Manly forward spots on the line in trials
With his backline settled, Manly coach Trent Barrett says he still has some big decisions to make regarding his forward pack before his side's Round 1 season opener against Canterbury on March 4.
Ahead of the Sea Eagles' final trial, against Ipswich on Saturday, Barrett has both first-string hookers in Matt Parcell and Api Koroisau sitting out with injuries that aren't expected to stop either being available for Round 1.
Back-rower Jamie Buhrer won't be back from a broken jaw until about Round 3, while his fellow- second rowers Feleti Mateo and Lewis Brown are also unavailable for Ipswich but should be back for Round 1.
Reserve hooker Jayden Hodges is out for the season with an ACL injury suffered at the Nines, while both Buhrer and Brown are viewed as possible part-time dummy-halves should Barrett go into any match with only one specialist hooker.
It means another back-row utility in Blake Leary will shoulder those duties alongside NYC hooker Hugh Pratt for the Ipswich match.
Barrett also has "eight or nine" NRL quality props vying for places in first grade.
"A lot of them still have a lot to play for, there are still some spots up for grabs in the team and they're aware of that so it will be an interesting day [Saturday]," Barrett said of the trial.
"The backline's pretty settled but in the back row [there are spots up for grabs] particularly with some of the injuries we've got at the moment. We'll still be without Mateo, we'll still be without Lewis Brown, and Koroisau and Parcell probably won't play [this weekend].
"There are some blokes fit for Round 1 available that won't play in this trial and we've got to fit them in somewhere. Some good players are going to have to miss out."
Of the side to face Ipswich, Pratt is certain to drop out of Round 1 calculations with Parcell and potentially Koroisau back while second rower Nathan Green looks most at risk from the return of Brown and potentially Mateo.
With five props in the 17 on Saturday, one of Josh Starling, Darcy Lussick or Brenton Lawrence will likely have to make way as well if all four of Parcell, Koroisau, Brown and Mateo return. Buhrer's return a few weeks later will place further pressure on Mateo and Leary.
First grade props Luke Burgess and Siosaia Vave will play in the NRL Cup trial against Wests Devils immediately before the top squad's match, showing the level of depth in the club's current prop rotation.
"They're all fit too. Burgess and Starling are both back this weekend. You've got Lawrence who's back nearing full fitness as well," Barrett said of his team's front row depth.
"We're going to have eight or nine genuine first grade front-rowers to pick from so that's a luxury that we've got. Hopefully it stays like that all year but there are a few decisions I'm going to have to make, particularly on the bench and this week is going to be important for them."
Barrett lamented the fact he went from having five or six hookers available a fortnight ago to just one this weekend but indicated both Parcell and Koroisau would be in the 17 when available.
"I think so – they're both totally different players. Api and Matty are both very important to us and they'll both play at some stage and it may depend on who we play as well but I'll make that decision next week depending on who's fit," he said, adding plenty of back-rowers could also slot in at dummy-half.
"Lewis Brown also gives us that option, Blake Leary gives us that option as well [as Buhrer]. We're pretty right there – it was just, at one stage we had six hookers and this week we've got one."