Round 23 preview

A week is a long time in football. I know I've heard that somewhere before and for the Knights, never has a statement rung true with such clarity. Last weekend the Knights thumped the hapless Cowboys and Knights fans had reason to be cautiously optimistic about their chances leading up to the finals then they have the collective rug pulled out from under them when it was revealed yesterday the games premier player Andrew Johns has a bulging disc in his neck that will prevent him from taking the field again this year, including the Kangaroo tour.

The Knights have a poor 37.5% winning percentage when Johns is out and with the Knights currently having tenuous hold on eighth spot, the remaining players will have to rewrite history if the Knights are to make the eight and personally, with their run home I don't think they can get there. Johns is the maestro and takes charge the moments he sets foot on the field. From the long passing to the kicking game, the Knights will have to reinvent the wheel to make the critics (including this one) eat their words. I have no doubt they will fire up for tonight's crucial clash with the Warriors but will the fire last for 80 minutes and will it be enough to inspire the Knights to victory? I don't think so. Warriors by 14.

The battered and bruised Raiders take on the hapless Cowboys in Canberra in Saturdays first match and with the Raiders missing Simon Woolford, Clinton Schifcofske, Brad Drew, Tyran Smith and Terry Martin, they will have to keep it simple and rely on their forwards to get the job done. The Cowboys have never won in Canberra and after last weekends flogging at the hands of the Knights, they will be fired up but without Matt Sing, they look a little thin in the backs and I don't think they have the forwards to match it with Canberra. It will be closer than many people think but the Raiders are still a chance to take out the minor premiership so I expect the Raiders to have their minds on the job and dispose of the Cowboys by ten points.

One of the best rivalries in the NRL fires up again as the Sharks attempt to put a massive dent in the Dragons top eight aspirations and after last week's loss to the Warriors, the Dragons need this one or it's pretty much curtains for 2003. They've had a mixed year and with Shaun Timmins returning from a one week suspension they have a chance to win the match but the Sharks will want to play spoiler to get one back on their “neighbours”. I think this could go to golden point but without Kimmorley, I'll tip Saints to win by one solitary point and keep themselves on life support for another week.

I have just heard Darren Lockyer has been ruled out of this match and again the Broncos will be without Gorden Tallis so this game is not as cut and dry as it might seem. The Tigers lost to Souths for the second time this season but I think they will be up for this match and give the Broncos plenty to think about. Brisbane are really struggling and have probably missed the top four and will not have the opportunity to play a home final at the surprisingly tame Suncorp Stadium. While I am leaning towards the Broncos I do so with no certainty and the Tigers are one of the most unpredictable sides in the NRL. Broncos by six.

Sundays first match is another local derby between first and last. The Roosters play Souths and while Souths laid a trap for the Tigers, the Roosters will make no such mistake and will account for Souths quite comfortably and will need to with the Raiders, Panthers and Bulldogs all breathing down their neck in the race for the minor premiership. Souths will be competitive for the first 50 minutes but it will all unravel from there and Fittler's class will see the Roosters maintain their number one sport for another week at least.

The Bulldogs will maintain the rage against the fast fading Sea Eagles and considering Manly lost to a twelve man Raiders side by 35 points last weekend, what will a full strength Bulldogs side do? This could be ugly and the Bulldogs do no show any mercy so I expect them to win by 40. A very clear cut match with little risk to the Bulldogs.

The last match is crucial for both sides. The Storm are last up losers and big ones at that. They were thumped by the Bulldogs while the Eels enjoyed their second bye and will be fresh for a tough encounter against the Storm. It's do or die for the Eels who must win every match to make the finals and possibly rely on other results going their way but they are still in there swinging. The Storm still have a bye up their sleeve and a win over the Eels means they will make the finals after missing out last year. I don't know if they have recovered from last weekend's belting and I think the Eels will be a fraction too desperate to let this game slip from their grasp. Nathan Hindmarsh will have an absolute blinder to get the Eels home and keep them in the hunt for the playoffs. Eels by 4.