Ben Hunt hurting Dragons, ugly NRL expansion truth: Good, bad and ugly of round 18

Adam Lucius analyses some of the big focal points from a crazy round in the NRL.

Pictured left to right, Dragons star Ben Hunt and Dolphins coach Wayne Bennett.
Ben Hunt's Dragons face an awkward truth around their wantaway captain, while the Dolphins' free fall continues after a superb start to the NRL season. Pic: Getty

😃 The good: Ivan Cleary among the great coaches

😔 The bad: Ben Hunt drama hurting the Dragons

😡 The ugly: NRL not ready for further expansion

Ivan Cleary's coaching class shines through

There was some chatter on one of those ubiquitous sports talkback shows recently on whether Ivan Cleary now deserves to be talked about in the same breath as some of the game's modern-day greats.

Steve – a long time listener, first time caller - dialled in to say no, Cleary did not yet deserve a place among the Craig Bellamys, Wayne Bennetts, Trent Robinsons and Des Haslers because he's "got a quality roster to work with".

Did we hear that right? Cleary, a four-time grand finalist and two-time winner, has worked miracles to get this Panthers side into top spot after 18 rounds.

Despite waving goodbye to quality players year on year as the salary cap bites – on top of giving up several players to Origin and losing the game's best halfback to injury this year – the Panthers keep rolling forward. It doesn’t matter to Cleary who ISN'T in the side. He's all about who IS in the side.

That players can slot in seamlessly to the Panthers system speaks volumes for Cleary's coaching ability. He builds sides from the bottom up. When was the last time Penrith made signed a big name player?

To go down to Melbourne and do a job on the Storm was some sort of statement. Cleary doesn’t need a third straight premiership to be rated among the greats. He's already there.

Dragons facing awkward Ben Hunt truth

St George Illawarra officials showed some kahunas in blocking Ben Hunt's release request. Now they need to go one step further and stand him down until he gets his head right or make him play NSW Cup.

We often talk about players playing with a smile on their face. Hunt is spending 80 minutes each week walking around like he must be told he's got a week to live.

Here's there physically but mentally he's a million miles away – or whatever the distance from Wollongong to south-east Queensland is. The Dragons skipper was awful as the Red V crashed to a record defeat to big brother Cronulla.

Seen here, Dragons NRL star Ben Hunt.
Ben Hunt cut a dejected figure during the Dragons' latest loss in the NRL. Pic: Getty

His stats were embarrassing and his body language terrible. Hunt's flame has been extinguished despite interim coach Ryan Carr's best efforts to put a positive spin on things.

"We've moved on from all that stuff. He's here with us, he's part of our team, and he's going to continue to be that for the rest of the year," Carr said as he sat next to a glum-faced Hunt following the Shark Park debacle. "It's got nothing to do with Ben and his off-field stuff. We don’t even talk about it."

Everyone else is, Ryan. And most agree the relationship between club and captain is beyond toxic. Something has to give after Origin III.

Brutal truth exposed amid NRL expansion proposal

All those still in favour of further expansion in the next few years please raise your right hand. Wests Tigers' record loss to North Queensland followed by Canterbury's pitiful capitulation to the Knights again exposed the lack of depth in this competition despite the NRL spin doctors trying to convince us all this is "the tightest competition we've ever seen".

Truth is, the NRL competition will always be close for the first dozen rounds before falling into a familiar pattern. The good sides get better and those in the bottom four fall away alarmingly and start turning in the sort of displays we saw from the Tigers and Dogs.

Take a look at the current top eight and tell me if there are any genuine surprises from what you thought back in March. Okay, we'll give you the Warriors being seventh and the Roosters 12th as a bit of a shock but the rest of it was pretty much predictable.

It’s at the other end of the table where the problems lie. St George Illawarra, Canterbury and the Tigers have been poor for years and shown no sign of any improvement anytime soon.

The Dolphins, at the start of their existence, went at it like a 20-year-old at a free beer party. They've now won just one of their last six, dropping the last four straight by a combined 160-62.

You can just about put a fork in Wayne Bennett's mob, they look done. And while the Dolphins deserve the highest of praise for being more than competitive first year in, isn’t what they’re now going through – and the horror show that is the Dragons, Tigers and Dogs - proof there is a lack of genuine depth at a number of clubs?

Throwing another club in the mix so soon after the Dolphins' arrival – just so we get to an 18-team competition - would be sheer madness.

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