DRAGONS V PANTHERS – THURS 20 AUGUST, 7.45PM, WIN STADIUM
The storyline: The Dragons have an easy run into the finals but must keep winning if they’re to make the eight, while the also-ran Panthers will be aiming to play the role of spoilers.
Form guide: Without Benji Marshall, the Dragons were crushed 30-2 by the Broncos at Suncorp – their eighth loss in 10 games. The Panthers broke a five-match losing streak with a commanding 24-10 win over the struggling Warriors.
Ladder: Dragons 8th, Panthers 12th
Attack: Dragons 15th, Panthers 16th
Defence: Dragons 3rd, Panthers 7th
The selection table: Benji Marshall has been named to return from a hamstring tear at halfback which sees Jack de Belin return to the bench in place of Drew Hutchinson. Dylan Farrell replaces Nathan Green on the wing. Mike Cooper and Trent Merrin swap between lock and prop while Jake Marketo joins a five-man bench which includes 18th man Mark Ioane. Tyrone Peachey has been named to return to the back row in place of the retired Nigel Plum.Isaac John returns at five-eighth.
The match-up: Wily playmakers Benji Marshall and Jamie Soward will have a major say on the outcome of this Thursday night encounter.
The history: The Saints hold a 16-12 lead after 28 matches, including a 5-2 record at WIN Stadium.
The last time they met: The Panthers downed the struggling Dragons 16-4 in Round 22 at WIN Stadium last season.
The stat: Penrith is on a five-game winning streak against St George Illawarra.
The verdict: Despite Benji’s return, I can smell an upset here with Soward, Bryce Cartwright and the Panthers’ dummy-half rotation to create problems for the home side in this encounter between the NRL’s two poorest offensive outfits. Panthers by 4
RABBITOHS V BULLDOGS – FRI 21 AUGUST, 7.45PM, ANZ STADIUM
The storyline: Last year’s Grand finalists come together for the first time since their wildly controversial Good Friday clash, with this encounter set to have a major bearing on the make-up of the top eight.
Form guide: The Bulldogs, searching for their first run of three straight wins since Round 2-4, have knocked off the Broncos (18-16) and Titans (36-14) over the past fortnight. The Rabbioths have been similarly up-and-down, but bounced back from the 28-8 loss to the Sea Eagles with a superb 31-18 victory over the Cowboys in Townsville.
Ladder: Rabbitohs 4th, Bulldogs 7th
Attack: Rabbitohs 6th, Bulldogs 5th
Defence: Rabbitohs 5th, Bulldogs 10th
The selection table: Luke Keary’s suspension sees John Sutton shift to five-eighth, Jason Clark move to the back row and Chris Grevsmuhl join the bench. Issac Luke’s suspension means Paul Carter will wear the No.9 jumper as Glenn Stewart returns from suspension on the bench. Nathan Brown, Joel Reddy and Cody Walker make up the extended interchange. For the Bulldogs, Damien Cook replaces the injured Michael Lichaa at hooker.
The match-up: The battle of the in-form big boppers, George Burgess and Sam Kasiano, will shake the grandstands at ANZ Stadium.
The history: The Bulldogs hold a 78-69-4 advantage in 151 previous clashes between the proud old clubs, including a 13-8 lead in matches at Homebush.
The last time they met: A late penalty goal gave the Rabbitohs an 18-17 victory on Good Friday, but the fallout from the clash was far more significant than the result.
The stat: Souths are chasing four straight against Canterbury for the first time since 1971.
The verdict: A desperate, physical and dramatic clash looms between the heavyweights, with plenty on the line for both sides. The absence of Issac Luke, Luke Keary and possibly John Sutton could tip the scales in the Bulldogs’ favour, particularly with the like of Sam Kasiano and Brett Morris in such good form. Bulldogs by 2
SHARKS V WESTS TIGERS – SAT 22 AUGUST, 3.00PM, REMONDIS STADIUM
The storyline: The Sharks are looking to stay in the top-four mix after a big loss last week, while the lowly Tigers are still in the wooden-spoon danger zone.
Form guide: Cronulla’s five-game winning streak came to an end on Monday, strangled out of the contest by Melbourne in a 30-2 drubbing at home. The Tigers’ two-game mini-resurgence was abruptly halted by a 24-18 loss to the last-placed Knights’ in Round 23.
Ladder: Sharks 6th, Tigers 14th
Attack: Sharks 12th, Tigers 11th
Defence: Sharks 9th, Tigers 12th
The selection table: Sam Tagataese returns from suspension at prop. Matt Prior drops out of the starting side to occupy injured utility Ben Barba’s bench spot. Martin Taupau returns to the side at lock, with Sauaso Sue shifting to prop and Keith Galloway to the bench. Chris Lawrence is also back on a six-man interchange with Jack Buchanan and Manaia Cherrington named as cover.
The match-up: It’s another instalment of one of the NRL’s great individual rivalries as Michael Ennis and Robbie Farah renew acquaintances.
