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To rest or not to rest: The final-round conundrum

Give players a week off to rest and recuperate or roll out your top side and build momentum for the finals... that's the conundrum facing head coaches and high performance staff heading into the last round of a gruelling season.

In the case of second-placed Penrith, they've locked in Option B, naming a full-strength squad for a showdown with arch-rivals Parramatta which could propel Ivan Cleary's men to the minor premiership if the Storm lose to the Sharks in Friday's early game.

Regardless of whether they remain where they are on the ladder or grab a second minor premiership in a row, the Panthers will have had the ideal tune-up for the play-offs with Nathan Cleary, Brian To'o and James Fisher-Harris all getting valuable miles in their legs after missing significant game time in the back half of the season.

In stark contrast, the Eels have chosen to give Mitchell Moses, Dylan Brown, Waqa Blake, Nathan Brown, Isaiah Papali'i and Marata Niukore a breather while skipper Clint Gutherson is nursing a slight knee issue and Junior Paulo and Ryan Matterson are suspended.

The decision to give Gutherson a rest makes perfect sense given he has toiled manfully through all 23 matches for the Eels in 2021 and must be physically and mentally spent. 

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Leaving key playmakers Moses and Dylan Brown out is harder to fathom given that they have just found their mojo again after Moses missed rounds 18, 19 and 20 with a back injury and his first two games back against Souths and Manly ended in disastrous defeats which had critics putting a line through Parra's premiership chances.

To Brad Arthur's credit he put the campaign back on track with a solid win over the Cowboys in round 23 before masterminding a takedown of a rampant Storm outfit which was chasing a record-breaking 20th successive victory.

Having made such an emphatic statement against a competition heavyweight who hadn't been beaten since March, the temptation must have been strong to keep Moses and Brown rolling and try to take down another top dog in Penrith.

A win on Friday night would take the Eels to 34 competition points, lifting them above Manly and into pole position for the double chance, at least until Saturday night when the Sea Eagles face the Cowboys.

As improbable as it seems that the Turbo-charged Eagles will lose that game, surely the Eels would be best served going all out for a win over Penrith to at least give themselves a shot at a coveted double chance.

Balancing that is the desire to give star players a chance to recharge their batteries at the end of a campaign which is five games longer than the COVID-interrupted 2020 and included Origin back its traditional mid-year slot.

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Another of the contenders locking in Option A are the Rabbitohs, who have a top-four spot guaranteed regardless of whether they hand the Dragons an eighth defeat on the trot or bounce into the finals off their 20th win of the year.

In the corresponding game last year, Souths went with a full-strength side, putting the Roosters to the sword and carrying that form into the finals where they beat Knights and Eels before losing a tight preliminary final to Penrith.

According to the Rabbitohs' head of high performance Jarrod Wade, this weekend provides the perfect opportunity to rest the players who have played through the Origin period and not missed a lot of football through injury.

"Those guys will get a chance to have a rest and we can be really specific with that training ... as much as it's about not playing in that game also we can be really individual with some of their training during the week and give them a little bit of stuff they might need going into that first final," Wade said this week.

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"It's also a good opportunity for some of our players who've been away on camp with us for about seven weeks now and before that with the NSWRL competition being shut down because of COVID to get a chance to play.

"We know they haven't played a lot of football this year so this is a really good reward for the hard training they've been doing and they've been building towards this moment over the last two or three weeks and they're ready and they're match fit."

So while Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker, Cameron Murray, Dane Gagai, Jai Arrow and Tom Burgess enjoy a well-earned break the likes of Taane Milne, Braidon Burns, Peter Mamouzelos and Patrick Mago get invaluable game time should they be called upon during the finals. 

Defending champs Melbourne, meanwhile, will follow a tried and tested formula of giving their big guns a breather, with Maroons Origin trio Cameron Munster, Felise Kaufusi and Christian Welch all rested along with Kenny Bromwich.

In 2020 the Storm opted to give Cameron Smith, Jesse Bromwich, Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, Nelson Asofa-Solomona, Kenny Bromwich, Josh Addo-Carr, Suliasi Vunivalu and Kaufusi a spell in the final round, going down 30-22 to the Dragons before marching through the play-offs on their way to the club's fourth title.

Locking in Option A certainly proved a winner for Craig Bellamy but whether Brad Arthur or Wayne Bennett reap same rewards in 2021, only a month's time will tell.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.