Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.
What has gone wrong with the Eels and is there any way they can recover from this nose dive?
Lucie: Another year and the Eels' flame is burning out at the business end of the season. It's the same old story at Parramatta, hit the start hard and fast only to lose momentum on the home stretch. Brad Arthur's side fell to their worst loss in more than two years on Saturday night, suffering a 56-10 thrashing from the Sea Eagles. It marked their fourth-straight loss since the move to Queensland, now having leaked 136 points in those matches. In contrast, they've only scored 32 points - showing that their slump goes beyond a defensive slip. What's more worrying for Eels fans is that they have three weeks to turn their form around before the finals, with North Queensland, Melbourne and Penrith looming. I think the Eels are lacking the belief and attitude they had earlier this season, so in order to be successful at finals football the team needs that confidence back. Because they obviously have the talent. From the outside, it seems as though the club has run out of ideas, so I think it's as simple as stripping it back to start with. They need to be on the same page defensively, organise that line and tighten it... there's been no cohesion nor structure of late. If their defense tidies, then there'll be less pressure and desperation to score with each possession in attack. But this, of course, is all easier said than done.
Darren: The Eels are suffering at the moment, with a drop in confidence leading to some ugly losses, with two very tough games ahead of them before the finals. This week they have the Cowboys, which really should provide them with an opportunity to stop the slide and turn things around. I think their biggest problem, and one which will prevent them breaking their premiership drought any time soon, is that their star players just aren't as good as they are made out to be. When they are purring as a team, as they were earlier in the year, everyone is working together to produce the goods, without any real stand-out performers. If you compare Clint Gutherson, Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown and Reed Mahoney to the best in their positions, such as Tom Trbojevic, Nathan Cleary, Cameron Munster and Damien Cook, there really is a big gulf in the level of pure talent. Throw in average at best first graders like Waqa Blake, Tom Opacic, Shaun Lane and Bryce Cartwright and everything has to go right for success to ensue. With Reed Mahony out, the rhythm of the team is thrown out and errors compound the problem. I can see a victory over the Cowboys this weekend being their last for the year.
What do you think of the player loan system?
Lucie: There's been a lot of rule changes in the last two NRL seasons and this is one I'm definitely behind. I like the player loan system because it's designed to be beneficial for both clubs involved. The destination club receives cover for an injury-hit position on its roster, while the loaned player is likely to have more game time. Due to bubble restrictions, clubs are currently unable to bring in reinforcements from the NSW or Queensland Cup to fill those holes. Recently, Canberra middles Corey Horsburgh and Ryan James joined the Bulldogs on a two-week loan deal as Canterbury-Bankstown struggled to field a team. Before that, Horsburgh had played six matches from the Raiders' bench this season while James featured 13 times. So on these temporary loans, fringe players who are brought across benefit from more time otherwise spent bench warming - or down a grade. I think the NRL should consider making it a permanent part of the game in dire situations. I also see more room for player trades after the success of the Harry Grant - Paul Momirovski move last season. The hooker starred for the Wests Tigers in 2020 and returned to Melbourne with valuable first-grade experience - game time he would not have had at the Storm with Cameron Smith still at the club. Momirovski, on the other hand, got a taste of the Storm's culture and success - with the centre now at Penrith.
Darren: The player loan system is part of a raft of changes the NRL has had to make in order to keep the competition running during these uncertain pandemic times. With a limited number of players in each club's Queensland bubble, and lower level competitions cancelled in New South Wales, it is the only way to ensure teams can take the field fully stocked. The struggling Bulldogs were down on numbers in the engine room thanks to injuries and suspensions, and the Raiders stepped up to help lending them Ryan James and Corey Horsburgh. Because a club would only lend players that are not in their own squad, it would usually mean the borrowing club is receiving a serviceable, if lower level, player to replace those they have lost. In the case of the Bulldogs, they actually received a couple of upgrades in the deal, with Ryan and Horsburgh lifting the skill set and energy of their struggling front row. The Raiders in turn have two fringe players receiving valuable match fitness, while accepting the risk of injury or suspension. It certainly makes the competition interesting and it will only happen in rare circumstances. You won't, for example, see the Storm lend the Roosters a couple of outside backs because they are struggling through injuries.
With the remainder of the NRL season locked into Queensland venues, should the finals be played there as well, with the Grand Final at Suncorp Stadium?
Lucie: Let's be fair dinkum, the Melbourne Storm will be in the 2021 title decider, so why not send it to the MCG? If COVID-19 allows, of course. What a bold statement this would be for the NRL to host its first non-Sydney grand final in Melbourne, which is home to the most dominant team of the last two decades in Craig Bellamy's Storm. Even at 50% capacity, the MCG can hold similar numbers to Suncorp Stadium - allowing 50,000 Storm fans the chance to see their team in action when it counts. The Victorian capital has hosted just seven matches in two seasons due to lockdowns, plus had this year's Origin I taken away for the same reasons. Queensland, meanwhile, has a low chance of having a team make the final and the state has hosted its fair share of NRL and State of Origin action this season. In saying that, if Melbourne is ruled out as a potential host due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak, then the final should stay in the heartland at Suncorp Stadium. When it comes to the finals series as a whole, the easiest choice for the NRL would be to keep all matches in Queensland as clubs are already based there. But I do think this situation can be optimised to promote the game on a national scale. Why not send a few matches to Adelaide or Perth where there's currently no restrictions on capacity? For a finals match, the stadiums should fill - which looks better on screen and provides the NRL an economic turnover.
Darren: It is so hard to predict what is going to happen this year with the Delta strain of COVID ripping through New South Wales and starting to gain a foothold in Victoria. Sadly, it seems as though it is only a matter of time before it infiltrates Queensland again, despite the State Government's best efforts to secure the border. You only have to look at New Zealand currently to realise that even the soundest isolation policies are eventually no match for this insidious virus. The NRL has announced that the final three rounds will be played at venues throughout Queensland and we can only hope they are able to go through the finals there and play the Grand Final at Suncorp Stadium, because as things stand that the moment, the alternative is a season postponement or cancellation. The West Australian Government is starting to play hard-ball in an effort to protect its citizens, with the Bledisloe Cup finale in serious doubt. The short term future for New South Wales and Victoria is looking bleak and there is no way New Zealand are going to be open to hosting the Grand Final, as suggested in some circles.