The top 8 sorted itself out last week now the battle hots up for the minor premiership at crucial top 4. Penrith is in the box seat, beat North Queensland in the weekend and they will claim their first minor premiership since 2003 That year they won the grand final beating the Sydney Roosters 18-8. Is history about to repeat itself? Melbourne Storm will pounce should the Panthers stumble which, to be honest, seems highly unlikely the way they are playing. The team under the most pressure this weekend, however, is the Parramatta Eels who have on the wobbly boot. A loss to the Broncos, while unlikely, would open the door for Canberra to sneak into the top 4 at their expense. Canberra face-off against the Warriors who may find it hard to get up for a game which means nothing to them but a lot to the Raiders. Probably the pick of the weekend is the clash between the Roosters and Sharks with the Rooster’s opting to rest gun fullback James Tedesco but play skipper Boyd Cordner who has had four head knocks recently. The Roosters would surrender third place if they lose but they should have too much class for the Warriors. The Sharks are six points clear of the ninth-placed Wests so there place in the finals are already secured taking the pressure of them.
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NRL Tipping – Thursday, September 17
Rabbitohs v Bulldogs
ANZ Stadium | 7:50 pm (AEST)
South Sydney Rabbitohs – The Rabbits could be the premiership dark horse especially if they win their remaining two games and somehow sneak into the top 4. This looks a total mismatch against the gallant Bulldogs who have run their race for 2020 and are possibly going to finish with the wooden spoon. Souths have far too many weapons across the park and a fortnight out from the finals will be looking for a complete performance for coach Wayne Bennett who is the most experienced and successful coach in the competition. They couldn’t shake off the Wests Tigers last weekend but got home by a couple of points as the Tigers came at them hard in the second half. The Bulldogs don’t seem to have enough points in them to trouble a side like Souths. They did put 20 points on Manly last weekend and threw the ball about at times but I seriously doubt Souths will let them into the game. Souths came out fast against the Tigers last week racing to a 20-0 lead before the momentum swung around and they were given a big fright. They will miss their experienced winger Dane Gagai (suspended) but they have enough quality in the likes of Adam Reynolds, Cody Walker and Alex Johnston on the backs and a physical pack that will lock horns with the Bulldogs forwards. I think Souths win and win comfortably here.
Canterbury Bulldogs – I have sung the Bulldogs’ praises for much of the season and while they are in last place they play a lot better than that without actually winning. I know they put 20 points on Manly last week but the facts are their ability to break the line and set teams targets lets them down badly. Souths make twice as many line breaks and tackle busts which is something the Dogs must address if they are to stay in the fight for 80 minutes. It is not like the Bulldogs are hopeless by any means. They have Will Hopoate, Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Tim Lafair for starters in the backline and some good tough forwards led by skipper Josh Jackson and Aiden Tolman who are tremendous workhorses. This game will most likely come down to ball control and how long the Bulldogs can keep South Sydney scoring. If Souths gets a march, which they very well could, I don’t see a way back for the Bulldogs.
NRL Tipping – Friday, September 18
Cowboys v Panthers
Queensland Country Bank Stadium | 6:00 pm (AEST)
North Queensland Cowboys – There were glimpses of the Cowboys of old last week when they went down fighting 36-20 to the Melbourne Storm. Teams who miss out of the final 8 likes nothing more than upsetting the plans of a top 8 side and that is what the Cowboys will be trying to do against the Panthers. While it is quite a task and would be a massive upset it is not totally out of the question although they would have to play their best game of the years. You have to like the efforts of youngsters Scott Drinkwater and Jake Clifford who keep on improving and working on combinations and displaying their creativity. They are playing to impress the club’s incoming coach in 2021 Tod Peyton who will be looking for playing to fill key positions.I really like the look of the Cowboys backline from the elusiveness and speed of fullback Valentine Holmes to the power and aerial play of Kyle Feldt and the blinding speed of winger Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow combined with their promising young halves Drinkwater and Clifford. Clifford has a great chance to show how far he has come opposing the game’s No.1 halfback Nathan Cleary. Big Jason Taumalolo is an outside chance of returning from injury which would lift the Cowboys.
Penrith Panthers – What a season the Panthers have had. 13 straight wins, 16 for the season and only one loss. Some have tried to take the gloss off by saying they have had an easy draw playing teams placed outside the top 8 twice but the truth if they have gelled as a team with few injuries and growing in strength and confidence all season. They are not unbeatable but it will take a mighty team effort to lower their colours. All their key players, in fact, every player in their squad is playing great football and playing for each other. Their backs are outstanding start from Cleary through to Dylan Edwards at fullback while the forwards have been magnificent led by James Fisher-Harris, Isaah Yeo and big Villam Kikau. I mean they do not have any weakness across the paddock and they play a powerful 80-minute game build on aggressive middle third running and several quick shifts. Their wingers Josh Mansour and Brian To’o are both quality wingers in defence and attack. Stephen Crighton is a real athlete and Brent Naden can find the try line. Coach Ivan Cleary has them all playing their roles like a well-oiled machine the results just keep coming.
