Storm v Rabbitohs
Friday 5.20pm, AAMI Park
One team with five straight losses and a rapid slide down the ladder behind them meets another coming off four wins from five games and a slow, gutsy climb into the top eight.
There is an eerie symmetry to Friday night’s blockbuster as the eighth-placed Storm tackle the Rabbitohs, now in seventh, in a desperate final bid to keep their season alive.
Melbourne’s past month has been so plagued with poor form and ill luck it reads like a book from the Old Testament.
Their latest dose of heartbreak came on a chilly Sunday morning in Canberra, where the Raiders pummelled their Hume Highway cousins 46-22.
In a display reminiscent of their recent fortunes, the Storm conceded eight penalties, ran for only 1121 metres and missed 33 tackles.
If it wasn’t for a brace of tries to winger Dane Chang inside the final 10 minutes, the score board would have been even more disastrous.
Lock Pride Petterson-Robati was easily the best on park for the thoroughly pulverised Melbourne, scoring a try, setting one up, running for 154 metres and making 27 tackles.
One gets the feeling the guys from Victoria will need a similar performance from all 17 men this Friday if they are to topple a red-hot Rabbitohs outfit.
The Rabbitohs were admittedly towelled up by North Queensland following a sloppy second-half display in Townsville, but over the past month-and-a-bit the Bunnies have been the form team outside the top four.
Friday night lights should bring an absolute belter and one the Storm might sneak away with thanks to a home crowd and unhealed wounds inflicted on their opponents last week.
Tip: Storm by eight points.
Eels v Wests Tigers
Friday 5.20pm, Parramatta Stadium
A disastrous season for the Eels is inching ever closer to an embarrassing one after they were pummelled 52-22 by the last-placed Sea Eagles.
It was Parramatta’s fifth straight loss and they can expect no reprieves this Friday from an in-form Wests Tigers side keen to prove their ability to defend the premiership they won last year.
The Eels trailed 26-12 at the break in their match against Manly, and went backwards from there – finishing the game with a 65 per cent completion rate and 11 errors.
Lock Sean Jackson scored a try and made 31 tackles, back-rower Pauli Pauli was tireless with 216 metres and 22 tackles and prop Joseph Ualesi bagged a try assist and 29 tackles.
But the trio’s performance up front was a mere island in a sea of incompetence.
The result will sound warning bells for fans of a blue-and-gold ilk as the Wests Tigers travel to Parramatta fresh from a stunning comeback win against the Titans.
Having entered the sheds behind 22-6, the Wests Tigers pulled off one of the most outstanding halves of footy in the 2013 Holden Cup to run away 42-32 winners.
Fullback Kurtis Rowe scored two tries in the jaw-dropping stanza of rugby league that keeps his side’s hopes of a top-four finish alive.
Prop Nathan Brown was a powerhouse in the forward pack, setting up a try, running for 166 metres, making 18 tackles and busting five.
In what can only be described as a clash between class and calamity this Friday, the difference on the score board might best be measured by the dozen.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 24 points.
Roosters v Raiders
Saturday 3.15pm, Allianz Stadium
Rugby league can always be counted on to toss up tasty games and fans are licking their lips ahead of this one.
Front-runners Canberra, undefeated over their past four games, travel to Allianz Stadium to tackle the second-placed Roosters, a side that have lost just once from their previous five outings.
If they can make it five from six by toppling the season-long giants, the Roosters will earn premiership favouritism.
The Roosters earned their second place on the ladder by leapfrogging Penrith following a nail-biter at the foot of the mountains. Racing out of the blocks like a hungry greyhound, the Roosters went to the break 26-8 up but lapsed slightly in their concentration to eventually hold out for a 36-30 win.
Lock John Asiata was comfortably their best player with a try, a set-up, 174 metres, 31 tackles and three tackle-breaks.
