The 2022 NRL season continues with an impressive performance from Cronulla, while there are some real concerns that the Sea Eagles are the competition's flat track bullies and that Michael Maguire has lost the plot over at Wests Tigers.
We tackle some of the big talking points in the latest edition of NRL Real or Not.
The Sharks are premiership threats
Real: We have yet to see them take on the Panthers or Storm, but the Sharks are building nicely towards being a top four side and a genuine chance of adding a second premiership to the club's lone title.
In sloppy Wollongong conditions on Thursday night, they dominated the Dragons in every facet of play. Perhaps most impressive, was the absolute desperation shown in defending their try line, particularly in the early exchanges when the scoreboard lead was up for grabs.
Nine minutes into the second half they scored a brilliant scrambling team try, involving a bit of luck, but a keenness across the park to support each other. Importantly, they all looked like they were enjoying themselves.
Nicho Hynes is growing into the halfback role, his kicking game a vital ingredient in the Sharks' success. They have the sometimes inconsistent wizardry of Matt Moylan and a backline bristling with pace and deadly finishers. Up front, they have a pack of forwards you would hate to run into on a dark night, led by the ultimate professional in Dale Finucane. At hooker they have the brilliantly sharp Blayke Brailey and the whole show is being orchestrated by coach Craig Fitzgibbon, who came to the Sharks with a lot of raps on his football smarts and head coaching potential.
So far this year, they were unlucky to lose their first game together against the Raiders, won a tough arm wrestle against the Eels last week, before completely out-classing the Dragons. They face the much-improved Knights next week, the Tigers after that, before the big test against the Storm in Melbourne. After that we should have a real appreciation for how far these new-look Sharks can go in 2022.
- Darren Arthur
Can Manly beat the rest but not the best?
Real. This one will almost certainly be disproved at some stage this season, but in the past 12 months Manly have an incredible record against the bottom 11 clubs and a shocking one against the top four.
Since Tom Trbojevic returned from a hamstring injury in round 5 last season, the Sea Eagles have won 17 games and lost nine. In matches against the Storm, Panthers, Rabbitohs and Roosters, they've lost all but one -- against the injury-hit Roosters in the second week of the 2021 finals.
In matches against the rest of the league they've lost only twice -- against the Knights in round 12 last year and against the Raiders when they were missing State of Origin players in round 17. Apart from those blips, the Sea Eagles beat the bad teams and lose to the good teams.
It's a reason we still rank them highly in our power rankings despite early season losses to the Panthers and Roosters this year, but it's also the reason it's hard to see them threatening for a premiership until they show they can beat the big guns.
- Dominic Brock
Luke Brooks can still produce his best football at the Tigers
Not real: Wests Tigers coach Michael Maguire his thrown his full support behind behind beleaguered halfback Luke Brooks. Maguire strongly disagreed with comments from Andrew Johns, who suggested Brooks needed a change of club in order to regain his best form. It comes amid claims that the Tigers half has made multiple approaches to management requesting an early release from his contract. Maguire stretched the bounds of common sense by adding that Brooks would play rep football while at the Tigers.
Maguire is having a tough time getting his side to perform and his own career is increasingly on the line. He has to do everything within his power to motivate Brooks and in turn lift the entire squad. The calls for Maguire's sacking have only grown louder after starting the season with two losses, with a particularly poor effort against the Knights last week.
The Tigers have problems running far deeper than Maguire and have done for many years. From the boardroom bitterness still lingering as a result of the merger, to players who put themselves ahead of the club, there is a pervading stench replacing the intangible quality that should be the backbone of every great club -- team spirit. Players are clearly disinterested in bleeding for the black, white and gold, everyone is constantly looking for scapegoats, whether it be the coach, the halfback or the five captains. Maguire, as coach, is ultimately responsible for bringing his players together and squeezing the best out of them, but the current crop just aren't responding.
The one man tasked with and capable of fixing this ongoing mess is Tim Sheens, who is in his first full year back at the club in the role of Head of Football. Sheens has to find the players who are willing to pull their jerseys on with greater pride. Players who would rather eat a face full of flying knee than let in an opposition try. Players willing to run through walls, to dedicate themselves to achieving excellence, and most importantly players willing to form a sacred brotherhood with those standing beside them.
The time has come to be ruthless with the current squad, it's not time to throw another coach's career into the soulless Concord meat grinder. Maguire can talk Brooks up all he wants, but if Brooks keeps playing like he'd rather be somewhere else, then the Tigers should cut him loose and find a half who really wants to be there.
- Darren Arthur