Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary.

NRL Fantasy teams analysis: Round 23

It's a massive round for NRL Fantasy coaches with every head-to-head game a knockout clash from here on in. Here are the key ins, outs and form players heading into round 23.

Brisbane Broncos v South Sydney Rabbitohs, Thursday 7.50pm at Suncorp Stadium

Broncos: Jordan Kahu is back in the centres and Josh McGuire returns at lock with Gehamat Shibasaki and Patrick Mago dropping out. Tevita Pangai jnr and Matt Lodge are named to start after playing off the interchange last week. Lodge (3-game average of 64.7) and Andrew McCullough (3-game average 60.7) are both in great Fantasy form, with Lodge (83), Joe Ofahengaue (56) and Pangai jnr (54) excelling last week.

Rabbitohs: Dane Gagai replaces the injured Alex Johnston (hamstring, round 23-24) at fullback with Tyrell Fuimaono the new man in the backline, although rookie outside back Mawene Hiroti is also named on the bench and could be a late inclusion in the starting side. Damien Cook had an off week by his standards against the Roosters with 47, and probably needs to score 80 to break through the $1 million price tag barrier. He scored 53 against Brisbane earlier in the season. Angus Crichton is averaging 60 in his last three games after making 66 last week.

 

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles v Gold Coast Titans, Friday 6pm at Lottoland

Sea Eagles: Lloyd Perrett starts on the bench ahead of Taniela Paseka. Martin Taupau is named despite picking up a minor knee injury against the Bulldogs. Daly Cherry-Evans made 74 last week and 60 the week before, and he hasn't scored less than 52 since round 16. Tom Trbojevic now has two 70+ scores in the past month. Manase Fainu played just 42 minutes against the Bulldogs for a season-low score of 32.

Titans: Brenko Lee is back from injury in the centres with Brendan Elliot dropping out. Ryan James had his first big score since June with a 47-tackle, one-try 79 against Penrith, while Jai Arrow managed a solid 46 and AJ Brimson slumped to a season-low 20.

 

Melbourne Storm v Parramatta Eels, Friday 7.55pm at AAMI Park

Storm: Ryan Hoffman is out with what could be a career-ending hamstring injury, with Cheyse Blair added to the bench. Cameron Smith proves you can never write him off as a captaincy option with 75 last week, and after Damien Cook's sub-50 score it's once again a decision that is likely to decide a few head-to-head battles this week. Smith averages 57 against the Eels, but 67 against next week's opponents the Titans.

Eels: Last week Parramatta thrashed a finals-bound Dragons side 40-4, with Mitchell Moses and Jarryd Hayne the stars. I wouldn't have expected I'd be writing that sentence a month ago. Moses had a hand in everything for 92 points but Hayne's form has been good for a while – he's now coming off back-to-back scores in the 60s and has scored five tries in the past three weeks. Don't expect to see that duo scoring tries for fun against Melbourne necessarily, although if the Eels can avoid a blowout Nathan Brown should get through a fair chunk of defensive work and score better than last week's 51. The Eels have a new debutant in Oregan Kaufusi coming off the bench this week with Tim Mannah starting at prop and Kane Evans and Will Smith dropping out.

Penrith Panthers v Newcastle Knights, Saturday 3pm at Panthers Stadium

Panthers: James Maloney is out with a knee injury and is replaced by Tyrone May, while James Tamou's return offsets the loss of Jack Hetherington to suspension. Nathan Cleary may have unwittingly found himself at the centre of the biggest coaching story of the season but on the field he's in his best patch of Fantasy form of 2018, hitting scores of 53, 78, 46 and 55 in the past month. Maloney's absence could mean a scoring boost for Cleary, at least in kick metres. Viliame Kikau is playing 80 minutes but has averaged just 40 points a game in the past four weeks.

Knights: Newcastle coach Nathan Brown admits he may rest Fantasy superstar Kalyn Ponga this week to allow the youngster to recover from an ankle problem, but he's named an unchanged 17 at this stage. Lachlan Fitzgibbon scored 52 without a try las week, thanks to 46 tackles, while Herman Ese'ese's season average is almost 50 after he made 69 with six tackle busts and 159 metres.

 

Wests Tigers v St George Illawarra Dragons, Saturday 5.30pm at Leichhardt Oval

Wests Tigers: Mahe Fonua returns to the backline after recovering from a broken arm with Malakai Watene-Zeleznik dropping out, while Chris Lawrence's return means Matt Eisenhuth will come off the bench with Jacob Liddle bumped to the reserves. Otherwise it's the usual story here Fantasy-wise, with Robbie Farah (60) and Esan Marsters (46) still trucking along with rock-solid scores. Moses Mbye also bounced back last week with 52 after a scoring slump since his switch to the Tigers – but that score did include a try and an assist so don't be surprised if his numbers dip back towards the 30s this week.

Dragons: Gareth Widdop will miss a few weeks with a shoulder injury with Kurt Mann getting the nod at five-eighth, while Leeson Ah Mau is named to start with Luciano Leilua and Jacob Host on the interchange. Ben Hunt and Cameron McInnes both slumped to scores in the mid-30s last week as St George Illawarra were stunned by the Eels, with attacking stats drying up for Hunt and McInnes sent to the sin bin.

Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys, Saturday 7.35pm at Southern Cross Group Stadium

Sharks: Scott Sorensen replaces Wade Graham (knee, round 24) with Kurt Capewell the new man on the bench. After a quiet first half of the season Paul Gallen is now the form Fantasy scorer at Cronulla, scoring two 52s and two 56s in his past four games. Val Holmes is still firing with a team-high 63 against Melbourne on Sunday, while Andrew Fifita's minutes are a little down of late (he did still score 45 in 47 minutes last week).

Cowboys: Jason Taumalolo is suspended for a shoulder charge in a big blow for Fantasy coaches after scores of 64 and 73 in the past couple of weeks. John Asiata starts in his place with Francis Molo on the bench. After a few big scores Coen Hess came back down to earth with 32 – including a try – in 80 minutes against Brisbane (Scott Bolton finished with more metres and more tackles than Hess and only played 38 minutes).

 

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v New Zealand Warriors, Sunday 2pm at ANZ Stadium

Bulldogs: Lachlan Lewis is back in the halves with Matt Frawley dropping out. Rhyse Martin picked a bad time to produce his season-low score of 34, but he did score 50 in base stats (tackles & metres) and only needs to cut the demerits to score well.  

Warriors: He's in only 1.6% of Fantasy teams and coming off the bench every week but Jazz Tevaga has quietly become a potential keeper, averaging 59 points across his past five games including two 60s and a 57 in 54 minutes last week. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck meanwhile had a ridiculous game against Newcastle with 338 run metres. Unsurprisingly the Warriors are unchanged this week.

 

Canberra Raiders v Sydney Roosters, Sunday 4.10pm at GIO Stadium

Raiders: Emre Guler replaces Jack Murchie on the interchange with Brad Abbey to start at fullback and Nick Cotric on the wing. Joe Tapine is fresh from a 100-point performance against the Tigers, including a couple of tries, while Josh Papalii made 70 and Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana continued their good form with 45 and 46 respectively.

Roosters: Jared Waerea-Hargreaves could miss a month with broken ribs, with Dylan Napa to start at prop and Nat Butcher joining the interchange. Latrell Mitchel and James Tedesco both scored in the mid-40s in a tight tussle with Souths but could go large in what's likely to be a more open game against a Canberra side that scores and concedes a lot of tries.