The biggest selection dilemma ahead of the first week of the 2021 NRL finals is who will fill the enormous shoes of South Sydney fullback Latrell Mitchell.
Rookie Blake Taaffe was solid against the Dragons, but Wayne Bennett revealed all options were still on the table heading into the clash with the Panthers.
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James Graham and Michael Ennis believe Taaffe is too big a risk under the high ball given he will come up against the best kicking game in the NRL in the form of Nathan Cleary.
“Whoever is best under the high ball it is as simple as that,” Graham said on The Big League Wrap.
“The last time they played Penrith that is what cost them the opportunity to be in the game in the last 10 minutes.
“It is who is most comfortable under the high ball.
“I know Benji Marshall came to the club for this reason in case any of those spine players are out.
“With the options they have I would possibly look at moving Alex Johnson in there because I think he would be the most confident under the high ball.
“Obviously you are going to have to rejig a few things, but I think if you move Cody Walker he has played a handful of games at fullback.
“But I just feel the test under the high ball will be too big for him and I’d rather see him stay at No.6 for that reason.”
Ennis implored Bennett not to move Walker from his five-eighth role which has seen him lead the try assist and linebreak assist categories this season.
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“Not for the life of me would you move Cody Walker,” Ennis said.
“No way in the world. He has had 37 try assists this season and over 50 linebreak assists.
“The match-up between him and Nathan Cleary is the battle. You just cannot leave him out of the game.
“I’m with James. Blake Taaffe has been really exciting in the number of games that he has played.
“You look at Cody Walker and Nathan Cleary’s numbers for the year they have been phenomenal.
“But on Blake Taaffe I have really liked what I have seen from him. He has got a hell of a future ahead of him.
“But I think going into this game the danger is Nathan Cleary’s kicking game. He has got the best kicking game in the competition. He tortured them only a couple of weeks ago in the final 50 minutes.
“Alex Johnston is their man. He has played in that fullback position a number of times. I think he has played in the NRL over 50 times at fullback.
“He has played there with great success and scored over 20 tries at fullback.
“In a night where you are up against arguably the best kicker in the competition you can ill-afford to put a young kid there and expose him under the bright lights of a qualifying final.”
Graham believes Taaffe’s confidence would take a hit if he dropped a Cleary bomb and that he may struggle to stay in the contest.
“The thing about Johnson is if he misses one or drops one his head is not going to drop,” Graham said.
“That is the worry if a young bloke like Taaffe was to go in. Obviously you get the pre-game talk about it doesn’t matter and we move on.
“But when the pressure is on and the season is in the balance. It is a big game to get the week off. You just wonder if he misses one if he is going to have a lack of interest in getting back involved in the game and shy away.
“I think with Johnson he is more likely if he misses one to still attack the game and stay in the game.”
Ennis believes the Rabbitohs won’t lose much with Taane Milne and Jaxson Paulo on the wings, but if they don’t get the fullback spot right they can’t beat the Panthers.
“That fullback position at South Sydney is so critical,” Ennis said.
“We have seen that with Latrell. The work that Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker do together and how in sync they are has allowed them to score over 700 points this year.
“Latrell has had 13 try assists so trying to cover that is a huge hole to fill.
“But in fairness if you still have Adam and Cody doing what they are doing on the inside Alex Johnston is probably the one that can pick that up quicker than the others.
“I think Jaxson Paulo or Taane Milne outside Gagai will finish. But it is what happens in that middle part of the field that is so critical for Souths and the way they love to attack.
“I think that the instinct of Johnston with Walker is vital.”
Read on for all the NRL Team Tips for Finals Week 1.
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Storm vs Sea Eagles at 7.50pm at Sunshine Coast Stadium
Last week’s Storm team: 1. Ryan Papenhuyzen 5. Dean Ieremia 3. Marion Seve 4. Justin Olam 21. Isaac Lumelume 6. Nicholas Hynes 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Tui Kamikamica 9. Brandon Smith 10. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 12. Chris Lewis 20. Trent Loiero 13. Dale Finucane 11. Aaron Pene 14. Harry Grant 15. Tepai Moeroa 19. Daniel Atkinson
Team Tips: Storm coach Craig Bellamy revealed that Josh Addo-Carr is touch and go for the first final, while Cameron Munster is also battling a knee injury. “Cameron Munster has a little problem with his knee at the moment,” Bellamy said in his post match press conference. “We think he will be OK, but we haven’t really looked at tonight either.
