GOLDEN POINTS: 20 REASONS TO CELEBRATE RUGBY LEAGUE AFTER ROUND 11

The time-keeping fiasco in Melbourne, controversial sin-binnings and the continuing rise of the penalty goal prompted high-profile pundits to do everything they could to tear the NRL down over the weekend.

But if they weren’t obsessed with focusing on the few negatives, the experts would have realised we were treated to a weekend of rare rugby league drama, brilliance and quality.

This has nothing to with #talkthegameup – it’s merely recognising how lucky we are to have the opportunity to watch, support and report on the best competition in the world in the greatest sport on the planet.

Here’s 20 aspects from NRL Round 11 that should relegate the pessimistic stories to the sidebars:

Kotoni Staggs’ debut

In a game for the ages, Kotoni Staggs produced an NRL debut to rank alongside any in the modern era. A late call-up to the Broncos’ bench, the 19-year-old came into the action early for injured centre Tom Opacic.

A beautiful try-assist and a stunning try within half an hour of his entry to the NRL, and Wayne Bennett suddenly needs to find a new position for out-of-sorts utility Jack Bird. Footage of Staggs with his family post-match summed up much that is good about the game.

Nathan Cleary’s return

Most pundits reckoned a two-month injury layoff and a mere two-match lead-in to an Origin debut was too big a hurdle for Nathan Cleary. Maybe a game two or three inclusion, they said.

Cleary turned the undulating NSW halves selection debate on its head again by leading Penrith to a convincing 16-2 win over Wests Tigers on Thursday like he’d never been away.

All in all, a good news week for the Panthers, who retained second spot on the ladder and announced the surprise retention of high-profile winger and fan favourite Josh Mansour.

James Roberts’ all-time great try

Let me preface this by declaring I’m not a huge James Roberts fan. Undeniably brilliant but goes missing too often and his off-field rap sheet doesn’t make him an easy player to root for.

I wouldn’t have had him in my NSW side – until Friday night. Roberts’ scintillating solo try was one of the best by any measure, but to produce it when his desperate team was down by six with eight minutes to go against one of the competition’s heavyweights marked it as something extra special.

Meanwhile, his one-on-one battle with fellow Blues contender Latrell Mitchell was just another wonderful subplot in one of the finest games of recent years. Pick ‘em both, Freddy.

Walker’s comeuppance

Dylan Walker is a notorious loud-mouthed sledging machine. If the reports are to be believed, he was goading young Curtis Scott all night – and the youngster snapped, messing up Walker’s face in the process.

We can’t condone Scott’s actions – the no-punch edict has been a positive for the NRL’s image, despite what the bloodthirsty minority say – but we can certainly understand it. The send-off, incredibly the first in the premiership since 2015, may have put Manly on course for victory, but Walker now faces a six-week absence with a fractured cheekbone.

Perhaps it will encourage the brilliant-but-wayward Walker to address his behaviour, though probably not.

Meanwhile, the 20-year-old Scott – destined for a far more decorated and respectable career than his ‘victim’ – handled himself with class in the aftermath.

Undermanned Warriors getting the job done

No Johnson, no RTS, a woeful display just six days earlier and a desperate host – this was always going to be a huge test of the Warriors’ mettle. But after a letting a double-digit lead slip, they finished with a wet sail to snare a 24-14 victory over the Eels.

It was the first time the Warriors had been behind on the scoreboard in the final quarter of a close game since their Round 3 miracle comeback in Canberra, but despite missing their two best players they kept calm and found a way to win.

If the 8-3 Warriors go on to make the top four and do something with their 2018 campaign, they can look back on this result as equally important as any they’ve produced in a remarkable opening 11 rounds.

Jamayne Isaako’s match-winning play

Christchurch product Jamayne Isaako already had two match-winning after-the-siren penalty goals and a clutch field goal on his 11-game CV before last Friday, but his decisive individual try against the Roosters was something else.

In the pocket for a late one-pointer attempt, the 21-year-old Broncos winger took advantage of Roosters defenders rushing out of the line to hot-step his way to an unforgettable touchdown.

Pencil him in as a Kiwi tourist at the end of the year, if not for the upcoming Denver Test.

Rabbits’ Townsville miracle

Down by a point and forced to drop the ball out from their own goal-line with just over a minute to go, only the most optimistic Souths fan would not have given up hope.

But they somehow recovered the ball, surged up-field and drew a penalty to win the match. Heart-breaking for the Cowboys, but another crucial step towards the top for the reborn Rabbitohs.

Manly’s revival

After a five-match losing streak and a bevy of off-field and injury problems, the Sea Eagles’ season had been cast to the scrapheap by most observers.

Now after convincing wins over Brisbane and Melbourne, plus the acquisition of Trent Hodkinson, they’re suddenly a player again. Speaks volumes of the squad’s character and the embattled Trent Barrett’s quality as a coach.

