Wests Tigers under-20s halfback Luke Brooks looms as a major threat to the second-placed Roosters in their Holden Cup match of the round on Monday.
Broncos v Eels
Friday, 5.20pm, Suncorp Stadium
As they have done on so many occasions in famous seasons past, the Broncos snatched a dramatic win at the weekend, with not a Round to spare.
The two competition points were their first in three matches and see Brisbane charge back into the top eight ahead of a home match against minnows Parramatta.
This time it was the Dragons coming off the worse in a heart-stopping match, ultimately snatched by Brisbane 30-28.
A heroic Broncos outfit missed a usually unforgiveable 44 tackles but for the first time in months, attacked with the clarity of a genuine finals side.
Prop Francis Molo was their best, scoring two tries, busting through six tackle attempts and running for 118 metres.
Close behind was second-rower Ajuma Adams, whose 181 metres and 22 tackles were of vital importance.
The crucial win has made a finals berth the Broncos’ to lose and they will be desperate to galvanise their effort with a big win against the 14th-placed Eels.
Parramatta have lost five in a row, their latest a merciless 52-34 gnawing coming by the way of the Wests Tigers.
If the Eels play with similar resolve on Friday night, their supporters might have to hold their pillows in front of their eyes.
Tip: Broncos by 18 points.
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
Friday, 5.20pm, Bluetongue Stadium
Having bounced away with victory over Melbourne in what was effectively a playoff for a spot in the top eight, the Bunnies are full of promise and can all but confirm a finals appearance with a win over Manly.
The thrilling 29-28 win wasn’t sealed until the 75th minute when freakish halfback Christian Hazard (also one try assist) saw his field goal attempt sail through the uprights.
Melbourne were coming home strong and had equalised in the 71st minute, but in the end it was obvious to all concerned that South Sydney wanted the win more.
The Rabbitohs can thank their huge front men for the win, props Daniel Smith (136 metres and 36 tackles) and Bradley Croad (147 metres and 27 tackles) combining as a magical double act in attack and defence.
Special mention must also go to Hazard’s halves partner Tyrone Phillips, the five-eighth scoring a try and running for 171 metres in what became his side’s most important triumph of the season.
And though they might be up against cellar dwellers Manly on Friday night, the Bunnies can ill afford to rest on their laurels.
The Sea Eagles proved how capable they were of upsetting the top sides with a dramatic 36-all draw with the New Zealand Warriors.
Manly hooker Michael Stig had a chance to steal the win, but his attempted conversion of centre Latrell Schaumkel’s 78th-minute try sailed desperately wide of the mark.
With the relatively neutral backdrop of Gosford behind them, these two teams could be headed for another close encounter. Though with confidence now oozing out of their pores, a more likely scenario will see the Rabbits stew Manly.
Tip: Rabbitohs by 18 points.
Raiders v Bulldogs
Saturday, 12.45pm, Canberra Stadium
With Canberra’s minor premiership now all but sewn up and the Bulldogs just a point away from second place after seven straight wins, this could be the Holden Cup match of the century, let alone Round 23.
Canberra’s most recent win was also one of their most hard-fought, overcoming a missed tackle count of 45 and a completion rate of 68 per cent to pip the currently second-placed Roosters 38-32.
The gutsy win will be remembered for the sheer brilliance of winger Jonathon Reuben, who dazzled a small green contingent at Allianz Stadium with four tries, 221 metres, 12 tackle-breaks and four line-breaks.
Back-rower Tevita Pangai was also close to perfect, scoring Canberra’s opening try and racking up 155 metres and 23 tackles.
They are the sorts of performances that make this Saturday afternoon clash so utterly mouth-watering.
The Bulldogs enter the block buster fresh from a mind-blowing 54-20 trouncing of the Gold Coast Titans.
Fullback Patrick Templeman and winger Dujean Manuel-Liolevave scored four of the Bulldogs’ ten tries between them, while second-rower Shaun Lane (one try, one try assist, 139 metres, five tackle-breaks, two line-breaks, 15 tackles) was astonishing.
In what should be a match for the ages, the competition leaders host a side that hasn’t scored less than 40 points in a month of football matches.
Home ground advantage and momentum, two of the most potent forces in rugby league, will clash in an explosion of class and when the 80 minutes are up, the eventual 2013 premiers may well be holding their fists aloft in victory.
Tip: Bulldogs by two points.
Cowboys v Titans
Saturday, 3.15pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
The North Queensland Cowboys refuse to die.
Though their chances remain slim and a mathematical unlikelihood, four straight wins have vaulted them into finals contention.
If the right teams lose and the Cowboys can pull off a win over their Queensland cousins the Gold Coast Titans, they will be just two points adrift of the top eight with three Rounds remaining.
Sunday saw North Queensland achieve their biggest scalp of the season, clinching a thrilling 22-18 victory over Penrith with a try to five-eighth Alex Grant in the 74th minute.
The majority of the credit for the win is owed to hooker Jayden Hodges, who set up a magnificent try, ran for 168 metres, busted six tackles and made 38 of his own.
Nearby, prop Patrick Kaufusi (two tries, 155 metres, four tackle-breaks, two line-breaks and 19 tackles) was a powder-keg on legs.
As a result of the effort of those two men alone, North Queensland enter their Round 23 clash full of purpose and hope. If they can deal with the associated nerves, they should do it easily in this Saturday’s derby.
The Gold Coast were simply horrible in their most recent outing – a 54-20 shellacking at the hands of the Bulldogs.
The Titans missed 41 tackles, ran on the spot (1121 metres) and were helped aesthetically by two hollow tries inside the final 10 minutes.
As they make the trip north to Townsville, where a puzzling, stubborn and talented side awaits, the Titans must be feeling an ominous sense of doom.
