We’re into the back third of the season and the run to September is ramping up with 11 teams still in contention to play finals footy.
Eels star Isaiah Papali’i, heading to the Wests Tigers next season, showed why he ignited a bidding ward.
Joseph Manu had a day out in the Roosters’ No.6 jersey, while Reuben Garrick stood tall at fullback for the Sea Eagles — and proved he can fill arguably the biggest shoes in the NRL.
Storm star Ryan Papenhuyzen cannot take a trick and Tigers playmaker Jackson Hastings’ move to lock didn’t work.
Cowboys coach Todd Payten has another selection headache on his hands and Titans coach Justin Holbrook’s job appears safe for another seven days.
The Panthers extended their winning despite resting all the Origin stars, while Latrell Mitchell starred again for the Rabbitohs.
Here are all the big talking points from Round 18!!
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PAPALI’I SHOWS EELS — AND TIGERS — JUST HOW GOOD HE IS
Isaiah Papali’i might be caught in a tug of war between the Eels and the Tigers for his services amid the backflip drama that came out last week, but he showed both clubs just why they want him so badly.
Papali’i was one of the Eels’ best in their 28-18 win over the Warriors with 101 metres from just 10 carries, five tackle busts, a linebreak, 29 tackles and a try.
His line to score off a Reed Mahoney assist had his future Tigers coach Benji Marshall gushing about his talent.
“Papali’i has gone from strength to strength as a back-rower,” Marshall said.
“He is one of the best angle runners in the game.
“We saw tonight off Reed Mahoney how good he is.”
Gorden Tallis couldn’t believe Papali’i was only 23 given what he producing for the Eels over the last two seasons.
“He is only 23 years of age,” Tallis said.
“To be a back-rower that is that good. Five tackle busts tonight. His power. His timing. The experience.
“The tackles where he is cleaning up for the blokes on the inside. He is great at mixing his game up.
“That drop off (play) I’m sure the play was going out wide and he just sees the space and changes his angle.
“That’s a super clever player. He doesn’t run the same line every time.
“To have a back-rower like that. Reed Mahoney came across and drops back on the inside. He sees a guy over-chasing and a guy not filling in and he changes it. That is an intelligent player.”
Michael Ennis who coaches him at the Eels couldn’t resist a little dig at Marshall, who phoned Papali’i during the week to convince him to honour his Tigers deal.
“His workrate is phenomenal,” Ennis said.
“He had 100 metres again carrying the ball. Defensively I thought he was outstanding.
“I don’t know if it was your phone call during the week Benji.”
“He is coming to the Tigers,” Marshall said with a laugh.
“Seriously though when you look at his game, he made a big move leaving the Warriors and his family and his comfort zone and moving to Australia to take on a new challenge and it has all been worth it.
“I spent a bit of time with him in the Kiwis when he was 19 years old and he was still at the Warriors.
“He didn’t have the same work ethic and was probably a little bit unfit. Once you find that fitness and balance and you can do the things with your body because your lungs can react to the things your brain wants to do.
“For back-rowers it is one of the hardest positions on the field to play.”
Should he go to the Tigers as expected, the Eels will rue the fact they have let two of their best in Reed Mahoney and Papali’i walk out the door.
MANU’S STUNNER AT NO.6 OPENS UP HALVES CONUNDRUM
Joseph Manu had a day out in the Roosters’ No.6 jersey, but he’ll shift back to the centres next week despite skipper James Tedesco conceding “we need to get him in the halves and get his hands on the ball more.”
With Luke Keary sidelined, Manu was shifted to five-eighth and tore the Dragons to shreds with two tries, two try assists, four linebreaks, one linebreak assist, 11 tackle busts and 153 running metres on Saturday.
Fox League expert Corey Parker was in awe of the Kiwi international.
“Joey Manu in the No.6, he’s my favourite player — I love watching everything Joey does. He was incredible at different stages and really picked his side up,” he said.
Tedesco told Fox League after the game that having Manu closer to the action will “create a lot of opportunities” for the Roosters.
“He’s just a footy player. You can put him anywhere in the team and he’ll just create something out of nothing — that’s what he does for us.
“We need to get him in the halves, get his hands on the ball more often, he’s going to create a lot of opportunities.
“He frees up my game as well, he said to me last game ‘it’s just like playing fullback except you’ve just got to tackle’ so it’s good to have two fullbacks out there.”
Tedesco stopped short of doubling down in the post-game press conference — however he believes Manu has been a real standout when at five-eighth.
“I think just getting his hands on the ball is important for us,” he said when asked where Manu’s best position is.
“I don’t know where that position is but I think five-eighth, the last couple of weeks he’s been there, he’s probably been one of our best players. He’s just a natural footy player and we just want him more involved and he’s doing that in the halves.
“I’m really enjoying playing with him because we’re sort of similar in that role, we play off instincts and us two roaming around the middle together is pretty dangerous.”
