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This time of year is very critical in determining the fate of each team as we approach the Origin decider in Melbourne next Wednesday. After trying to get their players into a rhythm all year, coaches will no doubt be chewing the corner off their clipboard as the prospect of being able to pick from their entire squad, injuries and suspension aside, for the remainder of the season becomes a reality.
A deadly battle for top 8 positions is underway and I?m giving everyone down to the Warriors a shot at making the finals although I?m worried about both the Tigers and Panthers. With rep players suited up in the stands this weekend, tips will rely heavily on who their replacements are, but there?s only six games this round and that?s one less to get wrong than usual.
The judges gave me 5 from 7 last week and I?ve put a couple of decent rounds back-to-back furnishing a cumulative total of 71/111 (64%) but I?m still doing it tough to make an impact. It reminds me of the time Little Miss Muffett tried to invade Turkey ? she had Kurds in her way.
Sea Eagles v Knights
Straight off the bat we?ve got a tough one and it shapes as another in our recent line of outstanding Friday night games.
For large parts of last week?s game I thought Manly were the better team and if Matai keeps running right at the end there, perhaps they would have got the result. Hodges took an intercept from a poor pass and some individual brilliance by Tate also got them over the line. It has punched a few holes in Fortress Brooky?s reputation but Newcastle haven?t won there since 1998 and that?s the only time in their history that they have.
Manly are without Burns through suspension and Menzies through rep duty, which does weaken them a bit. Kite was dropped from NSW so he is starting at prop and Michael Witt gets his first crack in the top grade this season. Moving on to Newcastle, Hinton hasn?t impressed me at the back and they are really missing Thaiday. Kurt Gidley is injured with Buderus and Simpson out on NSW duty and recently the Knights have struggled without Bedsy in particular. There?s not too many holes in the rest of the team though.
This is a hard pick with Newcastle sustaining four consecutive losses and the Sea Eagles two. In cases like this you tend to go with the home side but I?m going to lean against that this week. Whilst Newcastle are out of form I think the forwards cancel themselves out and the Knights have the better looking backline and will win the game there. I?m very disappointed that Carmont cut his hair as I was salivating at the potential clash of the pony-tails when he lines up against Matai.
Warriors v Panthers
Super Saturday takes off in the Shaky Isle as the Panthers travel to Auckland to tackle a resurgent Warriors outfit.
Penrith?s card isn?t looking too flash (6/14) but they were back in the winners circle last week after a three match losing streak and seven losses from their previous nine starts. Gower is lost to the club again after he was called up for NSW. Wesser is also out after jagging a wing spot for the Maroons. This forces Lewis to pull on the no.6 (sound vaguely familiar?), Youngquest goes to fullback and the rest of the backline sorts itself out. The pack is still pretty good.
I don?t think they?re going to be any match for the Warriors at home though, and fair dinkum you Kiwi?s better show up this week! You deserted them against Newcastle and had free entry last week, so fair?s fair, get out to Ericsson Stadium and cheer them on. The backrow is playing unreal footy right now and even with Price out they still look imposing. The week before the last Origin game Wiki lifted, as he tends to do when Price is unavailable, so I think we can expect more of the same on Saturday. With Rovelli in the groove and Webb, Martin and Mannering all playing well I think they?ll get the chocolates here. I just hope they realise the Panthers will put up a bit more resistance than Souths.
Raiders v Eels
Next the Eels slither down the Hume Highway to play the red-hot Raiders outfit.
Parramatta are coming off the bye and suffering from several internal dysfunctions that have cruelled their season. The team they?re fielding is as good as it gets for the visitors but I?m not sure they can?t take the Raiders if they put their minds to it. The likes of McKinnon, Morris, Smith, Moimoi and Morrison should see that they put up a good fight, but I don?t think they can win.
Canberra are at near full-strength and despite the loss of Schifcofske, still boast an excellent backline. Learoyd-Lahrs, Tilse and Tongue played well last week and will back up again in fine fashion. My money is on the Raiders here and with their good form, coupled with Parra coming off the bye, I think they?re a good thing.
Cowboys v Rabbitohs
Finally, we travel to FNQ where the Rabbitohs look to recover from their worst loss ever. Somehow I don?t think Townsville is the place to do it.
After a six game losing streak things are looking pretty grim for the Cowboys. They are outside the top 8 after leading for the first six weeks and playmaker Johnathan Thurston is on rep duty this week. But Williams makes a return as will a couple of rookies.
As for the Rabbitohs, well this is the sort of game they could win from time to time. After being on the receiving end of a shellacking last week they really have nothing to lose this week. Their record at Dairy Farmers isn?t an overwhelming one, but with the changes they?ve made they could be competitive.
But I?m going to stick with the home team to win here, I just think the Cowboys will have too much class.
Broncos v Sharks
If there?s one thing we?ve learnt over the past few weeks, it?s that we need to respect the Sharks.
Personally, I don?t think I?ve paid as much respect to them as I should have; case in point last week v Newcastle. Anyhow, this week is a different matter. They have won their last four games in a row, but they?ve also lost their last four games against the Broncos. Home ground seems to be little advantage, but it slightly favours the Broncos.
This week it will be a different case as the Sharkies catch a budget flight to Brisbane to meet the under strength Broncos. With a few injuries and their contribution to Origin, it?s hard to see anything but a victory to the visitors here, as they possess a superior backline and forward pack.
Also, I thought that the Broncos were a bit fortunate against the Sea Eagles last week and look due for a loss. Similarly, Cronulla should have won by more and they?ll probably scrape home in this one and make it look like they weren?t really trying.
Tigers v Bulldogs
I lost a bit of respect for the Tigers after last week?s defeat at the hands of Penrith. I think the loss suggests they may have forgotten how to win tight games, similar to the Manly game in round 14. And with Benji out they don?t have a ?go to? man at the moment. I?m sorry, but here I go again telling Tim Sheens how to pick teams. I?m no supercoach, but in the past the only bloke who?s done any good as a replacement five-eighth has been Ben Galea. I know, he?s a bit slow but he?s got a football brain on him. So by moving Farah to halfback you weaken an important position at hooker and also take the running of the game out of Prince?s hands. If Galea were to play 5/8 you could use him as an extra forward and let Prince roam free whilst not affecting the backrow considering the depth of talent they have there. At least Lolesi is back in the three-quarters again, so look for him to have a big game against his former club.
The Bulldogs are missing Mason, O?Meley and Myles from their line-up but the exclusion of Ryan from the Blues outfit left a few people mystified, myself included. He?ll no doubt look to have a strong game just to remind everyone he can still play. Looking at their pack it?s still pretty impressive with Asotasi, Sonny Billy, Maitua and aforementioned Ryan. Tonga is back from injury and Utai from suspension so that adds to their firepower in the backs.
A significant difference between the two teams is their respective benches. Whilst the Tigers? interchange players appear much stronger they haven?t had a lot of footy in them this year. Overall the Tigers have won 5 of the last 8 games between the clubs, but they were touched up 47-12 earlier in the year and I think the Doggies will get them again.
The Dragons, Roosters and the Storm have the bye in Round 17. Given all their individual circumstances it?s probably a great time for each club to have a week off. The Dragons and Storm are riding high on the table and have a few people involved in State of Origin meaning they would have been under strength. Neither team can go backwards on the ladder, so that?s a good thing. The Roosters are in strife though, and look to have ?Jumped the Shark? for 2006. Blokes are swearing at each other on the field and the coach reckons it?s a good thing?whatever.