After another pulsating round of NRL fixtures the Top 8 looks settled 9 weeks out from the playoffs! With the Raiders and Tigers both blowing their chances to make up ground, the gap between 8th and 9th has ballooned to six points. There is a possible 18 points left for the Raiders, Tigers and the smokies, the Titans, to grab at least 14 of those on offer and hope a team or two above falls off the rails. The chase for the Top 4 is hotting up as sides scramble for that safety net. Origin III is on Wednesday week, so the final split round hits and competition points are at a premium, as clubs head into the home stretch.
Melbourne Storm v St George Illawarra Dragons
Both sides scraped wins out of the dying embers of their matches but on the back of rep round both coaches will be ecstatic despite neither side being at the best. Origin III hits both hard with a grand total of 11 players missing but importantly for the Storm one Cameron Smith is available. Smith showed his immeasurable value in nailing a long-range field goal to ice the win over the Roosters after Cameron Munster couldn’t hit a barn door and it’s Smith’s brilliance combined with his control and intelligence that allow the Storm to have a coach on the field, as well as a referee some would accuse too which I would never ever do… well maybe just the once. Origin always offers youth and fringe player’s a chance to shine and the Storm have those in abundance, Brodie Croft gets another crack at NRL after the overhyped start to his season fell flat, but it’s the experienced players who step in to fill the void and standout. Expect Ryan Hoffman to play a blinder following on from last week’s fantastic game and after announcing his retirement this week, The Hoff will want to go out with a bang! The Dragons have their own genius controlling play in gun play maker Gareth Widdop who must cross the Victorian border with both barrels loaded with 29-year-old debutant Darren Nicholls beside him after Ben Hunt survived a poor Origin II to make Maroon selection for game three. Widdop is the obvious danger man the Storm must quell but with most of the regular forward pack lining up for NSW it falls on those left behind to lead the way. Step up James Graham! The hard-nosed Englishmen is the perfect man for games like this, Graham will set the tone and the standard dragging the rest along with him. With so many players out game plans will be pretty simple and brilliant individual efforts resulting in tries will be like gold. It’s a massive ask for the Dragons to travel south with a second-string pack, most games are won in the engine room and this will be no different.
Storm by 10
Penrith Panthers v New Zealand Warriors
This is a must win with both sides suffering losses last week, the Warriors in a heartbreaker that placed a dagger in their top four hopes. Penrith have lost two on the trot now and must find a way to stop the rot. This won’t be easy with their star Blues halves James Maloney and Nathan Cleary missing. Softening that blow Waqa Blake makes a timely return adding size, pace and line busting strength. The Panthers showed remarkable resilience in the first half of the season with some miraculous escapes but has their luck run out? The Panthers resources are being stretched to breaking point, so much so they’re conducting a football review: code for Anthony Griffin might get hooked! The Panthers led the comp two rounds ago, tough school they run out west. Penrith need to find some leaders in the forward pack to give the new halves combination Tyrone May and Jarome Luai a chance to shine. The Warriors will view this as a marvellous opportunity to bounce back into the Top 4. Adam Blair returns from suspension hardening up a pack missing workhorses Tohu Harris and Bunty Afoa both to knee injuries.
On song the Warriors have the intimidating defence to rock and relentless attacking drive to roll over the Panthers to allow Shaun Johnson room to put the slipper into the team from the foot of the mountains but Penrith have the beef across the park to counter the onslaught and no team can place a tuba in the string section like the Warriors. Split round Origin affected games are always difficult to predict, this falls smack bang in that category. After walking around the local park barefoot (Panther’s old boy Freddy Fittler is really rubbing off on me) and consulting my NRL guru aka my 6-year-old daughter I think the Panthers will get the chocolates.
