Injuries and suspensions to key players from the premiership contenders has turned the finish to the regular season on its head as sides jockey for positions ahead of the finals.
The Panthers have lost Nathan Cleary to suspension, the Eels are without Mitchell Moses due to injury and the Storm’s depth is being severely tested as the business end of the season heats up.
Read on for the biggest Talking Points out of Round 20.
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ROOSTERS NAIL MANU BALANCING ACT
Gorden Tallis believes it’s crucial for the Joey Manu to “get his hands on the ball more” and it seems Roosters coach Trent Robinson has found a way to make it happen without moving him from the centres.
There were some curious eyes watching Manu in his return game from a quad injury on Thursday.
Manu starred at five-eighth in Round 18 with skipper James Tedesco even conceding afterwards that the Roosters need to find a way to get him more ball.
Manu shifted back to the centres on Thursday night given Luke Keary is back in action and it was clear that he had been given a licence to roam.
“Joey Manu moved to the centres, but he played a lot of football in the middle — that’s where he’s most dangerous,” Matty Johns said on The Late Show with Matty Johns.
Manu took 21 runs — the most of any player on the field — and finished with 194 running metres, 10 tackle busts, three offloads and a linebreak.
There were fears that Manu’s return to the centres would see him less involved in the action. But he took more runs than Round’s 18 and 16 at five-eighth (18 and 17 runs respectively).
Tallis said if the Roosters are to make a mark on the competition, it will come off the back of Manu’s involvement, while Johns believes it will take the perfect balancing act to get it right each week.
“That’s the challenge for the Roosters because he’s played five-eighth and fullback for the Roosters and when he’s played in those roles he’s shown that he’s still the best player on the field,” Tallis said.
“I think for the Roosters to go deep into this competition, he needs to get his hands on the ball a lot more — just give him a roaming role.”
“He still scored his try in the centre position but he was allowed to come in and create havoc in the middle, which I reckon fits great,” Nathan Hindmarsh interjected.
“It takes the right football intelligence to be able to do it because Trent Robinson no doubt said ‘mate just got looking for the football’,” Johns said.
“But your halves sometimes say ‘can you hold your formation for me,’ so it’s a balance.”
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BELLAMY’S FEAR AS ‘STRUGGLING’ STORM FACE ‘CRUEL’ BLOW
Storm coach Craig Bellamy conceded that he’s “struggling” with depth in the outside backs and the fact that there’s still five weeks to go before finals “scares” him.
It comes after his backline stocks copped another hit on Friday when replacement fullback Nick Meaney suffered a shoulder injury and left the field in a makeshift sling.
Bellamy revealed after the game that there is some hope that the injury is not a serious one but regardless Meaney is expected to miss some games.
“He’s done something to his right shoulder but I don’t think we’re quite sure of what he’s done,” Bellamy said.
“It looked pretty dire when he came off, he obviously had the sling on. But it’s looking a bit better at the moment, they don’t think it’s quite as bad as what they thought it was at the start.”
It’s the last thing the Storm’s backline needs given Ryan Papenhuyzen has joined Reimis Smith and George Jennings on the sidelines for the remainder of the season.
Xavier Coates is, however, due back in the next couple of weeks, while Tigers winger David Nofoaluma will join the Storm on a loan deal which will provide some relief.
But Bellamy said it would be a “cruel blow” if Meaney were to receive some bad news given how handy he’s been at fullback, on the wing and even in the halves this season.
“It would be a cruel blow to lose Nick, he’s been one of our most consistent blokes all year and after losing ‘Paps’, he’s been going pretty good for us,” he said.
“We are struggling for numbers in our outside backs and there’s still a few games to go.
“That’s the sort of thing that scares you a bit so hopefully Dave will come down and do a good job for us.”
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PANTHERS HALVES CRISIS AS CLEARY JOINS LUAI ON SIDELINES
The Panthers might be streaks ahead on the ladder, but they will need to win the minor premiership without their two playmakers after Nathan Cleary’s suspension.
Cleary accepted a five week suspension for his ugly lifting tackle on Dylan Brown, which will see him join Jarome Luai, who is out with a knee injury on the sidelines until the finals.
