Nathan Cleary, Izack Tago, Jarome Luai, Shaun Johnson, Jahrome Hughes and Ezra Mam are among those named despite injury clouds.
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HUGHES BACK, GRANT STARTING
Jahrome Hughes has been named to make his return from a calf injury in a huge boost for the Melbourne Storm heading into Friday night at Accor Stadium.
Tyran Wishart was outstanding in his absence but Hughes is one of the best halves in the game and as important to the Storm as Nathan Cleary is to Penrith.
Almost as significant for the Storm is the decision to return Harry Grant to the starting side after he was used off the interchange bench against the Sydney Roosters.
Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy opted to start the win over the Roosters with Bronson Garlick at hooker and bring Grant into the game once the sting had been removed, a policy that has worked in the past but still caught some off guard.
Bulldogs head of football and Nine commentator Phil Gould was among those to question the wisdom of the decision, insisting that the Storm would be better served if Grant was to start games.
“I actually quizzed Billy Slater and Cameron Smith about this … as to why both the Melbourne Storm and Queensland have suddenly adopted the tactic of keeping Harry fresh on the bench,” Gould said on 100% Footy.
“I just wonder what it is that they see in Harry Grant that they thought it was okay for him to stay off for the first 15 or 20 minutes of the game.
“It has obviously worked for them in the past …. but gee whiz, he is your best player. I would have him out there for as long as possible.“
Gould got his wish on Tuesday as Bellamy named Grant in the starting side and selected Wishart as the bench utility. That meant bad news for Garlick as he was selected in the 19 jersey.
For the record, Grant had no complaints. Asked after the win over the Roosters whether he expected to return to the starting side to play Penrith, he towed the party line.
“Whatever is best for the team going forward,” Grant said.
THE BAND IS BACK TOGETHER …. BUT FOR HOW LONG
The band is back together after Jarome Luai was named to partner Nathan Cleary in the halves at Accor Stadium on Friday night.
Luai appears to have overcome a shoulder problem, although he will likely need to pass some further testing this week and the Panthers have notably named Jack Cogger on the interchange bench, an insurance policy in case Luai doesn’t survive the onslaught that is likely to come his way.
Cleary was never in doubt despite being sent for scans on Monday on a finger injury that required “readjustment”. Cleary is coming off one of the most outstanding performances of his career in Penrith’s finals opener win over the Warriors.
Storm five-eighth Cameron Munster spent last year’s World Cup tour in camp with Cleary and came to admire his dedication to his game.
“He works on his craft – kicking, goal kicking,” Munster said. “He doesn’t miss too many goal kicks and always puts the ball on the dime when he kicks on the fifth tackle. “It is one of those things you watch and think he deserves those moments because he works so hard on his craft and he is always willing to learn. He knows what works for him.
“He is their main man. You look at last week he pretty much took apart the Warriors. He loves the big games. I like watching him from afar. “He works really hard on his craft and you can tell he pretty much takes the right option nine times out of 10. He has a system and a structure that works for him.
“He doesn’t go outside that. That’s what makes him so great. He is always consistently playing the footy he can. That is why he has been so great for so many years.”
TUI CLEARED TO PLAY
Tui Kamikamica was taken off the field under the instruction of the bunker at the weekend, immediately casting doubt on his ability to play in the preliminary final.
The bunker deemed it a category 1 based on the video signs. However, after a clinical examination by the Storm medical staff he was cleared of a concussion and was therefore eligible to play.
With that issue resolved, the big Fijian has been named in their side to play against the Panthers, a huge boost given the quality that resides in Penrith’s front row.
James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Spencer Leniu represent the most potent tag team in the NRL. Without Kamikamica, Melbourne’s job would have been all the more difficult.
With him, they have a fighting chance when you combine him with Christian Welch, Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tariq Sims.
“If you look across their whole team list there is big game experience from the left wing all the way to the right wing,” Sims said. “They have in my opinion one of the best fullbacks in our game. You look at their bench and they have so much experience and quality. “It is an 80 minute game and they are the best at what they do.”
BIG NELSON BACK TO BENCH
Christian Welch was notably sent back to the interchange bench last week as big Nelson Asofa-Solomona was given the chance to start against the Sydney Roosters.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy looks to have reversed the roles again this week, his way of perhaps nullifying the impact that Spencer Leniu has for Penrith.
