Last week saw the cream of rugby league talent rise to the top. I still rate the Broncos and Cowboys as they both have problems that can be fixed over the next month, but you cannot go past the form of Parramatta, Wests Tigers and the Dragons. All three teams are steaming right now and circling one another with arms cocked like prize-fighters waiting to land a knock-out punch.
The remaining three rounds of footy will more than likely determine the final standings of the top 8 teams heading into September, rather than allow others to enter the fray, although the Roosters are still an outside chance. It�s a shame for Newcastle that they won�t be contesting Norm and Arthur, as they are playing fantastic footy as well.
I redeemed myself somewhat last week with a gallant 6 out of 7, taking me to a total of 92 from 153 for the season. Looking at this round of footy I think there are a few each-way games that will be critical to the make-up of the top eight. However, with a three-point gap from 8th to 9th there is a clear definition between those who are cut out for it this year and those who aren�t.
Tigers v Bulldogs
We start the weekend with one of the form teams of the comp taking on one of the desperado�s.
Wests have seemingly outperformed to the extent where you have to start believing that they are actually that good. The perception that their forwards are small is somewhat ill-conceived, with John Skandalis turning up week after week and sticking it to his more fancied rivals. Then the others simply apply themselves on the fringes of the ruck and expose weaknesses. When their opponents are tired the likes of Marshall and Prince make inroads up the middle of the field and with support in the shape of Hodgson they are irrepressible.
The Bulldogs are a different story and this week hasn�t helped much. The attitude of the club has always been to internalise their problems in order to motivate themselves, but Sonny-Bill�s misadventure will bring an unwanted odour to Belmore as it was preparing to exact revenge for last week�s major humiliation. I think the Tigers will get them, but the Dogs still have a strong forward pack and could cause some real problems.
Warriors v Knights
Super Saturday kicks-off in Auckland where an entire country gets to farewell a true sporting icon. Stacey Jones plays his last game for the Warriors in Auckland and I will be disappointed with anything less than a full-house to send him off.
But I�m sure Andrew Johns goes to bed every night with an intense hatred of wooden spoons. This match offers plenty beginning with clash of the halves in Johns and Jones. Joey will also want to bury the demons of a broken jaw in round 6 which threw his season into turmoil.
With Newton back the Knights should go better than last week but the Warriors are big boys. Hohaia is out with Fien switching to hooker and the world�s biggest five-eighth in Sione Faumuina slotting in for the home side. Both clubs have plenty to play for so it should make for an interesting contest, but I�ll stick with the Knights who have been the more consistent in recent times.
Cowboys v Raiders
The second Saturday fixture will also bring plenty to the table. The Cowboys have been very disappointing of late but this week they have re-jigged their line-up to extract more effect from the bench, in particular Carl Webb. Jensen, Tronc and Faiumu have been dropped to incite them for next week, meaning Graham Murray is reasonably confident of victory. Hannay�s absence through injury will be a loss though.
The Raiders were very poor last week and I just don�t know what on earth they were wearing either � it looked like a hybrid Western Reds and Wests Tigers jersey. Their season is over and has been largely interrupted by injury, but that has opened doors for younger players so they may have a few things to look forward to in 2006.
Up in FNQ the Cowboys will simply be too tough and victory could provide the perfect tonic to restart their stalling premiership campaign.
Rabbitohs v Roosters
The third game on Saturday night is an under-rated contest, offering plenty to fans of old-fashioned stoushes. It is also a difficult pick as my heart is saying one thing and my head another.
The Bunnies have strung some good performances together lately and their ability to put together practically the same team on the park over the past two months has really helped their cause. The addition of Ben Walker has also helped their organisation and allowed Sutton to play his natural game.
The Roosters won�t want to lose this though with plenty of neighbourly pride on the line. They notched up an underwhelming victory over the Sharks last week, but both teams played like rubbish. I would be happy to watch the Bunnies emerge with the cash here, but I think Easts will lift and keep the bragging rights, although it will be entertaining and possibly a bit aggressive.
Sharks v Sea Eagles
This game will play a key role in the first week of the finals, with both teams keen to move ahead of each other and expose the loser to the minor premiers. It could also open the door for the Roosters, who may be breathing down the neck of 8th spot if they get a sniff.
The Sharks were pretty terrible last week and had very little co-ordination and almost no tactics when they got on the field. They were very disorganised and couldn�t trouble their opponents in the Roosters at all.
The Sea Eagles were a little similar, failing against the Knights after rescuing their season the week before against the Broncos. Newcastle is always a tough away trip and Toyota Park on a Sunday afternoon will provide an easier assignment.
It really is time for one of these teams to lay down their hand and at least make if look like they belong in the semis. I think the Sharkies might just get it here on the home ground advantage, but hard to say either way. Flip a coin.
Dragons v Eels
For the second week in a row the Dragons are in a match that�s being billed as one of the games of the year and this will be a bobby-dazzler! Last week they faced the Broncos and really stood up to be counted. They are looking very sharp and defensively as sound as they ever have been. But the loss of Cooper and again Ryles is tough to take.
The Eels are coming off a huge win against the Doggies and will be keen to test their mettle against the Dragons. They have injuries as well, with Tahu and Morrison ruled out, somewhat evening things up. The return to Kogarah of former favourite son Mark Riddell and a son of a former favourite son in Joel Reddy will provide the crowd with some ammunition.
A tough one to pick and depending on the outcome this game will speak volumes for the favourite�s tag in the comp. I think the Dragons will win as they are heavily focussed right now, that�s not to say Parra aren�t though. But I feel the hosts will have an edge in the forwards, if they can contain Widders off the bench and Hindmarsh who will no doubt try to spoil the party.
Panthers v Broncos
Don�t let the final game of the weekend slip by without due consideration.
It�s no secret that the Broncos are doing it a bit tough right now and with Lockyer out they lose plenty of flair and creativity. Berrigan back at hooker should provide lots of direction which is perhaps what has been missing for the past few weeks.
The Panthers are an interesting team though, but have injuries of their own to worry about. Wesser is out and the backline looks shaky. Their forward pack does look good on paper and if they can create some room for Campbell and Gower to work with, then anything can happen.
I still think the Broncos here, but they lack in the halves and could be in for a tough time in the west.
The Storm have the bye in round 24. They were unconvincing last week over the Warriors and have a few bumps and bruises to nurse. They pick up two valuable points and get a timely rest only a fortnight away from the finals with a blockbuster match against the Tigers set for round 25.