Well, barring a few shocks and upsets it looks like the top eight is close to finalised. Penrith, Parramatta and Melbourne look to have the minor premiership between them while the Roosters, Raiders, Rabbits and Newcastle Knights still have a shot at a top-four finish which history shows usually provides the champions. Mathematically Wests Tigers, St George Dragons, Manly and the Warriors, who are all on 12 points and four behind Cronulla, can make the top eight but they would need to win their remaining 5 games. Round 16 kicks off with a great clash between Parramatta and South Sydney, both impressive last-start winners. South Sydney smashed Manly with a sizzling opening 40 minutes and Parramatta’s vaunted defence will need to be switched on early in case the Rabbits pull another hot start out of their hat. A lot of interest will centre on how Brisbane respond to a traumatic week, well another one, in which their coach Anthony Seibold finally succumbed to the on-field and off-field pressures and accepted a deal to walk away from the club. Unfortunately, they are up against a Roosters side getting some of their injured troops back and deck and are headed for another belting unless they can suddenly show a big improvement in attitude and form. Most of the other fancies teams, Melbourne, Penrith and the Raiders should win.
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NRL Tipping – Thursday August 27
Eels v Rabbitohs
Bankwest Stadium | 7:50 PM (AEST)
Parramatta Eels – This clash looks like a finals game and I expect it to be played that way. Parramatta’s defence has been outstanding all season and they will need to be water-tight against a Souths side which piled 50-plus points on Manly last weekend. The Eels engine room has been great, led by Nathan Brown and Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard who churn out the tough metres in the middle. The Eels also have a terrific off-loading game that causes defences a lot of headaches and allows their halves Moses and Brown some running room to link with their dangerous outside backs. Fullback Clint Gutherson has been inspirational for the Eels and his battle with Latrell Mitchell will be a cracker even though they may not come in contact much for the entire 80 metres. Gutherson is very under-rated but he attacks the ball and is always looking for options to open up the opposition. Parramatta’s 14-0 over Melbourne last week sent a statement to their rivals heading towards the finals that they can defend the best teams in the competition. They controlled the game perfectly and the Storm could not crack their impregnable goal-line defence. Mitchell Moses did not take the ball to the line much last weekend and his kicking game was a little off but he can remedy both those issues and be a key player against Souths. You could do worse than back Blake Ferguson to score a try and end the longest drought of his career. Parramatta won their only meeting comfortably last year and will be confident of repeating that on the back-of-their tremendous defence.
South Sydney Rabbits – If the Rabbitohs could produce the first 40 minutes they served up against Manly last weekend, they would never a lose a game. Master coach Wayne Bennett rated it was one of the most complete 40 minutes of football he had been associated with in all his years which is some compliment given the sides he has coached during that time. Still, the task for Souths is to back it up against a team that thrives on defensive pressure and which held Melbourne scoreless last weekend. Almost every one of Souths star players produced against Manly and the game was well and truly over by half time. I don’t expect that to be the case against the Eels but if they start with the same silkiness and confidence they will be very hard to hold out. Fullback Latrell Mitchell grabbed a double against Manly last week and he needed a big game like that after some indifferent outings in the No.1 jumper. Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker, Dane Gagai, Mitchell are all dangerous but Souths will miss the strike and wing wizard Alex Johnston who has been in grout touch lately. Souths will try and go through the middle of the Eels with Tom Burgess, Tevita Tatola and Jaydn Su’A but as teams have found out the Eels middle third is very tough. Hooker Damien Cook could be the ace in the pack for Souths if he can find a few holes around the ruck.
NRL Tipping – Friday August 28
Dragons v Titans
Jubilee Stadium | 6:00 PM (AEST)
St George Dragons – The Dragons are mathematically still a chance of playing finals football but they need to keep winning. They did that the hard way last weekend against the out-of-sorts Brisbane Broncos 28-24. It wasn’t comprehensive, or convincing, but it was a win and two premiership points in the bag. It was also a perfect start for new coach Dean Young who made a few minor positional changes which worked. Young is convinced Ben Hunt’s best position for the team is in the No.9 jumper and he has named him there against the Titans with Adam Clune and Corey Norman his first-choice halves. Norman produced one of his best games last week against Brisbane and with Hunt and Matt Dufty at fullback the Dragons finally have a point of difference in attack and the side looks a lot more dangerous with them in those two key spine positions. Clune keeps on improving in the No.7 and his kicking game is getting a lot more effective. The loss of Paul Vaughan (suspension) and Korbin Simms (calf) will hurt but Young has contingency plans with Jackson Ford and Billy Brittain on his bench. Dufty has been enormous for the Dragons since returning to the side after former coach Paul McGregor dropped him earlier in the season. He has scored 11 tries and had the final hand in 9 others with his new-found passing game.
