AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - FEBRUARY 04: Sam Cook of the Warriors reacts during the 2017 Auckland Nines match between the Warriors and the Sea Eagles at Eden Park on February 4, 2017 in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Anthony Au-Yeung/Getty Images)

We’ve finally seen the first team list Tuesday of 2018 and this one didn’t disappoint. While some sides have made only minor adjustments from their 2017 sides, others look like completely different football clubs.

However, each side has made a surprising selection or two.

St George Illawarra Dragons – Luciano Leilua

Leilua made his NRL debut for the Dragons in the 2016 season. He made 5 appearances for the club and showcased his damaging running and ability to offload the ball with ease. However, Leilua wasn’t used by coach Paul McGregor last year, instead of playing the entire season with the Dragons NSW Cup side.

The loss of Joel Thompson to the Sea Eagles has created an opening in the back row. McGregor elected to shift Tariq Sims from the bench to fill the role. There’s no doubting Leilua’s potential to be a game-breaking big man, but with his selection, the Dragons have just one prop on the interchange bench in Leeson Ah Mau.

Leilua beat out new arrival from Cronulla, the 139 game veteran Jeremy Latimore, as well as 2017 debutant, and junior kangaroos representative Blake Lawrie who seemed to have locked up his spot in the 17 with an encouraging 6 appearances at the back end of last year.

Paul McGregor will be relying on Leilua’s impact off the bench to possibly get the Dragons through their offensive struggles as they’ve been known to have in the past.

Brisbane Broncos – Andrew McCullough

Andrew McCollough was one of the best players on the pitch for all last season up until his horrific ACL injury. In the lead up to the team list announcements, it was reported that Sam Thaiday would be taking over hooking duties until McCollough was ready to go. Wayne Bennet then had another idea.

McCollough is the glue that keeps the Brisbane Broncos together. There was a noticeable drop off following his injury last season and now without Ben Hunt in the halves, McCollough’s kicking game will become even more crucial to the team. Bringing McCollough back into the starting side immediately may be a little risky, but that shows the level of faith and confidence coach Bennet has in him.

Newcastle Knights – Slade Griffin

Slade Griffin has beaten out Kiwi’s international Danny Levi for the starting hooker position in Newcastle. I’m as shocked as Danny Levi must be. Griffin joins Newcastle after winning his first premiership with the Melbourne Storm last season.

An understudy to Cameron Smith for the last few years, Griffin will provide the Knights with an endless work rate and underrated ball playing. He debuted with the Storm in 2013 and only managed 25 appearances with them over his 4 years there, most them coming last season.

The New Zealand-born Griffin has suffered three ACL tears in his short career, the main cause for his lack games played. If he’s to keep Danny Levi and Brock Lamb out of the starting side, he’ll need to continue to produce the way he did off Melbourne’s bench. Fingers crossed ‘Sladey G’ can stay healthy.

Manly Sea Eagles – Lachlan Croker

Lachlan Croker will take over for the departed Blake Green. While Daly Cherry-Evans will still be the main man, Croker will need to be a steady contributor when called upon just as Green was.

Croker was touted to be the man to wear the number 6 jersey this season, but it’s still surprising to see him there with Jackson Hastings sitting in reserves. Croker has just one NRL game to his name, Hastings 43. Hastings is also more of a utility, being able to cover at hooker and fullback.

With all that Hastings accomplished with the Roosters, he will be hot on the heels of Croker who is going to need to perform in week one to keep his spot alongside DCE.

North Queensland Cowboys – Te Maire Martin

The play of Te Maire Martin in 2017 warrants him a spot in the Cowboys 17. However, I’m not sure what he can provide off the interchange bench. Ben Hampton has moved into the starting line up in place of the injured Lachlan Coote meaning Jake Granville is the only hooker in the 17.

Granville isn’t known for being an 80-minute player, though he did manage it a couple of times at the back end of last season. It’s highly unlikely Martin will be able to spell him at dummy half, not having the size or strength for the job.

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If Martin does manage to get on late in the second half, he’ll have a chance to run at some tired forwards and stake a claim to make the bench utility spot his own once Coote has returned at fullback.

