SIX rounds to go and the Top 8 equation is becoming more complex than Sunday?s monster Sodoku puzzle. And looking ahead you get the feeling that there?s going to be more bends in the road before we end up with our McIntyre Maze.Last week I rebounded somewhat with a mediocre 5 from 7, taking me to 86/138 (62%) for the year so far, but that?s only just keeping pace with everyone else. I didn?t have the guts to take the Raiders even though it was on the cards and Brisbane?s flat nature was a surprise.Again we?re faced with a challenging task this round and with a few each way games it?s difficult to go in full of confidence. I hope all those people out there saying that this year?s comp has been boring are tipping 7 on a consistent basis because the unpredictability each week is as thrilling for the punter as it is frustrating.Sharks v KnightsYou can tell they picked this one a month ago, although with the current state both sides are in, desperation should lift the quality of the game to a level befitting Friday Night Football.Newcastle head south to Woolooware Swamp to play the Sharkies who have the wood on them lately. Whilst Newcastle has proven they can win at this ground in the past it is also the scene of many defeats including a 64-14 drubbing back in 2002 when Kimmorley turned on a show against his arch rival Johns. With the champion halves set to go at it again this round it makes for mandatory viewing across the nation as the two little generals strive for bragging rights. The Knights are more or less unchanged and possess a willing forward pack that need to put in a bit more this time around. Their backs are quality and so is the bench, but gee whiz they were ordinary in the second half against Souths.Cronulla need only to cast their memory back to Round 16 when they travelled up to the Hunter and laid siege to the Knights on their home turf. That victory should provide them with the belief they need to snap a four game losing streak which has taken hold of the club. They played much better against Storm last week, and let?s just get one thing straight, no one was going to beat Melbourne in that game. Kearney at the back adds a bit of unpredictability but they still miss the reliability of Simmons. If their props can hold Newcastle?s then Cronulla will compete favourably in the backrow with Thompson, Bird and Gallen. The big question is can Kimmorley and Dykes finally strike up a partnership in the halves capable of winning them the game?Is say yes, I think they will and the Sharks should win. Let?s hope Carney and the boys steer clear of Northies.Panthers v WarriorsAn all Western Sydney Super Saturday kicks off at Penrith as the Warriors cross the ditch with aspirations of clawing two points out of the Panthers.Here?s another example of a team having the wood on another in recent seasons, with New Zealand suffering 6 losses from the past 7 games. They did snap a six game losing streak against the Panthers at home in round 17, but they seem to be averse to travelling against the Panthers. Across the board though I like the look of the Warriors outfit and with Webb returning at the back I think that should provide plenty of strikepower for them to have a crack. Their centre combination is also superior to that of Penrith?s after Lewis pulled out through injury with Mannering and Martin in better form than O?Halloran and Hookey. One has to wonder what sort of motivation they?ll be taking with them though.It?s not often you lose a game after leading 24-6 at halftime, but the Penny have made an art form out of it against Manly in recent years. So, I think you can consider last week?s loss an aberration in the grand scheme of things. They still have a strong line-up with Gower, Campbell and Wesser being the key players here and all three went well last week, or so I thought. All Panthers fans will be hoping Clinton keeps his mouth shut because if there?s one pack you don?t want to encourage a bashing from it?s the Warriors.Overall I?m leaning towards Penrith in this one. Home ground advantage and needing to make up for last week should see them take home the chocolates.Eels v Sea EaglesWe head back up the M4 to Parra Park for a real treat as the Manly Ferry heads up the River to greet the