Gold Coast Titans – The club is on a high after re-signing coach Justin Holbrook until 2024 amid coaching poaching fears. Holbrook has done a very good job since arriving at the Gold Coast and impressed a lot of people. The Titans went down 36-12 to Canberra last weekend after a similar loss to the Cronulla Sharks the previous round. Young halfback Jamal Fogarty looks a promising player and his speed is a weapon along with fullback AJ Brimson. The return of halves utility Ash Taylor (quad strain), who replaces Tanah Boyd (bench) will help the Titans structure. He and Fogarty will need to run the ball and make sure their forwards work up a full head of steam. Fogarty took on the captaincy last weekend and keeps on improving. The Dragons though look to have the strong pack but that doesn’t always work out and the Titans will be looking to take control of the middle and if they do they will give themselves a chance of winning. The Titans have some handy strike in the backs in Brimson, Corey Thompson, Brian Kelly and Philip Sami who are all capable of getting across the line if they see enough of the football.
Roosters v Broncos
Sydney Cricket Ground | 7:55 PM (AEST)
Brisbane Broncos – The big question here is how will Brisbane respond to one of the most traumatic weeks in the club’s proud history? Coach Anthony Siebold took the only action could this when he severed ties with the club, ending his contract three years short and leaving the club to find a new coach who can rebuild and repair the damage of the past 18 months. That man is tipped to be former club great Kevin Walters or ex-Cowboy coach Paul Green, we will have to wait and see. If Brisbane wins this game, it would rank as the biggest upset in more than 100 years. Can they win it? Anything is possible but even at the unimaginable odds of $12 I can’t be on them. They are improving and as the say goes, “every loss brings you close to a win” but seriously, how could you give then any hope after what has transpired at Red Hill. They have lost Anthony Milford which has opened the door for Sean O’Sullivan to get another crack at the NRL after tore his ACL last September. Brisbane have named Corey Oates in its 21-man squad after fears his career may have been over earlier this year with a serious leg injury. It will be interesting to see the battle between young Bronco sensation Katoni Staggs and Roosters centre Joseph Manu, two future stars of the game. You just hope Brisbane can find some heart and not get blown off the park again.
Sydney Roosters – It’s been a tough period for the Roosters losing so many key players but now they start to get a few back and look out when they unleash Sonny Bill Williams (maybe even this weekend)! This week they get both skipper Boyd Cordner and winger Daniel Tupou back on deck and that is very bad news for Brisbane who can’t seem to take a trick. Cordner hasn’t played for five weeks but his return will be warmly welcomed. The Roosters didn’t give the Wests Tigers a look-in last weekend winning that clash 38-16. They may have even coasted somewhat in the second half given the tough run they have had. Brisbane will have nightmares thinking about the last time they played the Roosters and now they meet them having fallen into a giant hole with just one win from last 13 starts. The Morris twins scored 4 tries between last week and will be hungry to push their career try tallies higher against the Broncos. Brisbane have to do a job on James Tedesco but I am not sure how they can stop the Rooster’s star if he gets some room to run which you would think he will against the worst defending side in the league. If Brisbane turns up with anything less than 100 per cent commitment, which is a real possibility given this week’s events, they may be in danger of a bigger loss than the record 59-0 scoreline the last time they played the Roosters.
