Brisbane v Penrith @ Suncorp Stadium
Both sides will be looking to build on last start victories as they clash at Suncorp Stadium on Friday Night. The Broncos rebounded claiming a much needed 30-10 win over an understrength South Sydney, while the Panthers had to come from 14 behind to knock over their Western Sydney rivals Parramatta to keep their Top 8 chances alive.
With Origin out of the way Brisbane will be looking to reignite their stuttering campaign. Whilst they would have gained some confidence from a decent 80-minute performance against Souths, they still suffered a few alarming defensive lapses. This is not the well-oiled machine that started the season defending their goal line like their lives depended on it. Whilst wins are all that matter, I don't think the current Top 3 sides would be too worried about the Broncos right now. However they have time on their side to gradually build up their performances and get back to their best and gain that crucial top 4 spot.
Penrith can be brilliant in games but are equally as brittle. With new young Cartwright and Cleary and with plenty of talent around them, they have the sort of offloading and free wheeling game that can really trouble the Broncos. The problem for Penrith is they lack resolve and leadership in key positions. Without Soward and Segeyaro the Panthers have been extremely erratic in recent weeks. They have bombed games they should have won on multiple times this season through some soft goal-line defence and poor options. Anthony Griffin will be keen to get a win up on his old stomping ground or risk losing further ground in the race for the Top 8.
Verdict - I expect Penrith to cause Brisbane plenty of problems in this game. I expect this game to be quite wide open with both sides running up 20+ points. I'll stick with Brisbane because they are better in the close games, however I think there will only be a point or two in this one.
Canberra v Warriors @ GIO Stadium
The high flying Raiders will be looking to cement their finals position against the Warriors at GIO Stadium in Canberra on Saturday afternoon. The Raiders, currently occupy 5th spot on the ladder and have an imposing record at home this season, losing just 2 games while the Warriors will be looking to rebound from a heartbreaking loss in Perth in Golden Point against Manly.
Canberra are building nicely under much maligned coach Ricky Stuart. In his 3rd season Stuart has managed to build a side which is ideally suited to the modern game. They have big, powerful forwards and have some fast outside backs. At their best, they are a handful for any side in the competition. However the Raiders have also lacked control in plenty of games this year. Their ball control and discipline has often meant they have relied on a strong 20-30 minute burst to beat a side. They always keep their opponents interested.
The Warriors are putting together a typical Jeckel and Hyde season. Whilst their mid-season surge has lifted them into the Top 8, they took advantage of other sides being weakened through Origin. The last 2 seasons the Warriors have fallen apart at the back end of the competition and these same questions marks remain heading into the final 7 week stretch.
Verdict - This will be a madcap game for mine. Both sides have a habit of clocking off in games and scoring points in bursts. 3pm kick offs in Canberra mean points and plenty of them. The track is usually fast and conducive to free flowing football. Both sides will comfortably score over 20 points, however at home I have to lean towards the Raiders.
Gold Coast v Parramatta @ Skilled Stadium
The Titans will be looking to further enhance their Top 8 prospects when they take on a beat up Parramatta outfit on Saturday on the Gold Coast. The Titans were ultra impressive in dismantling the Dragons 36-6 at Kogarah last Friday and have a golden chance to put a bit of a gap between themselves and their rivals. Parramatta's finals hopes were put to bed last week at Penrith despite putting in another staunch performance under adversity.
Earlier this season Parramatta took a home game to Darwin when defeating the Titans 22-12. Despite the Titans shooting out of the blocks to 8-0 the Eels came storming back in the steamy conditions up north. While the Eels will no doubt look back to that game, without Norman and Radradra they will have pop gun attack at their disposal.
Gold Coast will fancy their chance at home with their attack starting to click. With Nathan Peats and Ash Taylor forming a dangerous combination the Gold Coast have some targets on the edges and some threats out wide which they haven't had in previous years. Parramatta need to win just about every game to make the finals. Despite this their fans can be really proud of what Brad Arthur and the squad are putting on the paddock each week as they continue to roll with the punches.
Verdict - Parramatta will be looking to drag Gold Coast into a real arm wrestle here as they did in Darwin earlier in the year. However back then the Eels were still running on emotion and had thoughts of making the finals. With injuries and issues mounting, I feel they are ripe for the picking for the Titans. Titans by a couple of tries.
Melbourne v Roosters @ AAMI Park
The 2nd place Storm take on the 15th place Roosters in a potential mismatch at AAMI Park. The Roosters were thumped 46-0 on their own patch earlier this year by Melbourne and will be dreading the trip to AAMI Park. Whilst since that time the Roosters have managed to get some key troops back on the paddock it still hasn't equated to wins and they have very little bar pride to play for here.
Whilst the gap between these two sides is gaping on the competition ladder, the Roosters have the talent to test the Storm. With young guns Latrell Mitchell and Connor Watson impressing in key positions last week, the Roosters are not devoid of attacking threat. Where they have struggled this season is with discipline and defending errors. The Roosters too often have beaten themselves this season as they have gone down in a number of tight matches.
