Cowboys v Broncos
Friday, 5.20pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
Few Queensland derbies have been quite as important as this one for the Brisbane Broncos, who will be out to spoil the party of their cousins from the north and secure a top-eight spot in the process.
The Broncos are one of four teams battling it out for three spots in the bottom half of the top eight and it’s difficult to see them missing out on a berth if they can topple the Cowboys, with just two of their games between now and September against finals contenders.
Both Brisbane and North Queensland enter this match after a week’s rest since impressive wins in Round 18.
The Cowboys raced away to a 22-nil lead in their clash with the Sea Eagles and never let go of their hold on the match. The final scoreline of 30-20 flattered their opposition, who faced a solid North Queensland defence for a vast majority of the 80 minutes.
Hooker Jayden Hodges was best on field for the Cowboys, the wily rake making 39 tackles and setting up a try. Centre Lenny Magey was the best of the backs with a brace and 14 tackles.
It was a performance that belied North Queensland’s standing on the ladder and a home effort that will give reason for circumspection to the Broncos.
Their last outing was a 22-12 comeback affair against the lowly Cronulla Sharks with prop Stephen Coombe (155 metres, 37 tackles) and back-rower Caleb Timu (146 metres, 31 tackles) hinting at the power of their front men.
An incredible 11 Broncos made 20 tackles or more in the match, including the entire forward pack and the bench, suggesting last week’s bye is precisely what the doctor prescribed.
Tip: Broncos by 12 points.
Bulldogs v Eels
Friday, 5.20pm, ANZ Stadium
Though any semblance of a hope in hell went drifting out the window for the Eels a month ago, the rivalry at the centre of this match promises to provide an otherwise uneven match-up plenty of spark.
Home side Canterbury have now won four matches on the trot to find themselves in equal fourth. And with a fortnight passed since their admirable 26-22 defeat of the Melbourne Storm, all signs point to a hearty Friday night evening meal of desiccated Eel.
It was the third loss inflicted on Melbourne in as many weeks and one done with the utmost style.
The Bulldogs completed 81 per cent of their sets, charged through 1485 metres, conceded only six penalties and after regaining the lead in the 49th minute, never looked like giving it up.
It was a return to form for gifted five-eighth Moses Mbye who scored the opening try of the match, ran for 120 metres, busted five tackles and made 22 of his own.
Up front, prop Lloyd Perrett was just as eye-catching with 167 metres and 26 tackles.
The Eels, meanwhile, are backing up from their third loss in a row and one which will stand to typify their 2013 season.
The 46-6 trouncing at the hands of Canberra really said it all, the Eels’ defenders hands as slippery as their name suggests in letting in eight tries.
Lock Joseph Ualesi, with 108 metres and 26 tackles, was a minor consolation for Parramatta.
If they are anything other than 10 times better on Friday, it could get messy.
Tip: Bulldogs by 18 points.
Dragons v Raiders
Saturday, 3.15pm, WIN Stadium
Not for the first time this year, the Dragons fell victim to themselves at the weekend, not even competing in a must-win match against the Rabbitohs that has erased their 2013 premiership ambitions.
They now face a red-hot Canberra Raiders outfit looking to shore up their minor premiership favouritism and if the WIN Stadium crowd can’t inspire some sort of miracle, the Raiders’ only real opposition might come in the form of the clock.
The Dragons were nothing but woeful in Round 19, slumping to an 18-nil halftime deficit against the Rabbitohs, who now have a real shot at forcing their way into the top eight.
At times the Red V looked stuck on pause, as the side jogged up and down on the spot for 80 minutes to find themselves offering only 1205 all-run metres to South Sydney’s 1718.
Lock Kal Collins was forced to make an unwieldy 50 tackles, while future superstar fullback Evander Cummins ran for 158 metres, but across the paddock the Dragons just didn’t gel.
Their performance was an exact antithesis of the one produced by Canberra at home, the Green Machine throwing caution to the wind on their way to a 46-6 hammering of the Eels.
Centre Andrew Heffernan scored a hat-trick, winger Jeremy Hawkins a brace and back-rower Tevita Pangai 180 metres in an inspirational display.