Eels. They should post the ?full house? sign at some point throughout the night.This game will be a cracker. Manly?s comeback last week was nothing short of miraculous and it takes a lot of heart to do something like that. This game is a great opportunity for them to consolidate their position on the ladder ahead of the bye next round. I?m sure Dessy will have hammered that point home throughout the week. Bell is on the bench which is a good thing and Stewart is back, although they did well without him last week. Kennedy is still suffering from a few aches and pains which won?t help out and the rest of the forwards need to have a real dig if they?re going to stand any chance of winning.Speaking of forwards, I think this is where Parra have the edge. Hindmarsh and Cayless were very good last week but Moimoi and Morrison need to come to the party as well. Riddell will add a bit to their attack after last week?s omission through a gut-buster and Widders off the bench provides some great versatility and impact. The Eels are another team with a bit of wood over their opposition, having won 8 of the past 11 encounters between the two clubs. And Manly haven?t won at Parra since 1997. The clash in the backs will be keenly anticipated and depending on who takes the field for Manly there could be a few big hits out there.But I think all signs point to an Eels victory in this one. Across the park with what should be a massive home ground advantage, it?s difficult to see Manly winning this one. If they do it will be by very few points and could signal the beginning of things to come.Rabbitohs v RaidersIn our final Saturday game we travel a little further east where the Bunnies are up against the Raiders at League Headquarter in Homebush.Canberra make the trek up to Sydney after dispatching the Dragons to the boundary in fine fashion last week. They scored their third highest points total of the season last week and conceded their third lowest points against. This resulted in their third highest winning margin for the year and for a team who sometimes struggle to score points they well and truly put one of the so-called ?big guns? of the competition away. Their forwards are hulking and their backs under-rated, but the real wisdom here has been the use of Smith, Carney, Schifcofske, Withers and Woolford. It?s amazing how Elliot has managed to get these five unlikely suspects to run the team and few clubs have any clues on how to shut them down.I don?t think that will bother the Bunnies though, they seem to just run out onto the field with little or no game plan and hope for the best. Then when they have a sniff they put in a big 15-20 minute effort and the scoreboard reflects a close game. Having said that, this is a big danger game for Canberra. Souths can play attacking footy and they enjoy throwing the ball around. It will be interesting to see if the stigma attached to MacDougall reflects in the player?s attitudes on the field. If anything I think his departure will help them.But they?ll need plenty of help to topple the Raiders. They should win comfortably an have demonstrated in previous game that they can put away teams they are expected to (Easts 42-10).Broncos v TigersWests wobble up to Bris-Vegas with a black-eye, fat lip and a nasty limp. They?ll be welcomed by a Broncos pack keen to get back into the winner?s circle after a disappointing game last week.It?s hard to see many positives for the Tigers here, other than the fact their season has been ruined more by injuries than poor form. Perhaps all that karma from last year?s magical run without a single serious grievance has finally caught up on them. The Phat is out with a hammy opening the door for another rookie. Jeffrey and Lawrence are making their grade debuts whilst it?s Metuisela?s first game for his new club. They still pack a good scrum the Tigers, but I fear they will get run over in this one.Last week hurt the Broncos? pride deeply and they?ll want to exact some revenge for that loss up in FNQ. Webcke still played the house down but their cohesion in attack wasn?t extra good. Part of their problem was their wing defence though, with Tupou exposed on countless occasions. Berrigan to halfback is a bit of a gamble, I prefer him in the centres