The 2022 NRL season continues with Kyle Flanagan's return to first grade greeted with differing opinions, league boss Peter V'landys looking to fiddle with the rules again, and Manly proving that they might not be such a one-man team.
We tackle some of the big talking points in the latest edition of NRL Real or Not.
Kyle Flanagan has been thrown under the bus by the Bulldogs
Not real: The Bulldogs are in the middle of an expensive rebuild under coach Trent Barrett. Kyle Flanagan was one of their earliest signings for the start of last season, after some impressive work at the premiership-winning Roosters. He started well for the Bulldogs, setting up a couple of tries in a strong debut performance, but playing behind a beaten pack he quickly found himself out of favour at the club, as Barrett searched for a more suitable alternative in the key position.
During the 2022 pre-season trials, Flanagan was mostly left stranded on the bench and didn't manage a single minute of game time alongside new recruit and five-eighth Matt Burton. Now Barrett, having unsuccessfully tried Jake Averillo and Brandon Wakeham, has sent for Flanagan, who has been tearing it up in the NSW Cup. The Bulldogs happen to be playing the red-hot Panthers this week, after completely capitulating to the Storm last round. Some in the media are calling it a disgrace that Flanagan is being thrown into such a deep end.
This should be exactly what Flanagan wants, his opportunity to prove that he is indeed the best option for the Bulldogs in the No. 7 jersey. It won't be easy, the Bulldogs will more than likely be flogged again, but Flanagan has a chance to show that he has what it takes. He has to have the kind of game where he personally looks unlucky to have lost.
He'll have to cope with the unimpressively slow service from hooker Jeremy Marshall-King and face a swarming Panthers defence determined to cut him down before he has time to think. He has to provide the Bulldogs with some direction, he has to call for the ball when they are on the attack, he has to take the ball out of the hands of the lumbering forwards in the opposition 20 metres. Of course, that might not be in Barrett's game plan -- another massive hurdle for Flanagan to overcome -- hamstrung by a coach who has so far failed to present his players with anything nearing an effective attacking methodology.
- Darren Arthur
The NRL needs more rule changes to crack down on 'the wrestle'
Not real: Despite the league enjoying the most entertaining brand of footy in a few years, ARLC chairman Peter V'landys is inexplicably discussing a return to the kinds of rules that led to mass blowouts in recent seasons.
"We are noticing that the wrestle is working its way back into the game," V'landys told The Sydney Morning Herald this week.
"The Commission has previously given an edict to eradicate the wrestle and make sure players aren't slowing down the ruck, but it's sneaking back in."
Unfortunately "the wrestle" is something that's spoken about a lot in rugby league without anyone really agreeing on how to define it. Is it any act of a defender to try to slow down the play-the-ball? Is it defenders lying all over a ball carrier? Is it only dangerous acts like cannonball tackles and chicken wings?
And if it's any of the above, when did it really go away? And how has it "worked its way back into the game"?
The most sensible words on the matter came from Melbourne Storm legend and new Queensland Origin coach Billy Slater.
"The wrestle has always been in the game. I don't know what game we've been watching if we think teams aren't supposed to slow the ruck down," Slater told 2GB's Wide World of Sports radio.
"That's their job. Defensive teams want to play slow, attacking teams want to play fast. That's been happening ever since I've watched rugby league. If you're going to do it, then do it. Don't worry about saying it. Just police it.
"I think it's been good [this season]. I don't even know what we're talking about. We're looking at data and stats. The product is good, just leave it."
The act of defenders using (legal) wrestling tactics to prevent fast play-the-balls is here to stay, and dangerous tackle techniques are already banned. If the NRL is determined to crack down on them, maybe bringing back a second referee to focus on the ruck is the way to go.
- Dominic Brock
Sea Eagles will be fine without Tom Trbojevic
Real: No team is stronger when they lose their best player, but when that player is as dominant as Tom Trbojevic, a team can compensate with the realisation that they all have to lift their games. Trbojevic won the Dally M medal last year on the back of some incredibly dominant football, but his start to season 2022 has not been so spectacular. Whether it has been the rule changes stifling some of his advantages or whether he has been carrying an injury, Trbojevic hasn't been at his best.
Without him the Sea Eagles travelled north to take on the Knights on a Newcastle night when even ducks were refusing to venture far from home. Reuben Garrick, who is no Trbojevic, but has had quite a try-scoring run of his own, did very little wrong all night. He was continuously tested in the diabolical conditions by Jake Clifford's monster kicks, often seeming like they were coming down from above the leaden skies.
With Daly Cherry-Evans back to his best and Jake Trbojevic egging on the forwards, the Sea Eagles look to be finding enough team-wide form to overcome the loss of their best player. They play the Titans next week, before a real test against the Sharks the week after that. They could easily win more than they lose without Tom Trbojevic.
- Darren Arthur