Melbourne Storm v Brisbane Broncos – 8.05pm (AEDT), Thursday, March 16 @ AAMI Park,
The Storyline: The heavyweight archrivals have started 2017 in good form and this should be an absolute blockbuster. Billy Slater’s return – playing opposite long-time rep teammate, and now competitor for Queensland No.1 jersey Darius Boyd – adds another element to this massive encounter.
The Stat: The Broncos have won only 13 of 40 games against the Storm – by far their worst record against any club – but they have managed three wins in seven visits to AAMI Park, including their last two.
It’s a big game for: Billy Slater hasn’t played since Round 1 last year, while it’s just his second NRL appearance since Round 10, 2015. It’s one of the most anticipated injury returns in history, and a huge game for the legendary fullback to come back in.
Last time they met: Brisbane carved out arguably its best win of 2016, a bruising 26-16 upset at AAMI Park – just eight weeks after being pumped 48-6 by the Storm at Suncorp.
The verdict: The Broncos have overcome their Melbourne bogey in the past couple of seasons, but the Storm always bring their A-game and Milford and Hunt will have to be at their best to counteract the clinical precision Cronk, Smith and co. Wayne Bennett will be looking for an 80-minute performance from his charges after letting the Sharks and Cowboys back into the contest in the past fortnight, but in their first outing on a dry track this year the Storm will have their hands full containing the visitors’ attacking threats. Broncos by 4
Canterbury Bulldogs v Warriors – 6.00pm (AEDT), Friday, March 17 @ Forsyth Barr Stadium, Dunedin
The Storyline: The Bulldogs take their home game to Dunedin for the southernmost game in premiership history on Friday, with both sides desperate for a win. Fullbacks Will Hopoate and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck are both, with debutant Brad Abbey and the enigmatic Tuimoala Lolohea filling in.
The Stat: The Bulldogs are staring down the barrel of just their second 0-3 start since 1971. Meanwhile, the Warriors are chasing just their seventh win in 27 matches at New Zealand venues outside Mt Smart Stadium.
It’s a big game for: Josh Reynolds has been the subject of rabid speculation in recent days, with reports suggesting the Bulldogs are willing to let him walk. ‘Grub’ should be up for a big one.
Last time they met: The Warriors grabbed a nail-biting 24-20 win over the Bulldogs in Wellington – their first win in the city against the blue-and-whites in seven attempts.
The verdict: The Bulldogs’ stagnant attack has failed to improve from last year, while the Warriors were gritty in tough conditions against the Storm last week – arguably an improvement from getting out of jail against the Knights in Round 1. Both of these teams are largely unknown quantities, but with the Tuivasa-Sheck setback this just feels like a game where the Bulldogs can stay patient and let the Warriors deliver the two points to them on a platter. Bulldogs by 6
Gold Coast Titans v Parramatta Eels – 8.05pm (AEDT), Friday, March 17 @ Cbus Super Stadium
The Storyline: The narrative for this game could have been so different – and much more tantalising – had Jarryd Hayne’s injury not intervened. Meanwhile, the in-form Eels have lost their best player, halfback Corey Norman. Plenty at stake with the Titans looking to avoid an 0-3 start and the Eels looking to go 3-0 for the first time since 1993.
The Stat: The Titans have a 6-2 record against the Eels at Robina, and have won 6 of their last 8 between the clubs overall.
It’s a big game for: Parramatta halfback Jeff Robson and Gold Coast fullback Tyler Cornish are at opposite ends of the experience scale, but they’ve both got enormous boots to fill with Corey Norman and Jarryd Hayne sidelined.
Last time they met: Ashley Taylor scored a try and kicked five goals as the Titans racked up a 34-14 home win over the scandal-stricken Eels in Round 20 last year.
The verdict: Besides the under-pressure Hayne’s absence, the Titans are also without several other key performers. Ash Taylor was superb last week, but he needs more support from Kane Elgey and co. The Eels, even without Norman, should power to victory on the glitter strip, with Clint Gutherson and Bevan French in great touch. The blue-and-golds’ pack is just too tough and mean. Eels by 10.
Newcastle Knights v South Sydney Rabbitohs – 4.30pm (AEDT), Saturday, March 18 @ McDonald Jones Stadium
The Storyline: The Knights are fizzing after last week’s drought-breaking victory, while the Rabbitohs enjoyed a spectacular turnaround of their own as they confront a season without Greg Inglis. Both teams need to consolidate their Round 2 triumphs with an equally strong display this weekend.
The Stat: The Rabbitohs are on a seven-match winning streak against the Knights, and have scored an average of 46 points in the last four clashes between the sides.
It’s a big game for: Brock Lamb enjoyed a breakout performance last week against the Titans, but the young Newcastle pivot needs to back that up and find consistency with another big game this weekend.
Last time they met: Alex Johnston scored two of Souths’ six tries as they cruised to a 34-12 win over the wooden spoon-bound Knights in Round 25 last year.
