Queensland’s State of Origin stocks have received a boost with Kalyn Ponga and AJ Brimson named to return from injuries in Round 16 matches this weekend.
Ponga was selected for Origin I but withdrew because of a groin injury that has sidelined him for six weeks, while Brimson played in the series-opening 50-6 defeat but aggravated a knee injury and hasn’t played since.
The pair have been named and if they can survive the next two rounds of Telstra Premiership fixtures are almost certain to be rushed into the Maroons side for Origin III on July 14.
However, Queensland coach Paul Green’s first choice hooking option Harry Grant will miss Melbourne’s match against Sydney Roosters on Thursday with a hamstring injury that forced him out of Origin II, and his back-up Reed Mahoney (shoulder) also remains sidelined for Parramatta.
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The western Sydney derby between the Eels and Penrith on Friday night will also be missing Panthers and NSW halfback Nathan Cleary, who is in doubt for Origin III and possibly the season after sustaining a shoulder injury on Sunday night.
Matt Burton’s move to halfback has paved the way for the recall of Brent Naden to the Penrith side for the first time since testing positive to cocaine after last year’s grand final.
Naden will play on the wing, with Charlie Staines shifting to fullback in place of the injured Dylan Edwards.
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In other Origin-related selection news, Warriors fullback Reece Walsh has been ruled out of Friday night’s match with St George Illawarra due to the hamstring injury he sustained at Queensland’s final training session but the New Zealand team will welcome Chad Townsend and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.
Townsend, who has joined the Warriors from Cronulla until the end of the season, will partner Kodi Nikorima in the halves, while Watene-Zelezniak – the Kiwis captain – has been named on the wing for his first appearance with the club after a mid-season transfer from Canterbury.
Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck shifts from the wing to fullback in the absence of Walsh.
Warriors duo Euan Aitken and Josh Curran have been forced into isolation for 14 days because an air steward on their flight from Gold Coast tested positive for COVID-19.
Team-mates Adam Pompey, Rocco Berry, Jack Murchie and Jackson Frei have been released from isolation after Aitken and Curran returned negative COVID-19 tests, as they had been considered casual contacts and all were named in an extended Warriors squad.
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Bulldogs players Dylan Napa, Aaron Schoupp, Brandon Wakeham, Corey Waddell and Sione Katoa are also in isolation for 14 days after attending the Royal Hotel at Bondi at the same time as a man who later tested positive for COVID-19.
With Watene-Zelezniak being released to the Warriors last week, Canterbury coach Trent Barrett has been forced to hand debuts to 24-year-old centre Falakiko Manu, forward Chris Patolo and fellow 19-year-old Bailey Biondi Odo for Saturday’s match against Manly.
Barrett has also recalled playmaker Kyle Flanagan, while former Queensland Origin fullback Corey Allan returns from a shoulder injury.
Cronulla centre Josh Dugan is also isolating for 14 days after breaching the NRL’s strict biosecurity protocols last week but he was unlikely to have been selected for Sunday’s match against Brisbane, who have again made mass changes.
Kotoni Staggs will play his first match of the season in the centres, Brodie Croft replaces Karmichael Hunt in the halves, Jamayne Isaako and Corey Oates have been recalled on the wings and Thomas Flegler starts in place of suspended forward Tevita Pangai jnr.
The Titans also have a number of changes for Saturday night’s match against Canberra, with Brimson, Beau Fermor (hamstring) and Sam Lisone (pec) returning from injury and co-captain Kevin Proctor having completed a one-match suspension.
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The Raiders welcome back captain and goalkicking centre Jarrod Croker.
Ponga’s return for Newcastle’s clash with North Queensland sees Kurt Mann shift to the centres.
New recruit Jake Clifford said he was looking forward to playing alongside Ponga for the first time.
"I can't wait to build a bit more of a combination with Pearcey [Mitchell Pearce] and KP when he gets back," Clifford said.
"He trained today and trained really well. I'm pretty sure he's ticked a lot of boxes and I'm expecting him to play. We trained well today and are looking sharp and ready to go."