BULLDOGS V EELS — 7.50pm (AEST), Thursday, August 3 @ ANZ Stadium
The Storyline: Season consolidation. The Eels made it clear they aren’t to be taken lightly and became a surprise candidate for a top-four spot after a shock upset over Brisbane. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs kept the path, lost in typical fashion and have nothing to play for. The gap between these teams is as wide as it’s been all season.
The Stat: The Eels are arguably the hottest team in the comp, taking seven of their last eight – the best mark league-wide over that stretch.
It’s a big game for: Consistency. Everything came together for the Eels last week, their best performance of the season. They appear to be peaking at the right time, but they need to show that same level for a few weeks before we can take them seriously as a premiership contender
Last time they met: Only five weeks back, when the Eels sunk the Dogs in golden point by way of a Mitchell Moses field goal.
The Verdict: It’s simple, Parramatta haven’t made the playoffs since 2009. Another win should guarantee them a ticket to the party. That alone should drive them to take care of business. Anything less would be a bitter disappointment. Eels 13+
DRAGONS V RABBITOHS — 6pm (AEST), Friday, August 4 @ Sydney Cricket Ground
The Storyline: Can the Dragons pull themselves out of the hole? Last week was the amalgamation of problems that had been bubbling under the surface for weeks. Their entire season will be defined by how they respond in the next few weeks.
The Stat: The Dragons’ pack has out-gained their opponents in their last two losses. That’s alarming, because they’re no longer utilising the platform being laid. Their spine needs to make better use of the space.
It’s a big game for: The Dragons’ offensive confidence. The amount of quality field position St George Illawarra squandered in the last week’s loss was the worst example of how their attack drifts in and out of games. They must start taking chances when they present themselves; it won’t come this easy against better teams.
Last time they met: Way back in Round 11 of 2016, where Souths edged a spirited Dragons team, 34-24.
The Verdict: Whilst the Dragons have done very little to inspire confidence over the past month, the Rabbitohs are playing for pride and have been struggling for majority of the season. Souths will attempt to win the middle third as usual, an area where the Dragons are the best at doing so. With their season on the line Saints will be desperate, and will play as such. Dragons 13+
COWBOYS V STORM — 7.50pm (AEST), Friday, August 4 @ 1300SMILES Stadium
The Storyline: The Cowboys have been impressing with their form, emerging from the Origin period in better shape than expected. However, they’re yet to prove they belong in the title race. Who better to test themselves against than the benchmark themselves, the league leaders, who look invincible at this stage.
The Stat: North Queensland hasn’t beaten a current finals side without JT. This is a real concern, especially if they finish in the bottom-four of the playoffs.
It’s a big game for: The battle of the locks. Jason Taumalolo has looked unstoppable all season, becoming the Cowboys pack’s de facto leader in the absence of Matt Scott. Dale Finucane, his opposing number, is one of the best defensive players at his position and adept at slowing the momentum of the opposition. An intriguing clash of differing styles that will factor heavily into the result.
Last time they met: Round 15, an extra-time thriller, where Brodie Croft gave us a glimpse into the future, capping a brilliant performance the winning field goal with the clubs’ bevy of Origin stars unavailable.
The Verdict: The Storm were at their dominant best last week, even without star fullback Billy Slater. At this stage, the premiership looks theirs to lose and will enter each game as automatic favourites because of this. They will be in the race at the end, but where the Cowboys sit in that discussion will be heavily swayed by the way they perform on Friday. Storm 1-12
KNIGHTS V WARRIORS — 3pm (AEST), Saturday, August 5 @ McDonald Jones Stadium
The Storyline: Can Newcastle get on a win streak?
The Stat: The last time the Knights won back to back games was the 24th of August 2015, in a win against the Storm, of all teams.
It’s a big game for: Steven Kearney’s job security. In realising the Warriors’ season is all but over, and the huge disappointment that is, the attention has slowly started to shift towards the job done by the head coach. A career 28% winning record doesn’t bode well on paper, so a win to turn the narrative elsewhere is imperative.
Last time they met: The Warriors held off an energetic Knights team 26-22 to grab their first victory in the opening round since 2009.
The Verdict: For the first time in 2017, I’m tempted to pick the Knights. And it definitely feels as though the momentum is in their favour. The enthusiasm they’ve played with over the past two months built the foundation for last week’s win, and it’s clear how much that meant to a fanbase so devoid of winning. The Warriors’ energy has been down for too long, their line-speed a particular concern. Maybe I’m caught in the hype, but the crowd will be rocking, and the taste of winning is addictive. The wooden spoon isn’t locked up yet. Knights 1-12
TITANS V BRONCOS — 5.30pm (AEST), Saturday, August 5 @ Cbus Super Stadium
The Storyline: The Broncos were dealt a double blow in their loss to the Eels, reducing their comfort within the top four with an untimely loss, whilst losing linchpin hooker Andrew McCullough for the season. Against an ordinary Titans outfit, they need to recalibrate fast to keep their season on track. The Ash Taylor situation makes for an interesting subplot.
