Finals Week 1 Teams: Several stars racing the clock to be fit for playoffs, Kris crossed out with lengthy spear tackle ban
Team list, judiciary, injury and Late Mail information for round one of the 2023 NRL finals.
NRL boss Andrew Abdo has ruled out reconsidering the league’s venue policy for future finals series, despite the prospect of thousands of frustrated fans being locked out of Cronulla’s clash with the Sydney Roosters.
Almost all seated tickets for Saturday’s elimination final sold out within an hour of the members’ pre-sale beginning on Monday morning, with only single seats available by midday.
A limited number of tickets have been held back for the general public on Tuesday but the match is poised to sell out shortly after they go on sale at 10am.
The Roosters and Sharks have 34,000 club members between them, while the two clubs have a combined average crowd of 36,000 this year.
But with a reduced capacity of 13,500 due to the redevelopment of the adjoining leagues club, PointsBet Stadium is easily the smallest ground in the NRL this year.
The league gives clubs the choice of where to host their first-week finals match and there is little motivation for Cronulla to move the match away from their traditional home.
Taking it to a bigger venue at Allianz Stadium would gift the lower-ranked Roosters home-ground advantage, while clubs do not pocket gate takings for finals matches.
The NRL moved away from the use of suburban grounds in 2011 to limit the number of fans being locked out of finals matches but made a return in 2019 due to the redevelopment of several major stadiums.
At the time, then-CEO Todd Greenberg said the league would consider a move back to big stadiums after the major venues were back online.
But Abdo insisted there was no reason for the NRL to shift back.
“At this stage there is no plan to change anything,” Abdo told AAP.
“The important thing to remember is there are four weeks of finals. Week one it is about rewarding a club for where it finished on the ladder, and those fans.
“They have worked really hard to get into the position to be able to host a final.”
Abdo said the capacity crunch merely re-affirmed the league’s push for government investment in suburban grounds.
“Our position is unashamedly that we want investment in community assets. We want suburban grounds,” he said.
“We want investment in Shark Park, that can hopefully lift capacity over time and give a great experience. That is absolutely our strategy.”
Roosters and Sharks members were given equal access to tickets on Monday, meaning it is possible the home support could be outnumbered on Saturday.
“For the first round of the final, we’ve earned that right to play there,” Sharks captain Wade Graham said.
“That’s where our members and fans love to come. It’s our home, we train there, our lockers are there and we’re there every day.
“Hopefully, in the future we can get that fixed and get a stadium the community deserves.”
His Roosters counterpart James Tedesco said he had no issue with playing at the smaller venue. It’s the right way to do it, especially when they deserve the advantage for finishing higher than us,” Tedesco said.
With his NRL career approaching its last act, Canberra legend Jarrod Croker says he doesn’t want to be picked on sentiment for the Green Machine’s elimination final against Newcastle.
Croker will hang up his boots whenever the Raiders’ season ends with the club’s try and points scoring records to his name from a 307-game Canberra career.
The thought of Croker finishing his time with Canberra at NRL level seemed a long shot at the start of the season due to his struggles with knee and shoulder issues.
That was until senior Canberra players asked for coach Ricky Stuart to recall Croker in round six of this year. He has subsequently defied the odds to make 15 appearances in 2023.
“I feel like what I’ve achieved this year, it’s not been the ideal circumstances to do it in but it’s better than what I was looking at,” Croker told AAP. Even with his return to NRL action, things haven’t been all plain sailing for Croker.
He was controversially rested by Stuart so he could play his 300th game at home, which the Raiders lost to the Warriors.
In round 26, in his final home game, Croker was named on the bench for the first time in his career.
He only saw three minutes of game time in the dying moments when Brisbane had victory wrapped up, in a disappointing end for one of Canberra’s favourite sons.
“It was a weird one, not getting on until the 80th minute,” Croker said.
“It was a different feeling but if you’d asked me how I’d feel at the start of the year in my final home game, I’d have said I’d be balling my eyes out.
“Because I didn’t get on it had a different feeling, it was a tough one to get emotional for.”
Sebastian Kris’s five-game suspension has opened the door for 32-year-old Croker to return to Stuart’s gameday 17 against the Knights on Sunday.
Croker was named on the bench for the Raiders’ final round clash with Cronulla, only to be dropped altogether before kick-off.
Asked if he wanted to be picked on merit rather than sentiment, Croker said: “That’s human nature.