It leaves Roosters coach Trent Robinson with a real head ache. Keary is expected to return next week from a concussion — and given he’s a three-time premiership winning playmaker it was no surprise when Robinson confirmed the 30-year-old will play in the halves.
That means either Manu returns to centre, or 20-year-old Sam Walker, who is considered the future of the club, would have to make way.
GARRICK’S FILLS BIG SHOES
Many rugby league pundits wrote the Sea Eagles off when Tom Trbojevic suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
Trbojevic, who won the Dally M in 2021, is the club’s most important player – but in his absence another man has stood tall.
Reuben Garrick slotted into the fullback role for Des Hasler and never looked back, delivering quality performance after quality performance for the Sea Eagles.
In Round 18 against the Knights, Garrick continued his strong form to record 217 running metres, six tackle breaks and two try assists.
It would have been easy for the 25-year-old to attempt to replicate Trbojevic’s barnstorming style of football, with dominant runs and flashy.
But instead, after a chat with experienced captain Daly Cherry-Evans, Garrick utilises his own style, always being the first man to support and running hard.
“He has really grown into the fullback role for us, we spoke about it as soon as he got his opportunity, he doesn’t have to be Tom for us, he just has to work out his style of footy,”
“Reuben has worked out what his style of footy is and he is playing some great footy.
“I am really proud of him and enjoying having him out there.”
Jake Trbojevic also went out of his way to praise Garrick, singling out his No.1 as someone that should be highlighted after their thrashing of the Knights.
“I want to give a wrap to Reuben Garrick, I think he has been outstanding in the last few weeks, the way he just wants the footy and competes on every play,” Trbojevic said.
Meanwhile, Des Hasler also explained that Garrick is important for the Sea Eagles, especially if they want to make a deep finals run.
He also revealed ‘Turbo’ has been mentoring Garrick, imparting his fullback wisdom onto the stand-in No.1.
“He has really grown, but it is more the confidence that he has developed with it and someone like Tom Trbojevic does a lot of work with Reuben,” Hasler said in the post-match press conference.
“He is performing really well and it has been really important, he had some really good touches tonight.”
As it stands, the Sea Eagles sit in eighth place and if Garrick continues to deliver they are a strong chance of moving further up the ladder.
So far in 2022, Garrick sits 20th for total tackle breaks, ninth for total tries, 31st for try assists, equal seventh for line breaks and third for total run metres.
PAYTEN’S BACK ROW HEADACHE
When the Cowboys signed Leilua for the 2023 season back in November 2021 North Queensland fans were excited at the prospect of having a top tier backrower.
At the time, the Cowboys were struggling, having finished in 15th place.
Fast forward only eight months and Todd Payten has a true backrow headache on his hands, boasting three quality players who ply their trade in the backrow.
Jeremiah Nanai has emerged as one of the competition’s brightest young talents and played an important role in the Maroons victorious Origin campaign.
Tom Gilbert earned a well-deserved call-up to the Maroons squad and was strong on debut.
While he has been signed by the Dolphins for the 2023 season, Payten will still want to get the most out of the 21-year-old for the remainder of the year.
Now after securing Luciano Leilua’s early release, it begs the question — who will start in the backrow.
The former Tigers star was strong in his starting debut against the Sharks, setting up the Cowboys first four-pointer with impressive fast hands.
Leilua recorded 72 running metres, with seven tackle breaks and a linebreak in an impressive showing, earning the praise of coach Todd Payten.
“He was awesome, he is only going to get better and better,” Payten said.
Payten could look to next season and start Leilua and Nanai on each edge, shifting Tom Gilbert to the bench and using him as an injection against a tired defence.
But the Cowboys coach could also keep his team the same, picking Leilua on the bench.
For the 2023 season, his headache could be even bigger.
Heilum Luki suffered a season-ending knee injury which only means he will come back hungrier than ever.
The 21-year-old is seen as a star of the future, but could be stuck behind Leilua in the pecking order.
HASTINGS POSITIONAL SWITCH JUST GAVE TIGERS TWO HALFBACKS
Greg Alexander believes the Tigers’ decision to move Jackson Hastings to lock didn’t work because it left them effectively with two halfbacks and short a forward.
The Tigers lost 18-16 to a Panthers team missing seven Origin stars and Hastings played 80 minutes at lock to finish with 66 run metres, three tackle busts, three offloads, a try assist and 34 tackles, but he also had two errors and two missed tackles.
Hastings was solid in defence, but the try he set up came from a kick, which isn’t the normal way for a ball playing lock to set up a try and Alexander believes the Tigers were exposed in the forwards due to Hastings playing like a halfback.
“No I didn’t like it because he played like an extra halfback,” Alexander said.
“When you have two halfbacks it puts more pressure on your back-rowers to make more runs.
“It also puts more pressure on your front-rowers. It burns your front-rowers out.”
Shane Flanagan agreed that Hastings didn’t change his game and played more like a running halfback than a ball playing lock.
“I couldn’t agree more,” Flanagan said.
