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.
Do you think the punishments suited the crimes for the Dragons party-goers?
Lucie: As much as I think the NRL should have been harder on the Dragons 13 individually, the fans and the league don't deserve to suffer as well. Besides the now-sacked Paul Vaughan, the dozen players in attendance were hit with fines and one-match suspensions. The Dragons can draw those bans out over two to four weeks, which means their finals dream is all but over with between three to six players out in those matches. But to me, one match on the sidelines each is not enough for their utter stupidity. What's mind boggling is they knowingly put their careers and the integrity of the league at risk - and didn't even try to hide it (well not until the police arrived). It's emerged that Dragons officials told the cohort not to celebrate their one-point win over the Warriors - yet Vaughan not only threw a party, but one loud enough to draw a noise complaint. They knowingly breached the NRL's biosecurity bubble and NSW Public Health Orders that millions of Sydneysiders are abiding by, all to celebrate a game of footy with teammates they see most days. Meanwhile residents of Greater Sydney have not been able to visit their loved ones nor travel to work, have lost businesses and incomes, and cancelled weddings. With COVID-19 flaring across the country, the integrity of the NRL is also compromised because governments struggle to trust the players after numerous breaches of protocol. With this all in mind, the punishment seems small -- but a greater one would see St. George Illawarra's fans and the league suffer for their crimes as well. The show must go on.
Darren: The bottom line is Paul Vaughan went against club directions, NRL protocols and a NSW State Government lockdown to have a party with his teammates and he has paid the ultimate price for his stupidity in doing so. If you look at what actually happened, the punishment of losing his job, copping a heavy fine and being banned for eight matches might seem a little harsh. He was having beers at his home with 12 players who only 24 hours earlier he had been jumping up and down with in a dressing room, singing a victory song after a gutsy come-from-behind win over the Warriors. He and his teammates are all in NRL isolation bubbles, being constantly tested and prohibited from leaving their homes except for training and games. You can understand how Vaughan might have thought there was no real harm in having them over at his place for a couple of beers. Ultimately however, the NRL can't risk its whole season on stupid and blatant breaches of measures put in place to protect the game and the greater society from this insidious disease. They simply have to make an example of any players involved in such breaches. Whether the club really needed to sack Vaughan, or whether there was a degree of convenience in being able to end his hefty contract with a year and a half remaining, is something for further debate.
Considering the changes to both teams, who will win State of Origin III?
Lucie: The stage is set for the Blues to claim their first State of Origin series whitewash in 21 years, even with a new halves combination and changes to the front row. Although Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have been ruled out through injury, the NRL fullback force of James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell has proven too strong for the Maroons. Any team with Tommy Turbo has my backing. NSW coach Brad Fittler has paired Jack Wighton, the reigning Dally M medalist, and Mitchell Moses in the halves which I think will bode well. The Parramatta playmaker will be eager to prove his place in the Origin arena on debut, while Wighton already knows the Blues' ways having been in camp since day dot. NSW have also proved they can win anywhere, and no doubt they'll have extra motivation to claim a whitewash in front of a home crowd in Newcastle. Meanwhile, Queensland coach Paul Green is still on the hunt for a winning formula after the series ambush so far, he's made a few changes but I don't think they'll be enough to stop Fittler's Blues. Kalyn Ponga's return to No.1 is a welcome boost for the Maroons, with his comeback shifting Valentine Holmes to the wing where he's played his best Origin football. But in a blow to their hopes, forwards David Fifita and Jai Arrow have been ruled out of Origin III through suspension. So sorry Queenslanders, this one still has NSW written all over it.
Darren: An Origin clean-sweep is never an easy achievement, a fact illustrated by the 21 years since the Blues last managed one. Queensland have made several changes that definitely make their side stronger. The addition of Kalyn Ponga at fullback, a genuine centre in Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Kurt Capewell moving to the back row, Ben Hunt to the hooking role and the dangerous AJ Brimson pulling on the No.14 jersey, are all big improvements. Conversely, the Blues have moved Jack Wighton, who has been desperately out of form for the Raiders, into five-eighth and have selected Mitchell Moses to debut at halfback. They form an unknown combination at this level, but are certainly a downgrade from Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai. The Blues have also lost one of their best forwards with Daniel Saifiti dropping out through injury. The Maroons will be desperate to save face in Game 3, while the Blues already have the shield in the bag and players could easily be forgiven for thinking more about their club's charge to the finals. I see a lot of signs pointing towards a Queensland upset, with a Blues' victory heavily dependent on the new halves being able to ensure quality ball to the established weapons of James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell. If Wighton or Moses try to overplay their roles or freeze up under pressure, the Maroons could just sniff out a victory.
Is Wayne Bennett right when he says club management is more responsible for score blow-outs than the players or NRL rule changes?
Lucie: It's said that success starts in the front office and Master Wayne is right about the role of club mismanagement in the rise of NRL blowouts. But the new rules are accountable for it because they've exposed the struggling clubs - the margin between the best and the rest is playing out on field like never before. Just look at last weekend, Super Saturday was certainly not that super. Manly, Newcastle and the Gold Coast beat their rivals with a combined score of 148-6. It came after the Roosters, one of the heavyweights of the last decade, lost 46-0 to the Storm. And don't get me started on the Bulldogs and Tigers runs of late. There has been a 60% increase of 19-plus margins to last year, while 40-point scores are also on track to more than double from 2019 by the end of the season. Uneven contests have been a follow-on effect from the six-again rules, as the momentum shifts in games can now lead to an avalanche of tries. I think there is some sort of correlation between well-run clubs and how teams have handled the game's evolution, Melbourne being the prime example. With the rules likely here to stay, struggling teams need to be able to shift their attitude in response to changes of momentum. And that attitude is what comes from the club's culture itself.
Darren: This was an interesting one from the super coach, particularly as his Rabbitohs have been on the end of a couple of 50+ scorelines themselves. If you read between the lines it would appear as though Bennett was taking yet another shot at the Broncos, a team that has really struggled this year, with off-field conflicts causing issues at game time. He has a point, in that an unhappy playing group is likely to underperform and the management of the club is responsible for ensuring everyone is pulling in the same direction. There have been plenty of examples over the years of disgruntled playing groups coming good following a mid-season coach sacking. Coaches who lose the locker room, inevitably lose games and their jobs. But this season is different. The teams that are struggling, are really struggling and it is more than half of them. They can't all be suffering from internal strife or mismanagement. The gap between the good teams and the rest has never been so wide and it is the pace of the game and the weight of possession that is causing the chasm. The six-again rule is killing the underdog's hopes of struggling to an upset victory. Once on top, the better teams are battering the weaker teams with an almost unlimited supply of possession.