Maroons hit the panic button
A broken arm suffered by No.7 linchpin Cooper Cronk and injuries clouding the involvement of Billy Slater and Daly Cherry-Evans in Origin II are obstructing Queensland’s bid to save the series in Sydney. But the Maroons’ campaign has now hit crisis point after Greg Inglis hobbled off during Souths’ gutsy win over the Warriors. He is serious doubt to be fit for the must-win clash.
The Maroons named an extended 22-man squad to cover for their myriad injury contingencies, although that has been reduced to 21 following Josh Papalii’s injury in Canberra’s Monday night loss to Brisbane. Sam Thaiday, Jacob Lillyman, Will Chambers, Anthony Milford, Ben Hunt and Willie Tonga have been added to the remaining available game one squad.
Melbourne’s Chambers is primed for a debut and will adequately plug the gap left by Inglis at centre, but Tonga’s shock recall suggests Mal Meninga may opt for experience over form. Tonga has not produced a decent 80-minute performance since leaving the Cowboys at the end of 2011, while injuries have restricted him to just 26 games since joining the Eels. Picking him would virtually hand the Origin shield over to the Blues for the first time since 2005. Dane Gagai or Dale Copley would have been a far more astute selection.
If Slater and Inglis are both ruled out, Darius Boyd would most likely don the No.1 jumper. Milford is another fullback option but would be monstered in the Origin arena, while Boyd was brilliant in a losing effort for Newcastle on Sunday and has played Grand Finals and Test matches in the position. Boyd’s potential move to the custodian role would require Chambers and Tonga to line up as a centre-wing combination on the Maroons’ left side.
Papalii’s injury saves Meninga from having to drop him, but with Thaiday returning and Lillyman a likely inclusion, one of Chris McQueen, Ben Te’o and Aidan Guerra will have to make way – unless Queensland opt for a four forward bench, as NSW did in the series opener and will do again. McQueen provides utility value as outside-back cover.
But picking a genuine utility is still a strong chance, particularly given the Maroons’ walking wounded. The role will be filled by either Milford or Hunt, who is in scintillating form for the Broncos. Hunt has vast dummy-half experience, while he is the obvious choice to slot in at halfback if Cherry-Evans succumbs to injury.
Whichever team he comes up with, there is little doubt Meninga – who, with the QRL, delayed the team announcement by four hours on Monday – faces the biggest challenge of his charmed representative coaching reign.
Centre candidates urge NSW rethink
The inside word is Laurie Daley and co are set to take the conservative approach by plugging the right centre gap left by Josh Morris’ injury with one of NSW’s versatile backrowers, Beau Scott or Luke Lewis. But three stunning performances over the weekend may have forced the Blues’ brains trust into a rethink. Parramatta’s Will Hopoate did a brilliant defensive job on big Kane Linnett and produced several sharp touches in attack in Friday’s gripping defeat of the Cowboys.
Then Josh Dugan, playing in the centres for just the second time, put his hand up with a stunning hat-trick as the Saints thrashed Cronulla. But Souths’ teenage sensation Dylan Walker was the pick of the bunch, making three line breaks, a game-high 194 metres and scoring two brilliant tries – the second a breathtaking effort after taking over in the unfamiliar fullback role – against the Warriors. Walker was subsequently ruled out of action for six weeks, however, after producing his man-of-the-match performance despite the discomfort of a fractured thumb.
Dugan and Hopoate will also grapple for Brett Morris’ vacant wing spot – with Dugan the front-runner if he is not picked in the centres – along with uncapped Penrith sensation Josh Mansour, although steady option James McManus has firmed as Daley and the Blues look to defend their way to Origin glory.
If Daley opts against moving Scott or Lewis out to the centres, Tony Williams is likely to be the unlucky forward to drop out of the side to accommodate Greg Bird’s return.
Heavyweights warm up at NRL’s halfway mark
Melbourne may be on an injury-related downward spiral out of title contention, but the remaining clubs in the NRL’s ‘Big Four’ all made emphatic statements in Round 13. Defending champs the Sydney Roosters carved out their sixth win in seven matches, subduing the brave but depleted Storm 32-12 in the Victorian capital.
South Sydney produced what Phil Gould described as the best team performance by any side this season, while it was unquestionably the most courageous. The Rabbitohs, despite a majority share of possession and territory, trailed the Warriors 10-6 at halftime in Perth. Greg Inglis failed to return after injuring his ankle just prior to the break, while stand-in fullback Bryson Goodwin exited only minutes into the second half.
The Warriors extended their lead with another try and heaped on the pressure with a 40-20. But Souths’ toughness and composure came to the fore; with Dylan Walker slipping into the custodian role, and backrowers Kyle Turner and Chris McQueen filling the three-quarter gaps, the Rabbitohs piled on five unanswered tries to snare an incredible 34-18 victory – their seventh in nine matches, but their first over in-form opposition in two months.