but it?s probably time they tried something to take the pressure off Lockyer. Looking at their forward pack and bench, they just have too much for Wests.In the 12 encounters between these two teams Brisbane has won 9 times plus a draw. That?s a big stat in favour of the home side and let?s not forget that the last time they met Wests gave them a 34-6 touch up in the semis. I think Brisbane will be out to exorcise a few demons on Sunday.Dragons v StormThe Sunday blockbuster sees Melbourne travel to Kogarah Oval for the very first time in the club?s history. They also boast an excellent record against the Dragons all over the shop, winning 10 out of their 15 matches, with a draw in there, including the Dragons biggest ever loss (70-10 in 2000) and only Grand Final defeat (20-18 in 1999).So we?ve got a bit of history between these two clubs and I bet that gets fleshed out over the course of 80 minutes. Melbourne were in sparkling form against the Sharkies, I was simply in awe of how enthusiastic their forwards were particularly in defence, but also attack. With significant firepower in the backs they just blow teams off the park when they get into a groove. They are also an incredibly fit and skilful team, so it?s not a big surprise when you?re told they?ve only lost 3 games this year.You could say the Dragons are in a spot of bother. They?ve dropped their last two and have their backs against the wall here. I think the game against Canterbury took plenty out of them and they have struggled to recover through additional injuries and fatigue. Plus, they?re now selecting an unusual pack with Bailey at lock, Wicks in the second row and Young replacing Gorrell at hooker, who?s been doing well lately. I?m expecting some sort of late changes in there but overall I?m not sure the Dragons can get them, even if they are at home. Head still looks a bit shabby and Barrett might take a few more weeks to get back into the swing of things.Based off form and the fact that Melbourne?s pack is savaging their opponents at the moment, I have to tip them. The Dragons look like they want to take them up the middle of the park with their selections, but I?m not sure that will work. The Storm will be content on the fringes exposing any lazy defenders who set up plays for their inside men to run riot. The Storm to win, Inglis?s return will be a highlight.Roosters v CowboysThe final game of the round sees the Cowboys pile into the SFS where they will meet the Roosters who are sure to be smarting over the Morley incident.North Queensland capped a remarkable victory last week against the Broncos, to whom they were expected to lose. But desperate times call for desperate measures and the Cowboys pulled together a great team effort when Thurston went down early in the match. They?re moved Payne to halfback, which is probably for the best, Norton is still at five-eighth and Bowman at lock worked last week but I wouldn?t push my luck if I was coach Murray. I still think Williams deserves a recall but this is the most consistent side they?ve had in weeks and the inclusion of Rockin? Rod Jensen on the bench is tops.The Roosters are in a bit of a spin. Losing to the Bulldogs last week was bad enough, given they didn?t rack up a single point, but to then have Morley suspended is a real headache. Anasta is out injured, but I?m not sure that?s a bad thing, with Finch playing five-eighth in the position he?ll most likely cover at Parramatta next year. Their pack and bench look a little weak in comparison to the Cowboys.I?m tipping the Cows here, I think they can get the job done and besides which, Easts were ordinary last week and if they manage to turn it around in this game, well then they deserve the two points.The Bulldogs have the bye in Round 21 and will sharpen their pencils in the week off. They have been looking very menacing of late and deserve their favouritism in the comp. it will be interesting to see how they go against the Cowboys in Round 22 as a week off at this end of the year is not always a great thing.
