Sonny Bill is the name on every rugby league fans lips. The return to the 13-man-a-side game by Sonny Bill Williams for the Roosters against Canberra will be the most eagerly awaited since Jarryd Hayne came back for the NFL. Sonny Bill has not played rugby league since 2014 but he is some athlete and if he is 75 per cent near his best he will be an asset to the Roosters heading into the finals. The Roosters v Canberra game is the pick of the round with a top-four spot up for grabs. Round 18 kicks off with the competition ladder leaders Penrith playing the Brisbane Broncos, a club without a coach and in total turmoil, only one loss away from collecting its first wooden spoon in its 32-year history. A few years ago fans watched Brisbane for the flashy style they played. Now they watch to see how many points they lose by and lately, that’s been a hell of a lot. The other marquee game is between Wayne Bennett’s white-hot South Sydney and Craig Bellamy’s Stormtroopers. Melbourne plays with a certain calmness and confidence but South Sydney have the talent to pick them apart. This game will come down to or two pieces of individual brilliance from either side. There are only four games left and the minor premiership, top four, top eight and wooden spoon are still up for grabs. Teams should be close to the peak for this round and the cream should rise.
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NRL Tipping – Thursday, September 3
Brisbane Broncos v Penrith Panthers
Suncorp Stadium | 7:50 PM (AEST)
Brisbane Broncos: If Brisbane is going to break out of the club’s worst-ever losing streak then who better to do it against than the first-placed Penrith Panthers. To borrow a line from that great Australian movie The Castle “tell ‘em they’re dreamin”. What a time to strike the in-form Panthers when your club is in turmoil, looking for a new coach, down on confidence, playing poorly and getting flogged almost every week. For some reason, they can’t keep it together for 80 minutes and in fact, their second halves have been pathetic to be kind. They have a stack of injuries and a lot of young, inexperienced players, but they need to show more pride in their jumper and more pride in their own performances. They do get a few handy players back in big Payne Haas, who will add some punch in the middle, hooker Issac Luke, who needs to produce his best out of dummy half and Corey Oates who returns to the wing after a nasty leg injury. Those players will all help a little but it has to be an 80-minute team effort to avoid another embarrassing loss. I really like what I am seeing from young halfback Tom Dearden who continues to improve. This kid really has a dig and his defence in the middle has been outstanding. Brisbane needs a big effort from Haas and David Fafita along with Patrick Carrigan and big Rhys Kennedy. Brisbane is receiving 22.5 points start but given they have lost half of their 16 games this season by 30 points or more that may not be enough. I will say you would expect this game to be Brisbane’s Grand Final!!
Penrith Panthers: The Mountain Men have established themselves as the team to beat and a win here would put them one step closer to claiming the minor premiership. Currently three points clear of Melbourne they will be keen to maintain that advantage with three rounds of the minor premiership remaining. The Panthers have enjoyed the luxury of escaping serious injuries for several weeks and therefore coach Ivan Cleary has been able to field the same 17 or 18 players week in and week out which is a huge bonus and the key to consistency. The bad news for Brisbane is that big Villame Kikau is back and that will create massive defensive problems for the Broncos. Whispers abound that Api Karoisau might be a late addition to the team. Cleary has made a few minor adjustments but basically the Panthers side will be close to full strength for this clash. Brisbane’s task will be to match the energy of the Panther’s pack led by James Tamou and James Fisher-Harris. Back-rower Liam Martin has been in great form in recent weeks playing on the edge and getting over the line a few. Centres Brent Naden and Stephen Crichton are among the best in the NRL and present major threats and I really like winger Brian To’o to score a try. He is very under-rated. Based on the way they are playing it is hard to feel scared for Brisbane unless the Broncos can rise to the challenge.
NRL Tipping – Friday, September 4
Newcastle Knights v Cronulla Sharks
McDonald Jones Stadium | 6:00 PM (AEST)
Newcastle Knights: Hit the wall last week and were very poor in losing 36-6 by the resurgent Warriors. Without taking anything away from the Warriors, It was like they forgot how to play. Their position in the top eight could become a little shaky if they slip back to eighth against the Sharks who are only one point behind them on the ladder. Prior to last week’s loss the Knights has won three on the trot so you have to give them another chance and see if the 30-point loss as shaken them up. It is hard to explain the limp effort turned in by the Knights last weekend and they need to come out hard and aggressive against the Sharks who have no problems scoring points. Winger Sione Katoa will be keen to keep his try tally ticking over. Katoa has crossed the try line 14 times in his 16 games (equal best for the season) and they will no doubt go to his side more than not. But they have other weapons in fullback Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce to spark things. As usual David Klemmer will be a key in the middle because starting well will be paramount to their chances of causing up upset.
