With just four regular season rounds remaining things are getting very interesting and very tight for more than a few teams. It would seem however Melbourne have the minor premiership well and truly in their grasp. If the Storm continue their rich vein of winning form (11 wins from their past 12 games) in the coming weeks there is a strong possibility coach Craig Bellamy might be tempted into giving a couple of his star players some well-deserved time off to freshen up heading into the finals.
It’s a huge advantage to be so far ahead of the pack heading towards the finals, affording Bellamy the luxury of rewarding his key players like Cameron Smith (although he may not want a break), Munster and a few of his big forwards with a week off. Having said that, the race for second spot and top four spots is on in earnest with four teams, Roosters (30 points), Raiders (28), South Sydney (28), Manly (26) and the Eels (26) all capable of making a late run at the top four, which history tells us is where the premiership winner always comes from.
Two games stand out this weekend. The heavyweight battle between Melbourne and Canberra where Dally M Player of the Year fancies Cameron Smith and Englishman Josh Hodgson will lock horns in what looms as an absorbing battle between two great No.9s. A Canberra upset — not completely out of the question given the Raider’s strike power — would throw a spanner into Bellamy’s finals’ preparations an open the door for the Roosters, should they beat the unpredictable and dangerous Warriors, to get within four points of top spot.
The other game which is vital for both teams and the top eight structure is eighth-placed Brisbane’s clash with Penrith, possibly their last roll of the dice at remaining an outside shot of playing finals football under new coach Anthony Seibiold. A Broncos loss could see them slip behind the pack with Cronulla (9th) banging on the top-eight door and needing a win over arch rivals St George.
Manly Sea Eagles vs West Tigers
Thursday Aug 15 Lottoland 7.50pm
A big game for Manly (5th 26 pts) if they are to stay in top four contention. They wrap-up the minor premiership with tough games against Canberra, Melbourne and Parramatta who are also chasing a top four spot. There is a question mark hanging over the fitness of star half Daly Cherry Evans while hard-running centre Brad Parker has been sidelined with a knee injury. The Tiger’s (10th 20 pts) hopes though have taken a heavy hit with both veteran hooker and organiser Robbie Farar, sidelined perhaps for the rest of the season, and key utility Moses Mbye (hip) both ruled out of the clash. Coach Michael Maguire has been forced to reshuffle his side handing the vital No.9 jumper to the club’s 2017 Rookie of the Year Jacob Liddle who at 22 has almost 40 NRL games behind him. Manly are coming off a surprise loss last week against the Warriors when they leaked 18 points in the first half. You can be sure the “professor” Des Hasler has given his players a defensive lesson this week.
Betting Analysis: Manly at home with so much to play for against a Tigers side with virtually no hope of making the finals and battling injuries to key players may find the trip to Lottoland too tough. Brookvale Oval can be a fortress when the Sea Eagles are switched on. As sure as Saturday follows Friday, Hasler has driven home to his troops this week that defence is the foundation to winning. Without playmakers Farar and Mbye, the Tigers lose too much creativity around the ruck to stretch Manly.
Gold Coast Titans vs Parramatta Eels
Friday August 16 Cbus Super Stadium 6pm
It’s impossible to tip the Titans (16th 16pts) given their seven straight losses but funnier things have happened in this crazy game. Parramatta (6th 26pts) have everything to play for here and you would expect they will be looking for a big score to boost their for-and-against should it come down to percentages for positions on the ladder, including a possible top 4 spot. While the Titans showed some admirable late fight against the Dragons last week all they have to play for now is pride because the wooden spoon is almost in their trophy cabinet. Still no sign of young halfback Ash Taylor on the Titan’s team sheet but at least veteran Michael Gordon is back, named on the bench, a welcome addition. Parramatta coach Brad Arthur knows his side have to keep winning and you get the feeling the Eels will be ready to post a big score if the Titans throw in the towel at any stage. The return to the pack of bruising forward Kane Evans gives the Eels even more punch up the middle further testing the Titan’s resolve which will need to be a lot better than it has in recent weeks to avoid another embarrassing loss.
Betting Analysis: Parramatta should be moving into finals mode and hungry to post a big victory. Mitchell Moses has been in a great touch recently and he could prove a nightmare for the Titans with his running and kicking game which will suit Clint Gutherson’s attacking style. The Titans will struggle to handle Paulo, Evans and Nathan Brown’s raids up the middle-third and the off-loading game of the lanky Shaun Lane.
