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.
Should the players have a greater voice in rule change decisions?
Lucie: The NRL's stars deserve to be included in the dialogue when key on-field changes are being considered by the board room. Although it's not their role as players to make decisions, they are the ones who must carry out those changes on game day. By being consulted, the players have more time to prepare adequately before edicts are laid out. When the high-tackle crackdown was introduced during Magic Round, there were 14 sin bins, three send-offs and 24 charges sent to the judiciary. Now, I do think the crackdown was needed as a means to help prevent concussions - but its implementation was far from smooth. By simply talking through matters beforehand, players would have had the necessary time to understand the rule changes and then adjust. It's not a good look when players are unsure of what is and isn't legal, and that rubs off on the fans - if the players don't understand, then where does that leave its audience? While the Commission reserves its right to take charge and make unpopular decisions, moving forward they need to consult the RLPA about on field changes or provide insight into the processes that lead to those changes. By working together, the product can strive to be the best it can be.
Darren: It seems incredible to me that the players weren't at the very least consulted by the NRL hierarchy before the high contact crackdown was implemented. Not only was it a major change to the conditions under which they operate each week, but they surely could have contributed a working knowledge of the best way to battle the very real issue of concussions leading to brain injury. Employees will always feel better about change if they feel they have some form of ownership of it. Of course, it is up to the people running the game to ultimately make the big decisions, it just seems arrogant for them to think they can do so without at least involving the players on some level. For now, the players will just have to continue to bend their backs and lower their target areas when making tackles, it is for their own good and the long-term good of the game.
Was Townsville the right choice to host State of Origin I?
Lucie: State of Origin I should have stayed on neutral territory, but at the end of the day, it comes down to availability and what makes sense financially. The bid by Queensland was reportedly near $8 million to shift the venue from Victoria to Townsville due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak. According to the NRL, the city had "the least financial fallout of the available venues". Organisers will add 2000 seats to increase Queensland Country Bank Stadium's capacity and Townsville hotels are nearly full for June 9. Townsville is a rugby league heartland, so if the match went to a neutral venue I wonder whether the response would have been similar at such short notice. Canberra, Perth and Adelaide were mentioned as alternatives, but even the former is considered Blues territory - leaving only two neutral cities to choose from should they have bid for it. So while the relocation to Townsville gives the Maroons another home advantage, it makes sense from a financial and sporting perspective. And as NSW coach Brad Fittler said on Monday, winning on enemy territory does make it sweeter.
Darren: Under the circumstances, I think having the game played in front of a full house anywhere was a good result. Townsville people love their rugby league and this is a unique opportunity for them to be involved with the game at its highest level in their own backyard. The loss of a neutral venue to provide equality through the series is a factor, as it would be naive to suggest that referees can't be influenced by the roar of a home crowd, but the true neutrality of the MCG is up for debate anyway. Most Victorian supporters of the game love their Storm and the Queensland players in it or just have a natural dislike for all things New South Wales. Just about the only blue in the MCG crowd is usually worn by interstate visitors. If New South Wales are good enough, they should win the series no matter where it is being played. They need to clear their minds of any Queensland advantage, real or perceived, and get on with winning.
With half their team missing, is this the week the Panthers finally lose a game?
Lucie: Understrength Penrith will be determined to keep their unbeaten streak intact when they meet Wests Tigers on Friday night, but it's the latter's fans who will be holding their breath. The Panthers have been decimated by Origin call-ups, but still boast the likes of Matt Burton and Stephen Crichton in their 17. And no doubt Ivan Cleary has educated his back-up players with Penrith's winning ways as the ex-Tigers coach returns to Leichhardt. Wests are one of the most inconsistent sides in the NRL and have yet to string together two straight wins this season. One never knows what team the Tigers will bring each week. On their best they can beat anyone, but too often they've failed to show up to the occasion - such as their disappointing loss to the Cowboys following the death of Tommy Raudonikis. If the Tigers want to break their finals drought, they need to take rare chances like this. And what better way to boost their bid by beating the unbeaten Panthers at fortress Leichhardt?
Darren: This game will be a real test of the powers of Penrith coach Ivan Cleary. The Panthers have had a relatively blessed season when it comes to injuries, so the momentum has been much easier for them to maintain as they have rumbled through all opposition. One of the most incredible things about Melbourne Storm is their ability to slot replacements into their line-up and not miss a beat. Well this week, Cleary will have to work the same magic with his Panthers as they face the unpredictable Tigers. On paper the Panthers are still more than capable of matching most teams in the competition without their Origin stars; their forward pack still looks formidable and the backs pose enough threats to cause the Tigers plenty of headaches. My answer to the question is a simple no. I just don't think the Tigers have what it takes to upset these depleted Panthers. It will be a real blow to their players, coaching staff and fans, while only further embedding the Panthers' momentum on their way to the pointy end of the season.