The Broncos are on tenterhooks ahead of arguably the most important season in their history, crushed 48-4 by the Warriors in Dunedin on Sunday. The five-eighth picture is even murkier than it was at the beginning of the year. Luckless Jordan Kahu appeared to be the front-runner before breaking down with injury yet again, while young contenders Kodi Nikorima and Zac Strasser are still short of NRL standard. With the luxury of having Josh Hoffman in the squad – however disgruntled the Kiwi custodian may be – under pressure coach Anthony Griffin may have to bite the bullet and pitch star recruit Ben Barba into the No.6, where he played most of his early football. Griffin also has to piece together a three-quarter line out of Jack Reed, Dale Copley, Corey Oates, Lachlan Maranta, Stewart Mills, Jordan Atkins and Jordan Drew, with co-captain Justin Hodges still sidelined with an Achilles injury.
The make-up of the Raiders’ halves combination is still undecided, with coach Ricky Stuart indicating skipper Terry Campese will wear the No.7 to start the season. That would suggest the original halfback tip, NYC star Mitch Cornish, is locked in a battle with Jack Wighton for the five-eighth spot. Wighton wore the No.6 alongside halfback Cornish in the trial loss to Newcastle. Incumbent Country Origin halfback Josh McCrone appears certain to begin the year at hooker in rotation with Glen Buttriss, while Matt McIllwrick and Kurt Baptiste are other dummy half options at Stuart’s disposal.
Coach Des Hasler has several options for the vacant fullback spot – but all have their drawbacks. Enigmatic Krisnan Inu, strike centre Josh Morris, diminutive livewire Drury Low, injury-prone recruit Chase Stanley, and steady wingers Mitch Brown and Sam Perrett are all in the mix, with Inu the early tip. Low began 2013 in the No.1 while Ben Barba was stood down, while Morris filled in impressively for six weeks with Barba out injured – but Hasler will be loath to play his best three-quarter line weapon out of position. Moses Mbye was the star of the Bulldogs’ trial win over Melbourne and looks certain to snare an interchange utility role.
The arrival of Eric Grothe Jr and Blake Ayshford has ramped up competition for backline spots. With Michael Gordon entrenched at fullback, the new recruits will be fighting it out for three-quarter line berths with incumbents Feki, Jonathan Wright and Beau Ryan after stalwart Ben Pomeroy set sail for Super League. Fullback/wingers Nathan Stapleton and Nathan Gardner are also sweating on NRL recalls, while centre Ricky Leutele and Auckland Nines’ surprise packet Valentine Holmes are in the first-grade mix. A cheekbone injury suffered by Jeff Robson has opened the door for Super League returnee Daniel Holdsworth to start the season in the Sharks’ No.7.
Gold Coast Titans
The Titans still boast a wealth of centre options despite the sudden departure of marquee star Jamal Idris to Penrith. Sublimely skilled Brad Takairangi – who is also big and strong enough for the backrow – is likely to occupy one spot, leaving Panthers’ recruit Brad Tighe, versatile ex-Storm player Maurice Blair, former Cowboys entertainer Kalifa Faifai Loa, and former Warriors and Knights outside back Suitonga Likiliki to battle it out with Steve Michaels and 2013 debutant Jamie Dowling for the remaining backline berth. With regulars Beau Falloon and Matt Srama battling injuries, Canterbury recruit Paul Carter appears to have got the jump as the Titans’ starting hooker.
Manly Sea Eagles
With Brent Kite, George Rose and David Gower joining rival clubs and Richie Fa’aoso and Joe Galuvao retiring, there are at least two spots available in Manly’s 17 to accompany likely starting props Brenton Lawrence and injury-prone Jason King. New arrivals Dunamis Lui and Josh Starling are the front-runners, along with 2013 Sea Eagles debutants Ligi Sao and Jake Trbojevic. Blockbusting winger Jorge Taufua’s injury has opened the door for young Kiwi Peta Hiku – who was an outstanding backline fill-in as a rookie last year – to begin the year in first grade, although Parramatta recruit Cheyse Blair is an option.
Melbourne has a relatively settled line-up, with Matt Duffie’s tragic knee injury cutting a battle for a wing spot with Mahe Fonua short. Ben Hampton will get first crack at the five-eighth spot vacated by Gareth Widdop, but Easts Tigers youngster Cody Walker and enigmatic former Bulldog and Eel Ben Roberts are also in the frame.
The devastating hamstring injury to five-eighth Jarrod Mullen – besides capping a horror summer for the club – has left the Knights in a selection quandary. Veteran utility Kurt Gidley, who was earmarked for a permanent shift to hooker, is the logical choice to partner Tyrone Roberts, with Matt Hilder and Travis Waddell to come into contention for the No.9 jumper. But Darius Boyd also impressed at pivot during the trial win over Canberra – Gidley or Dane Gagai could revert to fullback if the Queensland stalwart dons the No.6. Russell Packer’s jail term has left the Knights skinny up front, sparking rumours the club is attempting to poach the Titans’ underperforming big man David Taylor.
