The Knights can't afford to slip up against the Titans this weekend or else they could lose their grip on eighth place on the Holden Cup ladder.
Rabbitohs v Raiders
Friday, 5.20pm, ANZ Stadium
Canberra have produced many a surprise in recent times, but the federal leadership drama pales in significance to the shock loss suffered by the junior Raiders at the weekend.
Though this column accurately predicted a Wests Tigers upset, few actually thought it possible. But thanks to a vocal Campbelltown crowd, the Wests Tigers ended the Raiders’ three-month undefeated streak with a gutsy 36-24 win.
Canberra, despite missing 35 tackles, found themselves six points clear with 11 minutes to play. Instead of digging deep, like they have so often this year, the Raiders fell asleep and let in three late tries.
A dazzling performance from five-eighth Jack Ahearn (one try, one try assist, four line-break assists, four line-breaks) deserves more than a passing mention, as does the effort of second-rower Mitchell Barnett (143 metres, 27 tackles, six tackle-breaks).
It was a rare lapse in concentration from one of the competition’s most reliable teams and, to the Rabbitohs’ dismay, one unlikely to repeat itself for a long while.
South Sydney look to have tumbled out of contention after a dour and dismal display against Parramatta. Trailing 18-6 with minutes to play, the Rabbitohs scored late to earn themselves a flattering scoreboard.
Completing only 58 per cent of their sets and missing 31 tackles, the Rabbitohs turned in a performance that can only be described as unforgiveable.
Tip: Raiders by 12 points.
Wests Tigers v Storm
Saturday, 3.15pm, Leichhardt Oval
The Campbelltown coup that finally felled the Canberra Raiders has bolstered the defending premiers’ belief and launched them into sixth place.
The Wests Tigers’ second win from as many games was a brilliant display of rugby league against a side that hadn’t lost in 12 weeks.
Trailing 24-18 with 11 minutes to play, tries to halves combo Luke Brooks and Matt Mulcahy as well as winger Kurtis Rowe handed the Wests Tigers an important and impressive 36-24 victory.
Halfback Brooks set up a further two tries, as did gifted centre Manaia Rudolph. Nearly all the Wests Tigers forwards made 20 tackles or more.
The triumph sets up what will be a belter of a match with the Melbourne Storm after the Victorians snuck away with a 24-18 win over the lowly Gold Coast Titans.
It was a gutsy if not clumsy win from Melbourne, in which five of their players were forced to make 30 tackles or more.
Herculean returns from prop Christian Welch (178 metres, one try assist, 44 tackles, four tackle-breaks) typify the hard work exhibited by the Storm front men.
They will need to be on song and fault-free to compete with a newly invigorated Wests Tigers outfit, fresh from slaying the giants.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 10 points.
Panthers v Dragons
Saturday, 5.15pm, Centrebet Stadium
The Panthers are again just a point off the lead and this week have a Centrebet Stadium home crowd to rev them up further. The Dragons, meanwhile, have every reason to panic.
Penrith took a rest last week after their physically draining away match against front-runners Canberra a fortnight ago.
Though they missed fewer tackles and conceded fewer penalties than the Raiders, the Panthers just couldn’t match their metre-eating and eventually lost a war of position.
Hooker Brendan Attwood made a commendable 44 tackles in his side’s loss and also set up a clever try, but the Panthers were never going to be roaring at game’s end.
The bye came at a good time for the western Sydney club, who tackle the St George Illawarra Dragons – also coming off a week’s rest.
The Dragons did it easily in their Round 14 fixture, albeit against the last-placed North Queensland Cowboys who have won two games all year.
Centre Euan Aitken was easily the best player on the park with two tries, 10 tackle-breaks, 23 tackles and two line-breaks.
What the Dragons need to realise is that North Queensland and Penrith are as far apart talent-wise as they are geographically. Only two points outside the top eight, it would be unbecoming of the Dragons to not give this match their absolute all. And then some.
Tip: Panthers by eight points.
Knights v Titans
Sunday, 11.45am, Hunter Stadium
After 14 days of sombre reflection, one hopes the Newcastle Knights have discovered what went so horribly wrong when they last attempted to play rugby league.
It was in Melbourne, on 16 June, that the Knights fumbled and stuttered their way through 80 minutes of sometimes torturous footy.
In the end the 36-8 score line flattered them. You can’t win games in the Holden Cup missing 49 tackles and the Knights need to learn that fast.
They hold their precarious eighth spot through for-and-against alone and in the three matches following this weekend they play the Panthers, Bulldogs and Roosters. It’s socks-up time.