Fellow heavyweight Manly has displayed the most resounding championship qualities of any side as the NRL season rounds the halfway marker, however. The Sea Eagles disposed of table-topping Canterbury 32-10 in the Brookvale Oval slop on Friday night after trailing early, clawing their way into equal-premiership favouritism with the Roosters in the process.
Buffeted by injuries to their galaxy of superstars at regular intervals this season, the Sea Eagles have remained near the top of the table throughout 2014 to solidify their reputation as Rugby League’s most resilient outfit.
Halfback Daly Cherry-Evans appeared tentative and uncomfortable early against the Bulldogs, clearly hampered by the knee injury he picked up during Origin I. But the linchpin exploded during the back end of the first half, brilliantly setting up tries for Steve Matai and Peter Hiku to send Manly to the sheds 18-6 ahead. Despite Cherry-Evans’ exit courtesy of a controversial Sam Kasiano challenge soon after halftime, the Sea Eagles powered to an ominous victory with Kieran Foran and Brett Stewart taking the attacking reins.
Manly boasts what is widely regarded as the game’s most potent backline, but the top four staples were tipped to tumble down the ladder after a host of key engine-room departures in the off-season. The Sea Eagles’ pack has defied the odds to remain one of the most physical and effective in the NRL, however, with unheralded young bucks Josh Starling, Jesse Sene-Lefao and Dunamis Lui stepping into the breach fearlessly.
The belief and toughness pulsing away beneath every maroon-and-white jumper looks increasingly like propelling Manly to its third title in seven seasons – but the Rabbitohs and Roosters are destined to be there when the whips are cracking in September.
Panthers under the radar, on top of the table
Penrith surged to the NRL competition lead for the first time since taking out the minor premiership in 2003 after swamping Gold Coast 36-14, leapfrogging Canterbury on for-and-against. James Segeyaro, Jamie Soward, Tyrone Peachey and Matt Moylan provided the spark and polish for the Panthers’ hardy band of toilers, who are sailing towards two bites of the finals cherry as the NRL’s quiet overachievers. Like the incredible ’03 campaign that delivered the club its second title, it is difficult to fall head over heels for the Panthers’ charms just yet, but they are developing into a team that needs to be taken seriously as a 2014 threat.
Cowboys struggling away from the ranch
A handful of sides have garnered an unwanted reputation as being travel-shy in recent seasons, but few can compare to the Jekyll and Hyde performances North Queensland are producing away compared to its authoritative displays at home. Six-from-seven at 1300SMILES Stadium in 2014 – with five of those victories by 13 points or more – the Cowboys are winless in six road trips so far this season. With only five of their 11 remaining games at home, a line can tentatively be drawn through the Cowboys as far as finals football is concerned unless coach Paul Green can swiftly turn around their dismal form outside of Townsville’s balmy confines.
Gallen great, but not Immortal
Bob Fulton has called for NSW skipper Paul Gallen to be considered as a future Immortal – and as one of the four originals honoured in 1981, ‘Bozo’ is well-credentialed to make such a big call. After another titanic performance in the series opener, I described Gallen as the Blues’ greatest-ever Origin forward, a statement Fulton has also echoed. He is a genuine great of the modern era, no doubt.
But an Immortal? That would be declaring Gallen is the finest post-war forward after Johnny Raper and Arthur Beetson, better than perennial Immortal nominees Ron Coote and Norm Provan, and the likes of Noel Kelly, Duncan Hall, Glenn Lazarus, Bradley Clyde, Gorden Tallis and Shane Webcke. He’s not quite there yet in my opinion.
Gallen is one of the best-ever representative performers and unwaveringly consistent at club level, but Immortals inspire teams to premierships, and while he’s behind the eight-ball playing his entire career with a dysfunctional Cronulla outfit, he boasts just two preliminary final appearances in 13 seasons. Yes, the Immortal Wally Lewis never won a Sydney premiership, but he was the linchpin in several BRL Grand Final triumphs in his prime when that competition still meant something.
The Immortal tag is reserved for a special few, and with retired luminaries such as Lockyer, Fittler, Langer, Meninga and Sterling yet to be honoured – along with Gallen’s superstar contemporaries Slater, Smith, Thurston and Inglis – the chances of the inspirational Kangaroos, Blues and Sharks workhorse ever sitting on that mantle are slim.
Punching-bag Benji hits back
Pilloried for his two previous performances since returning from Rugby Union, Benji Marshall turned back the clock with a mesmerising display in St George Illawarra’s pressure-relieving 30-0 drubbing of hapless Cronulla. Marshall provided the key pass for the Dragons’ first four tries, while a pinpoint kick produced their fifth. If Josh Dugan wins a NSW recall he can thank the Dragons’ new No.7, who laid on all three of his tries.
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