Round 20 NRL Preview

We?ve got seven games remaining for the 2006 season and starting this week they are mighty important. There?s been a feeling that this season?s quality has been down somewhat, but I expect that to change this round as clubs face the prospect of making it to the top 8 or missing out.

We do have a fairly clear-cut top 4 in both placing?s and performance, and I expect that should remain through until the conclusion of the minor premiership. With everyone down to the Eels capable of making it, there are some huge games this week, namely Tigers v Eels and Sea Eagles v Panthers. Even the Raiders v Dragons and Cowboys v Broncos have the potential to influence in a big way.

As for the tipping, well I hang my head in shame after last week?s effort. I collected a dismal 2 out of 7, plummeting to 81/131 (62%) and looking pretty shabby. For the punter, there?s only a few more rounds to have a crack at the leader and now?s a good stage to take a risk or two.

Storm v Sharks

We get the weekend underway in our recently celebrated Southern Capital of Melbourne where the Storm return to their Graveyard to hack away at the Sharkies, who are a bit like fish out of water at the moment.

That may not necessarily be the case here though, with Cronulla one of the few teams who have been able to consistently trouble the Storm over the past few years. The Shire boys have won five of their past eight games against Melbourne including two down at Olympic Park. They don?t seem to be worried by the smaller playing surface either, perhaps because of the way their own game is structured ? close passes, short and sharp runs at the line etc. Their line-up is reasonable but they have been underperforming lately and really miss Simmons at the back. The forward pack is about the best they have to offer though, so they will at least compete.

But looking at the Storm it?s hard to see them losing. They have been rolling out the same team for a few weeks and their last effort against the Knights in Newcastle was very impressive. I think they?ve proved they are the real deal and should go into this one full of confidence. Bellamy isn?t the sort of coach that will let them lose their heads either. The inclusion of Crocker on an extended bench adds some spice and mongrel to their forwards as well, I hope he gets a run but they?ve all been pulling their weight lately and nothing?s a certainty.

I?m taking the Storm here to continue their winning ways. There?s no AFL on in Melbourne either, so this should be a litmus test for the fan base down south.

Bulldogs v Roosters

Super Saturday kicks off with a bang out at Homebush as two last start winners lock horns in what should be a healthy contest, and might even sport a few fireworks.

The Roosters broke their drought last week even if they did concede 32 points along the way. There?s plenty to be said for getting a win on the board and you never know what it might do to the morale within the club. Unsurprisingly, they have been very quite out at Bondi this week which leads me to believe that they?re planning some sort of ambush. Maybe they already did after securing the signature of Myles for next year? But the other unsurprising thing is that they?ve remembered how to play now that everyone is back in the positions where they belong. I think you?ll see them put in a valiant effort this week facing a team they always lift against.

The Bulldogs are raging favourites in this one and rightly so. They took home the chocolates in a classic stoush last week and deserve all the wraps they get. Interestingly, favouritism doesn?t always sit that well with them. Their team is as strong as it can be, including a monster forward pack who rose to the challenge last week. Sometimes though, you need to be careful when backing up after such a physical game and this may be the one chink in Canterbury?s armour this week. This is probably what Easts will play on and should throw the ball about with gay abandon in an effort to unsettle their well-drilled opponents.

Again though, I don?t see anything other than a Bulldogs victory here.

Cowboys v Broncos

Next we travel to FNQ for one of two local derbies this week with the Cowboys hosting the Broncos in Townsville.

Brisbane are coming off the bye and following a loss to the Storm just after the conclusion of the Origin series. They?ve been making all the right noises regarding the freshness of their players after having the week off and I think you?ll see a rejuvenated effort from them. Their end of season problems have been well documented in season?s gone by but in fairness I think the team running out onto the field this week is looking pretty good. Hodges returns and Boyd has been holding his own at the back. But I?m a little uneasy with Berrigan at hooker. I would rather he be in the centres and Tate on the wing, where he has been very effective. That would see McGuire to hooker and Minto dropping out, but I?m not the coach and Benny has had a fortnight to think about this so I?ll take his word for it.

The Cowboys are officially in a crisis. Earlier in the year I cast some doubt over the amount of changes Murray was making to a winning formula and I think you?re seeing the results of it now. Whilst being picked on your merits and having pressure to hold your position is a good thing, it?s also something that needs to be measured against lending a player a certain amount of faith in his ability. I think the regular changes to the side have resulted in a massive loss of confidence that can only be stemmed by picking the same team each week for the next month or so. Bowman at lock is ridiculous and I feel a bit sorry for Williams as well - he suffered enough indignity when being run down by Clinton last week. For crying out loud, let him make up for it!

Again, you just have to tip the Broncos here and it will be an excellent gauge leading into the finals. I think they?re a big chance this season. As for the Cowboys, they need a serious case of Annus Mirabilis to overcome this form slump.

Knights v Rabbitohs

Our final chapter of the Saturday games comes to rest in the Hunter where the Bunnies hop off the train and head across to Marathon Stadium to take on the Knights.

