The number of x-factor players at each NRL club seems to be the best determinate of success or failure. Solid just doesn’t work anymore.
The last time it did was probably the Bunnies’ win in 2014.
A simple attacking structure and astute kicking from the boot of Adam Reynolds, combined to bring the Holy Grail home for the long-suffering Souths faithful.
Since then, we have seen expansive play, risk, chance and creativity rule the roost.
The rise of the Sharks and Raiders embody this. Sure, Melbourne went within a whisker of another premiership, yet their attack is prodigious, just stamped with Craig Bellamy’s precision and structure, rather than the more cavalier approach that the top sides are now producing.
Some might argue that the one-out hit ups still prevalent in the game fly in the face of my argument, however options taken on late tackles and the opportunistic and freakish skill of marquee players are creating scoring opportunities.
If you don’t have the cattle to take those chances and produce that magic, then the trend appears to be downwards. The recent plights of both the Rabbitohs and the Bulldogs is clear evidence of this fact.
Without the influence of the strike player, scoring is tough. Each match has obvious periods of play where ball control and field position become the focal point. When that grind is won, or declared a draw, the skill of those men blessed with x-factor put on their capes and the highlight reels are created.
These days, defences are well structured, disciplined and won’t be broken down with relentless one-out running. Something more is required; finding and bottling it is the magic elixir in the modern game.
Some might argue this change is not necessarily for the better. I disagree.
While there was something pure about the game in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, the modern player provides entertainment unlike any we have seen before.
Each season the bar is raised in terms of ridiculous efforts from airborne wingers in tight corners, absurd try-saving tackles that defy logic as defenders miraculously prevent the grounding of the ball, and length-of-the-field runs from athletes who move like 400-metre Olympians.
This season has already produced similar moments, yet what has caught my eye is the players who look like stamping their brand on the entire competition over the next 24 weeks.
We are all familiar with the players that we have had the pleasure of watching develop into go-to men over recent seasons. Matt Moylan has matured as a footballer, James Tedesco explodes with every touch of the ball and continues to improve, and Jason Taumalolo is phenomenal.
Semi Radradra’s value as a strike weapon continues to reap rewards, James Roberts threatens to put on a 20-plus-try season with his explosiveness and speed, and finding the words to do justice to Johnathan Thurston’s exploits is becoming a fruitless exercise.
None of the names that follow are in the class of those mentioned above just yet, however there is plenty of evidence to suggest they could develop into the next wave.
Watching the young Knights squad snap their losing streak was wonderful, except for Titans fans, and some of the individual skill on display was outstanding.
Brock Lamb shone. Tedesco-like with his footwork, every run is frightfully dangerous, as he pinballs through the defensive line, ball in two hands, and the threat of kick, pass or run clearly a problem for the defensive line.
Backline colleague Dane Gagai was outstanding as well. His ability to bust tackles and chew up metres on the right fringe is considerable. The increased power and explosiveness he displayed was noticeable and potentially a result of a seemingly more robust frame. The talented three-quarter has morphed into the body of a seasoned pro with ample pre-seasons under his belt.
The Roosters’ Latrell Mitchell looks to have added a little to his caboose, and his three tries against the Titans bodes well.
Still such a young man, Mitchell has physically matured and as the intellectual side of his game improves this season, playing in what should be a much more successful side, opposition backlines might want to brace themselves.
Josh Addo-Carr could be just about anything. Blessed with pace, power and strength, Bellamy will be licking his lips at the thought of working with this young man throughout the season. Surely another case of a classy young player buying into the culture of the Storm and maximising his enormous potential.
Bellamy has a habit of bringing lost journeymen or disgruntled players back to their best under his structures, but he might need to teach Addo-Carr a few football smarts before the rest of the competition start shaking in its boots.
Manly started well in Round 2 yet let things slip against a much improved Souths. The jury will be out of the Eagles for a few months yet, as new combinations need time to gel and develop, yet Trent Barrett won’t have a full season if they fade as poorly as they did on the weekend.
That fade would have been astronomical had not been for the effort of Tom Trbojevic. He was flat-out brilliant. On countless occasions he attacked the right edge and proved nigh impossible to stop, making good metres. If he does slip through the line, it is almost a case of shut the gate, as his poise, control and decision-making are excellent.
He was tough to watch late last year, struggling with an ankle problem. He won’t be tough to watch this year.
Parramatta fullback Bevan French is another destined to wear the x-factor tag if he doesn’t already. Sure, nines is nines and he has shown us his sheer class in that format, yet his skillset will work in any form of the game and we should expect to see plenty from the new fullback.
The game is its stars. Without them, it is merely a chess match. While we all appreciate the strategies and the grind that play roles in the modern game, there is something special about the strike men.
With the speed of the game constantly increasing, gone are the days of ageing, experienced wingers being able to out-think the physically superior rookie.
You might be able to stop them once or twice, bundle them into touch or knock down a pass, but they will get you in the end. They have it in spades. Where it came from is unclear and how to teach it is a mystery.
What we do know is that it should be a hell of a lot of fun to watch.