The Stat: Perspective on the loss of McCullough — Ben Hunt has averaged 22.2 tackles per game and missed 3.9, compared to McCullough’s 48.6 (second in competition) and only misses 2.3. That’s a huge gap to cover, not to mention the adjustment offensively. Doesn’t help that Hunt hasn’t started at hooker since 2010.
It’s a big game for: Obvious answer, but Hunt and Kodi Nikorima are the most compelling players on the field. How they perform individually is important, but their also combination needs to click. Massive in the scope of their season.
Bonus: If Jarryd Hayne is going to whine about playing fullback, he better get involved. At least you can count on Tyrone Roberts be active for 80 minutes.
Last time they met: James Roberts broke the hearts of his former franchise, tracking down a Matt Gillett charge-down in the 78th minute, the try stealing the derby victory 24-22
The Verdict: The Gold Coast looked pedestrian in their season-ending loss to 15th-placed Tigers. Before last week, Brisbane were certified premiership contenders. Don’t overthink it, even the loss of McCullough isn’t enough to close the gap between these two. The Broncos get a great chance to build some continuity before they feel the pinch. Broncos 13+
SHARKS V RAIDERS — 7.30pm (AEST), Saturday, August 5 @ Southern Cross Group Stadium
The Storyline: Raiders’ finals hopes versus Sharks’ top-four chances — both need the win to keep pace with their rivals gunning for the same spots. Canberra’s season likely ends win a loss.
The Stat: Cronulla are still sitting on the fence between scrappy and sloppy. They still lead the league in errors (11.4) whilst ranking fifth in missed tackles (33.0). That mark has begun to drop as they’ve tightened up across the last month, but Canberra, who break the second most tackles at 39.7 a game, threaten to bring them undone.
It’s a big game for: Cronulla’s forward pack hasn’t been able set the same platform that they did throughout their premiership year, their patchy form in line with the rest of the team. Against a solid but flawed pack like the Raiders, we’ll see where their form lies.
Last time they met: Cronulla reminded us of their premiership credentials, dismantling Canberra 42-16 in Round 2.
The Verdict: The Raiders’ desperation in clinging to the hopes of a late push makes this fixture immensely intriguing, but the Sharks feel like they’re on the brink of turning a corner as it gets to the business end. Cronulla should be able to flash their defensive ability that has eluded them at times this year, and Canberra doesn’t offer much resistance from there. If it’s close, the Sharks are one of the league’s most comfortable tight-game performers, whilst Canberra are notoriously bad. Sharks 1-12
SEA EAGLES V ROOSTERS — 2pm (AEST), Sunday, August 6 @ Lottoland
The Storyline: Fresh off the heels of their two worst losses of the year, Manly face yet another top-tier side in a game that can make or break their season. Their opponents, the Roosters, are starting to heat up with a premiership on the agenda, winning six from their last seven.
The Stat: Let’s talk about Manly’s defence — it’s the first time they’ve conceded 40 points in consecutive games since 2004 and the first time since the season prior that they’ve lost consecutive games by 30 or more. A combined 92 points and 93 missed tackles (!) caps their worst defensive fortnight in 13 years. Goes without saying, this is a problem.
It’s a big game for: Manly have struggled across the park, but their forwards have vanished. It completely restricts their intended style of play and leaves them vulnerable. Must show improvement if they hope to compete.
Last time they met: A sharp, daring pass from rookie Brian Kelly put Dylan Walker away in the dying minutes to break the deadlock and steal an 18-12 victory in Round 5.
The Verdict: Manly’s defence was always relatively weak, but it’s been exposed, bringing an end to the great run of form that brought them as high as third. The Roosters’ high-voltage attack has the potential to tear apart a vulnerable Sea Eagles outfit, and even taking the last two weeks out of consideration, Manly are outmatched in basically every area. Add it to the context, and it’s not looking promising. Roosters 13+
PANTHERS V TIGERS — 4pm (AEST), Sunday, August 6 @ Pepper Stadium
The Storyline: The Panthers’ march home continues against a feisty Tigers side who has shown plenty of spirit putting in some of their best work in the last fortnight.
The Stat: Penrith have scored 25 tries in the last 20 minutes in games this season, the best mark in the league. Whilst their strong finishes are encouraging, they need to flesh out their game-plan and spread that impact across the whole 80.
It’s a big game for: Family rivalries. Multiple bragging rights go on the line, as not only does Ivan Cleary enter the strange situation of coaching against his son, but Dallin and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak will match up head-to-head on the flank.
Last time they met: Penrith bounced back from their poor opening round, taking their frustrations out on the hapless Tigers, 36-2.
The Verdict: With each team’s love for unstructured play, this could get wild. Despite the improvements the Tigers have shown in recent times, Penrith should be too good with bigger things on their mind. Expecting an entertaining, attack-oriented fixture, where the Panthers have too much class for the Tigers. Panthers 13+