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Mitchell Woods. Photo: Bryden Sharp

Over the next three weekends the six top teams from the UNE Harold Matthews Cup will battle it out to see who survives for Grand Final day (29 April). 

Here are six players from the top-six finalists, who could play a decisive role in getting their team to the 2023 season decider. 

1.      Penrith Panthers – Harry Wald, wing

The Panthers opened the 2023 season with a loss to Illawarra Steelers but then moved through the competition winning six games and drawing one against South Sydney Rabbitohs to finish on top of the ladder.

Fullback Jaxon Edgar was an ever-present threat with six tries, but Wald took over the goal-kicking duties from Jacob Kelly in Round Six to land 15 goals from 17 attempts, to complement his five tries from his last three matches (Bye in Round Seven).

2.      Newcastle Knights – Connor Votano, fullback

The Knights were big movers in 2023 after improving their 12th-place finish last year to second in 2023.

Some of that impetus came from skipper and fullback Connor Votano, who not only scored points through his goalkicking in each of the Knights eight games but also crossed the try line five times.

3.      Parramatta Eels – Zaidas Muagututia, hooker

The Eels had the best defensive record in the competition but were only fifth-best in attack, which underlines the theory that defence can get you places over the length of a season.

Providing the balance between good defence, while still being highly effective in attack, is hooker Zaidas Muagututia. He scored six tries – four in the last three rounds – as well as putting himself in front of as many runners as he could. The other points resource for the Eels was winger Dominic Farrugia with 25 goals – including three games in a row where he didn’t miss in 15 attempts.

4.      Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs – Mitchell Woods, halfback

This is another team that dragged themselves from the bottom of the ladder last year (13th) to play Semi-finals this year. In four of their six wins they scored 30 points or more.

Halfback and kicker Woods was a regular thorn in the side for the opposition. He not only scored six tries, but also landed 20 goals including a perfect 5/5 in Round Five.

5.      Canberra Raiders – Braydan Darmody, five-eighth

The Raiders are into back-to-back finals series kicking off their season with four straight wins – the opening three by 30 points or more, which were all ‘away’ games.

Every team needs a reliable goalkicker to ice the tries, but the Raiders also have a versatile one. Darmody started the season at fullback but ended up the regular No.6, scoring two tries along with his 25 goals.

6.      Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks – Nikora Williams, centre

Last year’s runner-up to the Western Suburbs Magpies, the Sharks feel they have something to prove. They made the 2022 Grand Final from fourth position so they will need to have that survival mode again in 2023.

Their centre/goal-kicker Nikora Williams will help. He landed 19 goals this year but also crossed for four tries – only two behind leading try scorer, winger Kailin Rehayem.

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New South Wales Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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