With 18 rounds of the NRL now complete and Origin in the rear view it is now time to buckle in for the run to the NRL finals in September. As usual at this time of year the top and tail of the competition seems relatively settled but it is in the middle third where the real intrigue lies. Among the most fascinating teams this year are last year’s bottom two.
The Eels and Tigers find themselves in remarkably similar positions after Round 18 of the Premiership. Both teams began brightly but have seen their seasons slip away over the Origin period. Both teams recorded six wins in the opening ten rounds of the season but have now slumped to eight and eight records.
As it often does for early season pretenders the Origin period proved decisive with both teams coping some disastrously heavy losses whilst putting together matching two win, four loss middle thirds. Even the for and against for each team is almost identical – the Eels on minus 82 and the Tigers on minus 80. Since Origin season began in Round 11 the Eels have conceded more points during but the Tigers wins are against less credible opposition in the Raiders and Knights.
So how did bright beginnings become looming disasters? The first point to make is that these simply may not be very good teams. It seems a little simplistic but it bears repeating that these were teams 15 and 16 last season. The NRL salary cap does allow for remarkable turnarounds in fortune but real bottom to top reversals have usually involved the import of return from injury of a truly elite player. Some may argue that Jarryd Hayne qualifies for this requirement after missing large parts of last season but the Eels fate in 2013 was well and truly sealed before Hayne got hurt.
A common thread for both teams is their youth. Though both have a handful of veterans the core of their team, and more importantly the players who were some crucial in the early stages of this season are very young. And young players inevitably feel the grind of the season.
The teams also face unique challenges as well. For the Eels the concern is the reliance on Jarryd Hayne, though the impact of the season ending injury to Nathan Peats shouldn’t be underestimated. The Eels record without Hayne over the last two seasons reads 10 losses and 3 wins. Not exactly encouraging. Adding Isaac de Gois should help offset the loss of Peats but de Gois has himself been in serious decline over the last two seasons.
The Tigers are not as reliant on their own veteran Origin star with a record of five wins and eight losses without Robbie Farah over the last two seasons. But arguably it is the loss of another veteran that may be season defining for the Tigers. With talents like Mitchell Moses waiting in the wings Tigers could have been forgiven for thinking that Braith Anasta was surplus to requirement this season. However with injuries to Kurtis Rowe and made-of-glass James Tedesco forcing Moses to begin his first grade career at fullback the Anasta injury starts to look more alarming.
Whilst the injury to Anasta is more recent than the form slump it has the potential to completely derail the Tigers season. For all his talent Luke Brooks has been far more limited in recent games and is essentially a left side half. Anasta was more comfortable playing across both sides of the field and added a measure of composure to the team that they will not find easy to replace. Blake Austin is a serviceable player but not the type you want anchoring a charge towards the finals.
When it comes to the remaining schedule the parallels between the two teams end with better news for the Eels than for the Tigers. The Eels play five of their remaining eight games against the current bottom four including two against former coach Ricky Stuart’s Raiders. The Tigers have just two against the bottom four plus three against fellow mid-table pretenders the Storm, Dragons and Cowboys.
Historically over the last five to ten years any team with 16 points or more after Origin is viable. These teams both have 20 points and so their destiny is very much in their own hands.
The challenge now is will they kick on and be like the Warriors of 2011 who surged from 20 points after Round 18 all the way to the Grand Final or will they be more like the Panthers and Titans of 2013 who flat lined their way out of the eight from the same position?
With the talent on these two teams it will be interesting to watch and find out.
Read Lachlan’s work regularly on the Roar and follow him on twitter @mrsports83