Parramatta v Brisbane Broncos
Bankwest Stadium | 7.55pm (AEST)
Parramatta Eels – The Eels are tottering a little but if they can dispose of Brisbane they can almost stitch up a top 4 spot which will help their final’s cause. The Eels have failed their past two-character tests against top 8 sides South Sydney and Penrith and with Canberra just two points behind in fifth place they need to win. That should be a formality against a Brisbane side who is struggling in every area of the game, especially winning which until this season as part of their DNA. Parramatta must get their act together and re-discover the free-flowing style they were playing early in the season when they were being talked about as grand finalists. One player who has to lift his performance is five-eighth Mitchell Moses who has lost his running game in recent weeks. When Moses runs and ventures into the line he is most dangerous and he often creates opportunities. The return of hooker Read Mahoney will help the Eels attack as he is quick and creative. Parramatta’s pack is quality and should be able to gain an advantage of over Brisbane but they need to turn that into points. Look for a big game from forwards Junior Paulo, Nathan Brown and Shaun Lane who can all off-load and create headaches for the defence.
Brisbane Broncos – I have been following Brisbane for 32 years and I can’t remember ever seeing the club so lost and so out-of-control. From the front-office, recruiting, coaching, fitness, leadership, players and moral, Brisbane have hit rock bottom. Last week they lost a club record ninth straight. It hurt more because it was against neighbours Gold Coast. If nobody has the answers, how can I possibly predict they can win this game. They need to improve in so many areas and a lot of those areas come from with the players themselves, only they can push themselves to play with more pride and for each other. At the moment they probably feel they are trying and having a dig, but the facts suggest they need to do better, a lot better. Look they have some good players and some experience but until they come together on the field I can’t go spruiking their chances any more. Maybe they will prove me wrong this weekend, I sure hope so for their fans.
NRL Tipping – Saturday, September 19
Sea Eagles v Titans
Lottoland | 3:00 pm (AEST)
Manly Sea Eagles – This is a game purely for pride. Both these teams are out of finals contention. Manly showed a lot of heart to overcome adversity and beat the Bulldogs 32-20 last weekend and you know they will want to end the season on a winning note. It has been a tough year for Manly with injuries to several key players including dynamic fullback Tom Trobjevic, who may yet make an appearance before the end of the season, which have undermined their season. But they showed their fighting spirit last week, albeit against the lowly placed Bulldogs. It would be foolish to think they have put the cue in the rack and I would expect them to play strongly until their season is done. Daly Cherry-Evans plays every game like it is his last and he will make sure Manly are up for this clash.
Gold Coast Titans – Coming off a good win over the Brisbane Broncos last week and have gradually been getting better. To think the Titans are eyeing off a fourth straight win, something they last achieved in 2014, is fitting recognition how they have improved under new coach Justin Holbrook. A few positional switches moving Ash Taylor out of the No.7 jumper to play five-eighth and digging Jamal Fogarty out of the local competition and elevating him to captain have worked wonders. Taylor is showing patches of the form that had him under Origin contention a few years ago and he is playing with far more confidence in his new role which doesn’t carry as many responsibilities. Fullback AJ Brimson is a serious threat with the ball in hand and works in well with Fogarty and Taylor. Upfront they have good go-forward with Jarrod Wallace and Kevin Proctor while Mitch Rein can be dangerous around the ruck and close to the try line.
Storm v West Tigers
Sunshine Coast Stadium | 5:30 pm (AEST)
Melbourne Storm – Still have a chance to take out the minor premiership If they win their last two games against the Tigers and Dragons which is very achievable. They did what was needed to be done in brushing aside Manly last weekend for their 15th win of the season and no team will be better prepared for the finals. I’ve said it all year, no team is more professional in their approach to the game or better at handling the big, tough moments than Melbourne Storm. They may not be as flashy as the Sydney Roosters but they know how to map out 80 minutes and to stay in the contest. The Wests Tigers turned in a great effort to come at Souths late before going down 26-24 and Melbourne will be ready for a similar charge even though the Tiger’s season is now over. With rugged forward Christian Welch back in the pack along with the biggest lock in the game Nelson Asofa-Solomona the Storm boast and intimidating look. Any side that can swing a big, mobile forward like young Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, who is being tipped some to play Origin later this year, off their bench, has to be deep. I can only see one result here.
Wests Tigers – Loved their second-half comeback against South Sydney last week and it showed what they can do with a bit of luck and chancing their arm in attack which they did quite well. Last weekend they were playing for their season which was snuffed out so you have to assume the desire may not be as strong this weekend, especially if Melbourne get on their bike early. Luke Brooks played well last weekend but he is suspended meaning Josh Reynolds will start in his place in the halves. Big Joey Leilua is back int the centres and owes his teammates a big game. Harry Grant continues to impress for his loan club and veteran Benji Marshall may have a trick or two up a sleeve for the Storm but it may not be enough to cause what would be a major boilover. It will be Chris Lawrence’s penultimate game. Lawrence celebrated 250 NRL games just recently and would love to add to his career tally of 84 tries as a one-club player for the Tigers since 2006, a truly magnificent contribution.
