The Panthers will need to keep Bulldogs winger John Sila on a leash after his hat-trick of tries last week.
Wests Tigers v Rabbitohs
Friday, 5.20pm, Allianz Stadium
The two teams most likely to launch a charge at the title from the bottom half of the top eight enter the penultimate Round in disarray.
Defending premiers the Wests Tigers went down comprehensively to the Dragons in a massive upset, while the Rabbitohs – a team that have firmed as competition dark horses with every week – were annihilated by the Bulldogs in an ANZ Stadium bloodbath.
The Bunnies can blame poor defence on the 48-26 thrashing, missing 43 tackles and committing 15 ineffective ones.
South Sydney prop Daniel Smith (one try, 173 metres, 29 tackles, five tackle-breaks) was monumental and deserved to win.
The next day on the hallowed turf of the SCG, heavyweights Wests Tigers found themselves on the wrong end of a near-cricket score. Up against the 13th-placed Dragons, the Wests Tigers’ capitulation was inexplicable and saw them go down 34-16.
The 2012 champions missed 30 tackles and completed only 70 per cent of their sets in the carve-up and need to regroup quickly with the finals just a fortnight away.
Last week’s results mean the Bunnies need a win from their remaining two matches to ensure themselves a spot in the playoffs.
That ultimatum alone should attract the smart money to the red-and-green.
Tip: Rabbitohs by six points.
Broncos v Knights
Friday, 5.20pm, Suncorp Stadium
Queensland’s favourite sons are again at risk of missing the finals after a return to form was halted by a very impressive Penrith outfit.
At a wild and windy Centrebet Stadium, the Broncos were trounced 38-24, thanks in no small part to a missed tackle tally of 41.
The two biggest men in Brisbane jumpers were also the Broncos’ best, props Francis Molo (one try, 159 metres, 20 tackles, six tackle-breaks) and Stephen Coombe (129 metres, 41 tackles, three tackle-breaks) combining in a powerful gutsy display up front, ultimately to no avail.
With the Storm and fast-finishing Cowboys now both just two points in arrears, the Broncos desperately need a win from their clash with the Novocastrians.
The Knights are themselves reeling after they let a 22-6 halftime lead against North Queensland vanish in a haze of blue, white and yellow.
Newcastle were close to perfect in the opening stanza but fell apart in the second half – missing 32 tackles, completing 62 per cent of their sets and losing winger Jake Mamo to the sin bin following a professional foul.
A win for the Broncos would ease much of the pressure ahead of their Round 26 showdown with the second-placed Bulldogs.
In the unlikely event of a loss, the Broncos could be out of the top eight by Monday.
Tip: Broncos by 12 points.
Warriors v Raiders
Saturday, 2.45pm, Mt Smart Stadium
The Warriors’ first win in three matches has set up a Mt Smart Stadium blockbuster against likely minor premiers Canberra.
New Zealand charged back into form with a 44-12 drubbing of the Gold Coast Titans, five-eighth Tuimoala Lolohea capping a marvellous afternoon with a brace of tries.
The dynamic pivot set up another of his side’s eight tries and ran for 106 metres in one of the best halves efforts all season.
The win was New Zealand’s equal biggest of 2013 and rivals the 52-20 mauling inflicted on the Sea Eagles in Round 13 for spectacle.
They’ll need to produce a similar performance if they are to compete with the Canberra Raiders who enter the match fresh from a 52-38 smashing of Manly.
Back-rower Patrick Mago racked up a hat-trick of tries for the Green Machine with startling ease, running for 177 metres, busting eight tackles and making 28 of his own along the way.
In a slightly worrying sign, Canberra completed just 66 per cent of their sets in the one-sided affair, a statistic overshadowed by nine impressive tries.
If the home side can capitalise when Canberra coughs up the ball – which their brand of football dictates is inevitable – the minor premiership question might just go unresolved until Round 26.
Tip: Warriors by 10 points.
Bulldogs v Panthers
Saturday, 3.15pm, ANZ Stadium
Match-ups like this one remind everybody why rugby league is The Greatest Game of All.
Two of the most dangerous sides in the competition, the Bulldogs and Panthers have grabbed the attention of all and sundry on their way to second and third place respectively.
They have lost just 13 games between them and are the two most obvious threats to Canberra’s title tilt. On Saturday afternoon, inside Australia’s biggest stadium, they meet.
The Bulldogs will line up following bone-crunching 48-26 thrashing of the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Wingers Dujean Manuel-Liolevave and John Talioe Sila both bagged hat-tricks in the win, while prop Lloyd Perrett scored a double.
Moses Mbye also sizzled at centre, setting up two of the Bulldogs’ nine tries, making 15 tackles and busting through five South Sydney attempts.
Running at Canterbury-Bankstown will be the Penrith Panthers – fresh from consecutive wins following a late-season rough patch.
Their latest win was a triumphant 38-24 slaying of the Brisbane Broncos, steered from the back by custodian Kieren Moss.
The fullback scored twice, set up a further try, busted four tackles and ran for 184 metres in a dazzling evening of attacking football.
It isn’t easy to split these two sides, either on form or potential. But with the lure of a potential minor premiership still dangling before the Bulldogs, they get the nod. Just.
Tip: Bulldogs by two points.
Sea Eagles v Storm
Saturday, 5.15pm, Brookvale Oval
The Melbourne Storm have one more roll of the dice. Their unenviable predicament comes following a horror run of form that saw them return to their losing ways last weekend against the lowly Parramatta Eels.
