With the wheat now separated from the chaff, it's time to begin the business end of the season with the first week of finals match-ups.
Melbourne Storm vs. Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Sunshine Coast Stadium, 7:50pm, Friday September 10
Team News: Melbourne regain their stars after a well earned rest, all bar Josh Addo-Carr who has a minor hamstring injury. Papenhuyzen starts at fullback, Isaac Lumelume is on Addo-Carr's wing, with Cam Munster passing fitness tests and set to take his place.
Prediction: One of the great NRL rivalries, this will be the first time Melbourne will play a finals game without Cam Smith since the 2008 Grand Final, a 40-0 loss. The match of the round by a long way, both teams will carry some confidence into this clash, the Storm having claimed the minor premiership, while Manly, they've got Tom Trbojevic. An unstoppable force, up against an unmovable object. This should have some fireworks.
The big surprise with this Storm side has been the form of Brandon Smith, many expected Harry Grant to slot into that role this season with Smith used as a 14, spending time between lock and hooker. Yet now in line for the Dally M Hooker of the Year gong, he's been a key contributor to their success. It's all about whether the Storm can stop Turbo, and going off last game, it's a yes. Melbourne took a 28-18 victory a month ago, and they'll repeat it as they extend their unbeaten streak at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
Melbourne by 4.
Sydney Roosters vs. Gold Coast Titans
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 5:40pm, Saturday September 11
Team News: Victor Radley and Jared Warea-Hargreaves start at lock and prop respectively, pushing Egan Butcher and Isaac Liu to the bench, and Tuku Hau Tapuja and Naufahu Whyte drop out. Fletcher Baker replaces Ben Marschke on the pine.
Prediction: This isn't the clear cut towel up many are predicting. The Titans were strong last week, holding the Warriors to nil, and it's easy to forget the Roosters nearly conceded 60 to Souths a fortnight ago. They're depleted, the Chooks, but still carrying some class in the likes of James Tedesco and Angus Crichton. It'll be interesting to see how Sam Walker is used, after only playing the dying minutes against Canberra. The last time these sides met, the Roosters raced to a massive lead before the Titans levelled it at 34-34, with Walker returning to the field to slot the one.
David Fifita is playing hurt, but he's going to have to put in a mountain of a performance alongside Tino Fa'asuamaleaui to take down this tricolours outfit. There's definitely points in this Titans side, Jayden Campbell is this raw ball of excitement, he could come up with anything here. Both teams will rack up a score but it's hard to see the potential of the Titans halting the class and composure of the Roosters. Trent Robinson is an elite coach, his side won't go missing here.
Sydney by 14.
Penrith Panthers vs. South Sydney Rabbitohs
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 7:50pm, Saturday September 11
South Sydney regain their rested stars, with Blake Taaffe winning the fullback spot and Jaxson Paulo takes the vacant right wing spot. Keaon Koloamatangi is back from suspension, and starts in the second-row alongside Jaydn Su'A. Mark Nicholls slides back to the front-row with Cam Murray the lock, while Benji Marshall, Tom Burgess, Jacob Host and Jai Arrow fill the bench seats.
Prediction: Another belter, South Sydney have been written off prematurely here. The Rabbitohs lost by 13 to the Panthers three weeks ago, though having conceded a try in the final minute of each half and an 11-2 penalty against them, they'll have confidence they can get it done here. They are missing Latrell but they were for the finals last year as well when they fell to Penrith by four in a preliminary final. The Panthers have a mental edge over the Bunnies though, winning their last five against the foundation club, with Nathan Cleary the big threat.
There's some question marks over the make-up of both sides. Blake Taaffe has only started three NRL games leading into the finals and he's in the spotlight big time this week. In terms of Penrith, it'll be interesting to see if they continue to run with Stephen Crichton on the wing and Paul Momirovski on the inside, or if Charlie Staines or Brent Naden gets a run. The Rabbitohs right side, defensively, is their weak spot, and Penrith's sweet spot on offense. It won't be the blow out some are tipping, but the Panthers will be burning after their last finals game, this is there's to lose.
Penrith by 10.
Parramatta Eels vs. Newcastle Knights
Browne Park, 4:05pm, Sunday September 12
Team News: Parramatta welcome back the cavalry throughout a reshuffled line-up. Marata Niukore and Shaun Lane are the back-rowers with Isaiah Papalii on the bench and Ryan Matterson a reserve. Will Penisini has won the centre spot over Tom Opacic.
Jayden Brailey returns for Chris Randall at hooker, Mitch Barnett replaces Jack Johns and Hymel Hunt is on the wing for Starford To'a. The Saifiti brothers' return in the starting front-row pushes Dave Klemmer and Sauaso Sue to the bench, with Jirah Momoisea and Simi Sasagi dropping out. Tyson Frizell is another in, shifting Brodie Jones to the bench and Phoenix Crossland misses out.
Prediction: If you're going off last round, neither team will be super confident heading into this clash, though having rested players, who knows how this plays out. The Eels head in as deserved favourites, but the Knights had five consecutive wins to their name before resting players against Brisbane. The Eels have won just one finals game between the 2009 Grand Final and now, a 58-0 demolition of Brisbane in 2019, while the Knights last win in the postseason came back in 2013, against Melbourne. A long time between drinks for both.
Mitchell Moses has notoriously struggled in big games, he missed a match winning kick against Penrith earlier this year before struggling in his one and only Origin appearance. He needs to control this one. Clint Gutherson will do his part as well, but Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga have another gear to them. Pearce has been in the league for 15 seasons, so he knows what it takes to win the big games. Ponga is the x-factor, Clifford has been a great addition to their team, there's a real underdog vibe about the Knights at the moment. Upsets have been few and far between in 2021, but I'm tipping we'll have one in the first week of the finals.
Newcastle by 2.