Dragons v Titans
A desperate Dragons return to their spiritual home of Kogarah to take on the Titans this Friday night. This a pivotal match up for both sides who are locked in a dog fight for 7th and 8th spot alongside a host of other sides. Paul McGregor will no doubt have his side motivated and ready coming fresh off a bye with memories of being belted 36-6 at Brookvale Oval still at the forefront of their mind. They have a Titans side coming off 2 straight losses against top 8 rivals the Raiders and Warriors.
Even in winning in 2016 the Dragons have at times looked disjointed. Whilst they put in a scintillating first 40 minutes in Newcastle scoring 5 tries, these occasions have been few and far between. Instead one of the hall marks of McGregor's side has been the ability to grind out the close games, particularly at home. This has kept their head above water in 2016 however they are paddling towards the finishing sides with sides breathing down their neck in the race for the finals.
The Titans have been the surprise packet of the season under Neil Henry. Written off my many including myself as wooden spoon contenders back in March they have played an enterprising brand of football. With fire brands Ryan James and Greg Bird having excellent seasons and Rookie of the Year contender Ash Taylor leading them around the park the Gold Coast have been competitive in every game of football this season. The concern for the Titans is in both 2014 and 2015 the team faded in the back end of the year, fatigued through injuries and endeavour. A loss at Kogarah would be a 3rd on the trot and doubts would be creeping in about their ability to stay the distance.
Verdict - The loser of this game faces a real uphill battle to climb back into the top 8. It's hard to see anything other than a close encounter here at Kogarah. Slight advantage to the Dragons given their record in tight games but you could not tip them with any confidence.
Manly v Warriors
Manly take a home game to Perth on Saturday to take on the Warriors. The Warriors are forced to make the gruelling 10 hour trip to NIB stadium which could knock their preparations around. No strangers to NIB Stadium, it has not surprisingly been a bit of a grave yard for the Warriors on previous occasions.
The Eagles will be looking to capitalise on their best performance of the season against the Dragons in Round 18. A campaign that started with plenty of hype and expectations has been a damp squib for Manly. Languishing in the bottom 4 under rookie coach Trent Barrett, the Eagles have been beset by injuries and their new signings have struggled for continuity. As harsh as this might sound, the injury to Brett Stewart may be a blessing in disguise as the electric Tom Trbojevic moves to fullback and gets his hand on the ball more.
The Warriors find themselves in familiar territory heading into this crunch encounter. They starting the season in typical slow fashion and at times seemed to be unravelling copping some beltings at home and abroad. A win against Brisbane at home kick started their season as they took advantage of the Origin period, going on a mid-season surge. However in 2014 and 2015 the team folded once the Origin period ended and the heat came back into the competition. The Warriors can be brilliant but there is no doubt they are also brittle and there's no doubt these doubts will linger in their minds.
Verdict - If there is a fast track over in Perth expect both sides to put on some points and give the ball some air. A high scoring affair with a slight leaning towards Manly given the Warriors have to travel 10 hours and suspect away form.
Brisbane v Souths
Brisbane will be looking to put an end to an alarming mid-season slump against the downtrodden Bunnies on Saturday night at ANZ Stadium. The Broncos find themselves in unfamiliar territory, stunningly coughing up 40 to the Bulldogs and 48 to the Storm in back to back hidings. Their recent travails pale into insignificance compared to the hapless Bunnies who will be looking to avoid a 6th successive loss, their worst streak since 2009.
The Broncos, who started the season as most experts' Premiership favourites, have fallen at the final hurdle in 2015. There were little signs those experts would be proven wrong as they marched out of the blocks winning 6 from their first 7. However since then their most valuable asset, their water tight defence has malfunctioned alarmingly. The forward pack is getting beat up most weeks and as Origin has taken its toll, confidence appears to have taken a battering. Even young firebrand halves Hunt and Milford look to have doubts in their head at present. Whilst Bennett will be concerned he will also know it's hard to keep a side up and going for 7 months and his side is more than capable of rebounding at the back end of the season.
The Bunnies started 2016 riding the high of saviour Sam Burgess riding back into town. In the opening 2 rounds Stuths blitzed their opponents and markets were readjusted accordingly. However since then the Bunnies have hit the proverbial brick wall lurching from one medioce performance to the next. Star players Inglis, Reynolds, Burgess, Sutton and Keary have often been well below their best in a club that looks fatigued and out of ideas. Whilst Michael Maguire is a top coach and will never be forgotten for leading Souths to their first title in 47 years, he appears out of ideas at present. Souths at their best became renowned as a smash mouth team, relying on their power game and their physicality to ride rough shod over opponents. However the 2016 version looks incapable of reproducing this, whilst the effort remains in most games, Souths are leaking points and at present will finish closer to the Spoon than the finals.
