NRL Roundtable: Positional headaches
The NRL pre-season is underway, with several clubs having made key signings ahead of the 2017 campaign that will give a few NRL coaches some tough decisions to make. Today we take a look at what role the likes of Benji Marshall and Jamal Idris will play next season, plus some positional conundrums at the Eels, Roosters, Storm and Panthers.
Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): OK. Let's start with the surprise move by the Broncos to pick up Benji Marshall – once one of the game's biggest stars, but someone who's unlikely to take a halves spot off Ben Hunt or Anthony Milford. Where do you expect Benji to line up for Brisbane?
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): I think it's probably a value buy by Wayne Bennett. He'd have come fairly cheap and provides injury cover to the two starting halves. It's hard to see him finding his way into a full strength 17 unless it's possibly off the bench.
Adrian McMurray (Producer): This move stunned me (as I'm sure it did others). I would've thought a move to Melbourne to partner Cronk in the halves would've made more sense, but there you go. Can he play as a centre? Stranger things have happened.
Tony Webeck (Chief Queensland Correspondent): I agree with CK, unless Bennett is toying with using him as a bench utility he doesn't feature in their best 17. I can't buy into talk of playing him in the centres, not with Roberts, Kahu and Opacic at the ready.
CK: There's been talking of him playing centre but given how many strong, fast young outside backs the Broncos have coming through it seems highly unlikely.
Martin Gabor (National Correspondent): People have said he will play in the centres. I can't see that happening. He's played there four times (Rounds 2, 3 and 4 in 2004 and Round 24, 2013).
TW: There is a very strong Kiwi presence at the Broncos at present, his influence on the likes of Kahu, Nikorima, Glenn will be where his greatest contribution is made.
MG: He will be a terrific in terms of marketing as well.
TW: Not to mention subbing in for all of Milford's media requests.
DB: Another media-friendly big-name signing is former Australia international Jamal Idris to the Wests Tigers. The Tigers already have a couple of handy centres in Tim Simona and Kevin Naiqama, so how do we expect them to use Idris?
MG: He spoke at training on Monday and said he wasn't fussed where he played, but teammates Tim Grant and Chris Lawrence both indicated that he would more than likely line up at centre.
TW: Bench weapon. Back-rowers need to be able to punch out 80 minutes these days and there's no way Jamal could handle that defensive workload just yet. Think Tigers are better served sticking with Naiqama and Simona at present.
CK: There is talk of Naiqama being pushed out which I think would be a shame – he was fantastic last year. Centre is definitely still his spot rather than back row but he has plenty of off-season ahead of him to work on form and fitness before he finds his way in the NRL team. Like Tony said, impact stints off the bench may be his best spot in the short term.
AM: Could Jordan Rankin be the unlucky man to miss out with one of the current centres shifting to the wing?
TW: I'd like to see Jamal winning 400m sessions in pre-season before handing him a starting spot. If he strips right down no reason he can't be a dominant centre again, but it will take time.
MG: Naiqama has played 39 games on the wing, while Simona has shifted to the flank on six occasions. I think Idris will start the season in the centres, but am not willing to speculate who makes way as he can play on both sides of the field.
TW: If he does, Naiqama will be the one to shift.
DB: We'll move now to a few conundrums at fullback – a position that's probably more important than it's ever been in the NRL. Let's start with the Sharks who released Ben Barba this week. Who gets the No.1 jersey at Cronulla: Kangaroos winger Valentine Holmes or NSW super sub Jack Bird?
CK: It's probably Holmes's time to shift to the back. If Bird moves away from centre now it's probably in the other direction – back to five-eighth or the back row.
MG: It's a topic that was on the agenda at the start of 2016 as well. Following a 30-all pre-season draw against the Tigers, I remember Shane Flanagan saying he couldn't move Holmes from the wing because they didn't have enough depth in that position.
TW: That might be the key. Do they have a winger ready to step up for Holmes or a centre who can sub in for Bird?
AM: Holmes gets the No.1 jersey for mine. Bird has been good in the centres and in the back row when he spent time there during 2016. Both super talents, but Holmes seems like the best fit.
MG: I'd love to see Holmes at the back. His kick returns are a thing of beauty, and I see Jack Bird as a lock in the next few years.
DB: OK, moving to Parramatta. Does new signing Josh Hoffman pip young gun Bevan French to the fullback spot?
CK: I don't think French is established enough yet not to have adequate cover at the back – but given his form last year you'd have to think he'll be given first crack with Hoffman on a wing.
