This week we take a look at the resurgent Storm and Roosters, as well as the Isaiah Papali'i contract situation with Wests Tigers.
We tackle some of the big talking points in the latest edition of NRL Real or Not.
Papali'i should be left to do what is best for him and his family
NOT REAL: Seems almost every season we see examples of how little an NRL contract actually means, with players asking for early releases, looking for greater opportunities or deciding they aren't happy with the current situation. Even more embarrassing is the contract backflip, made before a player even joins the new club. Gold Coast Titans fans to this day still hold ill feelings towards Daly Cherry-Evans, who famously backed out of a contract with them to sign a mega-deal to remain at the Sea Eagles.
The latest is Isaiah Papali'i who signed with Wests Tigers earlier in the year amid much fanfare, with long-suffering fans seeing the move as a crucial step in making the Tigers competitive again. He was Dally M second rower of the year in 2021 and was going to be an enormous loss for the Eels. Now, following the sacking of Tigers coach Michael Maguire, Papali'i is apparently having his doubts and refuses to confirm his intentions one way or the other.
"Obviously people ask me about it, just even on the street or family and friends are hitting me up but that's kind of for my manager look after and even if I don't stay here or I do go next year, I want to make sure that this year has no regrets," Papali'i said.
"I reckon somewhere in the off-season because this is distracting me at the moment.
"We have a massive opportunity and I don't want to leave any stone unturned this year and look back on it and think 'I shouldn't have left that stuff get in the way'."
The Tigers need to stand firm on this one, or they'll continue to be a laughing stock when it comes to recruitment and retention. Papali'i must join them next year or there should be serious financial compensation. They can't afford to be the nice guys in the situation. A line has to be drawn, for the Tigers and for NRL's credibility.
Storm still capable of making an impact
REAL: It is so unusual for Melbourne Storm to lose four games in a row, that it wasn't surprising to see many people downplay their chances of winning in 2022. They had lost superstar fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen to a knee injury and they didn't look to have the depth to cover for his attacking brilliance. More alarmingly, their defence was being breached regularly and with uncharacteristic ease.
During the week a war of words erupted with Panthers board member Greg Alexander suggesting that all the bad tackle techniques over the past decade could be attributed to the Storm.
"I think history shows, and it's not a stretch for me to jump to a Melbourne Storm conclusion, that the grapple, the chicken wing, the rolling pin, the crusher, the hip-drop... I think they all emanate out of Melbourne," Alexander said on SEN.
"Melbourne have led the way. They have changed the game back in 2002-3 where the wrestle became part of the game."
For some reason Melbourne Storm legend Cameron Smith took exception to Alexander's words, although not many outside of the Storm fraternity would disagree with the observation. The Storm have been responsible for setting the bar, for pushing the limits, for innovating and doing whatever it takes to be successful.
Now, with the Panthers taking over as the competition's benchmark team, tensions were bound to rise between the clubs. They met on Thursday night, with the Panthers considerably weakened and the Storm determined to take advantage.
Melbourne set about making a statement with a supreme 80 minute defensive effort, denying the Panthers a single point all night, despite the home team having a dominant share of territory and second half possession. There was little evidence of the chicken wing, rolling pin, crusher, hip-drop or any of the other forms of tackle allegedly developed and introduced by the Storm. What we did see was absolute desperation, players backing each other, swarming to snuff out every opportunity, often bundling try-line bound Panthers over the sideline.
"The best we have defended for a year or two," said a beaming Craig Bellamy after the game.
Bellamy's master move has been to send Cameron Munster to fullback, from where he is proving a nightmare for opposition defences. The Storm are keen to stay in the the Top 4 and from there they are capable of anything, if they can maintain the defensive drive they displayed in Penrith.
Roosters remain a serious threat even from outside the Top 4
REAL: The Rosters have had a mixed season, suffering several key injuries early, before slowly welcoming back their full strength line-up. In recent weeks they have really started to click and could be the dark horse of the finals, despite being destined to finish outside the vital Top 4.
Captain James Tedesco is playing as he always does, halves Sam Walker and Luke Keary are taking control and Joey Manu is proving to be a weapon, no matter where he pops up on the field. In wingers Daniel Tupou and Joseph Suaalii they have two of the game's best finishers, who are also unmatched at bringing the ball out of trouble.
In the forwards Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Angus Crichton and Victor Radley are leading the way, with Matthew Lodge providing a welcome addition to their hard-running, no nonsense, up the middle style of play.
Winning the competition from outside the Top 4 is nearly impossible, but the Roosters are peaking at the right time and are set to provide plenty of headaches in the finals.