Defending premiers South Sydney, under pressure after a big loss to Manly last week, kicked off Round 23 with a high-quality 31-18 upset of second-placed North Queensland on Thursday night. Leading 13-12 at the end of a seesawing first half, the Rabbitohs scored the first three tries of the second stanza to retain their place in the top four.
BRONCOS V DRAGONS – FRI 14 AUGUST, 7.45PM, SUNCORP STADIUM
The storyline: The Dragons are fighting for their finals lives without their key playmaker, while the Broncos are looking to consolidate their spot on top of the ladder as Wayne Bennett and other attempt to overcome long-running hoodoos.
Form guide: The Broncos have got the wobbles, trounced by Manly in Round 21 before suffering a tight loss at home to Canterbury last week. The Saints emerged from a seven-match losing run to thump Newcastle and the Warriors over the past fortnight.
Ladder: Broncos 1st, Dragons 7th
Attack: Broncos 2nd, Dragons 15th
Defence: Broncos 4th, Dragons 2nd
The selection table: Corey Oates’ absence means Lachlan Maranta moves to the wing from the bench, Jarrod Wallace drops back to the interchange and Adam Blair returns from suspension in the front row. Dale Copley also replaces the suspended Justin Hodges in the centres. Benji Marshall has been named but is expect to drop out, with Drew Hutchison set to step in for his second NRL game. Will Matthews’ dislocated shoulder will see Peter Mata’utia return to the centres and Nathan Green comes on to the wing. Ben Creagh and Jack de Belin swap between the bench and prop. Eto Nabuli and Mark Ioane join an extended bench.
The match-up: With Marshall sidelined, Gareth Widdop becomes the Dragons’ go-to guy, and his battle with Anthony Milford should be a ripper.
The history: The Broncos lead the tally 19 wins to 14, including an 8-6 advantage at Suncorp.
The last time they met: The Saints crafted a brave 12-10 win at WIN Jubilee in Round 7.
The stat: Wayne Bennett has just one win from his last 13 coaching against the Dragons, Darius Boyd has lost nine in a row against the Saints, and Jason Nightingale has lost eight straight against the Broncos.
The verdict: Should be a cracking contest, but without Marshall it shapes as a tall order for the Saints, who beat up on some feeble opposition in the Knights and Warriors but will find the going much tougher in Brisbane. Broncos by 8
WESTS TIGERS V KNIGHTS – SAT 15 AUGUST, 3.00PM, CAMPBELLTOWN STADIUM
The storyline: There’s little interest here for neutrals, but this match will have a big bearing in the battle to avoid the wooden spoon. The in-form Tigers have to be heavily favoured against the last-placed Knights.
Form guide: The Tigers have climbed out of a horror patch with impressive back-to-back wins over Melbourne and Canberra. The Knights have won just two of their last 16.
Ladder: Tigers 13th, Knights 16th
Attack: Tigers 12th, Knights 9th
Defence: Tigers 12th, Knights 16th
The selection table: Brenden Santi comes on to a five man Tigers bench in an otherwise unchanged team from their last start win over Canberra. With Danny Levi dropping back to NSW Cup, Tyler Randell drops back to the bench, captain Kurt Gidley shifts to five-eighth and Jake Mamo comes in at fullback. Kade Snowden returns from concussion at prop with Tariq Sims returning to the back row, Chris Houston moves to the bench while Sam Mataora shifts to 18th man.
The match-up: James Tedesco has been in electrifying form and goes up against Knights livewire Jake Mamo this week.
The history: After 20 clashes, the clubs are locked at 10 games apiece. The Tigers hold a 4-2 lead at Campbelltown.
The last time they met: The Knights downed the Tigers 22-12 in a mistake-riddled Round 10 encounter at Hunter Stadium.
The stat: The Knights have not beaten the Tigers twice in a season since the joint venture’s 2000 debut campaign.
The verdict: There’s not much continuity or confidence in the Knights’ line-up at present, and the Tigers’ young guns have shown what they’re capable of in recent week if their pack sets a half-decent platform. Brooks and Tedesco will prove the difference at Campbelltown. Tigers by 14
PANTHERS V WARRIORS – SAT 15 AUGUST, 5.30PM, PEPPER STADIUM
The storyline: The Panthers are gone for 2015 and the Warriors are all but – the injury-ravaged strugglers are simply looking to let a bit of light into their dark late-season scenarios. Whichever way it goes, a lengthy losing streak is set to come to an end.
