EASTER is a great time of the year on the Rugby League calendar. The stock standard three days of footy gets extended to four with the inclusion of the Easter Monday holiday. This ensures a feast of action for the punter with games being played in all sorts of different locations.Last week I put in an underwhelming 4 from 7 which takes me to 22/35 on the leader board. This week is another challenging one for the tipsters among us, but I think I?ve got it worked out. The highlight will surely be Sunday, when the worst game of the round (Tigers v Sharks) is followed up by the best game of the week (Knights v Cowboys).Roosters v BroncosThe Good Friday blockbuster is turning into a war of the walking wounded. Both clubs are suffering heavy injury tolls with Cross, Morley and Fitzgibbon for the Roosters watching from the sidelines, while Tate, Hodges and Ennis are all nursing their wounds in Brisbane. Bennett has also dropped Seymour for Perry in a halves reshuffle.It?s an interesting clash this one and with both teams under-strength we can anticipate a desperate encounter with the crowd figure to be a genuine litmus test for the Roosters? popularity.I think Brisbane have too much upfront for the Roosters. Webcke and Civoniceva with Thaiday off the bench should prove too strong for the green-horned Roosters trio of Hall, Shillington and Tonga. Stuart?s tactics for the match will undoubtedly see him target Lockyer in defence as has been the recent trend. Ironically, whilst plotting his downfall this week, he?ll more than likely team up with him in a fortnight against the Kiwis.Sea Eagles v DragonsSuper Saturday kicks-off with what shapes as an exciting and evenly matched contest. You probably wouldn?t think that given the hiding the Dragons copped last week, but they?ll be hell-bent on erasing the nightmares of round 5. Likewise, the Sea Eagles are playing solid footy with the gear-stick seemingly stuck in third at the moment. I think they?ll fire up at home and really start to hit their straps.The Dragons have named Gasnier at five-eighth again, with Naiqama returning to the fold in the centres for Millard. Timmins also makes his long-awaited return with Bickerstaff likely to drop off a five man bench. There?s some suggestion that Brown might promote halfback Mat Head following his return from injury in Premier League last week, but we?ll have to wait until an hour before kick-off for that one.Manly?s pack played well last week against the bigger Warriors forwards and they?re going to need another similar effort this week against some good opponents. The one thing the hosts don?t want to get caught up in is taking the Dragons too lightly after last week?s shellacking. In 2000 the Dragons turned around a 50-4 drubbing at the hands of North Queensland to come out the following week and belt Auckland 54-0 after the casual Warriors turned up for a game of touch.I think the Dragons can get them here in a tight one and the game will show plenty about their mentality. If they lose at Brooky and play like busted?s, I think St George Illawarra fans could be in for a long season.Panthers v StormNext we travel to Adelaide for the first time in a while. There?s no sign of the Rams this time around but heading across to the City of Churches does invoke images of Graham Appo and Tony Iro running amok in their heyday. Ahh, bring ?em back I say!The Storm have had the bye, which might have been a good thing this time around. With Slater and Hill serving their first week of suspensions, the Storm are short on troops and the extra week will help with their combinations. Turner assumes the custodial duties with Geyer switching to five-eighth and Walker slotting in on the wing. Given the circumstances it?s not a bad line-up and Crocker returns to add some mongrel. Interesting to see Inglis remain in the centres with King. He impressed last year when deputising for Slater, but it would seem Bellamy is keen for him to remain in the three-quarters to expose their less-fancied rivals in Galea and Lewis.There?s a question mark over Gower after his injury last week, but the Telegraph would have you believe he?s fit and well after playing 18 holes on Wednesday. What better preparation for a game of Rugby League? I bet the Storm, and most likely Crocker, are pretty keen to test out that windpipe of Craig?s. But given their forward pack and the depleted Storm line-up, I think the Panthers will win. The game will be a huge test for Cronk, who is missing his regular buddy on his outside. Whilst I think Geyer is capable in the position, I?m not sure Inglis and King will get enough ball to trouble Galea and Lewis.Raiders v WarriorsThe final Saturday game sees us return to the Nation?s Capital where the Warriors travel across the ditch to take on the Lime Green. There?s generally a bit of spite in these ones, I recall a semi-final in 2003 at the SFS played with Origin-like intensity. Boy that one was a cracker, with old stager Ruben Wiki untouchable that night. He?s now at the Warriors and he returns ?home? to Canberra for the first time since he left the club.It?s hard to judge the Raiders based off last week?s form. They were starved of the ball all game by a clever Bulldogs outfit but towards the end of the match they chanced their arm and scored a couple of tries. The second to Carney involving a chip and chase was close