Will Pryce frozen out? Latrell Mitchell, Cronulla Sharks statement: NRL 7 tackle set debrief

Mike Meehall Wood
Will Pryce

It’s easy to compare the NRL and Super League and wonder if it’s even the same sport. 

In some ways, like when a clear high tackle was punished by a sending off, it seems like they’re moving closer together, a rare moment of unity and sanity across the hemispheres. 

In others, like when guys who have played the toughest games of their year are asked to back up and play two days later, you wonder if anyone learns anything at all. 

NRL players used to go to Super League and lament the Easter Mondays, where the big Good Friday derby would be followed by an inevitably subdued second showing. 

Now, they know if they’re good enough they can experience that all for themselves, with Ben Hunt and Zac Lomax turning out for the Dragons just 48 hours after starring for their states on Friday against the Wests Tigers. 

That kicked off a weekend of wide scores, which tightened as recovery time increased and ended with the best game of the round, Canterbury’s 22-18 comeback over Parramatta on Monday’s public holiday.  

With chat in some quarters about shifting Origin to Monday nights to increase the potential for players who back up to actually play well, there might have been a lesson in there. 

Good week for..

Craig Fitzgibbon and the Cronulla Sharks, who bounced back from two successive defeats to record another big win, downing the Broncos on their own patch in Brisbane. 

It was a vital result given the Sharkies’ reputation as flat-track bullies, and can be added to other statement victories alongside defeating Melbourne in Melbourne and the Roosters at Magic Round. 

Since those two victories, however, there had been a 42-0 humbling at home to Penrith, a game seemingly designed to show Cronulla the level they had not yet reached, and a defeat at Parramatta that proved how much the side suffered without Nicho Hynes and Cam McInnes, both pulled into Origin camp. 

Craig Fitzgibbon Cronulla Sharks Alamy
Cronulla Sharks head coach Craig Fitzgibbon

Since Fitzgibbon took over, Cronulla have often looked like this: great at home, rarely affected by Origin, able to pick a consistent side week to week and guaranteed to go to town on the lower-end teams. 

In that they have, as everyone points out, lost every finals game. Plenty thought the trend had been bucked by that win over the Storm – with Nicho injured, no less – only for a hefty bump back to earth to come. 

This victory in Brisbane, also secured without Hynes, was excellent and Braydon Trindall, who had been awful on return following an off-field incident the week before, was back to his best. 

Fitzy is as level-headed a coach as they come, and will know that the season is long. There will be peaks and troughs throughout, and it’s only when they actually win a knockout match that their reputation will change.  

Results like this, against a heavyweight on the road, go a long way to making fans think that something different is happening. 

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Bad week for..

Wests Tigers, who were smashed by St George Illawarra on Friday by a thumping 56-14 despite having won the first quarter of the game 10-0.  

There’s a running joke about the Tigers that they continually find new and interesting ways to embarrass themselves, and this backed that up.  

Last year they posted a record home win, smashing the Cowboys 66-10 at home, only to match it with a record defeat, 74-0, when they travelled to Townsville later in the season. 

This was perhaps even worse than that, as the Dragons are the club most comparable to the Tigers: a perennially underachieving, half pregnant idea of a club under a new coach, clawing their way out of the basement. 

Yet this Dragons side are, under Shane Flanagan, at least vaguely competent whereas the Tigers remain the experts at aiming guns at their feet and firing multiple times. 

Rookie coach Benji Marshall tore into his players in the post-match presser for a lack of discipline – and it was far from the first time he has done so.  

It’s doubly annoying because some of their young players, notably half Lachlan Galvin and fullback Jahream Bula, are excellent, but the older heads in the side let them down time and again with poor attitude and needless penalties that make most games unwinnable. 

Galvin is already asking for a release, most likely to Penrith, and Stefano Utoikamanu, their best middle, is likely goneskis too given a ludicrous clause in his contract that allows him to walk if he doesn’t make Origin squads and the club don’t make the finals. 

The Tigers are fighting tooth and nail to keep both. Knowing their form – see Tedesco, James and Moses, Mitchell – it won’t happen. 

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Latrell Mitchell is a Big Time Charlie, in the best possible way.  

For a bloke often accused of going missing and being lazy, he doesn’t half contribute to what South Sydney do and, even when they lose, you can generally rely on Trell Mit to have enjoyed their most impactful moments. 

Latrell Mitchell South Sydney Rabbitohs Alamy
Latrell Mitchell in action for South Sydney Rabbitohs

Souths have been rank rotten all year and Mitchell propensity for the limelight hasn’t helped, with a high profile suspension and several off-field moments that a less interventionist character would likely have avoided. 

Some, like offering support to fellow Indigenous star Ezra Mam, were laudable, but others, like picking a fight with the host of a major TV show outside a restaurant, were less so. 

Mitchell posted on Instagram midway through NSW’s defeat to Queensland in a way that many suggested was pointed at Blues coach Michael Maguire, who opted for Joseph-Aukuso Suaalii in the centres ahead of Latrell. 

Suaalii was sent off in the early stages, precipitating a rout, and Mitchell, now right back in the frame for Game 2, produced his best performance of the year for the Bunnies in a carve-up of the admittedly terrible Gold Coast Titans. 

Mitchell scored one, set up three, averaged over ten metres per run and generally proved far too good. He’s a man who loves a moment. NSW need that sort of player. Make it happen, Madge. 

