Broncos v Knights – 7.45pm (AEST), Friday, June 26 @ Suncorp Stadium
The storyline: Wayne Bennett hosts his former club, the embattled Knights, who have rocketed into wooden-spoon favouritism, while his Broncos currently head the NRL table. His Newcastle successor Rick Stone’s head is on the block.
The form guide: Brisbane continue to march on, producing a massive defensive display to edge out Melbourne 14-12 last week – the club’s fourth straight win, and its 11th in 13 games. Newcastle has lost nine of its last 10, including a 30-28 loss to Cronulla in Round 15 in which it gave up a 10-point lead in the second half.
Ladder: Broncos 1st, Knights 15th
Attack: Broncos 2nd, Knights 12th
Defence: Broncos 4th, Knights 13th
The selection table: Corey Parker returns for the Broncos in place of the rested Sam Thaiday at lock. Daniel Vidot also makes way for centre Justin Hodges, while Jack Reed is a late scratching, with Dale Copley set to come into the 17, Corey Oates moving onto the wing and Jordan Kahu to play centre. With Kade Snowden suspended and Chris Houston (finger) injured, Paterika Vaivai will start at prop with Robbie Rochow starting at lock as Clint Newton and Sam Mataora come onto the bench. Jarrod Mullen is being tipped as a late inclusion.
The match-up: The electrifying Jake Mamo goes head-to-head with his Knights predecessor, in-form Broncos No.1 Darius Boyd.
The history: Brisbane holds an imposing 30-13-1 advantage since 1988, including a 9-4 record at Suncorp Stadium.
The last time they met: These sides faced off at Hunter Stadium just five weeks ago, with the Origin-depleted Broncos scoring a come-from-behind 31-18 victory.
The stat: The Knights have won just one of their last nine against the Broncos.
The verdict: The Knights are a rabble and struggling defensively. If the Broncos display anywhere near the commitment without the ball as last week, their backline guns could rack up a cricket score on Friday night. Broncos by 32
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles – 7.35pm (AEST), Friday, June 26 @ ANZ Stadium
The storyline: One of the great heavyweight grudge matches of recent years, the Sea Eagles are running last and the Rabbitohs’ title defence is yet to truly get going – but there’s still plenty of interest in this one.
The form guide: Souths were trounced 34-6 by the Tigers ahead of their Round 15 bye, ending a three-match winning streak. Manly snapped a three-game losing run with a handy 30-20 defeat of the Tigers last Friday.
Ladder: Rabbitohs 6th, Sea Eagles 16th
Attack: Rabbitohs 9th, Sea Eagles 16th
Defence: Rabbitohs 6th, Sea Eagles 10th
The selection table: Greg Inglis returns from Origin at fullback as Alex Johnston shifts to the wing and John Olive drops out of the team. Tim Grant replaces Jason Clark on the bench. Issac Luke and Glenn Stewart could be late inclusions. Justin Horo joins the team at 18th man but are otherwise unchanged following their last-start win over the Wests Tigers.
The match-up: The eldest Burgess, Luke, goes up against his brothers, twin giants Tom and George.
The history: In 134 previous clashes, Manly has won 73 and South Sydney has won 61. At ANZ, the Sea Eagles lead the count 4-2.
The last time they met: The Rabbitohs powered to a 40-0 lead in an extraordinary qualifying final blitz last year, before easing off and prevailing 40-24.
The stat: Manly has won just one of its last 12 on the road.
The verdict: There have been a few sparks of the old Manly resurfacing in recent weeks, but Souths’ pack shapes as being too strong, and having their first-choice spine – along with the dynamic Glenn Stewart – back on deck will provide the polish in a hard-fought win. Rabbitohs by 8
Warriors v Raiders – 3.00pm (AEST), Saturday, June 27 @ Mt Smart Stadium
The storyline: Two of the competition’s most exciting attack sides – and patchy defensive outfits – go toe-to-toe in a clash that could have a massive impact on both clubs’ top-eight prospects.