TW: Josh Hoffman is a wonderful player but I think they're mad if they don't give it to Bevan and let him run amok. He blitzed it at the end of the season with no halves and with nothing to play for; imagine what he could do for a team at full-strength!
AM: Maybe I'm being too conservative, but I'd be inclined to start Hoffman at fullback with French on the wing for the first part of the season at least. I agree French is the best fit long-term, but let him continue his development in first grade out wide.
CK: At this stage Parra haven't signed someone who will displace Clint Gutherson from partnering Corey Norman in the halves but Gutho can play anywhere in the back five if needed. It sounds like Jeff Robson may even be hanging around one more season which means there are plenty of different potential combinations in the back six.
TW: They have got Jamal Fogarty as well who captained Burleigh to the Intrust Super Cup title this year.
MG: Oui oui, French por defenseur.
According to translator, that means 'yes, yes, French for fullback'.
TW: And here I was thinking you were rubbishing his defence in the most pompous way possible.
DB: Finally the Roosters, who have a race in three between 2016 rookie Latrell Mitchell, veteran recruit Michael Gordon and Kangaroo Blake Ferguson, who thrived at the back at the end of the season. How will they line up?
TW: Again, I don't see what the Roosters have to gain by holding Latrell back. The kid's a superstar, give him every possible opportunity to showcase it.
CK: Gordon to start at fullback while Latrell works on his positional play and bides his time on the wing. Ferguson in the centres.
MG: I think Gordon will start the year at fullback, but Mitchell will certainly have the No.1 on his back by Round 18.
TW: Ferguson should be left to become one of the dominant centres in the game.
MG: Their entire backline is a topic of discussion. 1. Gordon. 2. Mitchell 3 Copley 4. Ferguson 5. SKD. But where does that leave Tupou?
AM: I think the situation might be a bit different at the Roosters – Gordon might wear the No.1 jersey, but they could share the role a la RTS/Mini?
CK: SKD in the centres, Tupou on the wing, no Copley. But to Adrian's point, yes, I see fullback job-sharing as a possibility both at Roosters and Eels.
DB: Any other tough positional decisions that jump out for you for Round 1, 2017?
MG: Who wears six for the Storm?
TW: Excellent question. Brodie Croft was very impressive on debut this year; is he ready to step up?
DB: Cameron Munster if Billy Slater is fit?
MG: It all depends on whether William Slater returns. Munster can play there, but I think he'd prefer fullback/centre. They have been linked to a couple of players (Lolohea and Carney) but I'd be surprised if either of them joined the club
DB: Any others, guys?
TW: The Titans don't have a back-up hooker as such so if Nathan Peats goes down for any period of time they will be exposed badly.
AM: What's Tyrone Roberts' defence like in the middle of the park?
TW: At a guess I'd say suspect but we're about to find out. Three months of tackling practice coming up for Ty.
CK: Penrith have some decisions to make. Does Peachey remain in the centres? Whare and Hiku may have something to say about that. If he moves to the forwards they have too many back-rowers (assuming Cartwright shifts back to the pack) and Peachey's too good to sit on the bench. There's a Wallace-Rein battle at No.9 and does Hook go with the very youthful halves pairing of Cleary and Te Maire Martin from day dot?
MG: Headaches any coach would love to have.
TW: I've got Peter Wallace as a front-runner to be the Blues' No.9 next season so the Mitch Rein conundrum is an interesting one for me. Obviously a handy back-up at a reasonable price.
MG: Peachey is in my starting 13. His form at the backend of the season was out of this world. With Mansour injured, I can see Hiku shifting to the wing and Peachey retaining his spot at left centre.
CK: Good call. What about Dogs? A spine of Hopoate-Reynolds-Mbye-Lichaa doesn't have premiership written all over it, IMO. B-Moz to fullback? Ring some changes in the halves or at hooker? They've signed former Ipswich and Cronulla half Josh Cleeland...
TW: Moses Mbye has to take control of that team and have a breakout season. Someone of his talent needs to deliver. But will Des hand him the reins?
MG: You're right. Mbye has to be the main man, and the rest play off the back of him.
AM: I know this is a topic for another time, but I don't necessarily think it's the personnel that need to be overhauled. Rather, isn't it about time the Bulldogs changed their style of play? There's only so much playmaking James Graham can do.
DB: That indeed might be the topic of another roundtable ahead of season 2017. In the meantime, a lot of talking points there for clubs during the pre-season. Cheers for your time guys.