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We?re now eight games shy of the finals and there are some very important matches this round and in the coming weeks. This makes the job of the punter just that bit harder as you try to factor desperation into the tipping equation each Friday afternoon.
I didn?t have a lot of fun last week, leaving three on the table for a grand total of 79/124 (64%) for the year. I?m baffled by the Raiders, but that shouldn?t surprise me as they?ve been doing it all year to me. Perhaps Schifcofske?s move has damaged them a little. Why on earth would you want to play that other stupid game?
If anyone other than an Eels fan picked them last week then you?re a genius and at the end of the day I laboured over the Tigers and still didn?t put my slippers next to their bed. Anyhow, that serves to create another layer of complexity for this round?s tips and the only two teams who can?t be dislodged from their respective ladder positions are the Storm and the Rabbitohs.
Dragons v Bulldogs
The boys down at Channel 9 keep coming up trumps with this week?s Friday night Football again a highly anticipated match. Both clubs had wins over the weekend, but in very different circumstances, and they meet at Kogarah Oval for the first time since 1999, the year the Dragons and Steelers merged. The boys in blue (and white) got up that day and apparently there?ll be a few extra people watching from the stands in similar colours.
Canterbury let the Warriors get out of the box very quickly last week and were gravely exposed on El Masri?s wing. Vatuvei is a big, strong boy and you can probably excuse Hazem to a degree, but I doubt Folkesy will let that happen again. This week he?s up against Morris, who?s made jumping into a bit of an art form lately but isn?t as blessed in the flesh as Manu. Moving on from that, I thought the Bulldogs were impressive in the way they came back at the Warriors to claim victory in extra time. New Zealand has been in tear-away form lately and the Doggies didn?t crack under pressure. Plenty of eyes will be on Sherwin after his understudy Roberts put on a bit of a show last week, and the rest of the squad is pretty strong in particular the forwards, with Sonny Bill and Myles set to add some impact from the bench.
The Dragons are a much different story with this their first real test for three weeks, having a bye in between and games against the Bunnies and Cowboys doing little to prepare them for a genuine heavyweight of the comp. They do boast a good list however, but Ryles has been ruled out with Sims making a return. Gasnier goes back to five-eighth, meaning the three-quarters more or less cancel each other out. Hornby?s return to fullback will make for interesting viewing as he?s been in the halves for so long I fear he may have forgotten how to play back there. But I?m tipping he?ll spend a fair bit of time in the mix moving the ball about and that?s where he?s been dangerous of late.
Unfortunately I can?t see the Dragons walking away victorious from this one. The strength of the Bulldogs forward pack is where the game will be won I think, and whilst the Dragons are well served in that department, Canterbury have a production line happening at the moment and they mean business. Plus, I think the Dragons are just due for a loss.
Warriors v Eels
A very Super Saturday gets underway across the ditch in the newly re-named Warriors home ground ? Mt Smart Stadium. This grand old lady reverts to her maiden name and I reckon it?s a beautiful thing.
Parramatta might not think so, enduring a 3 from 8 record there, but they did come away victorious in their last encounter. The big loss for the Eels is the injury to halfback Tim Smith who was starting to find some of his best form and has been partly responsible for Parra?s resurgence. They break another Smith out of the mould in the form of Jeremy, who?s heading over to Souths next season. He hasn?t been in the top grade since he pushed a ref at Kogarah and will be looking to make an impact at halfback as he seems to have that position locked up for the rest of the year. The loss of Tim could also be partly offset by the return of Ben to the centres, especially with Tahu still missing.
It won?t really phase the Warriors right now though. They?re cracking walnuts with sledgehammers in a desperate effort to make the semi?s, falling just short of their fifth straight victory last week. Looking at both teams they are evenly matched in a lot of areas, with the clash of Vatuvei and Hayne sure to be worth a look. Starting Anderson is a good ploy with Faumuina, a man who has no respect for his own body, free to come off the bench and run riot. The smarts of Gatis will also assist this week and perhaps that?s what they needed against the Dogs when they were up 16-0.
Still, I?m going to stick with the home team in this one, they?ve got enough petrol in the tank and playing at home should give them an edge over Parra.
Panthers v Cowboys
Another vital clash here as the Cowboys travel down south to Penrith and book out the east wing of Panthers nightclub. The Panthers will join their rivals on 20 points if they win and have seemingly resurrected their finals hopes if they do. If not, the Cowboys push further into the top 8.
North Queensland has endured an unwelcome week hosing down speculation that some people have been up to naughty things. This is a bit make or break for them; it could galvanise them into the robust team they were earlier in the year, or they could fall apart even more. I guess we?ll find out on Saturday when they trot out onto Panther Park. Their backline is looking smarter and young McConnell handles himself well in the top grade. In the forwards, Scott, Webb and O?Donnell will be raring and with Smith and Southern on the bench they have good impact.
The home side are again missing their leader and halfback Gower in a cruel blow to their finals fortunes. It will place more pressure on Campbell and they have resisted opting for Lewis at five-eighth on his return from a dislocated finger, instead recalling Trindall from the wilderness to have a crack. His selection could provide the Panthers with an ?unknown quantity? advantage, but if his kicking game isn?t up to scratch they could struggle. Penrith have been a bit of a bogey team for me recently, I thought they?d go down to the Raiders last week but instead they were quite good.
But I?m going to tempt fate again this week and tip the Cowboys to ride off with the chocolates in this one. Murray is back with his mind on the job and if they don?t win, you?ll hear the alarm bells ringing all the way from FNQ.
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles
We continue the recent trend of Sydney games on a Saturday with a potentially entertaining affair between old rivals Souths and Manly out at headquarters in Homebush.
