Tuesday 12 December 2017 / 09:42 AM

NRL ROUND 20 PREVIEW

BRONCOS v BULLDOGS — 7:50pm (AEST) Thursday, Suncorp Stadium

The Storyline: The Broncos’ march to September continues, again matched up against an inferior outfit to help accelerate their form and secure a top-four finish

The Stat: Canterbury’s best chances come from grinding the opposition down, forcing errors and restricting points — they’re 5-1 in games when they hold their opponents to 12 or less. Doing so against Brisbane is tough: they make the second-least errors in the comp and score the third-most points at 22.2.

It’s a big game for: The Broncos’ halves. Plenty has been said about the Hunt-Milford combination, but if Brisbane are to contend, these two have to stand front and centre. The Bulldogs have a sneakily suffocating defence, so it will be a worthy test to see how the 2017 Queensland debutants handle themselves.

Last time they met: A rain-soaked affair, the weather favoured the Dogs as they came from behind to win 10-7 in Round 5 this year.

The Verdict: The Bulldogs’ often disregarded elite defence, coupled with their typical spirit, always leave them with a chance, but the Broncs are simply a classier football team. They outmatch the Bulldogs across the park and have plenty to play for in front of their home crowd. Broncos 1-12

ROOSTERS v KNIGHTS — 6:00pm (AEST) Friday Allianz Stadium

The Storyline: Brisbane couldn’t fully capitalise on the opportunity, only pulling away from a resistant Newcastle team late. This week the Roosters take a crack at the form booster game as they too attempt to solidify a coveted top-four spot.

The Stat: The Roosters have the Knights’ number, winning eight of the last 10 meetings.

It’s a big game for: Mitchell Pearce. After the whirlwind that followed in the aftermath of Origin, he needs to bounce back fast for his club. Leave the Origin baggage at the door – there’s a premiership to chase.

Bonus: SKD debuts for his new club, ironically against the one that cut ties with him earlier in the year.

Last time they met: Round 7, the familiar Newcastle story. The Knights fought hard, the Roosters were too classy, 24-6.

The Verdict: Newcastle’s memo reads the same as usual: the Knights will put up a gallant effort, push their opponent as long as they can until they are outclassed down the back end. Roosters 13+                                   

SHARKS v RABBITOHS 7:50pm (AEST) Friday Southern Cross Group Stadium

The Storyline: Can Cronulla bounce back after a lacklustre display last time out?

The Stat: The Sharks have a 9-2 record when scoring 18 or more points. Lucky for them, Souths concede an average of 3.5 tries a game.

It’s a big game for: Cronulla’s rep stars struggled with the workload and have looked averaged since returning from Origin. Need to return to form.

Last time they met: The Bunnies handed the Sharks’ premiership hopes a slight setback with a upset 12-6 win two weeks out from last year’s finals.

The Verdict: The Cowboys demonstrated just how vulnerable the Rabbitohs are through the middle, which is concerning considering they construct their entire game-plan in that area. If Cronulla win that battle, which they should, the strike-power on the fringes will have too much space to operate. This is a team just two weeks removed from whipping the Roosters 44-12. You’d hope the Sharks will turn up locked in with last week still fresh. Cronulla 13+ 

PANTHERS v TITANS — 3:00pm (AEST) Saturday, Pepper Stadium

The Storyline: Redemption tour. Two teams highly touted pre-season that suffered from slow starts attempting to claw back into the finals picture.

The Stat: Despite their poor early form, both these sides are in the best touch they’ve been in all year: The Titans are currently sitting on a three-game win streak, whilst Penrith have won six from their last eight.

It’s a big game for: Halfback prodigies. Nathan Cleary had one of the best games of his career against the Warriors. Whilst the Origin hype is premature, the potential is on full display. Another big game could boost his stock further. His opposite, Ash Taylor, is the best young playmaker in the game and a nice comparison for Cleary, particularly after his blinder against the Sharks.

Last time they met: A Matt Moylan field goal secured a 15-14 victory, and a spot in the 2015 finals, back in Round 25.

The Verdict: The Titans are scrappy. That always gives them a chance. Penrith are talented, but inconsistent. That always leave them vulnerable to lower sides. Probably the hardest split of the round; pegging what you’ll get out of either side has been a tough task all year, a major reason both are on the outside looking in. Penrith have enough strike-power to get the nod here, but this could swing based on the performances of either side. Panthers 1-12

RAIDERS v STORM — 5:30pm (AEST) Saturday GIO Stadium

The Storyline: The Raiders kept their season on life support last week with a golden point victory; now comes a real test. If you want to be the best, beat the best.