NRL Tipping – Saturday August 29
Warriors v Knights
Scully Park | 3:00 PM (AEST)
NZ Warriors – This game will be played at Tamworth’s Scully Park so the Warriors can thank the NSW country town where they first quarantined after they arrived back in Australia. The Warriors have displayed some great resolve and made many sacrifices to keep the NRL premiership going, living away from their families and friends for extended periods. They’ve also bonded while in the “bubble” with three wins from their past four games suggests the time together has helped them. Coach Todd Payton has found the key and the team is playing with more consistency and getting better at playing for 80 minutes. If they keep winning the Warriors could sneak into the top 8 through the back door. The Warriors have been playing a good brand of football and they will give themselves a good chance of upsetting the Knights who have a few injury concerns at the back-end of the season. Chanel Harris-Tavita is back in the halves after a week off with a head injury and his ability to do something special with the ball is an ace up their sleeve if the game is in the balance, which it could well be if they play to their potential. It was great to see Roger Tuivasa-Sheck back to form last weekend and when Roger is on his game, anything can happen.
Newcastle Knights – This is a huge game for the Knights who are still in the hunt for a top-four spot heading into the finals. Unfortunately their latest recruit Blake Green is headed for surgery after rupturing his ACL last weekend against the Cowboys, effectively ending his 2020 season. As a result, Mason Lino has been drafted into the halves with Mitchell Pearce. The Knights haven’t had much luck with their mid-late season recruits recently losing Andrew McCullough before Green’s latest injury. This game will be David Klemmer’s 150th NRL milestone match and his teammates will be keen to see they give him a win. Klemmer’s tireless work in the middle is one of the reasons Newcastle are still an outside chance of a top-four finish. Mason Lino is a bit of surprise choice to replace Green in the No.6 jumper because of his lack of recent football but he has been preferred over Tex Hoy who has been in the squad all year. Newcastle has a lot to play for and they will look to their big guns Kalyn Ponga, Mitchell Pearce to make things happen off a hard-working forward pack led by Klemmer and Jacob Saifiti in the middle.
Sharks v Cowboys
Jubilee Stadium | 5:30 PM (AEST)
Cronulla Sharks – The Sharks are comfortably in the top eight with a four-point buffer but they can’t afford to lose too many games, especially one they are expected to win comfortably. They met their match in the Panthers last week who steamrolled them 38-12 in a one-sided game. They need to be a lot better defensively even against the lower-placed Cowboys who can throw the switch at times when the mood strikes. Hard-running prop Andrew Fafita hasn’t played for several weeks and is still seeking a doctors clearance to play after suffering an ugly finger injury which required surgery. His presence against the Cowboys would be a bonus as apart from his strong hit-ups he is a great off-loader in heavy traffic. The Tongan international has not played since round 9 but would be a valuable weapon off the bench. Creative Five-eighth Matt Moylan will not play with Connor Tracey joining Shaun Johnson in the halves. With Braden Uele and Briton Nikora both back in the pack the Sharks have a better look about them overall. The Sharks have a handy recent record against the Cowboys having won their last four clashes.
Nth Queensland Cowboys – Have struggled for consistency this season and their defence has not been up to scratch which is why they are languishing in 14th place on the ladder and out of finals contention. New coach Josh Hannay has made five changes to his starting 13 this week in a major shake-up. One positive is the return of classy back Valentine Holmes who has been named on the wing for his first game since round 9. The Cowboys have a good enough playing roster to win but for some reason, they just can’t seem to get it together. Young Scott Drinkwater was out of sync last weekend when the Cowboys failed to score a point against Newcastle. He is a much better player than that and look to him to redeem himself with a big game. With big Jason Taumalolo out injured it is hard to see the Cowboys have the firepower to go through the middle of the Sharks who love to get into a grind and wear teams down. The Cowboys need to keep the scores close enough to be able to win it late.
Panthers v West Tigers
Panthers Stadium | 7:35 PM (AEST)
Penrith Panthers – The Panthers are on top of the ladder for a very good reason. They are already in finals mode or close to it and defensively they are hard to crack. The Panthers have not conceded a point to their opposition in the opening 20 minutes of a game for 13 weeks running and they will be out to maintain that incredible record against the Cowboys. It sets them up for the back-half of the game with their power plays run by halfback Nathan Cleary who is in career-best form. The Panthers are a complete side with quality in every position across the park. Back-rower Liam Martin was great in the big win last weekend. The twin-losses of big Villame Kickau and livewire hooker Api Koroisau will impact on the Panther’s no doubt but they still have too much class and power the faltering Wests Tigers. The Panther’s have now stretched their win streak to 10 and it is hard to see it ending here. Looks for Brent Naden and Stephen Crichton as try scorers here. Penrith have the luxury of being able to name the same 17-man squad again which is a big bonus.
