Roosters vs Broncos
Roosters: Joseph Manu, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu.
Broncos: Kodi Nikorima, Jordan Kahu, Benji Marshall, Adam Blair, Alex Glenn.
Roosters: Sio Siua Taukeiaho.
Broncos: Herman Ese'ese, Jamayne Isaako.
Over the last few weeks, Joseph Manu has been chillin' like a villain as Roosters coach Trent Robinson opted to play Mitchell Aubusson and Ryan Matterson in the centres, with Lattrell Mitchell on the wing. This had me puzzled, although there's logic to it as Robinson went for a more defensive angle. Now, in week one of the Finals, Manu is back.
Manu has been named on the wing, with Mitchell/Aubusson at centre and Matterson on the bench; the same players are still in the Roosters team, with Manu back. This leads me to believe that Robinson knew what he's been up to here and I reckon he wanted to give Manu a little rest, get that defence right to win a few games and seal a top-four spot. This is Manu's first full season, so he may have needed a slight refresher and now he's locked in for a massive game against Brisbane.
The funk doesn't stop there though as throughout this recent period, Robinson has selected Matterson on the wing for example but in-game the Matterson and Mitchell have swapped - a fluid centre/wing combo (somewhat low key revolutionary). As we know, Manu is a centre and is possibly a better centre than Mitchell, while Mitchell's a better winger than Manu. So keep an eye on Manu and Mitchell swapping between the two positions and when they do it - defence/attack.
Kodi Nikorima started the season in his standard bench utility position and now he's starting at fullback in Finals footy. Darius Boyd's injury gives Nikorima to flex at fullback and the best thing about this from a Broncos perspective is that Nikorima is quick and has all the ball-playing skills of Boyd. Nikorima won't have to worry about organising as a half, so a splash of freedom will see Nikorima take on the line more and the threat offered by the combined running game of Nikorima, Anthony Milford and Benji Marshall is bonkers - and two of them are #KiwiNRL cuzzies.
Of course, Nikorima will be tested under the high ball. That's the easy aspect of playing fullback to point out, but the Roosters will also test out Nikorima's positioning with their long kicking game by kicking early and pinning Nikorima deep in Broncos territory. If the Roosters can isolate Nikorima by kicking early, then Nikorima will struggle to get Brisbane rollin' as he's a wee bugger.
The arrogance of David Kidwell is in the spotlight with Benji Marshall selected in the halves for Brisbane Broncos (in the NRL Finals!). This exact situation is why I want Benji selected in the Kiwis squad as he is the perfect bloke to call up for a semi/final if Kieran Foran or Shaun Johnson goes down injured; Benji is not only experienced, he's got RLWC winning experience. If it's good enough for Wayne Bennett, it should be good enough for Kidwell.
Other than that, I'm just super duper happy for Benji. Ponder the perception around Benji going back to his Auckland Blues excursion, it wasn't all that good right? Like, people were talking all sort of shit about Benji and even when he was with the Dragons, somehow Benji was made scapegoat for the Dragons all-round failings. Sometimes we forget exactly how much of a legend Benji is, because those Blues/Dragons years tainted Benji's overall career perception.
And here we are; Benji Marshall is leading an NRL team in the NRL Finals.
And not just any club; the Brisbane Broncos, arguably the best club of the last 20 years.
And Benji is leading Brisbane; Milford and Nikorima are youngsters, Benji is an OG and OGs are required in Finals footy.
Storm vs Eels
Storm: Jesse Bromwich, Tohu Harris.
Eels: Brad Takairangi, Kirisome Auva'a, Manu Ma'u.
Storm: Kenny Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Jahrome Hughes.
Eels: Kenny Edwards, Suaia Matagi, Josh Hoffman, Frank Pritchard.
Aotearoa's two premier left-edge forwards will be in action here and as y'all know - there's a left-edge spot up for grabs. Tohu Harris was exceptional last week and in a year that he has been in and out of Melbourne's team due to injury, he's stacked up crucial minutes ahead of the Finals and should be firing on all cylinders.
*Warriors fans: watch Harris. Please watch Harris. Harris is good and he's going to help the Warriors.
I also love Manu Ma'u and while Harris is probably the likely Kiwis left-edge option, Ma'u can't be slept on. Ma'u will face off against Felise Kaufusi and Ma'u will enjoy this match up as he's a bit bigger, more aggressive and Kaufusi has shown a low key habit of dropping the pill - Ma'u will be all up in Kaufusi's grill.
