Glory Bound Blockbusters: The make-or-break games

We are now at the pointy end of the NRL season and deep into the glory bound rounds, yet the top eight has barely started to take shape. <br><br>Sure, the top four teams look safe as houses. We seem to be bound for qualifying finals at the storied Kogarah or maybe the coastal Wollongong, the wild west will get a run with Homebush, then there will be the heat of the Gold Coast and the biting cold of Melbourne’s Olympic Park.<br><br>But who will the top four be tackling… and how will they get there?<br><br>Eight doesn’t fit into four - so we’ve done the maths, abused the NRL.com Ladder Predictor to within an inch of its life… and delivered to you our Top Ten Make-or-Break Matches over the final three rounds.<br><br>To see where you think your team will finish, <a href="http://www.nrl.com/fanzone/ladderpredictor/tabid/10868/default.aspx"><b>check out our Ladder Predictor. </b></a><br><br><b>Wests Tigers V Parramatta Eels, SFS, Friday August 21, 7:30PM</b><br><br>This is shaping as one of the games of the season. The Tigers, undefeated in their last seven encounters, are making their fans believe another 2005 could be on its way. <br><br>Leading the way is mercurial five-eighth Benji Marshall, who has found confidence and is displaying the skills that made him a household name.<br><br>Despite all this, the Tigers have an appalling record against Parramatta, who have dominated them for the better part of five years - only coughing up two losses in that time. Fortunately for the Tigers, one of those was their last meeting.<br><br>In the blue and gold corner are the Eels, who have won their last five and are still outside the eight but producing a barnstorming finish to look like Premiership contenders. <br><br>Leading them is the enigmatic Jarryd Hayne. <br><br>In the past, Hayne had occasionally been dubbed as lazy, but right now he is the NRL’s hottest property and most dangerous player. He has taken the game of Billy Slater and amplified it, doing it with more size and strength.<br><br>A win or loss won’t end either side’s season, but a win (and other results going their way) could entrench them deep in the eight with just two weeks to go.<br><br><b>Last 10:</b> Wests Tigers 2, Eels 8<br><b>Last time: </b>Rd 14 2009 – Wests Tigers 23 def Parramatta 6 – Both sides languished near the bottom of the ladder (14th and 13th to be exact), now they are 5th and 9th.<br><br>Robbie Farah proved the difference turning in a trademark performance as he marched towards a sky blue jersey, carving up an inept Eels side.<br><br><b>Prediction: </b>Parramatta are the hottest team in the NRL right now and it’s not just Hayne’s attack. Their defence is amazing, having conceded just 36 points in their last five games. By comparison, the Tigers have conceded 67 and against lesser opposition.<br><br>The Eels will carry on their streak and march into the eight.<br><br><b>Ladder Predictor Says:</b> The Eels move up to 6th, whilst the Tigers drop three spots to eighth.<br><br><b>St George Illawarra Dragons V Brisbane Broncos, WIN Stadium, Friday August 21, 7:30PM</b><br><br>After their surprise loss to Canberra, the Dragons have put up a stony facade in the form of Darius Boyd, who delivered what may well have been the worst press conference ever during the week. <br><br><a href="http://bigpondvideo.com/nrl/201952"><b>Click here to see it first hand…</b></a><br><br>It seems the Dragons have closed ranks after ‘that loss’ and are preparing for the showdown with traditional rivals Brisbane with a backs-against-the-wall mentality, and it’s hardly surprising after certain media outlets labelled them as ‘arrogant’ in the last week.<br><br>While the Dragons are acting as if the pressure is all on them, realistically a fair proportion of it rests firmly on the shoulders of Darren Lockyer and his Broncos who are looking to keep one of the NRL’s best streaks alive… they’ve made the finals every year since 1992.<br><br>The finals are a tradition for Queensland’s oldest NRL club, and their fans won’t accept anything less. The problems, though, are numerous. The Broncos have been inconsistent of late, haven’t beaten the Dragons since Adam was a boy and they have the worst for and against of all the contenders for the top eight. A win in this game is not a must, but it would be a huge weight off Locky’s shoulders.<br><br><b>Last 10: </b>Dragons 8, Broncos 2<br><b>Last time: </b>Rd 4 2009 – Dragons 25 def Broncos 12 – And despite the good play of the Broncos it could have been more as super coach Wayne Bennett’s men delivered a performance which left many wondering if the Dragons could finally be the real deal.<br><br>They carved the Broncos from dummy half and tired their big forwards. Big Dell celebrated like it was the 90’s and Wayne Bennett smiled.<br><br><b>Prediction: </b>The Dragons have won eight straight against the Broncos. Expect them to make it nine and push the Broncos back out of the eight.