Ready, set, go! The eight-round dash to the playoffs begins in earnest as the NRL basically turns into a new competition. Origin is over for another year with the Blues holding bragging rights for the next 12 months despite the Maroons taking out game 3 and the focus now turns sharply to the NRL. There’s still 10 teams in the hunt but the Raiders and Tigers must continue to win while the wobbly Warriors better have an attitude adjustment asap or it is them heading out the back door. Meanwhile the Rabbitohs have rocketed to the top and don’t look like bouncing backwards.
Penrith Panthers v Cronulla Sharks
The round starts in Penrith on Friday 13th and young halves Tyrone May and Jarome Luai, who turned in a pearler in whacking the Warriors last week, get another shot in the big time as Anthony Griffin has named Blues Origin pair James Maloney and Nathan Cleary out of the 17. Cleary looked tired backing up from Origin II and it makes sense to rest them, trust me the way May and Luai played last week the Panthers are in good hands but the Sharks are a step up in class from the tepid gloop the Warriors dished up. The Sharks forwards are massive but meet a Panthers pack on par when it comes to beef. I see Andrew Fifita and raise it with a Viliame Kikau! Fifita is a game turning wrecking ball but Vili the Kid has become one of the most damaging edge forwards in the game, good luck taming that bull Sharks, they will have their fins full trying to reel Kikau in. In good news for the Sharkies, Wade Graham returns from injury and he adds skill to a pack teeming with toughness. The centres features two of the best young guns in the comp with Cronulla’s Jesse Ramien and Penrith’s Waqa Blake, both are tackle busters and will take some stopping. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak is out adding to the injury woes for the Panthers with youngster Caleb Aekins taking the custodian spot. The production line out west is a wonder but DWZ has been in immaculate form so it’s a big loss but the Panthers have been resilient all year, this is just another challenge they’ll take on head first. The Sharks need a win to hold the gap between them and the chasing Tigers and Raiders and strengthen their top 4 safety net aspirations, but you don’t cross a black cat on Friday the 13th. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Panthers claw home even without their Origin halves and place a sneaky lobster on runaway pussycat Ryan Purrdler making his first appearance at Panthers Stadium in nearly two years.
Panthers by 2
Newcastle Knights v Parramatta Eels
No Kalyn Ponga but Mitchell Pearce returns after a lengthy absence and he will immediately make his presence felt easing the pressure on Connor Watson who had taken the reins in the playmaking role with both Pearce and Ponga missing. The Knights were right in the finals hunt, travelling well, until Pearce went down, a bright beginning derailed though Ponga grew from boy to man and then Origin debutant filling the void thriving in the spotlight. In a clash that is expected to be tight any dominance gained in the middle will be crucial. Pearce might be back but the engine room needs to roll their sleeves up and get dirty and the same must be said for the Eels. Brad Arthur’s men might be coming last but have shown fight and effort, they were super impressive in a heartbreaking late loss to the Dragons in their most recent outing. Leading the way was the erratic Jarryd Hayne and if he’s in the mood he could make Friday the 13th a black night for Newcastle. Parramatta are still suffering post-Radradra syndrome and the outside backs are on notice with the signing of Blake Ferguson from the Roosters, any scratchy form and BA will not hesitate to boot some current first graders out to the back blocks. The Eels will see this match as a great chance to begin the long climb out of the NRL cellar - no club wants the wooden spoon adorning the trophy cabinet. Meanwhile Pearce will want to make up for lost time but don’t expect miracles straight up.
Eels by 6
Canterbury Bulldogs v South Sydney Rabbitohs
Glory glory to South Sydney! The Bunnies are top of the pops and gunning for 9 on the hop. 1st v 15th looks a doddle for the new ladder leaders but the Bulldogs are playing better footy than their lowly position might indicate. Shows how strong and tight this competition is, there are no gimme’s. The Bulldogs Kumul international Rhyse Martin had the best game in his brief NRL career scoring a hat-trick and kicking 6/6 in a 24 point haul yet somehow ended up on the losing side as the Raiders came from the clouds. Life is cruel and the NRL is brutal. Winning is a habit but so is losing and both teams are caught in this cycle, the Bulldogs trying to break it while the Bunnies just want to keep feeding theirs. Dean Pay’s men need to find a way to win and David Klemmer will go hard at the Burgess boys no matter how sore he might be post-Origin. The Klemminator will be looking to bag a few Bunnies. If the Dogs successfully go to war it will give rookie five-eighth Lachlan Lewis, nephew of the King Wally Lewis, some space to sparkle, the kid is a keeper but comes up against Cody Walker who is killing it, his scintillating form comes off the back of the platform set by the rampant Burgess twin pillars, props Thomas and George and the scything scoots of Damien Cook. Walker has a deadly combination with halfback Adam Reynolds who is playing much tougher this year. Reynolds looks fit and is firing on all cylinders steering Souths superbly around the park and to the top. The Bulldogs to give a good account of themselves but the Bunnies will pull away their attack too hot for the Dogs to handle.
