The Raiders face a tough task to keep their 10-game unbeaten streak intact when they host the red-hot Broncos in Canberra on Monday night.
Eels v Roosters
Friday 5.30pm, Parramatta Stadium
A fortnight’s rest should add some sizzle to both of these teams, not that the away side needs any more – their 32-10 smashing of the Storm two weeks ago serving as a clear warning to the besieged Parramatta Eels.
Having climbed to the cusp of the top eight, the Eels have only one win from their previous three outings and desperately need to pull off an upset lest they slip dangerously out of reach.
A fortnight ago it was the Gold Coast Titans (now with three wins on the trot) who dealt pain to Sydney’s west, with a spectacular comeback win that has left the Eels gasping for air.
Parramatta led 22-0 at the break but constructed the unlikeliest of capitulations, eventually going down by two points.
While many Eels tackled their hearts out (Prop Daniel Alvaro made 46, lock Joseph Ualesi 30), Parramatta missed a worrying 43. Their error count of 13 was also far too high to win matches in such a tight competition.
Discipline and defence will be the two Ds addressed at training all week and they will need to improve out of sight if they are to stop the Roosters crowing once again.
A double to winger Jake Goodsell topped off what was a thrilling display in attack for the tri-colours a fortnight ago, the flanker one of 11 Roosters racking up 100 metres or more.
The message is an ominous one to the Eels who must, against the odds, do or die.
Tip: Roosters by 10 points.
Knights v Dragons
Saturday 3.15pm, Hunter Stadium
Two much-needed and equally impressive away wins will have both teams entering this clash full of purpose and promise.
The Newcastle Knights now find themselves in the top eight after toppling South Sydney at ANZ Stadium, overcoming a four-point halftime deficit in the process.
Winger Jake Mamo earned a brace of tries as well as 110 metres, but it was on defence that the Knights built their victory.
Nine players in blue and red made 20 tackles or more, prop Michael Steele living up to his name with 36 as well as a try. Second-rower Joseph Tapine (24 tackles, 99 metres, one try assist, one tackle-break) was very close to perfect.
Meanwhile the Dragons handed the Bulldogs their fourth loss in five games, with an attacking blitz that will be remembered long into the season.
Eight different Dragons crossed the line in the 44-22 bloodbath including winger Kayne Brennan, who broke 10 tackles and ran for 200 stunning metres.
But man-of-the-match honours belong firmly to lock Jack Bird. In addition to his four-pointer, Bird made 177 metres, 31 tackles, nine tackle-breaks, three line-breaks and nabbed a spectacular try assist.
A week can mean a world of difference in rugby league, but spectators will be hoping both sides have changed precisely nothing. If that’s the case, a blockbuster looms.
Tip: Dragons by six points.
Cowboys v Bulldogs
Saturday 5.15pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
A team bundled out of the top eight after a horrid display meets a team sitting in last place following an even uglier one.
It doesn’t sound like the recipe for a thriller but under lights in tropical north Queensland, anything is possible. One hopes.
The home side will still be kicking, admonishing and screaming at themselves after letting a 32-12 lead slip away with just 13 minutes to play against the Titans.
The latest in a string of incomprehensible losses, this would have hurt the Cowboys the most.
Despite a hat-trick of tries to winger Zac Mackay (who also broke 14 tackles and made 136 metres), the Cowboys gave up the ghost in the 75th minute – slumping to a stupefying 34-32 loss.
Fullback Zac Santo churned up an impressive 204 metres and also scored a try but it was North Queensland’s incredibly suspect defence that eventually drowned them.
The Cowboys missed tackles like a foreign driver misses turnoffs, clocking up 42 in the torrid affair.
Fortunately they run into a Bulldogs side on Saturday that offered little better in their most recent outing against the Dragons.
The Bulldogs let in eight tries to four and now find themselves in ninth place, having lost four of their past five.
In consolation, prop Herman Ese’ese’s performance was as gargantuan as his thighs. The powerhouse forward scored two tries, made 41 tackles, nine tackle-breaks, two line-breaks and 123 metres.
The Bulldogs surely couldn’t be quite so bad twice in a row and should win this one comfortably.
Tip: Bulldogs by 12 points.
Panthers v Wests Tigers
Sunday, 12.45pm, Centrebet Stadium
The battle of the cats sees two teams rejuvenated from a bye and itching to take to the paddock after impressive wins.
Penrith a fortnight ago called on the best defence in the Holden Cup to hold out a fast-finishing Dragons 25-18, nine Panthers making 20 tackles or more in the gutsy win.