The Storm are having an outstanding season under veteran coach Craig Bellamy. Whilst they had a scrappy win over the Knights, Newcastle did play well and the Storm with Cronk and Smith on the quick back up held firm. Without the injured Billy Slater since Round 1, Cameron Munster has had another excellent campaign and has been a crucial part of Melbourne's long vaunted spine.
Verdict - Expect The Roosters to have their moments here like in most games this season. However you can't back against the Storm at home when they are aiming for a Top 2 spot. Storm to forge clear in the last 20 minutes after a tight first hour.
Sharks v Knights @ Shark Park
The Sharks will be looking to extend their remarkable 14 match winning streak with another victory at Shark Park over last placed Newcastle. Whilst the Sharks have come close to a loss a few times in the last month, they have been well below their best. They threatened to blow the Roosters off the paddock with some sparkling attacking football before inviting them back into the game through some errors.
The Knights head to the Shire off the back of 2 encouraging performances. Belted into submission on many occasions this year Nathan Brown's young squad were right in the contest against Top 8 heavyweights Canberra and Melbourne. Despite this the Knights remain rooted to the bottom of the table with just the sole victory in 2016 coming against the Tigers at home.
Verdict - Hard to see anything other than a Sharks romp in front of their home fans. Whilst they have not quite clicked in the last month they are really playing an enterprising and explosive brand of football. If its a dry track I reckon the Sharks will give the ball more air and rack up over 40 points here at home.
Dragons v Tigers @ ANZ Stadium
Perhaps the most intriguing match up of the round takes place at ANZ Stadium on Sunday as the Dragons take a home game to Homebush to take on the Tigers. The eyes of many will be watching closely to see how this Tigers side respond to coach Jason Taylor's big decision to dump Origin hooker Robbie Farah to reserve grade. Taylor might have made a calculated gamble in wielding the axe this week given the Dragons diabolical recent form. If the Tigers can win well without Farah, Taylor will see that as a big first step in getting his vision onside with players and the clubs supporters.
The Dragons head into this game looking woefully out of form. Back to back limp displays at Brookvale and at home last week against the Gold Coast have left them outside the Top 8 with a horrendous differential. However one thing The Red V have been over the past 18 months is resilient. They made the finals last season off the back of a really strong defensive rearguard and have scratched out similar close fought victories to keep them afloat in 2016. Where the real concern lies is in their faltering attack. The Dragons are averaging just 13 points per game and star halves Gareth Widdop and Benji Marshall have looked out of synch for most the season.
The Tigers, whilst placed in a lowly 11th spot, have have been playing decent football since Canberra put 60 on them in the Nations Capital. This is a squad on the rise with plenty of young talent. With dynamite fullback James Tedesco coming back into red hot form they have plenty of points in them. The problem for the Tigers is a familiar one. They are still leaking too many points to win consistently. Jason Taylor's number one goal heading into Concord was to fix their leaky defence, however ranked 15th best in 2016, he still has plenty of work to do.
Verdict - I was really confident earlier in the week that the Tigers would hammer the Dragons. However with this Farah - Taylor saga reignited the Dragons might smell a bit of blood. I still think the Tigers deserve strong favouritism here but my confidence of a romp is greatly diminished. Tigers by 2
Rabbitohs v Manly @ ANZ Stadium
Souths will be looking to snap a 6 game losing streak as they welcome Manly to ANZ Stadium on Monday night. The Bunnies have had a rotten campaign, and will be thanking fellow Sydney powerhouse clubs Parramatta and the Roosters for taking them off the back pages most week. Indeed Souths' poor season has largely gone under the radar. Manly were a club with similar lofty expectations heading into 2016 and have fallen on similar hard times.
Both sides face having to almost win out to make the finals in 2016, a prospect that seems remote. Manly remain a more realistic chance given they have finally started to put some form on the board in the past 3 weeks. A gallant defeat to Premiers North QLD in the tropics was followed by back to back wins against the Dragons and Warriors. Coach Trent Barrett will be relieved to be able to field most of his star players this week, as Manly have been beset by injuries in 2016.
The Bunnies will be looking for returning halfback Adam Reynolds to help ignite their season. Reynolds was a late withdrawal to a team that was handsomely beaten by the Broncos last week. Souths problems appear widespread. Their star players seem to have lost their edge and their defensive efforts have been well below their noted best. Whilst Michael Maguire continues to put on a brave face and talk positively, I'm sure deep down he knows his squad is in need of major renovation.
Verdict - Going with a gut feeling and the Bunnies here. Manly fans won't travel to ANZ on a cold Monday night and would think Souths senior players have too much pride to lose 7 straight. I expect this game to go right down to the wire, with the Bunnies scoring a late winner.