Twenty-nine top NRL players have been left out of final-round squads as the top eight teams give their stars a break before the finals.
- The Melbourne Storm are resting 12 players, while the Raiders are resting nine
- Only one player from last week’s starting side will play this week for the Storm
- They will also have their fourth captain for the year, with 22-year-old Ryan Papenhuyzen leading the side
With second spot locked up, Melbourne has led the charge with 12 changes, while Canberra has sat out nine players despite still being in top-four contention.
Parramatta, Newcastle and South Sydney are the only finals-bound teams to go with their best possible side, with the Eels fourth, and the Knights and Rabbitohs vying for a home final by finishing sixth.
It comes after 18 straight weeks of football, with no byes or representative rounds, since the competition’s restart in May.
For Melbourne, not one player will start in the same position they did last week, while they have five uncapped rookies on their eight-man extended bench.
Skipper Cameron Smith and five-eighth Cameron Munster, as well as Jesse Bromwich, Josh Addo-Carr and Jahrome Hughes will all skip the clash with St George Illawarra.
Kenny Bromwich and Suliasi Vunivalu are out while young gun Tino Fa’asuamaleaui — the only Storm player to have featured in every match this season — is battling a calf issue.
Star fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen will captain the side for the first time, with the 22-year-old becoming the team’s fourth skipper for the year.
He replaces Nicho Hynes, who moves to the bench and is the only player from last week’s starting side who will play this weekend.
That decision is as much about restricting same-day travel time from the Sunshine Coast to Sydney as it is saving miles in the players’ legs.
“We’re playing the last game of the round on Sunday afternoon so … we could have a five, or at best a six-day turnaround [into the finals].
“So that’s part of the thinking in trying to be as fresh but also as well prepared as we can be for the final.”
Raiders hand out four debuts
At Canberra, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jack Wighton, George Williams, Jarrod Croker, John Bateman and Josh Papalii are among those sitting out the match with Cronulla, with four players named to make their NRL or club debuts.
Centre Jordan Rapana has a “minor knee injury”, while forwards Joe Tapine and Elliott Whitehead are being rested.
They will welcome back Sia Soliola for his first match since suffering a serious facial fracture 12 weeks ago.
George Williams will be replaced at halfback by Sam Williams, who will captain the side in his first game this year.
He will be partnered in the halves by Matt Frawley, making his club debut, while fullback Adam Cook and bench players Darby Medlyn and Jarrett Subloo will play their first NRL games.
The Raiders can leapfrog the Eels for fourth spot if they beat the Sharks by enough to overcome an 18-point difference in for-and-against, provided Parramatta does not beat the Tigers on Saturday.
The Sharks will play Wade Graham in the halves but won’t have Josh Dugan and Sione Katoa as they manage minor niggles.
Both trained on Tuesday and will be fine for the finals.
Isaac Liu, Lindsay Collins and Joey Manu will not play for the Sydney Roosters against South Sydney, but James Tedesco, Boyd Cordner, Jake Friend and Siosiua Taukeiaho have all been named to return.
First-placed Penrith will be without Dylan Edwards, Stephen Crichton and Viliame Kikau for its match with Canterbury.