NO Superleague games this weekend, as instead we focus attention on the Challenge Cup Semi Finals. This year?s knockout competition has eliminated amateur teams, club sides from Russia and France, lower division British sides, and Superleague clubs, and now we are left with our final four. Who will win through to the Challenge Cup Final at Twickhenham on 26 August?Semi Final One: Hull Kingston Rovers (NL1) v St HelensSaturday 29 July, 12:30pm, Galpharm Stadium (Huddersfield)Hull Kingston Rovers are the sole National League One side to win through to this year?s semi-finals, having defeated Warrington, Featherstone (NL2), Hunslet (NL2), and York Acorn (amateur) along the way. Hull KR are sitting undefeated on top of the NL1 table, however recently lost the National Leagues knockout cup final to promotion rivals Leigh. Coach Justin Morgan came to Hull KR after success with French side Toulouse, who made last year?s Challenge Cup semi-final only to go down to Leeds. He has a well drilled side including players with NRL or Superleague experience in half back Jimmy Webster, winger Leroy Rivett, props David Tangata-toa and Francis Stephenson, and backrowers Michael Smith and Iain Morrison.However the firm favourites will be St Helens, who sit atop the Superleague ladder three wins clear of their nearest rivals. On their way to this year?s semi-finals they have beaten Catalans, Bradford, and Doncaster (NL1). St Helens have named a near full strength squad for the match, missing only their captain Paul Sculthorpe through long-term injury, and halfback Sean Long tipped to make a return after missing the past two matches with a leg problem. Jamie Lyon was cleared to play after being sent off for a late tackle last week against Leeds and not receiving a suspension. Hull KR will definitely take the game to St Helens, but it will be a tough ask for the underdogs to get the victory here. Semi Final Two: Leeds Rhinos v Huddersfield GiantsSunday 30 July, 3:00pm, Grattan (Odsal) Stadium (Bradford)Huddersfield have overcome Salford, York (NL1), and Halifax (NL1) on their way to this year?s semi-finals, and a victory here and a place in the Challenge Cup Final would come as a huge highlight for a club that has struggled during the Superleague years. Currently sitting seventh on the Superleague table, the club will hope to continue its momentum towards a possible top six finish with a win over their more fancied rivals. Huddersfield have lost to Leeds twice in league matches this season, but are more than capable of the upset, having been the team to put an end to leaders St Helens? undefeated run. They will be looking to their forwards to match the Leeds pack and then for the creativity of Chris Thorman, Robbie Paul and Brad Drew to bring some points.Leeds were runners up in the Challenge Cup final last year, and will be looking to go one better with a win to qualify for this year?s final. The Rhinos are in equal second on the Superleague ladder and having beaten Harlequins, Rochdale (NL1) and Leigh (NL1) along the way to the semi-finals, need to bounce back after recent losses to Castleford and St Helens. Leeds are without Gold Coast bound fullback Richie Matthers due to long-term injury, but otherwise have named a full-strength squad with some concern over stand off Danny McGuire who copped a knock last week. Recent recruit Clinton Toopi will not arrive in time to be considered for this game, and prop Jamie Thackray is ineligible having played a Cup match for Hull earlier in the season. Leeds at their best are a creative and fast paced team, will be favourites here but it?s a match that could easily go either way.Broadcast DetailsBoth matches are televised live on BBC free-to-air across the UK, with radio commentary for Saturday?s game on BBC Radio Five Live, and for Sunday?s game (probably) on BBC Radio Leeds. In NZ on Sky Sports Hull KR-St Helens is a delayed telecast at Sunday 1:30pm, Huddersfield-Leeds is broadcast live at Monday 2:00am, with replays on Tuesday and Wednesday respectively at 8:00am. In Australia both games will be delayed telecasts on Fox Sports: Hull KR-St Helens at Sunday 12:30pm, Huddersfield-Leeds at Monday 6:00am.
