The premiership celebrates the PlayNRL round this week, with several underperforming teams desperate to prove they can actually do just that. There a pair of Friday night grudge matches that are among three 2014 finals rematches, while the unbeaten Rabbitohs and Tigers are shaping up for a tremendous Sunday afternoon showdown.
FRIDAY MARCH 20
Manly Sea Eagles v Canterbury Bulldogs @ Brookvale Oval, 7.35pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Another instalment of one of the great modern rivalries – Dessie versus Manly – with the embattled Sea Eagles desperately still trying to prove they can get something out of 2015 and the Bulldogs aiming to confirm their status as title contenders.
The form guide: The under-strength, under-siege Sea Eagles pulled off a stirring 24-22 win over Melbourne, albeit with the help of some awful officiating. The Bulldogs overcame a second half deficit to thump Parramatta 32-12 as Brett Morris hurtles toward ‘buy of the year’ honours.
The selection table: Feleti Mateo will wear the No.6 and Jamie Buhrer has been named in the second-row; Justin Horo remains 18th man. The Bulldogs are unchanged.
The match-up: The Brett-a-licious showdown between in-form No.1s Stewart and Morris could have a bearing on NSW selection.
The history: Manly lead the all-time tally 63-53-5.
The last time they met: An extraordinary semi-final showdown won 18-17 by the Bulldogs in golden point.
The stat: Canterbury has won five of the last seven matches between the clubs.
The verdict: As impressive and emotional as last week’s win was, the Sea Eagles can only ride that wave for so long – and they face a much tougher task this weekend against better opposition. Bulldogs by 7
Brisbane Broncos v North Queensland Cowboys @ Suncorp Stadium, 8.35pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The Queensland derby shapes as being as important as ever, with battered ‘JT’ and the Cowboys looking to get off the duck egg for 2015 and the Broncos searching for some cohesion in attack. Wayne Bennett lit the fuse by dubbing the Cowboys ‘drama queens’. Outstanding.
The form guide: The Cowboys have been ordinary, trounced by the Roosters and run down by the Knights in an 0-2 start at home. The Broncos followed up their Round 1 lesson at the hands of Souths with a 10-2 defeat of the Sharks that ranked somewhere between a South African Super XV derby and a Cricket World Cup rain delay in the excitement stakes.
The selection table: The Broncos are unchanged, but Paul Green has pushed the panic button by moving Michael Morgan to five-eighth and bringing Lachlan Coote in at fullback.
The match-up: Ben Hunt up against Johnathan ‘I guess it’s open slather now’ Thurston shapes as the most intriguing individual battle, although the Cowboys talisman can probably expect an easier ride from his rep teammates than he got from Beau Scott.
The history: Brisbane is still miles ahead, winning 27 and drawing two of 39 derbies.
The last time they met: A wild qualifying final featuring a first-half blowout, a rousing comeback and a season-ending shoulder-charge by Tariq Sims, with the Cowboys getting up 32-20.
The stat: The Broncos have won only half of their last 12 games at Suncorp.
The verdict:The Cowboys still look a couple of weeks away from clicking and the Coote/Morgan disruption won’t help. Watch for a breakout performance from under-fire Anthony Milford. Broncos by 4
SATURDAY MARCH 21
New Zealand Warriors v Parramatta Eels @ Mt Smart Stadium, 3.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Injuries galore for the Eels as they look to overturn a terrible run of outs in Auckland and a dismal away record overall.
The form guide: Contrasting fortunes: the Eels were overrun by the Bulldogs after taking Manly to the cleaners in Round 1, while the Warriors bounced back from a lamentable showing against the Knights with a tough win in Canberra.
The selection table: The Warriors are unchanged – Shaun Johnson is in doubt but should be right to go. Semi Radradra and Beau Champion are in the casualty ward and Vai Toutai and Ryan Morgan have been named, though John Folau has been tipped to make his debut. Chris Sandow and Tepai Moeroa are also under a cloud.
The match-up: Manu Ma’u and Ryan Hoffman are at opposite ends of the experience spectrum but have both started 2015 in magnificent touch.
The history: Parramatta has won 19 games to the Warriors 14 in 33 clashes to date.
The last time they met: The Warriors produced their most complete performance of 2014 to obliterate the Hayne-less Eels 48-0 at Mt Smart.
The stat: The Eels have not won at Mt Smart since 2007, while they have won just six of their last 31 away games.
The verdict: The Warriors should be far too strong at home for an Eels side disrupted by injuries. Warriors by 18
Canberra Raiders v St George Illawarra Dragons @ GIO Stadium, 5.30pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The Dragons snapped the NRL’s most infamous hoodoo last year, but the long-running rivalry with the Raiders takes a back-seat to their abysmal start to 2015. The misfiring Saints must get on track pronto, while Ricky Stuart has his new-look line-up fizzing.
The form guide: Shock Round 1 winners at Cronulla, the Raiders were better than the 18-6 scoreline suggested in a bruising loss to the Warriors. The Dragons have been awful, struggling badly in attack in 12-4 and 22-4 losses to Melbourne and Wests Tigers respectively.
The selection table: For the Raiders, Jordan Rapana replaces the injured Jack Wighton at fullback, Edrick Lee moves to the wing for the suspended Jeremy Hawkins and Jarrad Kennedy slots in at centre. Paul McGregor has resisted the urge to meddle with his side despite their atrocious form.
The match-up: A rousing wing battle looms between Edrick Lee and Etonia Nabuli.
