This year’s quest for the NRL’s holy grail resembles Monty Python’s, certainly with regard to injuries. Clubs like the Roosters, Raiders and Storm are akin to the Black Knight, relentlessly going forward, following the credo that whatever doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.
When the Raiders lost their clever co-captain Josh Hodgson with a right knee ACL injury in early July, joining a couple of his injured team mates, coach Ricky Stuart’s response was akin to the Black Knight losing his left arm and saying, “Tis but a scratch.”
When the Roosters lost their chief playmaker, Luke Keary, with a rib injury in mid August, it meant almost half their salary cap was sidelined. Yet, like the Black Knight losing his right arm, the premiers dismissed it as a ‘‘just a flesh wound’’ and have been undefeated since, including an away win on Saturday against the Raiders.
Earlier in August, the Storm lost Cameron Smith – a player rarely injured — along with their second best player, Cameron Munster. With more players unavailable by round 15, they were beaten by Parramatta. But, channelling the Black Knight who lost a third limb and said, ‘‘I’ll do you for that’’, they came back and beat the Rabbitohs in Sydney on Friday, after a five-day turnaround.
However, the Panthers, on a streak of 12 consecutive wins, have been untroubled by injuries. The form of their half, Nathan Cleary, is such that if he is seriously hurt, you can expect his father, Ivan, to stare out from the coach’s box looking like the yachtsman who has seen his favourite sailing boat sink.
Cleary is playing an energetic style, sweeping across as playmaker either side of the ruck. But his left side five-eighth, Jarome Luai, is very much under-rated and if the Panthers lose him, as well as hooker Apisai Koroisau and lock James Fisher-Harris, on the eve of the finals, the expected minor premiers will be in big trouble.
Parramatta are similarly injury free, having lost only five eighth Dylan Brown. Yet, with only three rounds remaining, there is a silver lining to the black and blue ribs, knees and shoulders suffered by the Roosters, Raiders and Storm.
They have been forced to bring in players who have gained experience in a season where reserves get none, as a result of the cancellation of the State Cup competitions.
Furthermore, the injured playmakers, such as Keary, Smith and Munster, have had a rest. This season is like no other in that teams are forced to fly in and out on game day, arriving home at 2am, severely restricting rehab. Significantly, fewer injuries at the Panthers and Eels could be explained by lack of travel.
Momentum is a powerful factor leading into the semi finals. The Panthers and Eels will be troubled if they lose key players in the next three rounds. Likewise, the Storm would prefer their top players, such as Dale Finucane, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Suliasi Vunivalu, back for a couple of games before the October finals. Few teams have had a poor last month and won the premiership.
Apart from the best players available and momentum, a third factor critical in the lead-up to the play-offs is distractions.
The Storm have allowed this to derail them a couple of times, particularly via a concerted media campaign to highlight wrestling. The campaign gathered more intensity last year and the Storm missed the grand final for the first time in four years.
This year, however, with the ‘‘six again’’ rule designed to eliminate wrestling in the rucks, it will be difficult to sustain the annual late season hysteria that the Storm go unpunished for something no other club is doing.
Finishing positions in the top four will be even more critical this year, given the rest and reduced travel available to the top two.
Past results will mean little, given the players missing when the top teams last met and the arrival of superstar Sonny Bill Williams.
Stuart is typical of the resilience shown by the top teams in this COVID-19 affected year, defying injuries, travel and referee calls, to destroy what is ‘‘inside the Canberra jumper.’’ Even if beaten by a big score in the grand final, expect the Raiders coach to channel the Black Knight who, after his final limb was severed, declared, ‘‘Let’s call it a draw.’’
Roy Masters is a Sports Columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald.