Round 26 NRL Preview

We?ve arrived at the final hurdle for 2006 with some clubs still skipping around chairs waiting for the music to stop. Melbourne obviously can?t be displaced and I?m pretty sure Canberra will meet them in week 1 of the semi?s, but there?s more complexity in this one than you?re average garden compost heap.

I backed up last week with another solid round, taking 5 from 7 for an overall total of 107/173 (62%). I probably should have tipped the round but I deserved not to, ignoring Craig Gower?s withdrawal and also selecting the Bunnies when they were favourites.

Mad Monday is just around the corner for seven of the clubs and I bet they?ve got a real taste for the glass right now. Best of luck to those still chasing down a win in the tipping comp, and to all the punters there?s still a bit of value about this week, so let?s hook in.

Cowboys v Eels

Friday night footy kicks-off in FNQ where the Cowboys will be looking to put a season of turmoil to rest with a victory over the resurgent Eels.

By the sounds of things Johnathan Thurston will be making a return from injury here, as will Parramatta playmaker Tim Smith. Another interesting footnote of the match is the naming of Travis Norton as captain from the bench. I think this could be a first in Rugby League; exactly how does he lead the team onto the field?

The Eels suffered a slight setback last week when losing to Brisbane, but I thought they competed well under the circumstances. Plenty of players were missing and they lost their halfback throughout the match. And I don?t really think Brisbane fully put them away either. I feel a bit for Burt, he?s been doing well lately but Smith and Vella could add a bit of extra attack and freshness to the Eels team.

North Queensland bounced back last week but it was only against Souths. And even if Thurston plays I?m not sure that it will help their situation. He?s been out for a while and there?s no reason to bring him back other than to stake a claim for a Test jersey, so I think he might be putting himself ahead of the team here.

I?m going to tip the Eels despite the dramas that have surrounded JT. I think they really want to beat these guys as they?ve copped it off the Cowboys the last couple of times.

Sharks v Raiders

Super Saturday gets underway for the last time in 2006 with the gummy sharks hosting the Raiders down at the Shire.

Canberra were gallant in defeat last week against the Storm and I think they can push them again in a fortnight if they get all their players on the park. This week though, they?ll be without Smith as Carney steps into the five-eighth role. Boom rookie Zillman comes onto the bench in what could be an exciting addition to the Raiders backline if he gets a run. Look out for him next year. The rest of the team is unchanged and I think it looks pretty good.

The Sharks are a club in crisis. This week they?ll be shooting for their tenth straight loss and the coach appears to be doomed. They played spoilers last week but their ball security was terrible and they had little, if any, team cohesion. I don?t know where they go from here. It?s pretty hard for Raper to tell them to enjoy their footy when he thinks he?ll lose his shirt.

Recent history between the clubs is well split and under the current circumstances I think the home ground advantage is pretty neutral. I think the Raiders should win here but I?m worried that they?ve already got their other eye on the Storm for next week.

Storm v Sea Eagles

One of the matches of the round greets us next and Messrs Gallop will no doubt be on hand to present the Storm with the JJ at the conclusion of the game.

Manly are caught in a bit of a sticky situation. I?m sure they want to win so they can secure a home final, but they?re not going to risk two of their star players (BK & Ox) in the process. I think Dessy is best to throw Monaghan in at halfback, Dunley at hooker and have a go at the Storm through the forwards. In particular, Manly?s backrow is very accomplished and mobile, so they should be able to handle Melbourne in most facets.

With an awards ceremony to follow the game, this isn?t good news for Manly. The Storm always get up for big games and sealing the minor premiership is a fair occasion. I think they?ll come out firing and try to blow Manly off the park early on. Strangely, Webster is still on the bench and if he doesn?t get a game on Saturday I?d say his season is over, barring injury or suspension to someone in the backline. Crocker is also back on the bench and I?m assuming he?ll be used at some stage.

Even though I?m warming to Manly as a force in this comp, I?m going to tip the Storm here as it?s really the logical option and Manly have never won at Olympic Park. Neither did the Northern Eagles for that matter. Manly are pretty good value at $3.15 though.

Roosters v Dragons

League returns to one of it?s heartland venues for the conclusion of Super Saturday as the Roosters and the Dragons do battle in the middle of the SCG.

This is an interesting one to look up in the stats. Saints have won their past three games at the SCG, all against the Bunnies and a couple were by reasonable margins. Easts haven?t played there since 1999 and came away with a win against Parra.

Anyway, the Dragons were a bit ordinary last week but still managed to cover the start. Every time Gasnier got his hands on the ball he looked dangerous and I?d be giving him plenty of opportunities to work some magic this week. The Dragons need points to stand any chance of moving up the ladder and securing a home final, or at the very least trying to finish 5th. They have the wood over the Roosters lately, winning their past three games and apart from Young?s injury the team is unchanged. That was an unfortunate blow as Young is a worker and there?s no one to really replace him in that way. The backrow of Creagh, Sims and Bickerstaff looks good and the return of Poore from suspension should bolster the bench.

