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After another round of footy that was tighter than a Hulk Hogan headlock, we now focus our attention on an even tougher set of match-ups, with the Test on Friday night set to dictate late changes, throwing in the odd wobbly result.
I was my own worst enemy last week taking the Warriors to win at home. They?ve replaced the Raiders as my bogey team, and if the Cowboys lose again this week they?ll be on that list too. This reduced me to five out of seven with an overall total of 37/56 (66%) and I?m still searching for that elusive perfect score.
One thing?s for sure, it?s not getting any easier?
Australia v New Zealand
We begin the weekend with the first representative fixture of the season and one that hopefully lives up to expectations. There hasn?t been this much interest in International Rugby League for quite some time and rightly so as both teams are finally able to field their strongest line-ups.
To begin with, the Kiwis are paying $4.50 for the win. I can?t say no to those odds given it?s a two horse race and the fact is that Australia needs to take the game away from New Zealand before they set about winning the contest.
New Zealand have a strong forward pack that can not only keep up with the Aussies these days, they have the ability to dominate as well. Sure, I know it?s the last Test for Johns but he looked unfit and unhappy against the Bunnies last week. The Aussies are pretty strong across the park although I feel a Kiwi victory is well within the frame. BK, Big Willie and Petero are all in great form and will take the game to the opposition.
I?m going to stick with the Aussies, but I?ll be happy either way as a lazy $20 on the other mob will provide me with a nice little emotional hedge.
Eels v Raiders
Super Saturday gets underway out in League Heartland with Parra taking on the Raiders in a do-or-die clash. The loser of this contest has my permission to get really worried about their season. Last week both sides threw away seemingly un-losable leads to wind up excruciatingly short.
Parra have Hindmarsh and Tahu backing up from the night before and I think the result hinges plenty on the availability of these two players, in particular Hindy. The Eels seem incapable of winning without him and the backline looks much more adept with Tahu.
For the Raiders, they play their second game away from home in two weeks, making me think they will struggle to overcome Parra in whatever shape they take. I wouldn?t be resting Jason Smith at any stage during the game if I was Matt Elliott, as the veteran five-eighth?s brief 10min absence more or less cost them the game last weekend. I?m going to stick with Parra here in a tight one and with desperation the key player in both camps, this game could have plenty to offer the spectator.
Cowboys v Panthers
Hands up who got caught out picking the Cowboys again? Well, straight up I?m going to tick their box this week as I don?t believe they can lose three in a row. All sorts of alarm bells and sirens will be sounding in FNQ if this happens.
The Panthers were particularly disappointing against the Sharks last week as well, providing their fans with little to cheer about amid their return to a refurbished home ground. Priddis at halfback was never going to work and besides which the Sharks appeared to simply want it more. With the return of Gower, this game is within reach for the Panthers, providing they can foot it with the Cowboys in the forwards.
Thurston should be fine to back-up from the Test match providing he doesn?t get injured, although I bet O?Donnell will be a bit sore. Pritchard for Penrith will be in the same boat. I?m going to stick with the Cowboys as it?s no surprise to see Smith back at five-eighth after Firman?s Barry Crocker last week has brought the curtain down on his travelling circus. If North Queensland can?t get over the line here, call for the defibrillator immediately.
Rabbitohs v Storm
Normally you?d dismiss the Bunnies from the realms of victory fairly early on, but after last week?s effort against the Knights, I think they deserve some consideration. Besides, Jason Robinson?s performance in that match was the most reputation-based display of refereeing I?ve ever seen. The only reason he still has a job is because the NRL is short on whistle-blowers.
Anyhoo, I thought the Storm were impressive against a Dragons outfit that should have been leading by a bit at halftime. Melbourne seemed to be the more patient team and were able to wait for opportunities to present themselves. Crocker, Inglis and Smith have been in stunning form and each week lay the foundation for the Storm.
Whilst I cannot discount the slim chance South Sydney has of jagging a win, they need everything to go their way if they are to take home the chocolates. Their last outing against Newcastle would have had them banging the odd locker in the change rooms after the game, and rightly so ? Robinson was terrible. But they did show up to play and if they do that against Melbourne we will at least see a contest. The MacDougall?s and Walker?s went well, but with Fa?alogo backing up I think it?s too much for the Bunnies. Storm by plenty.