to try of the week.The Warriors are a different case. They?re struggling to put consistency on the park and are susceptible to a loss away from home. Fien is controlling play well and the forwards are making ground up the middle, but they?re having difficulty finishing off plays when they make a break or pressure the line. Toopi looks to be recapturing some of his old form, Gatis is a good acquisition and Faumuina goes hard at five-eighth. But I?m leaning towards the Raiders on this one. I haven?t yet managed to pick them right this season, so I?m banking on breaking my duck this week.Tigers v SharksCronulla jump on the team bus and head down to Campbelltown Oval for their match-up with Wests on Sunday arvo in what is set to be a pretty ordinary affair. The Tigers and Sharks have some problems unfortunately and they can?t be fixed overnight. Kimmorley is out which will be a huge blow to Cronulla?s chances in this one. Likewise Marshall is unavailable and the Tiger?s attack will suffer as a result.Dykes shifts to half for Cronulla, making way for the untried Kearney at five-eighth. It could be a chance for Dykes to shine, as his game has been muffled of late. Ross is playing his heart out but without much support and very little on the bench it?s hard to see how they can win this one.Wests still have the crux of their team running around and welcome back Robbie Farah to hooker. He will give the Tigers better direction out of dummy half and will tidy up around the rucks. I?m also pleased to see Skando starting the match, giving them more bump and grind in the opening exchanges, although I still don?t know what Lolesi is doing at lock. I would have thought he?d be a better option at five-eighth than Fitzhenry, who has proven unimaginative in the position. The Sharks have a good record the ground winning 50% of the time, but I think the home side by a few.Knights v CowboysIf you only watch one game of footy this week make sure this is it. Very rarely do we get to see the two form players of the comp, in the two form teams of the comp, squaring off at one another in this sabre-rattling, fist-clenching, muscle-flexing Round 6 blockbuster. Fittingly for Easter Sunday, this is a clash of Biblical proportions.After Newcastle?s demolition job on Powder Puffs last week, they walk into the arena at Marathon Stadium as favourites in my book. I can?t see too much wrong with them at this stage. Foolishly I predicted they would lose last week, citing their defence as a bit leaky. Suffice to say I don?t regard that as a problem anymore. They are strong across the park and are at full-strength.The Cowboys are also at full-strength with the exception of Ty Williams. They?ve dropped Firman altogether this week with Justin Smith playing the role of five-eighth and Thurston to halfback. Their forward pack is menacing and they have Aaron Payne back from injury. Tronc and Webb off the bench could prove to be the difference as well as the under-rated Faiumu and my personal favourite Rockin? Rod Jensen.The only way for North Queensland to win this game will be through rolling the Newcastle forwards. If they can manage to create inroads through the middle of the ruck and then get the ball to Thurston and Bowen they might jag a win. But I can?t see it happening this time around. Newcastle were out to prove a point last week and I think they?ll do it again this week. Buderus had a huge game and his dummy half running in this match will be vital. And then of course, there?s Johns, Newcastle?s messiah. The sheer brilliance of the man cannot be overstated. His positioning of players, kicking, running and passing is above anyone else?s in the game. He will relish the chance to lock horns with Thurston, who is leading the LU Player of the Year Awards, as they both mark their territory ahead of the Anzac Test.Rabbitohs v BulldogsWe wrap things up on Easter Monday when the Bunnies do battle with the Bulldogs at each team?s home ground, the cavernous Telstra Stadium. Again, this is the easy pick of the week thanks to the atrocious form of Souths, but with Walker back I think they?ll do a little better.The big talking point though is undoubtedly the return of Sonny Bill Williams and that?s going to get plenty of people watching. After a ten month stint in body rehab, the walking ball of muscle is set to take the field against the team that ended his 2005 season. Strangely, he has a habit of injuring himself against the Rabbitohs, doing his ankle against them in 2004. All eyes will be on the clock at around the 20 minute mark when he takes the field and if at any stage he stays down after a tackle, a cold shiver will surely go down the spine of any Bulldogs fan.With Walker back Souths will at least have some direction and if they can compete in the forwards they?ll be in with some sort of chance. It?s hard to imagine a Bunny boilover as opposed to a Bunny boiling here though, with O?Meley and Mason in devastating touch last week. The Doggies halves will get another week to solidify their communication as well, but other than Sonny Bill there?s little impact off the bench. Dogs by plenty.The Eels have the bye this week and that's sure to result in some heavy self-examination. They've got a local derby next week against the Tigers at home and I bet they'll be fired up for it after the disappointment of their loss to Penrith.