The Stat: A nice contrast of styles: Canberra’s momentum-based attack — first in tackle busts — and Melbourne’s defensive focus, first in tackles and missing the fourth-least.

It’s a big game for: Cameron Munster has the hottest stock in rugby league right now. The coming out party finished with a truly remarkable Origin debut where his mesmerising range of abilities was on full display. We’ve seen the boost in form post-Origin, and we’ve seen the rep hangover — Munster could shoot up the ranks further by sustaining the purple patch.

Last time they met: In a tense finish, the Storm moved onto the grand final after narrowly holding on to eliminate Canberra 14-12 in the preliminary final – highlighted by that Edrick Lee spill.

The Verdict: Many are withholding hope thinking that Canberra can still recapture last year’s magic. If they’ve got it in the tank, the time is now, and nothing would make a bigger statement than overcoming the Storm. Easier said than done: the Storm are flying high and with Origin wrapped up, allowing them to get the whole group together and zero in on the title. On their day there’s nobody better, and it’s hard to tell if Canberra’s day is coming. Should still be a battle. Melbourne 1-12

COWBOYS v WARRIORS — 7:30pm (AEST) Saturday, 1300SMILES Stadium

The Storyline: Are the post-Thurston Cowboys better than we thought?

The Stat: Six from their last eight… their best win record without JT in his 12-year tenure at North Queensland. Either way, this is a team in legitimately good touch.

It’s a big game for: Kiwi stars. In the wake of the Shaun Johnson injury, Kieran Foran needs to become Kieran Foran again if the Warriors are even a slight hope at the post-season. Meanwhile, Taumalolo has continued his scintillating form that has kept the Cowboys afloat. Most will point you to Morgan, but JT2 is just as influential.

Last time they met: The Cowboys got their form back on track heading towards the finals as they downed the Warriors convincingly 34-6 in Round 24.

The Verdict: The Warriors are a walking identity crisis. They either play over-structured, meandering football that poses no threat or they turn the dial to 100 and overplay their hand. Conversely, the Cowboys have relied on their well-founded identity to carry them into a new phase without their leader. When it comes down to it, the Cowboys know what they’re working towards and who they are. The Warriors, well, we just don’t know. Cowboys 13+ 

DRAGONS v SEA EAGLES — 2:00pm (AEST) Sunday,  WIN Stadium

The Storyline: Stake your claim. The two surprise packets of 2017 have risen to prominence well beyond expectations, but they still have a ways to go before people consider either a genuine threat. 

The Stat: Where these teams are proficient statistically highlights their respective styles. St. George Illawarra gets its work done running through teams, ranking first in run meters, first in tackle busts and second in offloads, whilst Manly plays expansive and carves teams by throwing the footy around to create chances; they are second in line-breaks and line-break assists and first in try-assists. 

It’s a big game for: There are plenty of intriguing match-ups, but none might offer more insight than the battle up front. The Dragons’ pack has been carried the team to success, whilst Manly’s has been somewhat overlooked. How the Sea Eagles handle the Saints’ forwards will be a good barometer of where they’re at.

Last time they met: The Dragons’ red-hot start to the season continued as they thumped a poor Manly outfit 35-10 in Round 6, taking them to first on the ladder.

The Verdict: If the Dragons’ pack can recapture their early-season form, they can get close to getting the win. If Manly win the middle third, they’ve shown on plenty occasions this year how effective they are at taking opportunities. The touch DCE and the Trbojevic brothers are in make Manly too dangerous to overlook. Manly 1-12

TIGERS v EELS 4:00pm (AEST) Sunday, ANZ Stadium

The Storyline: Time for Parramatta to come to the party. Sitting four points inside the eight, these are two points they have to pick up. The bigger picture: if the Eels are to be taken seriously as a finals team, they need to dispose of the lowly Tigers with ease.

The Stat: The Tigers are 1-10 against teams inside the eight this season. Parramatta have plenty to prove, and this is the time to do so.

It’s a big game for: Mitch Moses. Not only is he up against his old club, but his form has been up and down ever since linking up with the blue-and-golds. Some consistency from him would help anchor the team through the last stage of the season.

Last time they met: Despite Moses’ best efforts, the Eels were able to come from behind and snatch a late 26-22 victory. Oh, Moses played for the Tigers then; it was a simpler time.

The Verdict: The Eels are still just only OK… but the Tigers just aren’t that good. I remain skeptical of the Eels’ September credentials, but this shouldn’t be a test. If they don’t get a convincing win there’ll be concerns, but I expect them to show up. Eels 13+

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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