Before I get on to saturating your beautiful souls with all sorts of #KiwiNRL Finals coverage, we've got to show some love to those battlers who didn't make the top-eight. I'm going to jack this idea from the craziness that permeates from Aotearoa's mainstream media whenever the Warriors don't make the top-eight; it ain't easy to make the top-eight.
NRL is not Super Rugby where the competition genuinely revolves around a few teams, with all the other teams being non-factors. The NRL is competitive each week, the Rabbitohs can look solid one week and then get torched the next, teams can drastically improve each year and come from nowhere to be a contender. Four points separates Cronulla Sharks in 5th and North Queensland Cowboys in 8th, 10 points separates Cronulla Sharks and the Bulldogs in 11th.
Only eight teams can make the top-eight and prior to this season, the Dragons, Raiders, Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Warriors and Titans would have all had the top-eight as their expectation. The Tigers and Knights are brewing away, simmering before they make a legit run at breaking into the top-eight and beyond. So excluding the Tigers and Knights, that's 14 teams who anyone could have made a serious case for finishing in the top-eight.
Disappointing not to make the top-eight for sure, 'cos all those six teams who didn't make it (excluding Tigers and Knights) are bummed right now. But there's no shame in it because there's no free-pass into the top-eight, it's difficult, you gotta be a good all-round footy team over 24 games to make the cut; as opposed to other competitions where you can stroll into the Finals without doing too much.
Right, so a #KiwiNRL Bottom Eight Team.
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (Warriors).
Still the top-dawg #KiwiNRL fullback and Tuivasa-Sheck came back from last season's knee injury to roll through his standard 200m+ efforts. I won't say too much more here because I've got a piece on Tuivasa-Sheck coming soon.
Jason Nightingale (Dragons), Jordan Rapana (Raiders).
Can't go wrong with the OG Nightingale as he rarely goes wrong himself. I'd love to see Nightingale earn World Cup selection for Aotearoa as he'd be a lovely chap to have in camp, while Rapana is likely to earn a starting wing spot for Aotearoa. Rapana is a super classy finisher and his work out of dummy half is up there with the best in the NRL.
Esan Marsters (Tigers), Chase Stanley (Bulldogs).
We knew a fair bit about Esan Marsters even before he made his debut this season, although the buzz around Marsters came via his block-busting form as an edge forward. Marsters came off the bench in his first two NRL games, before starting at centre for the next 11 games and it shouldn't come as a surprise that three of the four games in which Marsters had 10+ carries and 100m+ were his last three games.
Marsters is a beast and he'll flourish with an off-season at centre, under Ivan Cleary. Chase Stanley's part of a very murky Bulldogs future, he was however consistently solid for the Doggies and it's nice to see him back in the NRL. Stanley did a job in a number of different positions for Des Hasler, centre is still his best spot.
Shaun Johnson (Warriors), Tuimoala Lolohea (Tigers).
Of the Warriors nine-game streak of losses, Shaun Johnson played just three games.
Johnson's still pretty good and everyone hating on the Warriors tends to overlook how their season fell apart after Johnson got injured. This even surprised me as I was eager to see Lino and Hingano step up, however Johnson's still the best half at the club and you never know what you've got until it's gone - six losses later and Johnson's aiite.
Not knowing what you've got until it's gone could apply to Lolohea, however I still think Ata Hingano will end up being a better half than Lolohea. Mainly because Lolohea will move to fullback next season and the Warriors don't have a spot for Lolohea at fullback or in the halves, so there wasn't much room for Lolohea to start with, hence he flourished at a club that did have room for him.
If this team played a game, they'd probably struggle as Luke Brooks was the perfect halfback for Lolohea and Johnson's far too similar to Lolohea. Lolohea found a spot where he could run and add some x-factor to the Tigers while Brooks dictated territory etc. I'm super happy for Lolohea and am intrigued by what 2018 will hold with a likely move to fullback and a full off-season under a rather handy fullback in Cleary.
Ben Matulino (Warriors), Issac Luke (Warriors), Zane Musgrove (Rabbitohs), Simon Mannering (Warriors).
Ben Matulino eased into the season upon returning from injury but in the second half of the season, Matulino was near his best. Matulino played less than 45 minutes in just four of his 16 games this season and averaged 10m/carry, while also finished the season a five-game stretch that saw Matulino play 50+ minutes (two 60+ min games) in all five games and run for 140m+ in four of those five games.
Simon Mannering is Simon Mannering and he actually improved rather nicely this season under Stephen Kearney, in fact it was his best season at lock...
2015: 12.8 runs, 105.4m, 2 offloads, 45.5 tackles.
