NRL team of the half-year
WE'RE roughly at the halfway point of the 2019 season and before we look ahead into the home stretch let's take a look back at where we've been.
Pre-season predictions aren't worth the paper they're printed on (or the screens on which they appear, as the case may be) once the Steedens take flight in round one and the 2019 NRL season has already thrown up its share of surprises.
Here's the unofficial and totally unsanctioned Campo's Corner Team of the Half-Year.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is arguably in better form than he was when he won the Dally M last season, Kalyn Ponga has been out of control since moving back to fullback and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad has been terrific but don't kid yourself, the best fullback this year has been James Tedesco.
Tedesco has scored the most tries, made the third most runs, run for the second most metres, made the most linebreaks and broken the most tackles. He's also fifth in try assists and has become the best player at the Roosters and one of the very best in the game. If Newcastle's winning run continues Ponga may well be swept into fullback of the year and Dally M stakes by season's end but at the halfway point of the year Tedesco is the clear winner.
Corey Oates has to take one spot despite Brisbane's inconsistent form - the big Bronco has nine tries, 12 line breaks, 42 tackle busts and 1682 metres gained (at an average of 152 metres per game) from his 11 matches and continues to make any talk of a move to second row a complete waste of time. Oates is one of the best wingers in the game and has been for quite a while.
Maika Sivo sneaks in on the other wing, just ahead of Ken Maumalo and Josh Addo-Carr. It's been an excellent rookie campaign from the Fijian, who is currently the competition's leading tryscorer and has gained the third most metres of any winger in the game. Amid Parramatta's inconsistency Sivo has been one of their few constants and he should only improve over the remainder of the year.
Latrell Mitchell is the standout choice here but not by the many lengths he would have been several weeks ago. After his listless display in Origin I the pile on Mitchell has been totally relentless, a far cry from the adulation Mitchell experienced after his belting of the Tigers in round eight.
As ever, the truth can be found between the two extremes - Mitchell is not the best player in the league and he's not an absolute dud, he's talented and inconsistent, powerful but easily distracted, an enormous presence who can go missing at times. In the space of six weeks he's gone from being hailed as the best player in the league to suddenly having his Origin spot come under question.
The rugby league public are fickle and are turning on Mitchell for the first time in his career. They'll come back, as they always do. Mitchell was neither as good as they said he was then or as bad as they say he is now, but he's certainly been the best centre in the NRL this year.
It's not a stacked field though - Esan Marsters hasn't replicated his form from last season, nor has Joseph Manu, Joey Leilua has succumbed to injury and James Roberts has barely played. To that tune the second spot goes to Jarrod Croker, just ahead of Brian Kelly and Hymel Hunt.
Croker has had far more spectacular seasons and his attacking numbers are a bit down due to Canberra's point-scoring abilities going down a notch or two but he's been as consistent as ever. The Raiders man has nine linebreaks (that's three more than Mitchell), five tries, three try assists and 110 points, good enough for third in the league overall
There's no need to overthink this one - it's Cody Walker all the way. All the people campaigning for Walker to be dropped from the Blues side and transported to Van Dieman's land need to remember why he was there in the first place. He's second among all five-eighths for try assists with 11, first in tries (also 11), first in linebreaks with eight and first in tackles busts with 44. Cameron Munster has been excellent, as was Luke Keary when fit, but this is Walker's win.
Of course, this was all forgotten when Walker turned in a quiet display in Origin I. Consensus among the league public is that Walker should be dropped for James Maloney, as though the 11 matches that came before Origin I didn't exist at all. Maybe playing Maloney is the right call and maybe it isn't, but it doesn't wash out the half a season of brilliance Walker put together. Regardless of which way Brad Fittler goes it's important to remember why Walker was there ahead of Maloney in the first place.
