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Monday Smelling Salts Round 17

Canterbury's makeshift halfback Tony Williams gives his Manly opposite Jack Littlejohn the big 'don't argue'. Credit: Col Whelan. Copyright: NRL Photos.
Morgan the next super-sub

Daly Cherry-Evans may be on the shopping list of half the clubs in the competition when he comes off contract at the end of next season but his position in the Queensland team may be under threat by a player who has been in camp less than 24 hours.

Cowboys fullback Michael Morgan joined the Maroons camp on Sunday as 19th man for Game Three on Wednesday night and with his size, speed and skill, shapes as the ultimate representative utility player not only at Origin level, but also for Test matches. Not since Newcastle's Kurt Gidley has a player been able to cover so many positions at a high level and Morgan's continued development will give Queensland selectors plenty of cause for consideration when they sit down to plot their revenge in 2015. Having played all 15 games at fullback prior to Saturday night, Morgan slotted back into the halves where he played throughout his junior days and further emphasised his playmaking skills in his side's three-point loss.
 
At 181cm, 96 kilograms and still just 22 years of age, Morgan has the ability to play fullback, centre, five-eighth, halfback, hooker and in the back row, a wonderful luxury for any representative coach to have at his disposal. Prior to Saturday night's loss to the Dragons he boasted 13 try assists, 11 line break assists, 43 tackle breaks and 10 try saves, the most memorable one a stunning goal-line stop on rampaging Broncos back-rower Matt Gillett in Round 9.
 
We hope Morgan is enjoying his taste of Origin this week because soon enough he will receive an invitation to dine at the main table.

– Tony Webeck

Sic 'em, Rex

It took massive positional disruption at the Bulldogs to finally shake big Tony Williams out of his funk and show exactly why he was regarded such a valuable rugby league commodity a few short seasons ago.

Although 'T-Rex' got some game time with NSW in Origin I, he's largely been a shadow of his former star self. But all that changed when Des Hasler gave him free creative rein against the Sea Eagles at ANZ Stadium last Friday night. Williams was part Feleti Mateo, part Benji Marshall and part his former destructive self, mesmerising and unsettling the usually unflappable Manly defence with a series of animated passages with the ball in hand, including no-look passes and double pumps.

Having seen how much Williams clearly enjoyed his creative cameo, coach Hasler may need to look at ways to incorporate more of this game plan into the Bulldogs' play book when they get star halves Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds back from Origin duty. They certainly looked dangerous on Friday night and that extra arrow in their quiver will hold them in good stead come the finals.

–  Nigel Wall 

All quiet on the Blues front

The Blues' third pre-Origin camp of the 2014 series was once again at Coffs Harbour – renamed ‘Blues Harbour’ by partisan locals for the occasion – and the sense of déjà vu was overwhelming.

If anything it seemed even more low-key than the first two – perhaps a by-product of having the destination of the Shield already decided – but to a man the Blues were shunning any talk of a dead rubber.

And after eight years of pain you could hardly blame them for being so focused on a series sweep; senior players such as Paul Gallen, Jarryd Hayne and Greg Bird have been there for most or all of those bitter times while newer faces such as Josh Reynolds, Trent Hodkinson, Daniel Tupou and Aaron Woods are still looking to cement themselves as Origin players. No doubt there is still plenty to play for.

But with the only personnel changes right throughout the series for Laurie Daley being forced by injury or suspension, the squad seemed incredibly settled and the ‘same-same’ vibe meant the assembled media almost started struggling to come up with fresh questions to ask the players at the daily media opportunities by the time the camp broke on Sunday to head north into enemy territory.

It sounds like something of a cliché but virtually every player has at some stage spoken of their desire do it for their mates, or to repay Daley’s faith, or mentioned how tight this current squad is, or leapt at the chance to talk up one of their teammates.

Laurie Daley has done an outstanding job of getting all his players on the same page in terms of what he wants from them each both individually and as a team, and everyone knows their role. Perhaps even more importantly, this tightly knit group is determined to keep turning up for each other. It doesn’t guarantee a clean sweep on Wednesday night but as with the first two games, if they don’t win it won’t be through a lack of preparation or planning.

–  Chris Kennedy

308 days and counting for Cowboys

They may have been missing 11 first-graders, including Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott – the best in the world in their respective positions  – but with an eighth away loss for the year against the Dragons, the Cowboys' travelling woes must surely now be playing on the minds of their roster. It's been 308 days since their last win on foreign turf, against the Sharks in the penultimate round of 2013, and based on Cronulla's last two showings they're no certainties to snap the streak when they next get the chance at Remondis Stadium in Round 19.

With complaints about the draw centring on the short turnaround between their trips to Sydney in Rounds 23 and 24 coming out of North Queensland and gripes still lingering over their exits from the past two finals' series, a siege mentality looks to be the preferred approach from Paul Green's men to get that elusive away win in the bag. The likes of Manly and the Bulldogs have made it work in the past, but maintaining the rage for two months will be a tall order for the Cowboys, who need to bag two wins in their final four away games against the Sharks, Bulldogs, Panthers and Rabbitohs to even make the Top 8, before going on the road again for any finals match they play.

–  Dan Walsh

Benji 'now' versus Benji 'then'

Watching Benji Marshall's performance against the Cowboys on Saturday night you could tell that the side-stepping, miraculous pass-throwing whiz that we have come to know and love over the years will probably never surface again... and that's definitely not a bad thing.

While his Dragons teammates Gareth Widdop, Jason Nightingale and Adam Quinlan were the men pulling off the special offloads and astonishing moments for the Red V, a more mature and poised Marshall was still contributing behind the scenes.
 
It's clear the now 29-year-old doesn't have to do anything extraordinary to get his team over the line. His short-kicking game constantly pressured his opposite men at the back and his defensive game looks to have improved too (14 tackles for no misses).

Arguably the difference between Benji 'now' and Benji 'then' is the 2014 version appears very comfortable letting other attacking cogs in the Red V assert their influence, rather than have to do everything himself.

–  Jack Brady
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