Queensland seemingly angered the rugby league gods by leaving Billy Slater out of Origin 1 – do they have any other option than to bring him back for the must-win Origin 2?
Can any team outside the eight make a finals push?
It’s not quite high noon for those teams currently outside the eight but the spectre of their season clinging onto ‘mathematical probability’ looms pretty large. Already the fans of a host of teams including the Knights, Tigers, Bulldogs and Warriors will have their calculators at the ready, desperately banging away trying to figure out if there is still life in their seasons.
— NRL (@NRL) June 5, 2017
In terms of teams currently in the eight only Parramatta seem vulnerable to be overtaken by those teams below them on the ladder – if the Eels can’t figure out how to integrate new acquisition Mitchell Moses into their line-up then they might find themselves on the outside of the finals picture. For the teams outside the eight only the Panthers and the Raiders look likely to challenge for a finals spot. If they are to make a run then they’ll need to make the most of the rest of the Origin period to put some pressure on the teams above them.
Who will put their hand up for Queensland selection?
Perhaps the team with the most on the line this round is Queensland. Coach Kevin Walters is under the pump after their first up loss and the Canetoads face the unenviable task of scoring a series-levelling victory on the road. The Queensland pack was desperately in need of some added fire and aggression but there aren’t any overwhelmingly obvious choices for reinforcements.
Jarrod Wallace and Coen Hess have been popular suggestions, but it’s a big call to ask a couple of rookies to come in and have a big impact in a crucial match. Hess definitely looks like a future Origin star but its massive ask for someone with fewer than 25 NRL games to play a pivotal role in a must-win Origin match. A less splashy move might be to opt for Cowboys veterans Ethan Lowe and Gavin Cooper, a couple of players who at least have a Premiership title under their belts.
Will Queensland recall Origin legend Billy Slater?
The other big question facing Queensland this round is whether they recall Origin stalwart Billy Slater and what impact this might have on other spots in their backline. The decision to overlook Slater for Origin 1 was contentious when it happened and heavily criticised after Queensland’s loss – it was almost as if the decision to leave out the totemic Storm custodian had cruelled Queensland’s karma.
"Mum found this photo taken after my NRL debut in 2003. #nicenecklacebill"
— NRL (@NRL) June 6, 2017
If Slater is included it seems likely that Justin O’Neill will drop out and Dane Gagai will slide into his centre position, a move that should shore up the defensive woes that plague Queensland’s three-quarter line in Game 1. The other option for Queensland is to continue to exclude Slater in favour of bringing in Kangaroo Valentine Holmes on the wing allowing Gagai to shift into centre – a move that might pay similar dividends to recalling Slater but would risk angering the Origin gods by ignoring Slater’s storied career.
Is Paul McGregor the rugby league Lazarus?
St George Illawarra Dragons coach Paul McGregor has pulled off one of the great Lazarus acts, signing a two-year contract extension only a few months after being short odds to be the first coach fired this season. Many had picked the Dragons to be off the pace for a finals spot but they find themselves firmly in the top four behind only both of last year’s grand finalists.
— NRL (@NRL) June 8, 2017
The key issue that saw McGregor’s detractors call for his head was the Red V’s turgid offense. In a spectacular turnaround this year they have the most potent attack in the comp. In many ways McGregor’s success and subsequent contract extension is a testimony to the power of persisting with a coach even when the results aren’t coming – it’s often easier to throw the coach overboard than give someone the chance to fully implement their vision. In league, as in life, sometimes patience pays dividends.
Does James Maloney deserve a new contract?
Watching younger (and less accomplished) halves such as Ben Hunt, Mitchell Moses, Shaun Johnson and Luke Brooks sign outsized deals under the newly-inflated salary cap it’s understandable to see why Kangaroo and multiple premiership winner James Maloney wants a new deal. At age 30 it seems likely that Maloney won’t hit the open market in a position to take advantage of new market value for halves so his only way to receive his fair due is to agitate for an upgrade. This sort of thing tends to aggravate old heads who like to spout things like “you were happy enough when you signed it” which overlooks the fact that clubs rip up deals or offload players whenever it suits.
The career of a rugby league player is painfully short and they have to make the most of it while they can – Maloney came up the hard way, toiling at multiple clubs before getting his first consistent crack at first grade with the Warriors. He later won a comp with the Roosters only to be moved on to the Sharks in favour of other shinier free agency prizes only to help lead the Sharks to their maiden Premiership last season. While money certainly plays a part in his dissatisfaction surely there is part of Maloney that just wants to be wanted – despite his whole-hearted effort and on field success Maloney has never been a club’s first choice. Maybe the Sharks will see sense and show Maloney a little love.
Match of the Round: Panthers vs Raiders
While the grand final re-match might be the more tantalising match-up on paper, the showdown in Bathurst features two underachieving teams desperate to snag the two competition points in the run to the finals. Both teams had aspirations of making deep finals runs but currently sit outside the eight – if they are to live up to pre-season expectations then they will both need to start racking up some wins soon.
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) June 8, 2017
The Raiders face a tough slate of upcoming games but might get lucky if their top four opponents are riddled with Origin defections. The Panthers might have turned their season around with their thumping win over the Bulldogs, with the positional shift of Matt Moylan into stand-off proving to be the sort of season-altering move that could push the Panthers into the top eight. Penrith will be keen to prove that last week’s strong showing wasn’t a fluke – look for Moylan to have another massive performance while the Raiders will try to dominate up front with their big forward pack.