Now that Kalyn Ponga has sorted out his playing future, the focus can now return to the playing field.
But of course it won’t. Only for 80 minutes at a time, eight times over the course of the next five days.
This round presents some intriguing match-ups. You could make a case for either team winning in pretty much all the games. The only lay-down miseres seem to be the Panthers at home to Canberra on Sunday and the Storm to beat the Warriors in Melbourne.
However, the Wests Tigers proved on Easter Monday that the “anybody can beat anybody” adage is occasionally true.
Lest we forget, there is extra significance this round with two matches being played on Anzac Day. A day to honour real heroes, a term that should be reserved for those deserve it, not those who are good at sport.
Round 8 Questions
Is Will Kennedy an elite fullback?
With so many gun fullbacks in the NRL it’s hard to see Will Kennedy getting a representative jersey any time soon but he’s now established himself in the top half of No.1s.
You could only realistically put James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic, Latrell Mitchell, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Kalyn Ponga as definitely better than him. Kennedy occupies that second tier in the ballpark alongside Clint Gutherson, Dylan Edwards and Reece Walsh.
Heading into his 50th NRL games, Kennedy has scored (nine) or assisted (six) in 15 tries for the Sharks in his past 13 games.
Why do the Sea Eagles dominate the Sharks?
Is it a psychological stranglehold which originates from beating Cronulla twice in grand finals in the 1970s? Manly have got the better of them in 18 of their past 21 match-ups and Shark Park holds no fears – they’ve taken the points in 10 of their past 12 trips.
They are underdogs for this game – mainly due to Tom Trbojevic being out with a knee injury – but Cronulla have key players out in Braden Hamlin-Uele and Dale Finucane.
Brisbane v Canterbury at Suncorp Stadium, 7.55pm
Can Tom Flegler pull his head in?
He was supposed to step up when Matt Lodge went to the Warriors to be a leader in the pack but he’s followed his predecessor in attracting a bunch of dopey charges from the match review committee.
Banned for four games at the end of last season for a high tackle, he made his comeback in Round 5 and was reported four times, received three charges and outed another two weeks.
He’s on the interchange against the Dogs. If he can’t control his aggression so it doesn’t hurt his team, then Kevin Walters should look to punt him from the side altogether.
Is the Bulldogs’ season already a write-off?
Canterbury’s preparation for a winnable game against the Broncos couldn’t have gone much worse with four players Jake Averillo, Brent Naden, Ava Seumanufagai and Reece Hoffman testing positive to COVID on top of Braidon Burns (hamstring), Chris Patolo (head knock), Corey Allan (hamstring) and Brandon Wakeham (calf) sidelined.
The patched-up Dogs slipped to last after the Wests Tigers’ upset win over the Eels to finish Round 6 and are likely to be 1-6 after this game and virtually no chance of salvaging any hope of making the finals despite their multimillion-dollar recruitment drive.
North Queensland v Gold Coast at QCB Stadium, 5.30pm
Is Jason Taumalolo finally back to his best?
The Cowboys skipper ran for 255 metres against the Raiders last Thursday, including 114 post-contact, after racking up 199m (90 post-contact) the week before against the Warriors. Todd Payten upped his minutes to a season-high 63 against the Warriors and he racked up 71 in Canberra.
It remains to be seen whether Taumalolo is truly back to his barnstorming best or just monstering fragile forward packs. The Titans have been pretty brittle lately so he should go on another tear on Saturday night.
Can the Titans have a dig when the game is live?
Gold Coast have been the kings of consolation tries this year. After squeaking past the Wests Tigers three weeks ago in a professional sporting contest on par for standards with the European Cricket League, they trailed 20-0 to Parra before mounting a late comeback to lose by six, then went 18-0 down to Manly before going down 26-18.
It’s a lot easier to score when the opposition has raced away and eased up a little. If the Titans can’t up their intensity at the start, the Cowboys will put a score on them.
Wests Tigers v South Sydney at CommBank Stadium, 7.35pm
Is Jackson Hastings going to be targeted?
The Tigers showed their hand against the Eels by letting Hastings control proceedings and he now averages more touches per game than any other half in the NRL at 68.7, ahead of St George Illawarra skipper Ben Hunt (67.5) and Manly veteran Daly Cherry-Evans (63.8).
