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Two weeks left and last round proved a rare commodity with five away teams coming away victories in a round of upsets, particularly in the northern end of the ladder.
I?m pretty proud this week as I picked five winners from last round including the upset of the year with the Warriors toppling the Storm at home. It takes me to 102/166 (61%) and I?ve finally cracked the century for the year. And not before time either!
This round poses a few threats and also very little value unless you?re a Sharks fan. But still, they are well overpriced at $4.50 for the win even with last week taken into consideration.
Sea Eagles v Bulldogs
The weekend kicks off in fine fashion up at Fortress Brooky in probably the most important game of the round.
Canterbury are out to restore some faith in their legion of fans and themselves after last week?s humiliating 30-nil loss to Brisbane. They had a few excuses like injuries to Tonga, Asotasi and Myles, but unfortunately two of those guys appear gone for the season. Mason has been suspended as well, compounding the damage, and whilst Myles is starting this week he is sure to be a little ginger from his knock last week. I like SBW in the backs but whereas earlier he was able to float on the fringes and become the extra forward, this no longer applies. Grimaldi?s absence is also a worry as his value cannot be underscored. He?s a real worker and will be sorely missed in this pack.
Strangely, Manly have not defeated Canterbury at Brookvale since 1996, the year Manly last won the comp. They did enough to beat Souths last week whilst playing within themselves for the first half. They can really turn it on when they want to, but can they beat the Doggies here? They will need put in a clinical display if they are to stand any chance as Canterbury?s discipline will be the key. But I?m tipping Manly will go to the air as their wingers have a significant height advantage and overall they have a much faster team. The Manly backrow should stand-up even without BK and the bench looks healthier than Canterbury?s.
I?m going to tip the Sea Eagles here but it will be a close one. Orford should shine, and if he can?t then I think all this talk of him in Green and Gold can be laid to rest. Manly also got them earlier in the year by 40-14.
Raiders v Storm
Super Saturday kicks-off in our Nation?s capital as the Storm head up the Hume looking to bounce back after their first loss in 11 games and only fourth all year.
The Storm were a bit ordinary last week and I think the signs were there in their match against Brisbane. They got rolled by the Warriors forwards and out-enthused in the backs which is surprising considering that?s usually the Storm?s caper. They welcome back Slater into the custodial role, pushing Inglis to centre and Webster to the bench, which I find a little strange. I?m sure it?s all part of Bellamy?s master plan though, but with Crocker still out their forwards lack some firepower even with White?s return. Melbourne overwhelmingly have the wood on Canberra after winning their past eight matches against one another.
Canberra head into this game with a slightly uncertain future. They are more likely than not to make the top 8 but they could miss it if they lose both their remaining games. This game will be good practise for the semi?s because given their shabby for-and-against they could face off against the Storm in a fortnight down at Olympic Park. They?re fielding a pretty strong and under-rated side with biggish forwards that won?t take a backward step against Melbourne. I?ve been impressed with Carney of late and again the team are playing to their potential.
Whilst I proved last week that I?m not afraid to pick against the Storm, it?s pretty hard to take the Raiders here. Whilst the visitors give away a bit in the forwards, I think they?ll hit back in style and with Canberra coming off the bye they might struggle a bit.
Dragons v Sharks
Heading north and a little closer to the coast, the Sharkies descend upon Wollongong Showground to play the Dragons in a local derby away from home. I would have thought they?d get a better crowd at Kogarah.
Cronulla undid 65 minutes of solid work last week to come tumbling down like a house of cards to Penrith. When you lead by that much you should never lose but Raper hasn?t made as many changes as you?d expect. Cronulla?s backs will struggle to keep up here I think with Gasnier and Cooper facing off against Pomeroy and Bailey. Gaz made a mess of a few Tigers last week and if he plays anything like that again the Sharks could be in for a bath. In the forwards, Scott in the second row is a bit unusual. He does have some size and it worked with Bird, but I can?t see this causing the Dragons any problems. The bench is reasonable though, with a good mix, but I?d drop Vagana as he has added very little lately.
The Dragons finally hit back last week after sustaining five consecutive losses and dropping to seventh on the ladder. But it was against a depleted Tigers outfit who have struggled for consistency recently. I think it?s enough for them to turn a mental corner now, and the Dragons have a good opportunity to get back into the mid-section of the top 8 and stake a claim for the premiership. Head is still out leaving the team unchanged from last week and I think they have the right mix of forwards on the bench. Hornby has been doing well in the playmaker?s absence and it begs the question of how badly they need him.
Cronulla haven?t won at WIN since defeating Illawarra 26-6 in Round 7 1989. I can?t see any reason why that would change this week given the circumstances each team finds themselves in.
Knights v Panthers
Our final game of the satellite city Super Saturday bonanza kicks off in the Hunter where the Knights do battle with Penrith in an interesting little contest.
If they?re any chance at all, the Panthers need to win, and win big. It could happen with Joey out but the home ground advantage up at Marathon is always hard to overcome. It doesn?t seem to worry Penrith too much travelling up there. They made a remarkable comeback against the Sharkies last week which will give them plenty of confidence heading into this game. Their team is unchanged and not a bad line-up to be honest. They do what they can with the ball and the forwards are tough yet unexplosive. I thought Stapleton went well last week. Campbell is the key here ? his freakish darts around the rucks could prove Newcastle?s undoing if they fail to wrap him up.
