ROOSTERS V BULLDOGS – FRI 31 JULY, 7.35PM ALLIANZ STADIUM
The storyline: One of the NRL’s most celebrated grudge matches gets the round underway, with the Roosters looking to cement their top-four spot and the Bulldogs desperately trying to stay in the eight.
Form guide: The Roosters have won six straight – including their last three by 20-plus – while the Bulldogs have lost two of their last three, going down to Cronulla 18-16 last Sunday.
Ladder: Roosters 3rd, Bulldogs 7th
Attack: Roosters 4th, Bulldogs 7th
Defence: Roosters 1st, Bulldogs 8th
The selection table: Moses Mbye replaces the injured and suspended Josh Reynolds at five-eighth. Kane Evans, Matt McIlwrick and Suaia Matagi have been included on an extended bench in the only changes for the Roosters.
The match-up: Blake Ferguson’s centre battle with Josh Morris will no doubt give NSW coach Laurie Daley some food for thought.
The history: The Roosters hold a narrow 82-78-5 advantage in 165 previous encounters, but the ledger is square at 11 wins each at Allianz.
The last time they met: The Roosters overwhelmed the Bulldogs 24-10 in an Origin-affected match at ANZ.
The stat: Mitchell Pearce becomes the youngest player in history to bring up 200 first grade appearances, breaking the record of former Roosters teammate Craig Wing.
The verdict: The Bulldogs should start getting a sniff of September in this high-powered clash, but the Roosters’ ruthless form of late – conceding just seven points per game in the last five weeks – should see the title favourites surge to seven straight wins. Roosters by 7
WESTS TIGERS V STORM – FRI 31 JULY, 7.35PM LEICHHARDT OVAL
The storyline: The badly out-of-sorts Tigers are attempting to avoid the first wooden spoon in the joint venture’s history, but breaking their recent losing streak against the revitalised Storm shapes as a near-impossible task.
Form guide: The Tigers have lost nine of their last 10, including their last five straight. Melbourne has bounced back spectacularly from a four-match losing run, pummelling the Panthers (52-10) and Dragons (22-4) in the past fortnight.
Ladder: Tigers 16th, Storm 5th
Attack: Tigers 14th, Storm 8th
Defence: Tigers 12th, Storm 2nd
The selection table: Robbie Farah returns at hooker with Dene Halatau moving to the back row in place of Chris Lawrence (ankle). Martin Taupau’s three-week suspension means Sauaso Sue shifts to lock, Keith Galloway starts at prop and Ava Seumanufagai returns on the bench. Brenden Santi also replaces Manaia Cherrington in the 17. The Storm are unchanged from their last-start win over the Dragons.
The match-up: Long-time rivals Cameron Smith and Robbie Farah square off for the 25th time at club and rep level in their illustrious careers.
The history: Melbourne has won 16 and Wests Tigers nine of 25 encounters, but the Tigers hold an imposing 7-3 advantage at Leichhardt.
The last time they met: The Storm pumped the Tigers 28-6 at Campbelltown in Round 21 last year.
The stat: The Tigers have won four of their last six agains tthe Storm at Leichhardt.
The verdict: The Tigers can score points or stop them lately, which is a bad combination when coming up against a side as polished as the Storm. Storm by 20
WARRIORS V SHARKS – SAT 1 AUGUST, 5.00PM LOCAL (3.00PM AEST) MT SMART STADIUM
The storyline: The Warriors are clinging to their finals dream as they adapt to life without Shaun Johnson, but the in-form Sharks represent a tough first-up hurdle.
Form guide: The Warriors backed up a 24-0 loss to the Roosters with an insipid 32-12 loss to the undermanned Sea Eagles, caving in completely after linchpin Johnson was carried off. The Sharks have won six of their last seven, including victories in their last three outings against finals contender trio the Dragons, Raiders and Bulldogs.
Ladder: Warriors 8th, Sharks 6th
Attack: Warriors 6th, Sharks 11th
Defence: Warriors 11th, Sharks 7th
The selection table: Shaun Johnson’s ankle injury sees Tuimoala Lolohea shift to halfback and Konrad Hurrell return in the centres. Glen Fisiiahi and Jonathan Wright lose their wing spots to Ken Maumalo and Manu Vatuvei. Bodene Thompson is also out with an ankle injury as Albert Vete moves to the front row, Ben Matulino shifts to the back row and Sam Lisone comes onto the bench. Simon Mannering moves to the back row too, with Sebastine Ikahihifo coming in at lock and Raymond Faitala-Mariner taking Sione Lousi’s spot on the bench. Charlie Gubb also replaces Sam Rapira on the interchange. Anthony Tupou will return from a severe jaw injury to replace Luke Lewis (knee) in the back row. Chris Heighington will start in place of Andrew Fifita as Tinirau Arona comes onto the bench.
The match-up: Opposite ends of the size and experience scale but equally effective, Manu Vatuvei and Valentine Holmes are set for an intriguing wing duel.
The history: The Sharks hold an 18-16 lead over the Warriors since 1995, but the Warriors are 9-6 against the Sharks at home.
The last time they met: Johnson stole an extraordinary 20-16 win at Remondis Stadium in Round 9 with a mind-blowing last-minute solo try.
The stat: The Sharks have won just three of their last 12 in New Zealand.
The verdict: Potentially the match of the round with emotions sure to be riding high. Fifita and Lewis are huge outs for the Sharks, while the Warriors need the likes of Tomkins and Townsend to step up, but the return of Hurrell and Vatuvei could provide the impetus for a stirring victory at home. Warriors by 4
COWBOYS V RAIDERS – SAT 1 AUGUST, 5.30PM LOCAL, 1300SMILES STADIUM
The storyline: The red-hot Cowboys have brushed off a potentially devastating salary cap scandal and are looking to stay in the minor premiership race against a Raiders side that still has designs on a place in the finals.
Form guide: The Cowboys have lost just one of their last 15 games, crushing Parramatta 46-4 last Monday. The Raiders have notched wins over the Knights and Panthers either side of a gutting golden point loss to the Sharks during the last three weeks.
Ladder: Cowboys 2nd, Raiders 9th
Attack: Cowboys 3rd, Raiders 2nd
Defence: Cowboys 6th, Raiders 13th
The selection table: The Cowboys are unchanged from their 46-4 demolition of the Eels on Monday night. Paul Vaughan will start with Frank-Paul Nuuausala moving back to the bench in an otherwise unchanged team from their last start 10-point win over the Panthers.
The match-up: Two young, in-form and extremely potent five-eighths go head-to-head in the shape of Michael Morgan and Blake Austin.
The history: The Raiders have won 20 and the Cowboys 15 of 35 games since 1995, but the Cowboys are in front 10-7 at 1300SMILES Stadium.
The last time they met: A Johnathan Thurston field goal in the dying seconds proved the difference in one of 2015’s best matches, a 21-20 win to the Cowboys at GIO Stadium in Round 15.
The stat: The Raiders have not won in Townsville since 2006.
The verdict: The Cowboys haven’t lost with Thurston on the field since March, and despite the Raiders impressive form and electric attack, it’s tough to see that changing in Townsville.
SEA EAGLES V BRONCOS – SAT 1 AUGUST, 7.30PM, CENTRAL COAST STADIUM
The storyline: Manly is the team that refuses to go away, and the Sea Eagles should be galvanised by the axing of coach Geoff Toovey – but the ladder-leading Broncos are among the biggest tests in the NRL at present.
Form guide: The Sea Eagles have won four of their last six to stay in finals contention, including a courageous 32-12 win in Auckland despite finishing with an empty bench. The Broncos have won eight in row, scoring 34-plus points in four of their last six victories.
Ladder: Sea Eagles 11th, Broncos 1st
Attack: Sea Eagles 12th, Broncos 1st
Defence: Sea Eagles 9th, Broncos 3rd
The selection table: With Tom Symonds out, Justin Horo returns to the team in the back row. Also injured, Ligi Sao is out as Blake Leary starts at lock and Michael Chee Kam comes onto the bench. Jesse Sene-Lefao replaces Luke Burgess on the interchange. Jack Reed returns from suspension which sees Jordan Kahu move back to the wing and Corey Oates return to the bench, with Dale Copley 18th man. Joe Ofahengaue takes Jarrod Wallace’s position on the interchange, with Wallace starting at prop for the suspended Adam Blair.
The match-up: Plenty to choose from, particularly throughout the teams spines, but the showdown between aggressive veterans Justin Hodges and Steve Matai is always a ripper.
The history: Manly has clawed into the lead in this heavyweight rivalry in recent times, winning 20 games to Brisbane’s 19, with one game drawn since 1988. This is the clubs’ first clash in Gosford.
The last time they met: The Broncos whipped the Sea Eagles 44-10 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 13.
The stat: Manly boasts a 12-3 record on the Central Coast.
The verdict: As gutsy as the Sea Eagles have been in recent weeks, emotion won’t get them too far against a Broncos side that is riding its best run of form in almost a decade. Broncos by 14
DRAGONS V KNIGHTS – SUN 2 AUGUST, 2.00PM, JUBILEE OVAL
The storyline: The Dragons won’t get a better opportunity to end their losing streak as they prepare to host the battling Knights – but teams have a habit of producing superhuman efforts immediately after the sacking of a coach.
Form guide: The Saints have lost seven in a row, including defeats to the Sharks, Rabbitohs and Storm by 16 points or more in the last three weeks. The Knights have won only two of their last 14, backing up a drought-breaking 30-2 victory over the Titans with a disastrous 52-6 thrashing at the hands of the Rabbitohs.
