Last week I said there were a few surprises left in this comp, and that was about the only thing I got right. Usually in uncertain times you can fall back on the hosts making short work of the visitors but an extraordinary weekend of footy saw five of the winners travelling away from home to claim the points.
The Dragons have now been placed as favourites to win Norm and Arthur with the Broncos second and Parra third. It sure makes a welcome change for the red and whites, who struggled early in the season to get their premiership aspirations on track. At this stage the Broncos also look a little shaky for the minor premiership and the Eels will begin to fancy themselves there. I wouldn�t rule out the Saints either right now as they play both teams in the coming weeks, and they could be walking around Kogarah Oval with the JJ Giltinan Shield come round 26.
Strangely though there are only three form teams at the moment in the Dragons, Tigers and Knights, with Parra and Brisbane about halfway there. With the compression of the competition at the moment we�ve got battles at both ends of the ladder and the middle is just choc-full of teams trying to step over one another to make the eight, producing exciting footy. It�s a shame I can�t keep up with the pack, a terrible result of 3 from 7 last week saw me move onto 86 from 146 for the year and there�s a guy standing behind me wearing a black coat and sharpening a sickle�
Eels v Bulldogs
A great game to start things off with but it�s a pity the Bulldogs have had such a horror run with injuries and now the suspension to Utai. These games always see each side lift another notch though and the Doggies have plenty of pride to protect.
Parra were a bit ordinary for most of last week�s game, almost as though they needed to be told they are third on the ladder for a reason and should start playing like it again. Once they found third gear they started to open up the engine on that Ferrari of theirs�how good was Burt�s run for Ben Smith to score?
Canterbury will dig in here I think and try hard to compete all night in typical fashion, but I think the Eels will have their measure and being at home in front of a packed house should prove to be an absolute cracker to begin the round with.
Storm v Warriors
The Warriors travel to their second home to begin proceedings on Super Saturday this week and even though it�s not a sell-out the high Kiwi population in Melbourne tends to come out of the woodwork for these ones.
Both teams were very disappointing last week, with Melbourne finding themselves outclassed in every way against a previously below par Sharks team. Hill and Orford were injured and are battling to be fit while Kidwell�s sin-binning is something they�ll be trying to avoid a repeat of.
The Warriors looked ok in the first half against Parra but fell to pieces during the latter stages of the game for no apparent reason. I think they�ll do it tough to play their style at Olympic Park which is a very small ground that sees a lot of tries scored from close range. I�m tipping the Storm to keep their finals campaign alive.
Raiders v Rabbitohs
This is a tough one to pick. The Bunnies are off coming off the bye which hasn�t really suited many teams this year and it could halt the momentum they�ve built. They�ve won three of their last five but were slapped by Parra and Wests which wouldn�t tickle, but right now they�ve got plenty of enthusiasm and are enjoying their footy.
The Raiders inexplicably gave up a 14-0 halftime lead last week and surrendered to the Tigers completing their third loss in a row and plunging themselves into the groundswell of grey matter that is forming around positions 8-10 on the competition ladder.
This is a great opportunity for them to bounce back and put up their hand for the finals once more. I think they will turn up and there is talk of Jason Smith playing, but right now they can�t play consistent footy and the Rabbitohs have their strongest line-up on the field. If Smith plays have another think, but I�ll stick to the Bunnies who are scampering away from the spoon.
Roosters v Sharks
This could be an ugly game.
The Sharkies took care of Melbourne last week and look to have put their worries and talk of disharmony behind them. They were playing at home though and prefer night games down there.
Last week the Roosters did a number on themselves, with Penrith picking up the scraps to win the game. They are waiting on the fitness of Fitzgibbon and that could have a large bearing on how close the match gets, even though I think the Sharks will win either way.
Tigers v Cowboys
Sunday starts with a huge game at Campbelltown and the first of three sell-outs for the day. The Cowboys will no doubt receive a very hostile reception when they run out against the Tigers as they are both competing for a home final right now and we might see them taking the field against one another again in the first week of the finals.
For now though, the Tigers are hot. They have played very well over the past few weeks and have six in a row leading into this crunch match. Their forwards are playing to their strengths, running on the fringes of the rucks and keeping the ball alive for the likes of Hodgson, Prince and Marshall to do their thing.
The Cows were left wanting last week and comprehensively outplayed. Their back three were ineffective and apart from a couple of mistakes by the Dragons, they were lucky to even get on the board. This game will be a true test of each club�s character and I think it�s time for the North Qld forwards to step it up a notch. Rauhihi and Webb have only one game under their belt since returning from injury and I�m not sure this is enough. I think the Tigers will prevail, but this game is a true indicator of things to come.
Broncos v Dragons
A Grand Final preview or State of Origin IV � call it what you will. The Broncos have won their last eight games at Lang Park which will give them and edge and they are still favourites to win this game with the bookies, despite their premiership winning odds slipping.
The scary thing for Brisbane here is that the St George Illawarra did not get out of second gear last week whilst always being in control of the game. They had a flukey bounce for Timmin�s try while Thompson and Young both crossed the stripe in soft circumstances. Before you know it they�re up 22-0 and the game is over.
I don�t think it will be like that against the Broncos, in fact defense will play an enormous part, but I think the Dragons will get them. Brisbane have been flat, losing to Manly last week and only just defeating the Raiders the week before. They seem to be in a bit of a lull, and whilst they can win on any given day, I don�t think they will on Sunday. One thing�s for sure, they won�t be warming up in a car park�nice!
Knights v Sea Eagles
With Marathon Stadium playing host to 26,000 screaming fans this game will be one to remember. The Knights have been in great touch and could really upset the apple cart of a few teams leading into the semis. They�re trying to steer away from the spoon and right now Manly are in their way.
The Sea Eagles were desperate last week and just managed to crawl home against Brisbane. They have fallen on hard times but welcome back Origin forward Anthony Watmough who�s absence has been the catalyst for their poor form.
With the nuggetty forward back in the team, and Newcastle�s best forward of late in Clint Newton suspended, you�ve got to give the visitors some sort of chance. But I don�t think they can get the cash here, although BK will relish returning to his former home and should have a few admirers in the crowd keen to remind him.
The Panthers have the bye in round 23 and push further away from the dreaded spoon. A victory last week over their 2003 Grand Final opponents would have been a sweet thing heading into the bye, but that was two year�s ago and 2005 is certainly a poor showing for a team that is much better than they have offered all season.