With four games remaining in the regular season the race for top 8 spots is tighter than a pair of Chief Wiggum�s pants. The Storm and the Bulldogs had a point-scoring competition on Saturday night with the round going more or less to form and the odd surprise.
Some teams are playing a dangerous game though, with the Dragons and Broncos having the most to lose. Cronulla aren�t done with yet but could be by the end of this round. Canberra and Parra can consolidate their position in the semis this week with victories and if results go their way they might put a four point break to ninth position, which would fix a few little red wagons.
I fumbled my way to a bourgeois 4 from 7 last week taking my running tally to 93/152 (61%) which is well short of the pack. It�s time to take upsets if you�re trying to launch a final assault at the leader of your tipping comp and the good thing about playing that game is the emotional hedge available to the punter. And let me tell you, there�s some value out there this week.
Knights v Sea Eagles
Friday night footy kicks off in the Hunter as Manly creep up the F3 to take on the Knights in a crucial game.
The Sea Eagles have had a week off after succumbing to the Eels at Parra Stadium a fortnight ago with prop Brent Kite poised to take the field after his little run-in with Moimoi�s elbow. Manly are at full-strength though, with the return of Menzies and Watmough boosting the forward pack and allowing them to charge towards the finals with a wet sail. It�s not a bad position to be in but I think they�ll do it tough up at Marathon Stadium. They haven�t won in Newcastle since 1997 and have won only two of their past ten encounters against the club.
Newcastle is a different story. They�ve won their past three games and coincidentally have had 18 points scored against them on each occasion. They appear to be breaking away from the middle of the pack and are the fourth best team on form in the comp. In fact, if I didn�t know any better I�d say Joey was holding them back a little so they can have a serious tilt at the title when the semi�s rock around. Thaiday at the back has been part of their recent surge along with a few of the forwards pulling their fingers out and having a go. Joey also had his best game in a while up at Gosford last week.
It�s hard to tip Manly here and that�s why I like the Knights to win. With their record up there and coming off the bye I think it will be too much, but their fans might snap up the $2.50 on offer for the win.
Warriors v Cowboys
We cross the Tasman next as North Queensland embark on League�s longest road-trip for the first instalment of Super Saturday.
The Cowboys copped a shellacking last week at the hands of the Doggies and I think they can probably kiss their finals hopes goodbye. A win here could get them back within striking distance of the 8 but realistically injuries and a bewildering form slump has them placed as also-rans right now. At the moment they�ve got a lock at five-eighth in Justin Smith and regular hooker Aaron Payne playing halfback. Their three-quarters look uncreative and the only one with a bit of spark is Matty Bowen who has been very hot and cold of late. And if the weather in Auckland is anything like it was last week, well you can put the kettle on and settle in for a long night.
The Warriors surprised me in Round 22, grinding out a victory against a desperate Sharks outfit without the rampaging Ruben Wiki. He�s back in the starting line-up and will no doubt torment the Cowboys on his home soil. Steve Price did well without him last week as did Grant Rovelli and I think the team is enjoying playing spoiler to a few of the clubs on the cusp of the top 8. Like Souths, the Warriors have a bit of pride and positions to play for next year so they are taking the field enthusiastically and looking for a win each week.
Since winning their first six games, North Queensland has slumped to 3 from 14 and I can�t see any reason to think they�ll win here. They have beaten the Warriors in their past five encounters and have little trouble across the ditch, but I�m expecting New Zealand to take home the chocolates in this one.
Sharks v Eels
Our feature game of the evening has the Eels slithering down to the Shire to take on the Sharks. The big question here is � will they take Tom Ugly�s bridge or Captain Cook?
Parra are in red-hot form and have entered the top 8, sitting in 7th position currently and they are a real chance to enter the top 4 this weekend. A remarkable turnaround but first they must conquer the Sharkies and you�d have to think they�re specials here. They�ve won seven in a row and eight of their last ten. Recent history suggests a fairly even keel between the two clubs but Parra have won the last four contests at Shark Park. The team from last week remains with McKinnon replacing Delaney on the bench and there�s some small concern over Hindmarsh�s knee.
Cronulla are struggling and they�ve made no secret about it. Raper has dropped Vagana, Gallen and Douglas to the bench and Albert to Premier League. Good shake-up but I�m not convinced it will work. I don�t think Albert and Vagana win you games, sure they can score a try, but your forwards are the ones who put you up the field to begin with. It might give Douglas and Gallen a kick up the pants and they may respond well to that, but they might not either. Bailey is back but looking at their three-quarters, with Simmons on the wing instead of at fullback, I can�t see much attacking flair or anything for Parra to be afraid of.
So I�m tipping the Eels in this one as I think they can knock them over without too many problems. Cronulla are paying $2.35 which is astonishing for a home team and I bet I know one red-headed Parra fan who�ll be slapping on an emotional hedge there.
Panthers v Roosters
Our replayed game comes to you from the foot of the Mountains as the latte Chooks head west to tackle to Panthers.
The Roosters were a rabble and I�m sure they know that. No Morley is hurting them and the remainder of the forward pack isn�t measuring up. If they can get going they do stand some sort of chance though. Their backs aren�t playing too badly with Finch and Lewis working well. Cross (when he�s got his pants on) and Soliola are going well as is Roberts on the wing and they seem to have found a hard, young replacement at fullback in Foley. Wing also needs to have a bit more of a dig but I�m worried about their bench, it looks a bit feeble. But they�ve won seven games all year a 2 of their last 10 which isn�t pretty.