Form guide: The Panthers have lost five straight, although their last three have been by 10 points or less. The Warriors have lost four in row, three of those by 20-plus points while also being held to nil twice.
Ladder: Panthers 14th, Warriors 10th
Attack: Panthers 16th, Warriors 10th
Defence: Panthers 9th, Warriors 11th
The selection table: David Simmons returns on the wing for Waqa Blake while Bryce Cartwright and Sika Manu swap between the bench and the back row. With Manu Vatuvei’s shoulder injury keeping him out for an indefinite period, Jonathan Wright shifts to the wing and Dominique Peyroux returns in the centres. Sam Rapira comes in at the front row with Albert Vete dropping back to the bench, as Raymond Faitala-Mariner is promoted to the back row in place of the suspended Ben Matulino. Ryan Hoffman returns from a calf injury in the back row which means Simon Mannering shifts to lock and Sebastine Ikahihifo drops out of the team. Konrad Hurrell takes Siliva Havili’s spot on the bench.
The match-up: It’s the master against his former apprentice as opposing locks and captains Simon Mannering and Elijah Taylor square off.
The history: The Panthers hold an 18-15-1 lead since 1995, including 9-7-1 at home.
The last time they met: The Panthers extinguished the Warriors’ finals hopes and grabbed a top-four spot for themselves with a 22-6 victory at home in the final round of 2014.
The stat: The Warriors had not been held scoreless since 2009 – and had been left on the doughnut just four times in their history – but the Roosters and Dragons have consigned the vaunted attacking unit to zero twice in the past month.
The verdict: The Panthers have the worst attacking record in the NRL, while the usually-dangerous Warriors have struggled to score points without Johnson. This should be an ugly, scrappy affair that comes down to defensive commitment on recent form tips the scales in the home side’s favour. Panthers by 2
ROOSTERS V EELS – SAT 15 AUGUST, 7.30PM, ALLIANZ STADIUM
The storyline: The Roosters are marching towards a potential third straight minor premiership, while the Eels’ season of woe has continued with more injury problems. A drubbing looms.
Form guide: The Roosters have won eight in a row, averaging 31 points per game in their last five outings. The up-and-down Eels broke a three-match losing streak with a dour 10-4 win over the Panthers in Darwin last week.
Ladder: Roosters 3rd, Eels 12th
Attack: Roosters 3rd, Eels 13th
Defence: Roosters 1st, Eels 13th
The selection table: Mitch Pearce returns at halfback as Jackson Hastings takes 18th man Suaia Matagi’s spot on the bench. Ryan Morgan replaces Will Hopoate in the centres in an otherwise unchanged team from their last start win over the Panthers. Brad Takairangi has been rubbed out for the year with a foot injury, with Vai Toutai set to replace him in the side.
The match-up: A window to State of Origin’s future? Jake Friend and Nathan Peats lock horns at dummy-half.
The history: After 127 encounters, the Roosters are all square with 61 wins apiece and five draws. At the SFS, it’s also locked at 9-9-2.
The last time they met: Jarryd Hayne inspired the Eels to a 14-12 boilover against the defending premiers in Round 6 last year.
The stat: Parramatta has conceded 160 points in their last four visits to Allianz Stadium.
The verdict: The Eels have got little left in the tank and the Roosters are rumbling towards another shake at the title – and a couple of under-par defensive performances should motivate the Tricolours to a big margin on Saturday night. Roosters by 36
RAIDERS V SEA EAGLES – SUN 16 AUGUST, 2.00PM, GIO STADIUM
The storyline: Both clubs are in a desperate battle to remain in top-eight contention, but it’s the Sea Eagles carrying top form into this clash as the Raiders look to overcome a bafflingly bad home record.
Form guide: With their season on the line, the Raiders went down 20-18 to the Tigers last Monday in Canberra. Few teams are playing as well as the resurgent Sea Eagles, who have whipped the Warriors (32-12), Broncos (44-14) and Rabbitohs (28-8) in the last three weeks.