There's immense quality throughout both teams but the #KiwiNRL presence of Kenny Bromwich/Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Kenny Edwards/Suaia Matagi has me twitching. Bromwich and NAS offer Melbourne impact, in very different forms and you've only got to imagine trying to stop Bromwich's speed and footwork, then trying to stop the giant that is NAS. Edwards and Matagi also offer variety though as Edwards is all footwork and he'll be tested the inside efforts of Melbourne's forwards while Matagi is a north/south prop who will out to dent Melbourne's line and earn quick play-the-balls for his halves.
Sea Eagles vs Panthers
Sea Eagles: Martin Taupau.
Panthers: Dean Whare, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Corey Harawira-Naera.
Sea Eagles: Lewis Brown, Addin Fonua-Blake.
Panthers: Sione Katoa, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota, Jarome Luai.
Just reading this team lists has me fizzing with excitement because Dean Whare is playing fullback in week one of the Finals! Pardon me if I feel like all this #KiwiNRL funk is meant to be as Whare is at fullback thanks to a combination of injury to Dylan Edwards - who has been great this season - and the Matt Moylan drama. Whare hasn't even played much at centre this season due to injury, yet here he is stepping up to the plate at fullback in Finals footy.
Whare's job will be made a lot easier by Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Josh Mansour who run the footy with emphatic energy. Whare is a strong runner himself, but watch for Whare to field kicks and then look to shovel the footy on to DWZ or Mansour as that's their bread and butter. I'm most interested in Whare's ball-playing as Penrith will need slick execution out on their edges to pose a threat and that will centre on Whare. We haven't really seen what Whare can do in terms of reading a defence, picking the right pass and then making the right pass, so we're going to see all of that with the pressure of Finals footy.
Another minor off-shoot of the Moylan situation is that Penrith's halves depth is being tested with Junior Kiwis half Jarome Luai selected on their extended bench. Luai probably won't be required and he'll have to do a job for Penrith's reserve grade side (he's U20s playing up in reserves), but Tyrone May fills Moylan's boots and if either May or Nathan Cleary can't play, Luai is next in line. Luai can also play fullback, so don't sleep on him possibly sliding in there for whatever reason.
Sharks vs Cowboys
Sharks: Sosaia Feki, Gerard Beale.
Cowboys: Antonio WInterstein, Te Maire Martin, Jason Taumalolo.
Sharks: Fa'amanu Brown.
Cowboys: Braden Uele.
Prior to this season, excitement was brewing around Penrith's young halves pairing of Te Maire Martin and Nathan Cleary. We had seen Martin show off some potential in limited game time before getting injured, so the prospect of Martin coming back and partnering the classy Cleary was nothing but scrumptious. Things done changed and Martin is now starting alongside Michael Morgan for the Cowboys in week tahi of the NRL Finals. Not only did the Penrith situation have to change with Matt Moylan sliding into the halves, the stars also aligned up in Townsville with Jonathan Thurston ruled out for the season, opening up the spot for Martin.
A lot has changed for this specific season with the Cowboys and these changes now put immense responsibility on Jason Taumalolo (and Michael Morgan). Taumalolo doesn't have Matt Scott and James Tamou to work with, nor does he have Thurston directing traffic which gives us a nice glimpse at what Taumalolo's ceiling could be. We already know Taumalolo is a beast who averages over 10m/carry, yet that's either in the regular season or in the Finals, Taumalolo has had Scott and Tamou chipping in.
Now this forward pack revolves around Taumalolo and I'm intrigued by the influence of Taumalolo, or merely the influence of a forward. Play-makers or lively outside backs tend to have the biggest influence on a game but Taumalolo is so damn good, he could tell his Cowboys comrades 'follow me' in blasting through Cronulla's middle. The Cowboys need Taumalolo to be a one-man wrecking machine and that's a huge task, a task that no one else has been capable of; what's Taumalolo really capable of?
Earlier in the week I dropped a Bottom Eight #KiwiNRL team, so it's only right I give y'all a bonus Top Eight #KiwiNRL team...
Fullback: Jahrome Hughes.
Wings: Jordan Kahu, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Centres: Joseph Manu, Dean Whare.
Halves: Te Maire Martin, Benji Marshall.
Middle Forwards: Martin Taupau, Jason Taumalolo, Jesse Bromwich.
Edge Forwards: Tohu Harris, Manu Ma'u.
Hooker: Sione Katoa.
Bench: Kodi Nikorima, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Kenny Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona.
Peace and love 27.
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