Panthers by 4
Canterbury Bulldogs v Canberra Raiders
Groundhog Day! Pass me the smelling salts to wake Ricky Stuart from his recurring nightmare. Yes Ricky, its 6am and ‘I Got You Babe’ is playing on the radio again!!! The Raiders failure to ice close games revealed its ugly face yet again in blowing a 16-0 halftime lead against the Broncos and the reason why the Raiders will not feature in September again barring a reversal of fortune or Punxsutawney Phil going rogue and instead of predicting an early spring, places a curse on the eight teams above them. Meanwhile the apparently in disarray Bulldogs showed the spirit we all know the club has in disposing of the Knights and scoring over 30 points for what feels like first time since Groundhog Day hit cinemas. David Klemmer is missing on Blues duty but who needs the Klemminator when you have Action Jackson leading by example. Josh Jackson was unluckily dumped in Freddy Fittler’s Blues purge but is clearly one of the best competitors in the NRL week in week out and Origin tough, Origin made. He would walk into the Maroons squad. Jackson’s qualities are just what Dean Pay needs as his squad is under siege from all quarters and meet a Raiders side who will be fired up prepared to battle the Dogs of War at their spiritual home of Belmore. The Raiders star rake Josh Hodgson is the key player who makes the Green Machine tick over and if the canny Englishmen rules the ruck it could be a long night for the Bulldogs. Blake Austin personifies the Raiders Jekyll and Hyde performances, scything runs are matched by shocking defensive reads and chief chair kicker Ricky Stuart has had enough booting Blake onto the bench replaced by Sam Williams. Is Sam the man? The big Dogs will test Williams’ decision-making on the edges which is the area that costs the Raiders constantly. The script is well-known, the Raiders can score tries but have trouble stopping them when it matters. Having to win seven from nine and with a tough run home the Raiders must salute or it’s sayonara to their season.
Raiders by 8
Gold Coast Titans v Brisbane Broncos
Two huge wins in a row by the Titans, albeit over sides outside the eight, have given the Gold Coast faint hope of pushing for the playoffs. Seriously there’s more chance of DCE running out for the Maroons for Game 3… hang on sec! Well blow me down, okay where there’s life there’s hope. They meet the forever gutsy Broncos who stormed home to break lime green hearts last start and this week find themselves missing four players on Origin duty though the Titans are down two with forward spearhead Jai Arrow a massive loss. The Titans are normally pumped for the south-east Queensland derby but knowing a win will push them just four points from 8th spot brings extra spice to this tasty clash. With Ash Taylor at the helm the Titans are always dangerous and youngster AJ Brimson is gaining confidence with each outing, if the Titans pack can contain the belligerent Broncos this is game on! The rookie Brimson match ups opposite Anthony Milford who displayed the ultimate rocks and diamonds of his game in destroying the Raiders detonating the Broncos explosive comeback after a woeful first forty, which frustrates fans and would worry super coach Wayne Bennett if he hadn’t watched every game of league since Dally Messenger switched codes for cash. With Andrew McCullough in Maroon the Broncos debut Jake Turpin at rake, not sure if he’s related to the 18th century English highwayman Dick Turpin but if Buck the Bronco travels with the team down the motorway look out, ole Dick was hanged for horse theft! Jake will just steal some metres through the ruck, hopes Buck. Both sides are full of team spirit, confidence and contain brilliant goalkickers in Taylor and Jamayne Isaako, another tight split round battle beckons especially as a loss all but ends the gallant Gold Coast’s chances. The absence of James Roberts and Corey Oates will blunt the Broncos attack but not enough to tip the scales the Titans way.
Broncos by 1
Byes: Rabbitohs, Roosters, Sharks, Tigers, Knights, Sea Eagles, Cowboys, Eels
NRL Round 16 Results
Dragons 20 Eels 18; Sharks 18 Warriors 15; Storm 9 Roosters 8; Sea Eagles 18 Panthers 10; Bulldogs 36 Knights 16; Broncos 26 Raiders 22; Titans 30 Tigers 12; Rabbitohs 21 Cowboys 20
1. Dragons 26
2. Rabbitohs 24
3. Storm 22
4. Panthers 22
5. Warriors 22
6. Roosters 20
7. Sharks 20
8. Broncos 20