The Broncos are staring down the barrel of a scary statistical anomaly after finishing with the worst case scenario from their final round clash.
The Panthers’ halves combination have only had one game together ahead of the finals, but did destroy a lacklustre Cowboys side.
Meanwhile, James Tedesco is peaking at the perfect time and the Storm have a big decision to make regarding Papenhuyzen’s best role.
Read below for all the burning questions ahead of the first week of finals!
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Can the Cogger and Cleary combination cut it after only one game?
Following Jarome Luai’s shoulder injury, replacement playmaker Jack Cogger is the man tasked with picking up his slack. Cogger’s natural position is halfback, but will take over on the left side of the field for the Panthers, with Luai only a slim chance of returning should Penrith make the preliminary finals. Nathan Cleary is arguably the game’s best No.7 but his combination with Cogger is very raw, going in to the finals with only one game played as a partnership. Can Cleary and Cogger lead the Panthers to their third straight premiership? If their performance on Saturday afternoon was anything to by, the answer is yes. Penrith were ruthless in attack against the Cowboys and delivered a near-perfect first half before taking their foot off the gas in the second. With players like Mitch Kenny and Scott Sorensen returning, Cogger will simply have to play a role and the Panthers’ juggernaut could role on with Cleary once again leading the way.
Can the Broncos defy the statistics to win in week one?
The stats paint a grim picture for the Broncos. The Storm’s Round 27 win over Brisbane was their 14th consecutive game taking the chocolates. Suncorp Stadium is also revered as one of the most feared grounds to travel to in rugby league, but not for Melbourne. They haven’t lost to Brisbane on their home soil since 2009. However, if there was ever a team to defy the odds it’s this Broncos outfit filled with some of the game’s most in-form players. Reece Walsh is arguably the season’s best recruit, while the one-two punch of Payne Haas and Patrick Carrigan is extremely dangerous. Throw in the experienced Adam Reynolds and speedsters Herbie Farnworth and Selwyn Cobbo, and the Broncos could get the job done. Coming in to the final round of the year, the Broncos would have been confident of securing the minor premiership, which would have seen them face the Warriors. Andrew Webster’s side would have been considered an ‘easier’ opponent for the Broncos, but after resting several big-name stars Brisbane lost both the J. J. Giltinan Shield and their preffered match-up which could come back to haunt the Red Hill club.
NRL clubs launch finals series in Sydney | 03:50
The Storm have one of the game’s best players on the bench — how can they use him?
There’s no arguing Ryan Papenhuyzen is one of the NRL’s best players. He has only played two NRL games since returning from a 13-month lay off after an ugly knee injury, but was impressive in his first full hitout in Round 27. The Daily Telegraph’s Buzz Rothfield has revealed how Craig Bellamy will utilise his talents, handing him a roving playmaking role off the bench with Nick Meaney staying at fullback. Papenhuyzen will reportedly replace a middle forward — but can the Storm’s pack cut it against a rampaging Broncos front row being a big-man down in the middle? Only time will tell, but the thought of Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes linking up with Papenhuyzen in the middle of the field will strike fear in to Kevin Walters’ heart. Papenhuyzen will float across the park and look for holes, being handed freedom similar to Joey Manu at the back-end of last season. He would pop up when needed for Melbourne, but his defence in the middle of the park could be an issue and he will likely be targeted by the Broncos forwards.
Is it just too good to be true for the ‘Wahs’?
‘Up the Wahs’ chants have spread like wildfire off the back of a huge season to finish in fourth. All the talk pre-season was about Cameron Ciraldo joining the Bulldogs, but the Warriors signed the hidden gem in Andrew Webster. Players and fans alike love ‘Webby’ and he was even likened to Jason Sudekis’ loveable football coach character Ted Lasso. But with a clash against the reigning premiers looming, is it all too good to be true? New Zealand are riding a wave of success, but surely the buck stops somewhere? But if you look at their team’s form, maybe not. Shaun Johnson is a leading contender for the Dally M Medal, Dallin Watene-Zezlezniak can’t stop scoring and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad could be the most reliable man in rugby league. That’s not even including Addin Fonua-Blake, Wayde Egan and Tohu Harris who have all been excellent this season. New Zealand, even if they lose to the Panthers in week one, are a genuine force to be reckoned with and it’s only going to get better next season with the return of one of the club’s favourite sons in Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
SJ claims Warriors’ player of the year | 00:33
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Are the Knights too reliant on Kalyn Ponga?
