Nicho Hynes ‘rattled’, Newcastle problem exposed: Good, bad and ugly of NRL round 21

The Cronulla Sharks are in free fall, while the Newcastle Knights are now serious finals contenders.

Nicho Hynes and the Cronulla Sharks.
Nicho Hynes and the Cronulla Sharks suffered a shock loss to Manly. Image: Getty

😃 The good: Newcastle's impressive takedown of Storm

😔 The bad: NRLW biting incident takes shine off first round

😡 The ugly: Nicho Hynes and Cronulla hit new low

Newcastle boost finals hopes with remarkable win

Newcastle's eight-point win over Melbourne was a surprise to most, but should we have seen it coming? The Knights had already pocketed wins over top four hopefuls the Raiders and Warriors this season while twice pushing premiers Penrith the distance and going down by just four to premiership hot shots Brisbane away from home.

Yet you look at the table and Adam O'Brien's men sit 10th with an 8-1-9 record and face a real challenge just to make the eight. The problem for Newcastle is there is a vast difference between their best and worst.

When they're off, they're Stilton cheese off. Heavy losses to mid-table entities Parramatta, Gold Coast, Cronulla and the Roosters pockmark their 2023 resume and – up until Saturday's night's win – had O'Brien's tenure under threat.

Newcastle Knights players celebrate a try.
Knights players celebrate a try against Melbourne. (Photo by Scott Gardiner/Getty Images)

But on their day they look the Penriths, Melbournes and Brisbanes squarely in the eye and punch well above their weight. Take out the first 10 minutes and Newcastle was brilliant against an off-key Storm.

Kalyn Ponga is living up to his price-tag, Bradman Best brought his Origin form to clubland and their forwards hit with real purpose and menace. It was one of the best performances we've seen from a side this year.

Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy said: "(There's) some real intent in their game. If they keep that up there is no reason they couldn’t (make the eight)." It’s a big 'if' but there is now genuine hope in the Hunter the Knights' season is far from done.

NRLW makes unwanted headlines with biting incident

Be careful what you wish for. NRLW players, coaches and administrators are disappointed and angry the RLPA's media ban has denied them the opportunity for much needed publicity in the first week of the 2023 competition.

St George Illawarra coach Jamie Soward went public with his complaints after being denied the chance to speak following his team's loss in Newcastle because no members of the Sydney media were actually there to ask questions. But is any publicity good publicity?

Possibly. The NRLW grabbed some first round headlines when Brisbane player Ashleigh Wegner was sent from the field for biting Rooster Jayme Fressard.

Wegner has been referred straight to the judiciary after becoming the first female player dismissed. The vision doesn’t look great and the winger faces a long stretch on the sideline.

Broncos coach Scott Prince admitted "it doesn’t look good" and cast doubts on whether the club could mount a reasonable defence. While an ugly incident, it does show the NRLW might be capable of matching the men for the sort of drama and controversy that keeps the NRL in the media cycle 24-7.

Cronulla's season in danger after Manly loss

We wrote last week that Craig Fitzgibbon had to make some changes to save Cronulla's season. We were wrong.

Fitzgibbon did make changes – dropping Matt Moylan and Sifa Talakai to promote Braydon Trindall and Connor Tracey – but the Sharks' problems are worse than skin deep. Cronulla has turned in some embarrassing and insipid performances this year but the 30-26 loss to Manly was the lowest of the low.

Forget about the late comeback – it was just lipstick on a pig. The damage was done in the first 50 minutes when Manly jumped out to a 30-0 lead and some of the locals headed for the Shark Park exits.

Who could blame them? The Sea Eagles, starting the day six spots behind the Sharks on the ladder, were made to look like world beaters by a Cronulla side that lacked any punch in defence, played like strangers in attack and threw discipline out the window.

We've become accustomed to them playing like this against teams inside the top eight, but it appears the disease has now spread and they are there for the taking against any side who wants to have a crack. Fitzgibbon has enjoyed a honeymoon period since arriving at the start of last year, but serious questions must now be asked.

How has a roster that was good enough to finish top four 12 months ago fallen so far, so quickly? And what the hell is going on with Nicho Hynes?

The game' best player in 2022 has looked lost, rattled and frustrated in the moments he used to own. Things sure are dire in the Shire as the Sharks prepare to take on the no mercy Penrith Panthers.

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