“There was a couple of bumps and bruises with Tui (Kamikamica) and Brandon (Smith) coming off early. I would have preferred them to stay out there a bit longer, but they had bumps and we thought the best thing was to leave them off and hopefully they will be right for next week. I don’t think we will be at full strength next week. There might be one or two out. With Josh (Addo-Carr) he will be touch and go I think.” Munster said on Sunday that the Storm are in a “tough situation” as he’s a “50-50” chance to play because he doesn’t want to risk opening up his stitches after an infection sidelined him last week. “We could win, open it up, have the week off and then who knows, I could be back to square one. But if I play, open it up and we lose, I’ve got to try back it up the following week so it’s a tough situation we’re in,” he said. Meanwhile Jesse Bromwich returns from suspension in the front row and Reimis Smith, Christian Welch, Kenneath Bromwich and Felise Kaufusi will rejoin the 17 after being rested.
Last week’s Sea Eagles team: 1. Tom Trbojevic 2. Jason Saab 3. Brad Parker 4. Morgan Harper 5. Reuben Garrick 6. Kieran Foran 7. Daly Cherry-Evans 10. Martin Taupau 9. Lachlan Croker 18. Toafofoa Sipley 11. Haumole Olakau’atu 12. Josh Schuster 13. Jake Trbojevic 14. Dylan Walker 15. Karl Lawton 16. Sean Keppie 17. Taniela Paseka
Team Tips: Josh Aloiai will come into contention for a spot in the front row after being a late scratching last week. However given their success against the Cowboys Des Hasler may choose to keep faith in Toafofoa Sipley and Taniela Paseka.
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Roosters vs Titans at 5.40pm at Queensland Country Bank Stadium
Last week’s Roosters team: 1. James Tedesco 2. Daniel Tupou 3. Josh Morris 4. Adam Keighran 5. Matt Ikuvalu 6. Drew Hutchison 7. Lachlan Lam 10. Siosiua Taukeiaho 9. Sam Verrills 13. Isaac Liu 11. Angus Crichton 12. Sitili Tupouniua 15. Egan Butcher 14. Sam Walker 16. Ben Marschke 17. Tukupa Hau Tapuha 26. Naufahu Whyte
Team Tips: Star halfback Sam Walker is set to stay on the bench after playing limited minutes against the Raiders with Lachlan Lam and Drew Hutchsion to start in the halves. However coach Trent Robinson flagged an increased role for the rookie halfback. “He played limited minutes, but he is going to have a big impact in the finals,” Robinson said. “It was just the way the game went tonight. I just thought Lachie was doing a really good job there. There are different ways that I can use Lachie as well. So it is a bit of wait and see to see how I will use Walker but he will play a part for sure.” Robinson also confirmed that Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (knee) would be back with Isaac Liu likely to shift to the bench. Meanwhile Victor Radley returns from suspension at lock with Egan Butcher to shift to the pine. Fletcher Baker is also due back from suspension and will come into contention for a bench spot.
Last week’s Titans team: 1. Jayden Campbell 2. Phillip Sami 3. Brian Kelly 4. Patrick Herbert 5. Corey Thompson 6. Tyrone Peachey 7. Jamal Fogarty 8. Jarrod Wallace 9. Mitch Rein 10. Moeaki Fotuaika 12. Beau Fermor 17. Sam McIntyre 13. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui 14. Erin Clark 15. David Fifita 16. Jaimin Jolliffe 19. Sam Lisone
Team Tips: AJ Brimson (jaw) is bidding to return from a broken jaw in the finals, but with Jayden Campbell starring against the Warriors he is unlikely to be rushed back until he is ready. Kevin Proctor is a chance to return from a shoulder injury after he was a late scratching last week. David Fifita is set to come off the bench again after starring with two tries against the Warriors. Ash Taylor is also bidding to return from a hip injury, but given Tyrone Peachey’s success in the No.6 role, Justin Holbrook is likely to ride the season out with his current halves pairing.
