With the rep season having drawn to a spectacular finish on Wednesday night, we find ourselves entering the home stretch with the final 9 rounds of NRL action remaining. A few players may still have a bit of a hangover from Origin but that should be well and truly forgotten by next week.
I picked four from six in last weekends abbreviated roster taking my tally to 75/117 (64%) and I�m beginning to look credible in the tipping department � shock horror. Having said that I�ll probably fall in a heap this week�
Incidentally, I travelled to our Southern Capital to see Origin III from the stands at Telstra Dome. Putting aside all the controversy over tries being allowed and disallowed, it was an awesome experience to be part of that crowd. The way the sound resonated throughout the ground with the roof closed was something to behold and a full house to watch Rugby League in Victoria is a big sign that the game is growing down south.
Storm v Broncos
So the second game of League in two days gets underway in Melbourne and that�s something that has never happened before. It�s a great time for these two clubs to play one another given the form they�re in and this promises to be a genuine clash of the heavyweights in the competition.
Brisbane, fresh from their victory over the Sharks last week, travel to the graveyard that is Olympic Park in a bid to become the first team in a dozen starts to win down there. Tate has been ruled out of the game so I�m assuming Eastwood will move from lock to cover him and Carlaw or perhaps Parker will start. I think a few of their players have every right to feel a bit buggered, Civoniceva in particular. Traditionally the Broncos have struggled after the third Origin has been played and they certainly slipped away last year.
Melbourne are coming off the bye from last week and are sitting pretty at the top of the ladder. Their line-up is looking as good as it possibly can at the moment with Inglis and Crocker the only two players that would otherwise be in the team. Their forwards are playing above themselves although they did struggle a little against the Doggies. Good to see Slater back in first grade and even with Walker on the wing I think their backline is looking healthier than Brisbane�s. Smith and Johnson might be a little bit tired but they�re both young and I don�t expect King to have any problems backing up. I�m going to stick with the home team in this one.
Roosters v Sea Eagles
Next we move onto our all-Sydney Super Saturday extravaganza. They tried this a month or two ago and it was a raging success so it�s good to see the NRL stick with the idea.
Manly climb aboard the team bus and head out to Moore Park where they will try to arrest a three-game losing streak that is threatening their position in the top 8. They have their strongest line-up with the exception of Bell and haven�t they been missing him. Orford really needs to step up in this game, as do a few players around him, because it seems that the only player having a dig is BK. Beaver and Burns are back and that will help but they need to play more like a team this week or things will start to get ugly.
Easts are in peculiar territory right now as they battle their inner demons and try to salvage something out of this season. They�ve lost five in a row and 8 of their last 10. But I�m not real keen on Ricky�s selections this week with Wing again finding himself in the centres. This just doesn�t make sense to me with Cross playing outside him. I applaud the retention of Lewis at halfback but to play Finch at hooker just stuffs up the service he�s going to get from dummy half. I can�t understand why Stuart is so hesitant to drop Finch and instead continue to play him out of position. Send him to Henson Park to find some form. Meanwhile, Harrison is on the bench which he probably deserves and the rest of the pack is ok. Zoolander is another player that needs to pull his finger out given that they moved heaven and earth to get him to Birrell St.
Coming off the bye, I can�t see the Roosters winning this one even if they are at home, and I think the desperation of Manly will prevail.
Eels v Knights
Next we head west to Parra Stadium where the Knights ride into town looking to scratch out a win against the Eels.
Newcastle came back to the winner�s circle last week over the Sea Eagles at Brooky in a rousing display of competitive footy. Joey�s form in particular would have encouraged plenty of Knights fans after he endured a bit of a slump. They�re another team close to full strength with only Thaiday and Gidley junior missing from the top flight. Their forwards, notably the backrow, really took the game to Manly last week allowing their backs plenty of room to carve up out wide. I think this will continue against the Eels as Newcastle look to build momentum heading into the finals.
Parra bounced back to something that resembled form last week when they defeated a Schif-less Raiders outfit. I think they�re going to be a team that will keep semi-final aspirants honest and will hold their own against Newcastle, where they also field a near-fullstrength line-up. Unfortunately holding their own isn�t much these days but with Hindmarsh there you can never write them off. Last year young halfback Smith got a lesson from Joey on scrum feeding techniques which put him off his game, so I expect him to have an ace or two up his sleeve if he�s any sort of competitor.
The Knights will have too much gas in the tank for the Eels this week and with a top 4 berth sure to be in their sights, Newcastle will be focussed on victory.
Panthers v Raiders
Moving on, we point the compass in the direction of Penrith as the theme �Go West� gets a bit of a workout. Both teams are last start losers and on the fringe of the top 8 meaning we should get a good contest considering they both need a win.
