Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (4th) v North Queensland Cowboys (5th)
For the second time this year, the Bulldogs take a game to Belmore hoping that their spiritual home ground will spur them on when needed. They will need every bit of support after coming off lackluster performance that delivered a loss by the Broncos. They were without direction in attack and when it mattered most, failed to compete on either sides of the ball. They will need a reversal of form prior to this game, especially as they aim to make amends for the 36-nil loss to the Cowboys in Round 20. Still, somehow they sit inside the Top 4, although this is the opportunity for the Cowboys to claw them back and jump them on the competition ladder. At home last week, they were able to snap a 3-game losing streak with a 34-6 demolition of the Warriors. Many were begin to question the potential of the Cowboys and they were promptly reminded of what they offer; allowing their opponents minimal chances and keeping them scoreless for the entire second half. They are beginning to find form again and despite a long campaign since their Premiership last year, they are reemerging as a team that is a threat in numerous areas on the field. They are missing Granville at hooker and with improvement only expected in coming weeks, they will be out to make a statement with their performance here.
Bulldogs = Danny Fualalo comes onto the bench for Sami Kasiano (suspended).
Cowboys = Matt Scott (injury) will start at prop, forcing Scott Bolton back to the bench.
Overall = Bulldogs 17 Cowboys 12
Last 5 Matches = Bulldogs 1 Cowboys 4
At Belmore Sports Ground = Bulldogs 53% Cowboys 0%
Form = Bulldogs 1 loss – Cowboys 1 win
The Bulldogs attack in the past weeks has failed to excited and even with a strong winning record, they appear well behind the top sides in the competition. This is the real test for them, especially as another contender shut them down easily last week. The Cowboys have a challenge ahead of them too, with road trips proving difficult for them in 2016 whereby they’ve only won 3 out of 11, with a 28.5% winning record in Sydney this year. Still, they appear more than capable to handle what the Bulldogs will offer, although this game may be tight. The weather in Sydney in the past few days has been poor and this will impact ball security to some extent, especially for a team like the Cowboys who like to play an expansive brand of football. Furthermore, the loss of Kasiano will hamper the Bulldogs, they have become accustomed to relying upon the injection of power he offers off the bench and others within their pack need to step up and fill the void. Confidence is back within the Cowboys team after last week and given the limitation of the Bulldogs, there are few reason why they will not win this match by less than 2 converted tries.
Cowboys 1-12 @ $2.80
Melbourne Storm (1st) v Brisbane Broncos (6th)
The Storm turned out another impressive attacking display last week, handing the Sea Eagles a 38-18 loss. A few late tries to the home team narrowed the margin somewhat but the Storm were always in control of the outcome. Yet again, their star players lead their team around the park strongly and found various ways to score points. Furthermore, a win in this game would conclude the race for the Minor Premiership and send it down to Melbourne. The Broncos will be out for revenge for their 48-6 loss in Round 17, although it appears to be a tough task as the Storm always rise to another level against the Broncos. The Broncos were able to handle the Bulldogs last week and despite the return to form of several key players, they appear to still be away from their best performance. Whether or not they’re working back to that level is another question, with the intensity of the match last week reminiscent of what lies ahead in the Finals. This will be another difficult match for them and the Storm will be wary of the fact that Milford played a starring role last week, only to have Ben Hunt still struggle for form. That isn’t the only area of concern for the Broncos as it is proving hard to score against a flat pack of forwards that aren’t relentless pressuring their opponents; look for the Storm to bring the battle to the Broncos in this area from the opening minute.
Storm = Unchanged.
Broncos = Unchanged.
Overall = Storm 26 Draw 1 Broncos 12
Last 5 Matches = Storm 4 Broncos 1
At AAMI Park = Storm 74% Broncos 33%
Form = Storm 1 win – Broncos 3 wins
The Broncos are on a strong winning streak, without completing dominating contests like they once were earlier in the season. No doubt, there are several excuses for this but most notably; they are not creating the same scoring opportunities. The Storm will be wary of this and you can expect plenty of pressure to be thrown upon the Broncos halves. This will be the beginning of their opponent’s downfall and they will also need to dominate their pack. Expect a strong showing from the Broncos initially but eventually, the Storm will have too much class for them. Their halves manage the game strongly and with greater impetus being generated within their pack, they will find themselves in better attacking position at the end of sets. This ground hasn’t been kind to the Broncos either, they’ve won just twice here in six attempts and ironically enough, the last win they had over the Storm was on this ground in 2015. On top of that, the Broncos have recorded just one win over the Storm in their past 10 meetings and the record is strongly on the side of the Melbourne team. The Broncos have improved and with the Finals approaching fast, you can be certain that their intensity will be similar to what is offered in September. This will keep the eventual margin close but in the end, the home team should prevail.