Tip: Cowboys by 16 points.
Dragons v Sharks
Saturday, 5.15pm, WIN Stadium
Back when the St George Illawarra Dragons were a rugby league side, any clash with the Sharks was a recipe for entertainment and gripping rivalry.
But unfortunately all the signs point to a dour and drab derby this Saturday afternoon, between two sides limping to the season’s finish line.
A flattering scoreboard helped the Dragons look respectable on paper in their 30-28 loss to Brisbane at the weekend. But on the paddock, they were woeful.
Completing just 63 per cent of their sets and committing 15 errors was never going to help the Red V and at game’s end they had suffered their fifth straight defeat. Two converted tries inside the last five minutes disguised its real magnitude.
Centre Jack Bird was a giant amongst Smurfs, setting up a try, busting 10 tackles and making 18 of his own.
It’s a shame the Dragons have hit such poor form at the back end of the season, with rivals Cronulla showing some late sparkle.
Their narrow 26-24 win over the Knights at the weekend was the Sharks’ third from four games and came courtesy of the brave boot of fullback Taylar Garrett.
The custodian slotted it over from out wide after the siren, converting a brilliant 80th-minute try to winger Valentine Holmes.
Sadly, the thrilling victory wasn’t enough to lift the Sharks from 15th spot. A big win against the Dragons on Saturday might though.
Tip: Sharks by 14 points.
Knights v Storm
Sunday, 12.45pm, Hunter Stadium
If the Knights are ever going to beat Melbourne, it is this Sunday afternoon.
Trounced 36-8 by the Storm when they met earlier this season, the Knights will be running into a very different side at Hunter Stadium.
Tragically, and for uncertain reasons, Melbourne have now lost six matches in a row, their latest defeat tumbling them out of the top eight.
In what must have been a painful loss for the Storm, the match was snatched away from them in the 75th minute when South Sydney halfback Christian Hazard bagged a field-goal.
Melbourne had shown great guts in the final quarter of the match and scored an equaliser with nine minutes left on the clock, but ultimately went down 29-28 and all but bowed out of the running for season 2013.
Admirable performances came from winger Dane Chang (one try, two try assists, two tackle-breaks, two line-breaks and 121 metres) and prop Matt Lodge (one try, 31 tackles and 123 metres) but heartbreak was to be the order of the day.
Newcastle suffered a similar dose of reckoning at the hands of the Cronulla Sharks. Leading 24-20 with seconds to play, a converted try to Sharks winger Valentine Holmes broke Newcastle’s back.
Fullback Honeti Tuha was brilliant in attack for the Knights, scoring two tries, busting seven tackles and running for 149 metres.
Hooker Adam Clydesdale tackled like a demon (35) and also set up one of Newcastle’s five tries.
Under any other circumstances, Melbourne would be clear favourites. But with their finals hopes close to vanquished and six straight defeats behind them, they are hardly in a winning mood.
Tip: Knights by eight points.
Warriors v Panthers
Sunday, 1.45pm, Mt Smart Stadium
The New Zealand Warriors have a golden opportunity to leapfrog the Panthers into fourth position on Sunday, after Penrith slumped to their third straight defeat.
The Warriors would be there now, if it wasn’t for a bizarre draw with the last-placed Sea Eagles.
Despite four tries to centre Adam Tuimavave-Gerrard, a completion rate of 79 per cent and only six errors – the Warriors just couldn’t put Manly away.
In fact, they nearly lost the match with hooker Michael Stig given the chance to kick Manly into victory on the siren.
Only two Warriors (hooker Michael Sio with 29 and lock Sam Cook with 32) made 20 tackles or more in the strange encounter, one which both teams probably deserved to win.
Back on their side of the Tasman the Warriors will be hoping to put the match well and truly behind them as they tackle rivals Penrith.
The Panthers’ third successive loss came at the hands of North Queensland, who clinched a thrilling 22-18 victory with a try in the 74th minute.
Penrith were far from woeful in their performance, but the rare luck that accompanied them through the first two-thirds of the season looks to have evaporated.
Five-eighth Geordie Connelly was their best player, scoring a try, running for 108 metres, busting seven tackles and the Cowboys’ line thrice.
Penrith need to arrest their form slump quick smart but it’s difficult to see them even coming close against the Warriors at home.
Tip: Warriors by 12 points.
Wests Tigers v Roosters
Monday, 4.45pm, Allianz Stadium
Beware the defending premiers.
With a roar so loud it could be heard in every suburb between Campbelltown and Leichhardt, the Wests Tigers made their presence felt in no uncertain terms.
The 52-34 annihilation of the Eels at Parramatta Stadium might not have been a master class in defence, but it was a reminder of the Wests Tigers’ greatest asset – an attacking prowess that has seen them score 579 points in 2013 (fifth) and last year handed them the Holden Cup title.
Fullback Kurtis Rowe scored three of his side’s nine tries, running for 145 metres and busting three tackles along the way.
But the real man of the moment was halfback Luke Brooks, who bagged two tries, set a further two up, ran for 112 metres and busted three tackles.
Prop Nathan Brown (194 metres and 21 tackles) was a veritable workhorse.
The display from players right across the park will serve as a clear warning to the other sides vying for the flag.
One of those teams is the second-placed Sydney Roosters, who at the weekend were beaten for just the sixth time all season by competition frontrunners Canberra.
In a sloppy match unbefitting of either side, the Roosters missed 38 tackles and produced 13 uncharacteristic errors.
Their best player, comfortably, was prop Shaquille Blair. The hulking forward set up a try, ran for 192 metres, busted seven tackles and made 17 of his own.
This will be a cracker of a match and one that, on form, the Wests Tigers should set alight.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 10 points.