Tuesday 12 December 2017 / 09:48 AM

NRL ROUND 21 PREVIEW

Panthers v Bulldogs — 7.50pm (AEST) Thursday 27th of July, Pepper Stadium

The Storyline: If Penrith are to play finals footy, they simply have to win this game. The Bulldogs’ season is all but over, with nothing to play for aside from maybe the future of the coach. A win probably won’t salvage either.

The Stat: The last two clashes between the two is a combined 66-12 in Penrith’s favour. The Panthers’ unpredictable attack troubles the Dogs’ usually stout defence.

It’s a big game for: Nathan Cleary is balling, putting on a clinic in leading Penrith to each of their last three wins. This week he lines up without Moylan, who many have criticised for taking touches away from Cleary. Last time he flew solo was against the Warriors, arguably the best performance of his young career. Stock could skyrocket with another showcase.

Last time they met: After weeks of noise surrounding the circus at Canterbury, things hit a tipping point with Penrith waltzing into ANZ and handing them a 38-0 thrashing. Seven weeks later and they still haven’t recovered.

The Verdict: The Bulldogs’ season is basically over, but Penrith remains in arm’s reach as the only likely team to challenge for the eighth spot. Combine that with their recent history of blowing open Canterbury and being at home, Panthers should take the cake, and convincingly. Panthers 13+ 

Warriors v Sharks — 6.00pm (AEST) Friday 28th of July, Mt Smart Stadium

The Storyline: The Warriors are clinging to bleak hopes of reviving their season, and with only two of their six remaining games against top-eight teams, an upset here would set the wheels in motion. Cronulla will look to correct some average form as they gear up to defend the crown.

The Stat:  The New Zealand-based franchise are a different outfit at home, and their record reflects it — they’re 6-3 home record is good for second in the league. All their eggs go in this basket. Unfortunately, the Sharks find Mt Smart hospitable, taking out three wins from their last four visits.

It’s a big game for: Without Maloney and Brailey, Townsend needs to keep the offence rolling and lead them around the park. If he is able to find his feet, it will put the team in much better standing when the absentees return.

Last time they met: An 87th-minute field goal from former Warrior James Maloney stole victory and gave the eventual premiers their 11th straight win in Round 16.

The Verdict: Obviously home field is genuine advantage, the Sharks’ form hasn’t been crash hot and the Warriors will be desperate. But the style the Sharks play has the potential to really trouble the Warriors and if they can disrupt their rhythm, it’s hard to imagine the hosts’ defence holding up. Sharks 13+

Eels v Broncos — 7.50pm (AEST) Friday 28th of July, ANZ Stadium

The Storyline: Can you believe these teams are only separated by two points on the ladder? This will be a telling test to where we rank the Eels’ chances heading down the stretch.

The Stat: The Eels’ recent form, four straight wins, has been built off a restrictive defence that has held teams to under 16 points each game. They’ll need to hit that mark again — the Broncos have scored above 20 points in 11 games this season, going an extraordinary 11-0 in such games.

It’s a big game for: Reinstated fullbacks. Darius Boyd returns to edge the Broncos closer to full strength, and his value cannot be overstated. On the other side, Bevan French shifts from the wing to fill in the void left by Clint Gutherson. How quickly both get reacquainted is essential for their teams going forward.

Last time they met: With the Eels’ season firmly in the gutter, Brisbane took advantage of a depleted outfit, easing to a 38-16 Round 23 win.

The Verdict: This makes for a fascinating match-up considering neither team has a specific area that they succeed in. Either the Broncos will continue their well-timed charge as they peak towards the business end or the Eels will make a claim to be taken more seriously in the 2017 race. The Broncos are flat-out better and deserve to be favourites, but there’s plenty to learn from this one. Broncos 1-12

Knights v Dragons — 3.00pm (AEST) Saturday 29th of July, McDonald Jones Stadium

The Storyline: Last week, the Dragons’ offence went into overdrive, dominating Manly’s weak defence to the tune of 52 points, and more importantly getting past some of their recent struggles. Fresh off the triumph, they come up against the league’s worst defence with a chance to further fine-tune the attack.

The Stat: For perspective on the Knights struggles, Dane Gagai has won more games for Queensland (4) than he has for Newcastle (3) in the past two seasons.

Bonus: The recent encounters with the Dragons have been close, the last three decided by 1-12 margins.

It’s a big game for: The newly-constructed St George Illawarra backline, particularly Matt Dufty and Josh Dugan. With young Dufty retaining the fullback spot following an impressive debut, all eyes will be on how Dugan fits in and whether he can impact the game from the edge.

Last time they met: Only four weeks ago, the Dragons in the midst of their form struggles, held off a typically feisty Knights outfit in a high scoring affair, scraping past with a 32-28 win after trailing by 18.

The Verdict: The Knights will fight, the Knights will lose. Dragons 13+

Rabbitohs v Raiders — 5.30pm (AEST) Saturday 29th of July , ANZ Stadium

The Storyline: Souths are done for 2017, whilst Canberra are hanging by a thread. The Raiders win, they live to see another day. They lose, put a line through them too.