Storm 1-12 @ $2.75
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (12th) v Canberra Raiders (3rd)
The Sea Eagles attempted to compete with the Storm last week but fell well short, eventually outplayed by 38-18. A few late points flattered the score line and with only pride on the line, it was a performance that was expected. They do not even get the opportunity to farewell Jamie Lyon, who was a late withdrawal and appears to have played his last game for the club. In their last home game for the year, they may lift to send him out a winner. The Raiders will be heading to this ground on the back of another strong performance that stretched their winning streak to 8 matches. Despite trailing 18-nil after 20-minutes, they demonstrated maturity in their play to claw their way back into the contest; most impressively, keeping the Eels scoreless from that point onwards. The margin could’ve been larger if they had of kicked their goals but in the end, the 10-point victory was enough. With the Sharks faltering, the Raiders are on the verge of finishing in 2nd place and grabbing a home match in the Finals. Consistency has always been an issue for them and while they are attempting to overcome the moments where they lapse in concentration, they still have improvement left within their side. This is a match that they should win based upon the power and flair they have within their side and in doing so, building up the reliability in their performance that has evaded them for so long.
Sea Eagles = Dylan Walker (injury) returns in the centres, while Apisai Koroisau (injury) is named at hooker, forcing Blake Leary back to the bench.
Raiders = Edrick Lee (injury) returns to the wing, forcing Brenko Lee back to 18th man. Josh Hodgson (suspension) replaced Adam Clydsdale at hooker, while Paul Vaughan starts at prop for Junior Paulo. News broke late on Thursday that Blake Austin has suffered a hand injury and will be replaced by Sam Williams.
Overall = Sea Eagles 13 Raiders 11
Last 5 Matches = Sea Eagles 3 Raiders 2
At Brookvale Oval = Sea Eagles 64% Raiders 38%
Form = Sea Eagles 3 losses – Raiders 8 wins
Aside from the Storm, the Raiders are arguably one of the form teams in the competition. The way they are executing in matches is exciting to watch and difficult for opponents to shut down. The Sea Eagles are a capable team when at full-strength, although unfortunately they’re off that mark here. The return of Koroisau at hooker boosts their team as it takes pressure away from DCE at half and gets the forwards moving over the advantage line. Problem is, the Raiders have one of the largest packs in the competition and demonstrated two weeks ago what they were capable of against the Storm, a team that beat the Sea Eagles by 20 points last week. Expect something similar; although the Raiders showed last week that they cannot always be trusted in matches they should dominate. This ground hasn’t always been kind to them either and if the Sea Eagles find the right balance, they could cause plenty of issues for their opponents. Considering that the Raiders do not have a strong record at this ground either, their youngsters may find themselves in a difficult situation early. This isn’t to suggest that they will lose, but the heavier ground on a poorly draining field, with big forwards, will be difficult for the Raiders to deal with, amongst other things. Furthermore, the withdrawal of Austin hurts their cohesion and momentum in attack. With these factors contributing to the outcome, the points on offer at the line are too good to overlook.
Sea Eagles +8.5 @ $1.90
Gold Coast Titans (8th) v Penrith Panthers (7th)
The Titans travelled to Newcastle last week and delivered a win as expected, nevertheless not by the intended margin. In the end, it was 4 tries to 1 and in an underwhelming effort; they needed a penalty goal in the last 5 minutes to stretch the winning margin to 20-points. That form isn’t worth reading into as they did enough for the win and return home for this match unscathed. The Panthers will be ready for the challenge that is coming their way, remaining in the Top 8 with a strong performance over the Tigers. In a match where a spot in the Finals was at stake, the Panthers didn’t let an early try to their opponents faze them, powering past the Tigers with 40-unanswered points to ensure the match was decided well before the fulltime whistle. This is perhaps the most crucial game moving forward, with a loss keeping a few remaining teams within striking distance but more valuable due to the opponent that they could face in Week 1 of the Finals. There is a lot to be decided yet and winning puts plenty of problems in the upcoming weeks behind them for the time being. More so, this team has the opportunity to make a statement to the rest of the competition that they’re to be taken seriously.