Following the shock 38-24 loss, Melbourne now must win their remaining two games and rely on myriad other outcomes to scrape into the top eight.
Sunday afternoon at AAMI Park was difficult to watch for Melbourne fans. Their side raced to an 18-nil lead inside the first 20 minutes before totally running out of puff.
Parramatta flooded in seven tries and held Melbourne scoreless but for a freakish to winger Dane Chang shortly after halftime – his second of the match.
Prop Matt Lodge was one of the few Melbourne players to turn in a respectable performance, running for 121 metres, making 33 tackles and busting through six.
If his teammates don’t take note, Melbourne run a real risk of losing to two bottom-four sides in as many weeks.
Manly were on the wrong end of a 52-38 scoreline against powerhouses the Canberra Raiders at the weekend.
The Sea Eagles led 28-22 at the break and were playing out of their skins. Unfortunately for them, Canberra hadn’t warmed up yet.
Prop Jake Trbojevic will be lining up against Melbourne’s Matt Lodge in a salivating square-off. Trbojevic (one try, 152 metres, 21 tackles, five tackle-breaks) was, as seems to be usual, Manly’s best in Round 24.
This is literally Melbourne’s last stand. They should win at Brookvale, they must win at Brookvale. Hesitantly, they will win at Brookvale.
Tip: Storm by six points.
Sharks v Cowboys
Sunday, 11.45am, Remondis Stadium
Few would have predicted six weeks ago how vital this game would be for the North Queensland Cowboys.
Back then they had won just three games from 16 and were floundering in the basement of the Holden Cup.
But half a dozen exciting and polished wins in a row has delivered the club to the brink of the top eight.
They are only two points adrift of their Queensland cousins the Brisbane Broncos, boast a much better for-and-against and don’t have to play the Bulldogs in the final week of regular competition.
If they can continue their amazing streak with a win over Cronulla, Round 26 will be very interesting indeed.
The Cowboys showed plenty of determination in their match against Newcastle on Saturday.
Trailing 22-6 at the break, the Cowboys raced out of the blocks in the second half and piled on 24 unanswered points.
Hooker Jayden Hodges (one try, 156 metres, 25 tackles, six tackle-breaks) and fullback Zac Santo (one try, one try assist, 146 metres, six tackle-breaks) were the heroes on the day – contributing skill and effort to a magnificent win.
Things weren’t so happy in The Shire where Cronulla suffered a heartbreaking 22-20 loss to the Sydney Roosters.
Leading by two points with four minutes on the clock, the Sharks saw what would have been their eighth win of the season vanish when Roosters centre Brendan Elliott dived over out wide.
Back-rower Sione Masima (one try assist, 123 metres, two tackle-breaks, 19 tackles) was clearly the best of a beaten bunch.
He and his teammates might have to wait until 2014 for their next win. The Sharks play Canberra in Round 26 and there is no way on earth North Queensland are losing this one.
Tip: Cowboys by 12 points.
Roosters v Titans
Sunday, 12.45pm, Allianz Stadium
After two disappointing losses in a row the Roosters last week regained some all-important form and momentum ahead of the finals with a thrilling win over Cronulla.
The Roosters didn’t deserve the win, but like all – they’ll take it.
Centre Brendan Elliott dived over for a match-winner in the 76th minute to keep his side in the top four and two points clear of the New Zealand Warriors.
Hooker Alex Thomas made an astonishing 55 tackles in addition to a try in the sixth minute, while fullback Taylar Garrett (132 metres, one try assist, two tackle-breaks) was unstoppable.
The Roosters should continue their form-reversal after the Gold Coast Titans proved they have totally run of puff with a woeful performance against the New Zealand Warriors.
The 44-12 loss was their fifth straight. In those five matches the Titans haven’t conceded less than 42 points once.
Halfback Kane Elgey was their only try-scorer with a second-half double, while prop Caleb Binge was stoic with 108 metres and 39 tackles.
The Titans are now running 15th and face the mathematical possibility of a wooden spoon. On Sunday they will become chicken feed.
Tip: Roosters by 20 points.
Eels v Dragons
Monday, 4.45pm, ANZ Stadium
Both Parramatta and St George Illawarra inflicted shock losses at the weekend and will be aiming to bow out of season 2013 in style.
The Eels vanquished the Melbourne Storm with a second-half blitz and deserved all the credit they got from a stylish 38-24 win.
Parramatta completed 87 per cent of their sets, missed only 22 tackles and coughed up the ball just six times in their best performance in months.
Winger James Tuitahi was the man of the moment, scoring three tries, running for 173 metres and busting through seven tackles.
In the second row, Joseph Ualesi (191 metres, 22 tackles) proved more than a handful for his Melbourne opponents.
In the other corner on Monday evening will be the St George Illawarra Dragons, fresh from a monumental upset over defending premiers the Wests Tigers.
The Dragons totally outplayed their rivals in the 34-16 belting, scoring 18 unanswered points in a dazzling second half.
Winger DJ Harris enjoyed the game of his career, scoring a hat-trick of tries, setting another one up, running for 158 metres and breaking eight tackles.
Fullback Jackson Hastings and centre Sitiveni Moceidreke shared the Dragons’ remaining four tries.
In what is effectively a coin flip, favouritism goes to the Eels on past performances. They thumped the Dragons 34-20 when they last played in Wollongong and would love nothing more than to remind the Red V how it felt.
Tip: Eels by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats.