NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 18: Alex Johnston of the Rabbitohs heads for the try line during the round three NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at McDonald Jones Stadium on March 18, 2017 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

After a pair of weeks out of the spotlight back in reserve grade, we are retooled, reinvigorated, and ready to run straight for another week.

With the seventh round of the marathon NRL season set to start this Thursday night, we have cast our eye across the eight Anzac weekend matches, and have sought to answer the queries currently on every league fan’s lips.

So, without further ado, here’s another set of head-scratchers to get tongues wagging before kick-off.

Will the Panthers ever lose again?

Although it doesn’t seem likely at the moment, history suggests that Ivan Cleary’s big cats will have to ingest the bitter pill of defeat at least once this season.

In the 113-year history of the league, only six teams have managed go through an entire calendar year without doing so, with no side has managing the feat since the Dragons in 1959.

Still, with the gap between potentially perfect seasons now standing at 62-years, and the mathematical average suggesting it should happen once every 18 seasons, history and logic don’t always write the script.

Pitted against a depleted Knights’ cavalry this weekend, it wouldn’t take a Mensa member to say the smart money should be on yet another Penrith victory. However, with no serious challenges ahead of the Cleary and Son run operation until Round 11, why not back them until then?

If the Mountain Men can continue mauling until their May 23 date with the Rabbitohs, expect fireworks and a packed house for the contest.

Even though history tells us last year’s minor premiers will eventually slip and slide on a banana peel this season, seeing is still believing and all I see is perfection.

How do Souths live without Latrell?

After rupturing his hamstring tendon in the Rabbitohs clash against Parramatta last year, Latrell Mitchell’s season ended seven weeks short of the finish line.

Despite missing their rudder at the back, Wayne Bennett and his Souths side produced a 4-3 record that saw them fall an unconverted try short of a Grand Final berth.

With a stacked backline in 2020, and the emergence of Corey Allan in the one jersey, Mitchell’s absence was felt far less vehemently than most originally expected.

Still, with the undisciplined 23-year-old sidelined for the next month, and Allan no longer an ace on Bennett’s deck, just how much will Souths miss Mitchell from Rounds 7 to 10?

For this weekend, the master coach has moved his pieces at the back – rather than disrupt the rest of his roster – with star winger Alex Johnston shifting to fullback, Dane Gagai to the left, Jaxson Paulo on the right and Steven Marsters earning a re-call at centre.

Although these moves seem logical, there has been a left of centre call  made to move Cody Walker to the back this week.

Whichever way Bennett choses to go for the next month, it is clear that the Bunnies have the stocks to cover Latrell. However, with fixtured clashes against Canberra and Melbourne on the horizon, the Rabbits will have to play out of their skins to cover the Taree titan’s superb numbers this year.

Will the Eels’ off-field performances harm those on it?

It wouldn’t be an NRL season until details of the first sex scandal entered the public domain.

Although we aren’t here to comment on the rumoured relationships between adults (unless of course we are discussing on-field combinations), but one thing is certain – these types of off-field incidents can derail a team’s performance once they cross the white line.

Without the facts available to us – as well as no desire to know them – we are not in a position to accurately pontificate just how Parramatta will handle things behind closed doors.

What we do know – and we are willing to talk about – is the fact that, according to Stats Insider, the boys from Bankwest currently hold a 9.8% probability of winning the comp and a 92.3% chance of making the finals this year.

With this in mind, it is clear that despite dropping their Round 5 match-up against the Dragons, Brad Arthur’s 5-1 Eels are flying.

However, if the wheels do happen to fall off in the coming weeks, we won’t have to look to far for the catalyst.

How much do the Sharks need two-points?

To put it as mildly as possible, Cronulla needs a win like the human race needs oxygen.

With a 2-4 record after six weeks, the Josh Hannay-headed side currently languishes at 11th on the competition table.

With consecutive clashes against Melbourne, Penrith, South Sydney, St. George Illawarra, Gold Coast and the Panthers again from Round 8 onwards, if the boys in the black, white and blue can’t beat up on the Bulldogs this weekend, then they could find themselves battling the Belmore side for the spoon.

This may sound far too alarmist at this stage, but for a team that has been off the boil for the majority of 2021, it is a reality that will set in if the bar isn’t raised.

With ambiguity surrounding how their roster will appear under Craig Fitzgibbon next season, with many big names still playing for contracts, the only certainty in the Shire is that if Cronulla can’t crack the Pups on Saturday evening, more negative press is set to follow.

