Monday Smelling Salts Round 14

Is Cherry ripe for picking?

When he took some tentative steps on the training paddock a week out from Origin II Daly Cherry-Evans went a long way towards easing the fears of Maroons supporters still eyeing a ninth straight title. But five days later Queensland’s first-choice back-up No.7 is still yet to participate in a training session.
 
Billy Slater and Greg Inglis appear to have made coach Mal Meninga’s battle plans a little more resolute by coming through their injury scares but the doubt over Cherry-Evans could force a complete reshuffle with the Series on the line.

Does Meninga risk it all with an Origin debutant in Ben Hunt? Will he shift Johnathan Thurston to halfback and invite Inglis to come closer to the action, opening the way for Will Chambers to make his maiden Origin appearance? Will Dave Taylor win back a place in the final squad of 17 with explicit instructions to seek and destroy anything wearing blue? 
Is it all – as Blues captain Paul Gallen suggested on Monday morning – an elaborate hoax designed to lure New South Wales into a false sense of security?

Queensland captain Cameron Smith suggested that Cherry-Evans may be selected even if he doesn’t complete the captain’s run on Tuesday, so a final decision may yet be some 48 hours away. Guess we’ll have to tune in on Wednesday night to find out.

- Tony Webeck

All about the vibe for Blues


The New South Wales camp had a very, very familiar vibe around it in Coffs Harbour last week.

Although there were three new faces in the named 17 in Josh Dugan (in for the injured Josh Morris), Will Hopoate (replacing Brett Morris) and Greg Bird (back from suspension in place of Tony Williams), both Hopoate and Bird were involved in camp in the lead up to Game I.

Players were once again relaxed, focused, confident and enjoying each others' company. As I write this, in the hotel bar at the Novotel Pacific Bay Resort in Coffs Harbour, I can barely hear myself think over the noise of Aaron Woods, Luke Lewis, Trent Merrin and development players Jack Wighton and Wade Graham laughing and joking with each other and bar staff as they break out a game of cards prior to the trip back to Sydney.

The players have repeatedly said it is important to train well on the field and then get their heads away from footy, while enjoying each other's company. A group of guys away on a buck's weekend couldn't seem more relaxed and closely knit than this crew.

Halves Josh Reynolds and Trent Hodkinson are once again leading the video sessions and taking charge on the field. Fullback Jarryd Hayne again seems less stressed than a retiree asleep on a cruise ship sunbed. And any murmurs of potential injury disruptions have been quickly quashed.

Back-rower Luke Lewis's troublesome knee hasn't stopped him taking part in every training session. Same for Anthony Watmough's torn bicep. Paul Gallen's neck – which copped another burner from Queensland's Josh Papalii in Origin I – meant he was eased in to contact sessions, while Hayne himself sat out the first couple of runs due to a slight cork in his thigh from the Round 13 Cowboys game. Both have now trained and are in no doubt for Wednesday.

And, as hooker Robbie Farah points out: "Haynesy never likes too many miles in his legs!"

And if you haven't yet seen this trick shot, there is just a little more proof that Hayne can do pretty much anything right now. Missing a training run certainly isn't going to hurt him.

The one remaining concern for the Blues is how to plug the enormous hole left by the Morris twins on the right edge, and the selection of Josh Dugan at right centre after just two club games in that spot raised more than a few eyebrows.

But in those two games Dugan has made 45 tackles with just five misses. His backline teammates Gerard Beale and Peter Mata'utia have combined for 28 tackles and 10 misses between them. Both Dugan and Hopoate have played at this level before and know what it takes. Both are big bodies and good readers of a game. They have the full backing of their teammates who have been impressed by just how quickly they've got to where they need to be.

Hopoate and Dugan, as unlikely a partnership as they seem, have been rooming together and are often seen walking between their lodgings and team commitments engaged in deep conversation. Whether they're talking right-edge defence, life and philosophy or FIFA 14, who knows, but Dugan's days as a disruptive influence seem to be well and truly behind him.

In terms of team structure, Beau Scott in particular has been working together with the pair in shoring up that right edge to combat the likely threat of Greg Inglis. They'll be right.

It all means more of the same for the Blues ahead of Origin II, while it is the Maroons that remain an unknown quantity, in stark contrast to previous years.

Blues players have unanimously tipped the Maroons to hit back strongly in Game Two, and it seems a safe bet. Either side could win on Wednesday night but if anything is certain, it's that the Blues will be as well prepared – if not better – than they were heading into Game One.

- Chris Kennedy

Channelling support for Live Sunday TV footy

The NRL has taken some quantum leaps forward in recent times both on and off the field, and it's time for the coverage of Sunday afternoon football to join us all here in the 21st century.
 
A source of frustration for fans for many years has been the delayed showing of Sunday afternoon's main game, and it was highlighted oh so clearly in a split round where there was only one morsel of league to savour on the day of rest, yet the Bulldogs-Eels clash landed on our TV dinner trays an hour after kick-off. The powers that be at both the game's chief broadcaster Channel Nine, and NRL Central, have said they're willing to negotiate a kick-off time that allows Nine to keep its high-rating roll into its 6 o'clock news while ensuring games do not finish too late in the cold of the June, July and August winter months, so how's this for a option?

Kick off the main Sunday afternoon game at 3.30, with Nine beaming the match live into our lounge rooms. Games will finish by 5.30, giving fans, particularly young families, enough time to get home and wind down before the working week starts. Channel Nine has access to some of the best analytical minds in the game, so why not give them half an hour after play, between 5.30 and 6, for a weekend wrap or continued Sunday Footy Show style program, which would flow into the 6 o'clock news. Regardless of whether kick-off times are moved or not, live Sunday afternoon coverage is a no-brainer that needs to be happen, as it will result in higher ratings than a delayed broadcast and bring league into line with an increasingly competitive market.

- Dan Walsh

Coach Watch

Dragons caretaker coach Paul McGregor remains positive his side can lift and while they still seem a solid couple of rungs below the best teams in the competition their efforts have improved of late. Still, the Dragons remain on the lookout for a full-timer to take over from 2015.

One candidate looks to have dropped out of the running with the NRL having taken ownership of the Newcastle Knights, shoring up Wayne Bennett's job there. The Knights are another outfit, like the Dragons, that have little to show for their efforts of late. A tough season for Newcastle got a little bit tougher when, much like against Manly, the side was well in the game or on top during the early parts, without getting a win.

The other club touted as a possible 2015 home for Bennett was Brisbane, and while Anthony Griffin no doubt remains a man under pressure, that pressure has at least eased of late with his charges racking up a fourth straight win to be hot on the heels of the top four.

A man whose job was in no danger regardless of how his side performed this year was Penrith clipboard-holder Ivan Cleary, but with his ladder-leading Panthers now on a five-game winning streak all the talk is how his and Phil Gould's five-year-plan is now two years ahead of schedule.

It's worth noting Penrith have got a lot of their 'easier' games out of the way early and have some tough matches against quality opposition around the corner, which Cleary was quick to point out after that win over the struggling Dragons. Time will tell.