Leniu brings an instant injection of aggression and power off the bench for the Panthers. Asofa-Solomona will likely do the same for the Storm and the player who has the most telling impact could go a long way towards securing their side the win.
Asofa-Solomona will have added motivation for having a big game. No doubt, he hasn’t forgotten the last time the sides met and he was the victim of a sly shoulder charge from Luai.
Luai avoided a suspension but he attracted plenty of attention for the shot. Asofa-Solomona may be looking for a chance to square up.
If so, Luai’s shoulders may be in for a workout when Asofa-Solomona enters the fray, particularly if Bellamy decides to give the big New Zealander a taste of playing on the edge.
When he has been given that chance, it has invariably been on Luai’s side of the field. No doubt Asofa-Solomona will be on a search-and-destroy mission where the Panthers five-eighth is concerned.
THE OTHER FRONT ROWERS
Payne Haas and Addin Fonua-Blake will get their fair share of attention this week given they are two of the best front rowers in the game.
Their personal duel could go a long way towards deciding the outcome on Saturday night. So could the match-up between Thomas Flegler and Mitch Barnett, two players who like to play the game on the edge.
Flegler and Barnett are big and aggressive. They refuse to take a backward step and both have been outstanding for their respective sides this season, their good work overshadowed to a large extent given they pack down in the front row alongside two of the game’s biggest superstars.
Their value shouldn’t be underestimated. Barnett ran for 123 metres in the win over Newcastle last weekend, more than Fonua-Blake. They again, it’s not so much the number of runs he makes, more the power that he makes them with.
There is genuine intent in the way he goes about his business. Flegler is no different and it should be a ding-dong battle between the pair. Don’t be surprised to see things simmer over as they go hammer-and-tong.
THE OLD STAGERS
Shaun Johnson and Adam Reynolds have been there and done it time and time again. At times, they exercise such control over the game they could play it in a dinner suit.
Witness Shaun Johnson’s performance against Newcastle last weekend. Johnson was coming back from a calf injury but he was rarely tested or put under pressure by the Knights.
He was able to sit back, pick his moments and take control where and when it was needed.
The Knights simply couldn’t get at him and so comprehensive was the Warriors performance, Johnson was able to take a break at the end of a game and watch the closing moments on the sidelines.
In the commentary box for Fox League, incoming St George Illawarra Shane Flanagan was flummoxed at the Knights’ inability to challenge Johnson.
He repeated those comments on 2Gb, insisting the Broncos needed to get at Johnson.
“The thing that frustrated me as a coach is that the Newcastle Knights didn’t go and make him play early, rough him up a bit,” Flanagan said.
“Maybe some of the sides I have coached, we would have got at him, roughed him up, maybe pulled his jumper over the back of his head and told him every time he got the ball, hew as going to get whacked.
“Real class from Shaun but if I was an opposition coach, I would be making sure that no. 7 jersey for the warriors gets very, very dirty this weekend.”
The Warriors will no doubt look to do the same with Reynolds. The Broncos skipper has been a man inspired this season, the glue that holds Brisbane together.
The Warriors know that dominating Reynolds holds the key to an upset win at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
Reece Walsh choked back tears this week as he spoke about the impact his daughter had on his decision to return to Brisbane.
He now finds himself on the verge of a grand final appearance, having been released by the Warriors on compassionate grounds.
If anyone should know how to poke holes in Walsh’s game, it is the Warriors. He spent two years and played 38 games at the club, having been given the chance to break into first grade by former coach Nathan Brown.
There is a debt he owes them but he won’t be paying it back on Saturday night. Walsh’s only interest is in ending the Warriors season and edging Brisbane one step closer to the holy grail.
It has been 17 years since the Broncos won a premiership – Walsh was four years old at the time. He has been their most dynamic and dangerous player this season and he can expect some extra attention this weekend as the Warriors attempt to nullify his impact on the game.
The boot of Shaun Johnson will be the key for the Warriors as he looks to pin Walsh and the Broncos in corners and make them come off their own line.
If they can do that, they will fancy their chances. As good as Walsh has been this season, he is still prone to the odd mistake. No-one has made more errors in the NRL in 2023 than Walsh – a whopping 48.
He chances his arm and it’s a part of his game the Warriors may look to exploit.