Greg Alexander believes the referee had no choice but to send Cleary off and he will now have to wear the five game suspension that was handed down by the match review committee.
“The precedent has been set this year and we have seen a few tackles that are very similar,” Alexander said.
“Hands between the legs, force and the player ends up on his head or on the back of his shoulders.
“There was little option for the referee to do anything but send him off.
“I think Nathan realised just how the tackle unfolded. It happens quickly, but that is no excuse.”
However, Gorden Tallis believes it could be a blessing in disguise with Cleary and Luai set to return fresh for the finals.
“In fast motion I thought it was harsh, but in slow motion it was no decision at all,” Tallis said.
“The precedent has been set. Nathan was hitting himself in the head thinking why did I do that?
“It was just a crazy moment, but the positive is he is going to come back fresh.”
Alexander identified the two players that will take over in the halves until the star duo return.
“O’Sullivan will go to halfback and then they will need a five-eighth because Jarome Luai is out for the same period roughly,” Alexander said.
“I think Jaeman Salmon would fill the five-eighth role.”
Tallis believes the Panthers have put themselves in a great position on the ladder, so that even the absence of their two best players can be overcome.
“It’s a shock because you train all week and you are second fiddle then all of a sudden you are calling the shots,” Tallis said of O’Sullivan taking over at No.7
“But give him a couple of weeks training here and he will do a job and O’Sullivan is more of a No.7 and he can cover for Nathan Cleary and has done so already this year.
“But they have got some points up their sleeve. They have put themselves in a really good position.”
MOSES AND GUTHERSON COMBINATION KEY TO EELS TITLE TILT
The Eels’ premiership hopes are back on track after their convincing 34-10 win over the Panthers on the back of starring displays from Mitchell Moses and Clint Gutherson.
Unfortunately Moses looks like being out for the next month with a broken finger, which could hurt their push for a top four spot, but when Moses is at his best the Eels can beat anyone come finals time.
Moses kicked two 40/20s against Penrith and Greg Alexander believes he is at the peak of his powers in that department and the Eels can beat anyone in the competition on the back of it.
“The first one was an absolute belter,” Alexander said.
“He was inside his 30 and found the 40/20. Off the back of that they scored the Maika Sivo try. The second 40/20 was very early in the second half.
“Moses was very good against the Panthers and he has to be.
“When you are talking about a team with the chance to win the premiership, which they are because we have seen it half a dozen times this year, that they can play good footy and beat anyone.
“Mitchell Moses is an extremely skilful player and when he gets it going they are confident and you can see the spring in their step.
“Moses’ kicking game was ultra important to what the Eels did against Penrith.”
Gorden Tallis believes the combination of Moses and Gutherson is the key to igniting the Eels’ premiership charge.
“That’s when Parramatta are at their best when the combination of Moses and Gutherson clicks,” Tallis said.
“Gutherson sniffs around a bit like Tedesco. He is always around the football. He is always busy looking for an offload and trying to find some metres for his team. He’s full of energy.
“That’s the Gutherson that Parramatta fans and the Parramatta coach would love to see.
“Moses was just on the front foot and his kicking game was sublime.
“I’m not saying they are a confidence team, but when it is up, boy are they on.”
Alexander believes that Moses needs to find even more consistency because when he is on song, Gutherson and the Eels usually follow.
“They have a very interesting relationship Gutherson and Moses,” Alexander said.
“They are very close on and off the field.
“I think every game it doesn’t matter Gutherson is the same. He is there every game.
“Mitch can float in and out of some games. Some he is great and some he is not great, but he is OK.
“But there is still a gap between Moses’ good games and his mediocre games.
“I think he runs off the back of Gutherson. They are very tight.
“If Mitch is good and bouncing around it is very infectious.”
However, it will be up to Jakob Arthur to guide the team over the next month before Moses returns and the star No.7’s injury coiuld have a huge impact on where they finish on the table.
RAIDERS’ RUN HOME
The Raiders are charging towards finals but they might miss out over a controversial decision which Ricky Stuart admits he’s still “stewing” over.