2016: 11.3 runs, 90m, 0.6 offloads, 47.4 tackles.
2017: 14.8 runs, 128.3m, 1 offload, 44.8 tackles.
Issac Luke gets plenty of silliness thrown his way as well, he's still the best hooker from Aotearoa. Luke has the best kicking game of any #KiwiNRL dummy half and was a victim of circumstance as when he ran, he had no support, or when he didn't play so well, Nathaniel Roache looked amazing running the footy. Sure, this wasn't Luke's best season but it was solid, solid for Luke is better than good for other #KiwiNRL bench hookers.
There's this 21-year-old prop who played 21 games this season and averaged 11.2/103.9; Zane Musgrove. The Mangere East junior routinely proved himself to be more useful than George or Tom Burgess and has quickly emerged as an exciting #KiwiNRL prospect, who could be a bolter for the World Cup squad. Working against Musgrove is the depth of middle forwards, even that only offers up the enticing though of Musgrove and the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, James Fisher-Harris, Joseph Tapine, Josh Aloiai etc forming an Aotearoa forward pack.
Joseph Tapine (Raiders), Bodene Thompson (Warriors).
Canberra have moved Joseph Tapine between middle and edge this season, because Tapine's pretty damn good at both. I view Tapine's best position as edge forward where his size is a nightmare match up, combined with his mobility which has him looking like Taumalolo through the middle. Canberra have Josh Papalii and Elliott Whitehead, so expect Tapine to do a job through the middle for the time being but once he gets consistent minutes on the edges, watch out.
There's nothing spectacular to what Bodene Thompson does and if Josh Aloiai had enjoyed a more consistent role all season (vs the last few games), I'd probably roll with Aloiai but much of the Warriors attacking funk came via Thompson. Wins over the Titans and Bulldogs saw Thompson offload 3 times in each game and Thompson always ripped in when given the footy, or defensively.
Danny Levi (Knights), Sam Kasiano (Bulldogs), Elijah Taylor (Tigers), James Gavet (Warriors).
Of the Warriors nine-game streak of losses, James Gavet played just two games (!!).
Gavet was the Warriors MVP of 2017, so chill on judging how crap the Warriors go-forward was during the nine losses as the best forward was absent. I've gone with Sam Kasiano purely because I want to see Kasiano and Gavet on the same team together, entering the game at the 30-minute mark to play either side of half-time; who wouldn't wanna see those two go nuts for 25 minutes?
With those two big boppers, I need some balance so I'm going with Elijah Taylor who can add some ball-playing to the middle while also covering the edge spots. Taylor is the ultimate utility and while I'd love to see Taylor consistently play lock, there's beauty in his ability to do whatever the team needs.
Danny Levi looked his best when coming off the bench for Newcastle with Jamie Buhrer starting, although it won't be too long before Levi is lethal as a starting hooker. There's a rather impressive group of young #KiwiNRL hookers coming through and Levi is leading that pack. Brandon Smith is nibbling away at Levi's heels, while Fa'amanu Brown's done a job there for Cronulla and Wests Tigers have Matt McIlwrick and Jeremy Marshall-King.
Josh Aloiai (Tigers), Russell Packer (Dragons), Agnatius Paasi (Titans), Leivaha Pulu (Titans), Nathaniel Peteru (Titans), Konrad Hurrell (Titans), Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Bulldogs).
I try not to include Konrad Hurrell in too much #KiwiNRL stuff because Hurrell's only link to Aotearoa is that he went to school here - Paasi for example was born in Tonga but grew up in Aotearoa and has played for Junior Kiwis. That's like laying claim to Suliasi Vunivalu who literally spent a few years in Aotearoa and beautifully exploited First XV rugby.
Hurrell does however deserve a special mention, better than an honourable mention. I'll do a Koni Files in the coming weeks to wrap up Koni's season and perhaps preview Koni's World Cup hopes, in the meantime enjoy this facts about Koni's 2017 season...
Averaged 9.65m/carry - Jarrod Wallace (1st in Titans run metres) averaged 9.24m/carry, Ryan James (2nd in Titans run metres) averaged 7.93m/carry.
7/16 games with 150m+.
15/16 games with 120m+.
3rd in run metres for Titans (5 games less than Wallace, 6 games less than James).
2nd equal in line breaks for Titans (3 games less than 1st - Dale Copley).
4th in offloads for Titans (8 games less than 1st/3rd - Pulu/James, 10 games less than 2nd - Ash Taylor).
1st in tackle busts for Titans (3 games less than 2nd - Copley).
Koni left the field in the 10th minute of round 20, after leaving the field, Gold Coast lost their last seven games.
Peace and love 27.
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