Rabbitohs v Bulldogs
Friday, 5.20pm, ANZ Stadium
Brace yourself Homebush, there’s an explosion due your way this Friday night and it will be coloured red, white, green and blue.
Round 24 is set to kick off with a dream stare-down between two sides in white-hot form.
In one corner are the Bunnies – fresh from a sizeable win against rivals Manly and the realisation that finals football is now a near certainty.
In the other corner, the Bulldogs – who few doubt are now the premiership favourites. Canterbury-Bankstown earned that nod with a startling demolition of leaders Canberra, turning the Green Machine into a crumbly pile of cogs and wheels on their way to a mammoth 62-12 win.
Fullback Patrick Templeman (three tries, one try assist, four tackle-breaks, two line-breaks) and halfback Jaelen Feeney (two tries, one try assist, four tackle-breaks, two line-breaks) were among the many heroes on the day.
Adam Elliot was the pick of the Bulldogs’ defenders with 27 tackles.
The Bulldogs’ Friday combatants South Sydney also put daylight between them and their opponents Manly at the weekend.
In an end-to-end match, the Rabbitohs trumped Manly 38-18. Centre Aaron Gray scored 18 solo points, while prop Daniel Smith (176 metres, one try assist, 27 tackles) astonished all.
The game that awaits us will be gladiatorial. Who will triumph is less certain.
The tipping weathervane is, however, pointing surprisingly south.
Tip: Rabbitohs by two points.
Panthers v Broncos
Friday, 5.20pm, Centrebet Stadium
The Panthers are back, and back with style: following a disastrous run of three consecutive losses, Penrith roared back into premiership contention with a 32-14 smashing of the Warriors across the Tasman.
The men from the foot of the Blue Mountains made their rivals across the pond look like tadpoles with a near-faultless performance.
Penrith missed only 19 tackles and racked up a hugely impressive 1509 metres in attack.
Back-rower Bryce Cartwright deserves a medal of bravery after his efforts that produced two tries, 132 metres, nine tackle-breaks and 24 tackles.
Custodian Kieren Moss was a fullback at full throttle, charging through 175 metres and five line-breaks.
The Panthers face a newly invigorated Broncos side that have resurrected finals aspirations with two crucial wins, their latest a 36-30 nail-biter over Parramatta.
Victory wasn’t sealed until the 75th minute when Kodi Nikorima dived over for a spectacular try – capping a brilliant match from the pivot.
The Broncos’ fate now rests in their hands and they will be desperate to keep the ball rolling with an upset on Friday.
However, if the Panthers are half as good as they were last week, there is little chance of that transpiring.
Tip: Panthers by 12 points.
Dragons v Wests Tigers
Saturday, 10.50am, SCG
Having sunk into wooden-spoon contention over the past six painful weeks, the Dragons’ immediate future doesn’t look much brighter.
They were last week belted by rivals Cronulla and now must run into defending premiers the Wests Tigers following the black and golds’ eye-catching 32-18 win over the fourth-placed Roosters.
The supreme goal-kicking of Wests Tigers centre Manaia Rudolph (seven from seven goals) inflated the margin but the five-tries-to four victory was a real grudge match.
Both sides struggled for metres and the Wests Tigers misse a massive 47 tackles.
Prop Nathan Brown was the Tigers’ best on park, scoring their opening try as well as running for 142 metres and making 21 tackles.
His forward partner Andy Fiagatusa was also a workhorse – contributing 159 metres and 24 tackles.
It was a performance very much on the other end of the spectrum the Dragons’ most recent effort, St George Illawarra suffering a bruising 24-16 defeat at the hands of Cronulla.
The damage was done by halftime, the Sharks heading into the sheds up 16-nil.
Dragons second-rower Wesley Lolo was the best of a beaten bunch, scoring two tries and racking up 21 tackles.
Unfortunately for Lolo though, there is every sign that his team is facing a hiding this Saturday morning at the SCG.
Tip: Wests Tigers by 18 points.
Titans v Warriors
Saturday, 3.15pm, Skilled Park
A late-season bump in the road for the Warriors has seen them slip two points adrift of the top four after drawing with Manly a fortnight ago and getting thumped 32-14 by Penrith last week.
They should be able to restore a heap of confidence this weekend, taking on the lowly Gold Coast who were annihilated 52-14 by the Cowboys in Townsville on Saturday. The Titans missed 31 tackles and ran for only 1089 metres in the carve-up, winger Luke Baker scoring all three Gold Coast tries.
In what should be little more than target practice for New Zealand, this match is also looking like a one-sided affair.
That despite a big loss to a resurgent Panthers outfit at the weekend that saw the Kiwis miss an inexplicable 40 tackles.
Prop Kouma Samson was their best, contributing a try, 117 metres, 21 tackles and three tackle-breaks.
New Zealand will be dying to take to the paddock and regain the sparkle they have shown over the previous six months of rugby league.
To the Titans’ dismay, it’s hard to a see a way that won’t happen.
Tip: Warriors by 16 points.