The Stat: The controversy of last week’s showdown with the Storm masked the fact that the Raiders managed to blow yet another close game. They’ve now played the most close games (10) and have only won 3-10, the worst mark in the league. When they miss the finals, this is where it went wrong.

It’s a big game for: Rejoice! Alex Johntson and Damien Cook have been recalled into the spine. They can go along way to holding the spot down for the reminder of the year by putting in a quality performance.

Last time they met: A rampaging Green Machine continued their ascent up the ladder, putting South Sydney to the sword with a 54-4 thrashing at ANZ in the same round last year.

The Verdict: Canberra will be desperate, and have a superior roster to Souths. However they travel poorly (2-6 on the year) and have a tendency to overplay their hand when trying to make things happen. Not to mention they are without Papalii, Soliola and Rapana due to suspensions. Canberra will come out guns blazing, and that should be enough to get over the line, but if the Rabbits can weather the storm early, the Raiders are every chance to crumble under the realisation that the season has slipped through their fingers. Still, Raiders 13+ 

Roosters v Cowboys — 7.30pm (AEST) Saturday 29th of July, Allianz Stadium

The Storyline: The Cowboys have reversed the narrative, showing that they can still be a force without a certain halfback. They’ve confidently put away inferior teams to show they belong in the eight; now we’ll see if they belong in the premiership conversation. Chance to make a statement against a legitimate title threat. Match of the round.

The Stat: These are two of the league’s hottest teams — both have gone seven-from-nine since Round 10. The Cowboys, now on a four-game win streak, only dropping games to the Storm and Sharks, while the Roosters have averaged a scorching 28.14 points through the period.

It’s a big game for: Jason Taumalolo’s stellar form has been imperative to North Queensland’s surprisingly stable campaign. If they are a chance against the Tricolours, they’ll need him at his rampaging best to fight fire with fire, with the Roosters’ explosive midfield always dangerous.

Last time they met: The Cowboys continued their stumbling finish to 2016, suffering a Round 23 loss to the lowly Roosters, 22-10

The Verdict: Jake Friend and Boyd Cordner are arguably the Roosters’ two best players and the pain of missing both has been somewhat underemphasised. Add in the loss of Michael Gordon, and we’re starting to move away from the team that is hotly tipped to contend for the title. Juxtapose that with the undeniable energy that seems to be following the Cowboys as they’ve rediscovered themselves over the past month, and it makes for an intriguing matchup. I’m not yet sold on them as contenders just yet, but North Queensland’s form has me believing. Enough so that I’m feeling the upset that puts the league on notice. Cowboys 1-12

Storm v Sea Eagles — 2.00pm (AEST) Sunday 30th of July, AAMI Park

The Storyline: Manly’s weaknesses were exposed by a determined Dragons outfit last week. They were outplayed and out-enthused, a loss that has popped the bubble of confidence that had surrounded most of their mid-season run. They’ll have to bounce back quick: a trip to Melbourne to face the competition’s best is not the place to work through form issues, even if they are understrength.

The Stat: Manly need to put their disastrous performance in the rearview, fast. Not one of the 108 premiers crowned in Rugby League history has ever given up 50 points in a match and gone on to win the title.

It’s a big game for: Some of the best footage to come out of Round 20 was Cooper Cronk, circled by the entire Storm team, rallying the troops and barking instructions following a Melbourne try. Without Slater and most likely Smith, expect Cronk to grab the reins and lead from the front.

Last time they met: Round 7, in one of the strangest games of the season. Melbourne shot out to a 30-12 halftime lead, before Manly piled on three unanswered tries and pulled within four points. The Storm remained scoreless through the second half but were able to squeeze out with 30-26 win.

The Verdict: It’s hard to take this week as a prognosis on their premiership credentials due to Melbourne’s significant absentees, but at the very least Manly need to show last week was an anomaly, not an indication. Regardless, going down to Melbourne is the hardest away game in the comp, and their forwards aren’t strong enough to win the middle third. If the battle is considered elite defence against elite offence, it’s easier to envision Melbourne controlling the pace and grinding out a win than Manly tearing their hosts’ sturdy defence apart. Storm 1-12 

Titans v Tigers — 4.00pm (AEST) Sunday 30th of July, Cbus Super Stadium

The Storyline: Gold Coast are trending awfully close to the ‘mathematical chance’ category. Take care of business and they live to see another day. The finals dream ends with a loss.

The Stat: The Titans only have one remaining game against a non-finals team. If they are priming for a late run, this is the definition of must-win.

It’s a big game for: For the Titans to do a job on the Tigers, their representative players need to step up. Hayne, Proctor, Peats and Wallace need to start stamping their authority over games to make winning come a little easier.

Last time they met: Five weeks back, Gold Coast handed the Tigers their seventh straight loss with a comfortable 26-12 result.

The Verdict: As we saw last week the Tigers have nothing to play for, so they’re more than willing to throw the pill around and have a crack. It worked in patches and frustrated the Eels into playing the same way. They’ll remain frisky and pose a threat, but they just lack the polish or talent to get over the line. The Titans have too much at stake to waste the chance. Titans 1-12

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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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