The Sharks’ draw does open up from Round 14 onwards, but if they aren’t in a position to contend at that stage, the mood in Sutherland is almost certain to be sour.

Is Saturday night’s clash in Townsville the rounds most revealing?
It may seem like an outrageous claim, but after Canberra were crushed by the Eels last weekend and the Cowboys cantered across the line at will on Sunday, the Round 7 fixture between these two is likely to answer more questions than it raises.

If Ricky Stuart can get his beleaguered Raiders back up and running, the naysayers about his side’s competition chances will be silenced.

However, if Todd Payten’s Townsville based team can crack it for back-to-back wins, those that have labelled the Green Machine as pretenders will be vindicated.

It may be too early in the season to be raising ultimatums like these, but as the spotlight is currently on ‘Sticky’s’ boys, they will want to perform.

Personally, I have them bouncing back, but if their defense leaks again like a washer-less tap, the views of mine, and many others, will be reversed.

Is ‘Tommy Turbo’ the most valuable player in the competition?

Although the sample size remains at just 80-minutes this season, the proof has been in the pudding since 2015 – when Tom Trbojevic starts at the back for the Brooky boys, they win more often than not.

Prior to Trbojevic’s Round 6 reinjection, the Sea Eagles sat millimetres above rock bottom with a 1-4 record and a deplorable points differential of -121.

Now, it may seem a tad preposterous to suggest that one human being could turn this around, but with the woefully inept Dylan Walker no longer at the back and an Origin calibre player replacing him, Trbojevic’s delayed start for the Eagles more than passed the eye test.

Should you break out the abacus, you will find that the numbers support this contention, as Tommy’s try and pair of assists against the Titans already eclipses Walker’s ‘efforts’ from the five weeks prior.

If you are still hopping mad that we have placed ‘Turbo’ on this particular pedestal, it is likely that you haven’t read the question properly.

We aren’t suggesting that the 24-year-old is the game’s best player – or even its best fullback – but in terms of importance to an individual team, nobody rivals the Mona Vale back’s significance to the Sea Eagles.

If Trbojevic was on a top four team’s roster, he would be the sweetest maraschino atop a sundae with all of the trimmings – a tasty topping, but far from necessary.

At Brookvale, his presence and performance returns the rudder to a previously adrift dinghy.

Ask anyone that has ever tacked and jibed in open water and they will readily express to you that a vessel is merely a rotating hunk of fibreglass without a rudder, just as Manly was a mess without their main man.

Do the Chooks’ young halves cut the mustard?

Let’s get one thing straight before you Chooks fans go for my throat; I am not potting Sam Walker, in fact I believe him to be the best teenaged half since Andrew Johns in 1994.

Still, despite his eye-catching start to his time in tri-colours, one fact remains empirical – the British born halfback is not Luke Keary.

Although this is not Walker’s fault, it is something that Trent Robinson needs to address if his side is to raise the Provan-Summons trophy for the third time in four years.

Against the Storm last Friday night, Walker and his halves partner, Drew Hutchison, looked out of their depth against the mighty Melbourne pairing of Jahrome Hughes and Cameron Munster. However, who hasn’t in recent years?

As it currently stands, the Chooks have a 11.9% of claiming the comp this season and Robinson has once again stuck with his baby-faced playmakers for Round 7. Still, if a similar result is produced against Corey Norman and Adam Clune this Sunday, you can expect this aforesaid figure to dip.

Any team in the league would struggle to replace a player of Keary’s calibre and still claim the title, and even though Walker possesses precocious abilities, this truth may still ring true for the Roosters.

Is the Warriors’ match in Melbourne their most important since 2018?

Hear me out, but if the season ended before Thursday night’s kick-off, the New Zealand Warriors would be playing finals for the first time in four years.

Currently sitting on the eighth rung on the competition table, the Warriors’ 3-3 record has been made up of the usual smattering of enthralling victories and heartbreaking defeats.

However, if the Mount Smart men can leave Melbourne with two-points on Sunday, it will represent the franchise’s most important win since 2018.

Although the odds and recent history are stacked against Nathan Brown’s men, their greatest weakness as a club still remains their greatest strength – unpredictability.

If Roger Tuivasa-Sheck torches from the back, David Fusitu’a fires on the flank, Sean O’Sullivan remains slick in the halves and Tohu Harris continues to toe the line, then the rank outsiders may have a hope yet.

If the Warriors’ mission south of the border is successful, expect a few past naysayer’s lips to be buttoned – myself included.