Time to separate the men from the boys. Round 20 starts tonight with the Bulldogs traveling to Campbelltown to take on the Wests Tigers, who are playing for their season tonight. The Bulldogs are sitting pretty in second spot whilst the Tigers are languishing in eleventh position on 18 competition points.
The Tigers did beat the Melbourne Storm last weekend and you would have to think they are a slim chance, based on desperation alone but when you look at both sides, there is a large gap in class between the two sides and that will ultimately see the Tigers lose and with the loss will go their finals hopes for 2004. Bulldogs by 12.
The Broncos host Manly and it will be all one way traffic for the Broncos but it was this time last year that their finals campaign began to go off the rails so Wayne Bennett will have his team prepared for the job at hand as they look to sew up a top four spot and a home semi final. Manly will throw everything they have at the Broncos but it won?t be enough for the Sea Eagles as they stay in the hunt for their first ever wooden spoon. Broncos by 22.
The local derby between the Roosters and Rabbitohs takes place at Aussie Stadium on Saturday night and whilst the Bunnies are playing some competitive footy, they are not on the same field as the Roosters, who will probably finish as minor premiers so this game, whilst important, is a gimme for the Roosters. The Bunnies did compete with the Roosters in round one this year and if they chance their arm, the Roosters are very suspect out wide, but I think the aim of the game for the Bunnies will be to keep the score line from blowing out too far. Roosters by 16.
One of the round?s most crucial matches. The Eels have the faintest of hopes of making the eight and must beat the Storm to keep their hopes alive, whilst the Storm are still in the hunt for a spot in the top four and their loss to the Tigers last weekend did hurt. The Storm have lost two straight and a third defeat might really start to damage the aspirations of the Storm, especially with the Danny Williams saga set to drag out over the next fortnight. Brian Smith can produce the perfect game plan, and a disaster the next. I?m still not prepared to back the Eels until 2005 but I think it will be close. Storm by 6.
The second crucial game of the round is between the Knights and Cowboys with only one point separating the two teams on the ladder. The Knights lost a heartbreaker to the Broncos whilst the Cowboys cruised to a comfortable victory over the Eels at home. The Cowboys simply can not be underestimated otherwise they will get you and if either team loses this match, you would think it would be a tough ask to make it back into the top eight. I smell an upset here and I think the Cowboys will edge just that little bit closer to their maiden semi final appearance whilst the Knights will slip further into the abyss. Cowboys by 2.
One of the fiercest rivalries takes place at OKI Jubilee on Sunday afternoon when the Sharks take on the Dragons. Both teams and their supporters loathe the other and bragging rights, along with a place in the top eight are on the line. Trent Barrett returns for the Dragons but for the Sharks, they are still without Brett Kimmorley and on that point alone, the pendulum shifts in favour of the home side. The full house sign will be up and the ground will be a sea of red and white. The only thing worth noting is that when you expect the Dragons to win, they invariably lose, no matter how good a side they have on the paddock. The result of this game will have an impact on the finals race, with the loser stuck in a five-way race for two spots. Let the game begin. Dragons by 4.
Last game will be of little interest to anyone bar the fans of either side as the Warriors are gone for the season and the Raiders are still up to their inconsistent best. Being at home I think the Raiders will somehow manage to win the match but not before giving their long suffering supporters hear failure once again. It will be interesting to see how Ruben Wiki fares against his new club. Will he have his mind on the job and lift the Raiders to a much needed win or will he be distracted by his brothers from across the Tasman? Raiders by 8.