Souths halves not concerned by big hits

South Sydney’s diminutive, premiership-winning halves Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary have dismissed suggestions playmakers are being targeted more than ever in the NRL.

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North Queensland called for better protection for playmakers after witnessing treatment meted out to Johnathan Thurston by Newcastle on Saturday, when the Test superstar copped several heavy knocks and finished the game unable to see out of one eye.

Knights enforcer Beau Scott pleaded guilty to a grade one dangerous contact charge for one late high shot on Thurston, escaping suspension – an outcome that caused outrage north of the Tweed.

Former great Andrew Johns claimed on Sunday that skilful players were being targeted more than ever.

But the 182cm Keary, who weighs in at 82kg, said he didn’t expect any special treatment from referees.

“If you want to take the ball to the line you have to expect to get hit,” Keary told AAP.

“If you don’t want to get hit, don’t take the ball to the line. It’s rugby league.

“It’s always been that way and will continue to be. You know what to expect. I’ve not been hit any more now than before.

“I haven’t been the victim of any cheap shots and I honestly haven’t seen anyone do it in the NRL.

“Big Sammy Moa at the Roosters got me good at the weekend but it wasn’t anything more than a strong tackle.

“It’s part of the game and as long as you don’t dish out anything illegal or cheap then you have to take it on the chin.”

Reynolds, just a centimetre taller than Keary and three kilos heavier, spent 11 minutes out of the game for a concussion test after being caught accidentally by the knee of Aidan Guerra in Sunday’s win over the Sydney Roosters.

He returned to lead the team to a come-from-behind 34-26 victory.

He echoed the sentiments of his halves partner and said being hit by big forwards was simply an occupational hazard.

“It’s just part of the game for me. We get hit a lot, you get up and you move on,” Reynolds told AAP.

“It’s just what happens when you take on the line but that’s our job and you take one for the team when you have to.

“I try not to worry about it, if you get hit, you get hit. I just worry about my game that’s enough for me to think about.”

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Western Force finals hopes hang by thread

Stand-in Western Force skipper Sam Wykes says the team’s horror start to the Super Rugby season shouldn’t be treated like a death – at least it’s not unfamiliar territory.

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The Force’s finals hopes are already hanging by a thread after posting just one win from their opening five games.

The task doesn’t get any easier for the Force, who face off against the Bulls (Pretoria) and Sharks (Durban) over the next fortnight before a bye.

Although four straight losses can make for a sombre mood, Wykes doesn’t want his teammates to get too down about things.

“We’ve been down this path many times before,” Wykes said.

“In the history of the Western Force, we’ve been through some tough times in terms of results. So we know how to bounce back from it.

“At the end of the day, we’re reviewing football. No one has died or anything like that.

“We’re going to keep it positive, and we’ll keep fighting for it.”

The Force’s slow starts to matches have become a concern.

They trailed the Rebels 15-0 after 33 minutes last week before putting in a strong second-half display to lose by just four points.

Wykes said it was imperative for his team to come out firing against the Bulls.

“The margins between winning and losing could be a moment, or 20 minutes in a game,” Wykes said.

“We’re not putting in a full 80 minutes together.

“That first 20 minutes against the Rebels was terrible.

“To the credit of the boys, we do fight. But we’re just making it harder on ourselves. We’re a tight unit. We’ll stick together.”

The Force are hopeful prop Pek Cowan can recover from a shoulder knock in time to take on the Bulls.

Sydney prop Guy Millar has been called into the squad as cover.

Winger Luke Morahan (hamstring), Angus Cottrell (ankle), and full-back Dane Haylett-Petty (foot) are all a chance to return against the Bulls on Saturday night.

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Pocock v Hooper – Larkham is confident

Brumbies coach Stephen Larkham is 99 per cent certain Australian rugby fans will get to see a long-awaited David Pocock v Michael Hooper Super Rugby battle on Sunday.