Roosters v Sharks
SCG | 7:35 pm (AEST)
Sydney Roosters – Things are coming together on que for the Roosters with players returning from injury and Sonny Bill Williams returning after a six-year break like he had only missed a few games. The biggest concern for the club and coach Trent Robinson is a string of head-knocks and concussion to skipper Boyd Cordner who has been named in the pack while other key players like James Tedesco being given the day off. Joseph Manu steps into Tedesco’s fullback role and while utility Mitch Aubusson has been pitched into the centres where he has filled in many times before. This game, as most are, will be won in the forwards and the battle up front in the middle could be torrid to say the least. These are the type of game Jarred Waera-Hargreaves thrives on and no doubt the Sharks forwards will be hunting him as well. So much comes off the back of JWH hit-ups and his off-loads as well. Luke Keary and Kyle Flanagan will spark the attack, Cleary’s dashes down the short side can be hard to defend. One of the Morris brothers, if not both could cross the stripe in this game as they are in amazing form.
Cronulla Sharks – This will appeal to the likes of Jarred Waerea-Hargreaves and present a real challenge for the Shark’s forwards so close to the finals. The Roosters pack is rated among the best in the competition and to get over the top of them this weekend would give them a psychological edge heading into the big dance next month. To do it though they will need to play with a lot of discipline unlike a few weeks ago when they self-destructed against the Newcastle Knights. The tough part for the Sharks is getting the job done without their most creative player Wade Graham and also play-maker Chad Townsend who is still serving his brain-snap suspension for shoulder charging Kalyn Ponga recently. The Sharks can muscle up with Bradin-Hamlen-Uele, Aaron Woods, Siosifa Talakai and Toby Rudolf but can they stop the Rooster’s attack from getting on a roll. I don’t think so.
NRL Tipping – Sunday, September 20
Raiders v Warriors
GIO Stadium | 2:00 pm (AEST)
Canberra Raiders – The Green Machine should be ready to flex their finals muscle against the Warriors whose late run at the finals is over. The Raiders are still breathing down Parramatta’s neck to grab their spot in the top four so a win over the Warriors here is imperative to that goal. Ricky Stuart’s Raiders have found their attacking mojo with four 30-point plus games in a row so the Warrior’s defence will need to be spot on to hold them for 80 minutes. Canberra’s halves are on fire on the back of their strong forward pack. They have so much power of creativity in the pack with Josh Papalii in tremendous form and Englishman John Bateman showing touches of class on the edge. Canberra fullback Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s clash with Raider’s No.1 Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will be a classic with both Kiwis in great form. Nicoll-Klokstad needs to follow Jack Wighton through the middle as much as possible and if he does a try or two could be on offer. Given what is at stake it is hard not to see Canberra dominating the Warriors if they don’t turn up with little to play for.
NZ Warriors – The Kiwis has shown a lot of heart and grit this season and up until last week’s 22-14 loss to Cronulla, they were an outside shot of playing finals football. They would love to upset the Raiders and finish the season on a high with two wins but Canberra won’t be sympathetic to their tough season. The Warriors have a very “low-key” pack with little raps on them but they have been going strong in recent weeks. Their young halves Chanel Harris-Tavita and Kodi Nikorima can create some problem if the likes of Lachlan Burr, Isaiah Papal’I and Tohu Harris can get aggressive in the middle and unsettle the Raiders. The Warriors will give it a shot but I think they will come up short.
Knights v Dragons
McDonald Jones Stadium | 4:05 pm (AEST)
Newcastle Knights – The Knights were in the fight for a top 4 spot but that went out the window after they were pasted 42-12 by heavyweight the Roosters. They can still host a final in the first week of the final but that is reliant on them winning their remaining two games including their last clash against the Titans. The Knights have been good and bad all season but last week they had a chance to make a statement and could not go to the next level. The Dragons are a slightly easier assignment and you would expect they will bounce back with much better performance, especially with new coach Anthony Griffin running his eyes over what players he will keep in 2021 when he takes over the reins of the club. These two sides look evenly match but Newcastle has a bit more to play for which could make the difference in the last 20 minutes.
St George Dragons – Has been an average season the Red Vs and have probably been major disappointments give their playing roster which isn’t that bad. New coach Anthony Griffin has some tough calls to make to turn the Dragons into a consistent side next season but he has enough to work with to make it happen. With only six wins for the season, it is hard to confident of a win here over the 7th-placed Knights who look set to play finals football. Players like Ben Hunt, Corey Norman, Cameron McInnes, Tyson Frizell, Paul Vaughan and Matt Dufty there is enough experience and strike to cause the Knights plenty of problems. The issue for the Dragons is building pressure and consistency. If they control the ball and complete there six they will be in the game provided they haven’t started planning their end-of-season holidays.