Cronulla Sharks: Like their rivals the Sharks are desperate to lock up their place in the top eight and that means winning. They can’t drop out of the top eight if they lose, but they can open the door to teams to the Warriors who are launching a late big with a string of wins. The Sharks are coming off a big win over a sliding North Queensland Cowboys and will back their attack to outscore Newcastle. The Sharks have scored more tries (71) than any other NRL team, with the exception of the Roosters (76) and they are averaging 27 points a game, setting the bar high for the Knights. Young Brydon Trindall is back in the halves with Chad Townsend returning to the halves with regular starters Shaun Johnson and Matt Moylan both out injured. The Sharks have a very strong forward line-up and that is where they could have a slight edge of the Knights. It is Braden Hamlin-Uele turns to start at prop and his he excellent back-up from Aaron Woods, Wade Graham and Toby Rudolf. Rudolf has been promoted to the starting 13 this week after churning out 150 metres last weekend off the bench. Cronulla will need to play tough and they love to get physical with their opposition. I just het the feeling the Sharks are going better than the Knights at this stage of the season.
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Melbourne Storm
ANZ Stadium | 7:55 PM (AEST)
South Sydney: Looming as a premiership dark horse and master coach Wayne Bennett has them playing super football a month out from the finals when he will throw the switch. Could not have been more impressive in thumping Manly 56-16 two weeks ago with a stunning opening 40 minutes and then last week they did it again with a 38-0 shut out of top 4 side Parramatta. Those two wins suggest Bennett has found the formula which works for his players. As Bennett said after both wins, his key players are all producing and it flows on through the team. This is a side which has scored almost 100 points in its past two starts an averaging close to 40 points a game, very intimidating form. They suffered a severe blow last week losing brilliant young fullback Latrell Mitchell to a leg injury. Fortunately, they have a player named Alex Johnston ready to slot into the No.1 jumper. Johnston is a try-scoring machine and Souths will lose nothing with him at fullback. Experienced representative star Dane Gagai returns from injury into the centres. Given their blistering form in recent weeks you would expect the Bunnies to fully extend Melbourne who needs to win to keep their minor premiership hopes alive. This will be a ripper clash with both teams loaded with match-winners.
Melbourne Storm: There is no more professional club in the NRL than Melbourne and skipper Cameron Smith and coach Craig Bellamy will relish the challenge of playing Souths in such great form. This has all the makings of a classic battle given both clubs are in great form and getting into finals mode. Melbourne crushed Manly 30-6 last weekend when Smith returned from his shoulder injury. A few of the tries Melbourne scored, including a long-range effort from Josh Addo-Carr reminded everyone how dangerous Melbourne can be in broken play and the game opens up. Melbourne will lose some power and try-scoring punch with Nelson Asofa-Solomona sitting out the game with a calf strain. Nelson’s battle with Tom Burgess would have been a feature but the Storm will have to muscle-up without him. Chris Lewis will start in the back row with Bellamy moving Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to lock. Ryley Jacks has been added to the bench. This is a game where Smith and Cameron Munster will step but watch out for the flying Ryan Papenhuyzen and Addo-Carr to burn the Rabbits if they get the chance. Jahrome Hughes has also been going great in the halves and will play a big part in the result.
NRL Tipping – Saturday, September 5
Canterbury Bulldogs v Gold Coast Titans
ANZ Stadium | 3:00 PM (AEST)
Canterbury Bulldogs: This could be the game with the Bulldogs hand to wooden spoon off to the Brisbane Broncos. They threatened to do it for a while last weekend but found Canberra too good in the second half. Still, they showed a lot of good signs putting their highest score of the season and the board and leading the Raiders into the second half. They have won just two games this season but their effort can’t be questioned on the field. This is a game they can win if they play to the standard they did last weekend against Canberra. Last week they shifted the ball well, off-loaded on a number of occasions and generally competed for most of the 80 minutes. I would suggest fullback Will Hopate will have a big game after his Barry Crocker last weekend when very little went right for him. He is a much better player than that and he will be determined to make amends. Ditching the wooden spoon is all that remains for the Bulldogs and this will be like a grand final game for them.