There is real potential here for the Raiders to rack up a half century and it’s straining to postulate where the Dragons’ resistance might come from.
Tip: Raiders by 20 points.
Titans v Rabbitohs
Saturday, 5.15pm, Skilled Park
A cracking Saturday evening of rugby league will see South Sydney travel to the sunny Gold Coast where a potential ticket to September is on offer.
By way of an obstacle, the Titans will be out to consolidate their gutsy 35-28 win against Manly last week as they seek to get runs on the board prior to their 2014 innings.
The Titans found themselves trailing 28-12 at the halfway point, but summoned all the grit in their arsenal to fight their way back in the match, scoring 23 unanswered points in the second half.
In addition to his late field-goal, fullback Jahrome Hughes stunned all in attendance with 133 speedy metres, a try assist and seven tackle-breaks.
His contribution was trumped only by back-rower Hymel Hunt, who scored a try in each half, ran for 210 metres, busted seven tackles and made 19 of his own in an effort that was likely rewarded with a very big dinner indeed.
South Sydney will be hoping the Gold Coast are still recovering from the gargantuan second-half uphill climb, as a win could see the Bunnies move into the top eight.
Trailing teams 6, 7 and 8 by a point, South Sydney are staring down the barrel of their most crucial game to date. They earned their tilt at finals footy with an impressive 28-16 trouncing of the Dragons at the weekend. The Rabbitohs raced away to an 18-nil halftime lead and never loosened the pincers.
No less than 10 South Sydney players made 100 metres or more in an 80-minute period that made a mockery of the St George Illawarra defence.
Hooker Cameron McInnes was the pick of the bunch for South Sydney, scoring a try, setting one up, running for 101 metres and making 31 tackles.
South Sydney know that if they fire, they will likely head into their Round 21 clash against North Queensland with a top-eight position that’s theirs to relinquish.
It’s theirs to be gained on Saturday.
Tip: Rabbitohs by six points.
Warriors v Storm
Sunday, 11.45am, Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday morning will see the kick-off of the veritable match of the round, one whose outcome could dictate huge implications for the final makeup of the top eight.
The home side Warriors are currently in fourth position, locked on 25 points with the fifth-placed Canterbury-Bankstown.
With the Bulldogs playing a lowly and formless Parramatta side on Friday, it seems the Warriors will need to win if they are to maintain their tenuous grip on an assured second life.
For the Storm, the stakes are higher. A win would see them return to form, after three consecutive losses, and recommence a charge at the top four. But with the ninth-placed Rabbitohs only a point behind them, a loss could lead to banishment from the premiership race.
The Warriors were convincing without being brilliant in their Round 19 defeat of the Wests Tigers. Entering the sheds tied at 6-all, they outscored the Tigers three-tries-to-one in the second half to seize a 22-12 victory.
Prop James Taylor’s stats sound as sweet as the voice of his namesake, the hulking forward contributing 170 metres and 20 tackles to the Warriors’ war effort.
It was a polished display all round from the Warriors, who completed 83 per cent of their sets and missed only 16 tackles.
Melbourne, meanwhile, used Round 19 to put memories of a 26-22 defeat to the Bulldogs – their third on the trot – behind them.
Winger Richard Kenner bagged a try in the final seconds to make the scoreboard look respectable, but control of the match never belonged to Melbourne.
In a match dominated by the forward packs, prop Christian Welch more than held his own with 170 metres and 24 tackles.
Despite a trip across the Tasman looming and the nerves associated with an all but do-or-die match, Melbourne should want this one more and therefore deserve favouritism.
Tip: Storm by four points.
Sharks v Panthers
Sunday, 11.45am, Remondis Stadium
A rare win came in the form of a huge upset for the home side last week, one that has lifted them from the bottom of the ladder and injected the potential for some entertaining football into their match against the second-placed Panthers on Sunday.
Cronulla had no right to even threaten top-three side the Sydney Roosters, but a try in the 78th minute to centre Rea Pittman handed the Sharks what will be their most relished win of 2013.
Trailing by more than a converted try with 17 minutes to play, things were panning out as expected before the Sharks’ backline combined for one of the biggest upsets of the season.
