debut in 2004 and has been an integral piece of Queensland’s dominating run. Unfortunately, Slater is dealing with a hamstring injury and he will be missing game 1 of the series. Hopefully, he is able to return and get a proper origin send-off. Michael Morgan will be replacing Slater at fullback in game 1. Queensland’s injury problems extend beyond Slater. Dane Gagai suffered a dislocated finger in training earlier in the week. The all-around back, was slated to start at wing on Wednesday, but now his position in the line-up is up in the air. Gagai has continued to practice, with a very heavily wrapped hand and hasn’t officially been ruled out of the line-up. Newcastle Knights fullback Kalyn Ponga has been brought in as Gagai’s potential replacement. Ponga is just 20 years old, but has made NRL appearances in 3 seasons already. 2018 is his first full year and he has done well. Ponga leads the Knights in scoring with 56 points. He also leads the NRL in tackle breaks, linebreak assists, and kick return metres.
Super League/Challenge Cup
The RFL also announced that the semi-finals of the Challenge Cup will be played as a double header. Bolton’s Macron Stadium will play hosts to St Helens vs Catalans followed by Warrington vs Leeds on August 5th. The semifinals matchups present some very intriguing stories. St Helens has been the best team in Super League all year. They have been led by Ben Barba, the fullback who is clearly the best player in the Northern Hemisphere. Barba is joined by Mark Percival, Ryan Morgan, and Johnny Lomax who all feature in Super League’s top 10 try scorers. They sit first overall with a staggering 532 points scored, 109 points ahead of second place Wigan. It is tough to score on them too, they have only allowed 200 points, the least in Super League. They are coming off a game of the year candidate where they handed Hull FC their first loss in the Challenge Cup since 2015. They will be going up against Catalans, who have basically been the opposite of St Helens this year. The most exciting thing that happened to them this year is signing Sam Tomkins for the 2019 season. The Dragons were in last for most of the year but, it appears the Challenge Cup has given them confidence. They had a fortunate draw in my opinion. They got back to back League 1 sides in the York City Knights and Whitehaven RLFC. York City did give them one helluva scare, but hey, a win is a win. In the quarter-final they drew fellow bottom feeders Huddersfield Giants. The fortunate draw has boosted the Dragons’ confidence. They have now rattled off wins in 3 of their last 4 Super League games. The 4th game was against St Helens. Two of those wins came against Hull FC and the defending Champion Leeds Rhinos. Catalans no sits in 10th overall, but are just one point back of escaping the bottom 4.
The Castleford Tigers have made a big move to shore up the fullback position. The Tigers have been without a true fullback since Zak Hardaker was suspended and subsequently dropped by the Tigers for testing positive for cocaine. The Tigers have signed Wolfpack legend Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e for the remainder of the season. QLT was one of the best players on the Wolfpack in their inaugural year and was again throughout the first half of this year. Unfortunately, the signing of Gaz O’Brien made QLT expendable. He spent some time in Halifax and continued to play well, so it’s great to see him land in Super League.
Meanwhile, Zak Hardaker has signed with the Wigan Warriors for the 2019 season. Hardaker will have finished serving his suspension in time for start of the 2019 season. Hardaker will be replacing Tomkins as the Warriors fullback. As mentioned earlier, Tomkins will be heading to Catalans for next season which created the need for Hardaker. Hopefully Hardaker will be able to put his off-field issues behind him. After Sam Tomkins and his brother Joel verbally abused a bartender last week. I’d imagine Wigan is finished deal with that nonsense form their fullbacks.
The Leigh Centurions have been playing great since Neil Jukes resigned as head coach following an abysmal start to the season. Kieron Purtill took over as an interim head coach and has been able to lead Leigh to within striking distance of the top 4. To thank Purtill for his efforts, owner Derek Beaumont has removed the interim tag. However, maybe they should consider giving it back. Not because Purtill doesn’t deserve the title but, sometimes if it isn’t broken don’t fix it. The Centurions have lost both games with Purtill as the official head coach. The could not hold onto a lead in tight 26-24 loss to rival Toronto Wolfpack at the Summer Bash, and then followed up with poor disciplined performance against Leeds in the Challenge Cup.
