Boy it�s a long season...there�s three games to go and the top 8 has pretty much been decided. Only some freakish results would force a change to the contents of the premiership aspirants, with the remaining rounds focussing on the make-up of it.
Clubs will be playing musical chairs pretty soon trying to avoid positions 7 and 8 and their inevitable expulsion from the semis in the first week. Usually you expect this anyway, but with the Storm and Bulldogs flexing their muscles other teams are probably fearful for their health as well.
I picked an acceptable 5 from 7 last week leaving me with 97/159 (61%) and I�m not far off triple digits. My average ranks up there with Eion Crossan�s kicking prowess right now so I�d better lift my game for obvious reasons.
Bulldogs v Broncos
Friday night footy kicks off with an explosive encounter out at Homebush where the Bulldogs play host to the Broncos.
Brisbane has now lost five in a row with the Storm being the team who began the trend and the most recent to continue it. Ironically the Broncos have probably played at their best in both of those encounters and only lost by six points on each occasion which is more than most teams could boast. Another irony is Justin Hodges at fullback � he left the club because he wanted to play there and when he got to Easts he divided his time between wing and centre. The backline looks a bit of a worry with Michaels on the wing and Stagg, normally a backrower, listed in the centres. Perry at halfback still worries me but the main issue is the backrow � they need to stand up and deliver in order to take a bit of pressure away from Webcke and Civoniceva.
My feeling about the Dogs is that they are still putting the final touches on their gameplan. Last week they clocked off against the Dragons simply because they weren�t being challenged. I think the Broncos will give them a bit of a run but the sheer strength of their forwards should be enough to get them home. Utai is back to replace Cutler and Sherwin is slowly finding his rhythm, but when Sonny Bill comes on players just sit back and let him dictate terms. If the Broncos are to stand any chance they need pressure him and reduce his decision making time instead of allowing him to run amok as the Dragons did last week.
Personally, I can�t see this happening. The Bulldogs are a young, fit team with experience beyond their years. I think they�ll continue their six match winning streak after having won six of the past ten games against Brisbane, with a draw in there too. The telling factor will be when they take the foot off the pedal and let�s hope there�s no shenanigans out there�
Sharks v Panthers
Super Saturday kicks-off in the Shire this weekend as the boys from the foot of the mountains get their passports out and head down to Shark Park.
Penrith were embarrassing last week against the Chooks at home and they certainly won�t be getting much support from their fans this week. It�s a disappointing way for Johnny Lang to end his time at the club especially given the fact their team isn�t that shabby. Maybe they just took Easts too lightly, but with the form Cronulla�s been showing they could well repeat the dose. The backline and forward pack is pretty much unchanged but there�s little on the bench to worry about. Aiton does provide a bit of spark but apart from Campbell and Wesser there�s no much to trouble the Sharkies.
Not that they�re a sure thing mind you, with the home side coming off their seventh straight loss to the Eels last weekend, also at home. There�s been a few changes with Albert to fullback and Brown getting a call-up to the wing. Vagana is in the reggies with Douglas and Gallen returning to the starting line-up. Kearney will offer good impact from the bench and if they stick with Kelly on the bench he might come in handy considering his versatility to play in the centres or backrow.
For what is essentially a flip of the coin job here I�m going to take the home team. The bookies have installed them as favourites and at $2.20 the Panthers are moderate value if you find a spare $20 in your jeans pockets.
Cowboys v Knights
Next we travel up to FNQ where the Knights will be looking to put a controversial week behind them by knocking over the Cows at home. I can�t understand why this is the live game, I think it will be terrible and in a different stratosphere to the Round 6 clash between the two clubs.
Unless you�ve just emerged from a bomb shelter you�d know Joey�s been in a bit of strife this week and has been given a fortnight�s holiday courtesy of some bad manners. The Knights aren�t flash without him but Gidley and Mullen should be able to offer some options. This might not matter though as it will all come down to the Knight�s mindset. They need to forget about what�s happened to their captain, pull their heads in a bit, shut up when things don�t go their way and try to believe they can win without Joey. It wouldn�t kill their forwards to run a bit harder and they do seem to be missing Smith. The last time Newcastle travelled up to Dairy Farmers they got belted as well, going down 52-12 and that could feature in the pre-game sheet.
As for the homer team, well what�s left to say really. At least they�re playing a halfback this week in McConnell but Smith outside him is a bit pedestrian and the forwards will need to lift. They�ve won three of their past fifteen matches in what really is a bizarre slump. The forwards aren�t doing their job and the backs are uncreative with the exception of Bowen, who�s unable to carry the entire team. At least Payne is back at hooker allowing them to at least start with a recognised rake and fullback.
It�s hard to split these two sides as I don�t think the Knights have been travelling all that well either. But North Queensland�s three recent losses have been heavy and I fancy the Knights here as they know all they need to do is get a win or two while Johns is away and they�ll be looking very tidy.