The history: The Tigers have dominated this rivalry, winning 17 and drawing one of 25 matches against the Sharks since 2000 – including a remarkable 8-3-1 record at Remondis Stadium.
The last time they met: The Tigers downed the Sharks 26-10 in a cellar-dweller clash in the final round of 2014.
The stat: The Tigers have won seven of their last eight in the Shire.
The verdict: It’s difficult to see the Sharks letting this one slip after Monday’s thrashing. The top-four hopefuls will find the going much easier in the ruck and in the middle third than they did against the Storm, although the hosts will need to be wary of the attacking talents of Tedesco, Brooks and Farah. Sharks by 10
WARRIORS V COWBOYS – SAT 22 AUGUST, 7.30PM LOCAL (5.30PM AEST), MT SMART STADIUM
The storyline: The Cowboys need to get back on track after a pair of losses to fellow contenders, and the embattled Warriors are just the team to do it against – but will their lean trot in Auckland be a factor?
Form guide: The Warriors have been a shambles since Shaun Johnson’s injury, extending their losing streak to five matches with a dismal 24-10 loss to a Panthers side with nothing to play for. After winning 15 of 16, the Cowboys have gone down to the Sharks away (30-18) and Rabbitohs at home (31-18) in the past fortnight.
Ladder: Warriors 10th, Cowboys 3rd
Attack: Warriors 10th, Cowboys 4th
Defence: Warriors 11th, Cowboys 6th
The selection table: Bodene Thompson returns on the bench as Albert Vete starts at prop with the suspended Sam Rapira missing out on playing one last home game for the Warriors. Sione Lousi replaces Raymond Faitala-Mariner in the back row. Coen Hess will make his NRL debut on the bench with John Asiata replacing Gavin Cooper in the back row.
The match-up: If No.7 novice Tuimoala Lolohea starts playing with a free rein, his showdown with the incomparable Johnathan Thurston could be a scorcher.
The history: The Warriors hold an 18-16 lead in 34 matches between these 1995 entrants, including a 13-5 record at Mt Smart.
The last time they met: The Cowboys ran down the Warriors 28-24 in Townsville in Round 7, with two late Jake Granville tries snatching the win.
The stat: The Warriors have won seven of their last eight at home against the Cowboys.
The verdict: The Mt Smart factor is about all that is working in the Warriors’ favour at present – their attack is struggling, their defence weak and confidence is ebbing low. The Cowboys desperately need to get back on the rails and will be relishing the opportunity to feast on a Warriors side that is on its knees and battling a terrible injury toll. Cowboys by 20
ROOSTERS V BRONCOS – SAT 22 AUGUST, 7.45PM, ALLIANZ STADIUM
The storyline: A top of the table blockbuster to virtually decide the minor premiership looms on Saturday night.
Form guide: The Roosters have quietly crafted a nine-game winning streak, coming from behind to down the Eels 28-18 last weekend. The Broncos arrested a two-game slide with an emphatic 30-2 win over an under-strength Dragons side last Friday.
Ladder: Roosters 2nd, Broncos 1st
Attack: Roosters 2nd, Broncos 1st
Defence: Roosters 1st, Broncos 4th
The selection table: Brendan Elliot returns on the wing as Blake Ferguson and Mitch Aubusson shift to the centres and to the bench respectively. Aidan Guerra will fight a two-game suspension at the NRL judiciary on Wednesday night. The Broncos are unchanged following their 32-6 win over the Dragons last Friday night.
The match-up: There’s mouth-watering showdowns all over the park, but the early-season running battle between Sam Thaiday and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves will have everyone strapping themselves in for Round 2.
The history: The Broncos have won 24 and the Roosters 15 of 39 previous encounters, while the Broncos hold a commanding 14-7 lead in games at Allianz.
The last time they met: Ben Hunt engineered a golden point try for Corey Oates to snare a thrilling 22-18 victory for the Broncos at Suncorp in Round 6.
The stat: The Broncos have won eight of their last 12 overall – and 10 of their last 13 at Allianz – against the Roosters.
The verdict: Aside from the minor premiership prize being at stake, both sides will be eager to make a statement before the finals – particularly the Broncos after a rocky recent run. But expect the rollicking form of Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and the extra zip provided by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Michael Jennings and Jake Friend to get the Roosters over the line in a tight one. Roosters by 6
TITANS V RAIDERS – SUN 23 AUGUST, 2.00PM, CBUS SUPER STADIUM
The storyline: Both sides are out of contention for the finals, but we should see plenty of free-flowing attack in this Sunday arvo dead-rubber.
Form guide: The Titans have won just one of their last eight, beaten by identical 36-14 scorelines by Melbourne and Canterbury in the last two weeks. Rarely has a team played so well without get the results for such an extended period as the 2015 Raiders, who have often looked like a top-eight side but have won just three of their last 12 – culminating in a controversial, unlucky 26-24 loss to the Sea Eagles last week that extinguished their finals hopes.
