live Infotainment Factory: Gal: what's next for NRL's biggest letdown

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Sunday, 8 September 2019

Gal: what's next for NRL's biggest letdown


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PAUL GALLEN writes exclusively for WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS and will appear on 100% FOOTY on Monday night, alongside James Bracey, Phil Gould, Darren Lockyer and Neil Breen. Watch on Nine from 9.50pm AEST!

The NRL top eight is decided, meaning it's time for those sides to play finals and for the bottom eight clubs to start planning for next season.

Four clubs stand out to me that can rise from the bottom eight to make the finals in 2020.

Two teams impressed me this season, overachieving with what they had at their disposal.

Two other sides seriously underperformed and will have no excuses to do so again next year.

WESTS TIGERS

It's the end of an era with Robbie Farah leaving, but there are already good signs for their future.

Luke Brooks has re-signed until the end of 2023. Thomas Mikaele, Corey Thompson and Jacob Liddle have re-signed through to 2021.

I think Benji Marshall should play again. You can't underestimate the value of senior players and leaders at your club; what they bring not only on the field but off it. Especially with Farah leaving, Benji's value as a figurehead can't be underplayed.

Not many people would have expected to see football like this from Benji at this stage of his career. When he came back to the NRL, he struggled. Some of the games we saw from him were ordinary at best.

But the way he's played this season has been unbelievable. Benji was a big part of the reason why they were pushing for the finals. It will be interesting to see if they can find the money to re-sign him.

The Tigers' off-season in general will be interesting, to see how coach Michael Maguire manoeuvres all the chess pieces to clear salary cap space. He's already told a couple of big names that they can leave or retire, so that they can clear their books and sign some new players.

With Maguire at the helm, I think Wests Tigers are a genuine chance of making the eight next season. I've never been coached by Michael Maguire or had anything to do with him, but as an outsider, he just looks like a winner to me.

The way he drove that squad this year, to get to where they did … if they'd made the finals, I think he's up there with coaches like Craig Bellamy, Ricky Stuart and Des Hasler for coach of the year. I thought they had a really good season, because with due respect to that squad, no one gave them a hope of being in the top eight.

It's a big plus for the club to have still been in contention for a finals spot in round 25 and I think a lot of that comes back to their coach.

With a few new players next year, a bit more strikepower, they can challenge for a finals position in 2020.

BULLDOGS

In the back end of the season, Canterbury have shown that old Dogs spirit that their club has always been known for.

They said openly that they were trying to find the old Bulldogs DNA by appointing a former player in Dean Pay as coach. It didn't work for them last year, didn't work for them at the start of this season, but it looks like Pay has found that now.

Leaders like Josh Jackson, Will Hopoate, Dylan Napa, Aiden Tolman have stood up. They've unearthed players like Morgan Harper and Jayden Okunbor. Lachlan Lewis had a good back-end to the season and that experience will be invaluable for him next year.

Corey Hawawira-Naera has been a strong signing. There are some good players on the bench, too: big blokes like Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Renouf Toomaga who can come on and cause some damage for short periods of time.

Melbourne's Joe Stimson is a good signing for them, plus South Sydney's Dean Britt. Those guys will be genuine pluses for them next year. They probably need to find another hooker; that position has been an ongoing issue for them.

But if they keep showing that fight, that competitiveness that the Bulldogs are famous for, I think they can challenge for the top eight next year.

Hopefully they can start next year the way they finished this season. It's always a bit easier when there's no pressure on you; Canterbury started throwing the ball around in the back end of the season and it stuck.

It will be interesting to see how they start next year when the pressure is back on. But there are players there who have experienced Test and Origin footy, quality players who should hold them in good stead amongst the new talent.

Kieran Foran, on their books until 2021, is still a quality player. Huge things are expected from him each week, thanks to his million-dollar price tag, but I think he's been good this year when he's been fit.

The key thing for him will be to get his body right, so that he and the club can have a good crack at making the eight next season.

DRAGONS

The knives have been out for the Dragons – and so they should be.

Look at that roster. This year there were five Origin players in Ben Hunt, Corey Norman, Tyson Frizell, Tariq Sims and Paul Vaughan, plus a pair of veteran England Test players in Gareth Widdop and James Graham.

