Panthers v Roosters
Friday, 5.20pm, Centrebet Stadium
Fans couldn’t hope for a better game to kick off Round 21 of the Holden Cup, with the Panthers and Roosters – both locked on 30 competition points – playing off for second spot to head into the final five weeks of the regular season.
The Roosters’ opportunity to leapfrog their western rivals comes after one of the shock upsets of the season that saw the 15th-placed Sharks pulverise Penrith 30-8.
The usually faultless Panthers completed only 68 per cent of their sets and coughed up 12 errors in a display more reminiscent of a B-grade schoolboy side.
Fullback Dallin Watene Zelezniak’s humble 117 metres were the most amongst the Chocolate Soldiers, the custodian also setting up one of his side’s two tries.
The Roosters, meanwhile, head into this match after a totally dominant performance against the Knights.
A 44-18 drubbing saw eight different Sydney players score, five-eighth Samisoni Langi the cream of the crop with a try, two try assists, 21 tackles and five tackle-breaks.
With a completion rate of less than 70 per cent and their fair share of handling errors, it was a far-from-perfect display for the Roosters.
But it was one much closer to the mark than that of their Friday combatants.
Tip: Roosters by 12 points.
Knights v Broncos
Friday, 5.20pm, Hunter Stadium
It’s all aboard the capitulation express for these two sides – next stop panic station!
Despite threatening for a spot in the top four earlier in the season, the Knights and Broncos boast just two wins between them over their past 10 combined games.
Having dropped just two of their first nine matches, the Broncos have experienced a complete reversal in form and won two from their past nine.
Their latest mishap saw them tumble out of the top eight and came in the form of a defenceless 44-32 thumping from the North Queensland Cowboys.
Though the Broncos’ missed tackle count wasn’t astronomical (22), life was just too easy for the Cowboys’ backs – four of whom made 100 metres or more.
For the Broncos, prop Stephen Coombe was yet again the best of a beaten bunch on his way to 127 metres and 41 tackles, while centre Jordan Drew and five-eighth Kodi Nikorima both bagged doubles in the pivotal loss.
Newcastle’s pounding was a far more bruising affair, with the Novocastrians going down 44-18 to a resurgent Roosters outfit.
The Knights missed 41 tackles and managed only four tries to the Roosters’ eight in front of a mournful Hunter Stadium crowd.
Michael Steele brought his usual wrought iron defence in racking up 39 tackles, while Adam Clydesdale set up two stylish tries playing in the No.7 jersey.
The Broncos, separated from eighth place by for-and-against alone, are still a chance of playing finals football.
That cannot still be said if they don’t win this one by a significant margin.
Tip: Broncos by 12 points.
Warriors v Sharks
Saturday, 12.40pm, Mt Smart Stadium
Both teams are probably heading into this match feeling like they’ve just achieved their best wins of the season.
For the Warriors, it was a case of guts and strength that saw them pull off a second-half comeback against Anzac Day rivals the Melbourne Storm, while Cronulla proved miracles do happen with a comprehensive smashing of the second-placed Penrith.
The Warriors found themselves trailing 16-10 at the break after conceding five penalties in the first half and completing only 69 per cent of their sets.
But a second-half double to winger Metia Lisati, and rock solid defence that kept Melbourne scoreless for the 40 minutes, handed the Warriors a win that keeps them in the top four.
Five-eighth Tuimoala Lolohea (three try assists) and back-rower Sione Feao (122 metres, seven tackle-breaks and 11 tackles) were the best on park of the home side.
On the western bank of the Tasman, Cronulla turned Remondis Stadium into a sky-blue party central – racking up six tries to two in a 30-8 shellacking of one of the Holden Cup favourites.
Back-rower Benjamin Chahoud (two tries, 109 metres, five tackle-breaks, 17 tackles) and Michael Lichaa (one try, one try assist, 135 metres, five tackle-breaks, 29 tackles) were comfortably the Sharks’ most impressive.
The sides last met in Round 3 when the Warriors won a tight 24-20 battle. If last week is any indication, Saturday’s match could be just as nail biting, if not slightly higher-scoring.
Tip: Warriors by 10 points.
Eels v Sea Eagles
Saturday, 3.15pm, Parramatta Stadium
Sworn enemies Parramatta and Manly meet on Saturday afternoon with nothing to gain and even less to lose.
Both sides are languishing towards the bottom of the ladder and neither rival has won a match in the past three weeks.
Manly’s latest loss has left them with an unlikely three-point gap to fill between them and the 15th-placed Sharks, while Parramatta have fallen from top-eight contenders to wooden spoon possibles in the space of a month.
Parramatta’s loss to the Bulldogs last weekend was nothing short of jaw-dropping. The Eels found themselves trailing 38-0 at halftime and it’s only through mercy of the gods that they left the field with a 54-18 thumping recorded against their name. It could have been much, much worse.
Parramatta missed 36 tackles, made 13 errors and completed just 61 per cent of their sets in what was easily their worst outing of 2013.
Back-rower Sean Jackson (42 tackles) and prop William Bugden (one try assist, 35 tackles) were admirable in defeat, but they were wholly pyrrhic returns.
The resistance offered by Manly against the Wests Tigers was little better, the Silvertails slumping to a 44-22 defeat – their third in succession.
Prop Jake Trbojevic was again the best of a beaten bunch with 156 metres, three tackle busts and 27 tackles.
