PROBLEM SPOT: THE POSITIONS EACH NRL CLUB NEEDS TO FIX BEFORE ROUND 3

NRL Problem Positions

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The NRL is the first major sporting competition in Australia – and one of the first prominent leagues in world sport – to break the shackles of the coronavirus shutdown and restart. The date 28 May has shone like a beacon of hope for rugby league fans and NRL punters since ‘Saint’ announced it as the game’s ambitious restart target.

While all 16 NRL clubs grind through what is effectively a second pre-season, coaches are grappling with selection posers ahead of NRL round 3. Stand-out and let-down performances during the opening two rounds, plus suspensions, fresh injuries and players returning from the casualty ward all mean big decisions for the clubs, and new faces for virtually every team sheet. We look at the key positions each club needs to fix to get back to their fighting best.

BRISBANE BRONCOS

One of the most impressive teams of the NRL’s opening two rounds, the Broncos have been hit hard by injury and suspension.

Anthony Seibold’s second-row stocks have taken a particularly big hit, with Tevita Pangai Jr rubbed out until round 6 on a dangerous contact charge and fellow wrecking ball David Fifita on the sidelines with a knee complaint until mid-June. On the bright side, the break allows captain and 259-game veteran Alex Glenn to make his first appearance of the season, while back-row rookie Jamil Hopoate has looked at home in first grade so far.

Elsewhere, Jesse Arthars is attempting to ward off Herbie Farnworth for a wing spot, and stalwart hooker Andrew McCullough is clinging to a bench spot ahead of Cory Paix.

At the time of writing, the Broncos were $1.90 even favourites ahead of their NRL Round 3 clash with Parramatta, which signals the premiership’s resumption on Thursday night, 28 May.

CANBERRA RAIDERS

Valuable Englishman John Bateman’s return from injury allows Joseph Tapine to return to lock and Queensland Origin candidate Corey Horsburgh to rejoin the front-row rotation. But the Raiders were sweating on a potential middle-forward vacuum, with Tapine, Josh Papalii and Iosia Soliola initially refusing to sign flu-vaccination waivers. Horsburgh, Dunamis Lui and Emre Guler are a formidable trio but the Green Machine need their full front-row complement available to make good on their premiership aspirations – and the vaccination issue could rear its head again if the Raiders, who are $2.25 underdogs for their NRL round 3 assignment against the Storm at the time of writing, face an away game in Queensland.

Meanwhile, Jordan Rapana’s return from Japanese rugby means Ricky Stuart needs to make a backline choice between Rapana, Bailey Simonsson and off-season recruit Curtis Scott, with one of the trio likely to come off the bench.

CANTERBURY BULLDOGS

The Bulldogs’ lack of experience in the halves is clearly holding them back, but injury-prone veteran Kieran Foran’s intended return from another lay-off is a huge boost. But who will partner the Kiwi? Although just five games into his NRL career, Brandon Wakeham is in the box seat to wear the number 6 jersey after the gutsy Lachlan Lewis was benched during the Bulldogs’ round 2 loss to the Cowboys. A rumoured move to lure club favourite Josh Reynolds back from Wests Tigers could provide some short-term benefits but would ultimately be a short-sighted option for Canterbury.

Joe Stimson’s season-ending shoulder injury and the sacking of Corey Harawira-Naera leaves the Dogs wafer-thin in the back-row department. At the time of writing, Canterbury’s prospects are reflected by their $3.30 price to upset Manly, the equal-biggest outsiders of NRL round 3.

CRONULLA SHARKS

Eighteen months ago the Sharks had an embarrassment of riches in the fullback position, boasting three stars who had played at Test or Origin level. But Valentine Holmes is now at the Cowboys via an NFL stint, and injury-ravaged duo Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan have not made it onto the field so far in 2020.

Both are reportedly fit for the restart, and in a perfect world Moylan would slot into the number 1 jumper and Dugan would return on the wing – but whether either can stay on the park or produce anything near their best form is doubtful. Versatile livewire Will Kennedy was a solid performer at fullback in the opening two rounds but is not an ideal long-term solution.

