Monday 18 December 2017 / 02:58 AM

NRL ROUND 25 PREVIEW

The race for the top-four and the minor premiership is still very much on, while the battle for the last place in the finals could be decided this weekend.

Round 25 Team Lists

Canterbury Bulldogs v North Queensland Cowboys – 7.50pm (AEST), Thursday, August 25 @ Belmore Oval

The Storyline: It’s back to Belmore on Thursday night as fourth spot goes on the line – and Johnathan Thurston returns to the venue for the first time since being let go by the club 12 years ago. The Bulldogs were gallant but sloppy last up against the Broncos and are in search of a confidence-booster ahead of the finals, while the Cowboys arrested a three-game slide to rocket back to top form last week against the Warriors. The premiers’ 36-0 rout of the Dogs in Townsville in Round 20 will be fresh in the minds of both sides.

The Stat: The Cowboys are the third-ranked defensive team in the NRL, but their standards slip significantly when they venture outside North Queensland, conceding 19.3 points per game. Their average in Townsville and Cairns in 2016 is just 10.83 per game.

It’s a big game for: Whether it’s being hyped up by the media or not, there’s no doubt the Bulldogs’ decision to jettison Thurston back in 2004 has acted as motivation for the playmaker to become one of the best of all time in Cowboys colours. After some ragged form during the champs’ mini-slump, JT was impressive without being brilliant in the big win over the Warriors, and he’ll be looking to step up another notch or two this week.

The Verdict: A packed house at Belmore could spark the Bulldogs into action, but the Cowboys have had the blue-and-whites’ number in recent years. The inconsistency and indecisiveness of Canterbury halves Mbye and Reynolds – up against masterful duo Thurston and Morgan – shapes as the difference between the two sides, although the Dogs are in with a chance if they can lure the Cowboys into a low-scoring grind. With the smell of September footy in the air, expect the Cowboys to get the job done. Cowboys by 8

Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos – 7.50pm (AEST), Friday, August 26 @ Suncorp Stadium

The Storyline: One of the NRL’s great rivalries is set for another intriguing chapter. The Storm will wrap up the minor premiership with a win, while the Broncos are aiming to stay in the top-four hunt – and avoid a possible slip to seventh or eighth at the end of the regular season. Melbourne obliterated Brisbane 48-6 at Suncorp in Round 17, and the Broncos need to shake their decade-long bogey at the hands of the Storm.

The Stat: The Broncos’ all-time win rate of 32.05 percent against the Storm is by far their worst against any club, while they have won just one of the last 11 clashes between the sides and boast only four wins in 18 matches in Melbourne.

It’s a big game for: Again the spotlight falls on Ben Hunt. He may be near the top of the try assists leaderboard, but the No.7’s fifth-tackle options and ability to steer his team around the park are still severely lacking. We’ve barely seen a top-shelf performance from Hunt – who finished in the Dally M top five in 2014-15 – all year, and the Broncos need him firing to be any chance of avenging last year’s grand final defeat.

The Verdict: The Broncos have ramped up their performances in recent weeks, particularly last Thursday as their defensive wall returned in a physical victory over the Bulldogs. But their attack is still sloppy, while the clinical Storm will look to target the Broncos’ inexperienced left-edge defence – as they did so effectively mid-season. The hoodoo will continue as Melbourne roll on. Storm by 12

Manly Sea Eagles v Canberra Raiders – 3.00pm (AEST), Saturday, August 27 @ Brookvale Oval

The Storyline: Manly is out of contention, but farewelling injured club legend Jamie Lyon should provide ample motivation for the Sea Eagles in the last game of the season at Brookvale. Canberra, meanwhile, is still adjusting to its status as the NRL’s form team and will be hell-bent on avoiding a slip-up with a top-two finish still within reach.

The Stat: The Raiders have prevailed in just two of their last 10 visits to Brookvale, leaking an average of 24.8 points per game at the notoriously unwelcoming venue.

It’s a big game for: Touted as a NSW Origin smoky just a few months ago, rugged forward Paul Vaughan has been plying his trade in reserve grade in recent weeks as a casualty of Canberra’s engine-room depth. But a rib injury to Junior Paulo has presented the robust Vaughan with an opportunity to prove he deserves to be part of the Raiders’ NRL finals campaign, rather than helping Mounties’ InTrust Super Premiership title bid.