Manly snapped a three-game losing streak against the slapstick comedy of the Roosters last week in what I thought was going to turn into a war out at the SFS. Morley was punishing and if Easts had of got behind him more they might have won, instead Manly stepped up and got back in the winners circle. They?re going to miss Menzies and Watmough with their generally sparkling backrow now reduced pretty much to BK. They would have taken plenty of confidence out of the victory last week and I think that will be a telling factor for them this time around. Plus, the Bunnies bashed them 44-6 in their last clash and that might have been brought up once or twice down at the gym this week.
Following last week?s effort against the Dragons, I don?t think you can write the Rabbitohs off here. They played some very entertaining footy and had a dig but still never looked like winning. Have they forgotten how to win? Maybe, or perhaps they only feel like they?re a chance when a team is understrength e.g. the win against the Broncos and the near miss in Townsville. If so, then they have every right to consider themselves a chance here. Their team is looking good on paper with Champion going ok and Sutton being used relatively well at lock. Peachey has been worth every cent and the MacDougall?s have a go every week.
I?m going to tip the Sea Eagles because it?s hard to tip a side like Souths, but I won?t be choking on my cornflakes come Sunday morning if they Bunnies get the two points.
Knights v Storm
Sunday kicks-off up in the Hunter with a very important game for the Knights in the context of the competition. Whilst Melbourne could afford to drop this one, Newcastle are occupying 8th spot with little more than a truncheon to repel the advances of Wests, Penrith, Canberra and the Eels.
Melbourne played smart footy against the Broncos last week and the return of Billy Slater was welcomed down south. The try he laid on for Turner was something else and it just goes to show what they can produce when they?re on their game. The backrow are in fine touch, dictating terms on the fringes of the ruck to their opponents. But they?re not at Olympic Park this week and things will be a bit different.
Newcastle are obviously hurting after their thumping at the hands of Parra last week, and rightly so, they were a rabble. But I think they could get home here and the bookies have priced the game only slightly in favour of the Storm, so I think they?re onto something. As I said earlier, desperation will count this week and the Knights need to win, their season depends upon it. Plus, the past three games Melbourne have won have been very tight and could have gone either way, so I think their hiding a few of their faults.
Marathon Stadium is always a hard road trip and Joey won?t like losing up there. The Knight?s team is very robust and I think they will try to blow the Storm off the field through the middle of the park. I?m tipping a narrow Newcastle victory. Like the Dragons, I also think the Storm are due for a loss and have only won at Marathon once in eight attempts.
Raiders v Tigers
Wests hop on the highway down to the Nation?s Capital to meet the Raiders in a very important match for both sides. The winner will break away from the loser?s sights for at least a week and it could be enough to decide their season?s fate.
The Tigers were pretty good last week, throwing in a commanding performance away from home and they?ll be hoping they can replicate something similar down in Canberra this time around. I think their three-quarter line is looking much better at the moment and although Fitzhenry isn?t as dangerous as Benji, he certainly proved he can run last week. Galloway also stood up and he needed to against his old club. If he has another go like that this week it?ll certainly help things along. The rest of the pack is pretty strong, good to see Halatau backing up and look for O?Hara and Payten to have big games against their former colours.
For Canberra, well they?ve fallen into a bit of a hole. After making everyone believe they could jag a win from just about any situation, they?ve gone a long way in the past two weeks to prove otherwise. It might also say a bit more about their opposition (Parra and Penrith) than it says about them. They still have a good team and although the Schif and Mogg were backing up last week, you?d have to think that wasn?t the main cause for the loss. I get the feeling that the Raiders may have peaked, but I?m careful not to go too far with this statement as they tend to bite you when you least expect it. Their forwards are still capable, as is the backline, and the confrontation in the middle of the park is going to be a ripper.
The home side are the favourites with the bookies, again not by much. Looking at the two teams all I can think is that the Tigers bench does look stronger. Right now if I had to say which one of these teams would make the top 8 I would pick the Tigers. Based off that I think they?ll win on Sunday and continue their quest towards the finals.
Roosters v Sharks
Ugh, this one could go anywhere?
Cronulla get the express to Bondi where they will meet a very bare stadium for the game against the Tri-Colours. The Sharks were underwhelming last week and we can assume that the past two weeks are a manifestation of poor form as opposed to a mere aberration. Kimmorley and co pulled every trick they had last week and couldn?t find a way out of losing to the Tigers, who prior to that were rather pedestrian. But they bring back a few players to the forward pack this week, with the backrow in particular looking good, and the rest of the team is more or less unchanged. I think Simmons at the back is proving himself to be a very big loss to cover.
The Roosters, well, what can you say about them? They had a great excuse to get behind Morley and run over the Sea Eagles last week but retreated into their shells and decided it was too cold to fight. We?ve still got players out of position (Wing, Finch, Cross) and players in the team who are badly out of form (Anasta, Harrison) being slapped together and they don?t really know what to do. They do have the crux of a reasonable forward pack with Morley, Fitzgibbon and Shillington playing hard, but with little or no support from the rest of the side they can?t dominate their opponents. Injuries to the likes of Tupou aren?t helping, but their bench may as well not even bother. Paea had a bit of a go last week but the other three are wouldn?t know if they were on fire.
I?m tipping the Sharks here, but more by default. I don?t think the Roosters can put up a decent fight and if they do it will probably be amongst themselves.
The Broncos have the bye in Round 19 after falling victim to the Graveyard in Melbourne. These boys need a rest and that?s fair enough, they?ve been plugging away pretty hard throughout the Origin series and I?m expecting them to be fresh when they take on the Cowboys up in Townsville next week in an all-Queensland affair. Should be a cracker!