Custodian Valentine Holmes turned in what was one of the best attacking games by a fullback in the history of the Holden Cup – scoring a hat-trick of tries, running for an amazing 279 metres, breaking the Roosters’ line four times and racking up a dozen tackle busts.
It will be a salivating encounter this Sunday as he takes on opposite number Nick Walker.
Penrith’s No.1 also starred in their 30-4 annihilation of Newcastle – helping to bundle the Knights out of premiership contention.
Walker set up a try, ran for 139 metres and made nine tackle-breaks and a line-break in the nothing-but-stylish win.
Halfback Doug Hewitt also grabbed a brace of tries in the near-perfect display that saw Penrith complete 85 per cent of their sets and stake their claims for joint-favouritism with the Green Machine juggernaut.
Though in reality this match is second versus second-last, last week’s form suggests we could be in for an expansive belter.
Albeit one that Penrith should win by some margin.
Tip: Panthers by 16 points.
Knights v Roosters
Sunday, 12.45pm, Hunter Stadium
With the Sydney Roosters still not quite sure what hit them, and Newcastle still ruing an abysmal performance that saw them tumble out of finals contention, Sunday’s match could go one of two ways.
The Roosters showed a clear vulnerability in their shock upset to Cronulla and the defeat in the final minutes smacked of one that could spark a form slump.
If Newcastle can muster the guts to capitalise on that, they are every chance of winning this one.
If, however, the depression of losing touch with the top eight is still playing on their minds, they will likely get walloped.
The tri-colours were a shadow of their usual selves on Saturday and deserved to lose by more than two to the boys from the Shire. Completing only 66 per cent of their sets, running for only 1143 metres and missing 38 tackles, it was an unenviable display by a competition heavyweight this close to the finals.
Halfback Tyler Cornish was admittedly brilliant, setting up three tries and making 21 tackles, but the Roosters need to improve tenfold between now and September if they are to threaten their rivals.
On the other hand, the Knights made Sydney’s performance look Maroon-esque – dishing up an eye-watering 60 missed tackles in their 30-4 defeat to Penrith.
Centre Pat Mata’utia (who scored Newcastle’s only try, ran for 169 metres and broke five tackles) was clearly the best of a thoroughly beaten bunch.
Following a week both teams would rather forget, this clash is a showdown between a side with everything to prove and one with nothing to lose.
Both of those sentiments can motivate a win. Roosters fans will be praying the former wins out. It should.
Tip: Roosters by 10 points.
Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles
Monday, 4.45pm, Campbelltown Stadium
The defending premiers gave fans reason for concern at the weekend, slumping to a dour 22-12 home defeat to the Warriors just six weeks out from the playoffs.
It was the Wests Tigers’ second consecutive loss, one with little sheen, few consolations and little to be proud of.
A return to Campbelltown and a clash with traditional rivals the Silvertails – who are clearly minnows this year – has come at exactly the right time for the Tigers, who will still be harbouring hopes of going back to back.
Missing 39 tackles in their clash the Warriors, the Wests Tigers didn’t make it easy on themselves and looked tired with ball in hand.
They managed just a single try in each half and hinted at why their attacking returns (445 points) have been the second leanest in the top eight this year, behind the Storm (390).
Prop Andy Fiagatusa was one of the few who lived up to the expectations of the home crowd, running for 138 metres and making 30 tackles, while back-rower Kyle Lovett was inspirational with 45 tackles.
But it’s clearly in offence that the Wests Tigers require drastic improvement, and with matches against four of the bottom five sides to look forward to, they’ll get plenty of practice.
For Manly, it was yet another dose of heartache at the weekend after they relinquished a sizeable lead to go down to the Gold Coast 35-28.
The Sea Eagles led 28-12 at the break but didn’t look like scoring again in what became a comfortable defeat.
As has been customary this season, prop Jake Trbojevic put most of his team mates to shame with a gutsy and unrewarded performance. The future NRL star scored two tries, ran for 163 metres and made 28 tackles.
Fans on the northern beaches might be wishing for a cloning machine.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 12 points.