The form guide: After a disappointing fortnight against the Rabbitohs and Roosters, the Warriors jumped back into the top eight with a commanding 36-14 defeat of the Titans courtesy of a Shaun Johnson-led second-half blitz. The Raiders have won just one of their last five but, paradoxically, are one of the NRL’s better-performed clubs of the last month. Unlucky to go down 21-20 in a classic encounter with the Cowboys last week.
Ladder: Warriors 7th, Raiders 10th
Attack: Warriors 6th, Raiders 1st
Defence: Warriors 11th, Raiders 14th
The selection table: Tuimoala Lolohea returns on the wing in place of Ken Maumalo. Jacob Lillyman and Ryan Hoffman will start with Raymond Faitala-Mariner moving to the bench and Sebastine Ikahihifo completely dropping out of the team as Albert Vete comes onto the interchange. Unchanged after going down by a point to the Cowboys last Saturday. Mid-season recruit Joey Leilua is 18th man, but is likely to come into the side at the expense of Jordan Rapana.
The match-up: If he comes into the Raiders line-up, Leilua will probably go up against Warriors rookie Solomone Kata – a repeat of their ding-dong centre battle in the Samoa-Tonga Test in May, when Kata scored a convincing points decision.
The history: The Raiders hold a 17-16 advantage since 1995, but the Warriors have won 10 of 16 games at Mt Smart.
The last time they met: The Warriors downed the Raiders 18-6 in an engrossing Round 2 clash at GIO Stadium earlier this year.
The stat: Manu Vatuvei has scored 15 tries in just 12 games against Canberra, including a phenomenal 13 in his last six. Meanwhile, Shaun Johnson has scored 62 points in his last four outings against the Raiders.
The verdict: This is a mouth-watering showdown with a stack of game-breakers and big boppers on show. Expect a piece of brilliance from Johnson or Blake Austin to decide what shapes as an absolute thriller at Penrose. Warriors by 4
Cowboys v Sharks – 5.30pm (AEST), Saturday, June 27 @ 1300SMILES Stadium
The storyline: The escape-artist Cowboys will attempt to keep their club record 11-match winning streak alive without the mercurial Johnathan Thurston, while the Sharks roll into town minus their inspirational skipper Paul Gallen.
The form guide: The Origin-weary Cowboys grabbed a courageous last-minute win over the Raiders in Canberra last Saturday, 21-20, to make it 11 straight. The Sharks backed up their 10-4 upset of the Roosters with a come-from-behind 30-28 eclipse of the Knights in Round 15.
Ladder: Cowboys 2nd, Sharks 9th
Attack: Cowboys 3rd, Sharks 14th
Defence: Cowboys 8th, Sharks 7th
The selection table: Last start game-winner Johnathan Thurston is out with Michael Morgan returning at halfback. Patrick Kaufusi will make his NRL debut on the bench in place of Sam Hoare while Cameron King also joins the interchange. Unchanged following their last start win over the Knights, with captain Paul Gallen added to the bench as 18th man.
The match-up: A string of intriguing forward-pack match-ups are headlined by 2013 World Cup teammates Matt Scott and Andrew Fifita squaring off in the front-row.
The history: The Sharks hold a 21-14 advantage in 35 clashes since 1995, including a 10-8 lead in matches in Townsville.
The last time they met: The Cowboys snatched a remarkable 20-19 golden point win in Round 25 last year after the Sharks started as one of the biggest outsiders in NRL betting history.
The stat: The Cowboys have won five of their last six against the Sharks.
The verdict: Despite Thurston’s absence, the Cowboys still possess enough class in the form of Morgan, Coote, Scott, Granville, Cooper and Taumololo to deserve favouritism. The Sharks’ attack was on song against the Knights last week, but the Cowboys at home represent a far more arduous challenge. Cowboys by 6
Eels v Dragons – 7.30pm (AEST), Saturday, June 27 @ Pirtek Stadium
The storyline: Embroiled in yet another boardroom debacle, the Eels must pick themselves up and dust themselves off to take on one of the NRL’s heavyweights.
