25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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Parramatta Eels v Penrith Panthers
Your Friday night 'prime time' game features a couple of footy teams with defence on their minds. Both the Eels and the Panthers gave up 40 points last week, which means this match is a battle of pride. We've all heard coaches say that defence is about attitude and you can bet Ivan Cleary and Steve Kearney have been drilling this philosophy into their charges all week long. The pressure of NRL football rears its ugly head early this year.
So, with the Eels already wooden spoon favourites and the Panthers struggling for consistency, be prepared for a grind in this year's Battle of the West at Parramatta Stadium. Other notable 'battles of the west' include the time I tried to get into the old Argyle St Hotel wearing sneakers; and the famous battle between myself and 2 security guards at The Mean Fiddler. Just like me on these particular occasions, the Parramatta Eels will come off second best, again.
My tip: Penrith 20-16
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Brisbane Broncos
A different kind of 'battle of the west'. This is apparently a fight between the NRL and the good folk of Perth. The NRL's plan of attack revolves around shoving rugby league down their throats until something gives, whilst the jewel of Australia's west responds politely by turning up in their hundreds. If we must persist, then let's have at it with the resurgent Bunnies facing the superstars from Brisbane. NIB stadium will be rocking with anticipation.
Speaking of rocking, Souths put together their best performance for some time last week at Penrith. Their opening 20 minutes was a site to behold as a star studded forward pack ripped the opposition to shreds. This week, they will need to be even more ruthless against the likes of Hannant, Glenn and Thaiday. Backing up proves too big a challenge for the Red and Greens but they go down swinging in a close one.
My tip - Brisbane 22-18
New Zealand Warriors v Gold Coast Titans
This is what they call a 'moment of truth' for the Titans. As a franchise, a football club and a team, they face the biggest challenge so far in their short history. Off the field rumours about financial duress, an ageing leadership group, struggling for form and struggling for points, they travel across the Tasman with a 14.5 point start to face a talented Warriors team with their own point to prove after starting the season 1 and 2.
The visitors will need to be almost perfect with their completion rates, they'll need a sublime performance from their spine and they will need their forward pack to stand up and completely dominate the Warriors for 80 minutes.... 14.5 suddenly seems a little small now doesn't it? James Maloney continues his career best form and Feleti Mateo chimes in at just the right time to send the Titans home with another loss and even more questions to answer.
My tip: Warriors 30-14
St George Illawarra Dragons v Manly Sea Eagles
A challenge of consistency for the Dragons. It's not often we've said this about the Red V in recent years as they have been one of most reliable outfits in the NRL but after their round 2 debacle against the Bulldogs, this will be a good test of character. And no better challenge exists than facing the reigning premiers after a loss as the Manly Sea Eagles come to Kogarah for a Saturday night special and your match of the round.
Aside from the Storm's questionable success, Manly and Saints have been the benchmark in the NRL over the past 5 years. Three premierships between them and some of the most talented footballers in the land. Jamie Lyon v Matt Cooper will set the standard, the two fullbacks will set the grass on fire and the King/Kite v Hunt/Weyman battle up front will entertain us all. The Dragons make it two in a row at Jubilee but only by a whisker.
My tip: Dragons 19-18
North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks
I'm 0 from 3 tipping Cronulla matches this year so for those of you still reading these previews, or even remotely basing your tips around these ramblings, ignore the following paragraphs of bitter and twisted reasoning. With a bit of luck and a bounce or two of the ball, the boys from the Shire could have easily been winners of 3 straight and delivered the change in fortune their fans have been praying for. Alas, Rugby League can be a cruel pastime.
With a win over defending premiers Manly last weekend, the Sharks' luck seems to have changed but just when you think the dawn has arrived; Thurston, Bowen and Matt Scott await at Dairy Farmers on Saturday night. Whilst Jeff Robson brings some defensive resolve to the visitors and Jason Bukuya continues to impress, they simply won't have enough in the tank to hold out the Cowboys for 80 minutes. A cracking game of footy but the home side too good.
My tip: North Queensland 18-16
Melbourne Storm v Sydney Roosters
The Roosters are slowly getting their house in order. They have the look of a team very much aware that 26 rounds of NRL football is a long struggle and one they can't rush into. In other words, their form over the opening 3 weeks has been shoddy, but you can see a method to their madness. In attack, they have looked out of position and out of focus. In defence, they have been willing and able but giving the opposition too much ball.
Apologies to all readers, the above paragraph was written in an attempt to convince myself to take the Roosters with 12.5 start in my multi this week. Smart money says to avoid betting against the Melbourne Storm, in Melbourne, after a week when Craig Bellamy has challenged his team to raise the bar, when they are currently undefeated. This bloke is a maniac and the Roosters are little chance to break down the Storm defence.
My tip: Melbourne 20-12
Canterbury Bulldogs v Newcastle Knights
Canterbury have impressed so far this season and surprisingly, it's more thanks to the next generation of Bulldogs as opposed to the bigger names on their roster. Josh Reynolds has brought an aggression in both defence and attack; his performance against the Warriors last week, in Auckland, was more than noteworthy. Joel Romelo and Sam Kasiano are also playing at high level giving coach Des Hasler a loaded team and a deep bench.
The Knights seem to be going a different way; their forwards struggle to breach the advantage line and subsequently their attack is stalling. With marquee names still on their roster and Jarrod Mullen due for one of his big games, it's tough to count out the visitors but I will anyway. A great battle of hookers with Ennis up against his former mentor in Danny Buderus. The 'Dogs forwards continue to roll over their opposition and win 4 in a row.
My tip: Canterbury 24-14
Wests Tigers v Canberra Raiders
The Tigers and coach Tim Sheens are lucky to escape some of the early season pressure that the likes of Parramatta and the Titans are facing. By all rights they should be without a win this season and whilst they might be notoriously slow starters, this year's form reeks of a different problem. The toughness of Keith Galloway and Bryce Gibbs cannot be replaced and whilst Galloway is due back in round 8, there is a hole in the Tigers' bravado.
Playing against a depleted Raiders' squad, at Campbelltown Stadium, is just what the doctor ordered for the home side. With no Josh Dugan and more importantly, no Shaun Fensom, Benji Marshall and crew have the stars aligned and a perfect opportunity to build some momentum and confidence. Speaking of Marshall, we are yet to see a signature performance from the kiwi superstar so he must be due. Raiders beware.
My tip: Wests 36-22