Ladder: Titans 16th, Raiders 11th
Attack: Titans 14th, Raiders 3rd
Defence: Titans 16th, Raiders 14th
The selection table: Aidan Sezer’s shoulder injury means Daniel Mortimer shifts to halfback, Beau Falloon moves to hooker and Kierran Moseley comes onto the bench. Ryan James returns in the back row at the expense of Lachlan Burr while captain Nate Myles’ return at prop sees Eddy Pettybourne occupy 18th man David Hala’s bench spot. Jordan Rapana’s suspension means Sisa Waqa shifts to the wing and Joey Leilua returns from suspension himself in the centres. Luke Bateman also comes onto the bench with Mitchell Barnett dropping out of the squad. Jarrad Kennedy starts in the back row.
The match-up: Jarrod Croker was given a bath by Jamie Lyon last week, and the Raiders captain can expect a similarly torrid time from James Roberts on Sunday.
The history: The Titans hold a 9-7 lead in matches since 2007, including 5-2 at home.
The last time they met: The Raiders crushed the Titans 56-16 in Round 9 in the capital.
The stat: The Raiders have racked up 92 points in their last two games against the Titans.
The verdict: Although the Raiders may be deflated about their finals chances slipping away, they will be keen to finish a promising season on a bright note and they should have too much firepower for a ragtag Titans outfit that is limping towards the end of a trying campaign. Raiders by 18
SEA EAGLES V EELS – SUN 23 AUGUST, 4.00PM, BROOKVALE OVAL
The storyline: Manly’s extraordinary late-season rally has the club still in finals contention, but this clash with unpredictable Parramatta is a must-win with a tough draw ahead.
Form guide: The Sea Eagles have won four in a row and six of their last seven, including a heart-stopping 26-24 eclipse of the Raiders on the back of big wins over heavyweights the Broncos (44-14) and Rabbitohs (28-8). The Eels have lost four of the past five, letting a handy lead slip against the Roosters before going down 28-18.
Ladder: Sea Eagles 9th, Eels 13th
Attack: Sea Eagles 8th, Eels 13th
Defence: Sea Eagles 8th, Eels 13th
The selection table: Josh Starling and Ligi Sao swap between the bench and the front row in an otherwise unchanged Sea Eagles team. Will Hopoate returns in the centres at the expense of Vai Toutai. Nathan Peats is out, with Isaac De Gois to start at hooker and Daniel Alvaro joining the bench.
The match-up: Corey Norman has arguably been the Eels’ best this year, while his likely 2016 halves partner, Kieran Foran, has run into some outstanding form as his tenure in the maroon-and-white jumper nears an end.
The history: Manly has won 82 and Parramatta 47, while four of 133 games have been drawn between the 1947 premiership entrants.
The last time they met: The Eels overturned a halftime deficit to demolish the Sea Eagles 42-12 at Pirtek Stadium in Round 1.
The stat: Parramatta has not won at Brookvale since 2010.
The verdict: Manly has momentum and everything to play for. Parramatta is struggling for confidence and troops, and has little to play for. It should be a comfortable win for the Sea Eagles if they’re prepared to do the hard work early on and set a platform. Sea Eagles by 14
STORM V KNIGHTS – MON 24 AUGUST, 7.00PM, AAMI PARK
The storyline: Melbourne’s title bid is gathering impressive momentum, but a win over lowly Newcastle is essential with tough games against North Queensland and Brisbane to come.
Form guide: After a mid-season slump, the Storm have won four of their last five, comfortably accounting for the Titans (36-14) and Sharks (30-2) in the past fortnight. The Knights climbed off the bottom of the ladder with a 24-18 upset of the in-form Tigers last week – just their third win since Round 4.
Ladder: Storm 5th, Knights 15th
Attack: Storm 7th, Knights 9th
Defence: Storm 2nd, Knights 15th
The selection table: The Storm are unchanged following their 28-point win over the Sharks on Monday. Joe Tapine returns on a five-man bench, in an otherwise unchanged team from the side which defeated Wests Tigers.
The match-up: Fijian speed merchants Akuila Uate and Marika Koroibete square off in a tantalising wing battle.
The history: Melbourne holds a surprisingly narrow 19-14 lead in 33 previous clashes with Newcastle, but at AAMI Park the record is 6-1 in favour of the Storm.
The last time they met: The Knights pulled off a miracle 32-30 triumph in Round 22 last year via a sideline conversion by Kurt Gidley after the siren.
The stat: The Storm have won eight of their last 10 against the Knights.
The verdict: Melbourne has settled into a nice groove and won’t be too worried about Cronulla’s wrestling claims after last Monday’s comprehensive win. Smith, Cronk and co. should be too polished for battling Newcastle, with Cameron Munster improving every week and the Kiwi-stacked forward back doing the job. Storm by 16