Penrith have Gower and Wesser backing up from Origin and lost Lewis to injury last week. They were disappointing against the Warriors last week and straight up I�ve got to say I�m very surprised at how short they are with the bookies ($1.65). Their forward pack is underperforming as are their backs. Gower should add some direction but I�m not convinced he can win it for them. With Lewis out their three-quarter line looks a bit thin if you ask me.
Looking at the Raiders, this is exactly the type of game they specialise in winning. At $2.25 they also present great value and will relish the underdog tag. They had an off game last week against the Eels where they were expected to win, so I don�t think they�ll deliver that sort of performance again this week. And their pack is highly under-rated. Big guys like Weyman, Williams, Tilse and Learoyd-Lahrs will stand up to whatever Penrith can dish out. So I�m sticking with the lime green on this one and I might have a cheeky punt on them too.
Bulldogs v Warriors
Amazingly, we continue the all-Sydney affair with a further three games of Rugby League to be played out on Sunday. New Zealand board a plane in the wee hours to Bankstown Airport where they�ll have a short cab fare to the ground.
Again I�m amazed at the value being offered by the bookies here. This is the first time since the 2003 finals series that the Warriors are playing the Bulldogs in Sydney as per the arrangement Canterbury have with taking their games to New Zealand. That was actually the last time the Warriors beat the Doggies and I must admit to being in two minds about this one. The Warriors have a giant pack of forwards capable of mixing it with the best and won�t be intimidated by the hosts, making them juicy outsiders at $3.15.
Canterbury�s recent form actually suggests that they will drop this game, lending further weight to the Warriors cause. But having gone through the tantalising value New Zealand offer, I will now proceed to contradict myself. The Bulldogs look very strong on paper and I think they can get the chocolates here, but it won�t come easy. Coupled with the fact that the Warriors are due for a loss and will probably retreat into their shell on this occasion, I think it�s wise to pick Canterbury.
Sharks v Tigers
Our next destination is the Shire with the Tigers needing to flash their passports at Tom Ugly�s bridge, as they look to continue their strong run against Cronulla, having won the past five contests between the two clubs.
Once more I�m staggered by the relative value for Wests at $2.75 in a two horse race. I think everyone has written them off but they�ll still win a few games along the way even if they don�t make the finals. I think the bookies are also giving the Sharks a fair bit of respect though, dismissing last week�s disaster at Lang Park as a �one-off�. Fitzhenry is in the halves after the Farah experiment failed. Looking at the teams I am impressed with the Tigers line-up. Everyone is playing their preferred positions, except Fitzhenry, after quite a few odd selections over the past few months. If they can get it together their pack has the potential to dominate.
The Sharks are a bit understrength in this one, with consistent performer Simmons out of action for a little while. Dykes was poor last week but the gold-plated backrow is there with Gallen backing up from Wednesday night. If you�re willing to bet last week�s performance by Cronulla was an aberration, as I am, then I think the safe tip here is the home team. I wouldn�t laugh at you for taking an emotional hedge though and if you�re looking to pick an upset to gain on the leaders in a tipping comp, this game is tailor made.
Dragons v Rabbitohs
The final stoush for the weekend pits the Rabbitohs up against the Dragons at the refurbished Kogarah Oval. These two teams have a proud history, but the last time Souths beat the Dragons was in 1999 at the SCG. Prior to that they managed a shock win in 1994 at Kogarah Oval, which I remember like it was yesterday.
The Bunnies have nothing at all to lose but I�m unsure how they will be coping with last week�s loss when it appeared they had the game in the bag. It could spark them or it could deflate them. Their team is looking ok, but not great. I can�t complain too much with Sutton moving to lock as I think he was out of form but he still needs to be on the park. Hopefully he�ll get his touch back in the coming weeks but for now I don�t mind the idea of Champion having a crack in the no.6 jersey. They need to put some early points on the Dragons if they�re any hope in this one.
Complacency is a term used a fair bit in Rugby League and I think it�s appropriate when referring to the Dragons here. They�re coming off the bye and I hope they realise they still need to turn up for this one. If they don�t they�ll hand a big advantage to the Bunnies, who won�t need to do much to get into the game. Saints are another side with a near-fullstrength team and they should do a real number on Souths by rights. I�m obviously tipping the Dragons here, but when assessing their form after this one the devil will be in the detail.
And the Pride of the League are paying $7 if anyone�s interested.
The Cowboys have the bye in round 18 and it�s time they took stock up in FNQ. They hobbled home in the dying stages against the Bunnies last week and the Origin period has really taken the wind out of their sails. It also appears to have taken it�s toll on coach Murray, who will go into the next 8 matches more cautious than he would have thought after starting the season so well.