St George Illawarra Dragons v Newcastle Knights @ Kogarah Oval
The Dragons and Knights will be looking to end forgettable campaigns with a win when they clash at Kogarah Oval on Saturday afternoon. The Dragons will be looking to atone for back to back losses against the lowly ranked Roosters and Eels. Newcastle are on track to become the worst team since the Gold Coast in 1993 and are staring right down the barrel of an 18th straight defeat on Saturday. The sides last met in Round 16 at Hunter Stadium with the Dragons scoring 4 early tries on their way to a 30-18 victory. This game will also see the NRL trial the Captain's Challenge as the NRL look to experiment with ways to improve the speed and decision making of technology in the game.
Benji Marshall, Will Matthews and Taane Milne all return for the Dragons with Drew Hutchinson and the injured Tariq Sims making way. The match represents the last chance for Marshall to impress rival clubs with the veteran play making off contract and no chance of remaining at the Dragons in 2017. Dragons fan will not get to see Ben Creagh in the Red V one last week despite him being named early in the week. Creagh, the club captain last played in Round 3 and has been forced into retirement after battling a chronic knee injury. Creagh has been a stalwart for the Dragons managing 270 club appearances and playing a starring role in the clubs 2010 Premiership under Wayne Bennett. The Dragons have enjoyed playing Newcastle in recent years winning 11 of the last 14 contests between the pair and surely can end a poor season on a winning note.
The Knights get back Nathan Ross on the wing, while Korbin Sims and Cory Denniss are named on an extended interchange bench. The Knights and Dragons get a chance to farewell Jeremy Smith, a hard nosed forward who has been one of the real enforcers in the NRL for a decade. Smith played a starring role in the Dragons 2010 Premiership and has racked up 213 appearances at 4 different clubs including the Sharks and Storm. Nathan Brown will surely be looking for 1 or 2 experienced NRL players in the off season as he looks to nurse his young side through a couple more years of painful rebuilding.
Verdict - This could be an interesting game as both clubs have nothing to lose. I expect both teams to throw the ball around and this could be try fest if the weather starts to clear up. A few people are expecting the Knights to cause an upset this week however I simply can’t tip a team that has lost 17 straight. The Dragons will not want to lose in front of their ardent fans at Kogarah to a side with only 1 win all year. I expect this game to be close but the Dragons to seal the win late. Dragons by 8.
North Queensland Cowboys v Gold Coast Titans @ 1300 Smiles Stadium
A Queensland Derby with huge finals consequences awaits us on Saturday night at the Cowboys and Titans lock horns in a blockbuster at 1300 Smiles Stadium. The Cowboys need a win to make the all important Top 4 after hitting their straps in recent weeks with victories over the Warriors and Bulldogs. The Titans meanwhile need a victory to secure an unlikely finals berth after fluffing their chance last week at home against the Panthers. If the Titans lose they must sweat on the Raiders knocking over the Tigers at a jammed packed Leichhardt Oval on Sunday. The teams have not met this year which seems curious given the NRL should be cashing in on marquee derbies between the 3 Queensland clubs.
The Cowboys will be forced to wait another week to get pack Origin front rower Matt Scott however they do get back the experienced Ben Hannant for the must win clash. The Cowboys have built an impressive record against the Titans at home winning 5 of the past 6 clashes. Johnathan Thurston has not trained all week due to illness however is expected to be on deck for the clash. The Cowboys possess the 3rd best attack in the NRL and with Michael Morgan returning to form in the past couple of weeks they have the opportunity to take pressure off Thurston. Going back to back has proven a near impossible task in the NRL in the past 2 decades however the Cowboys appear to have all the credentials to give it a real shake again.
The Titans Neil Henry has kept the Cowboys guessing by naming David Shillington, David Mead and Lachlan Burr on an extended 7-man interchange bench. The Titans have not quite managed to get the best out of Jarryd Hayne since his return from the NFL. Hayne was again quiet last week in his preferred position at fullback. You would think to knock over the Cowboys away from home the Titans might require a bit of x factor and Hayne really needs to step up and have a big game here. The Titans through the aggressive Ryan James and Greg Bird might see an opportunity to take it to a Cowboys pack missing Matt Scott. Even though this side has over achieved massively this year it will be a real kick in the guts if they were to miss the finals from here.
Verdict - This will be a cracker of a game hopefully on a dry track in front of a huge crowd. I think there might a bit of feeling in this one with both sides putting it all on the line. The Titans have been great underdogs this year so I think they are a bigger chance in this match then many people think. I think they might be able to jump the Cowboys early here and potentially lead at halftime. However with the Cowboys playing for a spot in the Top 4 I just think they have a class edge and will get over the line in a thriller. The Cowboys are 10 from 11 at home this year so it is very difficult to pick against them up in the tropics. Cowboys by 1.
Melbourne Storm v Cronulla Sharks @ AAMI Park
The NRL gets a dream match up here in Round 26 with the Storm and Sharks battling it out for the Minor Premiership on Saturday Night at AAMI Park. Melbourne were poor last week after being ambushed early by a desperate Broncos side and will be keen to bounce back in front of their home fans. The Sharks finally returned to the winners circles after a poor month of football with a confidence boosting 37-12 win over the Roosters at Shark park. When these 2 sides met way back in Round 4 at Shark Park the Sharks were really aggressive and physical in securing an engrossing 14-6 win at Shark Park.
Melbourne have one crucial out with strapping forward Nelson Asofa-Solomona missing the clash through injury. Craig Bellamy has named Matt White and Christian Welch on an extended bench. The Storm are the most consistent side in the NRL and have not lost back to back games all season. The Storm defence has been outstanding all season and they are clearly the best ranked in the NRL however it as interesting the way Brisbane attacked them last week,. The Broncos played with a lot more ball movement and adventure, which caught the Storm cold a bit early. I expect Cronulla to try and replicate that this week.
The Sharks name an unchanged team however have had to deal with the Andre Fifita drama. Coach Shane Flanagan patience must be wearing very thin with the wayward forward. Fifita's form has generally been good this year however his discipline on and off the field could derail the Sharks as they throw everything into trying to get their maiden Premiership. Paul Gallen's presence notably lifted the Sharks last week as he had a strong game and was rewarded with a try for his efforts in his return match. While no one ultimately will remember who wins the minor premiership the Sharks confidence would be sky high if they could knock off the Storm in Melbourne.
Verdict - Another Super Saturday cracker on our hands here. This game will have plenty of niggle and intensity about it. I expect the Sharks especially to try some aggressive tactics and try and put Melbourne off their game. I think while the Sharks might be able to dominate this match early Melbourne can limit them on the scoreboard and frustrate them. I think the Storm will be really fired up after missing a chance to seal their minor premiership last week against the Broncos. I think they might be able to wear Cronulla down and be the more disciplined side over 80 minutes. Melbourne have not lost back to back home games all season and at home I can't bet against them. They might be able to take advantage of the shaky Shark defence on their goal line. Melbourne by 6.