“He didn’t change his game whatsoever and it just puts pressure on the other players in that squad.”
Tigers coach Brett Kimmorley was adamant that he would persist with Hastings in the lock position.
“I don’t want him to play like a prop forward,” Kimmorley said.
The problem is the Tigers are thin in the forwards as it is and if Hastings plays like an extra half then it creates issues with Luke Brooks and Adam Doeuihi over who is the main playmaker when the game is on the line, while also putting more pressure on their forward pack to make up for his lack of metres in attack.
PAP’S LIKELY LOOKING TO 2023
Ryan Papenhuyzen cannot take a trick.
The Storm superstar’s season looks almost certainly over after just 12 games following a painful knee injury against the Raiders.
Papenhuyzen went off in agony in the 20th minute after making heavy knee-on-knee contact with Raiders star Jack Wighton.
The 24-year-old went straight to hospital and Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy confirmed he’d fractured his knee cap.
“He’s 1000s (to return this season), he’s got a broken knee cap so he won’t be back I wouldn’t imagine,” Bellamy said.
Papenhuyzen is facing six months on the sideline having already missed a large chunk of the season after sustaining PCL and hamstring injuries in Round 9.
He played just 15 NRL games last year due to concussion and now joins a growing injury ward in Melbourne.
Bellamy is now without fullback Papenhuyzen, wingers Xavier Coates and George Jennings, centre Reimis Smith.
“Just seems to keep happening these injuries,” Bellamy said.
“It’s disappointing for Paps, I thought he was looking fairly sharp there tonight so it’s disappointing for him, disappointing for us that it looks like it’s all over for the season for him.
“(Nick Meaney) has done a great job there when Paps wasn’t there and we’re really short in the outside backs and that leaves us a winger short.”
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HOLBROOK HANGING ON… JUST
Titans coach Justin Holbrook would likely have been looking for a job today had his side been thrashed by the Broncos on Saturday night.
They still lost a seventh straight but it was their best performance in months as the Gold Coast men finally showed some resilience in defence.
The Titans made finals last season and went within one pass of a semi-final berth, but it’s only points difference keeping them off the ladder after 19 rounds in 2022.
But Holbrook said after the 16-12 loss to Brisbane that side are finally starting to turn a corner.
“There was a lot to like about the players and the performance, just not the performance,” Holbrook said.
The club dismissed members of his support staff last week, but Corey Parker believes Holbrook’s job is safe for now.
“I think he’s going to hold his job,” Corey Paker said on Fox League.
“By the way things are happening at the Gold Coast, they’re moving some deck chairs around him which suggests to me they’re going to stick with Holbrook but try and reinforce in areas they maybe feel they’re deficient in.
“Some of the youth and tinkering they did, I think it worked and while they didn’t get the victory that’s the positives they’ll take out of it.
“It’s a results-driven business and he hasn’t delivered this year but I think they’ll hold him this year and they’ll reassess.”
Cooper Cronk said the Titans making the finals last year would play a key role in Holbrook keeping his job.
“The biggest improvement for the Titans is they need to get smart decision makers in crucial positions to be able to know when to make the right call at the right time,” Cronk said.
“Too often this year they’ve let in a lot of points and made poor decisions that have cost them.
“Holbrook has enough history in the way that he can coach that I think the biggest thing for them to improve is to get back to playing finals next year is emulating in training where they make decisions under pressure so they can come up with the right call.”
LATRELL LIGHTS IT UP
Rabbitohs superstar Latrell Mitchell almost single-handedly beat the Bulldogs on Sunday night.
Mitchell turned the game in Souths favour with a brilliant solo try that capped a masterclass performance from the fullback.
Mitchell finished with 119 run metres, five tackle busts, three offloads, one linebreak, three linebreak assists, three try assists and one of the best individual tries of the season.
Cooper Cronk believes the Bulldogs were on track for the win until Mitchell’s freak solo try inspired Souths to a comeback victory.
“This game was in the balance with the Bulldogs leading after 60 minutes 22-16 and Latrell Mitchell with one run and about five broken tackles and a right fend into Addo-Carr’s chest turned this game on its head,” Cronk said.“He inspired his teammates and they went on a run. Paul Vaughan scored, but then everything after that was all South Sydney.
“When the game and his side needed it Latrell Mitchell stood up.”
Greg Alexander believes Mitchell will only get better with the more game time he gets under his belt after returning from a long lay-off.
“Latrell had some nice moments,” Alexander said.
“We saw some examples of just how powerful he is.
“This is Latrell rebooting his season. He is starting his season again and he is just finding his feet.
“He had some good touches. He didn’t overplay his hand. He got the ball straight out to Alex Johnston.
“Latrell will improve with each performance as we build into the finals.”
Cronk believes Souths will be a scary proposition in the back half of the year with Mitchell in this sort of form.
“Mitchell’s form is emulating what Tom Trbojevic did last season and with him back to his best Souths can be scary in the lead up to the finals,” Cronk said.
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