Cronulla Sharks – Sione Katoa

Shane Flannigan has elected to go with youth over experience with the naming of Sione Katoa on the wing. Katoa, born in Hamilton, was the leading try scorer in the NYC last season for a dominant Sharks squad.

Taking the place of the departed Gerard Beale (Rejoice, Sharks fans), his strength and agility will be relied upon for him to maintain his spot in the backline. Katoa will be looking to dot down over the white line more than ever with Aaron Gray and Edrick Lee waiting in reserves.

Katoa is the first of a nucleus of talented Sharks youngsters eagerly waiting to make their first-grade debut.

Wests Tigers – Pita Godinet

Pita Godinet has been named to start at Hooker in his Tigers debut, beating out Matty Mcilwrick, who started at hooker for the majority of the 2017 season. Godinet’s position may be temporary while Tigers rookie of the year Jacob Liddle recovers from shoulder surgery, but it’s still a big call to slot the new arrival right into the spine.

Godinet, a preferred halfback, last played in the NRL in 2016 where he played two games for the Manly Sea Eagles, scoring one try and kicking one goal. He played his best footy in 2014-15 playing for Wakefield Trinity, making 41 appearances for 14 tries.

Ivan Cleary is a known fan of Godinet, dating back to his days coaching the Warriors where he gave Godinet his first NRL opportunity. With Benji Marshall seemingly secured a bench spot, things will get interesting upon Jacob Liddle’s return.

Sydney Roosters – Sio Siua Taukeiaho

Queensland prop Dylan Napa has moved to the bench in place of the versatile Sio Siua Taukeiaho. The man who gives commentators nightmares will line up in the front row next to Jared Waerea-Hargreaves.

The move makes sense but it’s still surprising none the less. Napa is an impact player. His impact could be even more damaging when coming on fresh later in the game. Meanwhile, Taukeiaho can switch from prop to second row and lock while also taking on the goalkicking duties, provided Latrell Mitchell doesn’t take back the reins.

South Sydney Rabbitohs – Mark Nicholls

In his six-year career, Mark Nicholls has only managed 28 appearances for both the Canberra Raiders and Melbourne Storm. He joins the Rabbitohs from the reigning premiers and looks to have impressed from the get-go.

Nicholls will start at prop. New coach Anthony Seibold preferring to keep the barn-storming running of George Burgess on the bench. Nicholls had better continue to impress or we could see the long-time South Sydney son Jason Clark back in first-grade, two games shy of his 150th NRL match.

New Zealand Warriors – Sam Cook

Sam Cook was another unexpected selection from this week’s team list Tuesday. Cook will become Issac Luke’s back up after fellow young gun Nathaniel Roache was ruled out for the season following a lumbar disc injury.

With Roache out, Stephen Kearney had the decision to gift Cook his NRL debut or go with the more experienced Samoa international, Jazz Tevaga. Kearney went with Cook stating; “He’s had a wonderful preseason.”

If Cook can have a wonderful debut perhaps he can hold onto the number 14 jersey for the rest of the season.

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs – Danny Fualalo

The 6-foot, 109-kilogram tank has been given the green light to start for the Bulldogs this season. Fualalo has been sniffing around this Canterbury side since 2015 and will finally get a proper chance to showcase his skillset.

Fualalo will line up at lock, alongside new captain Josh Jackson, and perhaps just as shocking a selection, Raymond Faitala-Mariner. These moves have seen workhorse prop Aidan Tolman take a role on the bench along with one of the break-out stars of last season, Adam Elliot.

New man Dean Pay has come in and made his mark on the team right away. A bench consisting of Tolman, Elliot and Greg Eastwood means Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Danny Fualalo have their work cut out for them if they want to remain in the first 13.

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Melbourne Storm – Nelson Asofa-Solomona

Not surprising to anyone, the Melbourne Storm side looked about as you’d expect. The hole left by Cooper Cronk filled by the baby-faced version of Cooper Cronk, Brody Croft. However, if there was one selection I wouldn’t have suspected it would be Nelson Asofa-Solomona getting the nod in the starting pack.

Asofa-Solomona is possibly the most terrifying runner of the ball in the entire NRL. But, is he better utilized coming in off the bench to charge at weary defences? Would the work-rate of Queensland forward Tim Glasby be better suited to a starting role?

Nelson gets the go-ahead for the round one clash with the Bulldogs, but Craig Bellamy may rotate this as the season goes on.