Hooker Adam Clydesdale (40 tackles, one try assist) and second-rower Joseph Tapine (24 tackles, seven tackle-breaks) were the best of a battered, bruised and beaten bunch the last time they played.
On Sunday they meet a Titans outfit whose prospects of a 2013 finals berth look close to shot – now four points adrift of the top eight after a slightly more respectable loss to Melbourne.
They hinted at a comeback in the match, scoring two quick tries with 20 minutes on the clock, but eventually went down 24-18. There were, however, some Gold Cast players who put in performances to be admired.
Winger Matthew Russell made 205 metres, 15 tackle-breaks and scored the Titans’ opening try. Up front, prop Mitchell Hall and hooker Zach Friend were astonishing with 52 and 50 tackles respectively.
In a match featuring one side with everything to play for and another with nothing to lose, it’s a flip of the coin which way it will go.
Tip: Knights by one point.
Warriors v Broncos
Sunday, 1.45pm, Mt Smart Stadium
Having been inflicted with five consecutive losses, the two points the Broncos received by way of the bye would have come as a welcome – yet fleeting – relief.
For they travel the Tasman this Sunday in an attempt to topple the fifth-placed Warriors, a side more than capable of exposing the Broncos’ defence for what it is: the worst in the Holden Cup (30.7 points per game).
The Warriors’ last outing was also a fortnight ago – when they were dealt heartbreak by the Sydney Roosters.
A late try and field goal one-two punch knocked the Warriors out 31-25 after they had produced some dazzling rugby league, worthy of a win most days of the week.
Fullback David Fusitua (206 metres, one try assist); prop Albert Vete (140 metres, six tackle-breaks, two line-breaks) and lock David Bhana (54 tackles) were among the stars.
The Broncos, meanwhile, were humiliated 38-16 by the Wests Tigers at Suncorp Stadium. Brisbane let in seven tries to three and conceded nine penalties to four with a display showcasing their most prominent flaws.
Jo Ofahengaue, who started from the bench, was close to the Broncos’ best player with 130 metres, 27 tackles and three line-breaks.
By a quirk of the draw, these two sides last met earlier this month. On that occasion the Warriors came away with a 46-20 victory on Brisbane soil.
In New Zealand, it’s hard to see the Broncos preventing a repeat display.
Tip: Warriors by 18 points.
Cowboys v Sharks
Sunday, 4.15pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
The 15th- and 16th-placed teams square off in this Sunday evening filler, with both sides hoping desperately to add to their tallies of two wins from 15 rounds.
Home side North Queensland last tasted victory on March 25 against Newcastle, it was Round 3.
While a 26-10 win over Manly on April 14 was Cronulla’s most recent reason for celebration.
So it’s literally been months – for both sides – since they last tasted success.
Both Cronulla and North Queensland enter the clash after a Round 15 breather and both suffered similar defeats the week before.
The Cowboys went down 30-14 against the Dragons in Wollongong, centre Lenny Magey putting in a sterling effort in a losing side with two tries, seven tackle busts and two line-breaks.
The Sharks hosted Parramatta and found themselves on the wrong end of a 30-16 scoreline, lock Michael Morris brave and unbelievable with 60 solo tackles.
Cronulla and North Queensland have the worst and third worst attacks, respectively, in the Holden Cup and their defence fares little better.
With caution thrown proudly to the wind, this week might see both sides clock up a few late-season points which would hardly be boring to watch.
Tip: Cowboys by 10 points.
Roosters v Sea Eagles
Monday, 4.15pm, Allianz Stadium
A wake-up call last week against the Bulldogs reminded the Roosters in no uncertain terms that games cannot be taken for granted in this year’s competition.
It wasn’t so much the 23-16 loss that drove home the message, but more so the way in which it was dealt out.
The Roosters’ opponents Canterbury-Bankstown missed 50 tackles and conceded 10 penalties – shortcomings that should deny victory every time.
But the Roosters just couldn’t find the line in a wholly frustrating performance.
Fullback Nene Macdonald was classy, brilliant and jaw-dropping as he made his way through 171 metres and 19 tackle-breaks. Future representative star Jack Siejka was also brave in defeat with two tries, 120 metres and 41 tackles.
Manly had the bye at the weekend and were also beaten by Canterbury-Bankstown the last time they played.
It was the superior boot of Bulldogs fullback Patrick Templeman that got them over the line in the five-tries-all grudge match.
Manly lock Jamil Hopoate was dazzling in a losing side, running for 163 metres, busting 13 tackles and making 19 of his own.
The Roosters can move within a point of the lead with a win on Monday night – a result they should be striving, yearning and desperate for.
Tip: Roosters by 16 points.