MAM RIGHT TO GO DESPITE KNEE ISSUE
Ezra Mam has dismissed fears over a niggling knee injury as he revealed Broncos skipper Adam Reynolds has given him an attacking licence to thrill in Saturday’s grand-final qualifier against the Warriors.
Underlining his toughness, Mam’s right knee has been strapped in recent weeks, but the speedy pivot insists he is in no doubt as Reynolds backed his junior scrumbase cohort to torment the Warriors’ big boppers.
“My knee is all good,” said Mam, who suffered a scare a fortnight ago, hobbling at times in Brisbane’s 26-0 finals thumping of Melbourne.
“The week off (in the final round) definitely helped it and having another week off (last week), it will be fresh and ready to go.
“Playing in a prelim, it’s a massive occasion for us younger boys, but I’ll go in relaxed and play my style.
“‘Reyno’ has given me that confidence. He runs the show and basically gives me a licence to play footy.
Preliminary final 1: Panthers v Storm
Friday, 7.50pm, Accor Stadium
Panthers: 1. Dylan Edwards 2. Sunia Turuva 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To’o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Mitch Kenny 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Scott Sorensen 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo 14. Jack Cogger 15. Lindsay Smith 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Luke Garner 18. Tyrone Peachey 19. Matt Eisenhuth 20. Zac Hosking 21. Luke Sommerton 22. Thomas Jenkins
Team news: Nathan Cleary sent a scare through camp on Monday after being rushed to hospital for scans on a finger injury. He has been named and is set to play. This masthead understands Cleary had his finger “readjusted” but Penrith officials insist he is in no doubt. Jarome Luai has also been named and is set to return from a shoulder injury in place of Jack Cogger at five-eighth. Izack Tago has been named to return from a pectoral injury at centre with Luke Garner back to the bench and Zac Hosking to reserves.
Storm: 1. Nick Meaney 2. William Warbrick 3. Marion Seve 4. Justin Olam 5. Reimis Smith 6. Cameron Munster 7. Jahrome Hughes 8. Tui Kamikamica 9. Harry Grant 10. Christian Welch 11. Trent Loiero 12. Eliesa Katoa 13. Josh King 14. Tyran Wishart 15. Tom Eisenhuth 16. Nelson Asofa-Solomona 17. Tariq Sims 18. Grant Anderson 19. Bronson Garlick 20. Sualauvi Faalogo 21. Tepai Moeroa 22. Chris Lewis
Team news: Jahrome Hughes (calf) returns at halfback in place of Tyran Wishart. “I’m tracking really well,” Hughes said. “I don’t need to really rush anything, just give myself enough time to get it right.” Xavier Coates (ankle) remains sidelined with Reimis Smith retaining a wing spot.
Preliminary final 2: Broncos v Warriors
Saturday, 7.50pm, Suncorp StadiumS
Broncos: 1. Reece Walsh 2. Jesse Arthars 3. Kotoni Staggs 4. Herbie Farnworth 5. Selwyn Cobbo 6. Ezra Mam 7. Adam Reynolds 8. Thomas Flegler 9. Billy Walters 10. Payne Haas 11. Kurt Capewell 12. Jordan Riki 13. Patrick Carrigan 14. Tyson Smoothy 15. Brendan Piakura 16. Kobe Hetherington 17. Keenan Palasia 18. Corey Oates 19. Martin Taupau 20. Corey Jensen 21. Jock Madden 22. Tristan Sailor
Team news: In a very rare situation at this time of year, the Broncos are at full strength and unchanged.
Warriors: 1. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad 2. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak 3. Rocco Berry 4. Adam Pompey 5. Marcelo Montoya 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Shaun Johnson 8. Addin Fonua-Blake 9. Wayde Egan 10. Mitchell Barnett 11. Jackson Ford 12. Marata Niukore 13. Tohu Harris 14. Dylan Walker 15. Jazz Tevaga 16. Bayley Sironen 17. Josh Curran 18. Freddy Lussick 20. Taine Tuaupiki 21. Bunty Afoa 22. Ali Leiataua 23. Edward Kosi
Team news: Also unchanged. Shaun Johnson (calf) was close to missing out last week but got through the game and is again set to play. Marata Niukore (knee) and Josh Curran (finger) are also set to play despite injuries last week.
The Post NRL teams for preliminary finals: Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Shaun Johnson, Jahrome Hughes named Originally Posted on www.couriermail.com.au