Ladder: Raiders 11th, Sea Eagles 9th
Attack: Raiders 1st, Sea Eagles 8th
Defence: Raiders 14th, Sea Eagles 8th
The selection table: Edrick Lee returns from suspension on the wing as Sisa Waqa moves to the centres for the suspended Joey Leilua. Willie Mason’s two-week suspension means Josh Starling will start at prop as Ligi Sao returns on the bench.
The match-up: Buy-of-the-year contender Blake Austin goes up against in-form Kiwi Test pivot Kieran Foran in a key showdown.
The history: Manly has won 29 and Canberra 18 with one drawn, while the Sea Eagles led the count 7-5 at GIO Stadium.
The last time they met: The Raiders scored a convincing 29-16 win over the then-struggling Sea Eagles in Albury in Round 5.
The stat: Canberra has won just three of its last 15 against Manly and has not beaten the Sea Eagles at home since 2004.
The verdict: Very tough game to pick given the Raiders’ attacking potential, but the Sea Eagles’ impeccable recent form, their better chances of reaching the finals and the Raiders’ shocking home record in 2015 all give the visitors the edge. Sea Eagles by 6
BULLDOGS V TITANS – SUN 16 AUGUST, 4.00PM, CENTRAL COAST STADIUM
The storyline: The Bulldogs appear to be turning things around as they look to cement a top-eight spot, but the lowly Titans could prove a tricky opponent in Gosford as they attempt to move away from wooden-spoon contention.
Form guide: After an honourable loss to the high-flying Roosters, the Bulldogs edged the Broncos 18-16 at Suncorp. The Titans were overrun 36-14 by the Storm a week after a drought-breaking defeat of the Eels.
Ladder: Bulldogs 8th, Titans 15th
Attack: Bulldogs 5th, Titans 14th
Defence: Bulldogs 10th, Titans 15th
The selection table: Greg Eastwood returns from suspension at lock as Sam Kasiano returns to the bench in place of Lloyd Perrett. Beau Falloon and Eddy Pettybourne returns at hooker and prop respectively as Daniel Mortimer and Matthew White drop back to the bench. Kierran Moseley and Lachlan Burr are demoted to an extended interchange.
The match-up: Both named Greg, both experienced internationals, both dynamic and tough ball-players, both wearing the No.13 jumper – Eastwood and Bird will be key players in Gosford on Sunday.
The history: Remarkably, the long-suffering Titans hold a 7-5 lead in 12 encounters with the heavyweight Bulldogs.
The last time they met: Gold Coast downed Canterbury 28-14 at home in an Origin-affected Round 14 clash.
The stat: The Titans are on a four-game winning streak against the Bulldogs.
The verdict: The Bulldogs simply have too many class players, too much power up front and too much to play for. Bulldogs by 16
SHARKS V STORM – MON 17 AUGUST, 7.00PM, REMONDIS STADIUM
The storyline: Potentially the match of the round on Monday night as the in-form Sharks continue to push for a top-four spot and the Storm look to consolidate their position in the eight.
Form guide: The Sharks have won five straight and eight of their last nine, carving out a 30-18 win over the Cowboys at home last Saturday. The Storm have won three of their last four, bouncing back from a shock 34-16 defeat to the Tigers with a convincing 36-14 victory over the Titans.
Ladder: Sharks 5th, Storm 6th
Attack: Sharks 11th, Storm 7th
Defence: Sharks 7th, Storm 3rd
The selection table: Matt Prior will start at prop in place of the suspended Sam Tagataese, as Anthony Tupou drops back to the bench and Luke Lewis returns from a knee injury in the back row. Felise Kaufusi replaces the suspended Nelson Asofa-Solomona on the bench.
The match-up: Fullbacks Michael Gordon and Cameron Munster are at opposite ends of the experience scale, but both are in outstanding form.
The history: Melbourne predictably leads the match tally against Cronulla 19-9, including 6-5 at Remondis Stadium.
The last time they met: The Storm racked up a convincing 36-18 victory in Round 3 at AAMI Park.
The stat: The Sharks boast just one win in their last 10 matches against the Storm.
The verdict: Destined to go down to the wire, but the momentum the Sharks have behind them, the home-ground factor and the experience across the park gives them a slight edge. Expect Sharks backrowers Wade Graham and Paul Gallen to be the difference as two class-stacked spines cancel each other out. Sharks by 4