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Newcastle Herald
Newcastle Herald

Enari Tuala in the firing line as Newcastle Knights coach Adam O'Brien ponders selection dilemma

PRESSURE: Enari Tuala. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

HE has been a backline mainstay for three seasons, but Enari Tuala could be the odd man as coach Adam O'Brien sits down to choose his squad for Saturday's clash with Manly at Brookvale.

In a rare luxury, O'Brien looks set to have virtually every one of his top-line players available, providing Kalyn Ponga and Dane Gagai (Queensland) and Jacob Saifiti (NSW) emerge intact from Wednesday's State of Origin series decider.

The return of Jayden Brailey, Bradman Best and Daniel Saifiti in the past two weeks leaves O'Brien with basically a full complement and some selection dilemmas. The only Newcastle player who would appear in doubt for Saturday's match is young forward Pasami Saulo, who suffered a nasty head knock in last week's 40-28 loss to South Sydney.

Saulo would normally be among the first culled, but his energetic 23-minute contribution against the Rabbitohs, which included a line break, might well have provided O'Brien with food for thought.

The coach faces some intriguing decisions on a host of positions, but perhaps selecting his centres will cause the most angst.

Best, returning after being sidelined for seven weeks with a dislocated elbow, scored a try against Souths, and it is hard to imagine O'Brien would consider dropping the 20-year-old, who is rated one of the club's brightest prospects.

Likewise, Test and Origin veteran Gagai would appear an automatic selection as Newcastle's right-side centre, the role Tuala filled last week against Souths.

Tuala is also more than capable of playing on the wing, but English import Dominic Young and former Queensland Origin flyer Edrick Lee look virtually un-droppable on recent form. Between them, Young and Lee have scored 10 tries in the past two games.

That would seemingly leave Tuala in the firing line, which might seem harsh, given that since arriving in Newcastle from North Queensland for the start of the 2020 season, he has been their leading tryscorer, with 29 from 59 games.

This year he has appeared in all but one of Newcastle's 16 fixtures.

Souths winger Richie Kennar scored a hat-trick of tries down the flank defended by Tuala and Young on Friday night, but O'Brien argued the outside backs were not necessarily at fault.

"If you're loose for two or three tackles in the middle, unfortunately it's the guys on the edges who suffer, because they're attacking you with play-the-ball speed," O'Brien said.

"So they're coming at you. They're dictating terms, and we don't have anyone working from the inside, so it's pretty hard for those guys [outside backs]. Anyone that understands how edge systems work, the guys out the back usually get blamed for the missed tackles, but it starts in the middle."

The other big decisions for O'Brien will be whether to promote Brailey from the bench to starting hooker, and if he should recall back-rower Lachlan Fitzgibbon, who has scored tries in three successive NSW Cup games.

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