The Verdict: The Raiders have won eight straight, but there were signs last week that the winning streak is starting to become a millstone around the team’s neck, falling 18-0 behind against Parramatta before a stirring comeback papered over the cracks. This is another danger game for the Green Machine – and the Sea Eagles, who welcome Dylan Walker and Apisai Koroisau back, won’t roll over in front of their home fans. Raiders by 2

Gold Coast Titans v Penrith Panthers – 5.30pm (AEST), Saturday, August 27 @ Cbus Super Stadium

The Storyline: Arguably the most important match of the season, with Gold Coast aiming to wrap up an unlikely finals berth against an on-fire Penrith outfit. If the Titans lose, they face the possibility of a must-win clash with the Cowboys in Round 26 – otherwise they will be at the mercy of the winner of Sunday’s Warriors-Tigers showdown. Barring two heavy defeats in the last two rounds, the Panthers are already assured of their spot in the finals.

The Stat: Since their golden-point loss to the Warriors in Round 20, the Panthers have put on the attacking afterburners, averaging 40 points per game in the last three weeks. They posted seven tries in each of their wins over the Roosters, Knights and Tigers, with 13 different players getting their names on the scoresheet.

It’s a big game for: After a couple of settlers at five-eighth, Jarryd Hayne has been pitched into his favoured fullback role at the expense of the disgruntled David Mead. Conditioning could still be an issue for Hayne and the Panthers will be sure to target the Titans’ marquee man.

The Verdict: What a battle this shapes up to be. Besides all that’s riding on the result, the recent form and contrasting styles of the two emerging forces should ensure this is an absolute barnburner. The Panthers’ firepower across the park and peerless second-phase gives them the edge over a Titans side still figuring out the best way to utilise their million-dollar recruit. Panthers by 4

Cronulla Sharks v Sydney Roosters – 7.30pm (AEST), Saturday, August 27 @ Southern Cross Group Stadium

The Storyline: Cronulla has hit the skids, winless for a month after piecing together a record 15-match winning streak. A showdown with the 14th-placed team in the premiership seems like an ideal palate-cleanser on paper, but the Sydney Roosters are in electric form and are aiming to continue their role as the NRL’s late-season spoilers after whipping the Broncos, Cowboys and Dragons in recent weeks.

The Stat: After managing 25-plus points nine times during their amazing winning run, the Sharks have been held to 18 points or less in their last four outings – including single figures for the first time in 2016 last Monday in a 12-6 defeat to 13th-placed Souths.

It’s a big game for: Paul Gallen returns from an injury layoff and the skipper needs to lead his team out of their crisis of confidence.

The Verdict: The Sharks have only lost once at home this year and their April-July form is bubbling away somewhere near the surface, but the Roosters’ irresistible form – with young guns Latrell Mitchell, Connor Watson and Ryan Matterson combining brilliantly with old heads Mitchell Pearce, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Blake Ferguson – will be difficult to repel. The Tricolours’ pack is also at full-strength, presenting a massive test for the vaunted Sharks engine-room. Roosters by 1

Warriors v Wests Tigers – 2.00pm (AEST), Sunday, August 28 @ Mt Smart Stadium

The Storyline: The narrative for this clash very much depends on the result of the Titans-Panthers clash on Saturday. If the Panthers get up, both teams are still alive in the finals race – but good luck picking a winner, with both resurgent clubs suffering heavy defeats last weekend.

The Stat: The Warriors went unbeaten in regulation time for nine games, a run that was built on a massive defensive turnaround. After conceding 27 points per game in the first 11 rounds, the Warriors leaked only 17 points per game in their next nine games – but that attitude has gone out the window with the Rabbitohs and Cowboys putting 77 points on them in the past fortnight. Meanwhile, the last four matches between these sides have produced at least 54 points.

It’s a big game for: Shaun Johnson, the architect of the Warriors’ mid-season rally, endured a tough night at the office in Townsville last week and, inevitably, came in for a barrage of criticism. He should find things much more to his liking against a defensively erratic Tigers side – and the Warriors need their talisman at his best to keep their season alive.