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Pocock must pass a fitness test on Wednesday before he can take to Allianz Stadium against the Waratahs for the high-stakes clash between his Australian conference leaders and the defending champions.

Pocock has been out of action since injuring his ankle in round one against the Queensland Reds, where he impressed in his comeback from a second knee reconstruction with a man-of-the-match performance.

A return to the park this weekend will see him go head-to-head with his successor in the Wallabies No.7 jersey, Hooper – their first battle since Pocock suffered his first ruptured ACL against the Waratahs in 2013.

“He (Pocock) has his final fitness test tomorrow morning, but I’m expecting him to pass,” Larkham said.

“I’m very optimistic. I’m 99 per cent sure he’ll be right.

“He trained towards the end of last week very well, and today we had a short run out there and he trained really well there as well.”

However Larkham is reluctant to tinker with his in-form back row of Ita Vaea, Jarrad Butler and Scott Fardy, meaning Pocock is likely to eased back via the bench.

“It is (a selection dilemma), considering the way the backrow have been playing,” Larkham said.

However Larkham added that having Pocock’s presence at the ruck would help stem the Waratahs’ momentum in attack.

“Certainly Poey adds that other element,” Larkham said.

“A backrower who gets hard on the ball. It will be a slightly different look to our backrow if Poey gets on the field.”

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Hart facing renewed onslaught from in-form Suarez

Barca lead 2-1 from last month’s first leg ahead of the showdown at the Nou Camp on Wednesday, when Suarez netted both goals, more evidence he is nearing top form after a stuttering start to his stint in Spain.

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The former Liverpool forward, who has scored 10 times since the turn of the year, also put two past Hart when Uruguay beat England 2-1 in Sao Paulo in June at the World Cup finals.

The 28-year-old was banned for four months for biting an opponent in Uruguay’s subsequent game against Italy but since making his Barca debut at the end of October has slowly been getting back to his lethal best.

Linking up well with fellow South American forwards Lionel Messi and Neymar, Suarez has earned praise from Barca coach Luis Enrique for his work rate and it will be a huge challenge for city to thwart the fearsome trio on Wednesday.

Scoring goals has been City’s main failure in recent weeks, however, and Saturday’s 1-0 Premier League defeat at Burnley was their third reverse in four outings, during which they have managed to find the net only four times.

It is a paltry return by City’s standards, especially considering they rattled in nine goals in their previous two games in England’s top flight.

“The issue for us at present is that we are not winning the games that we normally do, especially against teams we are expected to beat, and that is because we are not scoring goals,” City coach Manuel Pellegrini said.

“I’m sure all our players are giving all that they can at this moment but we have to keep trusting in what we are trying to do and believe our performances will return to our normal levels,” added the Chilean.

Four-time European champions Barca are seeking a record eighth consecutive quarter-final appearance and have history on their side.

They have progressed 33 out of the 35 times they won the first leg away in European competition, most recently against City at the same stage last season when the English club were appearing in the round of 16 for the first time.

And only twice in the Champions League era has a team won a knockout round tie after losing the first leg at home.

(Editing by Patrick Johnston)

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Lions’ midfield pride returns

Finally, the pride has returned to the Brisbane Lions’ midfield.

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But who will be kicking the goals?

Life after retired great Jonathan Brown was never going to be easy for the Lions entering yet another rebuilding year.

However, supply appears no problem.

Collingwood premiership player Dayne Beams, ex-Geelong match-winner Allen Christensen and former Blue Mitch Robinson have settled into their new club.

Daniel Rich and Jack Redden are fully fit again.

Add new captain Tom Rockliff, Pearce Hanley – albeit when back from hip injury mid-season – and last year’s Rising Star winner Lewis Taylor and no wonder Lions coach Justin Leppitsch is excited.

“To have three very talented players in Beams, Christensen and Robinson come in which fans don’t have to wait three or four years to see the best of, is very good,” Leppitsch told AAP.