As for the Chooks, well these guys have been in the papers all week for entirely the wrong reasons. It started with the leaking of Stuart?s sacking to the Sunday papers, followed by their abysmal effort against the Warriors and then the eventual dismissal of the head and assistant coaches. It?s been a big week out at Bondi and I?m not sure any of them really want to play in this game. Fitzgibbon might have some vague claims to a Test jersey but other than that I?d expect them to all be primed for a massive night out at Hugo?s following the game. And let?s face it, if they weren?t going to stand up and help save Stuart?s tenure over the past few weeks, they?re probably not going to now.

Dragons by a few, and if you hang around long enough the boys will probably wind up at the Light Brigade by 10am for an early start on Mad Monday. The Roosters are this week?s long-shot at $6.00 to beat the Dragons. I still wouldn?t take it.

Broncos v Warriors

Sunday footy kicks off with a rip-snorter up at Suncorp Stadium between Brisbane and New Zealand and I think this game will be one of the most influential of the round.

Firstly to the Warriors ? how good were they last week? I know it was only the Roosters but geez they gave them some stick. Roy Masters and Tommy Raudonikis would have been proud to hand out a slapping like that. They have no fear or favour at the Warriors and their single mission is to get over the line as many times as possible and they did that a few times last week. Faumuina?s sacking has left a bit of a sour taste in what was otherwise a well-salvaged season by coach Cleary but the firebrand backrower will still be in NZ and probably won?t figure in the player?s mindsets. Wiki, Ropati, Rovelli and Webb are all in exceptional form right now and they?ll be out to rain on Brisbane?s parade and then go and terrorise Caxton Street.

If Brisbane are to stand any chance in this comp they have to beat the Warriors here - plain and simple. The Warriors are one of the form teams of the comp, have an extremely hard pack of forwards and play a loosely based style of attack that is very difficult to defend against. Having said that, Brisbane haven?t conceded a point for two weeks and have beaten the likes of Parramatta and Canterbury away from home. So this game is a difficult one to pick and crucial to the final standings of the top 8.

I?m going to tip the Broncos here in a tight one. Hodges is playing out of his skin and I think the home ground advantage will get them home after two weeks on the road. But by crikey, the Warriors are good value at $2.80. I?ll be slapping on the emotional hedge.

Tigers v Rabbitohs

Next we head on out to old Leichhardt Oval where the Tigers and Rabbitohs will be looking to put a season of disappointment behind them and go out winners in 2006.

Souths have had a pretty hard week. You?d never expect to be sacked as a coach at this stage, and given everything that has gone on I would have thought McRae was fairly safe. But those Bondi boys must have put the word out to JT and now Bomber is facing his last game as a first grade coach in the NRL. They were average last week, apart from Merritt who?s a dead-set gun winger, and they might struggle to get anywhere near the Tigers in this one. Most of the team is still there but with what?s going on down at Redfern lately I wouldn?t blame them if they started cracking beers at halftime.

The Tigers are probably going to be a bit more professional than that, but only just. And probably only because it?s at home. I?m sure they can?t wait to get out in that black and gold jersey with a packed hill and sun shining down on the field. Ah, you?ve gotta love Leichhardt! Sheensy will want them to win this one because you never like losing to Souths and with a strong home crowd there will be a few emotional send-off?s: Skando, Franky etc.

The Tigers have got this one and I?d give away 10.5 start to get on them at $2.10.

Panthers v Bulldogs

The last game of the round has the Doggies pitted against the Panthers out at Penrith in a game that is a bit of a dead rubber for a few reasons.

Canterbury are probably going into this game with the hope that they don?t suffer any further injuries or suspensions. If they do it could really put a dent in their premiership hopes. The bench is looking a bit worse for wear these days but I think they still have Penrith?s measure in the forwards. O?Meley, Ryan, Myles and Maitua plus Sonny Bill out wide probably have a bit too much for the Panthers.

The home team struggled big time last week against a side I thought they could take. Gower was out and he could have been the difference but once again I find his inclusion this week a bit silly. He?s obviously trying to prove his fitness for the Australian team and like Thurston I?m not sure he has the team?s interests at heart. If he gets out there and can guide his boys around the park then they might stand a chance, but I think they?ll do it tough.

The Bulldogs to win here, although Penrith are paying $2.60 which isn?t bad for a home team.

The Knights have the bye in Round 26 of the comp and are sitting pretty in my opinion. Joey has had a fortnight?s angry leave and will be refreshed for the upcoming potential home semi-final. You wouldn?t say the Knights have their destiny in their own hands, but at least they get to sit back, watch everyone else beat each other up, and at the end of the day they?ll more than likely play one of them at Marathon Stadium next week.