West Tigers – Still clinging to hopes of a top eight finish but they were disappointing in their 38-16 loss last weekend to the Roosters when they didn’t offer much. They have made a few changes with Harry Grant, the find of the season for the club, back at hooker and Thomas Mikaele coming into the starting front-row for the injured Russell Packer. On their most recent displays the Tigers would need to lift considerably to have even an outside chance and their record at Panthers Stadium is poor having not won at the foot of the mountains since 2013. Benji Marshall said this week the Tiger’s season would be over if they lost to the Panthers. It’s a simple equation for them, keep winning or pack your bags for 2020. I’m betting they will be cleaning out their lockers and packing their bags on the weekend.
NRL Tipping – Sunday August 30
Storm v Sea Eagles
Sunshine Coast Stadium | 4:05 PM (AEST)
Melbourne Storm – Hail the King is back. Skipper Cameron Smith (shoulder injury) is back in the No.9 jumper for the clash with Manly. Melbourne performed well without him but they sorely missed his leadership and guile last weekend against Parramatta. There’s no love lost between these two clubs but do Manly have the necessary firepower to muscle up on Melbourne this time and beat then without Tom Trbojevic and Dylan Walker?. The Storm didn’t score a point last weekend in losing 14-0 to Parramatta and that will have riled coach Craig Bellamy who was more disappointed with the team’s execution than questioning their effort. It won’t happen again this week because the one thing Melbourne do better than most clubs is address their issues. With both Smith and Cameron Munster back in action this weekend, punters should see Melbourne return to their best form. They can still snatch the minor premiership off Penrith but they need to keep winning.
Manly Sea Eagles – The Sea Eagles face an uphill task to beat Melbourne but it is not insurmountable as they have shown in the past. They certainly have a pack of forwards up to the job with Addin Fonua-Blake, Martin Taupau and Jake Trbojevic a tough trio to crack. Manly have been brave through a series of injuries to key players but it took a toll on them last weekend when they were swamped by a white-hot South Sydney eventually losing by 40 points. That alone will have stung coach Des Hasler who has to find a way to get his players up for Sunday’s game. Past battles between the two clubs suggest Hasler will be able to motivate his players coming off such a big hammering. Manly are four points out of the eight and an upset win over the Storm would enhance their chances of playing finals football. Their roster is still strong and with Daly Cherry-Evans calling the shots, big Jorge Taufua, Brad Parker, Ruben Garrick and Cade Cusp are all capable of putting on points while they have plenty of forward muscle in Fonua-Blake and Taupau to meet Melbourne head-on.
Raiders v Bulldogs
GIO Stadium | 6:30 PM (AEST)
Canberra Raiders – They just win. Why? Because they are way too good for the battling Bulldogs. The way they rolled over the top of the Gold Coast Titans 36-16 last week you get the feeling they are working their way into finals form at the right time. The Bulldogs will do what they always do and play hard but they don’t have the same skill-set as the Raiders who will hold them in the middle and them overwhelm them with their classy backs running off quality halves George Williams and Jack Wighton who is in tremendous form at the right time of the season. The Raider strike power out wide with Nic Cotric, Jordan Rapana, Curtis Scott, Jarrod Croker and Charnce Nicholl-Klokstad is scary if they get their hands on the football. This should be a comfortable two points for the Raiders who are looking at a spot in the top four.
Canterbury Bulldogs – I say it every week, the Dogs just keep fighting but they just don’t have enough quality arsenal to win many games. In fact, they have only won two of 15 this season. Last week was another example of the Bulldogs hanging in the fight but coming away with nothing to show for their efforts losing 20-14 to the Warriors. The Raiders present a much bigger challenge and bookmakers give them no hope at $6.50 which for mine is unders. On form, they should be close to $10 with the Raiders winning eight more games and having played in last year’s grand final. I can’t see them holding the Raiders unless the weather turns nasty and conditions are poor.