Monday 19 March 2018 / 12:09 AM


The road to the finals is officially underway with plenty of finals places still up for grabs and a small logjam of teams lining up for the last two places inside the top eight.


Sydney Roosters v Brisbane Broncos – 7.50pm (AEST), Thursday, July 28 @Allianz Stadium

The Storyline: Two woefully out of form sides at opposing ends of the ladder. The Roosters are second-last having lost six straight and winning just two of their last 10 games, while the Broncos have fallen from ladder leaders after eight weeks of dominance to sixth after winning only three of their last 10 matches.

The Stat: Brisbane has lead at halftime 12 times this year, winning 10. They’ve lost all six when trailing at the break. The Roosters have trailed at halftime 11 times, losing every time.

It’s a big game for: Ben Hunt. After starting the season in magical form, he’s gone so far off the boil he now makes ice look warm. Against an out of sorts Roosters outfit, he needs to take the opportunity to get himself back into the game.

The Verdict: Brisbane has been barely impacted in the spine all year, whereas the Roosters have been chopping and changing on a weekly basis. That cohesion should be enough to see them get home. Broncos by 8


Canterbury Bulldogs v St George Illawarra Dragons -7.50pm (AEST), Friday, July 29 @ ANZ Stadium

The Storyline: The Bulldogs’ dismal effort against the Cowboys revealed the cracks in their performance which had been hidden with four straight prior wins over out of form sides. The Dragons snuck into the top eight and then put in three miserable performances to drop down to 11th.

The Stat: Despite having seven wins more than the last-placed Knights (who only have one win and  a draw to their name this year), the Dragons have scored just 14 points more than the wooden spooners elect. They have scored more than 20 points in a game just twice this year. The Bulldogs have achieved the same feat nine times.

It’s a big game for: Gareth Widdop. The Dragons captain has really struggled to take control of games and lead his side’s attack when they need it of late. He needs to come out of his shell and rediscover his spark with the ball.

The Verdict: This match depends entirely on which Bulldogs side turns up. After last week’s capitulation, they’ll be fired up and could well make the Dragons finals prospects all but dead. Bulldogs by 18


Warriors v Penrith Panthers – 3pm (AEST), Saturday, July 30 @ Mt Smart Stadium

The Storyline: The Warriors’ form is better than recent results suggests. A win against Penrith will see the Warriors jump back into the top eight. Penrith have been in an odd form pattern since Round 9, where they win in pairs, then lose in pairs. They won last week against Brisbane after beating the Eels the week prior.

The Stat: Tight Margins. In 2016 Penrith have had 11 of their 18 games decided by less than 6 points. The Warriors have had seven, with their last three losses all coming in golden point.

It’s a big game for: Andrew McFadden. The Warriors coach has struggled to get full value from this talented Warriors outfit. A loss here will add a lot of pressure to their campaign to reach the finals. And if the Warriors don’t make the finals, McFadden could/should be looking for a new gig in 2017.

The Verdict: Penrith have to travel to Mt Smart for a game that their form-line suggests they will lose. If the Warriors can avoid golden point, they should win. Warriors by 4


Parramatta Eels v Wests Tigers – 5.30pm (AEST), Saturday, July 30 @ ANZ Stadium

The Storyline: The battle of the besieged sides. Parramatta have a swathe of off-field issues which have finally started to impact the team’s on-field results, while the Tigers have just one issue:  the one between coach Jason Taylor and club stalwart Robbie Farah which they have typically blown out of proportion.

The Stat: Despite winning six of their last 10 games, the Tigers have not been convincing. They have not won back-to-back games since their scratchy efforts against last-placed Newcastle in Round 11 and their one-point win over a Brisbane side missing its Origin stars the following week.

It’s a big game for: Luke Brooks. The young halfback has a makeshift hooker and looks to be stifled by Taylor’s strategy. He needs to take control of the game and lead his side’s attack for the full 80 minutes, which he hasn’t done since his magical debut.

The Verdict: The Eels look worn out after all the off-field battles this year. Since the start of the year the Eels have now lost both their star halves and their gun hooker. Such major disruptions to the spine will take its toll. The Tigers should be hungry to win as they still have a chance to reach the finals – but the Eels have a knack for beating the Tigers. Eels by 6


North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm – 7.30pm (AEST), Saturday, July 30 @ 1300SMILES Stadium

The Storyline: The world champion Cowboys will be without star playmaker Johnathan Thurston when they take on the second-placed Storm, who have won 11 of their last 12 games and are vying for the minor premiership.

