Low-scoring and tightly contested matches was the flavour of the week last week, but after looking into the crystal ball for Round 5 there�s every chance it could happen again. I squandered a great start to the year, carding 2 from 7 last week to leave me on 18 from 28 for the year, a far cry from the 76% batting average I held seven days ago.
It�s been cruel to some punters but kind to others, particularly if you know Andrew Johns won�t be playing. Mostly though, Round 5 is manifesting itself as the best week of footy on offer so far.
Cowboys v Tigers
There�s nothing better than a Grand Final replay to get a weekend of footy going and this one will be a cracker. People heading out to the ground will no doubt be asked to breathe in when they pass through the barriers as the crowd is sure to be another huge one.
Since 1999 the reigning premiers have defeated their opponents in the Grand Final replay 4 out of 7 times with the trend suggesting that the premiers will win again this year. I think things will be different this year though. It�s fair to say that the Tigers haven�t hit their peak yet, with injuries and the odd suspension robbing them of the chance to fire on all cylinders since the first round. They�ve been missing Robbie Farah and whilst I picked the Storm over them last week, it didn�t end up being too far off the pace. I am still troubled by Lolesi at lock, although I must admit that their backline is looking formidable.
But it�s hard to imagine the Cowboys going down in this one. They�re at home with a near full-strength outfit and 25,000 people cheering them on. Johnathan Thurston is simply too hard to contain right now and with back up in the form of Sing, Bowen, Sweeney and Faiumu I can�t see the Tigers toppling them. They�ve also got depth like they�ve never had before with usual starters in Webb and Tronc on the bench. Cows by a few.
Broncos v Rabbitohs
Brisbane and Souths are both last-start losers but this game is the standout easy pick of the week. I�m sorry Rabbitohs fans but I think you�ve got a long, hard road ahead of you this season if the past few weeks are any sort of indicator.
The Broncos would have been disappointed with their performance last week against the Dragons. They talked themselves out of a couple of tries and let themselves down at critical moments but also struggled to penetrate some good defence. I don�t think that will be a problem this week somehow.
Whilst they made a valiant attempt to chase the Sharks last week, Souths were second rate. It�s hard to be critical of a team that are at least trying, but when the Rabbitohs drop their bundle it�s embarrassing. Mad Dog brought some charisma to the backline last week but they�re going to need a 200% improvement to even compete with Brisbane. The home side will win by plenty.
Dragons v Knights
The second instalment of Super Saturday sees the Newcastle Knights travel down the F3 in a Greyhound bus to smite the Dragons in Wollongong. This clash is vying with the Cowboys v Tigers for Match of the Round, but it all depends on one thing�if Joey plays.
There�s a bit of doubt out there as to whether Johns will play this week and it can only serve to improve the Dragon�s chances. But it raises the question of whether they could beat the Knights even with Johns. St George Illawarra have a pretty handy defensive record at the moment given that they�ve played all four matches and if you average it out they�re second only to the Cowboys in points conceded. Whilst Newcastle has proven to the world that they can score points, they can also have a few points put on them.
The forward battle between the two clubs should be a good one. Steve Simpson has been in great touch for Newcastle early in the season and former favourite son Craig Smith is sure to rouse the attention of Dragons fans with long memories.
For the Dragons, a youthful backrow is working well for them and Creagh off the bench will prove useful and versatile. I�m leaning towards the home side on this one. They were victorious here in the only other contest between the two clubs at this ground two years ago, the week after Joey did his knee against Parramatta.
Sharks v Roosters
You�ve just got to tip the Roosters here, they�re due. Cronulla have managed a 2 point win over Souths and two very disappointing losses to Manly and the Broncos. Their form is shabby at best and with their current powers they would struggle to beat a drum.
Easts are a strange cat too, but they at least look enthusiastic and have a game plan each week. I think their problem has been adjusting to a new style of play with their incoming five-eighth/halfback combination still being greased at the wheels. The Finch/Wing situation appears to be settling down as well, which should translate into better cohesion on the field. They also enjoy playing at Toyota Park, winning seven of their past ten matches there.
I�m tipping the Roosters here as I�m sure Ricky would have brought them to their senses during the week and the forward pack they possess is superior to the Sharkies. Also, Cronulla�s bench lacks any real impact and creativity, whereas the visitors have Wing and Tupou to stir things up when they come on.
Warriors v Sea Eagles
A tough one here. The Warriors tagged and bagged the Knights minus Joey last week and should be happy now that they�re on zero points. Steve Price is certainly keeping up his end of the bargain and the likes of Toopi, Vatuvei, Gatis and Rovelli from the bench are displaying good form. Guttenbeil and Koopu have also remembered how to run the ball at the line.
The Sea Eagles overcame the Roosters at home last start but were somewhat unconvincing in many respects. Like the Roosters, they�re also struggling for cohesion after bringing in a new halves combination. I do like the look of Travis Burns though, that boy has got a bit of mongrel, plenty of skill and lots of ticker about him.
I think Matt Orford will step up this round and begin to control the team and the plays a bit more. Manly have won a couple of games without playing well and I think they�re about ready to click into action. This probably isn�t what Warriors fans want to hear. I think the Auckland outfit is also on the rise, but will have a spell this round with Manly taking the spoils.
Raiders v Bulldogs
Ah, the complex equation that is the Canberra Raiders. They got a little bit of help from Rhys Wesser last week but at the end of the day they hung on for a gritty victory in extra time. For the second week in a row they take on a team coming off the bye and they�re at home.
This game is there for the Raiders and I�ve been chasing them around trying to pick a win for the past month. Canterbury has dropped Sherwin to the reggies with Maitua to five-eighth and Holdsworth to halfback. I�ve gotta say, I don�t rate this. With Emelio and Cutler in the side the backline looks much weaker and the El Masri/Sherwin magic now disappears.
Last week�s victory for the Raiders was a watershed moment after successive beltings over the prior two weeks. At home I think the Raiders can take them but Canterbury still have a very dangerous pack. If Mason and O�Meley fire they could dominate, but guys like Tongue and Learoyd-Lars are toilers who just keep on going. I�m sticking with the Green Machine here.
Eels v Panthers
The battle of the West rounds out our Sunday afternoon action at Parramatta Stadium where the Eels take on the Panthers. Straight up I think Parra are due for a win. Their backline this week looks very imposing and even with the injuries and suspensions to the forwards they still have an edge I think.
Penrith were their own worst enemies last week with poor ball control and errors ultimately costing them the game. Whilst Gower is playing very well this year no one else is supporting him. One bloke who needs to fire is Luke Lewis, he�s been well short of his best and he�s nowhere near the form that won him a Sky Blue jersey and a trip to the UK.
On form alone you have to go with Parra here. They looked great against the Cowboys for 30 minutes last week and then dropped their bundle. I don�t think that will happen again this week as they will out-enthuse the Panthers with a good contest in the forwards sure to be a highlight.
The Melbourne Storm have the bye this week and it couldn�t have arrived at a better time. They�ll no doubt be visiting the house of mirrors, with Hill in a straight jacket for a fortnight and Slater, I imagine, is still curled up in the foetal position somewhere. These two suspensions could cost the club an otherwise promising start to the 2006 Premiership race.