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Radical plan to make season 27 rounds, Papali’i won’t commit to Tigers, Storm sign Katoa

The NRL is considering an early kick-off to the 2023 season which would start with a match on the last week of February.

Under a proposal which has been distributed to clubs, the draw would be stretched out over 27 rounds instead of the current 25 and each team would receive three byes.

The introduction of the Dolphins means there will be at least one bye each week in the 17-team competition and the NRL is considering staging Round 1 in the first week of March, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report.

South Sydney and Manly are set to begin a week earlier as part of the “Round Zero” experiment where they would play in the final week of February in the United States before each having a fortnight’s break before they play their next competition match.

In the current set-up, each club plays 24 games over 25 rounds with an extra bye built in for the mid-season representative round.

Rep round is being eliminated next year so the NRL can return to having State of Origin played on Wednesday nights for all three matches.

With the World Cup being held at the end of this year and not finishing until midway through November, an early start in 2023 is expected to be met with stiff resistance from players and clubs as they will already have a shortened window for off-season training.

Isaiah Papali’i. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Papali’i won’t commit to Tigers

Parramatta superstar Isaiah Papali’i will wait until the end of the season to determine whether he honours a three-year NRL contract at the Wests Tigers.

After a breakout 2021 season in which he snared Dally M second-rower of the year honours, New Zealand international Papali’i signed a deal to join Kiwis coach Michael Maguire at the Tigers for 2023.

Since then, Maguire has been sacked and the Tigers have been consigned to a battle with Gold Coast to avoid the wooden spoon.

Reports emerged in July that Papali’i was considering reneging on his move to the 15th-placed Tigers.

Speculation only intensified when Papali’i refused to publicly confirm he would honour his deal and the Eels revealed they had the salary cap space to retain him.

A month later and the Eels are now on the cusp of the top-four with four games left in the regular season, leading Papali’i to put contract discussions off until Parramatta’s finals campaign was complete.

“I’ve got a season to finish off and then I can worry about all that after,” he said. “When it does come time to have that talk (with the Tigers), we’ll definitely have that talk behind the scenes.

“We (Parramatta) have a massive opportunity and I just want to make sure I put my best foot forward. I definitely believe this team can go all the way. That’s what my focus has been on lately.”

The Eels are already preparing to lose key members of their forward pack in Reed Mahoney, Oregon Kaufusi and Marata Niukore but the uncertainty around Papali’i’s future has not been a source of frustration among the playing group.

“You get poked here and there about it but they’re pretty good about it,” Papali’i said. “They understand what my situation is and they’re backing me to do a massive job this season.”

The Tigers’ attack showed marked signs of improvement following Jackson Hastings’ switch to lock in round 18, which has encouraged Papali’i as he prepares to weigh up his future.

“They’ve been playing some good footy. It’s cool watching from the outside,” he said. “I’m definitely excited for any team that has been struggling throughout a season to put in some good performances.”

Storm sign Katoa to bolster pack

Rising star Eliesa Katoa will call Melbourne home for the next two seasons after becoming disillusioned with a lack of opportunities at the Warriors.

The second-rower burst onto the scene in 2020 and was one of the top rookies in the NRL that season but failed to get a regular starting spot last year and this season under former coach Nathan Brown.

“With so much competition for spots in the back row he hasn’t had as many opportunities as he would have liked this year. We’ve also made key signings in that area for next year so,” Warriors CEO Cameron George said.

Katoa has made 42 NRL appearances since his debut in 2020, all but one of them – against Melbourne on July 29 – played in Australia.

Experienced forwards Tui Kamikamica and Tepai Moeroa have had the options taken up in their deals for next year as well while the Storm have also added Dragons veteran Tariq Sims.

They needed reinforcements in the pack after the Dolphins poached Jesse and Kenny Bromwich, and Felise Kaufusi and the Roosters lured Brandon Smith to Sydney.

Arthur unfazed by backlash

Parramatta youngster Jake Arthur said he hadn’t let negative comments faze him as he looked to cement his spot in the spine for the remainder of Mitchell Moses’ injury.

The young Arthur has been the subject of social media trolling and booing from sections of the Eels crowd when handed chances at NRL level this year, with claims of nepotism at the crux of the negative attention.

But after Moses went down with a finger injury, Arthur silenced his critics with a strong performance starting at halfback in Friday night’s 36-20 defeat of Manly.

With the game on the line in the second half, Arthur threw the cut-out pass that helped Parramatta claw back to within two points, and later helped extend his side’s lead by sending a grubber kick through for Will Penisini.

“I haven’t really worried about it. I’ve just waited for my opportunity and have been trying to play my best footy,” he said.

He credits phone calls with Andrew Johns and a lifetime of watching rugby league with Eels coach and father Brad for his love of analysing the game.

Arthur has been consulting with Johns, who is on staff at the Eels, since making his debut last season and revealed his passion for studying the work of the competition’s best halves.  

“I just love footy. I watch pretty much every game most weeks,” he said.

“I’m just always trying to look for ways to get better. Joey really helped me with that. He picks things to detail. He’s always ringing me and helping me out.”

But Arthur’s love for analysis predates his professional career. The 19-year-old has spent his youth watching the NRL alongside the man set to become the Eels’ longest serving coach by the end of his contract.

“Me and my little brother, ever since we were young, we’d just sit there and watch footy with (Arthur) all the time. It 100 per cent rubs off,” he said.

“Sometimes he doesn’t want anyone talking, then other times he’ll see what other teams do to see if it’d work for us.”

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