Prop Regan Campbell-Gillard (40 tackles), utility Mitch Clark (39) lock Iain Riccardi (33) were among the most impressive and had more tackle in them than a fishing outfitter.
In attack, Kieran Moss was brilliant – scoring twice, racking up 188 metres and breaking six tackles. Halfback Toby Evans also earned a brace as well as kicking the deal-sealing field-goal.
While their Sunday adversaries’ victory wasn’t quite a nail-biter, it was just as welcome to fans, the Wests Tigers beginning to show signs of an improving attack.
The black-and-golds’ defence has already been proven (and is eclipsed only by Penrith statistically) but it was their stylish 28 points against the Cowboys that will most please coaching staff.
Rhys Armstrong scored two tries off the bench while gifted lock Brenden Santi bagged a four-pointer and charged through an incredible 217 metres.
With two rock-solid defensive units doing battle, Sunday afternoon looks set to kick off with an absorbing 80 minutes of rugby league. Favouritism hesitantly must go to the home side.
Tip: Panthers by one point.
Warriors v Sea Eagles
Sunday 1.45pm, Mt Smart Stadium
The Warriors will be out to consolidate their new position in the top four after demolishing the Broncos 46-20 last week.
Centre Solomone Kata was without doubt the best player on Suncorp Stadium, racking up 22 solo points (two tries and seven goals) in addition to busting through nine tackles and making 18 of his own.
Fullback David Fusitua (201 metres) was one of seven New Zealand players to crack triple figures in attack, while lock David Bhana nabbed a brace of tries and 46 tackles in a stunning performance. While the Warriors were far from perfect and missed their fare share of tackles, their performance was worthy of their current top-four spot.
A win against Manly this weekend could potentially put a bit of breathing space between them and the three sides nipping at their heels.
The Sea Eagles haven’t played for two weeks since their dismal 36-20 loss to the Canberra Raiders.
The silvertails never looked a chance of toppling the competition leaders and a double to winger Regan Haika was a rare highlight.
Manly have just three wins this season and haven’t offered much evidence to suggest they will add to that tally on Sunday.
Tip: Warriors by 16 points.
Storm v Sharks
Sunday 4.15pm, AAMI Park
So close is the 2013 Holden Cup midway through the season, the Melbourne Storm could find themselves anywhere between fourth and ninth spot after this week.
Currently one of three teams on 14 points, a point outside the top four, the sixth-placed Storm will not want to let their guard slip against the Sharks in a match crucial to their fortunes.
The Storm last played a fortnight ago in an abysmal outing that saw them on the wrong end of a 32-10 scoreline against the Sydney Roosters.
Every starting Storm player outside the back five was forced to make 20 tackles or more, lock Pride Petterson-Robati the most with 47.
Matt McGahan’s return to form following a horrific injury last year was promising, the halfback setting up a try and bending his back in 23 tackles.
Melbourne’s opponents Cronulla also enter the clash off a bye and have now gone five games without a win.
Their most recent loss – a 34-10 thrashing at the hands of the Rabbitohs – offered little in the way of hope and Cronulla’s might best ditch training sessions this week in lieu of praying ones.
If they miss 51 tackles like they did against South Sydney, the Sharks might well resemble flake when the 80-minute siren sounds.
Tip: Storm by 20 points.
Raiders v Broncos
Monday 4.45pm, Canberra Stadium
It’s difficult to know how welcome Canberra’s bye was last weekend; after all, who wants a rest when you’re on a 10-game unbeaten streak?
Some minor cracks did begin to show in the Raiders’ arsenal a fortnight ago and their running into a Brisbane side desperate to turn around a three-game losing sequence could probably have come at a better time.
Canberra were always going to do enough to get the points in their match against the Sea Eagles, but their win was far from glossy.
In positives, winger Jono Kent scored a hat-trick of tries as well as setting one up, while back rower Tevita Pangai will not soon forget an outing that included four try assists, 196 metres, 22 tackles, six tackle busts and two line-breaks.
More of that and less of the downsides (an error count of 13 and an astonishing 50 missed tackles) is needed from Canberra, or an upset is on the cards.
Brisbane line up with fresher legs, having played on Monday – albeit in a dour 26-point loss to the Warriors at home.
Fullback Kodi Nikorima and winger Paul Byrnes were the only two Broncos to crack triple figures in attack, while the Broncos’ 58 missed tackles formed a frightening statistic hinting at why their defence is the most leaky in the top eight (29.5 points per game).
Both sides have plenty of improvement in them and this game has match of the Round potential. And somehow the stars suggest Canberra’s run might be coming to an end.
Tip: Broncos by eight points.