And while it was a stressful second half for the Roosters, their opponents disposed of Melbourne with little more effort than it takes to snap in half an asparagus spear.
The 46-22 win was polished, pretty and powerful with stellar performances coming from across the park.
Winger Jonathon Reuben scored twice on his way to 207 metres, utility Tahakilu Pangai scored a try and set one up from the bench, and brother Tevita was simply stunning with 170 metres, 15 tackles and six tackle busts.
Canberra have earned the right to expect a win on the road this Saturday afternoon but it will likely be their most gruelling of the season – 80 minutes of trench warfare between the two best sides in the competition. Delicious.
Tip: Raiders by four points.
Sharks v Knights
Saturday 5.15pm, Remondis Stadium
Due to constant non-performances from the teams above them, the Newcastle Knights’ theoretical chances of playing finals football remain alive.
And if last weekend is anything to go by, they deserve it.
The Knights are now – miraculously – just two points adrift of the top eight after annihilating the ninth-placed Broncos 52-10.
It was a team effort that did the Hunter proud, with a delirious home crowd watching on as their near-perfect Knights charged through 1498 metres, missing only 14 tackles along the way and completing 80 per cent of their sets.
Fullback Honeti Tuha, lock Ben Roose and utility Joe Boyce all scored two tries each in what was easily the Novocastrians’ best 80 minutes of the year.
Prop Dan Kilian was like a juggernaut up front with 164 metres, while five-eighth Tom Rouse sparkled with a try assist and 20 tackles.
It was a performance from a side that has clearly not given up hope of sticking around and one that will send shivers through the Shire.
Cronulla played by the script and were abysmal at the weekend, slumping to a 34-14 defeat across the Tasman with an error count of 15 and a missed-tackle tally one shy of 40.
Their best player, Sione Masima, started from the bench and racked up 155 metres, seven tackle busts and a try in a master class of strength.
But when a side is forced to cough up eight players with tackle counts north of 20, the odd bit of strength is never going to cut it.
Here’s hoping the Knights like flake. Poor Sharks.
Tip: Knights by 18 points.
Sea Eagles v Warriors
Sunday 11.45am, Bluetongue Stadium
It’s been an unusual preparation for the Sea Eagles this week, who head into their match against the Warriors off the back of a win – a big, big win.
Though still likely to bag the timber cutlery at season’s end, Manly enjoyed a fleeting period of ecstasy as they trounced traditional rivals Parramatta 52-22.
It was little more than a cakewalk for the Sea Eagles’ outside backs, with winger Fabian Goodall and centre Clinton Gutherson both bagging braces.
Goodall also ran for 180 metres in a dominant performance on the flank.
Closer to the middle of the paddock, prop Jake Trbojevic turned in a jaw-dropping 251 metres in attack (which included five offloads) and 14 tackles in defence.
All said, Manly made just six errors, completed 81 per cent of their sets and racked up 1547 all-run metres.
It was a performance wholly unworthy of the team placed 16th on the Holden Cup ladder and one that will at least give New Zealand something to think about as they travel west for Gosford.
The Warriors can move into the top four with a win and are enjoying brilliant form that has seen them earn three consecutive wins.
Their latest came in the form of a comprehensive 34-14 dismantling of the Cronulla Sharks, back-rower Sione Feao doing his pack proud with a glistening 80 minutes.
The talented forward scored two tries, set another one up, busted five tackles and made 21 of his own in a peerless performance.
Despite Manly’s recent heroics, the Warriors should still win comfortably as they begin to plan their September raid.
Tip: Warriors by 16 points.
Broncos v Dragons
Sunday 12.45pm, Suncorp Stadium
Quite what has happened to Brisbane is a difficult puzzle to solve.
Once firmly entrenched in the top eight, the Broncos are now outsiders due to a terrible for-and-against, one that was made especially terrible at the weekend following a 52-10 hammering by Newcastle.
It was the Broncos’ second consecutive loss – their eighth from 10 previous outings – and easily their worst of the season.