The form guide: The Eels won two of their last three – against Penrith and Melbourne – prior to their Round 15 bye. The Dragons have hit a bit of a speed-bump with losses in high-quality encounters against the Bulldogs and Roosters in their last two outings.
Ladder: Eels 14th, Dragons 3rd
Attack: Eels 8th, Dragons 13th
Defence: Eels 15th, Dragons 1st
The selection table: Reece Robinson’s fractured cheekbone means Corey Norman shifts to fullback and Luke Kelly returns at five-eighth. Will Hopoate returns from Origin as Ryan Morgan shifts to the wing and John Folau drops out. Cody Nelson will make his Eels debut at hooker in place of Nathan Peats. Danny Wicks will start at lock with Anthony Watmough injured as Daniel Alvaro and Joseph Paulo come onto the bench with Kaysa Pritchard also out. No changes to the Dragons’ line-up.
The match-up: The in-form Benji Marshall lines up against the enigmatic Chris Sandow, who is reportedly on the nose with his coach and teammates.
The history: The Dragons hold a narrow 14-13-2 in 29 matches against the Eels as a joint venture, but the Eels are 8-3-1 at Parramatta.
The last time they met: It seems a world away now, but the Jarryd Hayne-inspired Eels pummelled the Dragons 36-0 in Round 10 last year as Marshall endured a torrid club debut.
The stat: The Dragons have not won at Pirtek Stadium since 2010.
The verdict: This is a key game for the Saints – alarm bells will start ringing if they lose three in a row. But the reeling Eels are a dangerous proposition, boasting more than a couple of game-breaking individuals that could upset the Dragons’ ironclad defensive pattern. A tough one to get a handle on, but St George Illawarra has to be the safety-first tip. Dragons by 7
Roosters v Titans – 2.00pm (AEST), Sunday, June 28 @ Central Coast Stadium, Gosford
The storyline: The NRL returns to Gosford, with the premiership favourite Roosters taking on the patched-up Titans on Sunday afternoon.
The form guide: The Roosters have put a shock loss to the Sharks behind them with stirring victories over the Warriors and Dragons. The Titans’ solid wins over the Tigers and Bulldogs came undone courtesy of a 36-14 drubbing at the hands of the Warriors last week.
Ladder: Roosters 4th, Titans 12th
Attack: Roosters 5th, Titans 4th
Defence: Roosters 2nd, Titans 16th
The selection table: Michael Jennings returns from his club-imposed suspension in place of Brendan Elliot. Sam Moa too returns with Isaac Liu shifting to lock as Sio Siua Taukeiaho moving to the bench in place of Suaia Matagi. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves may be a late inclusion. Aidan Sezer’s injury means Daniel Mortimer moves to halfback, Chad Redman starts at hooker, Lachlan Burr drops back to the bench, Eddy Pettybourne shifts to lock and captain Nate Myles returns at prop. There is a rumour in-form centre James Roberts may slot in at halfback, however. Matt Robinson and Dave Taylor swap between the back row and the bench.
The match-up: A sizzling showdown between Michael Jennings and James Roberts will be postponed if the latter is moved to halfback, but it would nevertheless be an intriguing individual clash with Mitchell Pearce if Roberts does in fact take on the playmaking duties.
The history: The Titans boast a 7-5 winning record against the Roosters, and won the only previous clash in Gosford back in 2009.
The last time they met: The Roosters notched a hard-fought 26-18 win in Round 22 at Allianz Stadium last season.
The stat: Neil Henry has crafted an impressive 7-3 record coaching against the Roosters.
The verdict: The Roosters should be far too strong against a Titans outfit in the midst of an injury crisis. There’s no shortage of heart in the squad, but their lack of size, firepower and continuity makes their assignment against the ruthless Roosters an exceedingly tough one. Roosters by 22
Tigers v Panthers – 4.00pm (AEST), Sunday, June 28 @ Leichhardt Oval
The storyline: Although both clubs sit just one or two wins outside the top eight, this is already shaping as a battle between two 2015 also-rans. A win, however, could revive a flagging campaign.