Knights v Broncos
Another week, another betting suspension levelled against the Newcastle club. It is certainly a case of once bitten, twice shy for the bookies with their memories longer than an elephants as they still lick their wounds from the Warriors game. It?s fair to assume that Johns might not make it through the Test match, but either way I don?t think it will matter.
The Knights were woeful last week against Souths and if they turn up in that frame of mind again they?ll get poleaxed. With Johns, Buderus and Simpson backing up plus the loss of Thaiday to injury, Newcastle is susceptible to a loss here.
This is, of course, without even assessing the form of Brisbane. After a slow start against the Raiders last week the Broncos overcame an 18-point deficit to win at home in a gallop. Hodges is playing out of his skin as is the likes of Parker and Thaiday. The visitors pose a real threat to Newcastle in this one and I?m going to tip them here based off form and the possibility that the Knights? Test stars won?t back up too well.
Roosters v Bulldogs
This one should be a cracker. Both teams looked out of touch and a bit shabby leading into Round 8 but they hit form and overcame their opposition to record valuable wins. In the case of the Roosters it was particularly impressive, backing up after 4 days to knock over the Cowboys at home.
The Bulldogs will do it tough in this one though. O?Meley, Mason, Asotasi and Sonny Bill are all backing up from the Test match, sapping Canterbury?s forward pack of its? usual sting. With no such issues facing the Roosters, fitness will play a big part. Another factor will be the halves with Finch leading Easts about very well last week. This pales in comparison to the Doggies who lacked spark and direction when they had the ball in attacking opportunities. Maitua?s off-field problems may also cause him to be a bit shy.
I think the Roosters can get home in this one especially given that their forwards will be fresh. Wing and Fitzgibbon will be sure to put in big performances given their omission from the Test side.
Tigers v Sea Eagles
We travel out to Leichhardt Oval for the next of our four Sunday matches. The Tigers are coming off the bye and this is never an easy thing to overcome. With Hodgson back from injury they should be a bit safer at the back but I?m really not sure what Sheensy is doing here.
Shifting Farah to halfback is akin to what Penrith did with Priddis last week. Farah is an excellent hooker and his effectiveness will be dulled by the move. Likewise, Prince is the best halfback at the club, but now he?s playing five-eighth. I would have thought Lolesi could be an option at no.6 but he still finds himself in the unfamiliar position of lock.
The Sea Eagles are playing well on the other hand, although BK and Beaver will be backing up. These two guys are the best players at the club but I think they?ll be able to overcome this hurdle. Orford has found his step and young Burns is a tearaway success so far this season. I?m getting behind Manly in this one as they continue to push their claims as genuine contenders.
Sharks v Dragons
Our final game of the round pits arch rivals the Sharks up against the Dragons in one of the last old-fashioned local derby?s. This time around there will be some extra spice to the clash with former Dragons stalwart Lance Thompson lining up against his old club after departing at the end of last season in controversial circumstances.
The Dragons jump on the train down to the Shire to meet the Sharkies who are playing great footy at the moment. Last week Saints lost to Melbourne and were unimpressive for the most part. They can?t use the short turnaround as an excuse either, with the Roosters victory fixing that little red wagon. And with the loss of Head and Bailey I think they?ll do it tough.
The Sharks are at home in this one and despite the loss of Ross they managed to win without him for most of the match last week. Villa the Gorilla could be a shock inclusion but regardless they look a little thin on the ground. Dykes is playing the house down and on form you?d pick the Sharks to win comfortably. But something tells me the Dragons will get up here. Barrett has his future sorted out now so look for a big game from him and whatever the result this game shapes as required viewing.
The Warriors have the bye in Round 9 allowing them to rest their star players following Friday night?s Test match. It?s fair to say though that this treat is a little generous this season, with only 4 Auckland-based players taking part. Traditionally they have made up the bulk of the NZ squad and with the two points they?ll continue their incremental moves up the ladder.