With the rep season now behind us, the Rugby League community adjust their lens to focus on the almighty domestic competition laid out intriguingly before us. There are no less than eleven teams still in the hunt for the top 8, and whilst the Warriors might be a long shot, it aint over till the fat lady sings.
All players backing up from Wednesday?s absorbing State of Origin contest gleefully rub the deep heat into the thighs once more as some teams look to consolidate their positions and others look to make a charge.
I just wish I could pick a perfect round! With an honest 5 from 7 last week and 65 from 111 overall, I?m in danger of slipping out of finals contention and could be left handing out the prizes.
Eels v Dragons
The Dragons are coming off the bye here, with four players backing up and the most interesting being Ryles and Bailey. They may well find themselves on the bench and playing a vital role in the first game of the weekend.
Parra are coming off a huge victory against the Bunnies last week and should be full of confidence with their second game in a row at home. The player to watch in this game will be Mark Riddell, former Dragons hooker and now Eel. The Riddler was a crowd favourite at the Dragons and gained cult status with his arm-raising custom during goal kicks. He hasn?t played against his old team yet and it could be a confusing sight for some Dragons followers when he raises that arm.
Whilst I think the Dragons have been going well of late, Parra really have turned things up a gear. Their general play is sensational and I think they might want to avenge last year?s poor loss to a virtual Premier League Dragons side, but they won?t get Saints by much.
Rabbitohs v Sharks
The Sharkies suffered a demoralising loss to the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium last week and they now travel into the heart of league territory to take on the Rabbitohs, who were bashed senseless by Parramatta last start.
The Sharks have lost that edge that they seemed to possess earlier in the season and they are struggling to compete in the forwards. Danny Nutley backing up from Queensland duties won?t help their cause, but the Bunnies have Harrison in the same boat and Fletcher has been dropped for his racial slur.
But given the recent horrendous play by Souths, whereby they?ve had 100 points put on them in the past two weeks, you can?t really see them turning it around. I think they?ll be lucky not to have 30-odd posted in the visitors column ? Sharks by plenty.
Panthers v Sea Eagles
Tough one here. Manly won?t like travelling out to Penrith, few teams do. But the Panthers have been exposed as genuine pretenders of late and are easily the most disappointing side this season.
The Sea Eagles have outperformed themselves though and currently sit 4th on the ladder and keeping well within the bounds of the top 4 throughout most of the season. But they dearly miss their Origin stars and haven?t been performing so well away from home lately.
With Beaver and BK backing up, one wonders whether they can inspire the team to victory given the injury to other star performer Anthony Watmough. Looking across the paddock at the sides, Penrith actually have the better looking team and I think they?ll steal the two points from a very understrength Manly outfit on Saturday night.
Storm v Raiders
We move on to Olympic Park next, where crowd figures lately have been a little disappointing. The NRL reported that about 300,000 people from Victoria watched Game III the other night so a few people down there must like the sport.
Can you please start going to games then?
Canberra look to be a more confident outfit with Jason Smith in their team and they did a number on the Cowboys a couple of weeks ago and disposed of the Panthers last round. I think they have a pretty good opportunity here but it will depend on how their game plan is structured on the smallest ground in the NRL.
With Smith and King back, plus the pent up frustration of Slater still lingering about, I think the Storm will get them here. But tipsters beware, this is one of those games where Canberra could spring an upset just as we all start writing them off again.
Warriors v Bulldogs
When Canterbury travel to New Zealand they tend to draw big crowds and the games are always competitive and free flowing. Let?s hope that happens at the weekend because both sides need to find their groove this week if nothing else.
The Warriors are a strange bunch. Their comeback last week ended after they nudged slightly ahead of North Queensland and then slackened off. Their team is a good one but this week the Bulldogs are capable of pulling off a few selection talking points. With Big Willie and Reni Matuia travelling with the team it has raised hopes that both players may make an early return from injury.
But I feel this could be the upset of the round. New Zealand only need to believe in themselves a little more to get the job done and this is the perfect opportunity. If the game opens up, the Warriors might find themselves with a big lead.
Tigers v Roosters
This is the match of the round if you ask me - two teams desperate for two points. A young enthusiastic Tigers outfit playing a more experienced yet out of touch Roosters team.
Easts dispatched easily of Newcastle last week, but face a tougher side here in the Tigers. With Crocker, Mini, Flanno and Fitzy backing up plus the suspensions of Cross and Morley, the Bondi boys are looking a bit spent.
But this is another one of those games that the Tigers would win easily if they took it to Campbelltown of Leichhardt. The Roosters would probably prefer Telstra Stadium and it really hasn?t been a happy hunting ground for Wests.
Despite all this I?m going to take the Tigers who are on a bit of a roll. This sometimes means they fall in a heap, but I think the Roosters are ripe for the picking here.
Knights v Cowboys
The Cowboys go on the road here to meet the Knights in Newcastle who are searching for their second win of the year. Each team have players backing up but with this match played on Sunday it should have allowed their players time to recover well enough. There?s always half a chance that Joey or Bedsy might miss this one as well.
North Queensland still look very tough up front with so many good forwards but I?m not sure that Travis Norton really adds a whole lot at five-eighth. The Knight were spirited last week and seem to be approaching games with a ?nothing to lose? mentality, but they?ll need all that and a bit more to overcome the Cowboys on Sunday.
The visitors should win this one comfortably.
The Broncos have the bye this weekend and their Origin stars will be lying around feeling sorry for themselves. I already feel sorry for Melbourne who face Brisbane in round 19 at Suncorp Stadium. The Broncos players have a few demons to exorcise there, namely Game III and the round 4 flogging which saw Brisbane run home with their tails between their legs after conceding 50 points at Olympic Park.Like