NRL Round 21 Saturday Preview

New Zealand Warriors v Penrith Panthers @ Mt Smart

 The Warriors will be looking to end their 2 match losing skid when they take on the Panthers at Mount Smart Stadium on Saturday Afternoon. The Panthers enter the match in 8th, while the Warriors have slid to 9th in what shapes as a crunch match for both sides. Penrith produced arguably their best performance of the season in their 31-12 disposal of an out of sorts Broncos side at Suncorp Stadium last Friday. While the Warriors will have to overcome the heartbreak of back to back golden point losses to Manly and Canberra if they are to get their faltering season back on track. 

 Warriors coach Andrew McFadden has made a major positional change shifting Tuimoala Lolohea from the interchange bench to fullback. The move will be anticipated to spark a clunky Warriors attack which has played in fits and spurts of late. Despite a late rush of tries agains the Raiders, the Warriors have been well below their brilliant best with the ball in hand of late. Indeed it has been the team's usually suspect defence which has made strides of late, the team averaging just 16 points against over their last 7 games. The Warriors defence will be put to one of their sterner tests on Saturday though against a youthful and freewheeling Penrith side. 

 The Panthers travel across the ditch for the 2nd time this season after taking a home game to Christchurch to play the Warriors in Round 10. The Panthers were impressive in Christchurch in running away with a 30-18 win through a late burst of tries. Much has changed at the foot of the mountains since then with playmakers Jamie Soward and James Segeyaro departing the club for England. The Panthers have instead put their faith in young guns Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright in the halves with mixed results. The club will be boosted heading into this game by the re-signing of experienced halfback turned hooker Peter Wallace. Wallace has gone under the radar this season with his outstanding performances in a position he was thrown in to. His reading of the game and toughness are a vital asset for a side that have plenty of flair but little patience. 

 Verdict - Exceptionally hard game to call here. With so much riding on the result I think this game will go right down to the wire. If it is a dry track expect both sides to score 20+ points. Penrith have struggled to put wins together this season and for that reason I am leaning towards the Warriors at home. Warriors by 2.

 Parramatta Eels V Wests Tigers @ ANZ Stadium

 Parramatta take a home game to ANZ Stadium to take on the resurgent Wests Tigers on Saturday Night at ANZ Stadium. The Eels have defied all that has been thrown at them until the last couple of weeks suffering back to back losses away from home to Penrith and the Titans. The Wests Tigers sitting in 10th spot are making a run late for the playoffs after years in the wilderness. They will fancy their chances of building on their win against St George Illawarra against an Eels side beset by injuries and worn down by turmoil. 

Such is the crisis at Parramatta that roughly half the side that was involved in the 8-0 win over Wests Tigers back in Round 4 are now either on the sidelines or have left the club. The Eels finals chances were officially put to bed last week and its hard to see them finding the motivation and tenacity that they have displayed all season against the Tigers. While the loss of Semi Radradra and Corey Norman has proved the tipping point, the Eels pack has continued to take it to their opposition. The Likes of Tim Mannah and Danny Wicks never shirk the task and they will be looking to play spoilers and get in the face of the Tigers. Clint Gutherson has proved a bit of a revelation at five-eight and he might be able to expose a rushing and fragile Tigers edge defence. 

 The Tigers managed to keep the Robbie Farah saga at bay with a scratchy win over the Dragons last Sunday. While I thought the Tigers looked clunky and disjointed out of the dummy half for much of the afternoon, they did manage to overcome an 8-0 deficit and defend a number of repeat sets in their win. With close to a fully fit roster and other sides starting to fall off the cliff things are starting to open up for the Joint Venture club. A win here would take them to equal 8th spot with momentum on their side. Young halves Mitchell Moses and Luke Brooks will again by asked to take more responsibility and build on their encouraging performances of late. Moses especially looks a player ready to take his game to the next level. 

Verdict - As a Tigers fan I am worried about bit of complacency here and a Parramatta ambush. Parramatta coming off a 20-point loss are a proud side and they have displayed that this year on several occasions. Despite being down on troops I expect the Eels to give the Tigers a real tussle here. However the Eels just have too many quality players on the sidelines, Tigers to prevail in the last 10 minutes but not before a real battle. Tigers by 6. 

 North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm @ Dairy Farmers Stadium

 A blockbuster awaits us on Saturday Night at Dairy Farmers as the Premiers take on perhaps the greatest threat to their crown in the Melbourne Storm. Cronulla fans won't like me saying that, but I did tip this as the 2016 Grand Final back in February and am going to bullishly back that prediction till the bitter end. The Cowboys flexed their premiership muscles in disposing of the Bulldogs 36-0 last weekend.  While the Cowboys are safely nestled in 3rd spot, Melbourne can virtually lock up their Top 2 spot with a win pushing them 4 games clear of the Cowboys. These sides played out a cracker in the Double header earlier this season at Suncorp Stadium with the Storm prevailing 15-14 in an absorbing contest. 

 The Cowboys will be sweating on the fitness of halfback Jonathan Thurston heading into the clash. Thurston lasted a tick over 40 minutes last week before succumbing to a hamstring injury. While many would probably take the extra week to nurse the injury Thurston will be desperate to play and in the process put down a marker in their quest for back to back titles. In the past no Thurston meant no Cowboys, however they are a different beast these days. Whilst Thurston's absence there is no doubt the Storm will start favourites the remaining Cowboys spine of Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan and Jake Granville have plenty of points in them. They were every impressive in their 18-0 shut out of the Bulldogs in the second half last week. Whilst the playmakers often get the glory the Cowboys pack led by Tamou, Scott and Taumalolo is a fearsome sight and will be eager to use their size advantage over the Melbourne forwards. 

 The Storm head to Townsville off the back of a workmanlike 26-10 win over the Roosters at home last week. Craig Bellamy's men are clearly the best defensive side in the side, which is often a gauge of where the premiership title may head. The Storm are conceding less then 12 points a game through 18 games which is a truly remarkable statistic at this stage of the season. While the Storm has always had a resolute defence it’s their potent attack which has caught many by surprise in 2016. Whilst Origin veterans Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith remain the focal point of the Storm machine, they now have weapons all over the park. Munster, Vunivalu, Chambers and Koribete form the basis of a wonderful backline, which is remarkable considering the loss of Billy Slater in Round 1. Up front Jesse Bromwich is as dynamic a front rower as you will find, while Proctor and Harris are a handful on the edges. 

 Verdict - This will be a cracker.  While plenty depends on whether Thurston passes his late fitness test I just have a feeling the Cowboys can win this one regardless. I still maintain the Storm as my tip for the Premiership. However here the Cowboys are at home and they need to lock up their Top 4 spot and keep in touch with Melbourne for a Top 2 spot. Maybe, just maybe Melbourne are due a bit of a flat one. Cowboys by 2 (by 7 if Thurston plays)