That side should have made the top eight this year and should certainly be pushing for the finals next season.

I think the Dragons used the Jack de Belin situation as an excuse too much this year.

There's no doubt that when there's turmoil going on around a club, it does affect the playing group. Whether a certain drama is the players' fault or not, reporters and fans want to hear from them.

The questions that come at you can be distracting. I understand that. I've seen it all.

But once you cross that white line, there are no excuses. The fans don't care, and the opposition certainly don't.

Other sides will do whatever they can to get an advantage over you and if they think you're half a per cent off, you're in trouble; they'll use it against you. You have to do your job, but the Dragons didn't this season.

The Dragons used de Belin as an excuse to go out and not perform. They hoped to have him back for that game against Newcastle in May but when his legal bid failed, they were smashed 45-12. We've been hearing plenty more about it again in the past few months, as they've lost eight of their last 10 games.

Hopefully for them, the de Belin situation is over early next year and they can just get on with playing football. There are a huge number of disappointed Dragons fans out there and in 2020, there can be no more excuses for that team.

Widdop is gone but all those Origin players will still be there, including three in a strong forward pack. They have a good junior system and they unearthed some exciting kids like Tristan Sailor this season.

He showed that he could handle first-grade and if you throw that kind of fresh energy in with experience, including Origin-quality halves in Hunt and Norman, the Dragons should make the eight.

One player who I see as a huge plus for the Dragons: Cam McInnes.

He's a quality player. Before Damien Cook was named NSW hooker, I played City-Country with McInnes and walked away telling people that he wouldn't be out of place in an Origin jumper.

He's an absolute competitor who trains his backside off; he's a real leader in training. He talks well on the field and tells the forwards what he wants.

He's captain material for that club.

KNIGHTS

Newcastle have been the disappointment of the year.

They should have made the eight. That's a star-studded side.

I hope that this team understand what rugby league means to that town. I'm not a local and won't pretend to understand exactly what makes Newcastle tick, but just look at their teams from the past.

That 1997 premiership team was stuffed with home-town heroes. Andrew and Matty Johns, Paul Harragon, Mark Hughes, Matt Gidley, Darren Albert, Adam Muir and Bill Peden, plus guys who had been in their system a long time like Owen Craigie, Marc Glanville, Tony Butterfield, Robbie O'Davis and Stephen Crowe.

By the 2001 premiership, you also had the likes of Danny Buderus, Steve Simpson, Josh Perry, Timana Tahu, Sean Rudder and Daniel Abraham, plus a club great - Michael Hagan - as the coach. It was littered with local players plus a sprinkling of imports who really bought into the culture, like Adam MacDougall and Ben Kennedy.

This team is the total opposite. It's more players who've been brought in, with a sprinkling of home-grown heroes.

I don't know if they totally understand their club. I think they need to spend the off-season talking with people about what rugby league means to that town.

This is a club that has had three wooden spoons in the past five seasons, yet they're still getting 20,000 people turning up to games. That proves their passion for the game and the Knights.

Those players should learn from that.

Another big question mark is a new, untested head coach in Adam O'Brien. How is he going to handle those unique responsibilities in his first NRL job?

But you'd have to think that he comes from a pretty good stable. He's worked under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne, then with Trent Robinson at the Roosters. He's emerged from the modern game's two most powerful clubs and should know what he's doing.

Another positive is Bradman Best, an outstanding young talent who – having come from the Central Coast juniors – is almost a local product. He's big, powerful and fast, and could be anything.

A huge plus for them is the recruitment of Jayden Brailey from the Sharks. I know from experience that he's a great club person; the type of bloke you can build a club around.

He trains his backside off and he's tough as nails. He's constantly working on his skills and has become much better with his passing and kicking games. He's always happy to work and always there for the team.

He's happy to be the butt of jokes or to dish them out. He's just the type of bloke you want around your club; actually, the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry! An absolute gentleman. He'll be fantastic for them.

The good news for Newcastle is that, at an average age of 25, their players finally consider themselves not to be boys anymore.

Let's hope that in 2020, they can actually go out and play like men for 25 rounds.

One thing's for sure: the Knights learnt this season that you don't win grand finals in March.

