Broncos v Sharks
Friday, 5.30pm, Suncorp Stadium
What was shaping as a fizzler of a match has turned into a sizzler, with both the Broncos and Sharks putting seemingly eternal losing streaks behind them with impressive wins in round 17.
The home side regained a spot in the top eight with a joyful trouncing of the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park, Brisbane running in six tries for the first time since round nine on their way to a comprehensive 34-18 victory.
Trailing 14-12 at halftime, the Broncos capitalised on stunning discipline (88 per cent completion and only four errors) to run away with their most important win of the season.
Centre Jordan Drew proved a revelation with 132 metres, a try assist, nine tackle-breaks and two line-breaks. Up front, prop Francis Molo shone with 153 metres and 20 tackles.
The Broncos will run into a Sharks side buoyant after their first win since mid-April.
In the upset of the Round, Cronulla ran away 34-22 winners over the defending premiers the Wests Tigers. Halfback Jake Walsh was the star for the boys in blue, controlling a tidy game as well as scoring twice and making 24 tackles.
Brisbane will be out to consolidate their spot in the finals race, and should do it comfortably, but as this competition has shown time and time again throughout 2013, nothing is a certainty.
Tip: Broncos by 12 points.
Eels v Panthers
Saturday, 3.15pm, Parramatta Stadium
The battle of the west writes its next chapter at Parramatta Stadium this Saturday evening, the first time the Panthers and Eels have met since Penrith won a gruelling round seven grudge match.
Penrith enter the clash off the back of a much-needed win against the Gold Coast – their first in three matches – and will still have their minds set on a top-two finish.
The Panthers conceded a try to the Titans in the opening minutes last week but soon managed to rediscover the attacking flair that had them leading the comp earlier in the year.
Big games from the Penrith forward pack saw them run away 22-12 victors in a performance that will do nothing but worry this week's opponents Parramatta.
Back-rower Oliver Percy was best on field with 174 metres, five tackle-breaks and 23 tackles. Close behind was prop Mitch Sharp who contributed 134 metres and 29 tackles.
It was a performance displaying everything Parramatta lacked at the weekend, the Eels going down 34-30 to the 14th-placed Sea Eagles.
The Eels coughed up 13 errors and completed only 66 per cent of their sets in a loss that saw them tumble out of the top eight.
However, prop Pauli Pauli was admittedly stunning with 164 metres, 22 tackles and 10 tackle busts.
Penrith can potentially regain a spot in the top two with a win, while Parramatta can conceivably move back into the top eight. The home side will be hoping for a big early turnout of fans because if they fail in their quest season 2013 is all but gone.
Tip: Panthers by eight points.
Cowboys v Sea Eagles
Saturday, 4.30pm, Brothers RLFC
In a clash of the cellar dwellers, Manly travel to the far north with their first win since round nine tucked smugly under their belt.
For the home side, it was a case of so desperately close yet so far after they went down by two to front-runners Canberra.
Cowboys five-eighth Alex Grant had a chance to equalise after the siren, but his conversion attempt sailed wide – handing the Raiders a 34-32 win.
North Queensland probably deserved to win the encounter, making fewer errors, missing fewer tackles, making more metres and completing 87 per cent of their sets compared to Canberra's 71 per cent.
Fullback Javid Bowen scored twice (including the 79th-minute effort that nearly split the points), ran for 129 metres, busted 11 tackles and set up a further try in a man-of-the-match performance.
It remains to be seen how the result will affect North Queensland's preparation for the upcoming encounter with Manly, who themselves won an equally tight victory over Parramatta.
Locked 30-30 with five minutes on the clock, Manly winger Fabian Goodall dived over the chalk to hand his side a rare win.
One can see Manly making this a successful excursion after the guts they showed last week, but on form over the past month and a chance on offer to climb from the wooden spoon position – the nod goes to North Queensland.
Tip: Cowboys by four
Bulldogs v Storm
Sunday, 12.45pm, ANZ Stadium
Saving the match of the round for last, the Holden Cup will dish up a salivating Sunday afternoon encounter between two sides in the running to be holding the silverware aloft in September.
Home side Canterbury-Bankstown have now gone four matches without a loss and while Melbourne are staring down the barrel of a third straight defeat, there is no doubt the Storm will be aiming to launch a charge at the top four.
The Bulldogs earned a comfortable 26-14 win over Newcastle last weekend, prop Lloyd Perret starring in the victory with a try, a try assist, 155 metres, 32 tackles and six tackle busts. Four Bulldogs made 30 tackles or more in an impressive defensive effort.
If they replicate that display this Sunday against the Storm, who have scored the fewest points this season of all top-eight sides (368), the Bulldogs will be more than halfway there.
Melbourne again struggled to find the line last round in a 34-18 loss to the Broncos. Completing only 61 per cent of their sets and battling to 1173 metres, it is clearly in attack that they are letting themselves down.
Interchange forward Pride Petterson-Robati, who ran for 137 metres, set up a try and made 33 tackles, was the best of a beaten bunch and a shining example of what Melbourne must aspire to.
With their season facing a fork in the road, Melbourne have two options. Win, and there's no reason not to finish in the top half of the final eight. Lose, and a 2013 early mark might be on the cards.
Tip: Storm by four points.