Gold Coast Titans: Things have turned around a little bit in recent weeks for the Gold Coast Titans and it showed last weekend when they produced one of their better performances of the year to beat St George 14-10 to record their fifth win of 2020. The last thing they would not is to lose to the last-placed Bulldogs although it would mean their “big brothers” Brisbane would slip into last spot unless they cause the upset of the year against Penrith. The Titans are starting to gel better and their spine of Jamal Fogarty, Ash Taylor, Tyrone Peachey and AJ Brimson are looking sharp. Fogarty copped a lot of ribbing for being run down by Canberra prop Josh Papalii a few weeks ago but he answered his critics with a great game against the Dragons last weekend. He continues to improve for a young player carrying so much pressure. Brimson makes a huge difference to the Titan’s attack, bobbing up everywhere with his electrifying pace.
Manly Sea Eagles v West Tigers
Lottoland | 5:30 PM (AEST)
Manly Sea Eagles: Have been something of a punching bag this season as a result of some serious injuries to key players. Manly’s courage cannot be questioned but there is a limit to any team playing hurt and those efforts are now taking a heavy toll of the Manly players. Belted 56-16 by a white-hot Southey Sydney they had little left when rolled 30-6 by another NRL heavyweight Melbourne last week. This week’s assignment against the Wests Tigers who are also struggling themselves is a lot easier and expect them to show a big improvement. Like I say every week they still have a good playing roster and playing at home at Lottoland is worth a converted try. Goal-kicking winger Reuben Garrick is the latest injury casualty at Brookie suffering a season-ending ACL injury against Melbourne last weekend. They’ve also lost hard-working forward Joel Thompson which is a blow because he contributes so much in defence and attack. Manly still boasts a pretty handed forward pack with Fonua-Blake, Taupau and Jake Trbojevic and a more than handy halves pairing in Daly Cherry-Evans and Cade Cusk to steer them around the park.
Wests Tigers: Coach Michael Maguire is becoming increasingly frustrated by the errors and inconsistencies that have eroded his side’s final eight chances which will be over if they lose this game. They probably are already over but if they win their last four games they will finish on 20 points which is an outside chance. There’s no disgrace is getting spanked by Penrith which happened to the Tigers last weekend after a similar loss to the Roosters. Their last win was by one point over the last-placed Bulldogs so their form is not inspiring at the moment. Maguire has shifted Adam Douehi into the centres and handed the custodian role to Moses Mbye in the hope of sparking the Tiger’s attack. Josh Aloiai has reclaimed his front-row starting spot in another selection change. The Tigers will need to re-discover their direct attack and stop looking for short cuts to points.
Canberra Raiders v Sydney Roosters
GIO Stadium | 7:35 PM (AEST)
Canberra Raiders: The Green Machine get the chance to make a statement against the Roosters and the winner of this clash will take a psychological edge heading into the finals. Canberra was poor in the first half last weekend against the last-placed Bulldogs trailing 20-12 after 40 minutes. They turned things around in the second half 22-0 and it is that kind of form they will need to play for 80 minutes against the Roosters chasing a third straight premiership. Unfortunately, they meet the Roosters when the Tricolours get back Luke Keary and unleash Sonny Bill Williams back into the NRL Still, coach Ricky Stuart has a squad which is playing very well and combining well. Five-eighth Jack Wighton took the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half last week and he is a class act when he switches on. These two teams fought out last year’s grand final and there is a good chance they could meet again in the big dance in October. Canberra needs to show the Roosters they are not intimidated by that GF loss and that means taking the game to their rivals through the forwards.
Sydney Roosters: Coach Trent Robinson will unleash the new version of Sonny Bill Williams who has not played in the NRL since 2014 when he was regarded as one of the games best. Williams will come off the bench and is expected to play about 20 minutes. How he will perform is anyone’s guess but he is an athlete no doubt. The Roosters have suffered a few injuries but are starting to get some of the players back and the addition of Williams can only help. These two teams are locked together on 22 points and a top-four sport beckons the winner so they could not have more to play for. The return of Luke Keary from a rib injury is massive because he is the link to the Roosters attack and James Tedesco. Even though they hammered Brisbane last weekend they are a far betting side with Keary skipping across the field like he does. Both Angus Crichton and Mitch Aubusson are a chance to return after being listed in the reserves. You would expect one of the Morris brothers, Josh or Brett to score a try or more the way they are playing. This game should be a beauty.
