Cowboys vs Bulldogs
Starters: Jordan Kahu, Jason Taumalolo.
Bench/Extended Bench: Peter Hola.
Starters: Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, Kieran Foran, Jeremy Marshall-King, Corey Harawira-Naera.
Bench/Extended Bench: Renouf To'omaga, Raymond Faitala-Mariner/Morgan Harper, Ofahiki Ogden.
Marist Saints junior Peter Hola appears to have settled into the Cowboys top-17 after the unfortunate situation with veteran forward Matt Scott. After three games, Hola is averageing 17.3 minutes, along with almost cracking the 10m/run mark with an average of 38m from 4 runs. The Bulldogs have also given Porirua Vikings junior (Wellington) Renouf To'omaga further opportunities, coinciding with their strong run of form and To'omaga is rolling out similar numbers to; 22mins, 56m from 6.3 run. Both Hola and To'omaga will come off the bench for their respective teams and this will serve as an intriguing wee #KiwiNRL battle.
Kieran Foran has also made a solid return to the Bulldogs team, cluttering Aotearoa's halves depth. As you'll read below, Jahrome Hughes is in the halves for Melbourne Storm and Dylan Brown is looking good for Parramatta Eels and Foran's return has come with two wins for the Doggies. Further strong performances from Foran could put him in alongside Shaun Johnson for the Kiwis and coach Michael Maguire would love to have this level of experience to help develop the younger options.
Warriors vs Rabbitohs
Starters: All but Blake Green.
Bench/Extended Bench: All but Lachlan Burr, Blake Ayshford.
Bench/Extended Bench: /Tom Amone, Mawene Hiroti.
Not much doing here, so I just want to kick on from that Kiwis halves idea with regards to Kodi Nikorima. Nikorima and Johnson were the halves combo last year for Aotearoa, then Benji Marshall stepped in this year for Nikorima and Nikorima's selection for the end of season footy isn't exactly a certainty. The depth is such that lads need to be playing well in the NRL, winning games and commanding selection which Nikorima is not doing, while others like Hughes, Brown, Foran and Marshall are all doing. Nikorima has enjoyed a fairly nice ride, given his emergence came when Foran was enduring his issues and now that the depth is being built back up, Nikorima could be the odd man out.
Broncos vs Eels
Starters: Jamayne Isaako, Alex Glenn.
Bench/Extended Bench: Nada.
Starters: Dylan Brown, Manu Ma'u, Marata Niukore.
Bench/Extended Bench: Peni Terepo, Brad Takairangi/Josh Hoffman.
Good news for #KiwiNRL fans from the Nathan Brown brain explosion as Marata Niukore gets to start in the middle for Parramatta Eels. In 28 minutes last week, Niukore had 7 runs for 82m and that comes out at 11.71m/run which is immense impact off the bench. How Niukore goes against the more fancied Broncos forward pack is going to be an enticing challenge for the Mangere East junior, perhaps informing us of where Niukore is at after a strong season so far.
As you may have guessed, I'm also super interested in Dylan Brown's performance. The Broncos have a lovely forward pack, without the classy play-makers to make the most of it, while the Brown/Mitchell Moses duo tend to ooze class. As long as the Eels forward pack can maintain parity with the Broncos, Brown could be a point of difference for the Eels and his running game will test the mobility of Brisbane's forwards.
Knights vs Titans
Starters: Shaun Kenny-Dowall, Mason Lino.
Bench/Extended Bench: Herman Ese'ese, James Gavet.
Starters: Jesse Arthars, Moeaki Fotuaika, Kevin Proctor.
Bench/Extended Bench: Nada.
So much hype around the Broncos forwards, yet Moeaki Fotuaika is the underground king and this week he signed a deal to stay with Gold Coast Titans until the end of 2022. Despite going down to the Storm last weekend, Fotuaika still rolled out a typically slick performance in the middle for the Titans with 16 runs for 142m in 57mins and at 19-years-old, no Titans player had more runs, metres or post contact metres than Fotuaika in that game.
Sea Eagles vs Storm
Starters: Martin Taupau.
Bench/Extended Bench: Taniela Paseka.
Starters: Jahrome Hughes, Jesse Bromwich, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Kenny Bromwich.