Cowboys v Knights
Saturday, 5.15pm, 1300SMILES Stadium
North Queensland fans have been hit with the contrasting emotions of ecstasy and frustration after the Cowboys pulled off a thrilling 52-14 win over the Gold Coast – their fifth in a row – leaving everyone to wonder where the effort has been all year.
The Cowboys have left their run ever-so-late to feature in the finals, but they are playing with greater skill and effectiveness than most teams in the top eight.
Proving the spine of the side is iron-tough, fullback Zac Santo, five-eighth Alex Grant and hooker Jayden Hodges all scored doubles in the huge 38-point win.
Hooker Hodges was the Cowboys’ best, also racking up 31 tackles and nine tackle-breaks.
The Cowboys take on a Newcastle side this Saturday down on points and confidence. The Knights have just one win from their past five games and were beaten easily by Melbourne at their most recent outing.
Newcastle were on the wrong end of a 30-22 score line, much to the chagrin of the Hunter Stadium crowd.
Winger Jake Mamo was the best of a beaten bunch with two tries, 144 metres, four tackle-breaks and three line-breaks.
Tip: Cowboys by 12 points.
Raiders v Sea Eagles
Sunday, 11.45am, Canberra Stadium
Team 1 hosts Team 16 – I think we all know what happens next.
Yes the Manly Sea Eagles are in for a thumping, but they should take some comfort in the fact that Canberra last week proved they are far from infallible.
The Raiders were thoroughly pulverised by a jaw-dropping Canterbury-Bankstown, the Bulldogs running away 62-12 winners.
The 50 point loss was the biggest in living memory for the Raiders, who have dropped just four games all year.
Missing 43 tackles and committing 15 errors, the Green Machine looked woeful just a few weeks out from their finals campaign.
Back-rower Patrick Mago was easily Canberra’s best – scoring a try, running for 129 metres, busting six tackles and making 22 of his own.
Elsewhere, figures were mostly grim.
Not that the Sea Eagles were exactly singing after their 20-point loss to South Sydney.
The Bunnies hopped away to a 38-18 victory thanks largely to Manly’s 40 missed tackles.
Prop Jake Trbojevic (209 metres, 34 tackles) contributed the work of three men, while winger Fabian Goodall (one try, 220 metres, five tackle-breaks) dazzled on the flank.
The Canberra Raiders aren’t used to losing and will want to flush the feeling from their body with a massive win against weak opponents.
One gets the feeling the Canberra Stadium crowd are in for a feast.
Tip: Raiders by 24 points.
Storm v Eels
Sunday, 12.45pm, AAMI Park
A gutsy 30-22 win over Newcastle has snapped a six-game losing streak for the Storm and reawakened the possibility of finals football.
Melbourne are now just two points outside the top eight and enjoy games against the bottom three sides in the Holden Cup over the next three weeks.
Their latest win came courtesy of a double to centre Denny Solomona, the talented back enjoying a glorious afternoon with 118 metres, four tackle-breaks and two line-breaks as well.
Prop Matt Lodge was Solomona’s only rival for man-of-the-match honours, the man-mountain powering through 173 metres, 20 tackles and lending his hand in one of Melbourne’s six tries.
In all, the match was a clear display that the Storm are back.
The same can’t be said for their opponents this week, the Parramatta Eels, who have now lost seven straight matches and don’t look likely to end that streak any time soon.
Their most recent loss came on the turf of Suncorp Stadium, the 36-30 arm-wrestle appearing to play the Broncos back into form.
Eels prop Pauli Pauli scored a hat-trick of tries in the loss, as well as busting through 11 tackles and 158 metres.
Back-rower Joseph Ualesi (171 metres, five tackle-breaks, 18 tackles) also put in a performance worthy of a win.
These two sides haven’t met once all season. But on current form, Melbourne may well feel like they’ve beaten Parramatta twice when the 80 minutes are up.
Tip: Storm by 20 points.
Sharks v Roosters
Monday, 4.45pm, Remondis Stadium
The Roosters, now with two consecutive losses behind them, will be desperate to return to their winning ways and cement a spot in the top four.
Standing in their way are the Cronulla Sharks – an unpredictable side that have hit a late-season purple patch with four wins from five games.
The resulting match will be a Monday night thriller that could well end in upset.
The Sharks’ 24-16 win against the Dragons at the weekend was a polished effort, Cronulla missing just 21 tackles and completing 80 per cent of their sets.
Winger Dallas Wells scored two tries in the victory, while back-rower Sione Masima (200 metres, one try assist, seven tackle-breaks) was a true juggernaut.
The Sydney Roosters have endured a much less enjoyable week, after going down 32-18 to 2012 champs the Wests Tigers.
Rhyse Martin, playing at centre for the tri-colours, was easily their best – contributing a try, 125 metres, 11 tackle-breaks and two line-breaks.
Hooker Alex Thomas (42 tackles, four tackle-breaks, one try assist) worked his heart out up front.
The Roosters are clearly a quality football side but with each week that goes past, they seem to be exposing more and more previously-hidden weaknesses.
If the Sharks are in the mood on Monday, they can win this one.
Tip: Sharks by two points.