Selection headaches kick off bench-warming debate


Given St George Illawarra struggled to score points last season, Steve Price's halfback appointment could prove a pivotal moment in his coaching career. Veteran Nathan Fien and rookie Josh Drinkwater have been training in the No.7 position all pre-season following the retirement of former skipper Ben Hornby. Price, off contract at the end of this season, is leaning towards Fien to open the season against four of last year's top eight sides in the first month. Drinkwater admitted he expected to start the year playing for the Illawarra Cutters in the NSW Cup. ''I think 'Fiensy' will get first shot,'' he said. ''There's no doubt he's done a lot in the game, and he deserves the first chance. But I'll just keep biding my time, keep playing good footy and train hard so that I make sure when I get the chance I take it.''


Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan has enough depth in the forwards to field two separate packs. He has a plethora of back-rowers at his disposal, including Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Chris Heighington, Anthony Tupou, Wade Graham and Jayson Bukuya. Despite losing prop Bryce Gibbs for three months after he suffered an Achilles injury in the trial match against Newcastle last weekend, Flanagan said he wouldn't use Gallen in the front row. The Sharks coach is confident in the depth of the big men at his disposal, with Andrew Fifita, Ben Ross, Mark Taufua, Jon Green and Sam Tagataese all fighting for the starting positions. Given the fact John Morris will occupy one bench position, three of the players mentioned will miss out on selection for the opening round clash against the Gold Coast Titans.


Dean Whare was brought to Penrith this season to play fullback after he tormented the Panthers while in a Manly No.1 jersey last year. Despite developing through the Dragons and Sea Eagles ranks as a recognised centre, Whare made a positive impression on Ivan Cleary in his brief stint at fullback for Manly last year in the absence of Brett Stewart, and will be given first crack at the Panthers No.1 jersey ahead of Wes Naiqama. He had two 40-20s kicked against him by the Eels in the trial last Saturday night, but Cleary believes he will improve with the experience. ''I'm pretty happy with Dean,'' Cleary said. ''Positional-wise, he would've learnt a lot against Parramatta. Dean's a guy who moved around positions a lot during his time at Manly, having originally been a centre. I think he'll only get better.''


Ben Barba's indefinite suspension has cast a huge shadow over the Bulldogs' title defence. His replacement, which Des Hasler will avoid confirming until an hour before kick-off against the Cowboys, has a huge task on his hands. The Bulldogs scored more tries from inside their own half (22) than any team last season, and Barba was heavily involved in most of them. Former Canberra fullback Drury Low, who wasn't even included in the NRL media guide handed out on Thursday, is the frontrunner for the job. The 22-year-old is the logical choice to slot into the role, with Hasler reluctant to reshuffle his back line.


Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin will end months of speculation when he names his team for round one on Friday. The talking point of the pre-season in Brisbane has been about who will partner Peter Wallace in the halves. The former NSW playmaker is guaranteed to retain his No.7 jersey, but the man to play outside him has remained a mystery since Scott Prince joined the club from the Gold Coast Titans in the off-season. Corey Norman, who replaced Darren Lockyer following his retirement in 2011, is expected to be pipped by the veteran when Griffin names his team on Friday. The Broncos take on Manly at Suncorp Stadium in round one.


Where to start? Prop Luke Burgess (shoulder) and centre Matt King (arm) are out of action for the round-one clash with Sydney Roosters on Thursday night, so coach Michael Maguire has a few selection headaches. Beau Champion is expected to play in the centres with Dylan Farrell, but Bryson Goodwin's good trial form means nothing is certain yet. Despite being dropped from the Charity Shield for being late to training, winger Nathan Merritt should be recalled. Prop Jeff Lima, new to the club, has not played in a trial, so Maguire must decide whether he can start in the front row alongside Roy Asotasi or do so from the bench. With an abundance of back-rowers, Maguire has the option of starting Sam Burgess at prop, before moving him wider. George Burgess's performance in the Charity Shield was eye-catching, and might have secured him a spot on the Rabbitohs' interchange. Maguire is not expected to finalise his squad until Tuesday.

This story Selection headaches kick off bench-warming debate first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.