<br><br><b>Ladder Predictor Says:</b> The Dragons stay on top of the NRL and the Broncos slip out of the eight to tenth place.<br><br><b>Penrith Panthers V South Sydney Rabbitohs, CUA Stadium, Saturday August 22 7:30PM</b><br><br>With the Rabbitohs maintaining a mathematical chance to make the eight due to their superior for and against, they simply have to win this game to stay alive in the 2009 competition. They’ll look to do so against a Panthers side which is also desperate for a win after tumbling out of the eight following a second half capitulation against the Broncos in Round 23.<br><br>For once though, it seems the Panthers are not the team suffering the most with injuries. The Rabbitohs, with their season on the line, will be missing stars Craig Wing, Roy Asotasi, Beau Champion and Fetuli Talanoa… making this must win game just a little bit harder. <br><br><b>Last 10:</b> Panthers 5, Rabbitohs 5<br><b>Last time</b>: Rd 18 2009 – South Sydney 36 def Penrith 12 – In what was a merciless thumping of a Penrith side who could not get their act together without the likes of Petero Civoniceva, Michael Jennings, Trent Waterhouse and Luke Lewis. <br><br>John Sutton was at his brilliant best for the Rabbitohs and, along with speedsters Jamie Simpson and Nathan Merritt, was instrumental in destroying the Panthers.<br><br><b>Prediction: </b>A reversal of last time’s result as this time it is Souths on the back foot without star players. Their season will come to a premature end.<br><b><br>Ladder Predictor Says:</b> South Sydney drop to twelfth and three points out of the eight, effectively ending their season, while the Panthers get back into the eight in seventh spot.<br><b><br>Newcastle Knights V North Queensland Cowboys, EnergyAustralia Stadium, Saturday August 22, 5:30PM</b><br><br>Currently just one point separates the two teams on the ladder and, despite all their good work to defeat the Storm last weekend, the Knights could slip back out of the eight with a loss to the Cowboys. Whilst a win would put Johnathan Thurston’s side back inside the eight and give them some confidence heading into the last two rounds against the Broncos and Roosters. <br><br><b>Last 10:</b> Knights 4, Cowboys 6<br><b>Last time:</b> Rd 11 2009 – Cowboys 36 def Knights 10 – And moved closer to the top eight whilst the second placed Newcastle fell a little. Johnathan Thurston was at his rampant best in Townsville and a repeat of that could see the Cowboys once again derail the Knights’ season.<br><br><b>Prediction: </b>Newcastle seem to have got back on track now that Brian Smith has been sacked and with eight out of ten victories at home this year they are hard to tip against. We’ll tip them to win and put the Cowboys’ season on the edge of the scrap heap.<br><br><b>Ladder Predictor Says: </b>The Knights have moved to fifth place and look assured a finals berth. North Queensland drop to eleventh and are in trouble.<br><br><b>Melbourne Storm V Manly Sea Eagles, Olympic Park, Sunday August 23, 3PM</b><br><br>The grand final replay comes at a time when both teams are struggling to hit their best form. The Storm have stood down attacking weapon Greg Inglis and, on the field at least, they look weaker for it. Manly though are not the team they were last year and, if not for Anthony Watmough’s constant heroics, could be languishing outside the eight. <br><br>The Storm would like nothing more than to see Manly on the outer and a win this week could put the reining Premiers outside the eight with just two matches to play. It’s a big week for both clubs.<br><br><b>Last 10: </b>Storm 5, Sea Eagles 5<br><b>Last time:</b> Rd 8 2009 – Melbourne 22 def Manly 8 – Exacting some revenge for last year’s Grand Final slaughter, dropping the Sea Eagles to 13th on the NRL ladder. Greg Inglis was the star.<br><br><b>Prediction: </b>The Storm will come out fired up for this one and even without Greg Inglis should be too much to handle for the Sea Eagles at Olympic Park, where Manly are yet to chalk up a single victory.<br><br><b>Ladder Predictor Says: </b>Melbourne hold down fourth spot and Manly slide out of the eight again, hanging in ninth place.<br><b><br>Parramatta Eels V Penrith Panthers, Parramatta Stadium, Friday August 28, 7:30PM</b><br><br>This western derby could have dire implications for the Panthers. A loss to South Sydney and a loss to the Eels would end their season, but such is their situation that even a win and then a loss against the Eels could see them outside the eight.<br><br>Parramatta aren’t in an enviable spot either, having left their run impossibly late even back to back wins over the Tigers and Panthers may only have them just inside the eight depending on what other teams have done. <br><br>A must win game for either team in a derby which will have a real finals atmosphere.<br><br>There’s also the potential for some spectacular attack with both Jarryd Hayne and the speedy Michael Jennings engaged in this one.