Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers
Thursday 5.50pm, Bluetongue Stadium
It’s been well over a year since these two rivals clashed but the memories will still be bitter for Manly fans who watched their Sea Eagles go down 50-22 at Brookvale Oval.
This weekend is shaping as a far more intriguing encounter with both teams earning a jab of confidence last round and both having plenty to play for.
Wests Tigers can secure top spot on the ladder (relying on a Penrith loss) with a big win over the Sea Eagles. Lock Brenden Santi and prop Kyle Lovett will be hoping to continue their stellar defensive form that has seen them make 91 and 87 tackles respectively in just three games, while all eyes will be on winger David Nofoaluma to see whether he can improve on his 18 tackle busts from last week.
They will be running into a determined Manly outfit for which a rare and remote berth in the top eight looms. The Sea Eagles have two powerhouse brick wall defenders of their own up front in the form Daniel Vasek and Jake Trbojevic.
It sets up a salivating forwards encounter that, despite home ground advantage, will probably be just out of Manly’s reach.
Tip: Wests Tigers by eight points.
Bulldogs v Rabbitohs
Friday 1.45pm, ANZ Stadium
There’ll be a sense of urgency surrounding Friday afternoon’s battle, with both sides boasting premiership potential but coming off disappointing losses that they'll be keen to make amends for.
For the Bulldogs it was a miserable trip south that saw them crumble at the hands of a ruthless Storm 30-16. A similar scoreline dealt equal misery to South Sydney in Penrith where the Panthers ran away with a scrappy 32-14 victory.
Similar form at the weekend will see South Sydney slip dangerously down the ladder. They are already perched precariously in 11th spot.
The Bulldogs only just retain their hold on a top-four spot and will want to prove to the teams above them that their defensive lapse was only a week long. It was, after all, their first sign of fallibility all season.
Last time the teams met South Sydney nabbed an impressive 32-10 victory. Expect a high-scoring game on Friday that might just swing in favour of the underdogs if the floodgates really open.
Tip: South Sydney by six points.
Broncos v Storm
Friday 4.50pm, Suncorp Stadium
Friday afternoon quite rightly sees the match of the round, with two title hopefuls meeting on Suncorp Stadium a week after massive wins.
The Broncos pulled off a clinical display with ball and boot in sweeping the Roosters away 40-22 in Sydney, while Melbourne benefited from a raucous home crowd in scoring a 14-point triumph over the Bulldogs.
The results came as comfort for fans of both teams who watched on as their sides stuttered and stammered through horrific Round 2 clashes.
Melbourne are currently third on the ladder, Broncos sixth. Those facts alone hint at the potential quality of rugby league that could be showcased on the grass of the code’s fiercest cauldron.
It also shows what a difference an off-season can make – neither Melbourne not Brisbane made the finals last year.
Broncos fans don’t need reminding of what happened when their side met the Storm at Suncorp in Round 24 last year. But a repeat, at least in magnitude, of that 60-18 shellacking is unlikely. Sorry.
Tip: Storm by 12 points.
Sharks v Dragons
Saturday 5.15pm, Sharks Stadium
The first genuine local derby of the season pits two struggling teams against each other and the result may best be predicted with a flip of the coin.
The home side are coming stone motherless last with no wins, though one was within reach at this very venue last weekend. It will be interesting to see if that 24-20 victory to the Warriors hurt or hindered their prospects.
The Dragons were much more hapless and seemed to have adopted the hoodoo of their seniors in limping to a dour 44-22 loss to the Raiders in the capital. With displays like that, it’s no surprise the Dragons are languishing in 14th place.
The last time the teams met the Dragons smashed Cronulla 44-12 but back then they were a team on the rise and non-depleted by a player exodus to the NRL and NSW Cup.
This weekend they should be so lucky. If Cronulla don't win this they won’t win anything.
Tip: Cronulla by eight points.
Panthers v Titans
Sunday 12.45pm, Centrebet Stadium
Circumstances couldn’t be more different surrounding these two teams. Home side Penrith will be lining up with memories fresh in their minds of a convincing, sometimes ugly but certainly confidence-boosting 32-14 win over South Sydney.
The Titans meanwhile travel to Sydney’s west off the back of disastrous eight-point loss to the silvertails at home. Penrith are undefeated and sitting alone in first place. The Titans have managed just one victory, are sitting on consecutive losses and are coming 13th.
It doesn’t take a modern day Nostradamus to work out that Penrith are raging favourites for this Sunday afternoon showdown.
The teams met towards the end of last year at the same venue. On that occasion Penrith’s only worthy rival was the clock. They won 78-0 in a display of jaw-dropping acrobatics and athleticism.
The Gold Coast can only hope lightning doesn’t strike twice.
Tip: Penrith by 20 points.
Knights v Raiders
Sunday 4.15pm, Hunter Stadium
Don’t believe the political panel shows, things are looking up in Canberra. The Green Machine this week faces a difficult road trip to the Hunter but will do so in the knowledge that back-to-back grand final appearances aren't a far-fetched prospect.
They are beginning to gain momentum after solid consecutive wins, their latest coming against the Dragons that saw Canberra rack up 44 points. They are now placed fifth on the ladder.
Their opponents Newcastle are perched at 10th and enter this game with the sour taste of a tight 26-20 loss to the Cowboys still lingering in their mouths.
Canberra and Newcastle have enjoyed a great rivalry in this competition, punctuated in Round 21 last year when the Raiders triumphed in a thrilling 36-28 match on home soil.
The fact that Newcastle tend to lift for this opponent and that they will be playing in front of a busy Hunter Stadium, suggests to me that the match will be a very, very close one indeed.
Watch for a field-goal.
Tip: Canberra by one point.
Warriors v Cowboys
Monday 3.45pm, Mt Smart Stadium
Things are looking up for both these sides and make no mistake; this match will be a stunner. Both the Warriors (24-20 over the Sharks at Cronulla) and the Cowboys (26-20 over the Knights at Hunter) enter this match off the back of spirited tight wins that will have instilled bucket-loads of belief.
It was the Warriors’ first victory of the season but they showed heart that suggests they will win many more. Their opponents North Queensland find themselves in very unfamiliar territory having notched up consecutive victories for the first time since Rounds 13 and 15 last year. These are two sides on an upward trajectory and capable of both thrilling attack and solid (enough) defence.
Don’t be at all surprised if an exact replica of Round 23 last year transpires. On that occasion the Warriors won 32-28 as they charged towards the finals. After last week they’ll be harbouring aspirations of emulation.
Tip: Warriors by four points.
Roosters v Eels
Monday 4.45pm, Allianz Stadium
This is a true middle-of-the-table clash that promises all the benefits of such an encounter. Similar form lines deliver the two sides to Allianz this Monday afternoon. The Roosters are now coming eighth thanks to opening back-to-back wins before a 40-22 thumping by the Broncos last week. The Eels are in ninth position after earning two points in Round 1 and then failing to deliver for a fortnight, their latest display nothing short of abysmal.
The Eels will be trying to erase memories of the performance that saw them annihilated 40-6 by Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval.
But things aren’t all doom and gloom for the boys in the blue and gold. With a win of two points or more they will leap frog their opponents and earn themselves at least a week in the top eight.
As the Holden Cup ladder suggests, these two teams are pretty hard to split. When in doubt, lean to the home side. Just.
Tip: Roosters by two points.