Rabbitohs by 10
Manly Sea Eagles v Melbourne Storm
Although out of the running Manly will fire up meeting arch rivals Melbourne. This game always gets tasty and the Sea Eagles, though just nuisance value from here until September, would love nothing better than putting a spanner in the Storm’s top four hopes or failing that a fist into someone’s face – its win-win both work. Melbourne were magnificent in the try-a-thon spectacular against the Dragons last week showcasing their future which is so bright even the ultimate dag Craig Bellamy needs shades. With Billy Slater backing up from Origin the versatile and brilliant Jahrome Hughes moves from 1 to 7, though don’t be surprised if he returns to fullback and Brodie Croft slips in if Slater pulls up sore. Hughes is a star and a place in the Storm 17 has to be found for him each week, he’s another one the Cowboys let slip through their net… Ponga and Hughes would be handy for the Cowboys wouldn’t they Greeny... Greeny?!? The battle I’m looking forward to is Nelson Asofa-Solomona locking horns with Marty Taupau, when the Kiwis clash its fight or flight! NAS is in destructive form and will lead the way with plenty of Origin stars backing up with Cameron Smith playing conductor. Daly Cherry-Evans return from Maroon exile could be the catalyst for a Manly ambush. DCE feeling loved and on a high back in the ultimate arena can break this game wide open with the help of the Blues Trbojevic brothers, Tom and Jake but even allowing for this and the home ground advantage the Storm are warming to their task of achieving back to back titles.
Storm by 2
Canberra Raiders v North Queensland Cowboys
Steve Austin was the $6 million-dollar man, well Blake Austin is the 14-minute magic man! Austin is named on the bench again after delivering the most magnificent cameo since Judi Dench won an Oscar for 8 minutes acting in ‘Shakespeare In Love’, quality not quantity is Blake’s motto and for 99% of the men of this world, well that’s what I tell my wife. The Bard was pretty good with words I’m not sure what his take on Joey Leilua’s ghastly gob would be. Leilua was out of control last week and nearly cost the Raiders dearly, seriously he’d sledge those Thai kids if he found them in that cave! He’ll probably bag the great Johnathan Thurston about his shitty career this week, all class. Ricky Stuart read Leilua the riot act and I’m told no chairs were harmed. The return of Jordan Rapana restoring the Raiders razor sharp razzle dazzle Leipana right edge might calm Joey down and focus him on league not lip. The Raiders have missed Rapana’s brilliance. For the Cowboys it’s all about pride as they attempt to muster some wins before the great JT rides off into the sunset. The other JT, Jason Taumalolo is the key to the Cowboys causing an upset and wrecking the Raiders season if he rampages through the Green Machine’s leaky ruck. It doesn’t take a genius to state this is a must win for the Raiders. Navigating a route to the playoffs that would feature on World’s Worst Roads the Green Machine have two wheels dangling over the precipice but last week’s get out of jail victory may be the win that spurs them onwards and upwards and with Josh Hodgson conducting and Nic Cotric blazing from fullback the Raiders should roll on and keep their dreams alive.