NRL Tipping – Sunday, September 6
NZ Warriors v Parramatta Eels
Central Coast Stadium | 4:05 PM (AEST)
Warriors: The Kiwis are making a very late bid to play finals football and sit four points out of the eight with four games remaining in the regular season. Another upset win over the Eels this weekend would give them an outside shot at finishing 8th. New coach Todd Payten has worked a few miracles and the players have responded with some good recent wins that suggest they will be very competitive against the Eels who have lost some of their aura in the past month or so. The way the Warriors finished off Newcastle last weekend suggests they have a new resolve to end 2020 in style. The NRL’s loan rules prevent George Jennings and Daniel Alvaro lining up against their contracted club Parramatta and Eliesa Katoa (hand) will also miss the game with an injured. Gerard Beale, however, comes back into the side in on the wing. One of the reasons for the Warriors turn around has been the improving form of their young playmaker Chanel Harris-Tavita whose maturity as a player has blossomed this season. With Kodi Nikorima and Harris-Tavita providing the attacking spark the Warriors pack have stepped up with the likes of Jaymayne Tunoa-Brown, Tohu Harris and Lachlan Barr are revelling in the mid-field and providing the platform for the Warriors to play with their flair they excel at.
Parramatta Eels: Parramatta’s 2020 season is at the crossroads after being so dominant early in the season. Losing 38-0, which they did last weekend against a white-hot South Sydney is not the kind of form coach Brad Arthur would want a month out for the season play-offs. It’s a far cry from the way Parramatta were playing a few months ago and a far cry from the standard they will need to go deep into October. The loss of clever No.6 Dylan Brown (ankle) will cause the Eels some problems with Jai Field coming into the side to cover in the halves. Up until last week, the Eels’ defence was solid but they do seem to have issues scoring points, and the Warriors will put a few of them if they defend like they did last weekend. It’s hard to know what to make of Parramatta given On their day, they can beat any side but they also have days where they struggle gel.
North Queensland Cowboys v St George Dragons
Queensland Country Bank Stadium | 6:30 PM (AEST)
North Queensland Cowboys: A forgettable season continues for the Cowboys in a match that will have no bearing on the finals. You could have had any old odds about the Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland losing 18 game in a row between them, but that’s exactly what has happened to the Queensland cousins. While Brisbane have copped an absolute bagging for their form the Cowboys have escaped such widespread condemnation. Nevertheless their form is abysmal and their fans will be desperately hoping than can snare a win or two before the season is done and dusted. Should they lose to the Dragons then they will equal the club’s worst ever losing streak of 10. Coach Josh Hannay has only 4 games left before he is replaced next season by Todd Payten so he would also like to go out with a few more wins. If they don’t win this game they could end the season against the Brisbane Broncos who could be fighting to avoid the wooden spoon. YOubg Jake Clifford has been recalled to replace injuried skipper Michael Morgan (calf) while Valentine Holmes is back at fullback and Scott Drinkwater plays five-eighth. Losing Cohen Hess (suspended) will hurt the Cowboys. Surprisingly, the Cowboys are 0-4 in their last four games at their new stadium. Excitement machine Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow returns on the wing and I reckon a try or two is on the cards for this kid.
St George Dragons: Hot and cold is the best way the describe the Dragons. Win a few, lose a few has been their story all year. Last week they dropped a game to the Gold Coast they were expected to win. They only lost 14-10 but they failed to dig deep with little to play for while the Titans wanted the win and it showed. Again there is nothing at stake and one wonders if they will stay in the fight if the Cowboys can put some quick points on the board. Utility Ben Hunt, rumoured to be involved in a deal to return to Brisbane, steps out for his 250th NRL, a great milestone for someone who is only 30 and with another 4-5 years left in the game. Hunt has been named at hooker for his big night and he could indeed have a night out against the Dragons. They will be on opposite sides on the wing but Dragons powerhouse Mikaele Rawalawa and Kyle Feldt will play significant roles in the outcome of the clash.