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Nearing the end of another hard week at work, we turn our focus to Rugby League once more as the 4th round of NRL action is set to unfold. I was caught napping last week after trying to decipher the complex equation that is the Canberra Raiders as well as backing the Eels in what I thought would have been a team hell-bent on avenging the drubbing they suffered last year at Lang Park.
But with 5/7 I can?t complain too much although the elusive perfect round is always a welcome bonus early in the year. I?m sitting on 16 from 21 picks and I?m pretty happy with that looking at this week?s games. The stakes are now higher and the teams are more desperate, so as a man once said to me on the hill at WIN Stadium whilst watching Albert Torrens line up a conversion from the sideline: ?This one could go anywhere!?
Eels v Cowboys
Round 4 gets underway with the Cowboys visiting Sydney for the first time this season, taking on the smoked Eels at Parramatta Stadium.
The Cowboys are the form team of the comp after three rounds, displaying not only a devastating attack but some stiff defence when called upon. They?ve lost Ty Williams with a broken ankle but simply call-up Origin centre Josh Hannay to take his place. They are still missing the services of Aaron Payne but the big news is Rockin? Rod Jensen has found his way to the bench for the first time this year.
Parramatta?s line-up looks good on paper but it?s time for them to dominate matches through the forwards. Similarly, they had a great excuse for revenge last week but were ordinary against the Broncos and will need a big improvement if they are to get anywhere near the Cowboys this week. It?s also an important one for playmaker Tim Smith, who needs a big game to lift the spirits of the Parramatta faithful, and what better way to do it than in front of a parochial home crowd.
But this game is one of those ones where you have to take the favourite, in this case the Cowboys, given their form and start to the year. I wouldn?t mind watching Parra win, but the Eels haven?t shown me enough to suggest they?re on the right path just yet and we know just what the Cowboys are capable of at the moment.
Sharks v Rabbitohs
Super Saturday kicks off down in the Shire where two desperate teams are facing up against one another, both so far possessing the stamina of a two-stroke engine.
You get the feeling that if Cronulla could have overcome Manly last weekend we wouldn?t be entertaining thoughts of a possible Souths victory in this game. Don?t get me wrong, the Bunnies were woeful against the Dragons after what was a promising start, but the Sharks were real heart attack material last week and again displayed that they can lose a game from a position of ascendancy.
It?s fair to say that Souths are a fickle mob when it comes to playing footy. After a terrific opening 30 minutes where they had it all their way, a few simple dropped balls and turnover?s sees an 8-6 lead blown out of the water by an opportunistic attack resulting in a 26-8 deficit at the break. They simply need to concentrate more and learn to dig in when the going?s a bit tough.
The Bunnies took the points in a bit of a shock at Endeavour field last year and it wouldn?t surprise me if it happened again. Ross for the Sharks has a bit of a bruised head and a couple of the Cronulla boys have some injury concerns. With Mad Dog back for Souths they could really press hard, but I?m going to stay with the home team on this one.
Sea Eagles v Roosters
This is another tough game with both teams sure to reflect on their last performances with some confidence. Despite the fact that Manly won by 2 and the Roosters won by 36, they would have been just as content with their respective results.
Firstly, the Chooks had to wait 50 minutes before systematically tearing the Raiders apart in a precise and indiscriminate manner, finally showcasing some of the talent they have at the club. For Manly, I bet they were just pleased to record their first victory of the season after two losses.
Neither team has made any major changes but the Roosters have Adrian Morley coming back from suspension to bolster their forward pack and Manly have discharged Kane Cleal to the Bunnies in what came as a bit of a shock. Last week will have inflated the balloon of self-belief for both clubs and it?s hard to choose a winner. I?m going to tip the Roosters as they remember how to score all of a sudden whereas the Sea Eagles were still a bit scrappy against the Sharks last week. And Brookvale Oval is representing more of a sand castle than a fortress these days.
Raiders v Panthers
I don?t know that it can get any lower for the Raiders or that it can get any better for the Panthers right now. Normally you?d be able to rely on the home ground advantage to a certain extent when Canberra play at home, but the wolves have separated the weak buffalo from the pack and are licking their lips.
