Round 26 Preview

The final round of the NRL gets under way this evening and every match this weekend has an impact on the top eight. Whether it be final placing's within the eight or just qualifying for the eight, each match will hold it's own significance and the NRL will be stoked with that and well might they should as this years finals series promises to be one of the best on record.

The first match of the weekend pits the under achieving Brisbane Broncos against woeful St George Illawarra Dragons and the biggest interest surrounding this match will come from the Parramatta Eels. The Eels need the Dragons to win if they are to be any chance of making the top eight but with the Dragons without their galaxy of stars, things don't look good for the Dragons or the Eels. After running my eye over the Dragons line up, their backline has me worried and if they lose to the Broncos tonight, they will more than likely finish below the Cowboys in 11th place and Nathan Brown's first season could only be viewed as a disaster. Broncos by 20.

The rampant Warriors take on the unpredictable Tigers in Auckland in the first Super Saturday fixture and with the Warriors emerging as the team no one wants to face in the finals, look out Tigers. The Warriors have beaten both the Broncos and Roosters in successive weeks and that is no mean feat but the Warriors do have a nasty habit of dropping their intensity against โ€˜lesser' sides so the upset though unlikely, still cannot be ruled out. I think Daniel Anderson will have the Warriors switched on as they ready themselves for the finals with a rout of the ever-improving Tigers. Warriors by 14.

The Bulldogs are coming off a massive reality check after their loss to the Raiders last weekend while the Sharks ran 50 past the Rabbitohs but that is hardly something to brag about these days is it? The Sharks have Kimmorley back and he is eyeing off the Kangaroo tour so his form will be good and with Sherwin beaten convincingly last weekend by Mark McLinden, Brent certainly needs a good showing to convince the selectors he is the real deal so he can also book himself a place on the Kangaroo tour. Nigel Vagana will get a first hand look at his new home for the next couple of years and I expect the Dogs to win well against a side with nothing to play for but pride. Dogs by 16.

The Melboune Storm host the worst side in the NRL when Manly come to town for their weekly dose of epsom salts and football lessons. Manly have been the worst team in the NRL for the last month and travelling to Olympic Park is one venue where things simply do not get any better if you are the opposing side. Melbourne need to win well to keep the Warriors at bay as for and against could determine who finishes fifth and sixth respectively but Craig Bellamy has turned the Storm into a highly professional, well drilled side of over achievers who have had a stellar season after many pundits (including this one) backed the Storm to finish with the wooden spoon. If not for Souths, Manly would be deserving winners and the Storm will get their required training run before the finals commence with a comfortable victory over Manly. Storm by 26.

The first Sunday game is an absolute beauty with the Sydney Roosters travelling to meet the Canberra Raiders in what should be one of the matches of the season. Six weeks back both team splayed out the most physical match of the season and Sunday promises more of the same with the minor premiership still possibly up for grabs. Canberra have beaten the Knights and Bulldogs in their last two outings while the Roosters lost to the Warriors last week in a battering encounter and this weekend promises more of the same with Roosters captain Brad Fittler still carrying a troublesome shoulder injury that was aggravated against the Warriors several times throughout the match. Canberra's form looks very good at present and a few chinks have appeared in the Roosters armour and for that reason I think the Raiders will be too strong for a Roosters side struggling with injuries to key players. Raiders by 8.

The Panthers have broken their own ground record on several occasions this year and I think they might just do it again against the resurgent Parramatta Eels on Sunday afternoon, especially if the Eels are still in the hunt for the top eight after tonight's match. Penrith also have the opportunity to win their first minor premiership since 1991 and that year they won the title so it could be a good omen leading into the finals. However, if they lose it could be a catalyst for disaster as the Panthers defence has shown to be extremely brittle at times and it could be their undoing and the only thing preventing them from winning their first premiership in 12 years. The Eels will be fired up and last weekend they played with an intensity not seen since 2001 with Nathan Cayless and Nathan Hindmarsh leading the way in a dominant display that will give the Panthers plenty of headaches on Sunday. I'm going with the Eels but it will be close. Eels by 4.

Final game of the regular season will be a try-scoring feast. The high flying North Queensland Cowboys, having won their last three matches and they are showing that in 2004, they may well repeat the efforts of this years Penrith Panthers. They take on the Knights who have found a way to win without Andrew Johns although it was only against a half-hearted Dragons outfit. Ben Kennedy and Timana Tahu are out of this game and that will affect the Knights in both attack and defence while the Cowboys are without Glenn Morrison, their best forward. I think the Cowboys, with nothing to lose will take it to the Knights for the full eighty minutes and with Matt Bowen, Ty Williams and Matt Sing all in sparkling form, the Knights outside back minus Tahu don't have the speed to compete with the Cowboys quick men. I think the Cowboys will register their first win over the Knights in Newcastle and start give the Knights a taste of what lies ahead in the semi finals. Cowboys by 8.