The Stat: Defence. These are the two best defensive outfits in the competition. Melbourne’s worst defensive effort all year was when they conceded 20 points against the Dragons and the Tigers in successive weeks. The Cowboys have kept their opponents scoreless four times this year.

It’s a big game for: Ray Thompson. The Cowboys stand-in half will be covering for the injured Thurston while playing against an impeccable Melbourne side in red-hot form. His kicking game, more than anything, needs to be spot on.

The Verdict: The Cowboys are undefeated at home this year, while two of the Storm’s three losses this season have been away from their home ground. However, the loss of Thurston is massive. Storm by 4


South Sydney Rabbitohs v Canberra Raiders – 2pm (AEST), Sunday, July 31 @ ANZ Stadium

The Storyline: Souths’ top-eight bid officially ended last week after their seventh straight miserable loss. They look completely disinterested and now have no motivation. They’ll be up against a Raiders outfit in great form, having won four in a row and seven of their last eight to jump into fourth position. If the Thurston-less Cowboys lose, the Raiders can snatch third place from them with a victory here.

The Stat: 12. The number of consecutive games Souths have played where they have conceded 20 points or more. It’s also the number of times the Raiders have scored more than 20 points in a game. Canberra are undefeated when they score more than 20, while the Rabbitohs have won 2 of the 12 games that they have conceded 20 points or more.

It’s a big game for: Jarrod Croker. The Raiders captain is playing magnificently. He’s currently third on the try-scorers list and leading the pointscoring table by 50 points. A lot of his side’s attack comes his way and with good reason: it works. The Raiders are third in the NRL in attack.

The Verdict: The Raiders have only lost once in Sydney this year, in Round 6 against the Eels. With Souths playing uninspiring footy and the Raiders red hot, this could be a blowout. Raiders by 18


Manly Sea Eagles v Newcastle Knights – 4pm (AEST), Sunday, July 31 @ Brookvale Oval

The Storyline: The Sea Eagles have won their last three games playing a much better game and are starting to get that winning touch back again. They will find themselves in a rather tough battle against the last-placed Newcastle, who are playing some enterprising football, but are falling short in the simple areas of the game – most notably discipline and ball control.

The Stat: 9. That’s the number of consecutive games where Manly have gone on to beat Newcastle after going into the break in front. It’s also how many wins Manly has had against Newcastle in the last 11 clashes.

It’s a big game for: Daly Cherry-Evans. Ever since Kieran Foran left Manly, DCE has looked far removed from the Origin and Test player he once was. He needs to get his mind into the game and start playing good-quality, consistent footy and he needs to start now, because next year he won’t have Jamie Lyon to cover for him either. Against a side that has lost 16 of their 18 games is as good a chance as any to get one’s form back.

The Verdict: Manly’s form of late and against Newcastle is telling. The Knights have been far from disgraceful in recent weeks, they just lack the finishing touches. Sea Eagles by 10


Gold Coast Titans v Cronulla Sharks -7pm (AEST), Monday, August 1 @ Cbus Super Stadium

The Storyline: The Sharks look to be the fairytale story of the year. Fifteen straight victories and the best attack in the competition has them showing nearly no resemblance to Cronulla sides in recent memory. They’ll face a tough opponent in the Titans, who are right in top-eight mix and capable of giving the top sides a scare.

The Stat: 40. The number of tries scored by the Sharks’ back three of Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes and Sosaia Feki. Comparatively, the Titans’ back three in this game, David Mead, Anthony Don and Nene MacDonald, have scored 19 tries.

It’s a big game for: Ryan James. After surprisingly missing out on an Origin gig this year, James has gone a little quiet in the last few weeks. He needs to step up this week against a dominant Sharks pack featuring Andrew Fifita, Matt Prior and Paul Gallen. Everything the Sharks do starts with the platform laid by their engine-room.

The Verdict: The Sharks have learnt how to win even when playing poorly. That’s a scary prospect for opposition sides. With James Maloney back, rested and fully fit, their attack on both sides will be back to its best. If the Titans can’t get a quick start, they may find themselves playing catch-up all game instead. Sharks by 8

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About the author

Andrew Ferguson

A rugby league historian and stats buff – most notably as the brains behind the phenomenal Rugby League Project resource – Melbourne-based Andrew has written extensively for Rugby League Review and the Men of League magazine, and is a valued addition to CBS’s rugby league stable.

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