New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors possess tremendous depth in virtually every position, while their emphatic trial win over Brisbane with several 2013 regulars rested has created a number of welcome selection headaches for coach Matthew Elliott. The left centre spot is arguably the most contentious, with Carlos Tuimavave, Jerome Ropati, Ngani Laumape and Dominique Peyroux applying the blowtorch to incumbent Dane Nielsen. Cronulla recruit Chad Townsend’s outstanding pre-season form sees him as the likely Round 1 five-eighth, which could mean Thomas Leuluai – who was superb last season but has not played since injury restricted his World Cup campaign to a mere few minutes – plays a bench utility role. Kevin Locke is too good to be playing NSW Cup footy, but it is difficult to see where he fits into the Warriors’ squad. The departure of backrowers Elijah Taylor and Todd Lowrie has left the likes of Ben Henry and Sione Lousi, who both had their ’13 campaigns ruined by injury, along with former Shark Jayson Bukuya, Nines standout Sebastine Ikahihifo, emerging prop Charlie Gubb and NYC graduates John Palavi, David Bhana and Raymond Faitala-Mariner to scramble for a maximum of three spots in the 17. Matulino, Rapira, Matagi, Lillyman, Mannering and Mateo would be considered engine-room certainties.
North Queensland Cowboys
Lachlan Coote’s shattering knee injury has made replacing fullback institution Matt Bowen all the more difficult. The Cowboys have thought outside the box to solve their custodian crisis, grooming halfback Michael Morgan for the position in last weekend’s impressive trial win over the Gold Coast. NRL rookies Zac Santo and Hezron Murgha are the other logical contenders, although wingers Antonio Winterstein and Kyle Feldt could make a fist of the No.1.
Competition for three-quarter line spots is fierce. Former Origin reps Will Hopoate and Willie Tonga are the logical centre pairing, but young giant Jacob Loko is in the mix after his 2013 was cut short by injury. In the wing department, the reliable Ken Sio, Souths recruit Justin Hunt, and 2013 rookies Semi Radradra and Vai Toutai are grappling for two spots. Incoming coach Brad Arthur has indicated Luke Kelly has ousted Chris Sandow for the halfback spot for the Round 1 clash with the Warriors.
A three-quarter line made up of Josh Mansour, Dean Whare, Idris and David Simmons appears the most likely outcome, but Knights recruit Kevin Naiqama and currently injured trio James Roberts, Eto Nabuli and George Jennings are all pressing for a chance in the top grade. Idris will miss the start of the NRL campaign with injury. The depth of talent and the ability of Mansour, Whare, Simmons, Roberts and Naiqama to play fullback is sure to keep likely No.1 Matt Moylan on his toes as well. Yet to debut in first grade, Nabuli and Jennings were among the most impressive unheralded youngsters of the Auckland Nines.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Both centre spots are still up for grabs in an otherwise settled St George Illawarra backline. Versatile trio Gerard Beale, Kyle Stanley and South Sydney recruit Dylan Farrell are all vying for starting roles, while promising youngsters Nathan Green and Charly Runciman also featured in the centres last season. Beale and Stanley are both returning from long-term injury layoffs, and the pair will contend with versatile 2013 discovery Adam Quinlan to temporarily replace superstar fullback Josh Dugan, who is scheduled to be sidelined until Round 5 after picking up an injury in the Charity Shield.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Luke Keary’s long-term pectoral injury has thrown the five-eighth spot up in the air, with coach Michael Maguire mulling over keeping skipper John Sutton in the No.6 instead of at lock, or trying teenage centre star Dylan Walker in the key position. Sutton, who played halfback, and Walker impressed as a halves combination in the Charity Shield with Adam Reynolds sidelined. A three-quarter line of Nathan Merritt, Bryson Goodwin, Beau Champion and Lote Tuqiri is likely if Walker slots into the No.6, but one of the latter two will miss out if he remains at centre.
Kiwi sensation Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was being groomed to take over the fullback role in 2014, but 33-year-old skipper Anthony Minichiello’s inspirational performances in the Roosters’ title charge has prompted a rethink. RTS could be forced to bide his time on the flank for another season. The Roosters will enjoy the rare luxury of being able to field virtually their entire Grand Final squad in their title defence, with only veteran forward Luke O’Donnell departing Bondi in the off-season. Young bucks Dylan Napa and Isaac Liu – both of whom received valuable finals experience in 2013 – will scrap for O’Donnell’s bench spot.
For the third straight season, the Tigers do not have a settled halves pairing. Rookie Luke Brooks is a certainty to wear the No.7, but luckless Tim Moltzen’s latest injury setback has clouded the five-eighth picture. Curtis Sironen and Liam Fulton are viable options better suited to the backrow, Braith Anasta is experienced but is well past his best, while up-and-comer Mitchell Moses is a fine prospect. Sironen and Moses picked up injuries during the Nines and are battling to be available for Round 1, while coach Michael Potter has indicated veteran Anasta is the most likely No.6 option, predicting he will prove an excellent foil for young Brooks. Potter used seven different halves combinations in 2013.