Titans = Ash Taylor (injury) returns at halfback, forcing Jarryd Hayne to move to fullback. David Mead is relegated back to 18th man.
Panthers = Unchanged.
Overall = Titans 6 Panthers 8
Last 5 Matches = Titans 2 Panthers 3
At Cbus Super Stadium = Titans 50% Panthers 50%
Form = Titans 2 wins – Panthers 3 wins
This game has plenty of riding on the result and many will be watching to see the eventual outcome. Not only that, the match-up of two halves pairings that are expected to be the future of the NRL is exciting. The Titans did enough last week without creating hype and now with the inclusion of Taylor back into the team, their attacking potential will increase, along with the shift of Hayne to fullback. It will take a few games for Taylor to produce his best, but his inclusion creates stability. The plays that the Panthers produced last week was some of their best and they will be out to replicate that effort. Fact is though, for all of their exciting attacking play, they still make a host of errors and need to tighten up their defence. This game could be their undoing, similar to what they faced against the Warriors several weeks ago. It’s tough to decide on a winner on this contest and the ideal investment appears to be around a close contest; with little evidence to separate the two teams, the result could go down to the wire. It could also be a high scoring encounter, with the Panthers averaging 23.3 PPG and the Titans 21.7 PPG; although the fact that the Finals are approaching is enough to that it may in fact not be the case. For the sake of picking a winner, the Panthers haven’t proven themselves to be consistent enough to invest with confidence on the road in 2016, they’ve won 5 out of 11 there this year, although some of those have been soft wins against the Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs and Knights.
Either team under 6.5 points @ $2.75
Cronulla Sharks (2nd) v Sydney Roosters (14th)
The Sharks raised further concern for their competition credentials in 2016 with a loss to the Rabbitohs on Monday. It wasn’t the fact that they loss, it was the way in which is happened that was somewhat deflating for this team moving forward. For the third week in a row, the Sharks were outmuscled in the forwards and their back were kept quiet with quick “up-and-in” defence. Still, the Sharks persisted with their attacking structure and failed to create anything new. Now, the Sharks have not won in over a month, with their last win against Newcastle in Round 20. It was an uncharacteristic effort, 73% completion rate, 11 errors and 35 missed tackles (27.1 average per game). The Roosters pose another challenge for the team that was once competition favorites, rising to a new level in recent weeks, with their most impressive display arguably coming last week against the Dragons. In the end, they powered past their opponents 42-6 with relentless pressure and execution that has been absent for the majority of 2016. Considering the Dragons were coming off a win over the Sharks, there is every chance that this match could go the way of the visitors.
Sharks = Paul Gallen (injury) has been named at lock, pushing Chris Heighington back to the bench. Sosaia Feki (injury) returns on the wing in place of Gerard Beale.
Roosters = Unchanged.
Overall = Sharks 14 Draw 1 Roosters 20
Last 5 Matches = Sharks 4 Roosters 1
At Southern Cross Group Stadium = Sharks 56% Roosters 53%
Form = Sharks 3 losses – Roosters 2 wins
Given their recent form and that of their opponents, there is a sense that the Roosters can come out here and cause an upset. That is valid to some extent, except the Roosters impressive performances have come when teams have played horribly. That can be attributed to their execution but with the Finals on the horizon, you would expect the Sharks to lift. There was a hint in their last 10 minutes in their match against the Rabbitohs that they’ve turned a corner; their defence was strong and in the face of their opponents. Losing form isn’t good form though and the Roosters will be full of confidence. Expect the outcome of this game to be similar to their Round 19 encounter, whereby the Sharks prevailed by 12-points after wrestling momentum away from the Roosters, most notably in the forwards. The return of Gallen will only increase the defensive structure in the middle of the field and take the game to the Roosters. With motivation struggling at the end of the season, relentless pressure is all it will take for them to fold. Expect Pearce to be a target as well, majority of the Roosters attack has been generated from him and Friend at hooker. As for the margin, only once in the past 10 meeting has the winning margin gone beyond 12-points and that was in Round 19, 2013 with a 40-nil win to the Roosters; the average otherwise sits at 7.7 PPG. It will be hard work for the Sharks throughout this contest but once they gain momentum, they should get over the line.