Panthers vs Rabbitohs at 7.50pm at Queensland Country Bank Stadium
Last week’s Panthers team: 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Stephen Crichton 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Matt Burton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 17. Liam Martin 12. Kurt Capewell 13. Isaah Yeo 11. Viliame Kikau 14. Tyrone May 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Tevita Pangai Junior
Team Tips: The only injury concern for the Panthers is Scott Sorensen who is out after dislocating his wrist against the Eels. However Matthew Eisenhuth is due back from a ribs injury in what could be a straight swap for Sorensen. Ivan Cleary was pleased with the results from using Viliame Kikau off the bench with Liam Martin starting and may persist with that tactic against the Rabbitohs. “I’m pretty happy with how it’s gone,” Cleary said.
Last week’s Rabbitohs team: 1. Blake Taaffe 2. Taane Milne 3. Braidon Burns 4. Campbell Graham 5. Jaxson Paulo 6. Benji Marshall 7. Lachlan Ilias 8. Tevita Tatola 9. Peter Mamouzelos 16. Jed Cartwright 11. Jaydn Su’A 12. Jacob Host 13. Mark Nicholls 14. Dean Hawkins 10. Patrick Mago 15. Tautau Moga 17. Davvy Moale
Team Tips: All eyes will be on who plays in Latrell Mitchell’s fullback spot after Blake Taaffe struggled at times under the high ball against the Dragons. But the Courier Mail reports coach Wayne Bennett has already made the call, choosing Taaffe as the man he trusts to do the job in finals. Alex Johnston could shift to fullback allowing Taane Milne and Jaxson Paulo to hold onto their wing spots. The Rabbitohs welcome back rested stars Damien Cook, Dane Gagai, Cameron Murray, Thomas Burgess, Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker. Meanwhile back-rower Keaon Koloamatangi is due back from suspension in a timely boost. Liam Knight is not due back from suspension for another week. Jed Cartwright is battling a chest injury from the win over the Dragons, but is unlikely to feature in the 17 anyway with so many stars returning.
Eels vs Knights at 4.05pm at Browne Park, Rockhampton
Last week’s Eels team: 1. Hayze Perham 2. Haze Dunster 3. Tom Opacic 4. Michael Oldfield 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Will Smith 7. Jakob Arthur 8. Oregon Kaufusi 9. Joey Lussick 10. Makahesi Makatoa 11. Bryce Cartwright 12. Keegan Hipgrave 13. Ray Stone 14. Samuel Loizou 15. Ky Rodwell 16. Shaun Lane 17. Sean Russell
Team Tips: The Eels welcome back rested stars Waqa Blake, Dylan Brown, Nathan Brown, Clinton Gutherson, Mitchell Moses and Isaiah Papali’i. Meanwhile Ryan Matterson will come back into the back row from suspension. Prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard is bidding to overcome a groin injury, while Marata Niukore, Keegan Hipgrave and Orgegan Kaufusi need to pass concussion protocols. Wiremu Greig is bidding to overcome an ankle injury, but is unlikely to force his way into the 17. Brad Arthur admitted he had a few welcome selection headaches with 12 players returning to the side. “Ray Stone got through 80 minutes… it provided other blokes opportunities but I’ve got a headache going into next week,” Arthur said. “11 or 12 players will come back. He (Hipgrave) didn’t look great.”
Last week’s Knights team: 1. Kalyn Ponga 2. Enari Tuala 3. Kurt Mann 4. Bradman Best 5. Starford To’a 6. Jake Clifford 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. David Klemmer 9. Chris Randall 16. Josh King 17. Jack Johns 12. Brodie Jones 13. Connor Watson 14. Phoenix Crossland 15. Jirah Momoisea 19. Pasami Saulo 21. Simi Sasagi
Team Tips: The big concern for the Knights is prop David Klemmer who suffered a rib injury against the Broncos. “I think it’s a rib cartilage thing,” Knights coach Adam O’Brien said. “I think he’ll get up for the game… anyways it’s early days. I think these days they can needle them and strap them up tight… he’s a tough cookie and we’ll have a look at him tomorrow to see where he’s at.” Newcastle welcome back Mitchell Barnett, Jayden Brailey, Tyson Frizell, Hymel Hunt and Jacob Saifiti who were rested for the final round. Skipper Daniel Saifiti is bidding to return from a knee injury. “Yep, he’s training really well… looking at him training I’d be backing him in,” O’Brien said of his captain. Meanwhile Sauaso Sue is looking to overcome a hamstring injury.