The junior Panthers will be itching for a repeat performance from Round 1 when they beat the Raiders 40-16.
Dragons v Cowboys
Friday 5.20pm, WIN Stadium
After smashing the Bulldogs in Round 12, the Dragons arrived in the Hunter with their season, unjustifiably so, many would say, to play for.
Which makes their 24-10 capitulation to the Knights even more hard to comprehend and less easy to forgive.
With the Cowboys now in the wooden spoon position after sharing the points with the team the Dragons smashed a fortnight ago, this match isn’t exactly teeming with selling points.
But the teams could wear dinner suits and bowler hats and still dish up a tougher and more athletic 80 minutes than the Dragons did last Friday.
Only two starting players (Kem Seru and Logan Harris) were error-free in a racket that saw the Dragons amass 16. Coupled with 36 missed tackles, the Knights barely needed to lift a finger in bagging the win.
Lock Jack Bird, who scored one of the Dragons’ two tries and also racked up 45 tackles and 11 line-breaks, was one of the few standouts.
North Queensland will be praying for a repeat performance from the Red V after a miracle try to centre Javid Bowen in the 77th minute (his third of the evening) saw the Cowboys tie Canterbury.
In a match the Bulldogs should and could have won, Cowboys centre Lenny Magey denied them victory with a try, a try assist, 20 tackles, three line-breaks and a line-break assist.
If even a handful of the Cowboys live up to his standard on Friday, the Dragons can all but start planning for 2014.
Tip: Dragons by four points.
Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
Friday 5.20pm, Brookvale Oval
After their first match since a hiding at the hands of the Raiders in Round 11, Manly might be wishing the season consisted of 26 byes.
The Sea Eagles let in 10 tries in a 52-20 flogging across the Tasman and thank God for the siren, the Warriors were showing no signs of letting up.
It was the Sea Eagles’ third loss in succession and unless they rapidly turn things around with an upset win against the Bulldogs, it’s just about curtains.
Defence was seemingly tossed out the window by Manly last week, missing 44 tackles and offering a further 28 ineffective ones.
Only six players made 20 tackles or more, hooker Craig McMurrich the most with 33. Prop Jake Trbojevic was yet again Manly’s best player – scoring one of their four tries in addition to charging through 131 metres and making 22 tackles.
Their opponents this week enter the match on the back of an ill-timed and humiliating draw with North Queensland. The Bulldogs thusly slip out of the top eight and have now gone two games without a win.
The Bulldogs let in a try in the 77th minute and their defence left a lot to be desired, with only five players making 20 tackles or more. They’ll be planning to improve in every area of play.
Tip: Bulldogs by 10 points.
Rabbitohs v Titans
Saturday 2pm, Redfern Oval
Two freshly rested teams kick off Saturday football and both have very different memories from a fortnight ago.
The Bunnies were less than convincing in their 30-22 loss to the Knights in Round 12, surrendering a halftime lead in the process.
South Sydney weren’t terrible but just couldn’t find the extra gear in attack, making 1047 metres to Newcastle’s 1206.
Fullback Alex Johnston made the most for the Rabbitohs (112 metres) and was close to their best on park – contributing six tackle-breaks, one line-break and a try assist. In defence, hooker Cameron McInness was admirable with 42 tackles.
Meanwhile the Gold Coast Titans have had two weeks to cherish a miraculous win over the North Queensland Cowboys.
Trailing 32-16 with 13 minutes left on the clock, three tries to Sam Gee, Hymel Hunt and Rian Diffey earned the Titans the unlikeliest of wins.
In addition to his late effort, back-rower Hunt racked up an atronomical 302 metres, seven tackle-breaks, 14 tackles and a line-break in a sterling performance.
The Titans have now enjoyed three consecutive wins and a bye and look the goods to continue their streak as they march towards the top eight.
Tip: Titans by 12 points.
Raiders v Panthers
Saturday 3.15pm, Canberra Stadium
The unmitigated game of the season will kick off on Saturday afternoon, featuring two teams with just three losses between them.
In fact, Canberra’s only defeat came in Round 1 when they were trounced by their Saturday opponents Penrith – adding an extra layer of meaning to this match, as if it needed it.
The Raiders’ latest effort stretched their undefeated winning streak to 11 and came in the form of a comeback win against the Brisbane Broncos.
Winger Jono Kent scored two late tries to seal the 38-28 win, despite a rare mistake-filled performance from the Raiders.
Canberra missed 46 tackles and made 16 errors in the victory and got by on strength alone – charging through 1330 metres compared to Brisbane’s 1146.
Centre Jeremy Hawkins was in sizzling form, scoring a try and racking up 177 metres, six tackle-breaks and two line-breaks.
Penrith – the only team to topple the Green Machine this year – were far more impressive last week, smashing the Wests Tigers 50-12.
The Panthers’ freakish backline again stole the show in a match that saw the Panthers race to a 22-0 lead at the break and never loosen their grip.
Fullback Kieran Moss was unstoppable in scoring two tries, setting a further two up, running for 171 metres, busting seven tackles and breaking the Wests Tigers’ line three times.
He was more than ably supported by gifted winger Dalin Watene Zelezniak, who also bagged a double as well as racking up 226 metres and 13 tackle-breaks.
The talent on show this Saturday evening will be mesmerising, leant extra spice by the fact the teams are playing off for top spot.
Tip: Panthers by two points.