Canberra have won four of their past five games and the one they lost was against the Dragons when they were denied a penalty on the bell that would have levelled the scores.
The NRL admitted they got it wrong but was of little consolation to Raiders coach Ricky Stuart who is trying to steer his club back to finals.
The controversial loss could prove costly with the Green Machine sitting ninth with five games remaining.
Canberra are on equal points with the eighth-placed Roosters but the Tricolours have them covered by more than 100 points on differential.
“We’re building some nice momentum but I’m still stewing a bit over that Dragons game,” Stuart said after beating the Titans on Saturday.
The Raiders next face the Panthers who will be without star halfback Nathan Cleary (suspended) and then bottom-eight side the Dragons, Knights, Sea Eagles and Tigers.
“We’ve got a good draw but we didn’t have these teams at the start of the year, if we’d had these teams we might be in the top six or top four now,” Stuart said.
“We had a real tough start to the year where we lost (halfback) Jamal (Fogarty) for 12 weeks.
“We did start a little slow but if you take your halfback and hooker out of the spine, it’s tough.”
Canberra halves Fogarty and Jack Wighton are building their combination nicely, while forwards Joe Tapine and Adam Elliott are in the best form of their careers.
“That was their fifth or sixth game together in the halves and they’re great mates off the field which is showing on it,” Stuart said.
“Joe Tapine – he’s the best front rower in the game and backed up by a wonderful forward pack and Papa (Josh Papalii).
“Adam Elliott has never played better footy.”
HOLBROOK’S SAD ADMISSION
Justin Holbrook said he cannot wait for Kieran Foran to land at the club next season, but the Titans coach might not be there when he arrives.
Pressure is mounting on Holbrook after a ninth straight loss as the club edges closer to collecting its second wooden spoon in four years.
The Gold Coast played finals last season but they’ve won just one of their past 15 games and against the Raiders on Saturday conceded 30 points for the ninth time in 2022.
The Titans’ defence was particularly poor against Canberra as they let in several soft tries and missed 44 tackles.
The club released their captain and halfback Jamal Fogarty to the Raiders last summer, deciding to gamble on a rookie spine.
The call has proved disastrous, with the Titans crying out for a cool head to help guide young guns Tanah Bord, Toby Sexton and Jayden Campbell around the park.
Holbrook blamed the loss on inexperience and admitted Manly veteran half Foran, who is signed for next season, couldn’t arrive soon enough.
“We let too many soft tries in and were chasing the game at the end. It’s the same issues – inexperience in key positions hurting us that’s what’s costing us,” Holbrook said.
“Inexperience is what we’ve got, we can’t change that now but we can change it for next year, we’ve just got to get on with it. Kieran can’t get here quick enough.
“We want to get better and shuffling guys around makes it hard but I can’t keep leaving it the way it is and we’ll have to make another few changes again next week.
“That’s what we’ve got to do at the back end of the year now, get guys experience and exposure.
“I’ve been coaching a long time and the inexperienced spine makes it so difficult, particularly on our forwards. It’s just the position we’re in.”
OFF-CONTRACT TIGER STAKES CLAIM FOR NEW DEAL
It was only two months ago that Jock Madden’s manager said “he just needs a chance to be the seven and run a team, that’s what he wants to do.” Well, Madden got that opportunity, albeit in a No.18 jersey, and he made the most of his opportunity.
Madden was rushed into the Tigers’ 17 after Luke Brooks suffered a calf injury at training and he was instrumental in their upset win over the Broncos, scoring a stunning try and setting up two more.
His halves partner Adam Doueihi said he was “outstanding” and also believes “he set up the game for us,” while both he and skipper James Tamou knew all along what Madden was capable of.
“To come in last minute, he’s been biding his time in New South Wales Cup but I knew when he got his chance he’d go good and he set up the game for us. He was a real calm head,” Doueihi told Fox League.
“He’s been really good for us, he’s come in a couple of times… it helps now that Jacko’s gone to the No.13 and I think he’s flourishing there,” Tamou added.
“But it helps Jock get a run and show what he’s made of. We know what he’s capable of, he just needs eyes on him.”