“I don’t like being on the bench. I don’t think many people do and I’ve never been on there either.
“At the same time, I’ll do whatever is best for the team.”
Aside from losing Kris to suspension, Canberra are without Corey Horsburgh and Josh Papalii but Croker said the us-against-the-world mentality played into Stuart’s hands.
“Theyre going for 10 in a row and Kalyn Ponga’s on fire,” Croker added. “Nobody is expecting us to win, so we’ve got to go up there and try and spoil the party.”
Melbourne centre Justin Olam refuses to be a victim. That’s why he wants the way he handled being dropped to be an inspirational example for his many supporters back in Papua New Guinea, including his beloved mother Evelyn.
The 29-year-old PNG-born wrecking ball was sent back to Queensland Cup with Sunshine Coast Falcons for five weeks after the round 21 loss to Newcastle due to poor form.
But the 2020 premiership winner was back in the Storm side for the 32-22 win over Brisbane on Thursday night and aims to become a better player than ever before.
“That is the goal. My mentality was to see (being dropped) as a challenge and not be a victim,” Olam said.
“My focus has been to go back and play well in Q Cup. I think it is a good lesson. I have got a big fan base in PNG, especially young kids.
“Life is not going to be smooth every time. If they are watching … there is going to be setbacks. It is how you react to it and pick yourself up.”
The PNG international was delighted to be back in the team, although the Storm were without 11 of their best players.
Craig Bellamy was asked whether Olam would be in the centres to play the Broncos in the first qualifying final on Friday night.
“We will see,” the coach said before pointing out that Young Tonumaipea, Marion Seve and Reimis Smith were also all in the frame.
Olam said being dropped “was tough”.
“On the flip side my performances had been questionable. Craig is the coach and knows what he is doing,” he said.
“He told me I needed to work on a few things. I said, ‘Thank you’. I have zero ego.
“I am happy some of the boys have got their opportunities and are playing well. That is what life is about.
“My focus has been to go back and work on what I can control, which is training hard and working on the things I can improve on. In saying that, I have got a few injuries this year which slowed me down a little bit.”
Olam is close to his PNG-based mother Evelyn who was worried about her son’s mental state when he was not playing NRL.
“I went back to see her last week,” Olam said. “PNG mothers are different. They want to see if their kids are OK. I was OK, but she was upset. I had to go and see her.
“She was worried, not because I was dropped, but she wanted to check if I am doing OK mentally. She has the understanding that getting dropped is hard. It is just another challenge.
“Coming from PNG it is never easy playing NRL, so I went back to reassure her that I have got myself together and am doing what I can to play first grade again.”
Sydney Roosters-bound winger Dom Young hopes he has left a legacy in Newcastle by breaking the individual record for most tries in any season of the club’s 36-year history.
Young scored his 21st try for the year in last week’s defeat of Cronulla, equalling the number posted by Timanua Tahu (2002) and Akuila Uate (2010) with one game to play in the regular season.
Just when time was running out to set a new record against St George Illawarra on Saturday night, Young crossed twice in the final four minutes.
The pair of four-pointers hoisted his total for the season to 23 as the Knights confirmed a 32-12 win that locked up fifth spot on the ladder.
The try that broke the record was particularly memorable. Moses Suli up-ended the 200cm-tall Englishman, whose dreadlocks flew every which way as he grounded the ball in the corner while suspended mid-air.
“The instincts kind of kicked in. I definitely found myself in a position I’ve probably not been in before,” Young said.
“If I’m finishing in the corner, I always back myself to keep the ball down so it’s just about keeping my body in the field of play.
“It’s a bit harder when you’ve got size 15 (shoes) near the sidelines. My body probably wasn’t made to bend and move like that but it’s all good.”
Young’s stellar season will stretch into the finals before he moves to the Roosters in 2024, having signed on in the pre-season. Young said leaving a legacy in Newcastle had been part of his motivation for wanting to chase Tahu and Uate’s record down.
“That’s kind of why I wanted it and that’s why I was pretty proud to get it now. It definitely means a lot to go out like that,” he said. “It’s pretty special. I’ve had it on my mind for a few weeks now.”
Before he goes, Young is hoping to tick more goals off with the Knights, who will host their first home final since 2006 next weekend.
“That’s always been the main goal, to play finals,” he said. “But we’re not satisfied with just finals now, we’ve won nine on the bounce and home final, we want to be winning that game and winning all the games to come really.”