Penrith must be thinking that there?s never been a better time to come off the bye. Whilst their attack was a little blunt against the Bulldogs and Dragons they still managed to win and victory in tight games can give a team the confidence and patience to keep winning footy games even when they haven?t reached their potential.
Matt Elliott has put the broom through the line-up and made quite a few changes in the forwards and bench. He?s also up against the club he?ll be coaching next year, with the man he?s deposing still without a job in ?07. That could add a bit of spice to proceedings.
It remains to be seen how the bye affects the Panthers, and although no team this year has won coming off it, it?s very early days. Penrith must really fancy their chances here after a great start to the year which will allow them to play their natural game on Saturday night. I?m going to tip them against a Canberra team who are searching for a base to work from and will require a huge turnaround to secure victory.
Tigers v Storm
Sunday at Leichhardt Oval is a great tradition and one that the Balmain fans love, but they?re sure to have a nasty taste in their mouth after the last game these two clubs played here.
Melbourne ran riot that day and scored a comprehensive 30-14 victory in what was an embarrassing day for Tigers. This year things will be a bit different, with injuries playing a key role. Benji Marshall and Shane Elford are back in the fold and should help correct a backline that has lacked direction and been impotent in their last two outings. But Farah and Fulton are still missing, and they?re absence is not to be taken lightly.
The Storm have a terrific backline with the firepower to really put Wests under the pump. Cronk looks to have what it takes with good support from Hill, but I?ve got my concerns over the forwards, who are lacking a bit of mongrel with Crocker and Kafusi out.
Both sides are last start losers and coincidentally got rolled by better packs who dominated them. This game will be more of a skilful encounter than a bash and barge affair. With Benji back the Tigers have more options, but I?m going to pick the Storm who have been good travellers in their enforced nomadic existence this season. I still don?t know what Lolesi is doing at lock though?
Dragons v Broncos
Game of the Day on Sunday where two bitter rivals take the field in what shapes as a rugged encounter in beachside Wollongong. The Dragons are reeling from an injury toll that has claimed their two international front rowers, lock, halfback and promising winger. Brisbane are more or less at full strength with Tate the only player of note missing from the line-up.
The Broncos outclassed Parra last week and showed that they are a team on the improve, ignoring the dooms-dayer?s that were floating about after their round 1 lesson by the Cowboys. They have more options in attack these days and it?s encouraging to see Karmichael Hunt getting more involved. He was knocked out in this game last year by Shaun Timmins, who is out injured.
The Dragons may or may not be buoyed by the news their coach has re-signed for a further two years. They?ve probably got other things on their minds, like trying to keep Barrett and Gasnier at the club. With Brown issuing a challenge to his young forwards to step up and make a fist of things whilst they have this opportunity, it?s easier said than done. One bloke who?ll probably have a fair bit to do with proceedings on Sunday is Shane Webcke and I?ve got a feeling he?ll be primed to teach the young kids a few tricks.
The Dragons backline is looking better with Cooper back but I don?t think they have the forwards to lay a platform to work with. The Broncos will take the points with them back to Bris Vegas.
Knights v Warriors
The final game of the weekend sees the Warriors travel out of New Zealand for the first time this season, straight to rugby league?s latest graveyard. The Knights have won the past six games in a row at home but conceded the last contest here between the two clubs after Johns broke his jaw late in the first half. It?s sure to bring back a few bad memories for Joey who will be looking to put that behind him.
The Warriors were a much improved team last week and finally recorded their first victory in New Zealand outside Auckland. I?m glad they got on the board as their season was in jeopardy had the folded for a third straight week.
But there?s not much that can really help them in this one, unless Johns gets injured again. The Knights are like a bull in a china store at the moment and things don?t look like settling down. They could make a real mess of the Warriors, but whilst I expect the visitors will lose, I think they?ll fare a little better than most would have you believe.
The Canterbury Bulldogs get a week off with the bye in round 4. They?ll need it to have a think about how they?re going to tackle the Raiders next week after a pretty disappointing start to the season.