NRL Round Table: Has the bunker become a complete circus?

Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.

Like Trent Robinson, do you hear circus music whenever a decision is referred to the bunker?

Lucie: Far too often has the NRL bunker left me confused this season as inconsistent rulings occur week after week. The metaphor of circus music captures the mood of when a decision is sent to the video referee, because who knows what the end result will be? While I think Trent Robinson went too far in naming and shaming officials, his outburst was true in that the bunker's latest blunder in the Rabbitohs-Roosters match was indeed laughable. It should not take a player, who has had his face broken no less, to draw attention to an illegal shot that occurred more than a minute before. That's the bunker's job. And although the discussions around whether Latrell Mitchell should have been sent off or not have been fueled by the severity of Joseph Manu's injury - by Magic Round standards that was more than a sin-bin. It's these inconsistencies that have coaches, players and fans collectively sighing when a decision is sent to the bunker. And what's worrying, is that some calls have been blatantly wrong. Without wearing my glasses on Sunday afternoon, even I could see Tommy Turbo was held up by Bulldog Jack Hetherington in a momentum-changing try for the Sea Eagles. Now officials make mistakes, they're only human and should not be targeted for it. But the video-referral system needs an urgent review ahead of next season to nut out what needs to be changed to aid officials and make it more consistent - especially if the NRL continues to make rule changes.

Darren: I have sat through most games this season and invariably found myself baffled by at least one decision in each. To be honest, the rule changes and frustration over bunker calls would have had me tuning out, if not for my professional obligations. I can easily understand why fans are annoyed and turning away. We all grew up with a game we loved and we naturally glorify the 'good old days'. Many changes have been necessary to ensure the safety of players, but many other changes seem arbitrary and designed to make the game fundamentally different to the one we loved. What we all find most frustrating though is the perception that the rules are not being applied evenly across all teams and in all situations. Consistency is all anyone really wants. Coaches have their careers decided on results, it doesn't take a club long to start looking elsewhere if a coach can't bring success, so they are always on edge over officiating injustices, whether perceived or legitimate. Trent Robinson believes that his Roosters have been on the wrong side of a series of calls, it is part of his responsibility as head coach to call this out. Of course the NRL would prefer he did it in closed conversations with them, rather than in post-match media conference blow-ups. So Robbo had to be fined, but to answer the question, yes I do hear circus music, because I have no idea how they come to some of the conclusions they reach.

Has the loss of Latrell Mitchell and Joseph Manu effectively ended any slim chance the Rabbitohs and Roosters may have had of winning the premiership?

Lucie: Given neither team has beaten the Melbourne Storm nor Penrith Panthers this season, those slims chances of a title have ended. Latrell Mitchell's sickening shot on Joseph Manu has laid a huge blow for both clubs ahead of finals, with the former suspended for six weeks and the latter ruled out for the rest of the season with a fractured cheekbone. Not to mention the hefty fine handed to the Roosters after coach Trent Robinson's outburst at the media conference following the match. It'll be the second season in a row Mitchell has missed the back end of Souths' campaign, with an injury keeping him out of the final seven matches of 2020. The Rabbitohs went on to reach the preliminary final but fell to the Panthers 20-16, in what was their third loss without the star fullback. Wayne Bennett's side have won 82% of matches with Mitchell on field this season, with their losses coming only against the Panthers and Storm. So I think his absence will be felt when the Rabbitohs need him most. Likewise, I don't think the Roosters can beat the top-two sides for the title without a full-strength team - with the loss of Manu coming as the latest blow in what has been an injury-ravaged year for Robinson. The Roosters have the likes of Josh Morris, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Angus Crichton returning ahead of finals - but I still don't think it'll be enough.

Darren: With the Panthers and Storm being so clearly ahead of the rest of the NRL, the teams chasing them need everything to go right, every strength to be available if they are to have any chance of beating them. It has long been said of this most brutal of sports, that winning a premiership relies so heavily on a large degree of luck, when it comes to injuries. Generally, the best team wins the competition, but if you can't field your best team, whether through injury or suspension, then you face an uphill battle. The Rabbitohs and Roosters were always going to find it tough to match the Storm or Panthers, but in one reckless incident they have both lost one of their most lethal attacking weapons. Latrell Mitchell was feeling more at ease at fullback as the season progressed. His ability to create havoc on the edges has seen the Bunnies score the second most points of any team this year. With his suspension they lose the X-factor that may well have seen them cause an upset or two in the big games ahead. The Roosters have amazed everyone all year with their ability to win despite having no luck at all with injuries. Joseph Manu has been one of the main reasons they have remained an attacking force while others around him have succumbed to injury. Without him the Roosters must rely too heavily on James Tedesco to create and score points. I do believe both teams have lost any faint chance they had of winning the title this year.

Who do you think has been the best breakout star or rookie of the season?

Lucie: The silver lining to the Sydney Roosters' injury crisis has been the rise of teenage sensation Sam Walker this season, with the 19-year-old halfback playing a crucial role in keeping the club in touch with the NRL's ladder leaders. Following the retirement of Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend, Brett Morris and Luke Keary's season-ending ACL tear, a top-four finish for the Tricolours seemed out of reach. Now with one round remaining, Trent Robinson's side have a mathematical chance to achieve the feat this weekend. Despite the odds, Walker has been a consistent feature of the Roosters' attack in the absence of Keary this season and kept it humming all the way to finals. He's scored eight tries and made 18 assists in 18 appearances - and is also fifth in the competition for the latter and linebreak assists. The strong start to the Queenslander's career is notable considering the scrutiny he's been under since his debut in round four. It has been quite an effort considering his age, size and ability to not only fill the void left by Keary, but also cement his credentials as a starting halfback. I'm excited to see his development in the coming years, because if this year is anything to go by - Walker has a solid future ahead at both club and Origin level. Look out the Blues.

Darren: There have been several players make their marks on the 2021 NRL season, with some rookies and others players who have really stepped up their performances. There are the obvious candidates for this in the Roosters' Sam Walker and the Warriors' Reece Walsh, who both made their debuts this year and were quiet brilliant. But I'm going to go a slightly different path and pick a player who debuted in 2019, had an excellent 2020 season, but has really taken his game to new heights in 2021. Penrith's Brian To'o has just returned to the Panthers line-up after missing several weeks through injury and his impact has been immediate. To'o is consistently among the Panthers' leading metre-eaters, making countless hard runs out of trouble for Penrith. There is no better finisher in the game and despite his nuggety stature he is safe under the high ball and robust in defence. He made his debut for the Blues this year and played a key role in the State of Origin series victory, crossing for two tries in the Game I domination of Queensland. He will be a vital part of the Panthers' efforts to go one better this year and win the club's first premiership since 2003.