Bench/Extended Bench: Brandon Smith.
Jahrome Hughes has wiggled into the halves for Melbourne Storm, pushing Brodie Croft out of the top-17 with Ryan Papenhuyzen taking the vacant fullback spot. This feels like coach Craig Bellamy wanted both Papenhuyzen and Hughes in the starting team, which has left Croft on the outer and ahead of the finals, Hughes has a fabulous opportunity to make his mark in the halves.
We have seen how influential Hughes can be at fullback and in last week's win over the Titans, Hughes wasn't placed under great pressure as a half. This week he comes up against Manly and will face more pressure from Des Hasler and his gang of Sea Eagles, presenting a different challenge for Hughes that is more aligned with what we will see in finals footy. Last week the Storm shared kicking duties nicely; Hughes had 6 kicks, Cameron Munster 5 kicks and Cameron Smith 4 kicks. They also split touches between Munster and Hughes fairly evenly with Munster taking 42 touches and Hughes 37, while Hughes ran 11 times and Munster ran 16 times.
I'm interested in Hughes' play-making and how he handles the core roles of playing as a half. His life is made a whole lot easier with Smith at hooker, absorbing much of the organising duties and allowing for Hughes to execute plays. The running threat from Munster and Hughes is going to be niggly for opposition defences as well and I'm frothing to see the impact of Hughes as a half.
Roosters vs Panthers
Starters: Joseph Manu, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, Isaac Liu.
Bench/Extended Bench: Zane Tetevano, Sio Siua Taukeiaho/Sitili Tupouniua, Asu Kepaoa.
Starters: Dean Whare, Moses Leota, James Fisher-Harris.
Bench/Extended Bench: Jarome Luai/Sione Katoa, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson seems to have settled on his best 17, which doesn't feature Poasa Fa'amausili and Sitili Tupouniua, although both are next in line. This does however feature Sio Siua Taukeiaho coming off the bench now that Robinson has Isaac Liu starting in the middle and in just 33mins last week, Taukeiaho had 8 runs for 92m (11.5m/run), along with a tackle bust and an offload.
I'm also intrigued by the presence of Asu Kepaoa on the extended bench, most likely via the absence of winger Ryan Hall which bumps Kepaoa up a spot. Kepaoa popped on my radar when he joined the Roosters squad that went to England earlier this year, with Kepaoa appearing to have been signed by the Roosters after cracking Aotearoa Under 16s back in 2016. Primarily a winger, Kepaoa must be making a strong impression at the Roosters and that's fantastic sign for a youngster.
Sharks vs Raiders
Starters: Sione Katoa, Ronaldo Mulitalo, Shaun Johnson, Briton Nikora.
Bench/Extended Bench: Braden Hamlin-Uele
Starters: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Bailey Simonsson, Jordan Rapana, Iosia Soliola.
Bench/Extended Bench: Siliva Havili.
All about Braden Hamlin-Uele yet again and surely the Glenora Bears junior must be front and centre of Michael Maguire's Aotearoa Kiwis plans this spring. Hamlin-Uele dominated the Warriors last week in just 36 minutes of footy, with a robust try and 9 runs for 120m, as well as 5 tackle busts and 2 offloads. That's exactly what Hamlin-Uele has offered all season and he has low key surpassed Briton Nikora as the most impressive young onward at the Sharks, especially from the #KiwiNRL angle; Nikora won Kiwis selection and I'm on the BHU band-wagon.
Dragons vs Tigers
Bench/Extended Bench: Nada.
Starters: Esan Marsters, Benji Marshall.
Bench/Extended Bench: Elijah Taylor, Michael Chee-Kam.
Elijah Taylor has enjoyed a steady stint as a bench forward in recent weeks, playing 40+ minutes for five straight weeks before getting 36mins in the big win over the Knights. Taylor offers something slightly unique on the Tigers bench as a work horse and an extra pair of play-making hands, among more dynamic forwards and with Benji Marshall taking a stint at dummy half last week, Taylor's passing takes on greater importance when there is that gap in the halves. Also, somehow Esan Marsters hasn't had a tackle bust in his last two games, which is notable when you average 2.3 tackle busts per game.
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