Cowboys vs Broncos
Cowboys: Antonio Winterstein, Te Maire Martin, Jason Taumalolo.
Broncos: Jordan Kahu, Kodi Nikorima, Adam Blair, Alex Glenn.
Cowboys: Braden Uele.
Broncos: Benji Marshall, Herman Ese'ese.
We've already seen the benefit of signing Benji Marshall, although during the winter months this was funky, just not super duper crucial to Brisbane Broncos success. With Korbin Sims now out injured and Andrew McCullough already out for the season, Marshall's presence allows for as good an absorbtion process as possible. Of course this is also only made possible by Sam Thaiday and Ben Hunt's versatility, but Wayne Bennett can now add a slightly different skillset to his Broncos bench with Marshall there, down to do whatever.
Marshall might not play dummy half, he very well could but Bennett has used Thaiday to do a job there in recent weeks and Josh McGuire is a capable distributor at dummy half; that's if Hunt needs a break. Otherwise, Marshall can add an extra pair of play-making hands to Brisbane's backline. As Brisbane chase a Premiership, they are pivoting with each little curveball thrown their way so now I'm intrigued about how Marshall fits in as the stakes increase with Finals footy.
There's also the low key battle between Aotearoa's up and coming halves in Te Maire Martin and Kodi Nikorima. Martin was lively last week, running the footy 10 times for 95m with 7 tackle busts and 2 line breaks, which put another #KiwiNRL half Tuimoala Lolohea's 3 runs for 27m in the shade. Nikorima's a wee bit more creative and has a greater play-making license, so peep how they go about their different roles when receiving the footy.
Eels vs Rabbitohs
Eels: Brad Takairangi, Kirisome Auva'a, Manu Ma'u.
Rabbitohs: Bryson Goodwin.
Eels: Kenny Edwards, Suaia Matagi, Josh Hoffman, Frank Pritchard.
Rabbitohs: Siosifa Talakai.
Manu Ma'u was absent last week and steps back on to Parramatta's edge, probably their left edge. That would set Ma'u up against Angus Chrichton who has been one of the best edge forwards in the NRL this season, so Ma'u will first and foremost have to do a defensive job on Chrichton and protect Mitchell Moses who will probably defend beside Ma'u.
South Sydney will offer an interesting challenge for Parramatta, yet their weakness - which was horribly exposed again by Melbourne Storm last week - is their lack of mobility and power through the middle. That could help out the likes of Kenny Edwards who will play on an edge (off the bench) but cut back to the middle with his footwork and Suaia Matagi who will give up size to the Rabbitohs forwards although his power will do damage around the ruck
Roosters vs Titans
Roosters: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu.
Titans: Leivaha Pulu, Agnatius Paasi, Kevin Proctor.
Roosters: Sio Siua Taukeiaho, Joseph Manu.
Titans: Nathaniel Peteru, Eddy Pettybourne.
If you haven't watched much Gold Coast Titans footy this season, tune in this week because with their season over and a few injuries ravaging their stocks, we are graced with some funky #KiwiNRL selections. Leading that pack is Leivaha Pulu, who has been named to start at centre after playing most of the season through the middle and another wrinkle to Pulu is that he's on the move to the Warriors next season so Warriors fans will be graced with a chance to see how versatile Pulu is - or if he's not quite on that Tohu Harris level.
Agnatius Paasi gets a start at prop and those opportunities don't come around too often when the Titans have Jarrod Wallace and Ryan James starting. Gold Coast have also named two #KiwiNRL eligible youngsters on their extended bench in Kobe Tararo and Api Noema-Matenga, both of whom were selected in the 'Toa' squad for last year's Taurahere camp. Toa is the Queensland squad and they played against Tu, which is a New South Wales squad and Tararo and Noema-Matenga were two of six Gold Coast players selected in the Toa squad.
Sea Eagles vs Panthers
Sea Eagles: Martin Taupau.
Panthers: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Corey Harawira-Naera, James Fisher-Harris.
Sea Eagles: Lewis Brown, Addin Fonua-Blake.
Panthers: Sione Katoa, Moses Leota.
There's a gang of #KiwiNRL talent on show here, but it's a fair time to highlight how amazing Martin Taupau has been this season. I've been pondering who will step in to fill Jesse Bromwich's starting spot for Aotearoa and all those ponderings have involved Taupau coming off the bench, so perhaps the best option is to start with Taupau, Adam Blair and Jason Taumalolo.