Storm v Warriors
The Warriors make the journey to the west island as they head over to the Olympic Park graveyard in what I think could be a huge upset. Whatever the result, I�m sure this will be an entertaining game and I�m a bit miffed that it won�t be televised until 9.20pm
Am I game enough to pick the Warriors here? In their past nine games they�ve had one hiccup which was to Penrith at home (36-6 defeat). That aside they also lost to the Dogs by only four and Parra by eight in a game where the Eels had two intercept tries. On top of that they�ve recorded six wins, some by impressive margins, and they are fielding a near full-strength outfit. My only concern is Hohaia in the centres but I�m assuming they�ll use him at acting half at various stages in rotation with Gatis and with Vuna on the bench or perhaps some of the more mobile backrowers like Rapira or Lauaki will graze out wide. Perhaps even Wiki?
For the first time in a while the Storm has got a bit of an issue at the club. Turner wants to stay after initially indicating a move to the Titans was on the cards for next year. I think this will unsettle him and perhaps a few others around him. His inside man Webster is heading up there and he might be wondering why Steve�s had a change of heart � I would be. The rest of the starting side is awesome, especially the back row, but the Warriors have tough guys that will stand up to them. Plus, the bench isn�t looking that overwhelming this week as Crocker is suspended again.
I think I�ve talked myself into the Warriors. A loss here for the Storm would probably be a good thing though as a kick up the pants never goes astray. They weren�t that crash hot against the Broncos last week and all it will take is a dodgy refereeing decision from Mr Archer and it could turn the match. The Warriors are paying $4.50 at the bookies and that�s great value. I�m getting onboard.
Roosters v Eels
Sunday football begins in League heartland as the Eels head up the City Westlink to Moore Park for a showdown with the Roosters.
Parra are on a covert rampage, securing their eighth victory in a row last week and climbing into the top 4 for the first time this year. It was almost unthinkable two months ago but there they are and even Guru junior thinks they can win the comp. No changes to the line-up than ransacked the Shire last week and that win would have solidified them as a unit. How good�s Luke Burt going too? Their forwards are performing at their peak each week and if Hindy has a bad knee he�s not showing too many signs.
Over at the Roosters, Wing is still out and it�s no surprise to see them field a fairly strong forward pack. Tupou in the second row is a sign that they�re going to try and take them through the forwards, and perhaps this is where the Eels are vulnerable. Most of the team seems to be working � Foley goes hard, Roberts is up to his usual tricks, Perrett bagged a hat-trick last week, Soliola and Cross up against O�Dwyer and Smith will be an absorbing battle. Soward of the bench is handy too but the Eels have Widders and Marsh to counter.
I think this is a danger game for the Eels as Easts have proven they can cause an upset if they stop caring and enjoy themselves, just ask the Sharks, Cowboys or Panthers. I think defence will win the day for the Eels as they�ve been a stand-out in that department lately and I�m going to tip them here. The Chooks are being offered at $2.95 though, and at home they�re great odds.
Dragons v Tigers
�Doubles on the main game� is what you�ll probably hear if you�re standing on the hill at Kogarah Oval on Sunday watching the Dragons and Tigers run into each other.
I thought the Tigers were ok last week and as it turns out were probably a bit unlucky to lose. Given their personnel you can�t fault their enthusiasm and drive to win matches, it shouldn�t really be a surprise with all the young fella�s they�ve got in the team. And looking at them they�ve got a decent line-up with Farah in there, Skando and Frankie in the front row with Harrison and O�Hara on the bench. All the kiddies in the backline run like whippet�s and Prince is going ok at the moment too.
Looking at the Dragons, well they paint a different picture. Given their personnel they should be doing a whole lot better than they are. Naiqama is back after a lengthy injury to replace Best, while Head is also in the casualty ward with Hornby moving into half and Greenshields resuming at the back. This might actually work in their favour as they won plenty of games with this combination. I�d prefer to see Gorrell starting at hooker but he is coming back from injury and the rest of the pack is as good as it gets for them right now.
You�ve probably got to tip the Dragons here. At home, need to win, should win and if they can�t, well they can probably kiss 2006 goodbye.
Sea Eagles v Rabbitohs
Our final game of the round gets underway at Brooky where the Bunnies float across the harbour to play the Peninsula boys.
Souths had the week off and were probably left licking their wounds a little. Sutton is gone as is Rogers, who was beginning to impress from the bench. I don�t think the bye would have helped too much though as they were building momentum over the past few weeks, culminating in wins over Penrith and Canberra. Gordon is on the bench and by the looks of things they�ll try to get him involved when the pace has been taken out of the game. He�ll need to get a few games under his belt before next season if he�s any hope of securing a starting spot.
If I were Manly I�d be careful not to think they can get away with this one easily. Souths are sure to put up a fight and with Kennedy out McRae will probably be using this as motivation to spur on the Rabbits. Sure, he�s injured, but he always plays if he�s needed. The Sea Eagles do look strong though and they should be fine-tuning their instruments this week in preparation for the Bulldogs and Storm in the next two weeks. What a horror run into the semis but at least they�ll know what they need to produce to stand any chance of making the big one.
So I�ll stick with Manly, but I�d take the 8.5 start for the Bunnies at $2.10 as they don�t seem to be beaten by all that many these days. I�m a bit worried about Russell Smith�s return to the top flight though.
The Raiders have the bye in Round 24 and it�s just what the doctor ordered I reckon. They can�t move too far up the ladder as their for-and-against is pretty average, but if the Eels, Dragons, Broncos or Knights have a loss they�ll jump them. They host the Storm next week in what should be a bobby-dazzler and then they take on the Sharks at Caltex Field.