Each week, ESPN's NRL experts Darren Arthur and Christian D'Aloia take on the burning issues in the game. This week they consider the likely impact of Sonny Bill Williams' return to the NRL, Benji Marshall's departure from the Tigers and moving State of Origin to the end of the year.
Will Sonny Bill Williams make an impact in his return for the Roosters?
Darren: The Roosters are doing the right thing by Sonny Bill Williams in easing him back into the NRL from the bench. We all know what a finely tuned athlete Williams is; his fitness regime is second to none, but no one beats Father Time. Williams is now 35 years old, and apart from a few notable exceptions, like Cameron Smith and Benji Marshall, not many NRL players make it past their mid-thirties. Those that do have worked out how to play the game smarter, not harder, and whilst no one questions the football mind of Williams his game has always been based on power. I still believe he can have a positive impact for the Roosters, but in limited bursts and short of his destructive best. The simplest answer to this question is that you'd much rather have him on your team than playing for the opposition.
Christian: As great as Sonny Bill Williams is and despite his previous success with the club, I don't see any way he can simply walk into this Roosters team 17 rounds into the season and have a significant impact. That is certainly not to say that his addition to the squad was misinformed or misguided, as he could well provide an instant morale boost to a team that is trying to pull off the near impossible task of winning the NRL premiership three years in a row. His well-documented professionalism and commitment to training will also serve as a motivator to the younger players in the squad that the team has been relying on so heavily this year due to their monster injury toll. If anyone is expecting the man to play for 60 minutes, break tackles, set up and score tries after only a couple of weeks of training, they will be bitterly disappointed.
Origin mid-season or at the end of the season?
Darren: Tradition is popular because familiarity makes us feel comfortable. Our greatest State of Origin memories come from mid-season Wednesday night battles for interstate rugby league supremacy. The traditional three mid-season Wednesdays for State of Origin just feel right. But there have long been questions over whether it is best for the players and the clubs they represent. My counter argument has always been that the clubs loaded with State of Origin quality players have an advantage over the lesser clubs all year, so Origin just levels the field for a few weeks. If you think giving up half your team to Origin is bad, try struggling all year with players that will never play Origin. This year's forced relocation of Origin will be an interesting trial. If it works, if the hype can be maintained after the Grand Final, if players, especially those not involved in the finals, can maintain peak form and fitness, we just might have to start a new tradition.
Christian: This may be an unpopular opinion, but I definitely miss the spectacle and discussion of State of Origin during the season. It is true that it distracts from the ins and outs of the regular season, but I have no problem with it. I think it breaks up the season well, offers teams much needed bye-rounds and serves as some relief from the week-in week-out grind of the long NRL season. I also don't understand the disgust some people seem to feel when people discuss potential Origin selections weeks or even months out from the series opener. I liken them to the people that despise Halloween being celebrated in Australia - just let people enjoy what they enjoy. Moreover, I have grave doubts about the spectacle of Origin after 20 weeks of club football and a finals series. I can see it feeling closer to the regular end-of-season international matches that simply don't match the allure of State of Origin, especially given it will take place over three consecutive weeks.
Were the Tigers right to move on from Benji Marshall?
Darren: Benji Marshall was a superstar of the game, giving Wests Tigers some of his best years and being key to their lone premiership in 2005. Marshall has been back at the Tigers for three unsuccessful years now and the time has come for coach Michael Maguire to produce results. Maguire can't afford another year of missing the finals and the club needs a change of direction in the key positions. Maguire experimented during this season, dropping Marshall and Luke Brooks, while trying Josh Reynolds and Billy Walters in various combinations. Maguire returned to Marshall and Brooks, but the results just haven't been there. He'll need to find someone to partner Brooks and lead the club into the 2021 finals or his own tenure will be under pressure.
Christian: Marshall is quite possibly the greatest player to grace the Wests Tigers in their relatively short history. In a disappointing Tigers side, he has been one of the few bright spots with 12 try assists (6th in the NRL) and 11 linebreak assists (5th) from just 12 games played. Coach Michael Maguire has made it clear that his defence is an issue, however, with Marshall missing 33 tackles for a tackle efficiency of 83% compared to 89% in 2019. As the 45th-worst tackler in the NRL this year and Maguire going as far as to drop Marshall as a result, I think these issues have been a little sensationalised. And yet, I cannot blame the Tigers for wanting to move him on. It's clear Wests are not going anywhere with Marshall steering the team around, so it makes sense that the club wants to start sniffing around for a new gun half or at least hand the keys over to Luke Brooks to truly see if he has what it takes.