25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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With all the upset action from last round and player movements during the week, League fans and punters around the globe have maintained the enthusiasm throughout. Conversation around the water cooler has been dominated by who?s going where, Trent?s tickle on PJ, the abomination at Penrith Park and the Tiger?s chances of finally making the Top 8.
Yes, with two genuine upsets and a few that could have gone either way, the game is looking in good shape and if you thought teams were going to just lie down and accept their fate in this competition, well you?d better think again sunshine?
There?s some very worrying form on display from the Sea Eagles, Sharks, Roosters and Cowboys. Add to that what you can surmise from the controversy at Parramatta Stadium and we have one of the most engrossing home straights we?ve had in a long, long time. There?s still plenty to do in the tipping stakes as well, with 4 from 7 last week allowing me to avoid ridicule and push the barrow along to an underwhelming 69 from 118.
Panthers v Bulldogs
Not a bad way to start the weekend, with two teams coming off close wins that they both desperately needed. But as mentioned above, last week?s effort at this venue left a lot to be desired with fans no doubt scratching their collective heads upon departure. On the flipside, it goes to show how good the League community has it right now in terms of entertainment.
Could last week be the catalyst for Canterbury?s charge? They will be buoyed by the two points and the sniff of the Top 8 is becoming more of a lungful by the day. Their injured stars are starting to get back on the field and within a few weeks they should resemble more than just a shadow of last year?s powerhouse.
The Panthers were atrocious last start and will struggle to remain competitive with Canterbury. They also have a tough draw, facing only teams above them and they take on the Doggies again in round 25. The Bulldogs by a few here.
Roosters v Warriors
Ok, since the Warriors toppled Brisbane three weeks ago I?ve picked them over the Cowboys and Bulldogs, both of which they should have won. I?m very unsure of what is wrong with this team, other than to say they don?t grasp the game firmly enough and seem to have trouble capitalising on opportunities.
But this week they?re specials. The Roosters are looking tired and weary, with team harmony at an all time low. Crocker?s suspension and the constant hooking of Chris Walker through defensive lapses does little to improve it.
If the Warriors can hold on to the ball, play to their strengths in the forwards and allow Stacey some room to run and give him width to set up his backs, I think the Warriors can get over the top of the visitors and perhaps get themselves back into finals contention. If you look at their run home they can make ground on teams just above them that they are capable of beating.
Sharks v Knights
The Sharkies were very disappointing against Souths last week and it makes you wonder exactly how badly a loss like that can mentally scar a team. Nutley was backing up and Jason Steven?s absence has affected them, but it?s time for the men from the Shire to prove they really are men.
And what better way than to beat up last place? But I bet Andrew Johns is looking forward to sledging Brett Kimmorley about his capture of one sky blue jumpers a couple of weeks back.
The Knights staged a remarkable second half comeback against the Cowboys to win only their second game of the season in round 18. Joey was great as was Bedsy and newcomer Jarrod Mullen. Check in over the weekend to see if Kurt Gidley will replace him before you make your pick though. There?s a certain something about Shark Park and although they?ve been ordinary recently they might just scrape home here. It really is toss of the coin stuff, but the old adage of home team advantage will prove correct.
Cowboys v Rabbitohs
A few weeks ago you?d swear the Cowboys would tear Souths limb from limb, but given recent form you might have to think again. The Cowboys have really fallen from grace ever since Carl Webb?s injury. He adds so much starch and brute force to their forward pack and it comes as no surprise that he?s being sorely missed.
The Rabbitohs have been enduring their own problems though, with Harrison leaving and their failure to sign the big-name players they wanted weighing heavily on the club. But did last week?s victory over Cronulla serve to highlight the Shark?s poor form rather than the Rabbitoh?s renewed enthusiasm after having 100 points posted on them in the preceding two rounds?
At home North Queensland will get them, but some very interesting selection choices with Josh Hannay dropped and hooker Aaron Payne playing in the number 7 jersey eluding to the possible exposure of a soft underbelly at the Cowboys in the coming weeks.
Broncos v Storm
This brings us to the game of the round - Brisbane v Melbourne. At kick-off I?ll bet John Ribot will have a smug look on his face at whatever caravan park he?s watching the game from.
Anyway, Brisbane are coming off the bye but with so many players involved in Origin III it won?t have the effect it usually does. Their forwards will be fresh and don?t be surprised if there?s a few late changes. Brent Tate could be one that gets a call up and you may see Berrick Barnes involved at dummy half at some stage.
For the Storm, no real changes to the side that disposed of the Raiders last week with Inglis on the bench just in case the Broncos shake hands with Matt King a little too hard before the game. But Benny has had twelve days to replay round 4?s 50-4 obliteration at Olympic Park back to his team, so I?m sure they?ll come out firing. Broncos by a few and this game should yield a true indication of just where the Storm are placed, who are now the best attacking and best defensive team in the comp.
Raiders v Eels
The Eels travel down south in what has become a more pleasant road trip than years gone by. With a good win under their belt against St George, Parramatta are riding high right now and could even be a shot at the minor premiership.
The Raiders are anything but a threat to hoisting the JJ Giltinan Shield however, with the team failing to score a single point against Melbourne last week. With captain Simon Woolford suspended for eight weeks they will miss his services around the ruck and general organisation.
In round 16, Canberra jagged an unbelievable upset against the Cowboys, and whilst I?m not suggesting this will be the case against Parra you can never write them off. I think if the game is rain-affected it might play into the Raider?s hands, but overall Parra should have too much creativity in the halves and a much stronger pack.
Sea Eagles v Dragons
An interesting clash here and easily Sunday?s most important game. The Sea Eagles were woeful last week against Penrith, once again showing how much they struggle away from Brooky. Perhaps their spirit was broken the week before by the Bulldogs who finally overcame them on their home turf.
The Dragons will be kicking themselves right now and keen to get back in the winners circle after some disappointing losses to the Tigers and the Eels either side of the bye. Last week?s score certainly blew out against Parramatta and they will be out to make amends, but the loss of Barrett is a cruel blow.
I?m favouring the Dragons here, but with stand-in halves it really is difficult to expect them to be on their game. They should have enough in the forwards though and desperation will surely spur the visitors into action.
The Tigers have the bye this round and one wonders if this is the worst possible time for it? They?ve been in good form of late, knocking over the Dragons, Sea Eagles and Roosters over the past three weeks. They?ve got the Rabbitohs next week which is who you?d want if you got the choice to pick a team after the bye, but even the Bunnies have their moments.