A lack of stability in the custodian role was a constant bugbear for the Sharks in 2019 and needs to be rectified. At the time of writing, punters have backed the Sharks into $1.60 favouritism for their round 3 return against the Tigers.

GOLD COAST TITANS

The reigning wooden spooners can ill afford more personnel setbacks, yet the anti-vax stance of Bryce Cartwright and Brian Kelly looked set to rob the Titans of two key attacking pieces. Kallum Watkins’s exit during the lockdown leaves the embattled and injury-hit squad down another centre. Kelly has since relented, while Cartwright received an exemption.

Whichever way you spin it, Gold Coast’s depth situation is grim. Figuring out the best position for game-breaking utility Tyrone Peachey – second-row, centre, five-eighth, hooker or the interchange – is key for the Titans, who are $3.30 underdogs heading into their showdown with the Cowboys in NRL round 3.

MANLY SEA EAGLES

Premiership dark horse Manly could enjoy the luxury of trotting out the same full-strength starting 13 that lined up in the first two rounds – although five-eighth Dylan Walker’s anti-vax stance puts him in danger of missing games in Queensland. Lachlan Croker, the Sea Eagles’ bench utility in both matches so far, and Cade Cust are the main backups, with yet-to-debut duo Josh Schuster and Luke Metcalf also in the halves mix. At the time of writing, Manly is just $1.32 head-to-head to account for Canterbury next weekend.

MELBOURNE STORM

There are few selection headaches for coach Craig Bellamy, particularly as representative trumps Brandon Smith and Christian Welch look set to return from injury to make their first appearances of 2020 in NRL round 3.

But Paul Momirovski, whose swap deal to head to Melbourne from Wests Tigers was belatedly approved just before the NRL’s shutdown, faces a stiff battle to unseat incumbent Storm centre Marion Seve.

The Storm face a big ask to go 3-0 when the NRL resumes, despite being backed into $1.63 to beat the Raiders.

NEWCASTLE KNIGHTS

The Knights used the same 17 players in powering to two convincing wins to kick off their 2020 campaign, but their compelling bid to end a seven-year finals drought has since been rocked by injuries. Hooker recruit Jayden Brailey (knee) is gone for the season, while outstanding second-rower Mitch Barnett (neck) will be sidelined until at least July. Early indications are Connor Watson and Sione Mata’utia, who missed the first two rounds, will replace the duo.

Meanwhile, NRL Nines star Tex Hoy is set to come in at fullback for marquee man Kalyn Ponga, whose suspension means he’ll sit out NRL round 3. Kurt Mann is staving off challenges from Phoenix Crossland and Mason Lino for the five-eighth spot for now, while boom outside-back Bradman Best is back from injury to apply pressure to the Knights’ centre and wing incumbents.

In one of the return weekend’s standout fixtures, the Knights are slight outsiders at $2.08 against the Panthers at the time of writing – no doubt owing to Ponga’s absence and the injury disruptions.

NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS

The darlings of the NRL won’t get any sympathy for their sacrifices from their opponents on the paddock – and there are some serious deficiencies in the Warriors’ line-up.

Coach Stephen Kearney needs to think outside the box with his selections, which means picking Adam Keighran, Hayze Perham or Paul Turner out wide rather than pedestrian veteran Gerard Beale. Kearney also has to decide whether to persevere with recruit Wayde Egan at hooker, or go with more dynamic options Kodi Nikorima, Karl Lawton or Nathaniel Roache.

But the immediate concern is their middle-forward contingent. Last week vital duo Leeson Ah Mau and Jazz Tevaga joined Bunty Afoa and Jackson Frei on the long-term injured list. Adam Blair is likely to move up front, which should open up an opportunity for Josh Curran. The Warriors are a surprisingly short $2.15 to take down the Dragons in NRL round 3.

NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

Captain and halfback Michael Morgan is recovering from shoulder surgery, which gives Jake Clifford an opportunity in the halves alongside the player who bumped him out of the side at the start of 2020, Scott Drinkwater.

Looking further down the track, Paul Green has to decide whether to persist with utility Ben Hampton on the wing or give a young flyer like Murray Taulagi or Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow a chance to boost the Cowboys’ scoring strike.

The Cowboys ease into the competition’s resumption as hot favourites for a home clash against the lowly Titans.

PARRAMATTA EELS

The Eels have possibly the most settled line-up in the NRL, although there are a couple of short-term concerns with Reed Mahoney (injury) and Nathan Brown (suspension) not due back until June. Rhys Davies is set to debut at hooker, while long-serving David Gower should come in to temporarily bolster the highly fancied Eels’ pack. The Eels are even-money favourites for next Thursday’s blockbuster against the Broncos.

PENRITH PANTHERS

Penrith’s 2–0 start to the season threatens to go to waste after linchpin Nathan Cleary TikTok-ed his way to a two-game suspension. With just one NRL appearance to his credit, Matt Burton shapes as the likely halves partner for 19-game veteran Jarome Luai in NRL rounds 3 and 4. Another talented playmaker and off-field transgressor, Tyrone May, is unavailable until round 8.

The fullback spot remains a headache for coach Ivan Cleary. Dylan Edwards seems set to usurp Caleb Aekins for the restart – but the Panthers, $1.75 favourites for their round 3 assignment against the Knights at the time of writing, desperately need one of their youngsters to cement the position.

ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

The good news is Cameron McInnes and brothers Tariq and Korbin Sims should all be available for NRL round 3. The problem area is the wing and centre spots, with Jordan Pereira seemingly the only player assured of a backline start. Euan Aitken, Tim Lafai, Brayden Wiliame, Mikaele Ravalawa and Zac Lomax, who was replaced by Matt Dufty at fullback after just one game, are trying to cram into three positions. The Saints look strong value as modest 2.5-point favourites against the decimated, disrupted Warriors in round 3.

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS

Wayne Bennett should relent and move besieged recruit Latrell Mitchell from fullback, where the two-time Grand Final–winning centre struggled for fitness and impact in the first two rounds. But Bennett remains bullish about keeping the troubled superstar in the number 1.

The likely absence of strike centre James Roberts, who has checked into a rehab facility, presents an ideal opportunity to shift Mitchell – the most scrutinised player in the NRL – back to a more familiar role in the short term. The other option is pushing Dane Gagai or Campbell Graham in to centre, with fullback hopeful Alex Johnston slotting in on the wing after riding the pine in the opening fortnight of the competition. Punters will find it hard to resist the $2.50 head-to-head value on the Bunnies when they square off against their nemesis, Sydney Roosters, next Friday.

SYDNEY ROOSTERS

There are few concerns for the two-time defending premiers. Josh Morris’s belated release from Cronulla allows twin brother Brett to move back to his preferred wing spot, with handy flyer Matt Ikuvalu the unlucky player to miss out. A knee injury to rising second-rower Sitili Tupouniua is tempered by the return of Boyd Cordner and Angus Crichton. The Roosters are $1.50 favourites to come out on top in their NRL round 3 barnburner against the Rabbitohs at the time of writing.

WESTS TIGERS

Co-captain Moses Mbye’s return from injury presents coach Michael Maguire with a juggling act. Mbye has exclusively played fullback or centre in the past two seasons; whichever of those positions he doesn’t occupy, the equally versatile Adam Doueihi should slot into. Either way, it seems incumbent fullback Corey Thompson will shift to the wing. Robert Jennings is the unlucky player destined to miss out, though enigmatic recruit Joey Leilua may soon find himself on the chopping block after a bumbling round 2 performance and a series of ill-conceived public statements in the wake of the season’s suspension.

Harry Grant arrives from Melbourne on a belated swap deal and is expected to unseat rookie hooker Billy Walters.

Plenty of value in the Tigers as $2.30 underdogs when they face the erratic Sharks in NRL round 3.

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