Penrith have put Pritchard back to the bench which makes me think he�ll be used as impact and the lesser Puletua has been doing well as an interchange player also. Gordon on the wing is quite the little barnstormer and with Wesser�s explosiveness at the back they will probably have too much. One bloke who deserves a wrap is Preston Campbell. He�s been tops over the past few weeks, scoring tries, setting them up and making breaks all across the park. Even his goal kicking has improved. With Clinton, Priddis, Big T and Waterhouse at lock I think they will make things very hard for Easts.
Both sides are last start losers and that�s never easy to pick. The Panthers are the favourites with the bookies and I�ll stick with them for this week. But don�t discount the Roosters� obvious aspirations to dent the Panthers finals hopes as payback for 2003. At $2.75 that�s a tempting thought if you can bring yourself to cheer for them.
Broncos v Storm
Our first Sunday game gets underway at Lang Park where the Storm travel into town fresh from embarrassing Wests to take on the Broncos.
Melbourne made it ten in a row last week and they have lost only three games all year, which is pretty amazing. These two clubs last met in round 18 just after Origin 3 and that was probably the last time Brisbane looked any good. Since then the Storm have continued their winning ways and have even rested and consolidated along the way. Slater has been suspended again allowing Inglis to slip back into the custodial role. I�ll be interested to see what happens when Slater returns in a fortnight. Johnson returns from a week�s rest and King too from injury, with Crocker slipping back onto the bench but he�s sure to get plenty of game time. I can�t poke too many holes in this team.
Onto the Broncos, and well, poke away really. Two blokes (Costigan and Seymour) have just been punted from the club, the former for drink driving and the latter for head butting. I think this will have a bad effect on the rest of the club, instead of galvanising the team as it can do in certain circumstances. Hunt is still missing and I�m not a fan of Perry at halfback. Apart from Parker and Thaiday on the bench they offer very little in terms of impact and guys like Carroll and Thorn aren�t taking pressure off Webcke or Civoniceva, resulting in higher workloads for those two guys.
Overall, it�s the Storm here for me as I�d expect most people to be doing. There�s a good reason why the Broncos are paying $2.45 at home and while Craig Bellamy is up there I�d have a word in his ear about coming back if I were Bruno Cullen.
Bulldogs v Dragons
The Sunday game of the round is another obvious case of being chosen a month ago as the Dragons limp out to Homebush to tackle the Bulldogs.
These two teams met a month ago in one of the best games of the season, but the fallout has been immense. The Dragons� night can be summed up by Corey Payne, who was knocked out and hasn�t returned to the field since. That�s pretty much what�s happened to the joint venture in a nutshell, losing their next three games and slipping down to sixth position on the ladder only four weeks after it looked like they might have a top two spot. Gasnier is back which is good, and Brown has decided to play Bailey at prop this week, which again is good. He spent $15,000 trying to win the hearts and minds of the referee�s and that�s probably not going to hurt either since he�s got his way and had Hampstead appointed as ref for the game. I�m not sold on Poore starting at second-row, could be a late change there, and what�s Greenshields doing on the bench? Would have thought maybe Ndaira could get a run there�
Now we turn our attention to the competition favourites � Canterbury Bankstown. Barbaric, savage and brutal are all words I�d use to describe them after they systematically dismantled the Cowboys last week. Geez they were impressive. I had them figured for a slowish team but Patten, Tonga, Emelio and Cutler all showed a good turn of pace and Sonny Bill just tormented them out wide all night long. Holdsworth is going well and Sherwin is showing signs of the sort of form he displayed in 03/04. In the forwards, well what can you say? O�Meley, Asotasi, Mason and Ryan just bash them up front all day long and then there�s workers like Grimaldi and Myles plus Maitua who is in top form right now. Oh yeah, and El Masri just knocks them over from anywhere on the park. I�m struggling to find any sort of weakness in their team.
I�m tipping the Bulldogs here although both clubs lift against one another so we�re likely to see a good contest. Canterbury has won the past four encounters between the clubs plus six of the last seven, so they�ve got plenty of wood on them. If Saints can click into gear, they�re paying $2.60 which is tastier than the stadium food on offer.
Tigers v Raiders
We wrap up the weekend with an unsuspecting clash down at Campbelltown as the Raiders head up the highway to tackle the reigning Premiers.
Either side of losing to Souths, Canberra have staged two of the more remarkable victories of recent times. Firstly against the Dragons, and then the Broncos, they looked like absolute world beaters and genuine threats to the competition. They line-up here is their best team available (apart from Learoyd-Lars) and go into the match as slight favourites, which they don�t seem to like. As such, this game is a good test for their finals credentials. Will they crumble as they did against the Bunnies? Carney is playing well as is Smith and the Schif. Out wide, Graham and Mogg are leading the way and then there�s the hulking forward pack containing Hodgson, Thompson, Tilse and Weyman plus workaholic Tongue.
The Tigers will still be smarting from the round 19 defeat where they were done in extra time and they also hold the slightly delusional belief they can still make the top 8. But since then they�ve lost Hodgson, and Farah is in doubt, leaving their team in a bit of a shabby state. But that�s what we said when they took on Brisbane and look what happened there. The forwards are formidable but not firing and the backs were exposed badly against Melbourne with Webster running in four tries.
I�m going to take the Raiders as they look stronger on paper and their display against Brisbane last week was top shelf. But I don�t think you can write the Tigers off here and with Skando playing his last game at Campbelltown, a venue where they have won all three games against Canberra, they may just spring an upset.
The Rabbitohs have the bye in Round 23 and I�m not sure that this is a great thing. They�ve been on fire recently and I think a week off might actually slow them down a bit. I hope I�m wrong because I think we�d all love to see them knock over Manly in Round 24, but that might be a stretch.