In a pitiful display, the Broncos made just 840 metres and completed only 66 per cent of their sets, stats that will inflate the confidence of their Sunday opponents St George Illawarra.
Brisbane prop Stephen Coombe deserves a medal of valour for his astonishing 54 tackles, while lock Jai Arrow hit the bullseye with a try assist and 42 tackles.
There is no doubt the Broncos are top-eight material but with constant performances like their match last weekend, that prospect is beginning to fade fast.
Their clash with the Dragons is a perfect opportunity to turn things around, with the Red V equally unimpressive in their match against Canterbury-Bankstown.
Fullback Evander Cummins was a lone ranger in the 40-12 defeat, the promising custodian scoring his side’s only two tries as well as busting nine tackles and running for 196 metres. He is destined for the NRL... and beyond.
The two sides meeting this Sunday have some of the most suspect defence in the competition. In fact, the Broncos have leaked more points (590) than any other side.
Expect plenty of tries, end-to-end rugby league and surely, finally, a Broncos win.
Tip: Broncos by 10 points.
Panthers v Cowboys
Sunday 4.15pm, Centrebet Stadium
After two straight losses, the Penrith Panthers are now no certainties to finish in the top four.
Both the Bulldogs and Warriors are a single point adrift, and both come up against relatively weak oppositions this weekend.
And considering the performance of Penrith’s adversaries North Queensland last Round, the ‘Chocolate Soldiers’ could quite conceivably find themselves in fifth position by Tuesday.
The Panthers’ latest loss came in the form of a high-scoring thriller against the Sydney Roosters.
The game looked gone when the tri-colours entered the sheds up 26-8 at the break, but a second-half blitz from the Panthers nearly earned them the most unlikely of wins.
Centre Waqa Blake starred in his side’s gallant near-comeback – the No.4 scoring two tries, setting another one up and busting two tackles.
He, and all his teammates, will need to be on song this weekend after North Queensland proved yet again their penchant for upsets.
In a 34-16 pummelling of the Rabbitohs, hooker Jayden Hodges scored a hat-trick of tries, bagged a further try assist, busted six tackles and made 28 of his own.
Fullback Javid Bowen (five goals, 162 metres) also shone.
The win made it three straight for the Cowboys and ensured Sunday’s match will be anything but one-sided.
Tip: Panthers by six points.
Bulldogs v Titans
Monday 4.45pm, ANZ Stadium
Rounding out the fifth-last week of home-and-away warfare is an ANZ Stadium clash that might be better suited to a cricket ground.
Such will be the score racked up by a white-hot Bulldogs outfit who are hosting the Gold Coast Titans, a side with just one win from their past four attempts.
Without even approaching perfection, or even their own usual standard of rugby league, Canterbury-Bankstown piled on 40 points to 12 against the Dragons last weekend, waltzing through 1573 metres as they did so.
Five-eighth Jaline Graham (two try assists, four tackle-breaks, 18 tackles) was brilliant; centre Matthew Fukofuka (one try, 143 metres, four tackle-breaks, 14 tackles) was even better.
The victory was Canterbury-Bankstown’s seventh in succession and one which sent a clear message to those still left in the hunt – the Bulldogs smell blood.
This will no doubt come as unwelcome news to the Gold Coast Titans, who travel south following a startling 42-32 loss to the Wests Tigers.
Leading 22-6 at the break, the Titans were already rehearsing the team song before a mauling Wests Tigers outfit took control of the match and reeled in their sizeable lead.
Titans halfback Kane Elgey deserves special mention, despite his team’s capitulation, the wily No.7 scoring two tries, bagging two try assists, busting two tackles and making 11 himself.
He was one of many Titans who bundied off feeling they deserved a win.
It’s a lop-sided affair that awaits and if things go to plan, the Bulldogs should win by an innings.
Tip: Bulldogs by 22 points.