FIRE DOUSED | After returning to finals action in 2015, the St George-Illawarra Dragons struggled un...
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Paul is back for another look at the weekend ahead. Check out his tips and see if yours will match up...
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Below, Paul runs the rule over NRL Round 21:
And suddenly it feels like September football is not just a dream - but a reality for excited footy fans across the eastern seaboard. The business end of the season is just around the corner and this game is the perfect way to get things rolling. Souths and Manly from the SCG kicks off round 22 of the premiership and its 1 v 2 on the ladder. You little beauty. The Bunnies on a 3 match winning streak and the mighty Eagles with 4 on the trot.
Manly have the edge here, for mine. They come into this match after a month where their defence has allowed an average of only 9 points against. Souths will have to be at their disciplined best to crack this mob enough times to win. They won't. A great challenge for young centres Dylan Walker and Kirisome Auva'a against the best in the league, Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai, but this match is won with the Eagles defence and enough points via the hand of DCE.
Your Friday night double header continues with the Broncos back home for the night game and the visiting Bulldogs living on Struggle Street. The ‘Dogs have looked busted since their season's best performance against the Storm a month ago. Their defence was grand final worthy on that wet and wild night in Melbourne but now, it seems they gave too much. They've lost 3 on the trot since then and their defence has given up an average of just under 30 points over that span.
Brisbane don't look to be cruising along, either. Since playing their best game of the season a fortnight ago against the Warriors, Brisbane have lost 2 straight and only scored 3 tries total over that time. Rumour has it that Wayne Bennett is already putting calls through to Broncos management asking them to release certain players and re-sign others - how delightfully de-stabilising. Canterbury will take advantage.
Hunter Stadium hosts the Knights v Storm on Saturday at 5.30 and the season can't end quickly enough for Newcastle. Poor bastards. Coach leaving, unsigned players with nowhere to go and now, the in-form Storm coming to town. Melbourne have won their past 3 and more importantly, their defence since the end of the Origin series has only allowed 8 points per game. Compared to pre origin, when they seemed to be struggling and allowed over 22 per game.
Point is, the smart coaches don't seem to waste too much energy in April, do they - and now with Craig Bellamy and his crew showing their experience, they will be rolling right over the Knights in this one. Cooper Cronk is hitting his stride and the Storm forwards are fit and ready. Kurt Gidley returns to fullback for this match and he hates it. Cronk and Smith's kicking game the difference and the poor Knights fans still have 4 home games to sit through.
Saturday night from the tropical north as the Cowboys host the Tigers. The nastiness continues in Tiger town with the front office doing little to help their team. Nothing like a power struggle with your team on the cusp of the 8 to really rev them up for a semi-final run. The sheer stupidity of some administrators to choose winning a sword fight over winning a premiership continues to astound, but we move on to actual rugby league.
Last time they met, the Cowboys only scored 4 points, a try in the 28th minute at Campbelltown in round 6. This time, bet on them crossing the line a few more times than that with the Tigers still in turmoil and the home side on a 3 match winning streak. After exorcizing some demons with two away wins, the Cowboys will be playing their second game in a row at home. When they've had this kind of time not spent at airports and hotels, it spells danger for visitors.
A grudge match in the making since Ricky Stuart cut his rebuilding project short by 4 years and took the opportunity to return home to the nation's capital. Tricky Ricky has worn a number of labels over his career in Rugby League as both player and coach - arrogant, intense, abrasive, champion and saviour. When I think about the great man, the word that springs to mind is ILLUSIONIST. I think about a man who in his chosen profession, in which judgement is purely based around wins and losses, has (since 2008) achieved a 23% win ratio.
10 wins in his last 43 games as coach!!! How can an individual, with such an abysmal record of performance, negotiate a 7 year $7million contract? He is the David Copperfield of the NRL. It was the refs, the players, the crowd, the weather, the bounce of the ball, the sun in their eyes, the board, Gorden Tallis' fault... I want Ricky Stuart negotiating my next employment contract. Illusionist. He can make a wooden spoon appear from thin air. He should have command of a stage in Vegas!!
The Eels, who have thrived under first year coach Brad Arthur, look to keep their semi-final hopes alive against Stuart's struggling Raiders. Based on recent form, they go in as deserved favourites. The Raiders will be looking to salvage some pride and avoid Sticky's second consecutive last place finish. I see the heat, hostile crowd and biased referee assist the Eels in toppling the Raiders in their Darwin "home game".
The poor Sharks, blah blah blah, and to make matter worse, the rugby league punting community is talking about how the Warriors have not beaten Cronulla in their last 5 games. Well, what a perfect way to ensure New Zealand turn up to this match at Mt Smart Stadium on Sunday afternoon, very much aware of this. Not to mention how much they've improved since last time they met Cronulla; the round 5 debacle that ended Matt Elliott's career. It all points to a carve-up in Auckland.
Shaun Johnson still out with injury and the Sharks welcome back Paul Gallen, but with Luke Lewis and Wade Graham missing for the visitors, they simply won't be tough enough to handle the home side. Andrew Fifita continues to impress after returning but the highlight here will be Warriors bench. Mateo, Matulino and big Sam Rapira will be unstoppable when they get on the field. Not to mention Jason ‘boogie' Bukuya primed for a big match against his old club.
St George Illawarra Dragons v Penrith Panthers
Sunday 3:00pm at WIN Stadium, Wollongong
A classic awaits us from Wollongong on Sunday afternoon and this will be your match of the round. Stay with me; The Panthers travel south to face the Dragons and even with the visitors sitting third on the ladder, they are pretty juicy outsiders here. Perhaps understandable considering their horrific injury toll - but the boys from the Blue Mountains were still good enough to beat the Bulldogs last week and with Jamie Soward playing against his old club, they'll be right in this.
The Dragons have their season to play for here and at WIN Stadium with the beach breeze howling and half their team playing in front of their families, will be at their best. Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop were quite hard on themselves after last week's loss to the defending premiers, so keep an eye out for them tearing it up from kick off. A great battle out wide with Josh Dugan against Jamal Idris but it will be Saints scraping home in a very tight one.
Round 22 comes to a close from Allianz Stadium as the Roosters host the Titans for Monday night footy and again, it seems everyone is talking about James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce. The Roosters do have the worst record in the NRL with repeat sets, but they also own spots 1 and 2 on the list of individual line-break assists. Guess which players? Wait - don't answer that, guess who also owns the third best attack in the comp? Yep, the Chooks.
Perhaps they are not playing as well as last year but ain't it always the way with a premiership hangover? With the announcement of the retirement of their captain Anthony MInichiello this week, the home side will be primed for this match and that will do. The Gold Coast also made an announcement mid-week but its motivational properties are questionable. Daniel Mortimer may be sharing secrets here but it shouldn't make a lick of difference.
My tip: Roosters 32-12