South Sydney Rabbitohs v Sydney Roosters – 8.05 (AEDT), Thursday, March 23 @ ANZ Stadium
The Storyline: The most bitter rivalry in the NRL kicks off Round 4, and Luke Keary’s first appearance against his former club spices it up even more than usual. On top of that, there’s NSW Origin hopefuls Adam Reynolds and Mitchell Pearce squaring off in an epic halfback duel. Michael Maguire has curiously reshuffled his backline – moving Cody Walker to fullback and bringing John Sutton into five-eighth – while the Roosters’ backline is positively humming to start 2017.
The Stat: The Roosters are aiming for their first back-to-back victories over the Rabbitohs since 2010-11.
It’s a big game for: Keary has started his tenure in the Tricolours in blistering form, but this game is personal for the tenacious No.6.
Last time they met: The Roosters gutsed out a 17-10 win in Round 6 last year, with Dylan Napa producing a career-best performance to blot out Rabbitohs forward leader Sam Burgess.
The Verdict: After their Round 1 debacle and the Inglis injury, the Rabbitohs will be satisfied with how they’ve responded in the past fortnight – but this is easily their biggest test to date. The Roosters are playing as if 2016 never happened, rediscovering the mix of toughness and brilliance that took them to three straight minor premierships. Superior backline firepower and stability gets the Chooks the derby win. Roosters by 10
— Sydney Roosters (@sydneyroosters) March 22, 2017
Penrith Panthers v Newcastle Knights – 6.00pm (AEDT), Friday, March 24 @ Pepper Stadium
The Storyline: The Panthers seem to have recovered from their Round 1 abomination, but with a 1-2 record the much-hyped side is desperate for a win here. The Knights have already overachieved with their 1-2 record – and are arguably unlucky to not go into this road trip unbeaten.
The Stat: After winning just six of 27 games against Newcastle between 1994 and 2013, Penrith have won four of their last five against the Knights – each by a margin of 18-plus points.
It’s a big game for: Under-siege Bryce Cartwright had a shocker in Round 1 before going off injured a week later and missing the clash with the Roosters. Scrutiny will continue to mount on the back-rower until his dynamic form of 2016 returns.
Last time they met: The finals-bound Panthers trounced the wooden-spoon Knights 42-6 in Round 23 last year, with wingers Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak both bagging doubles.
The Verdict: The Knights shape as being the ultimate nuisance team of the premiership, and will catch plenty of sides napping in 2017. But they still lack the overall class and experience to close out games. This one is too important for the Panthers to cough up at home. Panthers by 10
The Panthers preparing for Friday’s clash with Newcastle. Get your gameday info now: https://t.co/jBwkIvrnWF
— Penrith Panthers (@PenrithPanthers) March 21, 2017
Brisbane Broncos v Canberra Raiders – 8.05pm (AEDT), Friday, March 24 @ Suncorp Stadium
The Storyline: The Broncos have been pipped at the post by a pair of heavyweights in their last two outings, and they’ll be desperate to avoid a three-peat when a suddenly in-form Raiders side rolls into town. Facing the Sharks, Cowboys, Storm and now the Raiders, it’s undeniable the Broncos have had by far the toughest draw of any team to start 2017 – but emerging from that horror run with just one win will be deemed unacceptable.
The Stat: Neither side has scored more than 30 points in the clubs’ last 11 clashes.
It’s a big game for: Anthony Milford, who has been slightly below par by his standards to start the year, received a roasting on NRL 360 last night for a perceived poor attitude towards training. He also always comes in for a bit of extra attention against the Raiders after ditching the capital at the end of 2014.
Last time they met: Darius Boyd snared a hat-trick as the Broncos outlasted the Raiders 26-18 at Suncorp in Round 14 last year.
The Verdict: Who knows which of the Raiders sides we’ve seen so far this season will turn up on Friday, but they need to tighten up on both sides of the ball to challenge the battle-hardened Broncos, who haven’t lost to the Green Machine at Suncorp since 2010. On the score of consistency, it’s hard to tip against the Broncos. Broncos by 4
— FOX SPORTS NRL (@FOXNRL) March 22, 2017
Manly Sea Eagles v Canterbury Bulldogs – 4.30pm (AEDT), Saturday, March 25 @ Lottoland
The Storyline: Fierce rivals who come into this clash on the back of pressure-relieving victories, but need to keep winning to stay in touch with the leading pack. Defensive steel underpinned the Bulldogs’ and Sea Eagles’ Round 3 upsets, but there are still question marks over both teams’ attack.
The Stat: The Bulldogs are on a six-match winning streak against the Sea Eagles, and have lost just three of 11 encounters since high-profile coach Des Hasler switched camps.
It’s a big game for: Brad Abbey had some very shaky moments under the high ball on debut in Dunedin last week and is sure to be a target for Daly Cherry-Evans and Blake Green. The young Kiwi has the ability to cement the fullback spot, but Des won’t tolerate an error-prone No.1.
Last time they met: The Bulldogs pulled off a dramatic golden point victory at ANZ Stadium late last season, with a Tom Trbojevic error allowing Josh Reynolds to scoot away for the winning try.
