Papali’i overused? Cobbo to fullback? When will Tigers win? Dragons pack in trouble?

featured, League, NRL 2022, NRL teams, Round 4

The NRL is three weeks old and we’re starting to see the teams and players who are on track for a successful season and the ones who need to change things ASAFP before it all goes off the rails.

It’s Tiger hunting season at the moment with everyone lining up to have their say on their troubles but after letting a win slip through their grasp, with some help from a dud no-try call, they know face a draw which contains 2021 finals teams in four of their next seven rounds as well as the improving Sharks and Cowboys.

Knights five-eighth Jake Clifford and Cowboys playmaker Tom Dearden are making early cases for the title for most improved player in the NRL, while Damien Cook’s up-and-down returns, coupled with the rise of Harry Grant mean the Australian hooker’s spot is up for grabs this year.

Are Parramatta killing the golden goose by playing Isaiah Papali’i non stop while St George Illawarra’s forwards need an attitude adjustment after being manhandled by rivals Cronulla in their demolition derby last week.

Here are the main questions for each team heading into Round 4.

Thursday

Titans v Tigers at Cbus Super Stadium, 7.05pm (8.05pm AEDT)

Can Titans hold their nerve down the stretch?

They conceded penalties, albeit controversially, late in Round 1 against Parra to lose that game, they juuuuust hung on by two against the Warriors and then collapsed in the closing stages last week in Canberra after holding a 22-0 lead. Gold Coast have a young squad and an inexperienced spine but they need their veterans to ensure the team keeps a cool head when the heat is on in tight late-game situations.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 25: The Tigers look on after conceding a try during the round three NRL match between the Wests Tigers and the New Zealand Warriors at Campbelltown Stadium, on March 25, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Will the Tigers win a game in the first 10 rounds?

Yes, everyone’s kicking the poor old Wests Tigers while they’re down but after blowing a chance to break their duck against the Warriors in Campbelltown last week, the trip to the Gold Coast represents the start of a particularly tough stretch for the 0-3 side. They then meet Cronulla, Paramatta, Souths, the Dragons in Wollongong, Manly and the improving Cowboys. They’ll be underdogs in every one of those games unless something dramatically changes on the field.

Friday

Sharks v Knights at PointsBet Stadium, 6pm

Is Aiden Tolman the most unassuming member of the 300 Club?

The veteran Sharks prop plays his 300th NRL game after previous stints at the Storm and Bulldogs. He was possibly a touch unlucky not to break into the NSW side a decade or so ago but he’s the kind of player that every team needs. He’s found fresh legs as a bench option at Cronulla the past couple of seasons after he looked like he was headed for retirement at the Dogs. He even wants to play on again next year. Good luck to him.

Jake Clifford

Jake Clifford (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Is Jake Clifford the most improved player in the NRL?

It’s only a small sample size with three rounds in the books but Newcastle’s five-eighth has been in career-best form since becoming the chief playmaker alongside Adam Clune after Mitchell Pearce’s departure to Catalans. Clifford’s talent has never been questioned since his debut for the Cowboys in 2018 but until now he hasn’t delivered on a consistent basis. His kicking game has been particularly strong – second in the NRL for metres and fourth for number of kicks.

Panthers v Rabbitohs at BlueBet Stadium, 8.05pm

Is Cleary’s shoulder ready to be targeted?

For any number of reasons you know Souths, eager for whatever semblance of grand final revenge they can get, are going to run plenty of traffic at Cleary in his comeback game from shoulder surgery. The Panthers have been cautious and rightly so with his comeback but the problem for the other 15 teams is that if Cleary gets back to his best quick smart, the 3-0 premiers could be head and shoulder above the chasing pack.

Nathan Cleary of the Panthers is tackled by Adam Reynolds of the Rabbitohs

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Can Damien cook up another burst of incisive runs?

One of the main reasons why Souths thumped the Roosters last week was Damien Cook was able to get out and run. It’s not as simple as him finally deciding to do so after a couple of seasons not living up to the high expectations he’d set for himself. Quick play-the-balls by Bunnies forwards are essential for the representative rake. He’s averaging more than 85m per game in 2022, well up on his average of 67 last season but still not in the ballpark of his career-best 104 in 2018.

Saturday

Warriors v Broncos at Moreton Daily Stadium, 2pm (3pm AEDT)

Who will sign Euan Aitken?

The converted centre has been a revelation in the second row since switching late last season and he’s been granted a release from the final year of his contract in 2023 for personal reasons when the Warriors return to Auckland. Parramatta should be on the phone to his manager as a reinforcement to their pack which will be missing Oregon Kaufusi, Marata Niukore, Isaiah Papali’i and Ray Stone next year.