Considering that Taupau is averaging 15.7 carries, 164.9m and 3.5 offloads this season, you'd struggle to find anyone - from Jared Waerea-Hargreaves to Nelson Asofa-Solomona - who is putting up such numbers. Those numbers come from Taupau's output and the amount of minutes he is able to play, which when he is serving up such blockbusting stats, makes you wonder if he is human. Taupau has played less than 50 minutes in just six of his 20 games this season and with Taumalolo serving up similar numbers, perhaps numbers that aren't even up to Taupau's level this season, a Taupau/Taumalolo starting combo is juicy.
Storm vs Raiders
Storm: Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris.
Raiders: Jordan Rapana, Iosia Soliola.
Storm: Kenny Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
Raiders: Joseph Tapine, Jeff Lima.
Tohu Harris has slid his way back into Melbourne's starting line up last week, playing 80 minutes for the first time since he got through 84 minutes in a round 15 golden point win over North Queensland. It's hard to judge Harris' work from a massive win over the Rabbitohs (16 carries, 138m, 1 line break), although it is about par for Harris considering he put up 14 carries, 163m, 49 tackles and an offload in that round 15 game. All up, Harris averages 12.8 carries, 115.9m and 27 tackles per-game and he's been eased back into his 80-minute workload over the past two weeks after coming back from injury with easier games against the Knights and Rabbitohs.
As a low key crucial member of Melbourne's team, Harris' presence on their left edge gives them a strong ball-carrier who can skip around with footwork, get in-between defenders and always draws in multiple defenders thanks to his size. Cameron Munster plays down Melbourne's left edge and while they may not have had too much game time together this season, they have built up an enticing combination over the years with Munster chiming in as fullback, or playing left centre. Now it's Munster running left-edge plays and they always involve Harris, so whenever the ball shifts left for Melbourne, zone in on Harris and what role he plays.
Defensively, Harris is the glue and that's going to be a major focus as Melbourne's left edge comes up against Canberra's famed right edge; Elliott Whitehead is back (replacing Joseph Tapine) to form LeiPanaHead along with Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana. Harris will lead a young group with Suliasi Vunivalu, Curtis Scott and Munster outside Harris, so the decisions Harris makes infield, will then flow on to how those outside lads defend. For example; Vunivalu loves to fly up off his wing, yet this requires Harris doing his job further infield to give Vunivalu the time to rush up without being exposed.
Knights vs Sharks
Knights: Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Danny Levi.
Sharks: Sosaia Feki, Gerard Beale.
Sharks: Fa'amanu Brown.
Last week the commentators noted how much faster Gerard Beale looked in Cronulla's loss to the Roosters and this was reflected in his stats; 157m from 13 carries. Beale has had some ruthless performances this season in which he's staked up the metres and workload from an outside back position, but this sparked memories of last season as Cronulla stormed into the Grand Final. Not because of Beale's specific contributions, but because Cronulla still have a back-six that cover all the required positions, even with Ben Barba's departure.
Jack Bird has been out injured and Cronulla can still roll out Valentine Holmes, Sosaia Feki, Ricky Leutele, Kurt Capewell and Beale. Last year I admired Beale's versatility as he can cover centre and wing, which again applies this season, although Capewell's versatility is in the spotlight this season. This allows consistency for Cronulla's outside backs and if one of them is missing, there's clear moves in place to cover any absentee.
Dragons vs Bulldogs
Dragons: Jason Nightingale, Leeson Ah Mau.
Bulldogs: Chase Stanley.
Dragons: Kalifa Faifai Loa, Taane Milne.
Bulldogs: Sam Kasiano, Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Francis Tualau.
Chase Stanley is the real MVP of the 2017 season having played centre, halves and now he's selected on the wing. Shout out to him.
Tigers vs Warriors
Tigers: Esan Marsters, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, Tuimoala Lolohea, Elijah Taylor, Josh Aloiai.
Warriors: All but Blake Ayshford, Ryan Hoffman.
Tigers: Ava Seumanufagai, Jeremy Marshall-King, Watson Heleta.
A) Esan Marsters vs Solomone Kata. Two young, powerful centres who will relish the challenge of running at each other. One knock on Kata is the lack of good footy he gives his winger, so while one vs one battle will be funky, note which winger receives better opportunities thanks to the passing ability of Marsters vs Kata.
B) Josh Aloiai started the season playing off the bench and starting through the middle under Jason Taylor, then jumping all over the show between starting, bench, middle, edge. Aloiai returned from injury in round 23, with Ivan Cleary as the coach and after being eased back into action off the bench for 26 minutes in round 23, Cleary has started Aloiai on an edge for the last two games, giving Aloiai 67 and 63 minutes in either game. Aloiai has scored two tries this season, one in either of the last two games and he's put up 84m from 9 carries and 88m from 9 carries. Uncle Ivan back at it.
C) Jeremey Marshall-King is simmering, here's hoping we get to see him breakout next season with older bro Benji back in Tigers colours.
Peace and love 27.
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