Staff Writers, NRL.com
New South Wales
All the talk has been around what to do with that right edge in the absence of two injured Morris twins, as well as how to reshuffle the pack to accommodate the return of Greg Bird.
Plenty have suggested killing two birds with one stone, shifting Beau Scott from the back row to right centre with any of Josh Dugan, Will Hopoate, James McManus, Jorge Taufua or Josh Mansour on the wing. The major drawback here is Scott’s relative lack of pace, as evidenced by his NSW career to date, which saw his first two appearances being somewhat lacklustre efforts as a back-rower playing out of position in the centres back in 2010, before four top-shelf games spread across 2011, 2012 and 2014 (notwithstanding a couple of early misses in Game I two weeks ago).
The other popular option there is to leave Scott and for Bird to push Paul Gallen to prop and Aaron Woods to the bench, with Tony Williams dropping out. It would be a very tough call on Williams, who was a vaguely controversial inclusion for Game I, given he performed exactly the role Laurie Daley asked him to with a series of strong charges in limited minutes.
As for those vying for one or both right-edge spots, Eels centre Hopoate looked to have fluffed his chances with a poor outing against Penrith in Round 12 with a host of defensive misses but as his coach later pointed out, ‘Hoppa’ hadn’t trained with the Eels all week until the 15-minute captain’s run, having been in Blues camp as 18th man, and he turned in a far superior effort against the Cowboys with some important tackles, getting big Kane Linnett one-on-one a couple of times and shutting down a few Cowboys attacking chances while running strongly himself.
A late bolter for right centre is Dragon Josh Dugan, who was underwhelming in his first game there, also in Round 12, before a drastically improved showing against the under-strength Sharks on Saturday. Daley’s stated preference not to blood further rookies makes Hopoate, Dugan and Newcastle flanker James McManus the frontrunners, although the strongest inexperienced candidate – in-form Rabbitoh Dylan Walker – now looks to be ruled out anyway with a fractured thumb.
There is still a heap of uncertainty over several key positions for Mal Meninga’s squad. While halfback Cooper Cronk is a certain scratching, his obvious replacement, Daly Cherry-Evans, left the field against the Bulldogs with a knee injury and remains in some doubt. If he is also ruled out Brisbane’s Ben Hunt could consider himself some chance of a call-up, or Cameron Smith could move to the halves with Jake Friend coming in at hooker.
Fullback Billy Slater is also racing to be back from an AC joint injury suffered in Origin I and his logical replacement, Greg Inglis (with the inclusion of Will Chambers for Inglis at centre), is awaiting scan results on an ankle injury suffered against the Warriors in Perth on Saturday night and may yet be a scratching.
Despite the compelling form of Cowboys fullback Michael Morgan and Raiders fullback Anthony Milford, and the not-quite-as-compelling-but-getting-better form of Broncos custodian Ben Barba, it seems most likely that next in line would be Darius Boyd, with any of Dane Gagai, Daniel Vidot, Dale Copley or the above three players a chance to join the wing. Elsewhere, Sam Thaiday simply needs to emerge from Monday night's visit to Canberra injury-free to force one of Josh Papalii or Chris McQueen out of the squad for Origin II. Titan Dave Taylor has hit a patch of form and could yet come into calculations at the expense of Papalii.