Sharks -4.5 @ $1.90
Margin speaks volumes = Sharks 1-12 @ $2.80 – As mentioned above, these two teams enjoy a very close history. They average margin of victory doesn’t sit at a high level and the Sharks recent form isn’t anything to suggest that this will be a free-flowing attacking game.
New Zealand Warriors (9th) v Wests Tigers (10th)
The Warriors Finals chances hang by a thread after they travelled to Townsville and left with nothing more than sore bodies and zero competition points. The Cowboys played at a level the Warriors were unable to match in conditions that they are unaccustomed to. There is every chance that they could finish the season with two wins; following this fixture, they play the Eels. Still, they will need to lift their efforts on the field, as many would agree that their execution up until this point has been inconsistent and underwhelming. The Tigers Finals hopes all but ended with their 40-10 loss to the Panthers. It was a game that was always going to be difficult to win, especially with the players that were absent from their lineup. Nonetheless, a better effort was expected and the way they executed throughout the contest suggests that this team has given up on their 2016 campaign. That is ideal for the Warriors, although the Tigers have proven in the past that they can be difficult to overcome, losing to this team in Round 1 when they were red-hot favorites. A lot has changed since then and with more on the line, the desperation will be high.
Warriors = Tuimoala Lolohea returns on the wing for Ken Maumalo (injury), with Solomone Kata (injury) back in the centres for Matthew Allwood.
Tigers = David Nofoaluma moves to fullback for Jordan Rankin, who will swap to the wing.
Overall = Warriors 13 Tigers 13
Last 5 Matches = Warriors 3 Tigers 2
At Mt Smart Stadium = Warriors 58% Tigers 40%
Form = Warriors 2 losses – Tigers 2 losses
With the Tigers only a mathematical chance of making the Finals, the stage is set for the Warriors to come out, dominate and keep their own hopes alive. Situations have presented similar in the past and you can never be certain of how the Warriors will handle it. However this time, their opponents are hampered by injury, most notably to part of their spine, which generates a large part of points for the Tigers. It is hard to go past the home side, especially following their poor performance last week that they are expected to bounce back from. Not only that, the Tigers have a 36.4% winning record on the road this year and their last win at this ground was back in Round 14, 2011. This is a place that they do not like to travel to and with the Warriors having a 60% winning record at home, they will be hard to overcome. The next decision is the outcome of this match and based on last week, the Tigers defence has only gotten worse and conceding at a rate of 24.1 PPG, it looks like it will be a blowout at the end of 80 minutes.
Warriors 13+ @ $2.20
Going Solo = Solomone Kata FTS and/or LTS @ $8 – Kata is the leading try scorer for the Warriors in 2016, scoring 15 tries in 21 matches. He is always close to getting to the try line and the Warriors know the potential they have on their left edge. Expect their playmakers to get the ball to him as much as possible, wherever they are on the field.
Newcastle Knights (16th) v South Sydney Rabbitohs (13th)
The Knights losing streak extended to 16-games last week, going down by 20-points to the Titans at home. The end of the year couldn’t come soon enough for them and there is no doubt that at this late stage, motivation is hard to come by. They can take confidence from the fact that they limited the Titans to just 4-tries, but that means little in at this stage of the season. The Rabbitohs continued their late season revival with a tough win over the Sharks on Monday. It wasn’t pleasant to watch; yet their game plan was something to be admired as they shut down numerous attacking opportunities with brutal defence. Their performance also left many wondering what has changed in recent weeks to promote their reversal of form, to the point where they are appearing to be a completely different team. Considering the level they’ve been playing to, this is a game that they should win and win well to close out 2016 with plenty of momentum heading into next year.
Knights = Jarrod Mullen (injury) is named at 5/8, while Cory Denniss replaces Nathan Ross (suspension) on the wing. Sione Mata’utia (injury) returns in the back row, with Korbin Sims shifting to prop and Pat Mata’utia coming onto the bench, along with Josh King.
Rabbitohs = Unchanged.