PAUL GALLEN writes exclusively for WIDE WORLD OF SPORTS and will appear on 100% FOOTY on Monday night, alongside James Bracey, Phil Gould, Darren Lockyer and Neil Breen. Watch on Nine from 9.50pm AEST!

The NRL top eight is decided, meaning it's time for those sides to play finals and for the bottom eight clubs to start planning for next season.

Four clubs stand out to me that can rise from the bottom eight to make the finals in 2020.

Two teams impressed me this season, overachieving with what they had at their disposal.

Two other sides seriously underperformed and will have no excuses to do so again next year.

WESTS TIGERS

It's the end of an era with Robbie Farah leaving, but there are already good signs for their future.

Luke Brooks has re-signed until the end of 2023. Thomas Mikaele, Corey Thompson and Jacob Liddle have re-signed through to 2021.

I think Benji Marshall should play again. You can't underestimate the value of senior players and leaders at your club; what they bring not only on the field but off it. Especially with Farah leaving, Benji's value as a figurehead can't be underplayed.

Not many people would have expected to see football like this from Benji at this stage of his career. When he came back to the NRL, he struggled. Some of the games we saw from him were ordinary at best.

But the way he's played this season has been unbelievable. Benji was a big part of the reason why they were pushing for the finals. It will be interesting to see if they can find the money to re-sign him.

The Tigers' off-season in general will be interesting, to see how coach Michael Maguire manoeuvres all the chess pieces to clear salary cap space. He's already told a couple of big names that they can leave or retire, so that they can clear their books and sign some new players.

With Maguire at the helm, I think Wests Tigers are a genuine chance of making the eight next season. I've never been coached by Michael Maguire or had anything to do with him, but as an outsider, he just looks like a winner to me.

The way he drove that squad this year, to get to where they did … if they'd made the finals, I think he's up there with coaches like Craig Bellamy, Ricky Stuart and Des Hasler for coach of the year. I thought they had a really good season, because with due respect to that squad, no one gave them a hope of being in the top eight.

It's a big plus for the club to have still been in contention for a finals spot in round 25 and I think a lot of that comes back to their coach.

With a few new players next year, a bit more strikepower, they can challenge for a finals position in 2020.

BULLDOGS

In the back end of the season, Canterbury have shown that old Dogs spirit that their club has always been known for.

They said openly that they were trying to find the old Bulldogs DNA by appointing a former player in Dean Pay as coach. It didn't work for them last year, didn't work for them at the start of this season, but it looks like Pay has found that now.

Leaders like Josh Jackson, Will Hopoate, Dylan Napa, Aiden Tolman have stood up. They've unearthed players like Morgan Harper and Jayden Okunbor. Lachlan Lewis had a good back-end to the season and that experience will be invaluable for him next year.

Corey Hawawira-Naera has been a strong signing. There are some good players on the bench, too: big blokes like Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Renouf Toomaga who can come on and cause some damage for short periods of time.

Melbourne's Joe Stimson is a good signing for them, plus South Sydney's Dean Britt. Those guys will be genuine pluses for them next year. They probably need to find another hooker; that position has been an ongoing issue for them.

But if they keep showing that fight, that competitiveness that the Bulldogs are famous for, I think they can challenge for the top eight next year.

Hopefully they can start next year the way they finished this season. It's always a bit easier when there's no pressure on you; Canterbury started throwing the ball around in the back end of the season and it stuck.

It will be interesting to see how they start next year when the pressure is back on. But there are players there who have experienced Test and Origin footy, quality players who should hold them in good stead amongst the new talent.

Kieran Foran, on their books until 2021, is still a quality player. Huge things are expected from him each week, thanks to his million-dollar price tag, but I think he's been good this year when he's been fit.

The key thing for him will be to get his body right, so that he and the club can have a good crack at making the eight next season.

DRAGONS

The knives have been out for the Dragons – and so they should be.

Look at that roster. This year there were five Origin players in Ben Hunt, Corey Norman, Tyson Frizell, Tariq Sims and Paul Vaughan, plus a pair of veteran England Test players in Gareth Widdop and James Graham.

That side should have made the top eight this year and should certainly be pushing for the finals next season.