Penrith Panthers – Viliame Kikau

One of the most intriguing choices of round one comes from Anthony Griffin who has elected to start Viliame Kikau in the back row against the Parramatta Eels on Sunday. Kikau, 22, has generally played prop during his young career. Weighing a whopping 119 kilograms, it’s easy to see why.

Kikau began his career playing for the North Queensland Cowboys in the NYC competition, scoring 21 tries for them in 2015. He made his NRL debut for Penrith last year, scoring a try during a 36-2 win over the Wests Tigers.

There was speculation over whether Corey Harawira-Naera would be back in time for round one following offseason shoulder surgery. That speculation was put to rest when coach Griffin named him on the bench. Harawira-Naera was one of the great stories last year. Much like Kikau, he scored on debut, this time in a 40-0 thrashing of Newcastle.

Whether Kikau is starting in place of Harawira-Naera while he gets back to full strength remains to be seen. But for now, you’ve got to feel sorry for the opposing edge defence!

Parramatta Eels – Jarryd Hayne/Will Smith’s non-selection

As much as we’re all tired of hearing about Jarryd Hayne (surely it can’t just be me), his selection at centre is a genuine shock. With the freakish Clint Gutherson still side-lined, Bevan French will start at fullback meaning the prodigal son will see himself return home to play in the centres.

Brad Takairangi makes way for Hayne, dropping back to the bench and Josh Hoffman finds himself back on the wing. Not sure how that happened. Early results will determine if this remains the line-up for Parramatta but judging by some of his performances for the Gold Coast Titans and the New South Wales Blues at centre, Jarryd Hayne may have his work cut out for him.

I’ve got to add that the non-selection of Will Smith blows my mind. He was enormous for Parra last season, just signed on further with the club and deserves a spot on their interchange. As it stands, the injury-prone Cameron King is looking likely to play 80 minutes a game and Brad Takairangi is the injury cover.

Gold Coast Titans – Bryce Cartwright

If there are two things I am certain of in life it’s that fire is hot, and that Bryce Cartwright can’t tackle. My surprise isn’t with his selection, but more so with his position.

I understand this line-up may change once Jarrod Wallace has returned from suspension, but I feel that Jai Arrow is much better suited to the lock position. However, that would require captain Ryan James to move back to the front row, a move that isn’t sounding likely this season.

Cartwright’s ball-playing may add a lot to the offence, but is he someone you really want at the heart of your defence?

Canberra Raiders – Sam Williams

The Canberra Raiders look to make it a hattrick of failures with Sam Williams set for his third (No, that’s not a typo) stint with the club. Even more shocking, Williams has taken Blake Austin’s starting spot, sending Austin to the bench.

It was a mere two seasons ago Blake Austin was in State of Origin discussions and shredding defences league-wide. Now he’s sitting behind Sam Williams in what will most likely be a third failed experiment.

Williams is fresh off a solid season at Wakefield where he played in 24 games, scoring 5 tries and kicking 26 goals. Ricky Stuart will be hoping to recapture the form his Raiders had in the 2016 season, and I will eat my words if I’m wrong, but starting Sam Williams seems like a strange way of going about it.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Morgan’s return can’t come quick enough for the Cowboys. They won thanks to a somewhat rusty Thurston , who had to do just about everything.
    Martin, still doesn’t look like a great 5/8th. He did a few good runs in the finals last year. Everyone said what a great buy! Still pace looks like his only great asset. Who knows? Maybe a year or two in ISP with some good coaching, can make him a better all round half? It’s worked for others. I don’t think he has all the great skills to set up plays for others right now. Just as he didn’t at Penrith.

  2. When it comes to Sam Williams’ selection, I think it has more to do with putting Austin under a little pressure to perform and less about Williams being a better fit in the halves. Don’t get me wrong, Williams is a handy back up half, he controls his team well. But Austin WILL want that 6 jersey back and will most likely try everything he can to get it back. Let’s face it, last year with the exception of maybe 2 or 3 games, Austin and Sezer had little input, and by putting Williams in Austins way is Ricky saying “you want it, work for it and show me you want it”. I think it’s a good move, yeah it could backfire and Austin may look elsewhere, but it’s worth the risk IMO.

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