ST Helens winger Francis Meli has been ruled out of Friday?s engage Super League derby showdown with beleaguered Wigan after sustaining an ankle injury.
WARRINGTON Wolves have the chance to avenge their shock opening-day home defeat by Salford when the teams meet at the Halliwell Jones Stadium.
HARLEQUINS, who take on Catalans Dragons still looking for their first point at the Twickenham Stoop, are boosted by the return of club captain Rob Purdham.
HULL seek to end their three-match losing run when they take on Huddersfield at the Galpharm Stadium, where the Giants? second rower Paul Smith has more reason than most to shine.
CASTLEFORD Tigers have included their current assistant coach Brad Davis in their squad for Friday night?s derby clash with the Wakefield Wildcats.
LEEDS Rhinos are hoping the sweet scent of revenge will be in the air for the second time in a week when they take on Bradford in Thursday?s engage Super League derby at Headingley.
SUPERLEAGUE Round 9 games will be played on Thursday and Good Friday, forming the first part of the traditional Easter weekend double headers. Round 10 games will follow on Easter Monday and Tuesday, completing what can be a testing but always interesting weekend for the players, clubs and fans alike.Thursday night's televised match is the much anticipated local derby between Leeds Rhinos and Bradford Bulls at Headingley. In recent weeks Leeds have eclipsed Bradford on the table, and will be hoping for a win to make up for their loss to the Bulls in the 2005 grand final. Bradford will be looking to improve following an unexpected loss to Warrington last start, and to put aside talk that Wigan are looking to poach coach Brian Noble. Friday's televised game is another famous local derby pitting Wigan Warriors against undefeated St Helens at Knowsley Road. Francis Meli has suffered an ankle injury and will not be available for St Helens over the next six weeks, but Jason Cayless returns to the squad following a short illness. Wigan will be hoping for a return to form following the sacking of coach Ian Millward, but under these circumstances an upset seems very unlikely in this top versus bottom clash. In other games on Friday, Warrington Wolves host Salford City Reds in a clash between two teams who are in the top six on the back of some winning form. Les Catalans Dragons travel to London without the services of suspended Alex Chan when they take on the Harlequins. On a high following their conclusive defeat last week of Wigan, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats host Castleford Tigers who will be hoping to recover from last weeks defeat on French soil. And finally Huddersfield Giants will be hoping that a win at home against Hull can keep them in the top six.
ON a cold British night, international rugby league met its destiny when the New Zealand Kiwis thumped the previously unconquerable Kangaroos 24-0, to lift the coveted Tri Nations trophy.It dawned in the hope of a new era, of expectant crowds consistently getting high class competitive matches at the top level. It breathed hope into the aspiration of international rugby league to be taken very seriously, even ahead of the glamour of Australia's State of Origin.The Kiwis now face an even bigger challenge. A question of quality, and character, against the odds, yet again. The entire country had been waiting in anticipation of the two sides fighting it out on the hallowed turf o Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, particularly with the dream halves combination of Les Catalan's Stacey Jones and the Wests Tigers Benji Marshall. However, in a cruel twist of fate, both players were rubbed out with long-term injuries.The challenge now falls upon new shoulders, we closely explore the options available to Kiwis Coach Brian "Bluey" McClennan.Lance Hohaia ? Warriors: Lance's career has been punctuated with inconsistencies. He came into first grade with a hiss and a roar, helping the Warriors to a Grand Final appearance in his debut year in 2002. Since then, more often than not he has failed to nail down the position of five eighth at the Warriors, even though he had the honour of working outside the little general, Stacey Jones. However, he received a lifeline in 2005 when he was pushed into the hooking position, a position he seemed to make his own at the Warriors with a succession of incisive performances in an otherwise less than memorable year for the Auckland franchise. As 2006 dawned however, no quicker than feeling assured of himself in first grade, he again found himself on the outer in the hooking role to Grant Rovelli and George Gatis. In his favour, in the limited opportunities he has had to don the number seven jersey, he more often than not has come up trumps.Jerome Ropati ? Warriors: A player with