Overall = Knights 13 Rabbitohs 11
Last 5 Matches = Knights 0 Rabbitohs 5
At Hunter Stadium = Knights 57% Rabbitohs 18%
Form = Knights 16 losses – Rabbitohs 2 wins
If there were a chance for the Knights to grab a second win for the year, it would be here against the Rabbitohs. This is their last home game of the year and they will want to reward their fans for the faith they’ve shown through a very tough season. That being said, the Knights haven’t beaten the Rabbitohs since Round 26, 2011 that was in Newcastle and the recent for of the Rabbitohs has improved. They’re a different side that saw them go on a 9-game losing streak and they will be hoping that their record at this ground won’t hamper them; at an 18% winning rate they’ve only won 2 out of 11 matches at Hunter Stadium. Still, the improvement in the Rabbitohs in recent weeks has been impressive to say the least. The fact that they “almost” beat Storm in Round 23 and overcame the Sharks last week, suggests that the team at the bottom of the competition should hold no barriers. Rightly so, the Rabbitohs are strong favorites and it would be surprising to see them lose this game with the quality of players that the Knights have. If, as expected, the Rabbitohs win, it should be by a comfortable margin for a number of reasons; most notably the fact that they’ve only been beaten by less than 13 points only 3 times this year. On top of that, they hammered the Knights by 42-points in the second round of this season.
Rabbitohs -13.5 @ $1.90
The “other” Burgess = Joe Burgess FTS and/or LTS @ $9 – Burgess has had an underwhelming start to his NRL career; the second leading try scorer in the Super League last year has struggled for form. His mistakes have been there for all to see but in recent weeks, his potential has been evident. No doubt with a lowly ranked opponent, Burgess will be out to make a statement.
Parramatta Eels (15th) v St George-Illawarra Dragons (11th)
A match between to teams that are out of Finals contention on Monday is hardly anything to be excited about, although it is the situation that surrounds the game which makes it so intriguing. Aside from the fact that this could be the last Monday night game for some time, this fixture will be the last at this ground in its current form prior to it being redeveloped. For sentimental value and pride, there is still plenty to play for and both sides want to finish the season on the right note. The Eels appeared to be a chance last week against the Raiders, but they ran out of steam in the second half, unable to score a point and pressure their opponent. The Dragons were a stark contrast, coming off a pleasing win over the Sharks they were hammered by the Roosters by 42-6. Most disheartening for the Dragons was the fact that they were never competitive and yet again, their attack failed to generate any momentum and pressure the Roosters. With a few changes this week, some players and their coach are hoping a positive result will alter their careers, although the Eels will be out to send their faithful fans and home ground, out on the right note.
Eels = Brad Takairangi (injury) is named in the centres, while Beau Scott (injury) and Tepai Moeroa (injury) return in the back row. Kenny Edwards and Peni Terepo are forced back to the bench, while Danny Wicks will start at prop for Rory O’Brien (suspended)
Dragons = Drew Hutchison is named at halfback for Benji Marshall (dropped), while Tim Lafai comes into the centres for Taane Mile (suspended). Leeson Ah Mau is named to start at prop for Russell Packer (injured), allowing Jacob Host to come onto the bench.
Overall = Eels 14 Draw 2 Dragons 14
Last 5 Matches = Eels 3 Dragons 2
At Pirtek Stadium = Eels 60% Dragons 23%
Form = Eels 2 losses – Dragons 1 loss
For numerous reasons, most notably the sentimental value around this match, the Eels will head into this contest as favorites. It is unfamiliar territory for them since they lost their competition points, although one consistent factor throughout this period has been their display on the field. If the Dragons had the same level of fight, there is no telling what they could achieve. Fact is though, even despite taking a gamble on an up-and-coming youngster to give him experience, they are still poorly coached with a game plan that fails to challenge opponents. McGregor’s will have his team up for this game but there is only so much that this can do for them. When they had everything to play for last week, they turned out a performance that was one of their worst this year. The Eels still have plenty of attack threats in their team and it remains to be seen whether or not the Dragons can limit their attacking ability. There is every chance that once the Eels get rolling; the Dragons will be unable to match what their opponents have. Then again, there is uncertainty around how their new halves combination will go and they could very well shock. That being said, there are still 15 other members of the team that need to take responsibility and with motivation low after their Finals campaign ended, we may see them struggle. Sure, the Eels are in the same situation but they have the excuse that their situation was forced upon them, rather than their lackluster efforts leading them to the bottom of the ladder.
Eels -5.5 @ $1.85
Putting on a show = Eels 13+ @ $2.80 – There is every hope that the Eels can gather momentum to put on a show. The Dragons will want to bounce back, but this can only take them so far. Scoring the 18-opening points over the Raiders last week is evidence enough that they can emulate that effort here.