Euan Aitken Warriors

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

How long before the Broncos switch Selwyn Cobbo to fullback?

He’s got the talent to be a star in the No.1 jersey and Tesi Niu is being given what is surely his last chance to nail it down. Niu has been underwhelming the past two weeks at the back after missing Round 1 with a hamstring strain. Cobbo is only 20 and has a lot to learn as he bides his time on the wing but has the raw talent and athleticism to become a genuine force at fullback.

Sea Eagles v Raiders at Glen Willow Oval, Mudgee, 5.30pm

Will history repeat for Sea Eagles?

Last season, Manly played poorly for four rounds, scraped past the Warriors 13-12 via a Daly Cherry-Evans field goal in the 79th minute and then went to Mudgee, racked up a 36-0 win over the Titans as part of a 16-4 tear over 20 games to finish fourth. This year they were flogged by the Panthers and Roosters but last weekend won ugly 13-12 via a late DCE one-pointer to get home against Canterbury. They are again headed back to Glen Willow Oval in the Central West of NSW.

Are Raiders killing the Faders tag?

They had a second-half fade in Round 1 against the Sharks but scored late to snatch victory, they were then flat the entire game against North Queensland and last week turned the tables with a barnstorming finish to topple the Titans after trailing 22-0. At least they’re not being Faders again – Ricky Stuart should thank heavens for small mercies, but he won’t be. Until they can get on an even keel for 80 minutes, the Green Machine won’t be serious finals contenders.

Cowboys v Roosters at QCB Stadium, 6.35pm (7.35pm AEDT)

Has Tom Dearden finally arrived?

After being burdened with ridiculous “next Alfie Langer” headlines and mammoth expectations at the Broncos as a teenager, Tom Dearden’s career looked at a very early crossroads last season when he headed north and the losses kept piling up at the Cowboys. But he has been a revelation alongside Chad Townsend in the halves over the first three rounds and is equal-first in the NRL for try assists with five alongside Eels halfback Mitch Moses and line break assists at four with Knights centre Dane Gagai.

Is Jason Ryles on the verge of a head coaching gig?

With Trent Robinson forced into isolation after contracting COVID-19, assistant coaches Jason Ryles, Matt King and Brett Morris are in charge. Ryles has earned plenty of plaudits in recent years for his work alongside Craig Bellamy at the Storm and has been linked to a few recent vacancies. Getting the so far hot-and0-cold Roosters a win over the Cowboys in the tropics would be a big boost to the former Kangaroos prop’s resume.

Sunday

Storm v Bulldogs at AAMI Park, 4.05pm

Should Harry Grant be Kangaroos hooker?

Of course it’s way too early to be deciding Test team selections but with Damien Cook’s form not what it was when the Kangaroos last stepped foot on a field pre-pandemic at the end of 2019, there is a chance for Grant to snare that No.9 green and gold jersey at the World Cup in October. The Queensland hooker missed last week’s loss to Parra due to the spicy cough but was thrown straight back into the starting side by Craig Bellamy with Brandon Smith relegated to the bench despite his courageous effort to play 77 minutes last week when his broken hand hadn’t fully healed.

Harry Grant of the Maroons looks on during game one of the 2021 State of Origin series.

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Is Brandon Wakeham the answer to Bulldogs’ halfback problem?

There’s a sense of deja vu at Belmore with the halves combination being shuffled after two weeks with Brandon Wakeham taking over the No.7 jersey last week from Jake Averillo. In 22 games since his debut in 2019, Wakeham has never played more than four consecutive matches in the same position as he’s been shuffled between five-eighth, halfback, the bench and out of the side altogether. His performance, including an early try, last week against Manly was encouraging but the jury is still out on whether he’s the complementary piece needed alongside star recruit Matt Burton.

Eels v Dragons at CommBank Stadium, 6.15pm

Should Papali’i be used as an impact player?

Second-rower Isaiah Papali’i is averaging 81 minutes per game courtesy of last week’s extra time win in Melbourne. He has not spent a second off the field in the Eels’ first three matches. Papali’i is getting through a mountain of work and clearly there’s no question about his ability to churn through the minutes but he’s only made one line break this year. Last season his impact was immense in attack when he averaged 65 minutes per game and the Eels might get better quality with less quantity.

Are the Dragons forwards as good as their reputations?

St George Illawarra have a young backline apart from Ben Hunt but their pack is full of established first-graders, players with representative honours and plenty of experience. But they were made to look second rate last week in the wet at Wollongong by Cronulla’s big men. Talatau Amone, Tyrell Sloan, Zac Lomax and co can have all the attacking talent in the world but it will go to waste if the Red V is being ripped to shreds through the middle.

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