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Round 15 is upon us and as the mercury starts to plummet, the action on the field is starting to hot up with the competition providing some of the closest results on record. Last weekend there were no major blowouts and five of the seven games played were decided by four points or less in what has easily been the best competition since 1998, the NRL?s inaugural year.
The mountain men from Penrith get their first crack at free to air coverage as they take on a depleted Newcastle Knights, who are without all their Origin stars. The calibre of players mising from both sides means Newcastle are handicapped moreso than the Panthers and in turn, with only one player on Origin duty and three others injured, the Panthers still face a huge credibility test in the wake of their loss at the hands of the Melbourne Storm. I think the Panthers will get home but not by much.
Welcome to Russian Roulette, NRL style. The battle of the beaches sees Manly and Cronulla square off at Brookvale and the loser can pretty much kiss the top eight goodbye, such is the magnitude of this match. The Sharks are without Brett Kimmorley and Phil Bailey and that alone is enough to sway me towards Manly, who were competetive against the Dogs last weekend and are at full strength so they should get the money here.
Traditional rivals St George Illawarra and South Sydney face off at WIN Stadium on Saturday night and although many will think this is a one-sided affair, you may want to think again. The Dragons will be without Shaun Timmins, Luke Bailey and Jason Ryles; all on Origin duty while Trent Barrett and Mark Gasnier are still on the sidelines due to injury. The Dragons are also nursing some injured players in Lance Thompson, Brett Firman and Mark Riddell. And all three will be targetted heavily by South?s forwards. I?m going to stick with the home side but again, only just.
My, how the times have changed. We see the in-form Cowboys take on the struggling Eels at Parramatta Stadium on Saturday night and a win for the Cowboys will see them maintain their good form and stay on the verge of the top eight. Parramatta welcome back Nathan Hindmarsh from injury and his presence alone will lift the Eels and a win would see them six points outside the top eight with eleven rounds to play and two byes in hand. I?ll stick with the home side as they have found a little form after a last gasp win over the Warriors and the Cowboys have several player son Origin duty which may be the difference in the end between the two sides.
My match of the round is next. The inconsistent Warriors take on the Canberra Raiders at Ericcson Stadium in a match that should provide some big hits from two of the league?s fiercest forward packs. The Warriors lost in disappointing fashion to the Eels last weekend while the Raiders went down to the Broncos in a superb game of football with goalkicking the difference. The Warriors look light on for experience in the backs and Canberra?s speedy outside man are sure to exploit this while the forward battle should produce some bone rattling clashes between the likes of Ryan O?Hara and Richard Villisanti and Luke Davico up against Jerry Seu Seu. Canberra are at full strength while the Warriors have several key players on the sidelines with P J Marsh among them. The heart and head both say Canberra but a runaway victory is unlikely.
The Roosters travel to Campbelltown to take on the Tigers, who have found a way to score points and were unlucky not to win their last two matches against Manly and the Sharks. They will never get a better opportunity to knock off the premiership favourites who will have half their side on Origin duty so an upset here is likely and I?ll go that way and back the Tigers for a rare win. It would also be their first home victory of the year.
The unpredictable Storm host the equally unpredictable Bulldogs at Olympic Park in the televised match of the day. Melbourne ended the Panthers eight match-winning streak last weekend while the Bulldogs beat Manly in a workman like performance. Steve Price and Travis Norton are missing (Origin) for the Bulldogs while Robbie Kearns is on Origin duty for the Blues. The Bulldogs have failed to live up to the hype of last year while Melbourne have been one of the surprise packets of 2003. Matt Orford and Scott Hill should have too much skill for the Bulldogs, who need a win here to eye off a place in the top four.
Another round gone and I?ve dropped to third in the tipping comp but there is still time to make up lost ground on the leaders and this round presents a perfect opportunity with some very tough games to pick. Knowing my luck, I?ll be lucky to tip one match.