I think the Dragons used the Jack de Belin situation as an excuse too much this year.

There's no doubt that when there's turmoil going on around a club, it does affect the playing group. Whether a certain drama is the players' fault or not, reporters and fans want to hear from them.

The questions that come at you can be distracting. I understand that. I've seen it all.

But once you cross that white line, there are no excuses. The fans don't care, and the opposition certainly don't.

Other sides will do whatever they can to get an advantage over you and if they think you're half a per cent off, you're in trouble; they'll use it against you. You have to do your job, but the Dragons didn't this season.

The Dragons used de Belin as an excuse to go out and not perform. They hoped to have him back for that game against Newcastle in May but when his legal bid failed, they were smashed 45-12. We've been hearing plenty more about it again in the past few months, as they've lost eight of their last 10 games.

Hopefully for them, the de Belin situation is over early next year and they can just get on with playing football. There are a huge number of disappointed Dragons fans out there and in 2020, there can be no more excuses for that team.

Widdop is gone but all those Origin players will still be there, including three in a strong forward pack. They have a good junior system and they unearthed some exciting kids like Tristan Sailor this season.

He showed that he could handle first-grade and if you throw that kind of fresh energy in with experience, including Origin-quality halves in Hunt and Norman, the Dragons should make the eight.

One player who I see as a huge plus for the Dragons: Cam McInnes.

He's a quality player. Before Damien Cook was named NSW hooker, I played City-Country with McInnes and walked away telling people that he wouldn't be out of place in an Origin jumper.

He's an absolute competitor who trains his backside off; he's a real leader in training. He talks well on the field and tells the forwards what he wants.

He's captain material for that club.

KNIGHTS

Newcastle have been the disappointment of the year.

They should have made the eight. That's a star-studded side.

I hope that this team understand what rugby league means to that town. I'm not a local and won't pretend to understand exactly what makes Newcastle tick, but just look at their teams from the past.

That 1997 premiership team was stuffed with home-town heroes. Andrew and Matty Johns, Paul Harragon, Mark Hughes, Matt Gidley, Darren Albert, Adam Muir and Bill Peden, plus guys who had been in their system a long time like Owen Craigie, Marc Glanville, Tony Butterfield, Robbie O'Davis and Stephen Crowe.

By the 2001 premiership, you also had the likes of Danny Buderus, Steve Simpson, Josh Perry, Timana Tahu, Sean Rudder and Daniel Abraham, plus a club great - Michael Hagan - as the coach. It was littered with local players plus a sprinkling of imports who really bought into the culture, like Adam MacDougall and Ben Kennedy.

This team is the total opposite. It's more players who've been brought in, with a sprinkling of home-grown heroes.

I don't know if they totally understand their club. I think they need to spend the off-season talking with people about what rugby league means to that town.

This is a club that has had three wooden spoons in the past five seasons, yet they're still getting 20,000 people turning up to games. That proves their passion for the game and the Knights.

Those players should learn from that.

Another big question mark is a new, untested head coach in Adam O'Brien. How is he going to handle those unique responsibilities in his first NRL job?

But you'd have to think that he comes from a pretty good stable. He's worked under Craig Bellamy at Melbourne, then with Trent Robinson at the Roosters. He's emerged from the modern game's two most powerful clubs and should know what he's doing.

Another positive is Bradman Best, an outstanding young talent who – having come from the Central Coast juniors – is almost a local product. He's big, powerful and fast, and could be anything.

A huge plus for them is the recruitment of Jayden Brailey from the Sharks. I know from experience that he's a great club person; the type of bloke you can build a club around.

He trains his backside off and he's tough as nails. He's constantly working on his skills and has become much better with his passing and kicking games. He's always happy to work and always there for the team.

He's happy to be the butt of jokes or to dish them out. He's just the type of bloke you want around your club; actually, the kind of guy you want your daughter to marry! An absolute gentleman. He'll be fantastic for them.

The good news for Newcastle is that, at an average age of 25, their players finally consider themselves not to be boys anymore.

Let's hope that in 2020, they can actually go out and play like men for 25 rounds.

One thing's for sure: the Knights learnt this season that you don't win grand finals in March.

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