Brisbane Broncos vs Penrith Panthers
Friday, August 16 Suncorp Stadium 7.55pm
This clash could be defining for both clubs fighting to grab a finals berth. Brisbane (8th 21pts) forwards Matt Gillett and Alex Glenn were named by coach Anthony Seibold on an extended 21-man list but a decision won’t be made until just before kick-off. both are 50-50. Word is Seibold is contemplating giving former Queensland Reds star Izais Perese his NRL debut in the centres. The key for the Broncos will be getting out of the barriers like Black Caviar and finishing like Winx to get the Suncorp Stadium faithful behind them. The Panthers (7th 22pts) are certain to be up for a big game to keep in the top eight. Penrith are 7th on 22 points while Brisbane are hanging onto eighth place on 21 points meaning the loser could drop out of the top eight with three rounds remaining. Brisbane fell over the line last weekend with a 79th minute try to beat North Queensland but you get the feeling Penrith, who upset the Sharks last round, will be a far tougher proposition, especially with the return of their chief play maker, James Maloney on deck calling the shots. Brisbane’s strength is with their outstanding young forwards, Payne Haas, David Fafita, Tavita Pangai Junior and Joe Ofahengauge who will all need to stand tall against Panther’s bruisers James Tamou, James Fisher-Harris and giant human wrecking ball Villame Kikau in the battle up front.
Betting Analysis: Penrith will come to Suncorp Stadium full of confidence with Jimmy Maloney back in the No.6 tormenting his rivals. Nathan Cleary’s game last weekend against the Sharks was his best this season and shows he is back to his best at the right time of the season. Penrith have the muscle to handle Brisbane’s young gladiators who have been brave bust must be starting to feel the effects of such a grueling and demanding season which may be taking a toll on a few of them. If Penrith can get on top early and silence the crowd, Brisbane could find it a tough slog wearing them down. On the other hand, should Brisbane start strongly, without any errors and a high completion rate, they will have the crowd in their corner lifting them for 80 minutes.
Newcastle Knights vs North Queensland Cowboys
Saturday, August 17, McDonald Jones Stadium 3pm.
One of these teams is going to snap a worrying losing streak but which one? Newcastle (12th 18pts) fans have stuck solid despite a string of six straight losses and they deserve a win. The Cowboys (13th 16pts) have dropped their last four including a last minute defeat at the hands of Brisbane last weekend. Newcastle may still be a mathematical chance of making the top eight if they win their last four games against the Cowboys, Tigers, Titans and Penrith but the reality is their 2019 season is over sitting in 12th place and three points adrift of the Broncos. The Cowboys have been on the end of some key injuries and some harsh refereeing decisions this season but they get big Jordan McLean and Jordan Kahu back for this game which will help. Coach Nathan Brown has moved Connor Watson into the dummy half role which could help spark their attack around the ruck area.
Betting Analysis: Good luck picking this game. This is a clash which could come down to some individual brilliance from players such as Mitchell Pearce or Kaylyn Ponga for the Newcastle or youngsters Jake Clifford or Scott Drinkwater, both exciting talents and capable of being match-winners. Newcastle have not been great at home this season and they are going into the clash off six losses. The challenge for the Cowboys is can they score enough points?
Melbourne Storm vs Canberra Raiders
Saturday, August 17, AAMI Park. 5.30PM
The game of the round and in many ways a look into the finals with both clubs expected to go deep into September action. The battle between Melbourne Storm (1st 36pts) No.9 Cameron Smith and Canberra Raider (3rd 28pts) Josh Hodgson, both well in contention to be named Dally M Player of the Year, will be one of many features of what looms as an absorbing and highly entertaining match-up. It is one of many confrontations across the park with Munster up against Wighton, Chambers v Croker, Addo-Carr v Rapana, Papali v Bromhich, and Kafusi v Bateman, all of which will be crucial to to the final outcome. Beating the Storm at home is the toughest road trip in the NRL having been achieved only twice in nine games in 2019. A big game for a big man with Joey Leilua back after 16 weeks out with a neck injury.
