NRL 5 Lessons Learned – Round 6

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Wests Tigers’ stunning Easter resurrection headlined NRL Round 6, which otherwise largely went to script.

But masterclasses from marquee men, dominant displays from the competition’s superpowers, the Knights’ worsening slide and more Bunker atrocities ensured there were talking points galore to come out of the holiday weekend.

1 – Battler Hastings Inspires Tigers Triumph

If you’d woken up Rip Van Winkle style on Easter Monday and watched the barnburner at CommBank Stadium, you’d have zero indication of the difficulties Wests Tigers endured over the opening five weeks of the season.

The Tigers pipped hotshots Parramatta 21-20 in front of a sell-out crowd courtesy of a last-second, 38-metre field goal from Jackson Hastings, who returned in the No.7 from a three-week suspension.

Michael Maguire’s embattled side were switched on from the outset and never trailed. And it wasn’t a case of encountering a big gun on an off day – the Eels were up for the fight in one of the most intense games of the season to date.

There were heroes across the park – including bounce-back efforts from struggling spine stars Daine Laurie and Luke Brooks – but the gritty Hastings was the catalyst.

In his 50th NRL game eight years after debuting, Hastings had a hand in all four Tigers tries and stepped up in the clutch after fluffing a couple of earlier chances with misguided good ball options.

One rousing upset on a big occasion is not necessarily the harbinger of a permanent turnaround, but the Tigers’ performance was better than anything at least nine rival clubs have produced so far in 2022.

They remain on the last line of premiership ($501) and Top 8 ($15) betting.

But Hastings’ impassioned post-match interview confirmed there is a spirit in the joint and Maguire’s job security is suddenly less tenuous.

A strong follow-up – if not another boilover win – against Souths on Saturday is imperative.

2 – Bunker Blues

Controversial recent claims from the likes of Todd Payten, Justin Holbrook and Phil Gould that the NRL’s high-profile teams get the rub of the green from the officials seemed a lot less like paranoid whingeing after Round 6.

Sydney Roosters’ 22-14 over a gallant-but-limited Warriors side was overshadowed by a slew of crucial calls favouring the Tricolours that ranged from baffling to infuriating.

The failure to sin-bin James Tedesco for holding down Addin Fonua-Blake near the Roosters line after the front-rower’s barnstorming break reeked of a referee being reticent to make a brave call against a big name.

But in-the-moment on-field decisions are generally forgivable. The same can’t be said for the maligned Bunker officials, who dictated the course of the second half with their incompetence.

A knock-on call against Reece Walsh on the Roosters’ line when the ball was clearly stripped (with Jesse Arthars subsequently dotting down) was bad enough, but consecutive captain’s challenge rulings against the Warriors that effectively sealed the result in the latter stages bordered on farcical.

Graham Annesley’s now-routine post-round admissions of Bunker error are becoming increasingly hollow.

Meanwhile, accusations of unconscious bias won’t subside anytime soon if it’s the NRL’s have-nots overwhelmingly on the receiving end of wrong calls.

3 – Munster-class

If Cameron Munster’s contract negotiation saga is bothering him, he’s doing a phenomenal job of hiding it.

The Melbourne five-eighth has been in sizzling form and tore in-form Cronulla to ribbons in a top-shelf 34-18 win on Saturday.

Munster finished with a game-high 183 metres, two line-breaks, a try and a try-assist in a mesmerising performance.

Surely the only player that can legitimately challenge Nathan Cleary’s mantle as the planet’s best rugby league exponent, in-demand Munster’s consistent genius makes a mockery of the Storm’s reported low-balling of their 156-game talisman.

4 – Dream To Knightmare

Speaking of players doing their talking on the paddock in response to rabid speculation over their future, Kalyn Ponga produced his best display of a chequered start to 2022 on Sunday.

The Newcastle fullback stuffed the stats sheet with 240 running metres, a line-break, 10 tackle-breaks, a try-assist, two line-break assists and a try.

But it wasn’t enough to prevent the Knights’ fourth straight defeat, 21-16 at the hands of ailing St George Illawarra.

The Knights’ 2-0 start seems a distant memory and they have drifted to $5 to make the finals and $101 in premiership futures, with daunting assignments against the Eels and Storm on their to-do list in the next two rounds.

The Ponga situation can’t be helping Adam O’Brien’s quest to turn things around.

Another side to win their first two before dropping four in a row, Brisbane have shown some encouraging signs in the past fortnight while going down to the heavyweight Roosters (24-20) and Panthers (40-12).

The Broncos – still reasonable Top 8 value at $4.50 given their scope for improvement – line up for a pivotal Friday night clash with the last-placed Bulldogs in Round 7, ahead of a gruelling three-week stretch against the Sharks at home and Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles away.

5 – Heavyweights Roll On

Week by week, the premiers of the past two seasons are stamping themselves as a class above.

Penrith and Melbourne both ran out convincing winners against teams who turned up to play in Round 6.

The unbeaten Panthers and the 5-1 Storm, whose only misstep was a golden point loss to Eels, occupy the top two spots on the ladder outright with points differentials streets ahead of the field.

The Panthers-Storm grand final quinella is now a staggeringly short $4.50 – and every NRL fan will be clearing their schedule ahead of the rivals’ mouth-watering Round 10 showdown at AAMI Park.

While the gulf between the NRL’s top batch of contenders and the rest certainly appears less pronounced than the last couple of seasons, the premiership market suggests nine teams are purely making up the numbers a quarter of the way into the regular season.

Improving South Sydney is on the seventh line of title betting at $15; the Warriors and floundering Canberra are on the next line at $51.