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Will Pryce. Or is that Adam O’Brien, the Knights coach that refuses to play him? 

Newcastle are desperately lacking creativity in attack and debuted a second new fullback of the year, with Fletcher Sharpe taking the place of the injured rookie David Armstrong, who himself took the place of reigning Dally M Medallist Kalyn Ponga. 

In the halves, O’Brien is currently rolling with Jackson Hastings, who he already dropped once this year, and Jack Cogger, who was in second grade just a month ago until Tyson Gamble go injured. 

If you’re counting, that’s six players who have filled playmaking roles for Newcastle, none of whom are Pryce. 

It’s particularly confusing because the current Hastings-Cogger partnership is dull as ditchwater, with two kick-and-control halves and no spark whatsoever. Newcastle are joint last for line breaks in the NRL. 

Now, the drums are beating for Pryce to get a crack. Andrew Johns, Newcastle’s favourite son, is openly calling for the ex-Huddersfield star to get a run and, despite frequent fallouts between the pair, brother Matty agrees.  

“They have to pull the trigger next week,” said Joey. “They have to make a decision because Cogger and Hastings have had no speed in the way they have played. 

“There is no strength or running threat, and all the movement and the passing has been sideways. They have to put Will Pryce in next week. There might be deficiencies in his game, but they have to do something.” 

Will Pryce Newcastle Knights Alamy
Will Pryce during a warm-up before a Newcastle Knights NRL game

O’Brien was dismissive when asked.  

“I think Will’s still learning the game out here to be honest,” he told the post-match presser. “I don’t know how many games Joey has watched of NSW Cup, but he (Will) hasn’t had many back-to-back good ones.” 

Everyone’s talking about..

Brandon Smith, the under-pressure Roosters hooker who is in a whole heap of trouble. Rumours swirled midway through the weekend about a major star in hot water at his club, and one did not have to search hard on social media to identify him. 

Duly news dropped about Smith missing a mid-season review with Trent Robinson, and in time-honoured dog-ate-my-homework fashion, two stories emerged about what he was doing. 

Smith himself said that he didn’t know the meeting was happening, was out with his family and left his phone at home when called. His agent, however, told media that his client had slept in. Uh-oh.  

What actually occurred is somewhat for the birds now, with Easts slapping Smith with a breach order – essentially a formal written warning – and drawing a line under the matter. 

Of course, they know that he’s not performed close to his pay packet since arriving from Melbourne and that the club could very easily find better value elsewhere if they could find someone to take self-described ‘Hectic Cheese’ off their hands.  

But nobody’s mentioning..

Todd Payten, the Cowboys coach who has presided over a rotten run of form since taking North Queensland to a third place finish and the brink of a Grand Final appearance back in 2022. 

The further into the memory that season recedes, the more it looks like a fluke: Payten has some notable results in his favour, not least a win over the Roosters in Sydney on an Origin-affected weekend, but the long-term trend is not a good one. 

Tom Dearden and Todd Payten North Queensland Cowboys Alamy
Tom Dearden (left) and Todd Payten (right) of North Queensland Cowboys in a press conference

Since losing to Parramatta in the Preliminary Final of 2022, the Cowboys have a perfect 50% record of wins and defeats, 19-19. 

That might be so-so for a smaller market team, but this is a roster that contributed more players to State of Origin than any other in the NRL, even the Panthers. 

The attack can be one of the best on its day, but as far as resilience goes, for get about it: the defence, on which the 2022 campaign was built, is horrendous and has been for a long time now. It’s the fifth worst in the comp. 

There are certain teams in the NRL where the coach gets greater leeway to see these things out.  

In Canberra, for example, the Raiders are the only show in town and Ricky Stuart is king. It’d be a stretch to call Adam O’Brien the king of Newcastle, but he does benefit from a favourable media environment that relies on the Knights for stories. 

Payten is in the same boat in Townsville. If he was coaching a Sydney side, he would be under the blowtorch at the moment.  

His side were thrashed by the Warriors this weekend and now face the Raiders, coming off a bye, in Canberra, then the Panthers in Penrith. It’s starting to look tough indeed. 

Forward pass

It’s remiss at this time of year not to mention Origin, but with so much blather about the men, we can stick to the women. 

Last Thursday night saw Queensland square the series in a stone-cold classic played in a deluge in Newcastle. 

Having trailed 6-0 going into the final quarter, the Maroons summoned every ounce of that famed Queensland spirit to turn it around, with Lauren Brown slotting a drop goal two minutes from time to win the game 11-10. 

This is the first year in which the series will go for the full three games, and will get the decider that it deserves.  

Lauren Brown Queensland Women's State of Origin Alamy
Lauren Brown in action for Queensland in State of Origin

Last year was slightly farcical, with two games played and an aggregate score system used to determine the winner, leading to NSW winning Game 2 but losing the series, which is pretty much what everyone with half a brain had predicted ahead of time and lead to disappointment on both sides. 

Thankfully the NRL have righted that wrong quickly – and have been rewarded with record attendances in both games so far.  

Indeed, the record attendance has been topped in five consecutive fixtures and may well be topped again in Townsville for the decider. 

There are still issues with Women’s Origin, not least that it takes place prior to the NRLW and thus players are slightly undercooked for what are the most intense games of the season, but the ‘if you build it they will come’ argument is being vindicated time and again. 

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