Wet-weather Sharks on a roll
Despite heading into the match without Paul Gallen and the Fifita brothers, Cronulla pulled off a courageous 18-10 victory in some of the wildest weather the NRL has seen in recent times. A hardy crowd of 3,978 turned out at Remondis Stadium for a game that was almost postponed, while the Sharks’ 10-4 lead – after playing the first half with a howling gale at their back – didn’t seem enough.
But the hosts bucked the trend of Sunday’s windy games at Leichhardt Oval and Hunter Stadium, doing what Wests Tigers and Newcastle couldn’t by holding onto their advantage in a gritty second half display. After going 0-4 to start the year, the Sharks have now won three on the trot to be part of an eight-team logjam for eighth spot. Incredibly, just four competition points separate ladder-leading Melbourne and 15th-placed Parramatta.
Anzac Test spots still up for grabs
Just one round remains for Kangaroos and Kiwis hopefuls to impress selectors ahead of the team announcements for the Anzac Test, while injuries have upset the applecart for both trans-Tasman rivals. Here’s a quick rundown on the places yet to be settled on in the respective squads for what shapes as the most intriguing mid-season international in years.
Wing: With rep stalwarts Brett Morris and Darius Boyd sidelined, the flanks are likely to be manned by members of last year’s inexperienced Four Nations squad. Josh Mansour and Alex Johnston (who was an unused member of the Kangaroos’ squad) have the form on the board to get the nod ahead of 2014 Test debutants Daniel Tupou and Sione Mata’utia. Pat Richards is a smoky.
Centre: Injuries have played a part in the race for centre spots, with Greg Inglis retrenched to his favoured fullback spot due to Billy Slater’s injury, and experienced duo Josh Morris and Justin Hodges battling to be fit for selection. Michael Jennings shapes as a near-certain pick, while fellow incumbent Dylan Walker’s Round 7 return puts him in the frame to be retained. Dane Gagai, Will Hopoate, Josh Dugan and Will Chambers would be the next in line.
Prop: Matt Scott and Aaron Woods should be certainties, but David Klemmer’s suspension has foiled his retention hopes. Josh Papalii partnered Woods in last year’s final, while with Paul Gallen, Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday all likely inclusions, expect one of them to be included in the four-prop rotation.
Backrower: The most contentious issue, with 13 players vying to cram into five spots. Thaiday, Parker, Gallen, Papalii, Luke Lewis, Josh Jackson, Beau Scott, Ryan Hoffman, Matt Gillett, Boyd Cordner, Greg Bird, Glenn Stewart and Anthony Watmough in the mix.
Bench utility: Ben Hunt filled the role in last year’s final and arguably has the edge in versatility over Daly Cherry-Evans, who is struggling for form, and Robbie Farah, the two players who have also fulfilled the role in recent seasons. Kurt Gidley, the most versatile of the lot but on the verge of 33, has incredibly rocketed into contention after getting a ringing endorsement from coach Tim Sheens. If centre cover is lacking amongst the forwards chosen, Gidley may grab a re-call. The other wildcard is naming a four forward bench, given the utility value of the likes of Lewis, Bird and Gillett.
LIKELY LINE-UP: Inglis, Mansour, Hodges, Jennings, Johnston, Thurston, Cronk, Scott, Smith (c), Woods, Bird, Parker, Gallen. Interchange: Hunt, Thaiday, Cordner, Jackson.
Fullback: Rogers Tuivasa-Sheck, a World Cup winger who missed the Four Nations with injury, looks to have the edge to make his first Test appearance in his adopted position over Peta Hiku, one of the heroes of last year’s success. Playing at wing and centre in a struggling Manly side has hindered Hiku’s chances.
Wing: Manu Vatuvei and Jason Nightingale are odds-on to be retained, although Nightingale has been out injured in recent weeks. His unavailability would bring Hiku, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Sosaia Feki into the frame.
Centre: Dean Whare’s recent injury has thrown a spanner in the works, while Shaun Kenny-Dowall has probably done enough to keep his spot. If Whare is out, the Kiwis could gamble with Konrad Hurrell on the right, with Hiku, Bryson Goodwin and Gerard Beale other potential options.
Halves: Rumours are doing the rounds that Benji Marshall’s spectacular run of form could see him partnered with Shaun Johnson, with Kieran Foran – who pulled out of Manly’s Round 7 clash – picked at lock. If Foran is ruled out altogether, Marshall would be the natural choice at five-eighth.