<br><br><b>Last 10:&nbsp;</b> Eels 4, Panthers 6<br><b>Last time: </b>Rd 17 2009 – Panthers 38 def Eels 34 – In a game where defence was hardly a priority, but Michael Jennings was at his sublime best, scoring four tries for the Panthers and according to Eels coach Daniel Anderson was “the difference”.<br><br><b>Prediction:</b> In their last ten encounters, Parramatta have gone LLWWLLWWLL. Surely they are now due to go WW again and not only condemn the Panthers to relying on other results in the final week, but put themselves well into the top eight.<br><b><br>Ladder Predictor Says:</b> Parramatta continue their rise and move to fifth on the ladder while Penrith continue their roller coaster season and drop back out of the eight to occupy ninth spot.<br><br><b>North Queensland Cowboys V Brisbane Broncos, Dairy Farmers Stadium, Friday August 28, 7:30PM</b><br><br>Another traditional rivalry will flare up on the same Friday night and this game has the same implications as the Eels, Panthers tussle. A win and your season will still be alive, and a loss could mean it’s all over.<br><br>Thurston and Lockyer may be best of buddies when pulling on the maroon of Queensland and the green and gold of Australia, but the two best playmakers in the game will go head to head in a stoush which could put one of their sides out of the finals and it should be a cracker of a game. A finals spot will be on the line, not to mention Queensland bragging right… this one will be all important to the finals make up. And one team is likely to miss out!<br><br><b>Last 10:&nbsp;</b> Cowboys 4, Broncos 6<br><b>Last time: </b>Rd 1 2009 – Broncos 19 def Cowboys 18 – To kick off the NRL season in fine style. Peter Wallace was the man who put the icing on the cake with a well-taken field goal and the Broncos were on their merry way.<br><br><b>Prediction:</b> Brisbane to win a tight one. The truth is history says they always make the finals and despite some insipid performances against the likes of Canberra, the Broncos still have pride in their jersey. Farewell Cowboys.<br><b><br>Ladder Predictor Says:</b> Brisbane jump back into eighth spot and the Cowboys’ season is over as they sit in eleventh, four points away.<br><br><b>St George Illawarra Dragons V Parramatta Eels, WIN Jubilee Oval, Friday September 4, 7:30PM</b><br><br>It could be the blockbuster to end all blockbusters and will certainly have a finals feel to it as two real heavyweights collide in the week before they start.<br><br>A few weeks ago this would have been a game many earmarked as an easy win for the Dragons, but the Eels have been inspirational as of late and with some staunch defence and exciting attack have done a number on some heavy contenders, showing they aren’t just here to make up the numbers. <br><br>Parramatta will attempt to leap into the finals and this game could be crucial to the make up of the eight. A loss for the Eels would help plenty of other teams, whilst a win would almost certainly guarantee them a top eight spot.<br><b><br>Last 10: </b>Dragons 6, Eels 4<br><b>Last time: </b>Rd 5 2009 – Dragons 22 def Parramatta 8 – The Dragons were simply too good for a struggling Eels team who try as they might have were poor. Nathan Hindmarsh led from the front but it wasn’t enough for a team who had just lost Brett Finch.<br><br>Jamie Soward, as usual, dominated.<br><br><b>Prediction:</b> A tightly contested affair with all stars engaged pulling out big games before the finals. A foot race between Soward and Hayne would be entertaining and it could happen, but ultimately the Bennett coached Dragons should prevail and prove once again they are the premiership force. Parramatta should still sneak into the eight.<br><br><b>Ladder Predictor Says: </b>The Dragons win themselves the JJ Giltinan Shield, whilst the Eels ponder a finals encounter with the Bulldogs.<br><br><b>Wests Tigers V Bulldogs, SFS, Friday September 4, 7:30PM</b><br><br>It may come down to an all or nothing performance from the Tigers on this night. If they win, and do so handsomely, then they give themselves a real shot of a top eight spot. Lose, and their season could be over.<br><br>This match has blockbuster written all over it. The flair and dare of Marshall’s men, versus the constant pressure applied by Brett Kimmorley’s kennel of Bulldogs. The match will see a clash in football styles, but is one where passion will be overflowing.<br><br><b>Last 10: </b>Wests Tigers 5, Bulldogs 5<br><b>Last time:</b> Rd 8 2009 – Bulldogs 22 def Wests Tigers 20 – But the now rampant Benji Marshall was absent from the Tigers’ line up and that could mean all the difference for the joint venture club.<br><br>Elsewhere on the park, Michael Ennis and Robbie Farah continued their race for the Blues number 9 jersey.<br><b><br>Prediction:</b> The match will likely be just as tight as their last encounter… but the result will be different. Assuming Benji Marshall plays – the Tigers will stay in the eight.<br><b><br>Ladder Predictor Says:</b> Wests Tigers snatch the win and eighth spot from Manly. The Bulldogs finish the season on a low but hold onto second place.<br>