The 22-year-old former Australian Schoolboy comes off contract at the end of the season. He was reportedly shopped to the Raiders in March and in May his manager said “he would certainly consider a move to Queensland if the Dolphins were keen.”
But Cooper Cronk believes Benji Marshall, who will join the Tigers’ coaching staff next season, should make the moves to retain Madden.
“The kid can play,” he said.
There some really classy touches, I thought that first try he set up was really classy ball-playing from the young man.
“I know there’s a lot of moving pieces at the Tigers but there’s a former colleague that used to sit on this table that will be moving into the coach’s box at some stage soon and that kid has just put his hand up and his name up in lights.”
KNIGHTS SEASON THREATENING TO GET UGLY
Matty Johns believes the Knights’ season is in danger of imploding after their convincing 24-10 loss to the Bulldogs.
The Knights have the worst defensive record in the NRL, conceding 27.7 points per game and their attack wasn’t much better in Round 20.
Bryan Fletcher believes the Knights look lost and unsure of themselves in attack.
“The Knights in the second half looked like they were void of ideas,” Fletcher said on Sunday Night with Matty Johns.
Matty Johns called on Anthony Milford to use his running game to ignite the Knights attack in the absence of Kalyn Ponga due to concussion.
“They are struggling there is no doubt about it,” Johns said.
“Milford has to do a lot more running of the football forward instead of just shovelling the ball sideways.
“Their confidence is really low at the moment. It is almost certain that Kalyn Ponga won’t return.
“They have got to lift because you don’t want the end of the season to get ugly, which it could.”
Greg Alexander and Cooper Cronk were concerned with the Knights’ attack given their huge amount of possession in the second half against the Bulldogs.
“There is not much to be said for the Knights attack despite the amount of football they had in good field position,” Alexander said.
“They really haven’t looked like scoring.”
“Newcastle had 37 tackles in the 20 metre zone trying to score points,” Cronk said.
“The Knights looked pretty ordinary in attack.”
Adding insult to injury former Knights player Jacob Kiraz returned to haunt his old club with a breathtaking hat-trick.
DRAGONS CONTROVERSY COSTING THER SQUAD
The last two weeks have been turbulent for Anthony Griffin’s St George Illawarra Dragons.
Reports surfaced two weeks ago suggesting Griffin’s future at the club was in doubt following two poor performances against the Roosters and Broncos.
The Red V conceded 86 points across the two contests, putting Griffin’s position firmly in the spotlight.
While reports suggested Griffin was not a talking point at a board meeting following the heavy defeats, the speculation could have done nothing positive for the squad.
But, in Round 19, the Dragons put together a strong performance on the back of Dally M favourite Ben Hunt to down the Sea Eagles.
Then prior to the club’s Round 20 clash against the Cowboys, more news broke within the club’s coaching ranks.
The Dragons reportedly sacked their two assistant coaches for next season — Peter Gentle and Mathew Head.
Reports suggested the club were putting faith in Griffin, and wanted to build around their head coach moving forward — but the internal changes would do nothing to help the Dragons who are desperately fighting for a spot in the top eight.
After another turbulent week, the Dragons were flogged by Todd Payten’s Cowboys, and star player Ben Hunt stood firm in saying the news their coaches were facing the axe had no influence on his side.
“To be honest it is not really talked about much when you are at training, I haven’t found it hard to block it out because we are just in there focusing on playing against the Cowboys,” Hunt said in the post-match press conference.
“As players you are looking at your homework, doing video on them and trying to get better to beat them, that is pretty much all we are focused on.”
Griffin also believed the news had nothing to do with his side’s 34-8 loss, after trailing by only two points at halftime.
“I don’t think that is a distraction, I think tonight the way we approached that with our effort and intent for most of that game was very good,” Griffin said.
“We just weren’t strong enough at a couple of times defensively, and execution wise we were a little off the ball, but I thought the general attitude was good.”
The former Broncos and Panthers boss conceded there is no “right time” to sack a coach, but the move couldn’t do much to help the squad.
“There is never a right time, you know the club went through that process with everyone over the last month or so,” Griffin said.
“There is never a right time.”