enormous credentials from his exploits in the Bartercard Cup for Marist. However, he has found the going a lot tougher at NRL level and is yet to truly convert that potential into proven first grade ability. Currently out of the Warriors line up due to a hamstring injury, he looms as an option to play at five eighth for the Kiwis. Jerome plays a simple brand of football, lots of drifting across field to pick up inside runners, and taking it to the line. He is somewhat limited in his kicking game. What goes in his favour though is an exceptional debut test match last year against Australia where he picked up two tries from fullback.Marcus Perenara ? Warriors: Ropati's former halves team-mate from Marist in the Bartercard Cup, Marcus was seemingly being woven into the Warriors outfit as the logical long term replacement to Stacey Jones. However, no sooner did the Warriors begin highlighting his potential to the public was the news that the Warriors had released Perenara. He ended up joining the Parramatta Eels, but has featured mostly in reserve grade. He made his first grade debut last weekend against the Penrith Panthers in a losing performance. Marcus is rated for his passing, and kicking game, and also his goal-kicking ability and is the brother of former Kiwi Henry Perenara.Jeremy Smith ? Parramatta Eels: If you were working out a crossword, and stumbled across the question, "Best young half yet to be tried for a lengthy period at NRL level ? five letters" you would instantly write the surname Smith into the boxes. Jeremy is without question an audacious talent. He has great organisational skills, a terrific kicking game, a creative passing game and a strong running game. It is somewhat perplexing that he has not yet debuted for the Eels. Jeremy's inexperience will count against him, but McClennan is renowned as a strong analyst of the game and no doubt Jeremy's ability will be rated on it's merits accordingly.Billy Ngawini ? Canterbury Bulldogs: Perhaps the most talented young hooker running around, yet to play first grade. Billy put his name firmly in the cross-hairs of the Kiwis selectors after an astounding performance for New Zealand "A" versus the Australian Presidents XIII, a team that featured Mark O'Meley, Willie Mason, Matt Cooper, Trent Barrett, Scott Prince and Ben Creagh. Spectactors left that game with an impression of a very incisive young player who made a lot of line breaks off the back of good go-forward, particularly from Tony Puletua and Awen Guttenbeil. Despite not playing first grade, its clear to all who saw him in action that night that Kiwi representative honours are not too far away for Ngawini.Nigel Vagana ? Cronulla Sharks: Word on the street's of the Shire is Vagana will be a late inclusion versus the Wests Tigers. Nigel is a proven and established NRL star, particularly following his try scoring exploits at the Bulldogs, and Auckland Warriors. He has not quite reached the same heights of consistency at the Cronulla Sharks, but gained some form when being promoted into a makeshift five eighth role at the end of last year. He was the number six outside Stacey Jones in last years triumph, and also donned the jumper in a memorable test victory at North Harbour Stadium in 2003 outside Thomas Leuluai. Kicking game is severely limited, but can make a break on his own or from supporting a strong offload up the centre of the ruck.Thomas Leuluai ? London Harlequins: Form is hard to read. Played too basic a gameplan while at the Warriors after being given countless chances to establish himself, albeit at a young age. Is the son of former Kiwis legend James Leuluai. Kicking game is quite poor for a recognised halfback, often finding the recipient on the full with limited kicking range a problem also. Tends to play a short passing game, that can restrict the outside backs and create a target for his own forwards. Has been up and down for Harlequins this year. Two things will count against Thomas, the considerations of travel, and the inconsistent form of Harlequins.Sione Faumuina ? Warriors: Has moved around at the Auckland franchise, from being a bench man, to playing lock forward, to play centre and now occupying the five eighth position. Was in scintillating form against Manly last week, but suffered from the same trait as a lot of young inexperienced halves ? the lack of knowledge as to how to skin a cat. Created numerous opportunities but was unfamiliar with how to turn the knife and make the decisive tries needed to try and run down the Sea-Eagles. Kicking game is also quite limited. Also counting against Sione will be his decision to turn down the Kiwis jumper last year in a bid to play in the English Super League Finals series, and to get a full off-season under coach Ivan Cleary to hone his craft to play