It was only two months ago that Knights coach Adam O’Brien was on the chopping block, with club powerbrokers reportedly meeting with a number of candidates to take over his role, including Justin Holbrook. Fast forward to August, and Newcastle have finished in fifth. The Knights were in 14th place as late as Round 19, but went on a staggering nine-game win streak and are now one of the hottest teams in the finals. The turnaround from a side who looked directionless at the start of the season to an attacking force has been nothing short of spectacular. Credit goes to O’Brien and the club’s talisman Kalyn Ponga, who has been arguably the best player in the competition to close out the year. His decision to miss the Origin series has paid dividends in a big way and he has well and truly jusitified his hefty million-dollar price tag. But if they Knights do lose him to a head knock or an injury in the finals, can they get the job done without him? The gun fullback spearhead’s their attack and is the man they attempt to get in to space. After an AC joint injury, Ponga didn’t feature in Round 27 and still Newcastle were solid against the Dragons securing a 20-point win. The Knights have several other players in the midst of career-best seasons, including Bradman Best and Phoenix Crossland, who has been excellent at hooker. While Ponga is the team’s most important figure, credit also needs to be handed to the rest of the side.
The Sharks’ fullback gamble
The Sharks have a big decision on their hands ahead of their clash with the Roosters in the first week of finals. Craig Fitzgibbon was reportedly “sitting on the fence” regarding the fitness of stand-in fullback Connor Tracey, however he “completed some of the session” on Wednesday according to The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Carayannis. Elsewhere, Will Kennedy could return from a hamstring injury a week early should Tracey be ruled out. A potential switch for Nicho Hynes has already been ruled out, while Daniel Atkinson and Kayal Iro are the remaining options for the No.1 jersey. With a must-win clash looming, Fitzgibbon now has a huge call to make with his first two fullback options not at 100 per cent fitness. Do the Sharks carry Tracey in to the game, only for him to potentially go down after taking a knock to his knee? The 27-year-old is a tough, gritty outside back, however Fitzgibbon may need to scrap his four-forward bench system against the Roosters in favour of playing Matt Moylan as a No.14. Similarly, picking Kennedy would also be a huge decision, with the risk of re-injuring a hamstring strain due to an early return being incredibly high. Fitzgibbon’s call has the potential to make or break Cronulla’s season.
‘Not good enough’: Shark Park advantage? | 03:17
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Is James Tedesco peaking at the right time?
It hasn’t been James Tedesco’s best season by his lofty standards and the gun fullback had admitted he has struggled in 2023. In Origin, he failed to deliver and there were even calls for him to dropped going in to Game III. However, the 30-year-old former Dally M Medallist has put together a string of solid performances. The Tricolours have won three games in a row, and Tedesco played an instrumental role in his side’s win over the Rabbitohs in Round 27, securing a finals spot. In Round 25, he also scored a double in a mammoth display against the Eels before a head knock ruled him out of Round 26. There’s no doubt Tedesco’s form is picking up and his re-emergence as an attacking threat coincides with the Roosters’ dream run in to the finals. He is also one of several Tricolours players who know what it takes to win a premiership, having lifted the trophy alongside Luke Keary and Jared Warea-Hargreaves among other big names. Tedesco will also be desperate to right his wrongs from the start of the season and expect the veteran fullback to deliver on the big stage.
Can the Raiders get the job done without Seb Kris and Josh Papalii?
Veteran prop Josh Papalii’s season-ending Biceps injury was a hammer blow to the Raiders who scraped in to the finals. But now they will also be without a key outside back in Sebastian Kris after he was handed a five-game ban for a lifting tackle in Round 27. The 24-year-old has played 21 games this year, mostly at fullback but he shifted to the winger against the Sharks. If Ricky Stuart opts to shift Jack Wighton back in to the centres, we could see the return of a club legend in Jarrod Croker, who has been a solid performer in 2023 across his 15 appearances. That leaves a spot on the wing to be filled, with Albert Hopoate being the likely man to fill the void. Papalii’s absence isn’t the only middle forward Canberra are missing, with Origin representative Corey Horsburgh also suspended until the grand final if the Raiders go that for. Ricky Stuart made the bold decision to start debutant Hohepa Puru at lock in Horsburgh’s absence, but could shift Joseph Tapine to the role and bring Emre Gular back in to the starting side at prop, with Puru shifting back to the bench. However, Stuarrt decides to configure his bench, the Raiders are up against it with several key players missing against a red-hot Knights outfit.