The Verdict: The toughest game of the round to get a handle on. Manly holds the edge in the playmaking and backline firepower departments courtesy of DCE and ‘Tommy Turbo’, but the Canterbury pack will provide a far stiffer test for the Sea Eagles’ engine-room than a weakened Cowboys outfit did in Round 3. Expect it to go down to the wire again. Bulldogs by 1
‘We’re at home this weekend and I hope we can get one for the fans’-Tom Trbojevic
— Manly Sea Eagles (@SeaEagles) March 22, 2017
Parramatta Eels v Cronulla Sharks – 7.00pm (AEDT), Saturday, March 25 @ ANZ Stadium
The Storyline: The Eels were the form team of the opening two rounds before proving they’re rudderless without Corey Norman, while the Sharks’ romp over the Raiders has been bookended by two flat losses. Norman is back this week, however, and is set for an engrossing duel with James Maloney, while arguably the NRL’s two roughest and toughest packs lock horns.
The Stat: After going 1-14 at ANZ Stadium from 2011-15, the Eels won four of their five games at the ground last year. A handy turnaround, considering it’s the club’s full-time home for the time being.
It’s a big game for: If he makes the cut for the Sharks’ final 17, James Segeyaro will be out to prove it was worth all the trouble (and money) wangling him out of his Leeds deal.
Last time they met: Rookie Bevan French scored three tries in a losing effort, with the ladder-leading Sharks snaring a 34-24 victory in the Round 17 clash last year.
The Verdict: Game of the round alert. Both sides have game-breakers all over the park and a great defensive work ethic; this one will come down to who can build pressure and take their opportunities. With a slightly more stable line-up and better overall form on the board, I have to lean towards the blue-and-golds. Eels by 2
EXCLUSIVE: James Segeyaro has spoken for the first since putting pen to paper with our Club.
— Cronulla Sharks FC (@Cronulla_Sharks) March 22, 2017
Gold Coast Titans v North Queensland Cowboys – 9.00pm (AEDT), Saturday, March 25 @ Cbus Super Stadium
The Storyline: A Queensland derby with plenty on the line. The Titans broke their duck last weekend, while the injury- and suspension-ravaged Cowboys had no answer for the visiting Sea Eagles. Pressure will start to mount on the Cowboys if they can’t prove their decimated pack is capable of matching it with the NRL’s best.
The Stat: The last seven encounters between these sides were won by the home team.
It’s a big game for: Gideon Gela-Mosby belatedly earns an NRL debut as injuries continue to bite the Cowboys’ backline stocks. He’ll be eager to transfer his prolific Under-20s and Nines tryscoring form to the big stage.
Last time they met: The Cowboys outmuscled the Titans 32-16 in Townsville in the final round of 2016, with Gavin Cooper scoring a double and Johnathan Thurston booting six from six.
The Verdict: Last week the Titans showed the grit they became famous for in 2016, but they’ll need to improve further to topple the Cowboys this Saturday. The shock loss to Manly appeared more like an aberration than a portent for a slide down the ladder, and the Cowboys still have enough grunt in their pack and game-breakers out wide to bank the two points here. Cowboys by 7
— Liam Butterworth (@Liambutterworth) March 21, 2017
Wests Tigers v Melbourne Storm – 4.00pm (AEDT), Sunday, March 26 @ Leichhardt Oval
The Storyline: The spotlight has been on the Tigers all week after the sacking of coach Jason Taylor. They come into this daunting assignment after conceding 82 points and scoring just one try in the past fortnight, while the Storm have enjoyed an outstanding 3-0 start to 2017.
The Stat: Melbourne’s 5-9 record at Leichhardt Oval is their worst at any ground they have played at more than three times.
It’s a big game for: Unwittingly or not, it seems the so-called ‘Big Four’ played a big role in Taylor’s demise. Now the heat is on the quartet to re-sign or else – and halfback Luke Brooks is widely regarded as the most expendable of the group.
Last time they met: Both sides scored four tries in their AAMI Park clash in Round 16 last year, but Cameron Smith’s boot proved the difference in a 29-20 Storm victory.
The Verdict: Teams traditionally come out firing in the first match after their coach gets axed, but this is a taller order than most for the beleaguered Tigers. Expect a far better defensive display from this Andrew Webster-prepared side, but unlocking the Storm’s watertight D will be their most difficult task. Nevertheless, I like the prospects of a boilover here. Tigers by 4
“We want to play better football and that’s our only focus at the moment.”
— Interim Coach Andrew Webster
— Wests Tigers (@WestsTigers) March 22, 2017
St George Illawarra Dragons v Warriors – 6.30pm (AEDT), Sunday, March 26 @ UOW Jubilee Oval
The Storyline: The Warriors are back in frustratingly familiar territory after an insipid display in Dunedin gave them back-to-back losses, while the unfancied Dragons claimed another big scalp to start their campaign 2-1. The pressure is all on the visitors in this one.
The Stat: The Warriors’ 5-19 record against St George Illawarra is their worst against any club, while their last away win against the Dragons was way back in 2003.
It’s a big game for: Kieran Foran is likely to be pitched into the match-day squad after being named on an extended bench, and the Warriors are crying out for his direction, poise and toughness – but turning the side around on his own is a big ask for a player making his first appearance in 10 months.
Last time they met: In the wake of the off-field snafu that saw five players demoted to reserve grade, the Warriors broke an 11-match losing streak against the Dragons with a courageous 26-10 victory.
The Verdict: There were some desperately worrying signs for the Warriors last week, who lacked imagination on attack and wilted embarrassingly near their own line in the loss to the Bulldogs. The media and their fans have turned on them once again, and this road trip will say plenty about whether Stephen Kearney has instilled a hardened resolve in this flaky squad. The Dragons have been superb so far, however, and with a long home hoodoo in their favour, they’re the smart tip for Sunday night. Dragons by 6
— The Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) March 22, 2017