five eighth at the Warriors.Brent Webb ? Warriors: Plays a semi-fullback, semi-five eighth role at the Warriors as it is, often chiming into the line to try and create an opportunity or put a long kick in. Long kicks can be powerful, but inaccurate. Doubtful to be seriously considered as a halves option purely on the proviso that there seems no logical replacement at fullback, which as Nigel Vagana showed in his appearance there a short while ago as a substitute fullback that it can be a recipe for disaster. Particularly when going against the awesome kicking game of Andrew Johns.Also mentioned in some circles have been the names of Sonny-Bill Williams, Tevita Latu and David Faiumu, however these are probably not high percentage options at this stage. Faiumu will rotate at hooker, possibly with Latu, while Williams is a certainty to lock the scrum should he be available for the Kiwis.Whichever way Brian McClennan goes, there will be no doubt that they will be up against it facing off against the likely combination of Andrew Johns and Darren Lockyer. This will be John's last test match, and there is no doubt whatsoever the rest of the team will be looking to ensure his last test is a memorable one, as well as making sure Ricky Stuart's first test is successful. Johns is in unbelievable form currently, his club team the Knights are red hot with him in the pilots seat and there appears to be nothing surer that he will carry that club form into his final test match. There is however absolutely no doubt that whomever McClennan selects as his halves will be given a strong game plan, and a strong sense of belief. They will believe they are champions, and they will believe in the honour bestowed upon them to be wearing the Kiwis jumper. That is the makeshift of McClennan's coaching, which has served him well at Bartercard Cup level, and now, famously, test match level as well.In my opinion, the best combination out of that lot is Lance Hohaia at halfback and Jeremy Smith at five eighth. It is fraught with danger, given neither are currently in their club's top seventeen, but as Olsen Filipaina has shown, Kiwi pride can overcome those odds.
THIS Sunday afternoon the two best teams of 2006 will face off at Energy Australia Stadium bringing the two form halves in the competition face to face for the first time this year. Andrew Johns and Johnathan Thurston go up against each other in a game that should be an absolute cracker.
BRISBANE has suffered a further injury blow with in-form centre Justin Hodges a late withdrawal from tomorrow night's NRL clash with Sydney at Aussie Stadium.
WEST Tigers five-eighth Benji Marshall has decided to postpone shoulder surgery until the end of the season with a view to making his NRL return in four to six weeks.
TEST back Brent Tate has been forced to call off his NRL return for the Brisbane Broncos against the Sydney Roosters tomorrow night after breaking down with another injury.
DRAGONS Supporters, After a Round 5 flogging most of us would rather forget, this week the Dragons head to "Fortress" Brookvale to take on the Sea Eagles. The 2006 NRL premiership is as close as we have seen in many years, and this match will be another tough game against a Manly side who are starting to play their way into some good form. Manly have proven fairly hard to beat at Brookvale over the past few years and the Dragons will need to have a much higher level of commitment and a tougher mental attitude to take the points in this one. With Shaun Timmins and Wes "The Fijian Flyer" Naiqama both returning from injury the Dragons are nearing a full strength side and will give a good account of themselves. The MBDS screening this week will once again be at the Grosvenor Hotel at East St Kilda. The screening will be held in the Sports Bar at 5:30pm Saturday on Fox Sports. Hope to see a big crowd there to catch all the action live! What: Dragons v Sea EaglesWhen: Saturday 15th April, 5:30pmWhere: Grosvenor Hotel 10 Brighton Road East St Kilda ANZAC DAY Just to let you all know, we have also booked the Grosvenor for the annual Anzac Day clash between the Dragons and the Roosters. Further details will be coming in the following weeks but put it in your diary now as this will be a cracker of a game and we expect a good crowd at the Grosvenor for the match. Due to the importance of this match, our new sponsor OneStop Home Loans will be putting money on the bar which is a first for MBDS so come along and enjoy the day. Thanks to OneStop for their support!
I tend to be a pretty stubborn kind of guy and usually, there?s less chance of me admitting to a blunder than of John Howard walking into question time donning Peter Garrett?s ?sorry? T-shirt. But last weekend has forced me to change tack, particularly when selecting Premiers pre-season.