Mitchell Moses and Michael Morgan have him covered for try assists, Adam Reynolds has taken his team higher on the ladder, Daly Cherry-Evans has the Origin shine but Mitchell Pearce has been the best halfback in the league this season. Even accounting for his, and Newcastle's, awful start to the year there's no denying what Pearce has done since and given DCE's injury layoff Pearce gets the start.
Five man of the match awards in a row speak for themselves, even if once or twice Pearce was lucky to claim the award ahead of Kalyn Ponga. With 14 try assists (fourth) and 19 line break assists in 12 matches Pearce is on track for the most productive season of his career and given the hype around him and the Knights he'll likely collect the Dally M. Just keep him out of Origin, for everyone's sake.
Sio Siua Taukeiaho was a quiet achiever at the Roosters for the last few seasons and in 2019 everyone seems to have noticed. The Tongan international is second among all props, and eighth in the league, for metres gained and has risen to the challenge on offer after Dylan Napa left the club and injuries and ill form struck the rest of the Roosters forwards. He's not a prodigious offloader, with just six in 11 games, but Taukeiaho is front-row play distilled down to its essence - eating the metres like he's dying of starvation and giving the Roosters all the go forward they could ever need.
Sneaking in ahead of Taukeiaho, and ahead of Martin Taupau (the toughest exclusion of any player) and Jordan McLean, is David Klemmer. The newly minted Knight is sixth among all players for metres gained (first among all forwards) and is averaging a career-high 62 minutes for his new club. Even during their early season struggles his form never wavered and despite the ludicrously premature comparisons to Paul Harragon it's been a great start to life in the Hunter for Klemmer.
Most of the time a running dummy-half has one brilliant, golden, unstoppable season and then never quite reaches that form again because everybody knows the threat he possesses and watches more diligently for it. Think of Jake Granville in 2015 or James Segeyaro the year before. That Damien Cook has matched his form of last season by adding to his skill set is an absolute credit to him and a big part of the reason he's my MVP thus far in 2019.
Cook is averaging 45 metres per game this year, well down on last year's 89, but he's already accumulated more try assists (16 this year, second among all players, compared to 10 all of last year) and is on track to surpass his totals for line breaks (11 last year, five so far this year) and line break assists (11 last year, 11 so far this year).
He is the best player on this year's best team and with due respect to Cameron Smith a clear choice for hooker of the half year.
After several years in the middle of the field Sam Burgess went wide once again this season and the results have been excellent. Freed up as more of an attacking weapon than a battering ram, Burgess is still doing all the grunt work of year's past (he's averaging 131 metres per game this year as opposed to 132 last year) while also notching seven line breaks and seven tries. There's been some rough edges, no doubt due to the shoulder injury which will sideline him in the coming weeks, but Burgess has taken to his new spot well.
The other backrow spot goes to another Englishman, Canberra's John Bateman. There were high expectations for the former Wigan and Bradford man given his track record in Super League and his performances for England but Bateman has well and truly exceeded them. In giving the Raiders a hard-nosed edge they've been lacking for years, Bateman has played a huge role in Canberra's resurgence - they've only lost once when he's played this season. A well-rounded and ferocious competitor, Bateman also has an uncommon skill, as indicated by his tries in the last two weeks.
Cameron Murray has enjoyed an excellent season, so have Dale Finucane and James Fisher-Harris, but when it comes to lock forwards in the NRL there is Jason Taumalolo and then there is everybody else. The North Queensland lock has only played in eight matches but still leads all locks for run metres and tackle busts and is behind only Murray for line breaks. He's diversified his game somewhat, throwing 16 offloads (equal third for his position) and all this has come under heavier defensive pressure than he's ever endured before - he's averaging a career high 26.8 tackles per game but has missed just six all season.
If any other player did what Taumalolo does every week they'd be feted as the best forward in the universe but we've become numb to his greatness, just as we did for Cameron Smith. Taumalolo has gained more than 250 metres in a match twice this season and apart from his injury affected match against Brisbane in Round 2 he has not run for less than 130m. His 198 average metres gained this year is easily the best in the league. He is the best player in the world because there is nobody like him, nobody can do the things he does and the gap between him and the rest of the forwards out there is growing as fast as his own legacy.