The form guide: The Tigers have won just one of their last six, going down to last-placed Manly in Round 15. The injury-ravaged Panthers are on a three-match losing run, including a 24-12 loss to the Bulldogs last week that saw James Segeyaro suffer a knee injury, adding to a jam-packed casualty ward out west.
Ladder: Tigers 13th, Panthers 11th
Attack: Tigers 10th, Panthers 15th
Defence: Tigers 9th, Panthers 5th
The selection table: Captain Robbie Farah returns at hooker with Dene Halatau dropping back to the bench and Manaia Cherrington out completely. Delouise Hoeter replaces David Nofoaluma (knee) in the centres while Sauaso Sue takes Brendan Santi’s spot on the bench. Josh Mansour returns for the Panthers on the wing. His inclusion sees Waqa Blake go to the centres, Issah Yeo shift to the back row and Lewis Brown shifts back to the bench in place of James Segeyaro (knee). Reagan Campbell-Gillard and Sam McKendry shift between the front row and the bench. Sika Manu is 18th man.
The match-up: Blockbusting Tigers lock Martin Taupau goes up against countryman Elijah Taylor, who will be gunning to join ‘Kapow’ on the Kiwis’ tour to England at the end of the year.
The history: The Panthers lead the count 15 wins to 11, including 3-1 at Leichhardt Oval.
The last time they met: Penrith eased to a 26-10 victory at Leichhardt in Round 17 last season.
The stat: The Tigers have won seven of their last eight against the Panthers, but the joint venture’s only win at Leichhardt was way back in its 2000 debut season, while they have only won one of their last five against all opponents at the hallowed venue.
The verdict: Flip a coin here, with one side lacking in confidence and the other devastatingly low on troops. The Panthers’ superior defence may win the day, but they need a strong performance from the likes of Soward, Watene-Zelezniak and Cartwright to alleviate their pointscoring woes. The Tigers are one of the most inscrutable sides in the competition – as they showed by blowing Souths away a fortnight ago – but an ordinary recent record at their Leichhardt home is another concern. Panthers by 2
Bulldogs v Storm – 7.00pm (AEST), Monday, June 29 @ Belmore Sports Ground
The storyline: This Monday sees a historic return to Belmore Oval for the Bulldogs, who will host a Storm side striving to prove their 2015 campaign is not on the ropes after Billy Slater’s season-ending surgery – the first match at the venue since the two sides began a long-running rivalry there in 1998.
The form guide: The Bulldogs have recovered from their early slump with three wins in their last four outings – a handy effort from a club heavily impacted by injury and the Origin drain. The Storm have lost two on the trot, with a mountain of possession on the Broncos’ line not enough to prevent a 14-12 loss at home last Sunday.
Ladder: Bulldogs 8th, Storm 5th
Attack: Bulldogs 7th, Storm 11th
Defence: Bulldogs 12th, Storm 3rd
The selection table: Sam Perrett will move to the wing in place of Corey Thompson as Brett Morris returns at fullback. Trent Hodkinson returns at halfback with Josh Reynolds dropping back to the bench and Shaun Lane promoted to the back row in place of the suspended Josh Jackson. David Klemmer and Sam Kasiano also swap between the front row and the bench. Unchanged despite going down to the Broncos by two points last weekend, although Cooper Cronk is rated a chance of playing as he racing the clock to be fit for the Origin decider.
The match-up: If Cronk does return, it sets up an intriguing Origin III preview against NSW No.7 Trent Hodkinson.
The history: The Bulldogs are the only current club to boast a winning record against the Storm, holding a 19-16 advantage since 1998; they also won the only clash at Belmore, 8-4 late during the Storm’s ’98 debut campaign.
The last time they met: The Bulldogs rolled into Melbourne and scored a stunning 28-4 upset over the Storm in last year’s sudden-death qualifying final.
The stat: Canterbury has won four in a row at Melbourne’s expense.
The verdict: The Bulldogs have to be favoured here, with the emotion of the Belmore return – and hopefully a big crowd – to get them over the line against a Storm side that will simply try to grind away. With their full-strength backline on deck and Moses Mbye firing, the ’Dogs should have too many points in them. Bulldogs by 10