Luke Brooks is clearly more comfortable as the second option but that doesn’t mean he can go back to being passive, otherwise every opposition will hone in on Hastings.
By the way, have you seen a better sporting photo than this one recently? The choreographed simultaneous leap, the teammates ecstatic and the double-teapot hands on hips of Eels players in the background who can’t bear to watch.
Is Cody Walker out of his funk?
His form has definitely improved the past few weeks as Souths have strung together a couple of wins over the Dragons and the Bulldogs but in the first month of the season against better opposition, Walker was not his usual dynamic self.
He still only has two tries, one assist and a solitary line break to show from his six starts in 2022.
Newcastle v Parramatta at McDonald Jones Stadium, 2pm
Are Knights still on daylight savings time?
In their four-game losing streak over the past month, Newcastle have been asleep to start matches.
They have scored just 10 points in the first half of those games and they looked particularly clueless last weekend in Wollongong against the Dragons.
The return of Adam Clune from a knee injury will help give them cohesion in attack.
Can Ryan Matterson get back to his best?
He’s been hampered by concussions and leg injuries the past couple of seasons but Matterson has gone from a NSW Origin squad member to a fringe starter at the Eels.
Brad Arthur played him 56 minutes off the bench on Monday against the Tigers and he produced a season-high 158 running metres and 30 tackles so the talent and output is still there, he just needs to string a few of those kinds of games together.
Penrith v Canberra at BlueBet Stadium, 4.05pm
Will the Panthers get bored with winning?
Clearly not but there were signs last week against Brisbane that they were going through the motions a little bit against inferior opposition. Over the past couple of seasons they’ve managed to keep winning even when they haven’t been performing at their best.
Canberra will be desperate on Sunday and given little chance against the premiers. It’s got the potential to be a lot closer than expected.
Is it last-chance saloon for some big-name Raiders?
After blowing up about his players last Thursday following the loss to North Queensland, coach Ricky Stuart didn’t wield the axe as many thought he would after labelling some of them “pathetic” for their efforts.
Fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was the only high-profile Raider to lose his starting spot and despite sarcastically describing himself as “only a dumb coach” for his decision to not rush young gun Xavier Savage into the side, Stuart has now … rushed young gun Xavier Savage into the side.
If the Green Machine get dismantled by Penrith, then Stuart will have to make good on his threat and ring in the changes.
St George Illawarra v Sydney Roosters at SCG, 4pm
Do Dragons still need a squad refresh?
Absolutely. The club has the highest average squad career games in the NRL at 114 per player. Only Manly (91) and the Roosters (92) are above 90.
That should mean the Dragons have an experienced veteran team that’s contending for a title. Afraid not. In actual fact they have plenty of players past their prime and the team will be lucky to be in top-eight contention.
Not only should they play their rising stars more like Jayden Sullivan, Junior Amone and Tyrell Sloan but they should be shipping off some of these older players who are getting in the way. Last week’s win over the depleted Knights shouldn’t change anything on that front.
Are Roosters bringing back the gang tackle?
An interesting stat from the good folk at Opta dropped this week – the Roosters have made more tackles involving four or more defenders this year than any other club.
They are averaging 25 per game. Wasn’t the six-again era supposed to stop the dreaded rassle and open up the game?
If the Roosters are able to send this many bodies into tackles, it means there should be space on the edges for a clever team to exploit their condensed defensive line.
Melbourne v NZ Warriors at AAMI Park, 7pm
Can anyone stop the Storm at marker?
Harry Grant and Brandon Smith are capitalising on the quick play-the-balls by the Storm’s big bopper forwards to eat up plenty of metres out of dummy half.
Melbourne have made 856 metres from dummy-half runs this season, which is a whopping 228 more than the second-ranked Raiders.
Why aren’t the Warriors re-signing Chanel Harris-Tavita?
They have a clever Auckland-born playmaker in their team who is 23 years old, has progressed through the club’s pathways, has 43 games under his belt and has been one of their best performers this season.
Bringing back Shaun Johnson on a two-year deal was an astute decision, they picked up Ash Taylor on a bargain basement contract for this year and Kodi Nikorima is also off contract this season so he could also be heading elsewhere. Redcliffe perhaps under old coach Wayne Bennett?
The Warriors have signed young Sharks half Luke Metcalf for 2023 and are reportedly adding Roosters lower-grader Ronald Volkman. It’s hard to see why CHT is not being locked up long term.