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Set of Six: The Tigers have lost three of their 'Big 4' – and they're better off for it

By Jarret Filmer
Aaron Woods and Mitchell Moses (Photo: Getty Images)

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The will-they won’t-they soap opera at Leichhardt Oval has finally resolved itself. Jarret Filmer reckons the Tigers future looks brighter without its departing stars.

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Seven of the eight games last week were decided by a converted try or less, with two golden point finishes. In a perfect example of how the salary cap levels the playing field the 15th placed Titans beat the defending premiers Cronulla despite a rash of injuries. The round was capped off by a pair of fantastic ANZAC Day showdowns. First, the Roosters pipped the Dragons on a Mitchell Pearce golden point field goal before the Storm outlasted the Warriors in an epic arm wrestle. When a rival code is considering contracting several teams due to the lop-sided nature of the competition (cough-Super Rugby-cough) Round 8 showed exactly why the NRL is the best domestic sporting competition on the planet.

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Are Wests better off without the ‘Big Four’?

The epic saga of the ‘Big Four’ is finally over. And it’s quite possible that the Tigers are better off, despite losing three of their four most prominent free agents. While Moses, Woods and Tedesco are undeniably talented individuals, their involvement hasn’t spurred the club to anything approaching even mediocrity. Wests haven’t played finals football since 2011.

The Tigers have offset their losses with three canny acquisitions in the form of Josh Reynolds, Ben Matulino and Chris McQueen. Reynolds is the crucial acquisition, the sort of wholehearted competitor a listless club like Wests can rally around. If he can get the outright filth out of his game then he could be just the man to spearhead a Tigers resurgence. If new coach Ivan Cleary can coax Ben Matulino back to his better form and McQueen can maintain his solid work ethic, the Tigers will be better off than they were before. At this point, it’s not possible for them to be any worse.

Crucially, Reynolds, Matulino and McQueen bring a boatload of experience to the club with nearly 350 NRL caps between them. The Tigers will still have some cap space to spare to snaffle a couple of bargains (or even a big name like Josh Dugan) before the dust settles.

Who is the Buy of the Year?

It’s all too easy to get seduced by the promise of acquiring a big name on the free-agent market. With a third of the season now in the books, it’s a good time to look at which free agent acquisitions have actually had an impact on the field for their new teams. Big names like James Tamou, Robbie Farah and Kieran Foran made big headlines when they landed with their new clubs, but their impact has been muted compared to some other supposed lesser lights. On the other hand, the likes of Brisbane’s Tautau Moga, Gold Coast’s Jarod Wallace, Melbourne’s Josh Addo-Carr and St George’s Nene MacDonald have provided superb value for money.

Buy of the year seems like a dead heat between St George’s Paul Vaughan and the Roosters’ Luke Keary. Vaughan has added extra starch to the Dragons pack taking it from merely stout to perhaps the best in the comp. Keary, meanwhile, has proved to be the perfect foil to the rejuvenated Mitchell Pearce. It seems likely that both are in line for Origin call-ups, something that wasn’t predicted when they left their respective teams last season. It’s no coincidence that both the Dragons and the Roosters find themselves in the top four after missing the finals last year – an astute buy is often all it takes to make the difference.

Will anyone miss the ANZAC test once it’s gone?

The scheduling anomaly that is the ANZAC test is nearly upon us again. Fortunately, this is the last edition before the fixture is scrubbed from the calendar. The clash has been notoriously uneven with the Kiwis winning only twice in 17 mid-season meetings between the sides. Attaching the ANZAC name to an afterthought of a contest does little to dissuade the notion that it was little more than a mid-season money grab.

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Rugby league needs strong international competition and playing a shoehorned fixture does nothing to add to its credibility. The Kiwis always perform best when they have a chance to go to camp and form a meaningful combination. An annual three-match series after the conclusion of the NRL season would give them the chance to challenge the Kangaroos on a regular basis. If the Kiwis could mount a consistent challenge to the Kangaroos, the trans-Tasman test series could rival State of Origin in terms of combativeness and competitiveness. Fortunately, the ANZAC test won’t be around to dilute the rivalry any further.

Is the NRL doing enough to promote the game in the Pacific Island nations?

While the ANZAC test will receive the bulk of coverage in the lead up to rep round, the more interesting event is the triple-header Pacific Test. The Pacific Islands represent the future of rugby league, with 38% of NRL players of Polynesian heritage, up from 1.8% in 1985. League’s more upmarket cousin rugby union has done an abysmal job of promoting the international game in the Pacific Islands, preferring to loot the islands for playing talent and doing little to improve the fortunes of their representative teams. Rugby league has a real opportunity to embrace the Pacific Island teams. By giving them regular and meaningful match-ups with the likes of Australia, New Zealand and England they could leapfrog the popularity of rugby in the Pacific.

Rugby league’s more flexible eligibility system more accurately reflects the reality that Pacific Islanders born in New Zealand or Australia often have strong ties to both their country of birth and their country of heritage. The game isn’t diminished by the possibility that someone could turn out for both New Zealand and Samoa. It’s a modern reality that identities and allegiances are more complex, and it is to rugby league’s credit that it recognizes this fact.

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Konrad Hurrell provides an interesting example of the growing esteem in which the Pacific nations are now seen. Hurrell is eligible for Tonga by birth and New Zealand by residency, but has elected to represent Tonga despite the obvious financial downside to such a decision. If more players follow Hurrell’s example and elect to represent the so-called ‘minor’ nations then they won’t remain ‘minor’ for much longer. Indeed, it would be surprising if one of the Pacific nations didn’t manage to knock over one of the ‘Big Three’ in the next decade or so.

Match of the Round: Dragons vs Storm

The Dragons have built their season on strong forward play and rock-solid defence with the occasional touch of brilliance – brilliance usually provided by the now injured Gareth Widdop. Melbourne have deployed their usual automaton-like approach, but they have also allied it to a renewed sense of enterprise.

Cooper Cronk‘s try against the Warriors on Tuesday displayed the sort of free-form attack that has long been lacking from the Storm’s regimented arsenal, and the hulking Nelson Asofa-Solomona made a thumping impact against the Warriors. He looks like the sort of game-breaker that could push the Storm’s attack to another level. Look for Melbourne to take it but the Dragons should keep it closer than expected. If they can keep it close enough then anything is possible.

Picks  (Last Week 4-4, Season Record 39-25): BRONCOS OVER PANTHERS / SEA EAGLES OVER RABBITOHS / COWBOYS OVER EELS / TITANS OVER KNIGHTS / RAIDERS OVER BULLDOGS / SHARKS OVER TIGERS / ROOSTERS OVER WARRIORS / STORM OVER DRAGONS

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Set of Six: The Tigers have lost three of their 'Big 4' – and they're better off for it

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