Kalyn Ponga’s brilliance

We hadn’t quite seen Kalyn Ponga’s schoolboy YouTube highlights at NRL level, but that was largely irrelevant because he has amazed us in so many other ways since arriving in the Newcastle No.1 jumper.

Then he pulls out a 95-metre solo stunner against the Titans. Billy Slater may be the GOAT, but he wasn’t a patch on Ponga 20 games into his NRL career. A megastar in the making and a great kid to boot.

Titans’ bounce-back

Ponga’s heroics weren’t enough to stop the Gold Coast Titans, however, who ended a five-match losing streak with a gutsy 33-26 victory over the Knights.

Down by eight after the Ponga try, the Titans looked gone. But a big fend from Brenko Lee and a try from rookie AJ Brimson – both making just their second NRL appearances for the club – catapulted the hosts to a much-needed win.

Issac Luke doing it again

In a season where Damien Cook and Cameron McInnes are lighting it up and Cameron Smith is still doing his thing, no hooker is having a greater influence on the 2018 premiership than Issac Luke.

Returning from knee and shoulder problems – probably way too early – Luke stepped up late to seal the match for the Warriors on Friday with a carbon copy of the clutch powerhouse try he scored against the Dragons. Courageous.

Luke turns 31 next week but is in the form of his career and is a certainty for a Kiwis recall in coming weeks.

Saints’ sizzling attack

Not since the days of Mundine and Blacklock has a Dragons side been so exciting to watch.

Widdop, Hunt, Dufty, McInnes and co. are flourishing on the back of their big, skilful pack’s dominance and it’s going to take one hell of a team to stop St George Illawarra at the business end of the season.

Mudgee reception

A great day for the bush on Sunday, with a passionate crowd of almost 9,000 on hand in Mudgee for the Dragons-Raiders clash. The picturesque venue and superb atmosphere undoubtedly added to what was a fine game.

Gerard Beale’s comeback

A terrible broken leg injury suffered during the World Cup curtailed the start of Gerard Beale’s stint at the Warriors, but he was excellent in his return to first grade against the Eels – just his second game back on the paddock.

Superb defensively, dangerous on attack, class all-round. Stephen Kearney has some sleepless nights ahead of him deciding who to leave out of his in-form backline.

Napa’s red mist

The decision to sin-bin Dylan Napa was a perplexing one, but I’m not sure how he managed to get away without a charge given Korbin Sims finished with a broken jaw. That alone should see the ‘accidental’ factor thrown out the window. It was reckless, end of story.

But who doesn’t enjoy seeing the towering inferno fire up? A throwback to the old school, Napa made his name by terrorising Paul Gallen in 2013 and he’s still just as much of a loose cannon five years later.

His controversial, passionate display may ultimately have done more good than harm when the Queensland selectors sit down to name their game one squad – and I don’t mean because he’s rubbed one of his potential competitors out of action.

Matthew Wright’s inch-perfect putdown

Journeyman utility-back Matthew Wright isn’t the most fashionable player, but his try against the Storm was one of the more freakish efforts you’ll see this season.

Jake’s anguish

If you didn’t feel a pang of sympathy for Jake Granville at fulltime in Townsville, you probably have a fairly substantial personality disorder.

The Cowboys hooker was understandably distressed at costing his team the game in what may be the last nail in the coffin of their finals hopes. His reaction was one of the most poignant moments of the season.

That’s rugby league.

The quick tap

It was long overdue, but the referees eased the frustration of the penalty blitz by allowing attacking teams to take the quick tap. It made a big difference across the board, opening up games and negating the advantage under-pressure defending teams had been gaining by giving away penalties and then getting their line set.

Jordan Rapana’s try was one of the best of the quick-tap genre and I hope we see more of the same.

Big Ken

Ken Maumalo is the most improved player in the NRL by a mile. Formerly not much more than a hard-running big body with a penchant for a handling error and a defensive misread, the winger has been one of the surging Warriors’ most consistent performers in 2018.

A metre-eating powerhouse with the ball in hand, Maumalo has eliminated the errors from his game and is a safe proposition under the high ball and on defence. His only weakness at present is a very modest tryscoring strike-rate.

But he was magnificent against the Eels and seems to be going through a similar maligned-engima-to-world-class-winger metamorphosis to that enjoyed by Warriors predecessor Manu Vatuvei in 2007-08.

Refs sticking to their guns

The penalty and sin-bin blitz was a reaction to coaches and teams taking the piss at the expense of the game as a spectacle for far too long.

The fact that the message still hasn’t sunken in is not the fault of the refs or the NRL, nor is it a reason to relent and go back to letting defending teams get away with murder (despite what Buzz Rothfield will no doubt dribble on NRL360 tonight).

On the whole and under the circumstances, the standard of refereeing in 2018 has been the best in years.

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