It’s an awful set of circumstances that both teams find themselves in, but one that allows them to throw caution to the wind.
Expect to see the home side triumph in a veritable point-a-thon.
Tip: Eels by eight points.
Cowboys v Rabbitohs
Saturday, 5.15pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
In what is a crucial game to the make-up of the bottom half of the top eight, South Sydney travel to Townsville hoping North Queensland’s late-season purple patch is complete.
The Cowboys were scary in their ruthless dismantling of the Broncos – racing away to a 16 point lead at the break to set up a breezy 44-32 win.
Dynamic halfback Sam Foster was a picture of brilliance for the home side, scoring a brace of tries, setting another one up, running for 142 metres and making 21 tackles.
With support up front from players like hooker Jayden Hodges (one try, 32 tackles) and prop Patrick Kaufusi (one try, 165 metres, three tackle-breaks, 13 tackles) – it was a Queensland derby that was always going to fall the way of the North.
The Bunnies, meanwhile, have leaped triumphantly into the top eight after a 44-26 annihilation of the Gold Coast Titans.
In South Sydney’s best performance of the season, their backline pulled off a stunning display of athleticism and skill that helped the Rabbitohs to 1603 all-run metres.
In one of the great solo efforts of the competition’s history, halfback Christian Hazard scored two tries, set up a further four, ran for 145 metres, busted his way through 11 Gold Coast tackle attempts and broke their line twice.
It was a lesson in confidence and one the Bunnies will be hoping to emulate across the park as they continue their charge up the ladder.
Tip: Rabbitohs by 16 points.
Raiders v Storm
Sunday, 11.45am, Canberra Stadium
Melbourne face a daunting trip to the nation’s capital this Sunday in a desperate attempt to arrest a form slide that has seen them lose four matches in a row and slump to within a whisker of relegation from the top eight.
They face a mighty Green Machine who have lost only three times all year and triumphed 46-12 in a Round 8 thumping when last the teams met.
Canberra’s most recent dose of jubilation came in the form of a tight win over the Dragons.
Winger Jonathon Reuben and centre Andrew Heffernan both bagged two tries each in the 18-12 grudge match – one that takes the Raiders three points clear at the top of the table.
Heffernan was the most stylish man in green at the weekend, laying on one of his winger’s tries in addition to his brace, running for 197 metres, busting four tackles and making four of his own.
Melbourne had far less to cheer about after their trip across the Tasman, surrendering a halftime lead to the Warriors to eventually go down 20-16.
The Storm missed 30 tackles in a match they looked like winning. Halfback Matt McGahan was their best, setting up a try and making 22 tackles.
In a cruel fortnight, Melbourne have been dealt two of the toughest road trips in the Holden Cup.
They can only hope the Raiders are for some reason off-song, or they face a repeat of last weekend’s result and thusly banishment from the top half of the draw.
Tip: Raiders by six points.
Titans v Wests Tigers
Sunday, 12.45pm, Skilled Park
Sadly for the Gold Coast Titans, their opponents this Sunday have returned to form in a big, big way after consecutive losses and will be champing at the bit to prove it wasn’t a temporary improvement.
The Wests Tigers secured their sixth position with a resounding 40-22 thumping of the Manly Sea Eagles, the defending premiers sparkling with the brightness of their 2012 selves.
Boom centre Manaia Rudolph scored his side’s opening two tries, while prop Nathan Brown was exceptional with 178 metres, two tackle-breaks and 16 tackles.
It was an admirable team performance, albeit against a modest opponent, one that will send a warning to the remaining sides vying for a taste of September footy and also the Titans, who encounter the black-and-golds down on luck and with the remainder of their season merely academic.
The Titans were walloped 44-26 by the Rabbitohs at the weekend, which comes as no surprise considering their 42 missed tackles.
Plenty of Titans made plenty of metres in the affair and centre Hymel Hunt was their best on field with a try assist, 143 metres, five tackle-breaks and 13 tackles.
It is a misfortune for the Titans that they meet the Wests Tigers this week. They don’t deserve the pummelling they’re in for.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 20 points.
Dragons v Bulldogs
Monday, 4.45pm, WIN Jubilee Oval
Here come the Bulldogs! Only six for-and-against points away from fourth after an unmitigated 54-18 thrashing of the Parramatta Eels, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs are hungry for another mauling.
Dragons fans can only cringe when they consider the sort of punishment that might transpire this Monday evening.
After just 14 minutes last Friday, Bulldogs winger Dujean Manuel-Liolevave already had a hat-trick of tries. He would go on to score four and rack up 164 metres in a glitzy and glamorous outing.
The Bulldogs led 38-0 at the break in a match that has hoisted them to the top level of premiership favouritism.
Centre Tommy Blackhouse scored two tries, but the man-of-the-match performance came from fullback Patrick Templeman. In addition to his own brace, Templeman lent a vital hand in a further four tries, kicked seven goals, broke four tackles and broke the Eels’ line twice.
It was the sort of game that often comes from eventual premiers at this stage of the season. Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs don’t drop another game between now and the decider.
For the Dragons, life couldn’t be more different. They slumped to their third consecutive loss, this time at the hands of the Canberra Raiders.
Though largely a dour 18-12 loss, fullback Evander Cummins again showed glimpses of his potential magic.
The future Kangaroo scored a try, sprinted through 147 metres and broke eight tackles as he proved once again the virtues of being agile and slippery.
If only the Dragons had 16 more of him.
Tip: Bulldogs by 24 points.