TIME to strengthen the PacificAn agreement by NRL clubs slipped under nearly everyone?s radar last week. During their regular CEO meeting, NRL clubs agreed, among other things, that they would allow contracted players to be released to compete in various World Cup qualifying tournaments at the end of the 2006 and 2007 seasons.This was a uniquely selfless move by the clubs and is undoubtedly welcomed by the ?minnow? nations of Rugby League. Tonga, Fiji, Samoa and the Cook Islands will meet in Sydney at the end of this season with the top two advancing to the World Cup in 2008, while two qualifiers will come from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Lebanon, Russia and Georgia when they meet this October. The Atlantic Cup made up of the USA, Japan, South Africa and the West Indies will also be played as a World Cup qualifier this year.These countries, and in particular the Pacific nations, will be buoyed by the NRL clubs decision. There are many players who are willing to represent their nation in these tournaments, but would be unwilling to compete against the wished of their employers.Which raises another issue, now the Pacific players have been given permission to represent the nation of their choice, will they gain access to their best possible squads? As the NRL has gained an increased amount of Polynesian and Melanesian players, it has exposed the talents of a new generation of islanders. Suddenly nations such as Samoa, Tonga and Fiji (who all competed commendably in the 2000 World Cup) can potentially have access to some of the games brightest prospects. International Rugby League may be on the verge of gaining a few more competitive nations ensuring the international game can survive beyond the dominance of Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand.However one more challenge faces the code: convincing the Islander players to sacrifice the prestige of State of Origin and Tri-Nations representation to play for less glamorous nations.Jarryd Hayne, Mr Popularity at the moment, has Fijian heritage and has recently held discussions with Fijian scout Shane Morris about representing the island nation. Fuifui Moimoi is of Tongan extraction and is a regular visitor of his former home. While Ashton Sims also has Fijian heritage, albeit to a lesser degree. These players, combined with players that have already represented Pacific Nations (such as Tonga?s Antonio Kaufusi and Samoa?s Hutch Maiava) would ensure a competitive and lively qualifying tournament and World Cup. Imagine a Hayne vs Grothe battle, or Moimoi taking on Ryles.However players such as Hayne have already been sounded out by New Zealand and Australia national selectors and coaches. The Kiwis and Kangaroos play regular internationals against the highest quality opposition in front of huge crowds and the world media. Playing for Australia usually means playing in State of Origin series with simular crowds and exposure. This is compared to Pacific nation games such as last year when Tonga played Samoa at Campbelltown Stadium in front of a small crowd. So for someone like Hayne, choosing Australia or New Zealand over Fiji may be an easy decision, which is worrying for international Rugby League. Many players who have Islander heritage also tend to have New Zealand and Australia heritage. This means the Kiwis and Kangaroos can choose the premier Islander players and leave the scraps for the Pacific teams. Players of islander heritage that have subsequently represented Australia include Willie Mason, Petero Civoniceva and John Hopoate. This policy does nothing for the prestige of tournaments such as the World Cup.A solution is to provide the Pacific nations with regular, high profile fixtures. One scenario involves allowing the highest ranking Pacific nation into the Tri-Nations. This, along with including the highest ranking European nation (most likely France) would provide Pacific players with inspiration to not only play for their nation, but to also play to the best of their abilities. In the meantime a bunch of Islander players need to make some unfairly tough decisions in the next few months. We can only hope, for the good of international Rugby League, they choose the road less travelled.
