NOT BUYING IT: Raiders five-eighth Josh McCrone is expecting the Warriors to recall halves pairing James Maloney and Shaun Johnson ahead of Sunday’s clash at Mt Smart Stadium after the under-fire duo were left out of the side named by caretaker coach Tony Iro earlier this week.
With his side battling to end a seven-game losing streak, Iro has made major changes to his 17 – none more telling than the dumping of Maloney and Johnson for new five-eighth Feleti Mateo and halfback Pita Godinet.
But McCrone said he would be surprised if the Warriors stuck to the program, admitting he fully expects Iro to ring in the changes ahead of Sunday’s clash.
“I’m not reading too much into that – I wouldn’t be surprised if they both played,” the 25-year-old said. “But it’s more about us rather than who they put out.
“These are the games we’ve struggled with all year. It’s a very important game for us. After Melbourne we had a good win and then a pretty bad loss so this is pretty important – it’s heads down and concentrating on this week.
“If we defend like we did last week I think we’ll go a long way towards getting the two points.”
Canberra have been the big movers of the past month, winning four in a row to claw their way into the top eight. But McCrone said the Raiders had learnt more from last year’s failures than from 2010 when they embarked on a similar run – winning eight of their last nine games – to storm into the finals.
“It taught us that it’s not just going to happen for you,” he said. In 2010 we got a fair bit of momentum and the bounce of our ball was going our way but I think the fact that we struggled so much last year and at the start of this year, there are more lessons to take out of that. We know that we’ve got to keep working hard.”
DOWN TO THE WIRE: An interesting sideshow will take place this weekend with a handful of players fighting it out for the title of NRL’s top try-scorer.
With one round remaining, Bulldogs star Ben Barba leads the way with 20 tries but Ashley Graham (19) and Akuila Uate (18) are nipping at his heels. Notably, none of them crossed the stripe last week.
Barba tied with Merritt for the title 12 months ago with 23 tries apiece and will no doubt be keen to win it for himself in 2012.
Barba has scored in 13 different games this season, Graham 11 and Uate 14.
NO REST FOR STORM: Don’t expect Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy to make the same mistake he did last year by resting key players for this week’s ‘dead rubber’ against the Wests Tigers.
Bellamy hinted that he may give some players a week off following Monday night’s remarkable win over Cronulla, which cemented their spot in the top two, but prop Bryan Norrie told NRL.com that no such plans had been mentioned in the lead up to tomorrow night’s clash at Leichhardt Oval.
“Craig hasn’t mentioned anything about anyone being rested and I doubt that we will,” Norrie said. “Personally I think that playing with a similar squad is pretty important leading into the finals – winning this week is massive, to be honest.
“You’d prefer to be winning leading into the finals, that’s for sure.”
The Storm rested players in Round 26 last season and paid the price with a demoralising 40-8 loss to Sydney Roosters. They followed that up with a less-than-convincing 18-8 win over Newcastle in Week 1 of the finals before bowing out at the hands of the Warriors in the grand final qualifier.
Norrie said that the Storm had avoided discussing the events of 12 months ago but admitted the manner in which they were eliminated had taught them some valuable lessons.
“I know that deep down it affected everyone, we were all pretty shattered last year,” he said.
“But it’s a different year. You learn from it but it’s more just concentrating on this year.
“The big thing for us is not getting too far ahead of ourselves.
“We’ve got Wests Tigers this week, who are a good side and should be in the eight. We need to make sure we get a win so that we’re heading in the right direction come the finals.”
Nevertheless, Norrie admitted there was a sense of excitement around the club as they prepare for yet another tilt at the finals.
It was only a few years ago now that Norrie thought his NRL career was over. Having been released by Cronulla at the end of the 2009 season, he had moved to Wagga Wagga to captain/coach local side Wagga Kangaroos before a last-minute phone call from Bellamy changed the course of his career,
“It makes you appreciate it, being able to be involved,” he said. “I had a few injuries and things like that early in my career and just to string a few games together and work hard in the pre-season… Craig is a guy that will give you a go if you’re working really hard and are trying to improve.
“He won’t be satisfied if you don’t try to continue to better yourself. Even the best players we’ve got here are out there after training trying to get better. It’s just a great place to be around.”
LOTE STILL HOPEFUL: His future has been clouded since breaking his arm last month but it seems that Lote Tuqiri’s time at Wests Tigers is set to continue with the barnstorming winger poised to sign a new deal with the club.
Tuqiri has been in talks with Tigers management for the past few weeks and is confident of agreeing to terms with only some minor details to be ironed out.
“They (the Tigers) are definitely interested in keeping him, that’s 100 per cent,” his manager Giancarlo Lombardo told NRL.com. “Talks have been going on for a little while now but obviously with his injuries he wanted to wait until he got back on the field before he started talking contracts. It’s not all about money.
“We’ll have a chat to Stephen Humphries next week and see where they are with the cap but the Tigers are definitely keen to keep him, that’s for sure and certain.”
A series of injuries and the emergence of impressive young winger Marika Koroibete has raised questions over whether Tuqiri’s career had run its course; however the 32-year-old is keen to play on for at least another two seasons.
The former Brisbane Broncos and Wallabies star has also been buoyed by the recent announcement of the NRL’s new $1 billion-plus TV rights deal with his management team waiting to see what impact the injection of funds has on the salary cap.
“We’re just waiting on clarification on that and what the Tigers can offer for next year,” Lombardo said. “Hopefully we can put an end to this in the next week or two.
“The Tigers have a few young kids coming through but the Tigers have been great to him and they definitely want to keep him around.”