Broncos v Bulldogs
Thursday 5.20pm, Suncorp Stadium
There was every reason to write the Broncos off. They’d lost crucial games at the worst possible times and for weeks had been severely underperforming. Quite rightly, they were a real chance of missing the top eight.
Then Friday night happened.
In front of an enthralled Suncorp Stadium, the Broncos galloped back into form with a resounding 38-6 trouncing of the Newcastle Knights.
The display was clinical. Brisbane missed just 16 tackles all match and crossed the try line with regular ease.
Prop Stephen Coombe (163 metres, 26 tackles, two tackle-breaks) was a juggernaut, fullback Paul Byrnes (129 metres, one try assist, seven tackle-breaks) a saint.
In all it was a clear message that the junior Broncos are far from also-rans.
They face their toughest test of the season in the final round, hosting premiership hopefuls the Bulldogs in a Thursday night blockbuster.
Working against Brisbane is the fact that the Bulldogs’ last outing was perhaps their worst of the season – going down 46-22 to the Penrith Panthers.
The Bulldogs missed 37 tackles and completed just 69 per cent of their sets in what was their first loss in 11 games.
They couldn’t possibly be as bad again and the Broncos will likely find themselves on the wrong end of a vengeance killing.
Tip: Bulldogs by 16 points.
Rabbitohs v Roosters
Friday, 5.30pm, ANZ Stadium
Finals football is a certainty for the South Sydney Rabbitohs after they secured a tight and scrappy 16-12 win over the Wests Tigers at the weekend.
The Rabbitohs were far from perfect, completing just 61 per cent of their sets and committing 14 handling errors.
Hooker Cameron McInness was dynamite from the ruck – scoring an important try 14 minutes before fulltime to add to his enormous tackle count of 39.
Halfback Christian Hazard (two try assists, four tackle-breaks, 18 tackles) also did enough to fill up his own highlights reel.
The win was gutsy if not ugly and saw the Rabbitohs claw their way back from a 12-nil halftime deficit.
If they can back it up with a solid win against the Roosters this Friday, the Bunnies are every chance of going deep into September.
Sydney seem to have put a late-season form slump behind them after they snatched their second consecutive win at the weekend with a resounding defeat of the Gold Coast Titans.
The Roosters had their work ahead of them in the second half – trailing 14-6 at the change of ends – but ran away with a 34-20 thumping.
Winger Brendan Elliot was the Roosters’ best, running for 217 metres and bagging a brace of tries.
In what should be an absolute belter this Friday, expect the Rabbitohs to sneak away with a narrow victory.
Tip: Rabbitohs by two points.
Dragons v Warriors
Saturday, 10.45am, WIN Stadium
A disappointing loss to the Canberra Raiders last week has forced the Warriors into the bottom half of the finals race and the daunting prospect of sudden-death football.
New Zealand are now three points adrift of the fourth-placed Bulldogs with only a game to play and even the biggest of wins against the Dragons – as is likely – will earn them just two competition points.
The Warriors were the better team for much of the 80 minutes against Canberra but couldn’t convert golden opportunities.
They completed 79 per cent of their sets, ran for 1615 metres, missed fewer tackles and committed fewer errors than their opponents but ultimately went down 26-16.
Prop James Taylor was admirable up front with 165 metres, 14 tackles and two tackle-breaks, while winger Lafu Feagaiga (156 metres, one try, six tackle-breaks) was explosive.
The Warriors can claim just one win from their previous four matches and they will be desperate to hit some form ahead of the finals.
There are few better teams in the competition to provide just that than the hapless Dragons.
St George Illawarra limped to a 22-all draw with the 14th-placed Eels at the weekend, having led 22-nil at the break.
The Dragons made only eight errors and completed 89 per cent of their sets but couldn’t put Parramatta away when it mattered.
They will be little more than a punching bag for the Warriors.
Tip: Warriors by 18 points.
Storm v Titans
Saturday, 3.15pm, AAMI Park
In one of the most disappointing displays of the season, Melbourne bowed out of finals contention with an error-riddled 30-18 thrashing at the hands of the last-placed Sea Eagles.
With everything to play for, Melbourne barely made it out of first gear throughout 80 minutes that typified their doomed season.
Winger Dane Chang scored two tries for the Storm and second-rower Dean Britt was gallant with 38 tackles and 104 metres.
Elsewhere there was little cheer about.
Melbourne this week run into wooden spoon potentials the Gold Coast Titans, who haven’t won a match in seven weeks.
Such is Melbourne’s form at the moment, they are no sure things.
The Titans were pulverised 34-20 by the Roosters at the weekend, missing an alarming 54 tackles along the way.
Prop Caleb Binge was close to the hardest working player on the day, contributing 136 metres and 20 tackles.
Centre Matthew Russell (199 metres, 11 tackle-breaks) was simply phenomenal.
This is a battle between two sides who would rather forget 2013 ever dawned.
They will farewell the season in a blaze of points and end-to-end rugby league on Saturday in a match that might just fall the way of the visitors.
Tip: Titans by 10 points.
Cowboys v Wests Tigers
Saturday, 5.15pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
The fairytale is over. Having resurrected a floundering season with a miraculous winning streak that delivered them to the cusp of finals football, the Cowboys stumbled at the penultimate hurdle.