Verdict - Both sides well short on confidence to play fairly conservatively rather then blow their opposition away. On a slippery surface At ANZ expect a field possession battle. Tight affair with a slight edge towards the Broncos given they have more at stake.
Melbourne v Newcastle
Competition heavyweights Melbourne Storm roll into Newcastle on Sunday afternoon looking to continue their eyebrow raising mid-season form. Melbourne produced arguably one of the most stunning mid-season performances of recent memory dismantling the Broncos at Suncorp 48-6 in a ruthless display of attacking efficiency. They will fancy their chances of producing a similar scoreline against the hapless Knights who are cast adrift at the bottom of the table in 2016 under new coach Nathan Brown.
Going into 2016, whilst the Storm were respected by the bookmakers, most people had them below the heavyweights in Brisbane and North Queensland. However under master coach Craig Bellamy, the 2016 version has added some real strike power to an organisation acclaimed for their consistency and ability to grind out games.
It's been a long, cold winter for Newcastle with just the solitary victory coming agains the Tigers in Round 6. Whilst that dismal record is no doubt eye watering for Knights fans, positive signs have emerged. You have to admire the stance Nathan Brown has taken since coming into a club that was clearly in free fall after the fraught and failed Nathan Tinkler reign. Brown has not been afraid to play the kids and in the process cast aside several experienced campaigners judged not to be part of the future. Whilst it has made for several shellackings, Brown is taking the long term view, rather than trying to plug holes with short term solutions. Newcastle produced their best performance in 2016 in Canberra, shooting out to a 22-0 lead before heartbreakingly being run down in golden point. With the return of Jarrad Mullen this week in the halves, the Knights will be looking for similar performances to finish off a tough year.
Verdict - Newcastle with Mullen returning to build on their performance in Canberra with another encouraging performance. Melbourne to pull away in the second half and win fairly comfortably.
Penrith v Parramatta
The Western derby takes place at the foot of the mountains this Sunday as a desperate Panthers outfit take on Parramatta. Penrith will be looking to arrest alarming performances in the past 2 weeks as their season starts to slip from their grasp. Whilst for Parramatta, while the dramas at the club just get uglier and uglier, the side continues to defy expectation, battening down the hatches and refusing to buckle.
The Panthers have played an up tempo brand of football in 2016, with plenty of ball movement and second phase play. Whilst they have produced some brilliant football with the exuberance of youth this has been counter balanced by a lack of discipline, patience and building pressure in recent displays. The controversial move by coach Anthony Griffen to jettison Jaimie Soward and James Segeyaro for mine leaves the Panthers short of composure in key positions. Whilst Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright are rep stars of the future, they have been unable to control games against the Tigers and Sharks and have looked rudderless in the opponents red zone.
You have to admire the way this Parramatta squad have continued to defy the circus that has surrounded their club in 2016. It has got to the point of the unfathomably off the field as saga after drama after bonfire continues to rumble away. Brad Arthur deserves massive credit as he has come under immense strain from every angle. To keep his players focused and to motivate his troops under these circumstances has been no mean feet. Whilst they still have a mountain to climb to make the finals every Parramatta fan would be proud of the way they have competed on the field in 2016.
Verdict - Very hard game to call. Penrith have found ways to beat themselves all year and you could not back them with any confidence. However there is only so long I feel Parramatta can keep putting out fires and I think the mountain men can get home in a close one.
Roosters v Sharks
The Sharks travel to Allianz Stadium riding high on the back of a club record 13 game winning streak. Meanwhile the Roosters season from hell shows no sign of abating as have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory the previous 2 weeks. Only the hapless Knights will save the Roosters from the infamy of going from Minor Premiers to Wooden Spooners.
When a side can go to Penrith without 5 Origin players and run out comprehensive winners you know there are serious contenders. The Sharks showed they had strength in depth right across the paddock, and that is vital in any side looking to claim a premiership. The resurgence of Ben Barba has been one of the story's of 2016, his lightning speed and footwork seemingly lost has returned back to where it was in 2012. Along with Barba's revival the signing of James Maloney solidified the Sharks as one of the teams to beat in 2016. The crafty and experienced half partnered with Chad Townsend has turned a bash and barge side into a genuine attacking powerhouse.
There has been plenty of effort from the Roosters the past 2 weeks but they continue to beat themselves. A lack of discipline at key times, elementary errors and conceding tries has made for a cocktail of disappointment. Whilst they maintain a roster capable of doing much better years off excellence appears to have taken the edge off the Bondi outfit. Losing Sheck, Maloney and Jennings in one off season was surprising for a club better known for strenghening rather then shedding.
Verdict - Expect an early Roosters ambush as these to sides don't mind going toe to toe and getting physical. However how you could possibly tip a side with 3 wins batting against a team going for 14 straight? Sharks class to prevail in the last 20 minutes.