FRIDAY, 28th July 2006 Cronulla v Newcastle at Toyota Park, 7.30pmSHARKS: Brett Kearney, Darren Albert, Nigel Vagana, Ben Pomeroy, Luke Covell, Adam Dykes, Brett Kimmorley (c), James Stosic, Matt Hilder, Luke Douglas, Greg Bird, Lance Thompson, Paul GallenInterchange: Richard Villasanti, Darren Mapp, Reece Williams, Beau ScottKNIGHTS: Milton Thaiday, Brian Carney, Matthew Gidley, George Carmont, Anthony Quinn, Jarrod Mullen, Andrew Johns (c), Craig Smith, Danny Buderus, Josh Perry, Steve Simpson, Clint Newton, Reegan TannerInterchange: Luke Davico, Adam Woolnough, Todd Lowrie, Kirk Reynoldson, Daniel Abraham (one to be omitted)Referee: Shayne HayneSaturday, 29th July 2006 Penrith v New Zealand at CUA Stadium, 5.30pmPANTHERS: Rhys Wesser, Michael Gordon, Mark O'Halloran, Lee Hookey, Luke Rooney, Preston Campbell, Craig Gower, Joel Clinton, Luke Priddis, Craig Stapleton, Matthew Cross, Tony Puletua (c), Frank PritchardInterchange: Frank Puletua, Bryan Norrie, Matthew Bell, Luke SwainWARRIORS: Brent Webb, Patrick Ah Van, Tony Martin, Simon Mannering, Manu Vatuvei, Jerome Ropati, Grant Rovelli, Ruben Wiki, Nathan Fien, Steve Price (c), Awen Guttenbeil, Louis Anderson, Sione FaumuinaInterchange: George Gatis, Sam Rapira, Wairangi Koopu, Micheal LuckReferee: Tony ArcherParramatta v Manly at Parramatta Stadium, 7.30pmEELS: Wade McKinnon, Jarryd Hayne, Luke O'Dwyer, Ben Smith, Eric Grothe, John Morris, Jeremy Smith, Nathan Cayless (c), Mark Riddell, Fuifui Moimoi, Nathan Hindmarsh, Chad Robinson, Glenn MorrisonInterchange: PJ Marsh, Dean Widders, Josh Cordoba, Daniel WagonSEA EAGLES: Brett Stewart, Michael Robertson, Chris Hicks, Steve Matai, Paul Stephenson, Travis Burns, Matt Orford, Jason King, Michael Monaghan, Brent Kite, Luke Williamson, Glenn Stewart, Ben Kennedy (c)Interchange: Shane Dunley, Steve Bell, Kylie Leuluai, Mark Bryant, George Rose (one to be omitted)Referee: Steve ClarkSouth Sydney v Canberra at Telstra Stadium, 7.30pmRABBITOHS: David Peachey, Nathan Merritt, Todd Polglase, Germaine Paulson, Paul Mellor, Beau Champion, Joe Williams, Peter Cusack (c), Stuart Webb, Scott Geddes, David Fa?alogo, Joe Galuvao, John SuttonInterchange: Mark Minichiello, Manase Manuokafoa, Ben Rogers, Kane ClealRAIDERS: Clinton Schifcofske (c), Adrian Purtell, Phil Graham, Adam Mogg, Marshall Chalk, Jason Smith, Lincoln Withers, Dane Tilse, Simon Woolford, Troy Thompson, Tom Learoyd-Lahrs, Jason Croker, Alan TongueInterchange: Todd Carney, Kris Kahler, Michael Hodgson, Michael WeymanReferee: Jason RobinsonSunday, 30th July 2006 Brisbane v Wests at Suncorp Stadium, 2.30pmBRONCOS: Darius Boyd, Tame Tupou, Justin Hodges, Brent Tate, Scott Minto, Darren Lockyer (c), Shaun Berrigan, Shane Webcke, Casey McGuire, Petero Civoniceva, David Stagg, Brad Thorn, Tonie CarrollInterchange: Corey Parker, Dane Carlaw, Greg Eastwood, Joel Moon, Neville Costigan (one to be omitted)TIGERS: Shannon McDonnell, Taniela Tuiaki, Dean Collis, Paul Whatuira, Jamaal Lolesi, Shane Elford, Scott Prince (c), Todd Payten, Robbie Farah, John Skandalis, Anthony Laffranchi, Chris Heighington, Ben GaleaInterchange: Tevita Metuisela, Dene Halatau, Ben Jeffery, Ryan O'Hara, Chris Lawrence (one to be omitted)Referee: Paul SimpkinsSt George Illawarra v Melbourne at Oki Jubilee Stadium, 3pmDRAGONS: Ben Hornby, Colin Best, Mark Gasnier, Matt Cooper, Brett Morris, Trent Barrett (c), Mathew Head, Jason Ryles, Dean Young, Justin Poore, Sam Isemonger, Danny Wicks, Luke BaileyInterchange: Michael Henderson, Jason Ryles, Ashton Sims, Matt Bickerstaff, Aaron GorrellSTORM: Billy Slater, Matt Geyer, Matt King, Jake Webster, Steve Turner, Scott Hill, Cooper Cronk, Antonio Kaufusi, Cameron Smith, Brett White, David Kidwell, Ryan Hoffman, Dallas JohnsonInterchange: Michael Crocker, Jeremy Smith, Adam Blair, Nathan Friend, Garret Crossman, Greg Inglis (two to be omitted)Referee: Sean HampsteadSydney v North Queensland at Aussie Stadium, 3pmROOSTERS: Shaun Foley, Amos Roberts, Ryan Cross, Iosia Soliola, Sam Perrett, Brett Finch, Josh Lewis, Shane Shackleton, Craig Wing, David Shillington, Anthony Tupou, Craig Fitzgibbon (c), Ashley HarrisonInterchange: Chris Flannery, John Doyle, Setaimata Sa, Mickey PaeaCOWBOYS: Matt Bowen, Ashley Graham, Mark Henry, Josh Hannay, Matt Sing, Travis Norton (c), Aaron Payne, Matthew Scott, David Faiumu, Mitchell Sargent, Carl Webb, Luke O'Donnell, Paul BowmanInterchange: Rod Jensen, Jacob Lillyman, Gavin Cooper, Steve Simpson, Justin Smith (one to be omitted)Referee: Gavin BadgerThe Canterbury BULLDOGS have the bye in Round 21.