Prop: Incumbent starters Jesse Bromwich and Adam Blair have the inside running, while Greg Eastwood and Martin Taupau – locks for their clubs – came off the bench in the final and will be hard to leave out. But someone needs to make way for Ben Matulino and Sam Moa is a strong chance. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves’ injury and Sam Kasiano’s suspension has made the front-row area less of a headache for Stephen Kearney and co.
Backrow: Like the Kangaroos, the Kiwis’ second-row stocks are brimming. Incumbent starting trio Simon Mannering, Kevin Proctor and Jason Taumololo are assured of spots, while the bench contingent of Tohu Harris, Eastwood and Taupau all deserve to be there. Elijah Taylor and Alex Glenn have been thwarted by injury, but Isaac Liu, Frank-Paul Nuuausala, Bodene Thompson and Manu Ma’u would be worthy squad members.
Bench utility: Lewis Brown did a tremendous job during the Four Nations and his ability to cover centre and backrow as well as dummy-half is a huge plus, but he missed last week with a rib problem. Warriors hooker Thomas Leuluai, also an accomplished half and a backrow option, is the logical replacement if Brown is unfit – unless the Kiwis opt for a four forward bench.
LIKELY LINE-UP: Tuivasa-Sheck, Vatuvei, Whare/Hurrell, Kenny-Dowall, Nightingale/Watene Zelezniak, Foran/Marshall, Johnson, Bromwich, Luke, Matulino, Mannering (c), Proctor, Taumololo. Interchange: Brown/Leuluai, Taupau, Eastwood, Harris.
Maloney the Blues’ No.6 answer
Confusion still reigns over the make-up of the NSW halves pairing for the upcoming Origin shield defence, with support for out-of-sorts incumbents Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson dwindling.
Blues legend Andrew Johns has plumped for St George Illawarra fullback Josh Dugan or veteran Gold Coast backrower Greg Bird to wear the No.6 alongside Sydney Roosters halfback Mitchell Pearce. But Dugan boasts just three NRL games in 2012 on his five-eighthrésumé, and while Greg Bird has plenty of experience at pivot, the 31-year-old has played there just once in the last three years – and not at Origin level since 2008.
Dugan and Bird are both near-certain selections in their customary positions if not gambled with at five-eighth.
But one player put his hand up in Round 7, announcing himself as the best candidate to spearhead the Blues’ campaign: Roosters No.6 James Maloney. After a stellar opening to the season, Maloney has been targeted by a section of critics for his defensive shortcomings. But he put on a ball-playing master-class in the Tricolours’ 17-16 loss to Melbourne at a wet AAMI Park on Saturday night, and provides the poise and punch NSW requires.
Maloney was solid in his sole 2013 Origin series and he would probably have been retained last year if not for Pearce’s infamous nightclub snafu on the eve of the rep season. The 2013 Grand Final emphatically demonstrated his big-game chops, while the Blues (assuming Hodkinson is passed over) need Maloney’s brilliant goalkicking – fringe backline contenders Matt Moylan and Pat Richards are the only other kickers on Daley’s radar.
Pearce, too, performs far better with Maloney as his right-hand man; the oft-maligned halfback won’t cope with the extra responsibility of being teamed up with a makeshift five-eighth, while Daley has repeatedly stated his preference for an existing club pairing.
Jake the rake a Cowboys trump card
It may have been the incomparable, in-form Johnathan Thurston’s 250th game, but it was a 26-year-old utility making just his 17th NRL appearance that carried North Queensland to a heart-stopping comeback win over the Warriors on Saturday night – and he may be the X-factor that transforms the Cowboys from perennial finals failures into premiers.
Hooker Jake Granville, an off-season recruit from the Brisbane Broncos, scored three tries – including sneaky, burrowing efforts in the 70th and 79th minutes that saw the Cowboys turn an eight-point deficit into a 28-24 triumph.
The club has struggled in the dummy-half department since the retirement of 219-game stalwart Aaron Payne at the end of 2012, but it appears coach Paul Green has found the solution to his No.9 quandary in the shape of Granville. He was pitched in the starting role at the expense of Rory Kostjasyn in Round 4 – just the third run-on game of Granville’s top-grade career – and the Cowboys have not lost since.