The Knights need to be careful here and I think they might pay for not doing so. If they win then they?re happy as they take a week off with the bye next week and then welcome Joey back for the semi?s. but their record without Joey is very poor and although they beat the Cowboys at home, well who hasn?t? They only won by 7 points and their penetration of the line was a bit pedestrian. They really do need to win here as they stand some chance of a home final if they do. Then they can spend the last round watching other bash each other whilst preparing to face off against them.
But I smell a bit of an upset here. I think the Panthers might jag a win here even if it?s arguable who has more to play for. The forwards look stronger and whilst Mullen did well last week I think his ribs might get a bit of a workout this time around - Panthers in a close one.
*Craig Gower has been ruled out, but I'll stick with the Panthers in any case.
Warriors v Roosters
We cross the Tasman next for the early Sunday game where the Chooks are up against the Warriors in a bit of a dead rubber, but I expect there to be some feeling between the clubs.
Easts have been unimpressive recently and tend to drop their bundle a bit. After leading against Parra early on the failed to pressure them for most of the rest of the game, but admittedly there were a few dodgy ref?s calls. The Roosters are fielding the same team as last week minus Harrison who?s gone with a serious knee injury. Finch and Lewis are working well at the scrumbase and Soliola an Cross are going strongly in the centres. This is probably one area where the hold an advantage over the Warriors, with Hohaia likely to be targeted whilst Mannering goes pretty well. Easts would also be stupid not to kick-off in Vatuvei?s direction after he spilt three over the sideline against Melbourne.
Hopefully Cleary has worked on that with the big cougar throughout the week because when he gets into some space he?s an exciting player, laying on the winning try against the Storm. The Warriors have proved they are capable of taking the best in the business and the Roosters are a long way short of that. At home I think they are a pretty good thing here with their forwards likely to lay the platform for victory. They are fearless up front with Wiki, Anderson, Guttenbiel, Tuimavave and Rapira off the bench with the steadying influence of Price invaluable. Cleary might have the 2002 GF in the back of his mind and as such will work the boys into a frenzy in the sheds.
Even with Easts? solid record across the ditch I think the home side are playing much better and should win the contest.
Rabbitohs v Cowboys
Another dead rubber as the Cowboys fly to Sydney to take on the Rabbitohs out at League Headquarters in homebush.
The Cows have recorded three wins in their last 16 outings and have faded dismally in the premiership reckoning. And now one of their fellas has been caught sniffing the white powder. Well, can it get any worse for them? Probably not is the answer. I expect the Cowboys to turn up and at leat have a crack but that might be a bit over the top for them. With hindsight one can only assume that the victory against Brisbane was an aberration and they were lucky to beat Souths a fortnight before. Their team is looking a little shabby and I?m not sure they can even get close.
Souths on the other hand have plenty to play for. They?ve finally sorted out who wants to have a go and who doesn?t. Injuries aside they are fielding their top team and it doesn?t look too bad at all. I think the forwards can get stuck in and dislodge their more fancied rivals and there?s plenty to talk about in the backs where the teams are very much different in size and skill. One thing?s for sure though, I bet Merritt scores a try or two!
Souths are favourites for the first time in living memory and I?m going to back them here to win at Homebush in front of potentially a new all-time low crowd for Rugby League.
Eels v Broncos
The final match of the round sees the irrepressible Broncos travel out to central Sydney to face the Eels in what should be a fabulous game of footy.
Brisbane finally bounced back against Canterbury last week after several below par submissions that had their end-of-season ?slumps? under the microscope once more. But in all seriousness, the forwards finally stood up against a good pack, Hodges had a blinder and the rest was academic. A few Doggies went down thanks to some exuberant defence giving rise to the return of the Broncos. Hunt is on the wing and that?s probably a good thing but I?d be tempted to play him at first receiver. I suppose those guys play there most of the time these days anyway. Where Brisbane will win the game is in the forwards though.
Parra are a good team and I?ve enjoyed watching them over the past two months. If they can win here I?ll take my hat off to them and award them the premiership. But unfortunately they are missing a few players that are difficult to replace. Props don?t grow on trees these days and the loss of Cayless is significant. They simply don?t have the depth in the front row to combat what Brisbane have up front and I?m not the only one who will point it out. Cordoba goes alright but he?ll need to have a 200% lift to carry Parra. Hindmarsh, Morrison and Riddell are the ones that need to put in that bit more.
I?m tipping Brisbane in this one but Parra will make it hard for them. I can?t wait to sit back on the lounge and watch this game following on from the other two earlier live matches on Fox. At $2.08 Brisbane are good odd and you should take them this week even with the likely strong home crowd.
The Tigers have the bye in Round 25 as they look to wind down their season. It hasn?t exactly gone to plan for the reigning premiers but the number of injuries they?ve sustained has taken its? toll. They take on the Bunnies at Leichhardt next week and I?m sure a few more youngsters will see first grade.