Campo's Corner Team of the Half-Year
1.James Tedesco 2. Maika Sivo 3. Jarrod Croker 4. Latrell Mitchell 5. Corey Oates 6. Cody Walker 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. David Klemmer 9. Damien Cook 10. Sio Suia Taukeiaho 11. Sam Burgess 12. John Bateman 13. Jason Taumalolo
After six weeks of the season Cronulla backrower Briton Nikora seemed to have this one all sewn up but since then Payne Haas has rocketed to an insurmountable lead. Nikora is a fine prospect with all the hallmarks of a modern backrower and he may well be a Test player by year's end but Haas has become of the league's new stars with his mobility, fitness and powerful carries getting him into the Origin side after all of 10 first grade games.
The last time a player won rookie of the year and played Origin in the same season was Michael Vella in 1999 and he'd played eight games the year before compared to Haas's three. Sivo rounds out the top three with Canberra's Corey Horsburgh, St George Illawarra's Zac Lomax and Cronulla's Bronson Xerri a little further back.
In my pre-season previews I questioned if Des Hasler was still the coach that had attracted so many accolades in his first stint with Manly and his early years with Canterbury. It had been so long, I argued, since Hasler's teams were true contenders and the final days with the Bulldogs were so dire that perhaps the genius has fled the two-time premiership winner.
How wrong I was. Manly have been ravaged by injuries in this first half of the season and are still a good two or three players short of a top line roster but Hasler has been getting blood from stones all season and the Sea Eagles are comfortably ensconced in top eight contention as their troops return. If Hasler can get them to the finals it'll be a fine coaching achievement and premiership contention is only one or two smart signings away.
Roosters 21 Storm 20 in Round 6
Brisbane's narrow win over the Roosters in Round 10 and South Sydney's last-gasp triumph over Canberra the following night were both matches of semi-final intensity and quality but there is no beating the epic grand final rematch between the Roosters and Storm in Round 6.
This was a match drenched in grandeur, from the boos that greeted Cooper Cronk as he returned to Melbourne for the first time, to the Roosters blazing to a 20-0 lead, to Melbourne inching back ground one score at a time until they levelled things up with 20 to go, to the Roosters suffering a thousand injuries and playing two debutants off the bench to Latrell Mitchell's cinematic, golden point from half a mile out. It was a match, and a win, for the ages and while it left the Roosters as impervious and dominant as everyone expected them to be it was still a thrilling sight to see how they got there.
Panthers 16 Eels 10 in Round 11
Quite frankly I don't want to talk about it.
David Klemmer has been excellent for the Knights but we all knew how good he was already and John Bateman has been superb for the Raiders but smart judges knew he'd do well. There were few with any wraps on Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad before the season began and given he joined Canberra the week of their first trial the sceptics were out in force.
But Nicoll-Klokstad has proven himself a winner, making Canberra's fullback spot his own with his busy, all-effort style. He currently leads the league in run metres and total runs and he's third in tackle busts to boot. Throw in five tries and some outstanding defensive plays and that's a half-season any fullback would be proud of. "The Kraken" is a fan favourite with the green faithful - let the campaign go forth from this time and place, go all the way with CNK.
It remains to be seen just how long he stays with the Titans but regardless, Tyrone Peachey's move to the Gold Coast has been an unmitigated disaster. The former Blues utility is finally paying the price for being shunted through a dozen different positions in his NRL career - now he's 27 and in his seventh first grade season and he's not got a fixed spot or even any clue as to where his best position may be.
There is value in a player like Peachey, who can play at an average level in so many positions, but such players are not the type who can live up to the marquee status the Titans have bestowed. Peachey has spent time in the halves, centres and backrow for his new club and Garth Brennan seems to have little idea where he should play. You're not the only one Garth - Peachey may be a riddle without answer.