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NRL Round Table: What happens now without Nathan Cleary?

Each week ESPN's resident NRL experts will take a look at the burning issues in rugby league and try to come up with the answers. Their opinions might not match yours, but they should certainly spark further debate on the latest conundrums facing the game we all love.

With news of Nathan Cleary's injury, Melbourne Storm have assumed premiership favouritism, who can possibly beat them?

Lucie: It's hard to see another team weathering this Storm for the 2021 title, but the Panthers, with the next month crucial for Ivan Cleary's side, learning how to maintain their dominance without their key man. Halfback Nathan Cleary will sit out for the next four to six weeks to rehabilitate his injured shoulder, but there's no guarantee he'll play again this season. Without him the Panthers are 1-2, although a number of Origin stars were also missing for two of those matches. Such is his influence that Penrith's title bid could be in trouble if he's ruled out for the finals, especially with a clinical team like the Storm rising. Melbourne not only lead the NRL ladder, but also in scoring with 538 points to their name. That's 82 more than the Panthers heading into Round 16, with 108 of those scored in their last two wins over the Tigers and Warriors. Interestingly, Melbourne has crossed for 98 tries to Penrith's 77 but are level on conversions at 73 - largely thanks to Cleary's 85.5% success rate from the tee. Indeed the halfback has been instrumental in the Panthers' dominant first half of the season, being the focus of their attack and clinical with his kicking game. While his absence is not the be-all end-all to their title hopes, it's a boost for Melbourne's bid to stay on top. The only other team that could take it out is Parramatta ... but I still don't see them being able to beat the Storm when it matters most.

Darren: With reports that Cleary's injury is not quite season ending, all is not lost for the Panthers just yet. They will slot Matt Burton into the No, 7 jersey for now and he has already shown how capable he is when under pressure. Still, the Storm certainly look likely to defend their 2020 premiership, as each week they manage to astound with their adaptability when covering for key injuries. If they manage to have their full roster available at the pointy end of the season, I can't see anyone beating them. Souths, Parramatta and the Roosters are the only teams apart from Penrith with any realistic chance and they all need things to go their way to compete with Melbourne. The Roosters could be the dark horses, if they can manage to have all their talent fit and playing. If Cleary returns in time for the finals and Penrith have no other major injury concerns, it looks like it will be another Storm-Panthers decider. Whichever team has momentum and possession go their way during the big dance, will take out the title.

Who should replace Nathan Cleary for Origin III?

Lucie: The Blues should call on Mitchell Moses to fill the void left by Nathan Cleary for Origin III, the Parramatta halfback would slot into the champion side with ease. In a huge blow to NSW's bid to claim a series whitewash, Cleary has been ruled out of the finale due to a shoulder injury. With this in mind, Moses declared himself ready for the Origin stage on Tuesday and I back him all the way. The 26-year-old Eel is one of the fastest halfbacks in the NRL and has a formidable kicking game. This season he has slotted 56 goals at a 76.7% conversion rate, meaning he's an obvious option to replace Cleary at the kicking tee on Jul. 14. He also played under Brad Fittler for Lebanon at the 2017 World Cup, with the Blues coach said to be a fan of the playmaker. His inclusion would also mean little change to the state's winning roster, as reigning Dally M medalist Jack Wighton could still be used as a utility from the bench. Fittler also has Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker and Mitchell Pearce as options to partner Jarome Luai in the halves. All have Origin experience, but with the series already won - why not blood some new Blues like Moses?

Darren: As hot as Nathan Cleary's form has been for the Panthers, his role with New South Wales was fairly simple - make your tackles, kick well and pass the ball to the superstars of the backline as quickly and as cleanly as possible. He didn't need to be a creative force with Jarome Luai, James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic and Latrell Mitchell waiting to dazzle the Queenslanders with their brilliance. Cleary played a perfect role, not overdoing his contributions, only taking the line on occasionally. I think the halfback who would be best at replicating that contribution would be Adam Reynolds. Reynolds has some Origin experience, so would not be overawed by the occasion, he has arguably the best long- and short-kicking games in the NRL and he is a brilliant goal kicker as well. His passing game is sharp and he knows how to unleash talented outside backs. I'm sure whoever the Blues pick, he will be instructed to play a supporting role to one of the sharpest backlines ever assembled.

Is Paul Green's future as Queensland coach in jeopardy?

Lucie: If the Maroons fail to salvage whatever is left of this State of Origin series, coach Paul Green could be shown the door after only one series at the helm. Queensland's campaign is in tatters, with the 76-6 score the worst in Origin history from the first two matches. After being thrashed by 50 points in Game I, the Maroons showed little resolve as they were held to nil at their spiritual home of Suncorp Stadium. Although it's a tough task to combat the Blues' current roster, the Queenslander heart has been missing. The stage was set for a classic Maroons comeback in Game II, but Green failed to evoke a response in his men, and that's worrying moving ahead. In 2020, Wayne Bennett took the 'worst team ever' to an unlikely victory. Yes Queensland has been hit by injuries and suspensions, but that should not be an excuse for a defeatist attitude at this level. Green only signed a one-year deal, with an option to roll onto 2022, so there's a chance the former Cowboys coach could be moved on. Queensland could bring Bennett back next year to rejuvenate the Queensland Origin spirit, with the Rabbitohs coach off-contract for 2022. Perhaps a player from the Maroons' golden era could also take over, with Jonathan Thurston already an assistant and Billy Slater a strong candidate.

Darren: State of Origin football is a strange beast, the players assembled are some of the best in the game and it is arguable that they need little coaching, just someone to unite them and give them a rough strategy. Blues coach Brad Fittler has freely admitted that James Tedesco, Tom Trbojevic and Nathan Cleary put their heads together to come up with the Origin winning strategy for this year, he basically gave them free rein to do as they saw fit. Fittler's quirky, "let's all be mates and win this for the state" approach makes the players feel comfortable and enables them to produce their best without being burdened by too much time in front of a whiteboard. It was said of Mal Meninga that his coaching abilities were at best questionable, but no Queenslander could rally the Maroons to the cause quite like him. Paul Green has lost at his first attempt in the job, but he was in charge of a clearly inferior bunch of players. Then again, Wayne Bennett was in charge of the 'worst Queensland team ever' last season and managed to steer them to an upset series victory. The difference this year was that the Blues had all their pieces in place and they clicked as a unit. Queensland simply had no answers. Whether you blame Paul Green for that is a matter for debate at the highest levels of the QRL. I think he deserves at least one more year at the helm, and it would help his cause a great deal if the Maroons can put up a decent fight in Game 3.