“Guys like (James) Aish, (Tom) Cutler and (Sam) Mayes – their best footy is still two or three years away.

“To have a couple of readymade players is exciting for fans.”

But who will be their inside 50m target?

Michael Close, Brent Staker, Luke McGuane and Jackson Paine loom as candidates.

However, Leppitsch reckons his much-envied midfield could also help solve the goal-kicking problem.

“We will rely on our midfield to kick goals a fair bit seeing we have a lot of them,” Leppitsch said.

Rockliff agreed.

“We probably don’t hit the scoreboard enough as a midfield group – Dayne will help with that,” he said.

“We will need to manufacture goals at times but we think we have the gameplan to do that.”

Rockliff hoped they could do justice to Leppitsch’s vision in their coach’s second year at the helm.

“Obviously last year everything was fresh – it was always going to be difficult to pick up the gameplan,” he said.

“Twelve months in we feel we have made massive improvements.

“But once you play opposition it changes and the pressure comes on – so that’s the real test.”

Leppitsch already likes what he sees.

“Stefan Martin and Matthew Leuenberger are probably two of the best ruckmen in the comp,” he said.

“Combining with Beams, Rockliff, Rich, Redden and Christensen – it is a pretty exciting group.”

Then there’s Rockliff, who replaces Jed Adcock as skipper.

“Tom is going to be a terrific captain for us for a long period of time,” Leppitsch said.

“It’s a generational change for us, a young captain for a young team.”

Even the retirement of the last of the Lions’ 2001-03 premiership group last year – Brown and Ash McGrath – couldn’t wipe the smile off his face.

“One thing about football careers – they all start and they all finish,” Leppitsch said.

“Where we are at right now is we have a lot of youth – the future is pretty good.”

So good that Leppitsch wouldn’t rule out finals for 2015.

“Every club wants to play finals. There are a lot of factors that go into it why you do and don’t – form and injuries are two of them,” he said.

“Both have to be kind on us for us to play finals because we don’t have the list depth.

“We would need a few things to go our way to make the eight but it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

BRISBANE LIONS

Coach: Justin Leppitsch

Captain: Tom Rockliff

Last five years: 13-15-13-12-15

Premierships: 3 (2001-03)

Key five: Tom Rockliff, Dayne Beams, Jack Redden, Matthew Leuenberger, Dayne Zorko.

One to watch: Dayne Beams. The star onballer shocked the Magpies with his trade demand, but Collingwood’s loss is Brisbane’s gain. Beams is still only 25 and shapes to be a prime mover for the Lions as they look to move back up the ladder in 2015 and beyond.

Ins: Harris Andrews (Aspley, Qld), Dayne Beams (Collingwood), Allen Christensen (Geelong), Josh Clayton (Sandringham U18), Liam Dawson (Aspley, Qld), Jaden McGrath (Bendigo U18), Josh McGuinness (Lauderdale, Tas), Mitch Robinson (Carlton), Josh Watts (Glenorchy, Tas).

Outs: Jonathan Brown (retired), Jack Crisp (Collingwood), Jordan Lisle (delisted), Ashley McGrath (retired), Brent Moloney (retired), Joel Patfull (GWS), James Polkinghorne (delisted), Andrew Raines (delisted), Patrick Wearden (delisted).

Best line-up:

B: Jed Adcock, Daniel Merrett, Darcy Gardiner

HB: Pearce Hanley, Justin Clarke, Sam Mayes

C: Marco Paparone, Daniel Rich, Jack Redden

HF: Allen Christensen, Michael Close, Dayne Zorko

F: Lewis Taylor, Brent Staker, Josh Green

R: Matthew Leuenberger, Dayne Beams, Tom Rockliff

I: Stefan Martin, James Aish, Rohan Bewick, Mitch Robinson

Predicted finish: 10th

Betting (William Hill):

To win the flag: $34

To make the top eight: $3.25

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