We start a testing five-week period on Saturday against third-placed Easts Tigers away which will go a long way towards determining where we might finish on the ladder but also whether we are going to be regarded as a serious challenge for the premiership.
Last weekend’s bye round was the chance for all teams to take a breather and sort of assess the first nine rounds, rest niggling injuries and get ready to go into phase two of the season this weekend.
You never know how each team is going to come off the bye. While it’s good to get some injuries right and have a physical and mental break, you can also lose momentum after nine hard weeks of competition and some teams can look underdone while others can come straight back out with a second wind. And, as a coach, often you can’t quite sense which it will be.
For us, the break came after our best performance of the season against Norths Devils and a game when we came closest to where we need to be with controlling possession and curtailing our errors. To now go up against Easts who have been travelling well and will have some dominant Melbourne Storm players will be a real test.
One stat to come from the first nine rounds was that we have made more tackles than any other team, even though our completion rates aren’t too bad compared to other teams.
Firstly, that reflects the possession we have given away is too often early in the tackle count and the penalties we are conceding are too often late in the tackle count.
But to be where we are on the ladder with six wins from nine shows how good our effort has been in defence and our willingness, most of the time at least, to defend our errors.
The challenge for us, after the win against Norths, is to use that as a benchmark of how we want to play and also to gain confidence from it about what we can do when we control the football.
When we control the ball at the right times, we can compete with anyone and our last game showed we can put away good quality teams put away a good team comfortably. We have to learn to do that consistently.
We’ll field probably out strongest side against Easts with Cheyne Whitelaw, Talor Walters, Ryley Jacks and Jarrod Morfett back, although we lose Will Matthews who was good for us against Norths (he will be the Titans’ 18th man).
That left us with some tough selection decisions but the good thing is that we had plenty of options.
We’ve kept Luke Jurd at five-eighth after he played well in his debut against Norths, which means Lindon McGrady stays at fullback and Talor comes back on the wing. ‘Jurdy’ did well, and provided good control in the halves, and Lindon did well at the back, while Talor has performed well at ‘one’ and ‘five’ this season, so we thought we’d go that way.
It means we can start Christian Hazard at hooker, which we had been looking at doing for a few weeks, and also have Jack Cook come off the bench where he can play dummy half or back row. It’s a bit about finding the best space for ‘Critter’, who played in the Queensland Residents team, and I think that’s hooker for now.
Cheyne has been carrying a foot injury as well as having to be rested with concussion, so we thought we’d have him come off the bench as it will be four weeks since he’s played and Kirk Murphy has been in really good form for us at lock.
To have two leaders of our team in Cheyne and Cooky coming off the bench shows the strength and depth of our squad, and Jarrod Morfett and Bayley Faull add size and energy as well.
After facing Easts, we go to Cairns to take on Northern Pride and then Souths Logan at home. While the Pride and Magpies haven’t been winning games, they have teams that can perform a lot better.
Then we have this season’s benchmark team, Sunshine Coast, at home before we go to Port Moresby to take on the Hunters which is always a danger game even though they haven’t been going great this season.
We have to win three from five as a minimum to keep our position in the top eight and keep up our momentum going into the next phase of the season.