The Verdict: If the Titans secure a win on Saturday, expect both sides to be deflated and put up sloppy performances with little to play for. But if the teams’ seasons are still alive, the intensity between the rivals and the atmosphere at Mt Smart will be electric. The Tigers have moved David Nofoaluma to the troublesome fullback spot, but it’s the absence of James Tedesco that tips the scales significantly in the Warriors’ favour. The return of Solomone Kata, along with the possible late inclusion of Issac Luke, should provide the Warriors with the extra impetus required in front of their home fans. Warriors by 14

Newcastle Knights v South Sydney Rabbitohs – 4.00pm (AEST), Sunday, August 28 @ Hunter Stadium

The Storyline: There’s little riding on this encounter, and Foxtel-less fans have every right to be furious that this is one of the three free-to-air games at the business end of the season. The Knights need one more win to avoid registering the worst season since the 1993 Gold Coast Seagulls, while the Rabbitohs have hit the go button in recent weeks with wins over the Warriors and Sharks, and a gallant loss to the Storm.

The Stat: Every wooden spooner from 2007-15 registered at least five wins. The Knights have just one win and one draw to show for their 2016 efforts, while they’re on course to become just the third team in history to finish with a points differential worse than -500.

It’s a big game for: With the looming spectre of Robbie Farah’s 2017 arrival on the horizon, current Rabbitohs No.9 Damien Cook will be eager to finish the season in top form.

The Verdict: On current form, it’s tough to see anything but a comfortable Rabbitohs win. The Knights haven’t come within 14 points of their opponents in the past five weeks and they’re clearly looking ahead to Mad Monday already, while Souths possess enough attacking strike to really put the hurt on the cellar dwellers. It is Old Boys Day at Hunter Stadium, however, so expect the hosts to play with a bit of spirit. Rabbitohs by 24

Parramatta Eels v St George Illawarra Dragons – 7.00pm (AEST), Monday, August 29 @ Pirtek Stadium

The Storyline: The last Monday night game ever – if the proposed new TV scheduling goes ahead – is one of little consequence, with Parramatta and St George Illawarra both out of the playoffs picture. The Dragons, still in with a slim chance of finals footy heading into Round 24, inexplicably capitulated to the Roosters, a week after steamrolling heavyweights Cronulla. The Eels have still refused to throw in the towel despite myriad distractions and setbacks, ending Manly’s finals bid in Round 22 and giving Brisbane and Canberra a fright in the past fortnight before fading out in the second half of both games. Under-pressure Saints coach Paul McGregor has shown his hand by dropping Benji Marshall in favour of young half Drew Hutchison, while Beau Scott, Brad Takairangi and Tepai Moeroa return for the Eels.

The Stat: If the Eels had not been docked 12 competition points for salary cap breaches, they’d be sitting in ninth spot, just one point shy of the eighth-placed Titans and still in with a massive chance of playing in the finals. Despite the shattering blow – and many, many subsequent obstacles – the blue-and-golds have managed to win five of their last 11 games.

It’s a big game for: Semi Radradra was a controversial Kangaroos Test debutant in May, exacerbated by his extended holiday in Fiji and rumours of a rugby union defection in June. The ‘Semi-Trailer’ needs a big finish to the year to book his Four Nations spot, particularly with the likes of Josh Mansour, Corey Oates, Dane Gagai, Brett Morris, Tom Trbojevic, Jarryd Hayne and David Nofoaluma pressing for a call-up.

The Verdict: The Dragons gave up last week and there’s not much reason to expect any improvement here, especially against an Eels side which has still proven to be one of the NRL’s most dogged defensive outfits during an inconceivably tough time. Brad Arthur will have drummed into his side the importance of not dropping off their intensity, with a strong finish to this year’s torrid campaign a key driver for their 2017 rebuild. Eels by 7

[YouTube – VAC 2016]

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About the author

Will Evans

CBS’s Editor-in-Chief and lead rugby league, union and cricket writer, Will is a Christchurch-based freelancer, also writing for Big League and Rugby League Review magazines, and The New Daily website. Will has written four rugby league books.

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