Raiders by 14
Brisbane Broncos v New Zealand Warriors
Has anyone got a pole? No, that’s Wayne Bennett, yes, he’s quite thin isn’t he. The Warriors are stuck in quicksand needing to pull themselves out, their season is in danger of sinking as it always seems to do post-Origin after they produced a woeful display against the understrength Panthers, while the Broncos are riding high after belting little brother the Titans and breathing new life into their campaign. Wayne Bennett has a great crop of young colts coming through the ranks especially in the forwards and if the Warriors don’t aim up this could get ugly. Despite lacking an organising playmaker, the Broncos halves Anthony Milford and Kodi Nikorima can run and gun as good as anyone off a strong platform. The Warriors usually enjoy the slick Suncorp surface, suiting their off the cuff play, and if their forwards can break the Broncos, their spine of Issac Luke, Shaun Johnson, Blake Green and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck can slice holes in granite. The signs coming out of the shaky isles aren’t good though, there was a distinct lack of grit, a feature of their play in the early rounds and now the season seems destined to disintegrate like grains of sand through an hour glass, I’m not sure they have the time or capable of recovering if they cop another hiding. The Warriors must make a statement this week even if they lose the performance must show courage and belief. The Broncos are great front runners and contain too much firepower across the park, they’ll lap the Warriors and poor Buck the Bronco who gallops around the ground after every try may need an interchange to get through this game. Maybe Clint Bennett can saddle up and saunter around for the adoring Suncorp Stadium crowd, Wayne would like that he loves attention. Giddy up!
Broncos by 20
St George Illawarra Dragons v Wests Tigers
Forget the highly entertaining loss last week, that side that capitulated is unrecognisable from this week as the A Team re-enters the NRL after Origin adding steel to the steam room. James Graham will be ecstatic as he played a lone hand taking on the Storm solo. Graham is in fine form but will welcome having the Red V’s Blues brothers back on deck. Ben Hunt’s response to his Maroon benching will be fascinating, Mary McGregor and the Dragons faithful will be hoping Hunt bounces back as it was a harsh call to demote him as doubts cast on his game management infuriated McGregor. Matt Dufty needs to rebound as well after the worst game of his young career, he’s a good ‘un though and I’ll back Dufty to pull out a corker this week. For Ivan Cleary’s men it is eight grand finals in a row to survive into September. The Tigers have changed their stripes and midseason buys Moses Mbye and old favourite Robbie Farah looked good, the attack clicked but the defence fell away dramatically last match against the Titans, polar opposite to how the Tigers started their season. Cleary will want vast improvement in defence and attitude and they’ll need it coming up against the fiery Dragons pack. Benji Marshall is back at five-eighth replacing the injured Josh Reynolds and Benji reunites with Robbie Farah, old mates getting back together?
Who knows but I bet they get on better than Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, heaps awks as the kids say (so I’m told, don’t worry I’m down with the 411 peeps). Tigers fans just want a win and Marshall and Farah will play a big part in it if they are to slay the Dragons but with the Origin pack back and Gareth Widdop weaving his wand it’s the Saints to march home all but ending the Tigers finals fantasy.
Dragons by 10
Gold Coast Titans v Sydney Roosters
The Titans were so poor last week their pictures belong on the side of a milk carton headlined “anyone seen this team?” as they went MIA right when they needed to front up. Instead of fight they got stage fright. Now their playoff hopes are out the door they’ll be a cagey opponent for the Roosters as the pressure valve is released. Sitting outside the top four the Chooks cannot afford to slip and lose games like these as the gap between them and the Raiders and Tigers could close to four points dependent on results. The forward clashes are crucial, the Titans will rely heavily on their returning Maroons Jai Arrow and Jarrod Wallace, while the Roosters are down Blues skipper Boyd Cordner who has been rested, a smart move as he barely made it onto the field for Origin 3, titles are won in late September not mid-July, it’s a risk worth taking. If you like action and flying by the seat of your pants keep ya peepers on Keegan Hipgrave, the Titans shaved head anti-hipster hitman is a firebrand backrower and only has one gear – full throttle! The young bull will look to leave his brand on Roosters enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and his feathered friends, Hipgrave swings into tackles like a dunny door blowing in a gale. There are plenty of intriguing match ups the key one for mine being the halves with young Titans tyro Ash Taylor who has been up and down taking on the consistent old hand Cooper Cronk and the exciting rookie AJ Brimson having a lash at Luke Keary. Brenko Lee has the unenviable task of trying to nullify the power and panache of Roosters superstar Latrell Mitchell, Lee will pray Origin takes the edge off Latrell because at his best Mitchell will massacre Lee. The Roosters have more to play for and Trent Robinson will want his men going up a notch from here as they rev up for a run at the playoffs.
Roosters by 16
State of Origin Game 3
NSW win the series 2-1
NRL Round 17 Results
Storm 52 Dragons 30; Panthers 36 Warriors 4; Raiders 32 Bulldogs 28; Broncos 34 Titans 0
1. Rabbitohs 26
2. Dragons 26
3. Storm 24
4. Panthers 24
5. Roosters 22
6. Sharks 22
7. Broncos 22
8. Warriors 22