Betting Analysis: Melbourne have won 11 of their last 12 games and with Cameron Smith at the helm just seem to get it done every week. At home they are very tough (7-2). With a chance to put the minor premiership out of the reach of the Roosters they sure have a lot to play for. A win would allow Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy to rest a few players heading into the finals but Canberra will have other ideas after pushing the Roosters all the way last week before losing 22-18 in a performance which confirmed they will be a threat when the finals roll around.
South Sydney Rabbitohs vs Canterbury Bulldogs
Saturday, August 17, ANZ Stadium 7.25pm
Danger-game for South Sydney (4th 28pts) with the Bulldogs (15th 16pts) building some confidence in recent weeks on the back of last week’s gritty 18-16 win over the Tigers after upsetting Penrith the previous round. Still South Sydney aren’t travelling all that well having dropped games to the Sharks (39-24) and Melbourne (26-16) last week. Rabbits fans will be hoping Sam Burgess and Adam Reynolds get late clearances to play. Coach Wayne Bennett is far too experienced not to have made the necessary adjustments to South Sydney’s defence this week and with Reynolds returning their attack should hopefully run smoother. South Sydney forwards look superior but they still have to do the hard work against the likes of Aidan Tolman, Dylan Napa and Josh Jackson who have stood tall in recent weeks.
Betting Analysis: South Sydney need to go to another level after back-to-back losses and recapture their early season confidence and belief when they won 9 of their first 10 games and were being talked about as possible premiers. A lot rests of hooker Damien Cook’s running game and his ability to put the opposition on the back-foot with his dummy darts. Bennett will be looking to Sam Burgess to set the standard early and lead the way with Cameron Murray and Ethan Lowe to hit the edges. It all adds up to a South Sydney win, but don’t tell the Bulldogs, they have other ideas.
Sydney Roosters vs New Zealand Warriors
Sunday, August 19, Sydney Cricket Ground.
If the Warriors (11th 19pts) side which ambushed Manly last weekend turn up, then the Roosters (2nd 30pts) will have a game on their hands. The Roosters had a pretty tough game against Souths last weekend but confirmed their place as premiership favourites by overpowering the Rabbits when it mattered most. There is so much to like about the Roosters from the power plays of Jared Waerea Hargreaves to the majestic footwork of fullback James Tedesco, in rare form since the Origin series. The Warriors are out of finals contention and for them the task will get tougher if the Roosters get too far ahead on the scoreboard, a real possibility given their propensity to switch off at times. This is not a time when the Roosters will be complacent, in fact Cooper Cronk will be getting as much early ball as possible to centre Latrell Mitchell and also be looking to turn the ball inside to Tedesco, Crichton and Radley whenever possible.
Betting Aanalysis: The Roosters realise how dangerous the Warriors can be if they allow them to off-load and use the ball to do the work. Warriors winger Ken Maumalo is a try-scoring wizard and they don’t need reminding how deadly their former fullback and Warriors No.1 Roger Tuivasa Sheck is from broken play. Mitchell has been scoring a lot of points lately and looms as the game-breaker again now that his confidence is back. Expect Cronk to kick the ball away from Tuivasa-Sheck as much as possible.
Cronulla Sharks vs St George Dragons
Sunday, August 18, PointsBet Stadium 4.05pm
Massive game for the Sharks (9th 20pts) whose finals hopes are in the balance after they stumbled badly at the hands of Penrith last weekend. Matt Moylan can’t return quick enough to give the Sharks a point of difference in attack with his clever angled runs which they missed against the Panthers. The Sharks though have had to put an end to Andrew Fafita’s gallant effort to keep playing on one leg. Look, the Sharks have a strong roster but they have struggled at times against sides which take them on in the middle. They were too lateral in their attack against Penrith and they need to straighten up their running and involve Shaun Johnson as much as possible. The Dragons (14th 16 pts) have been disappointing given their player pool and coach Paul McGregor needs more from his marquee players. A team with Gareth Widdop, Ben Hunt, Corey Norman, Paul Vaughan and Tyson Frizell, should not be languishing in 14th place and already out of finals contention.
Betting Analysis: It is now or never for the Sharks, either stand up and and deliver or be be counted out for 2019. Many tipsters rated Cronulla to be a top four side but they are in danger of missing the finals all together. Just maybe the Sharks are pretenders in 2019 and playing on reputation. Wade Graham can’t be expected to come to the rescue every week and more is needed from a few forwards and one of two of their highly paid guns for them to be around in September finals. Tough game to pick and as a local derby should provide a tense battle.