Granville has proved a tough, durable and creative livewire with a tremendous turn of speed, the latter trait evidenced by his stunning long-range try last Monday against South Sydney.
Beyond that, Granville is a great story. The Rockhampton product won back-to-back Queensland Cup Grand Finals with Wynnum Manly in 2011-12, starring at fullback and hooker respectively. Belatedly given an opportunity by the Broncos in 2013, he managed just 10 appearances over two seasons.
But the Cowboys took a punt on the diminutive Granville, and he now looms as a trump card for a team whose premiership claims are becoming more compelling by the week. Given his rare versatility, he also comes into the frame as a possible Queensland Origin bolter in a bench utility capacity.
Tomkins criticism way off the mark
Sam Tomkins’ compassionate release to return to England – coinciding with the Warriors’ capture of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck from 2016 – has led to skewed and premature post mortems of the wiry fullback’s NRL tenure. After a patchy start to his first season in Auckland, Tomkins was one of the enigmatic Warriors’ best and most consistent performers.
While he didn’t dominate the premiership as he did the Super League competition, Tomkins scored 13 tries (third amongst the competition’s fullbacks) and produced a team-high 13 try assists. Furthermore, he still has two-thirds of a season to add to his legacy at the club. Injured since Round 3, Tomkins is due to return in the next fortnight and is the player that can transform the flaky Warriors into world-beaters. Let the remainder of 2015 determine whether his brief NRL sojourn was a success or a failure.
Meanwhile, how touching was it to witness the Wigan fans’ unbridled elation when it was announced Tomkins was coming back to his hometown club? In light of the overriding cynicism that pervades media coverage and supporters’ input on social media in Australia, the display of emotion at JJB Stadium was an example of what the code should be aspiring to on this side of the world.
Underachiever of the week
Manly was presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to bounce back against a severely under-strength Canterbury, but was unable to take it, overwhelmed 28-16 by a side missing six regular top-liners. The Sea Eagles now sit in last place with a 1-6 record, four points adrift of the rest of a congested NRL table.
Overachiever of the week
Parramatta headed into its Round 7 clash at Hunter Stadium on the back of two dismal losses and with a seven-match losing streak against Newcastle to contend with. But the reshuffled Eels put their best foot forward to overcome an early 10-0 deficit in blustery conditions, coming home with a wet sail in an important 28-22 victory.
My new favourite player
Parramatta recruit Danny Wicks’ redemption story continues to gather momentum, starring in his return to his former Hunter Stadium home with 30 tackles and 15 hit-ups in the Eels’ upset of the Knights. Jailed on drugs charges in 2011, front-rower Wicks has been in tremendous form after being thrown a lifeline by the Eels despite not playing in the NRL since his 2009 campaign with the Knights. The 29-year-old Grafton product has come into the frame for a Country Origin debut.
Danny Fualalo (Bulldogs): A late addition to Canterbury’s interchange contingent, 20-year-old Fualalo made nine tackles and five hit-ups for 43 metres in a solid 18-minute debut.
Herman Ese’ese (Bulldogs): Ditto for Ese’ese, another likely looking 20-year-old prop who notched eight tackles and four runs for 41 metres in 16 minutes on the paddock. Handy youngsters to be able to call upon during an injury and suspension crisis.
Robert Jennings (Panthers): Debuted for a Penrith side that was dominated by Gold Coast, but the 19-year-old impressed in the centres with 11 runs for 92 metres and 20 tackles (no misses).
…Parramatta v Canberra, 1987: The Raiders’ spectacular comeback from a 22-0 deficit to down the Tigers 30-22 at Leichhardt Oval – bettering their previous club record of 18-point comebacks in 1998 and 2005 – was reminiscent of a famous comeback at the Green Machine’s expense 28 years ago. Defending premiers Parramatta trailed Canberra 22-blot in the 1987 clash and were booed off the field at halftime by their irate fans, but rallied sensationally in the second half to prevail by…30 points to 22.
…Wendell Sailor: Wests Tigers NYC sensation Obed Kharwin scored the second hat-trick of his four-game Under-20s career against Canberra on Sunday, and there’s more than a little bit of ‘Dell’ about the flying Ivory Coast-born winger – in appearance, dimensions, power, running style and swagger.
Form Origin teams
Each week leading up to State of Origin selection for the series opener, we’ll update the teams that would be named if NRL form was the only criteria.
NEW SOUTH WALES
8. Dylan Napa