Each week, ESPN's NRL experts Darren Arthur and Christian D'Aloia take on the burning issues in the game. This week they look at the richly talented spines of the Panthers and Rabbitohs, the benefits of having a week off and the future for Roosters half Kyle Flanagan.
Do the Panthers or Rabbitohs have the better spine?
Darren: The two hottest teams at this stage of the NRL season are the Panthers and Rabbitohs and it is in no small part due to their respective spines. At fullback Dylan Edwards and Corey Allan would be considered solid, if only occasionally brilliant, but, it is in the halves and hooker roles where both teams really excel. Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have been outstanding this year for the Panthers, showing calmness and control beyond their years. The Rabbitohs have veterans Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker in career best form, creating opportunities through razor-sharp passing, running, and kicking games. The spark for both teams comes from their dummy-half play, with Damien Cook and Api Koroisau having outstanding seasons. Choosing between the two spines, I would have to consider Edwards has an edge over Allan at fullback and Cook is slightly ahead of Koroisau, with the halves cancelling each other out. If Latrell Mitchell was at the back for the Bunnies, I think they would have the better spine.
Christian: These teams' spines have engineered two of the most potent attacks in the NRL this year, even in spite of the season ending injury to the Rabbitohs superstar fullback Latrell Mitchell. Corey Allan has filled in admirably in his stead, with his three tries and five try assists since taking over at the back in Round 18 a driving force behind South Sydney's run to the preliminary finals. In an injury-plagued season, meanwhile, Panthers fullback Dylan Edwards has only four tries and seven try assists in six more games. It's unexpected, but you'd have to give the edge to Allan here. In the halves, Penrith's young pairing of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai have formed the most lethal combination of playmakers across the NRL this year. Cleary is well and truly in line for Dally M honours, leaving defenses clueless as he scored and set up tries through the hands and through the air and with his legs. He's also somehow managed to simultaneously take on the role of an organisational halfback, allowing Luai to attack freely in what has been a breakout year for him. As good as Souths' Adam Reynolds and especially Cody Walker have been in the back-end of the season, I know which two guys I'd want steering my team around in a Grand Final. By his lofty standards, Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook has had a quiet year while his Panthers counterpart Api Koroisau has given the mountain men an enormous boost from dummy-half. Even still, Cook boasts the big game experience that Koroisau lacks at this stage of his career. And yet, given just how good Cleary and Luai are, I have to go with Penrith's spine as my personal favourite.
Will the Panthers and Storm be better off for the week's rest?
Darren: Historically the two teams having the week off have had greater success making it through to the Grand Final, but you have to remember, they had the week off because they are two of the better teams. It comes down to an argument over whether match fitness and momentum is more important than having fresher legs. We have seen teams have strong starts throughout these finals only to be run down, whether through fatigue or a lack of focus over the full 80 minutes. As Rabbitohs hooker Damien Cook pointed out on the weekend, just about every player is carrying niggling injuries at this point in the season and having a week off allows players to treat and rest those injures. The best hope for the Rabbitohs and Raiders will be to hit the ground running, and hope they catch the Panthers and Storm as they settle in. From there it's a matter of maintaining the intensity for the full 80 minutes, while two of the best teams in the competition slowly try to pick them apart at the seams.
Christian: Despite a shortened season compared to years gone by, the benefit of a week's rest cannot be understated this far into the competition. The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed teams of a bye week and by extension, the opportunity to nurse any injuries and re-assess where the team stands and what needs to be addressed without an upcoming fixture looming. I think Melbourne will be particularly pleased with their week off as it gave star five-eighth Cameron Munster a chance to get back to full fitness after suffering a knee injury against the Eels in the first week of the finals. Moreover, it has granted Dale Finucane another chance to overcome the calf injury that has sidelined him for the last seven games. Of course, the Panthers will also be grateful for the extra week's rest for similar reasons, though given the sheer volume of consecutive victories they've earned, they do run the risk allowing the momentum to slip away. If they're good enough -- and I suspect they are -- this will be of little consequence as they charge towards a Grand Final berth. Undoubtedly, however, the Panthers and Storm will hold the upper hand over the Raiders and Rabbitohs who will have to keep up the intense energy for another week.
Does Kyle Flanagan deserve to be moved on from the Roosters?
Darren: Whilst I think it might be a bit harsh to discard Kyle Flanagan after just one season at the Roosters, I also have a feeling that the people running the club have a much better idea than I do about his long-term future and their options. It reminds me a bit of when the Storm let another young promising halfback in Brodie Croft go to the Broncos. At first I couldn't believe they wouldn't keep him on and work with him, but then I saw him struggle in Brisbane, while the Storm continued their long term success with Jahrome Hughes in the purple No. 7 jersey. It definitely doesn't mean the end of Flanagan's NRL career, with several clubs lining up to take him on. The Bulldogs in particular could do a lot worse than to sign the goal-kicking half. I think we'll see him kick on to a solid career, hopefully spurred on by this early slap in the face.
Christian: Since the Roosters were bundled out of the competition off the back of three consecutive losses, much of the blame has been placed on the young shoulders of halfback Kyle Flanagan. It is completely misplaced as far as I'm concerned. Flanagan had one of the most prolific seasons for a halfback in his first full year of NRL (20 games) that I have seen, having finished second for points scored with 198 points. With 11 try assists, I think Flanagan instead proved that he has what it takes to thrive in the NRL and will continue to improve as he becomes more comfortable in first grade. To compare, Nathan Cleary's first full year of first grade (15 games), he managed eight try assists and 118 points. With so many star players misfiring during the finals series, I'm not sure there's a halfback in the NRL that could have driven the Roosters to their third consecutive premiership victory. Flanagan was a fantastic purchase from the Sharks, and if the Roosters do move on from him after just one year, it will be to their own detriment and the pleasure of a rival club.