It was supposed to be North Queensland’s seventh win in a row but the lowly Sharks were in a party-pooping state of mind.
Cronulla emerged 36-20 winners in a sloppy affair in the Shire, one totally unbefitting of the visitors.
North Queensland made 14 errors and completed 70 per cent of their sets in what must be described as a total capitulation.
Fullback Zac Santo was his usual brilliant self, contributing a try, a try assist, 203 metres and nine tackle-breaks in attack.
The two Cowboys wingers were the only other players in the side to make more than 100 metres. It wasn’t pretty to watch.
The Cowboys now have little to play for and rivals the Wests Tigers will likely make a cakewalk of it on Saturday.
The black-and-golds need to rediscover some form quickly before the playoffs, having slumped to consecutive losses over the past fortnight.
Their latest was a dour 16-12 defeat to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, having led 12-nil at the break.
Props Andy Fiagatusa (135 metres, 24 tackles) and Nathan Brown (171 metres, 14 tackles, three tackle-breaks) were among the few to turn in respectable time sheets.
The defending premiers need a big win on Saturday, a result they should achieve.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 16 points.
Sea Eagles v Panthers
Sunday, 11.45am, Brookvale Oval
Oh yes, the Penrith Panthers.
In a devastating and brilliant display against fellow top-four side Canterbury-Bankstown, the Panthers came roaring back onto the scene last week, reminding everybody why they were once competition favourites.
The 46-22 scoreline only goes some of the way in explaining just how good the Panthers were, wiping the floor with the Bulldogs as if they were a high school second XIII.
Winger James Roberts (four tries, 120 metres, 13 tackles, eight tackle-breaks) won’t forget his effort any time soon, while second-rower Bryce Cartwright (one try, two try assists, 190 metres, 17 tackles, four tackle-breaks) put in one of the forwards’ performances of the season.
Penrith missed just 10 tackles and completed 82 per cent of their sets. In doing so, they join defending premiers the Wests Tigers as one of only two sides in the competition to have beaten both the Bulldogs and the Raiders this year.
This week the Panthers run into a Sea Eagles side buoyed by an upset win over the Melbourne Storm.
Manly triumphed 30-18 and always looked the goods for just their sixth win of the season.
Prop Jake Trbojevic (155 metres, one try assist, 22 tackles) continues to firm as an NRL certainty, while lock Jamil Hopoate (one try, 144 metres, 23 tackles, nine tackle-breaks) was stunning from the rear of the scrum.
Unfortunately for the Sea Eagles, it was likely their last win of the year.
Tip: Panthers by 10 points.
Knights v Eels
Sunday, 12.45pm, Hunter Stadium
Newcastle are still trying to decide which wound to lick after they were savaged 38-6 by a white-hot Brisbane Broncos.
The loss was Newcastle’s fourth in a row and symbolic of their season as a whole.
The Knights completed just 53 per cent of their sets, ran for only 1010 metres, missed 41 tackles and committed 15 errors. It might have been the worst performance of any side all year.
Lock James Elias deserves special mention for his super-human tackle count of 57. Second-rower Joseph Tapine (113 metres, 23 tackles, four tackle-breaks) also slaved away for little reward on the score board.
The Knights could well be in for yet more heartache this Sunday afternoon when they tackle Parramatta.
The Eels are fresh from a miracle comeback draw against the Dragons that will have felt like a win.
Trailing 22-nil at the break, the Eels showed guts and resolve to fight back within striking distance of St George Illawarra.
The fightback was complete with seconds remaining on the clock when five-eighth Mitchell Brasington converted the try of his fullback Corey Makelim.
It was a golden evening for Makelim who ran for a game-high 206 metres at Parramatta Stadium.
Neither of these two sides have lived up to their potential over the past 25 weeks but Parramatta, on form, deserves a confident nod.
Tip: Eels by 12 points.
Raiders v Sharks
Sunday, 4.45pm, Canberra Stadium
Minor premiers Canberra will enjoy a hometown practice run against Cronulla ahead of the finals, before they play either the Bulldogs, the Panthers or the Roosters in Week One.
Canberra won solidly against the Warriors at the weekend but still have plenty of improving to do if they want to go one better than their 2012 runners-up result.
The Raiders triumphed 26-12 across the Tasman but worryingly completed only 69 per cent of their sets and missed 43 tackles.
All year the Raiders’ sheer skill has made up for their penchant for mistakes, but that might not cut it in September.
Centres Brenko Lee and Andrew Heffernan both bagged doubles in the Raiders’ most recent win, while winger Jonathon Reuben ran for a mind-blowing 325 metres.
Up front lock Luke Bateman was the pick of the bunch, racking up 117 metres and 44 tackles.
Canberra’s Sunday opponents are no doubt oozing confidence after spoiling the fairytale run of the North Queensland Cowboys.
The Sharks put together one of their best displays all season to clinch an impressive 36-20 win.
Winger Rea Pittman scored two tries in the win, while on the other flank Valnetine Holmes proved more than a handful with a try, 222 metres and four tackle-breaks.
Cronulla amount to the perfect dress rehearsal for the Raiders. The Green Machine is mighty, but it has a lot of mistakes to get out of its system.
Against Cronulla, with the minor premiership all sewn up, the Raiders can afford to make mistakes.
Tip: Raiders by 18 points.