The verdict: Souths’ pack stood up last week, allowing Reynolds, Walker and Farah the time and momentum to cut the Manly defence to shreds. Newcastle’s 2017 game is built on commitment and playing what’s in front of them. It could be a surprise game-of-the-round contender, and I have a feeling the Knights can chalk up an upset with a vocal home ground behind them. Knights by 4
Penrith Panthers v Sydney Roosters – 7.00pm (AEDT), Saturday, March 18 @ Pepper Stadium
The Storyline: The Panthers responded brilliantly to their Round 1 horror show and the Bryce Cartwright drama, keeping the Tigers try-less and producing a blistering attacking performance. The Roosters have been one of the standout sides of the premiership’s opening fortnight, but they will be seeking an 80-minute effort after letting their opponents into both of their outings so far.
The Stat: The Panthers have won their last two against the Roosters, but they have won three straight in the rivalry since a five-match winning streak from 1989-92.
It’s a big game for: Young halves pairing Nathan Cleary and Te Maire Martin bounced back to form in Round 2, but they face a big challenge this week up against the on-fire combination of Mitchell Pearce and Luke Keary.
Last time they met: Tyrone Peachey grabbed a double as the Panthers romped to a 38-18 win in Round 22 last year, with Nathan Cleary setting up the centre for a try-of-the-year contender.
The verdict: If both teams turn up, this will be a belter. There’s always plenty of feeling between these clubs, the Panthers are at home for the first time this season, and there’s a mouth-watering array of attacking talent on show – not to mention some of the NRL’s most dynamic and bruising forwards. Expect to go down to the wire…I’ve got a feeling the Roosters can muscle their way to victory here. Roosters by 1
North Queensland Cowboys v Manly Sea Eagles – 9.00pm (AEDT), Saturday, March 18 @ 1300SMILES Stadium
The Storyline: The Cowboys have started 2-0 with two golden-point wins, but they’re without Matt Scott for the season, and Jason Taumalolo, Lachlan Coote and Antonio Winterstein for the short-term. Rebuilding Manly are 0-2 after collapsing hard against Souths, while their pack has been weakened by injury and suspension after off-field distractions and heat on coach Trent Barrett has turned up the pressure on the club.
The Stat: After losing six in a row against the Sea Eagles from 2011-14, the Cowboys have won their last five straight in the rivalry.
It’s a big game for: It’s probably a bigger deal for everyone else that Kalyn Ponga is getting his first fullback start in the NRL, but there’s little doubt the boom teenager will be under intense scrutiny – and come in for a little extra attention from Manly.
Last time they met: The Cowboys held on a for a 30-26 win at 1300SMILES in Round 16 last year.
The verdict: Scott’s absence is a huge blow to a front-row contingent already missing grand final heroes Tamou and Hannant, and Taumalolo’s suspension is a real kicker for the Cowboys’ pack. But their young depth forwards are real goers, and should still have the edge on the Sea Eagles’ struggling engine-room. Daly Cherry-Evans has to step up for Manly – it can’t be left up to the Trbojevic brothers to carry this team. Thurston and co. will be too strong in Townsville. Cowboys by 12
Canberra Raiders v Wests Tigers – 4.00pm (AEDT), Sunday, March 19 @ GIO Stadium
The Storyline: Two of the best performers in Round 1, the Raiders and Tigers both had their pants pulled down at home last weekend. There’s arguably more pressure on the Raiders as hosts with a 0-2 record, but the Tigers were the poorer of the two sides in Round and have to shake their drubbing at the hands of the Panthers.
The Stat: Jordan Rapana has scored seven tries in just four appearances against the Tigers – including six tries in two games last year that saw the Raiders rack up 112 points.
It’s a big game for: Luke Brooks is quickly proving himself the most expendable of the Tigers’ ‘big four’ off-contract stars. He needs to take more ownership of where this erratic side is headed.
Last time they met: The Tigers needed a win to squeeze into the finals in Round 26 last year, but were instead hammered 52-10 by a rampant Raiders side in a Leichhardt clash best remembered for Joey Leilua’s outrageous around-the-back pass.
The verdict: Both sides have proven they can’t be trusted just yet, and the Tigers’ forwards need to replicate their powerhouse showing against the Rabbitohs if they’re any chance of matching the big Raiders pack. Jack Wighton was excellent in an ordinary team effort last week – his battle with James Tedesco will be a doozy. Raiders too good at home with Ricky Stuart cracking the whip. Raiders by 7
Cronulla Sharks v St George Illawarra Dragons – 6.30pm (AEDT), Sunday, March 19 @ Southern Cross Group Stadium
The Storyline: The fiery southern Sydney derby sees the clubs coming in off very different Round 2 outcomes. The Sharks showed premiership-winning form in blowing the Raiders off the park in the second half, while the Dragons – on the back of their shock thrashing of the Panthers first up – just couldn’t handle the Eels’ firepower.
The Stat: The Sharks are looking to avoid becoming the first defending premiers to lose their opening two home games since the 2009 Sea Eagles.
It’s a big game for: Russell Packer had his best game since returning to the NRL in Round 1, but last week’s butterfingered display was one of the worst of his career. Coming up against the hardnosed and dynamic Sharks pack, big Rusty needs to lead from the front for the Red V.
Last time they met: The out-of-form Dragons scored a stunning 32-18 upset at Jubilee Oval as the high-flying Sharks got the late-season wobbles.
The verdict: The Dragons weren’t awful last week, but their weaknesses were exposed by a ruthless team, whereas the Panthers barely tested them. The Sharks play a similar brand to the Eels – tough, skilful forwards combining with gifted halves and electric outside backs – and a similar result looms for the Saints in this visit to the Shire. Sharks by 16