Round 4 of the NRL is being played in the shadow of Sunday’s Cricket World Cup final, but there’s a string of important encounters as the early-season stragglers desperately attempt to stay in touch and the front-runners look to consolidate their positions.
FRIDAY MARCH 27
Parramatta Eels v South Sydney Rabbitohs @ Pirtek Stadium, 7.35pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Parramatta has got the wobbles after a blistering start, and the injury-hit side must attempt to right the ship against the NRL’s benchmark side.
The form guide: The Eels have been beaten convincingly by the Bulldogs and Warriors following a Round 1 walloping of the Sea Eagles; the Rabbitohs are unbeaten, playing well below their best but still comprehensively putting away a willing Tigers outfit 20-6 last Sunday.
The selection table: The Eels are unchanged while Daryl Millard comes in for injured Rabbitohs centre Dylan Walker.
The match-up: Former Manly bosom-buddies Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart square off for the first time.
The history: Souths lead the all-time count 65-50-3 since 1947.
The last time they met: Sam Burgess and Alex Johnston bagged doubles in the Rabbitohs’ convincing 32-12 result in Round 19 last year.
The stat: The Rabbitohs have won seven straight against the Eels dating back to 2010.
The verdict: Parramatta is a different side on its home track, but South Sydney are too disciplined and confident across the park for an Eels line-up struggling to adjust after the long-term injuries suffered by Semi Radradra and Beau Champion. Rabbitohs by 16
Wests Tigers v Canterbury Bulldogs @ ANZ Stadium, 7.35pm (AEDT)
The storyline: A ferocious battle of the westies, with the winner to grab an impressive 3-1 start to the year and the loser a disappointing 2-2.
The form guide: The Tigers lost few admirers in their loss to Souths but proved they are still a rung or two below the NRL’s heavyweights. The Bulldogs grinded out an ugly win over Manly on the back of their forward power.
The selection table: Delouise Hoeter debuts on the wing for the suspended Pat Richards, while Aaron Woods and Dene Halatau are late withdrawals as youngsters Lamar Liolevave and Kyle Lovett come into the 17. The Bulldogs are unchanged.
The match-up: Another key pointer in the NSW No.1 race, with James Tedesco keen to prove himself against Brett Morris after being outplayed by Greg Inglis last week.
The history: The Bulldogs have won 17 games to the Tigers’ 10 since 2000.
The last time they met: The Bulldogs swept to a 30-10 victory in Round 24 last year, avenged a shock Mitchell Moses-inspired 46-18 loss just five weeks earlier.
The stat: The Bulldogs have won six of their last seven against the Tigers.
The verdict: The absence of Woods tips the scales well in the Bulldogs’ favour – the blue-and-whites’ size and strength up front will be too much for the inexperienced Tigers pack to handle, unless Keith Galloway slaps the ’Dogs into submission. Bulldogs by 14
SATURDAY MARCH 28
Newcastle Knights v Penrith Panthers @ Hunter Stadium, 3.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The unbeaten Knights have been the surprise packet of 2015 but face their biggest test to date against the heavyweight Panthers.
The form guide: The Knights are 3-0 after scraping past the Titans with a late Jeremy Smith try. The Panthers were typically dogged but couldn’t reel in the Roosters on Monday, their first loss of the season.
The selection table: Korbin Sims is out suspended, bringing Paterika Vaivai into the 17. The charade of Sione Mata’utia wearing the No.18 continues. The Panthers are unchanged with Jamie Soward still out.
The match-up: Idris v Gagai, closely followed by Whare v Leilua.
The history: Newcastle has won 22, Penrith 15 and three have been drawn.
The last time they met: The Panthers cruised to a 32-10 win at Hunter Stadium in Round 9 last year.
The stat: The Knights are on a six-match winning streak at Hunter Stadium.
The verdict: Potentially the match of the round, with the home-ground advantage and Soward’s absence levelling the playing field. Panthers by 1
Cronulla Sharks v Gold Coast Titans @ Remondis Stadium, 5.30pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Two desperate, winless sides look to get on the board for 2015.
The form guide: The Sharks have been disjointed and sloppy on both sides of the ball, while the embattled Titans have been wholehearted and gritty, unlucky not to have two wins under their belt after late losses to the Tigers and Knights.
The selection table: Wade Graham moves to five-eighth for the suspended Ben Barba and Jack Bird is set to debut, while NYC gun Kane Elgey replaces injured Titans No.7 Daniel Mortimer.
The match-up: The No.13s are old mates Paul Gallen and Greg Bird, a battle that always ensures a few fireworks.
The history: The Sharks hold a narrow 6-5 lead in 11 clashes with the Titans.
The last time they met: Gold Coast hung on for an 18-12 win over a besieged Sharks outfit that was going through off-field tumult not dissimilar to the Titans’ own current plight.
The stat: This match is the Titans’ 200th in the NRL.
The verdict: Barba’s absence may actually help the Sharks’ spluttering attack, and the home side should be able to get the lollies on Saturday night. Sharks by 8
St George Illawarra Dragons v Manly Sea Eagles @ WIN Stadium, 7.30pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Two ailing clubs racked with personnel problems striving to avoid going 1-3 to start 2015.
The form guide: The Dragons eased some pressure with a phenomenal comeback from 18-0 down to pip the Raiders 22-20. The Sea Eagles were outlasted 16-12 by the Bulldogs, unable to build on their narrow victory over the Storm.
The selection table: Steve Matai and Kieran Foran have been named to return for Manly, while Trent Merrin comes into the Dragons’ starting side for the first time this year.
The match-up: The wily veteran Jamie Lyon up against the rookie Euan Aitken, who was outstanding on debut last week.
The history: The Dragons lead the head-to-head count 14-8.
The last time they met: The Sea Eagles notched a hard-fought 21-12 win at Kogarah.
The stat: Manly has not won in Wollongong since 2003.
The verdict: Question marks over both forward packs, but if Foran and Matai line up the Sea Eagles have too much firepower to be denied by a Dragons side that is a long way from being out of the woods. Sea Eagles by 7
SUNDAY MARCH 29
New Zealand Warriors v Brisbane Broncos @ Mt Smart Stadium, 12.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The Warriors celebrate their 20th anniversary against the team they debuted against in 1995, with the match a delicious appetiser to the Cricket World Cup final.
The form guide: The Warriors have been impressive if still less than fluent in attack in consecutive wins over Canberra and Parramatta. The Broncos rocketed to form with a 44-22 thrashing of the Cowboys after a scratchy opening fortnight.
The selection table: Sam Tomkins is out for six weeks, with Tui Lolohea moving to fullback and Matt Allwood coming in at centre. The Broncos are unchanged.
The match-up: Johnson v Hunt could very well decide this one.
The history: The Broncos lead the all-time tally 20 wins to 15.
The last time they met: Struggling with poor form and the standing down of three players for midweek boozing, the Broncos overcame a 12-0 deficit to down the in-form Warriors 28-22 in Round 19 last year.
The stat: The Broncos have not won at Mt Smart since 2009.
The verdict: Even on form, paper and recent history, the Warriors’ home-ground advantage and sense of occasion should get them over the line. Warriors by 6
Sydney Roosters v Canberra Raiders @ Allianz Stadium, 2.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: Blake Ferguson comes up against the club he burned with constant misbehaviour – can he burn them on the paddock a la Todd Carney in 2010?
The form guide: The Roosters have confirmed their status as a front-line title contender, despatching the Panthers 20-12 a week after their rousing derby loss to Souths. The Raiders, lauded for their effort in the opening two rounds, threw away an 18-point lead to go down to the struggling Dragons.
The selection table: The Roosters are unchanged, while Jack Wighton returns at fullback for the Raiders.
The match-up: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Jack Wighton have been standout so far this season, and are set for a thrilling fullback duel.
The history: The Roosters hold a 31-25 edge in 56 games.
The last time they met: The Roosters eased to a 26-12 victory at Allianz in Round 12 last year.
The stat: The Roosters have won 15 of their last 16 at their home base.
The verdict: The Roosters have much firepower up front and out wide for a Raiders line-up that is on the improve but is still learning how to finish off games. Roosters by 12
MONDAY MARCH 30
North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm @ 1300SMILES Stadium, 7.00pm (AEDT)
The storyline: The pre-season fancies who are struggling up against the written-off heavyweights who are flying. The Cowboys’ much-hyped title aspirations effectively go on the line at home on Monday night.
The form guide: The Cowboys produced the worst defensive display on the season in a 22-point loss to the Broncos, their third straight defeat. The Storm have been clinical and classy, disposing of the Sharks 36-18 last up.
The selection table: Justin O’Neill and Kyle Feldt have made way for Antonio Winterstein and Matthew Wright one the Cowboys’ flanks, while the Storm are unchanged.
The match-up: Bromwich v Scott, arguably the two best props in the code.
The history: Melbourne has won 19 games to North Queensland’s eight.
The last time they met: The injury-hit Storm was trounced 22-0 in Townsville in Round 12 last season.
The stat: The Storm have won 11 of their last 14 Monday night fixtures.
The verdict: Based on form, Melbourne has to be favoured – the Storm are a difficult team to rediscover your mojo against and the Cowboys are in for more hurt this weekend. Storm by 10