Ladder: Dragons 10th, Knights 14th
Attack: Dragons 16th, Knights 9th
Defence: Dragons 4th, Knights 15th
The selection table: Carlos Tuimavave comes in at five-eighth as Sione Mata’utia moves to the centres, Jake Mamo to the wing and captain Kurt Gidley returns to fullback. Tyler Randell replaces Danny Levi on the bench. Craig Garvey is in for Heath L’Estrange on the bench, as Ben Creagh starts at prop with Will Matthews returning to the bench.
The match-up: It’s a Mata’utia-fest, with Peter and Sione lining up against one another in the centres and Chanel featuring on the wing for the Knights.
The history: The Dragons have won 20 and the Knights 10 since 1999, but six previous encounters at WIN Jubilee have been shared three apiece.
The last time they met: The Saints chalked up a 13-0 shutout in Round 5 at Hunter Stadium – the Knights’ first loss of the season and the beginning of a long, sharp decline.
The stat: Knights hard-man Beau Scott, a former Dragon, has finished on the winning side in his last nine matches at WIN Jubilee Oval.
The verdict: An intriguing clash with the Knights’ coaching situation set to provide an X-factor. The Saints, who are the worst attacking side in the comp, can’t take anything for granted after their lengthy run of outs – but it’s now or never for their finals bid. Dragons by 2
RABBITOHS V PANTHERS – SUN 2 AUGUST, 4.00PM, ANZ STADIUM
The storyline: The Rabbitohs’ title defence is building ominously and the injury-ravaged Panthers would seem to be a mere speed-bump in the premiers’ surge to a top-four finish.
Form guide: Souths have won six of their last eight, including solid wins over the Dragons and Knights since the Origin period concluded. Since downing the Inglis-less Bunnies in Round 17, the Panthers have been beaten by the Roosters, Storm and Raiders.
Ladder: Rabbitohs 4th, Panthers 12th
Attack: Rabbitohs 5th, Panthers 15th
Defence: Rabbitohs 5th, Panthers 10th
The selection table: Dean Whare’s broken thumb sees Waqa Blake move to the centres to allow for Josh Mansour’s return on the wing. Isaac John replaces Peter Wallace (ACL) in the halves. Sam McKendry will start at prop for Nigel Plum (concussion) as Apisai Koroisau returns on the bench. Named to play his first NRL game of the season, Kyle Turner will make his long-awaited return from a neck injury in place of Ben Lowe on the bench.
The match-up: Impressive rookie Reagan Campbell-Gillard’s ability to stand up to Souths’ front-row anchor George Burgess will have a major bearing on Sunday’s contest.
The history: Souths hold a 42-33-1 lead in 76 games against Penrith since 1967, and have won all five previous matches at ANZ.
The last time they met: The Bryce Cartwright-inspired Panthers snared a 20-6 win at Pepper Stadium in Round 17 during the Origin period.
The stat: Penrith has lost eight of its last 10 against all comers at ANZ Stadium.
The verdict: Too many casualties for the Panthers, especially against a Rabbitohs side that appears to be timing its run perfectly. Rabbitohs by 22
TITANS V EELS – MON 3 AUGUST, 7.00PM, CBUS SUPER STADIUM
The storyline: There’s not a great deal to get excited about this Monday as two of the NRL’s strugglers square off, although the more optimistic Eels tragics will still believe finals footy isn’t totally out of the question.
Form guide: The Titans are on a five-match losing streak, going down by an average margin of 25 points. The Eels have suffered heavy defeats to the Bulldogs and Cowboys in the past fortnight.
Ladder: Titans 15th, Eels 13th
Attack: Titans 13th, Eels 10th
Defence: Titans 16th, Eels 14th
The selection table: Daniel Mortimer returns on the bench for Chad Redman, while Eddy Pettybourne and Agnatius Paasi revert to the interchange for prop Nate Myles and back-rower Lachlan Burr respectively. The Eels are unchanged despite their heavy loss to North Queensland last weekend.
The match-up: An explosive second-row battle looms between Ryan James and fellow giant Tepai Moeroa.
The history: Gold Coast has enjoyed a 8-4 advantage in 12 matches against Parramatta, including a 4-2 success rate at Robina.
The last time they met: James Roberts bagged a hat-trick as the Titans shocked the Eels 38-16 at Pirtek Stadium.
The stat: The Titans have won just three of their last 18 at home.
The verdict: As damaging an influence as the departed Chris Sandow was, the Eels are a dubious attacking proposition with Luke Kelly and Joseph Paulo in the halves, with Corey Norman still sidelined. This is an ideal chance for the Titans to dig themselves out of their current funk, even though their only reward will be taking a step away from the wooden spoon.