This week?s big outsiders, Souths are paying $5.25 (at a minimum) at the bookies for a win and also present good value of around $2.10 with 12.5 start. You?d have to think that?s a fair bet considering they have come within that margin in their past three games. Paulson in the centres is a bit untested but it?s good to see Geddes back. If he can stay on the field he should be able to at least foot it with the Newcastle forwards who are sure to try and run roughshod over the Bunnies. Souths haven?t won at Marathon for 12 years though.

The Knights are looking a bit like a pumpkin right now and need a win to get back into shape, having only just got Souths earlier in the year at Telstra. They?ll look to Johns and Buderus obviously, but I?d like to see Thaiday come into the equation a little more than he did last week as he was very effective earlier in the year before getting injured. The forward pack seems to have too much grunt for the Bunnies, but again they need to take this mob seriously. Souths have nothing to lose and will throw everything they have at the Knights and if they get a few decisions going their way in the refereeing department, you might witness the odd Newcastle fan loosening their shirt collars.

But you?ve got to play it safe here and as much as I?d like to see the Bunnies get up, it?s the home team for me.

Tigers v Eels

The second local derby for the round opens our Sunday of footy down at Headquarters with the Eels swimming up the river to play the Tigers.

Straight off the bat Parra has the wood on the Tigers lately, winning the past three encounters between the clubs and 8 out of 13 in total, including every game staged at Telstra. They?re fielding pretty much the same team that they have for the past few weeks and now have four in a row to their credit. I wasn?t overly impressed by them last week against the Warriors, but Auckland is never an easy road trip I think they?ve remembered how to win footy games. They?re another team with nothing to lose and each win puts them closer to a finals berth, which a month ago seems about as likely as Lebanon and Israel having a friendly barbeque.

It?s more than we can say for the Tigers, who are finding ways to lose at the moment. They have been very inconsistent lately, dropping four of their past six games and they had three of those in their keeping (Manly, Penrith, Raiders). Hodgson?s switch to five-eighth is a two-edged sword. He was playing there in attack anyway, but now he?ll have to defend there as well which may pose a problem. There is some doubt over Farah and if they lose him to injury they lose the game in my opinion. I do like the look of their forwards and the bench is strong as well, but they just haven?t been performing lately and it?s tough to see them turn it all around here after last week?s poor finish.

I?m sticking with the Eels although Hayne is the ref and anything could happen.

Raiders v Dragons

Next the Dragons climb aboard the Firefly bus and head down the Hume to meet Canberra in the near-Arctic conditions of out Nation?s Capital.

This is a danger game for the Dragons after losing to Canterbury last week. Whilst they?ve had nine days to recover they have lost Gasnier and Creagh with Barrett returning after a lengthy suspension. Hornby finds himself in the unusual role of centre, which I find confusing. All his versatility will evaporate here and even if they had few options to cover that position I think they?ve probably gone with the worst of them. Why not play him at fullback, stick Best or Morris in the centres and play Greenshields on the wing? Or maybe Brown will rotate Hornby with Barrett? Anyhow, the rest of the team is formidable but they?ve got their work cut out for them. Bailey and Poore will really need to stand up here and Young?s return should provide some smarts around the ruck, which I think they were missing last week.

The Raiders must fancy themselves here though, they boast a monster pack who are capable of rolling the Dragons if they play their cards right. They also have the wood on the Dragons, winning five of the past seven with a draw in there too. That?s a pretty big hoodoo to overcome and Saints haven?t won in Canberra since 2000. If Elliot actually keeps Carney on the field for most of the game I think they?ll do alright. He was the difference last week against Wests and has been developing into a nifty little playmaker. There isn?t much between the two backlines in their current state and I think the smarts of Smith for Canberra could swing it for the Raiders.

With a bit of a cloud over Head and the possibility that Barrett may overplay his hand upon returning to the top grade, I?m very worried about the Dragons in this one. I?m going to pick them but I expect a huge effort from the Raiders as their season is on the line and victory might see them climb inside the top 8.

Sea Eagles v Panthers

Our final game of the round sees the Mighty Mountain Men head east to Fortress Brooky on the Insula Peninsula.

Penrith have now won three of their last four and are putting together a little bit of form to suggest they can trouble the Manly club. And given what happened against Souths last week, an upset here might not be too far out of calculations. Gower is back for the Panthers which is a positive, but he can?t be particularly fit so I?d look to target him if I were the Sea Eagles. The rest of the Panthers side is looking up to scratch, Gordon is playing well and Clinton?s game-saving tackle last week at least proved that they still care.

Manly are fielding a strong line-up with rumours that Bell could be a late inclusion. I?ve been impressed with Hicks and Matai out wide lately though and the match-up against Galea and Lewis will be a highlight of the contest. It?s no secret that Kennedy is a little bruised but I think he?ll be up to it again this week, especially in front of the home crowd. The clash of the halves should be a great one too, with either Orford or Gower likely to be the difference here.

Recent form between the two clubs is hard to split and I can see this game having more of an attacking focus as both teams go in search of an invaluable two competition points. I?m going to take the home side in this one as I think that advantage will be enough to get them home and it should give them a bit of breathing space and maybe even a chance to pressure the top 4.

The Warriors have the bye in Round 20 after crashing to the Eels last week. It?s a bit disappointing for them as I think they?re at least having a go each week and in some ways deserve a shot in the finals. Not everyone can be there come September, but I think they would have made it a bit more interesting.