The race for the top 4 has been very interesting. Many of the top teams have played each other in the past 2 weeks. The end result is the Wolfpack are now 5 points clear at the top of the standings thanks to wins against Leigh and Toulouse. Excluding the Wolfpack, only 4 points separates 2nd place from 6th place. No one is safe, not even Toronto. The top 6 teams consisting of Toronto, Toulouse, London, Featherstone, Halifax, and Leigh all still have plenty of games against each other. Those games could create some huge swings in the standings depending on the results.
The Toronto Wolfpack suffered their most disappointing loss in franchise history to the Warrington Wolves in the Challenge Cup, the Wolfpack stormed back with two great performances against two clubs eyeing the top 4. At Magic Weekend, Toronto came away with the dominant 43-30 victory over Toulouse. Liam Kay was phenomenal in this one, picking up another hat trick! Although, one of those definitely should not have counted. There is no way he grounded that ball, but with no video review because of whatever reasons the RFL made up, it stood. The video review discussion needs to be its own article. So keep an eye out for that. League Express put out a list of the top 50 Championship players this week and they had Kay at 11. All I could think was “really, you think there is 10 guys better than Kay?” One of those players though was Ryan Brierley. Brierley does have an incredible skill set. I know I criticize his kicking ability a lot so I am going to give him a shout out for that drop goal. It was greasy, but it went over. The top player on that list was Toulouse fullback Mark Kheirallah. The Wolfpack were able to keep him quiet and hold him to a rare try-less game. However, Kheirallah did manage to slot 5 goals for 1/3 of his club’s points.
One of the most anticipated games of the Wolfpack season was the Summer Bash match against the rival Leigh Centurions. Despite only playing one game against each other, the two clubs and their fanbases have some real animosity toward each other. Many Wolfpack players and coaches came over from Leigh. In total, 9 Toronto players in the lineup were former Centurions. Two Centurions, Ryan Bailey and Craig Hall, are also former Wolfpack players. Leigh was the better team early on and led 16-6 at half-time. Jack Owens had the try in the 55th minute to give the Centurions a commanding 26-12 lead. Then the Wolfpack began to march back. Toronto got tries from Nick Rawsthorne, Olsi Krasniqi, and Cory Paterson in the final 20 minutes. Brierley had one of his better kicking games and gave the Wolfpack the lead after Paterson tied the game. Ultimately, Andy Ackers took a penalty right in front of the sticks at the final horn. Ben Reynolds missed the kick. It was close and he thought it was good, but the touch judges disagreed. It was a great comeback and one of the Wolfpack’s better wins of the season.
After the game, there was an incident involving a few coaches, staff and players. A few shoves were exchanged and it looks like a Centurion squirted a water bottle at Paul Rowley. Cooler heads would prevail, and both sides pointed the finger at the other. I’m sure it will do wonders to keep fuelling the rivalry.
Off the field the Wolfpack made a big splash for the 2019 season. They have signed Cronulla Sharks centre Ricky Leutele to a two year deal reportedly worth £1,000,000. The deal is clearly a move to help improve their chances in Super League next year. Leutele is a member of Samoa’s national team. He doesn’t have a whole lot of tries to his name (just one this year), however, the man can play some defence. Leutele boasts an 85% tackle efficiency rating and leads the NRL in interceptions. He also made the final tackle in the 2016 NRL Grand Final to give the Sharks their first Championship.
The other major signing for the Wolfpack was a new mascot! The Wolfpack will finally be returning to Lamport Stadium on June 9th to take on the London Broncos. Greeting fans at the stadium will be this guy…
The mascot does not have a name yet, and the club will leave it to the fans to come up with the name. It’s an exciting time to be a Wolfpack fan! The club will be in Toronto for the next two months as they begin their home stand!
Play of the Week
Ben Barba is a beast! Hakim Miloudi learned that this week!
One of the best stiff arms of all time!