The history: The ledger stands at 16 wins to Canberra, seven wins to St George Illawarra and one draw.
The last time they met: A hex-breaking 34-16 victory to the Dragons late in 2014. The Saints’ win was their first in Canberra since 2000, and their first win in 10 games against the Raiders at all venues.
The stat: The Saints’ eight-point return is the least after two rounds since the Bulldogs’ notched just two points in 2000.
The verdict: The loss of Wighton is a blow to the Raiders’ hopes, but their new-found physicality and confidence should be too much for a Dragons side sorely lacking in both. Raiders by 10
Melbourne Storm v Cronulla Sharks @ AAMI Park, 7.30pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Not too much to get excited about for neutrals in this one, but the Sharks are anxiously searching for their first win while the Storm can ill-afford to go 1-2 to start the year given the relative ease of their early-season draw.
The form guide: After a dour win over the Dragons, the Storm were dudded by the refs in going down at Brookvale. The Sharks have been disjointed and unimpressive, upset by the Raiders and strangled by the Broncos in an 0-2 start at home.
The selection table: Melbourne is unchanged, while Sam Tagatese comes into the Cronulla front-row and Luke Lewis has been named on an extended bench.
The match-up: The outrageously in-form Jesse Bromwich v the game-breaking Andrew Fifita.
The history: Melbourne holds an 18-9 advantage in 27 meetings between the clubs.
The last time they met: The Sharks were destroyed 48-6 by a ruthless Storm.
The stat: The Sharks are winless in five visits to AAMI Park and have won just one of their last nine against the Storm.
The verdict: Some conditions are favourable for ironing out major deficiencies and melding solid combinations. Going to AAMI Park does not fit into that category. The Storm should get the job done on Saturday. Storm by 14
SUNDAY MARCH 22
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Wests Tigers @ ANZ Stadium, 4.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The Rabbitohs will still have their ambush at the hands of the brash young Tigers early in 2014 fresh in their minds. James Tedesco and Luke Brooks were outstanding that night, and the defending champs will arrive at ANZ Stadium bracing for a repeat performance. Expect a few fireworks when Aaron Woods and Martin Taupau come together with the Burgess boys.
The form guide: The Rabbitohs can’t be faulted, fighting back from a seemingly hopeless position on a couple of occasion to overcome a very good Roosters outfit. The Tigers’ first half onslaught easily put their showdown with the Dragons to bed, before clocking off in second half of a 22-4 win.
The selection table: Both sides are unchanged.
The match-up: The wily hookers Isaac Luke and Robbie Farah will have a major bearing on the outcome.
The history: Souths are ahead 14-10 in the match tally against the Tigers.
The last time they met: The Rabbitohs whipped the Tigers 32-10 in Round 14 last year with Origin players absent.
The stat: Souths have won eight of the last 10 encounters between the clubs.
The verdict:An intriguing encounter, but it’s hard to see the Rabbitohs being caught on the hop in light of their imperious form to date. A definite match of the round contender, however. Rabbitohs by 10
Gold Coast Titans v Newcastle Knights @ Robina Stadium, 6.30pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The Titans welcome back their high-profile cocaine supply-accused trio – but will it have any effect against a 2-0 Knights team that has arguably been the surprise packet of the opening two rounds.
The form guide: The Titans were walloped 40-0 by the Panthers in weird game at Bathurst after hanging in for much of the first half. The Knights showed tremendous fighting qualities to claw back from 14-0 down to edge the Cowboys 16-14 in Townsville.
The selection table: Josh Hoffman and Will Zillman belatedly switch positions, while Beau Falloon, Dave Taylor and Greg Bird are back. Sione Mata’utia has been named 18th man, again. But he will play, again.
The match-up: No shortage of speed and scoring potential when centres Dane Gagai and James Roberts square off.
The history: Newcastle has won seven, Gold Coast has won five.
The last time they met: The Titans sprung a 22-8 upset against a listless Knights outfit in the ‘Rise for Alex’ match at Hunter Stadium.
The stat: Akuila Uate has scored eight tries in nine games against the Titans.
The verdict: Despite a stirring effort in Round 1, the Titans will struggle to win a game this season – and they’re not about to start against a tough, in-form Knights outfit. Knights by 16
MONDAY MARCH 23
Sydney Roosters v Penrith Panthers @ Allianz Stadium, 7.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: A rematch of last year’s exhilarating qualifying final, when it shaped as David v Goliath – but now it’s Goliath v Goliath. There’s enthralling individual match-ups all over the team sheet in a showdown between two of 2015’s genuine title contenders.
The form guide: Brilliant against the Cowboys and gallant in defeat to the Rabbitohs, the Roosters will be lamenting two points gone begging last week. The Panthers are 2-0 after comfortably accounting for the Bulldogs and Titans.
The selection table: Test winger Josh Mansour returns from injury in the place of George Jennings, but Jamie Soward is out and has been replaced by Isaac John. The Roosters are unchanged.
The match-up: So many to choose from, but none more exciting – or important – than Roger Tuivasa-Sheck v Matt Moylan, a window into Anzac Test clashes for years to come.
The history: Roosters 51 wins, Panthers 31 wins, two draws.
The last time they met: Soward was the match-winner in a heart-stopping 19-18 finals boilover.
The stat: Prior to the qualifying final, the Panthers had conceded 102 points and scored just 18 in their last three encounters with the Roosters.
The verdict: Lap this one up because few Monday night games this year will feature two teams of this stature. Soward’s absence tips the scales in the Roosters’ favour. Just. Roosters by 4