Sharks v Eels
Saturday 5.15pm, Sharks Stadium
In an all-marine tussle, both the Sharks and the Eels enter this clash after sinking to losses last weekend.
Cronulla were abysmal south of the border – going down 34-10 to the Melbourne Storm.
In a happy week for sky-blues elsewhere, the Sharks missed 38 tackles and surrendered 10 penalties.
Back-rower Sione Masima was Cronulla’s best – scoring a try and racking up 122 metres, 17 tackles and seven tackle breaks. Lock Michael Morris pounced on anything that moved and clocked a tackle count of 38. But across the park Cronulla were woeful and simply made it too easy for Melbourne to score tries.
The loss leaves Cronulla in 15th position, just a point clear of the wooden spoon position. They also now boast the least potent attacking statistics in the Holden Cup (19.3 points per game).
It was heartache of a different kind for the Eels who were the best team for most of the match against the Roosters but let in a 75th-minute try to fullback Nene Macdonald to go down 24-22.
Eels lock Joseph Ualesi was easily the best on field, scoring a hat-trick of tries in addition to his 158 metres, 33 tackles, 10 tackle busts, three line-breaks and try assist.
That performance alone lends Parramatta – whose top-eight hopes are far from vanquished – clear favouritism.
Tip: Eels by 14 points.
Storm v Knights
Sunday 12.45pm, AAMI Park
A fine foursome of tries to winger Denny Solomona handed the Melbourne Storm a scrappy 34-10 win over Cronulla last week.
And with Sunday opponents Newcastle having earned four consecutive wins and with a potential spot in the top four now up for grabs – “four” will be the number on the minds of all 17 Melbourne players this week.
Melbourne were far from brilliant in their match with Cronulla but were always going to do enough – given the 10-6 penalty count they enjoyed in their favour.
In addition to Solomona’s performance, lock Pride Petterson-Robati was unstoppable with 181 metres and 39 tackles (both game-highs).
The Storm run into a jubilant, red-hot Newcastle side aiming to leapfrog them on the competition ladder after clocking up a quarter of wins over the last month.
Their most recent came in the form of a 24-10 embarrassment of the Dragons – Newcastle powering through a phenomenal 1545 metres in the process.
No less than eight Knights made 100 metres or more (including the entire back five), while utility Mona Seumanufagai (48 tackles) and prop Michael Steele (46) were brick walls in defence.
The Knights were also less than perfect and both teams have bucket loads of improvement in them, setting up what should be a cracker of a match.
Given home ground advantage, it’s hard to go past the Storm in a close one.
Tip: Storm by six points.
Roosters v Warriors
Sunday 4.15pm, Allianz Stadium
The Roosters must have been holding their rosaries very tightly last week, after a miracle saw them pip Cronulla 24-22.
Gone for all money with five minutes left on the clock, fullback Nene Macdonald barged over to hand the Roosters their third win on the trot.
The tri-colours missed 36 tackles and made only 1131 metres with the ball but showed great guts to hang in and get the points against a weaker side.
Halfback Tyler Cornish was close to the Roosters’ best with a try, a try assist, 13 tackles and four tackle busts. Hooker Alex Thomas wasn’t far behind with a try assist and 43 crunching tackles.
The Roosters boast the third best defence in the Holden Cup (22.4 points per game) but it will be put to every test and then some when they encounter fellow top-four side the Warriors whose 391 points are the second most in the competition.
Their most recent 52 came at the hands of a hapless Manly, who offered only 20 in reply.
The Warriors clocked up 10 tries in the thrashing, including a hat-trick to Solomone Kate and braces to Tuimoala Lolohea and AlbertVete.
Despite completing just 67 per cent of their sets, the Warriors made a mockery of Manly in both attack and defence.
In addition to his two tries, five-eighth Lolohea was deserving of man-of-the-match honours with 215 metres, nine tackle busts, three line-breaks and one try assist.
With one of the best defensive sides in the Holden Cup meeting one of its most exciting attackers, rugby league as it was meant to be played will round out Sunday evening for the under-20s boys.
Tip: Roosters by six points.
Broncos v Wests Tigers
Monday 4.45pm, Suncorp Stadium
It is as if the football Gods were intent on making Round 14 of the Holden Cup a blockbuster from start to finish.
In a freak quirk of the draw – penned in the off-season – the top eight teams in the competition all face off against each other this weekend.
And even more amazing is the fact that the games are organised in ladder order. Team one plays team two, team three plays team four, team five plays team six and rounding out both the top eight and the weekend, team seven – the Broncos – host team eight – the Wests Tigers – in a Suncorp Stadium bottler.
Brisbane’s most recent outing was a trip to the capital saw them go down 38-28 at the hands of the Raiders.
Halfback Cameron Cullen was frighteningly good in a losing side, scoring two tries, setting one up, busting 12 tackles, making a further 12 of his own and breaking the Raiders’ line twice.
It was a scrappy match that neither Brisbane nor Canberra took hold of at any point and one which points to much improvement.
And if it’s improvement the Broncos are hoping for, it’s total reinvention on the minds of the Wests Tigers.
There was nothing happy about their 50-12 shellacking at the hands of the Panthers, except perhaps the performance of halfback Luke Brooks who scored the Tigers’ only two tries and made 10 tackle-breaks.
Capping off a stellar round of rugby league, this is the sort of match that makes fans of all stripes lick their lips in anticipation.
Tip: Broncos by 12 points.