NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 07: 7 Mitchell Pearce of the Knights during the round five NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Brisbane Broncos at McDonald Jones Stadium on April 7, 2018 in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

At long last, the Origin period is over! No more unavailable stars, it’s time to focus on the run home.

While we all thought the top eight was already decided, the Warriors' poor form has opened the door right back open. Meanwhile the South Sydney Rabbitohs finished on top of the ladder for the first time this season (despite having the bye in Round 17), and will be eager to keep their spot with a big win over the Bulldogs. However St George Illawarra will be desperate to regain top spot with a win over Wests on Sunday afternoon.

Oh and who could forget, we’ll be seeing Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah finally combine again, almost as exciting as Dylan Walker and Curtis Scott facing off again.

Strap yourself in - it’s all happening in Round 18!

Penrith Panthers vs. Cronulla Sharks
Panthers Stadium, 6pm, Friday July 13

Team News: Caleb Aekins has been named to debut in place of Dallin Watene-Zellezniak, with Penrith’s Origin contingent of James Maloney, Nathan Cleary and Tyrone Peachey named on an extended bench. Wade Graham returns from injury in place of Scott Sorensen.

Injury Watch: Watene-Zellezniak will miss 3-4 weeks with a hamstring injury.

Prediction: The battle for the top four heats up again on Friday night, with Penrith and Cronulla battling it out. This clash truly comes down to whether the Panthers’ Origin players take the field. If Maloney and Cleary do take the field, expect Luai to shift to the fullback role. Provided Penrith do include their rep stars, expect the Panthers to nab back to back wins. Panthers by 4.

Newcastle Knights vs. Parramatta Eels
McDonald Jones Stadium, 7:55pm, Friday July 13

Team News: Mitchell Pearce makes his long awaited return in place of Jack Cogger, with Nick Meaney debuting at fullback in place of Kalyn Ponga and Danny Levi replacing Slade Griffin. Daniel Saifiti returns in the front-row, while Nathan Ross joins the bench. Tepai Moeroa replaces Will Smith on the bench.

Injury Watch: Slade Griffin is out for at least nine months with a horrible knee injury, while Kalyn Ponga will miss a month with a hamstring tear.

Prediction: Ponga is a monumental loss for Newcastle, but the return of Pearce can’t be underestimated. Provided the halfback shrugs the rust early, the Knights should be strong for a Parramatta side shot for confidence after a last minute loss to St George Illawarra. Expect Newcastle to roll through the Eels’ middle third with ease. Newcastle by 8.

Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs vs. South Sydney Rabbitohs
ANZ Stadium, 3pm, Saturday July 14

Team News: Dave Klemmer returns from Origin duty, pushing Danny Fualalo to the bench and Greg Eastwood out of the side. Hymel Hunt and Mark Nicholls replace Greg Inglis and Jason Clark in the South Sydney line-up.

Injury Watch: Greg Inglis will miss 5-6 weeks with a broken thumb.

Prediction: South Sydney are the real deal in 2018, and haven’t lost a game since April. While the Bulldogs are reinvigorated after Dean Pay reshaped the side two weeks ago, they are sure to be lacking confidence after their loss to Canberra on Saturday night. Damien Cook should back up from Origin, and will show the Dogs why letting him go is one of their greatest mistakes. Rabbitohs by 14.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles vs. Melbourne Storm
Lottoland, 5:30pm, Saturday July 14

Team News: Manly have named an unchanged line-up, while Melbourne have named their six Origin players to return, as well as Jesse Bromwich to return. The Storm have elected to play Jahrome Hughes at halfback, with Brodie Croft dropping to the reserves despite a strong performance against the Dragons.

Injury Watch: No immediate concerns.

Prediction: Dylan Walker vs Curtis Scott will be the headline clash going into this one. We’ve seen the Battle of Brookvale and the Melbourne melee, could we see a lash out at Lottoland? Melbourne scored 52 points against the Dragons, and despite Manly beating Penrith a fortnight ago, won’t be strong enough to stop the Storm. Melbourne by 16.

Canberra Raiders vs. North Queensland Cowboys
GIO Stadium, 7:35pm, Saturday July 14

Team News: Brad Abbey and Shannon Boyd are out with respective injuries. Jordan Rapana returns on the wing with Nick Cotric switching to fullback. Josh Papalii returns at lock, Siliva Havili moves to the bench and Junior Paulo starts at prop for Boyd. Luke Bateman replaces Liam Knight on the bench. John Asiata’s return at prop sees Corey Jensen drop to the bench and Francis Molo out.

Injury Watch: Brad Abbey misses the game with concussion while Shannon Boyd has a calf strain.

Prediction: Canberra head into this game as favourites, and will be on a confidence high after a last gasp win over Canterbury, but Thurston and co will still be hurting after losing to South Sydney by a single point for the second time this year. Taumalolo will tear through the Raiders’ middle third, especially when missing Boyd, and ensure the Cowboys get back into the winners circle. Cowboys by 6.

Brisbane Broncos vs. New Zealand Warriors
Suncorp Stadium, 2pm, Sunday July 15

Team News: Brisbane’s Origin contingent have all been named to return, with Kotoni Staggs, Joe Ofahengaue and Tevita Pangai Jnr dropping to the bench. Gerald Beale starts on the wing with Ken Maumalo out, and Anthony Gelling joining the bench. Joseph Vuna replaces Ligi Sao on the bench.

Injury Watch: Ken Maumalo has a minor knee injury.

Prediction: Brisbane were strong in their 34-0 victory over little brother, the Gold Coast Titans. While their young contingent certainly stood tall and grabbed their opportunities, it was the likes of Darius Boyd, Kodi Nikorima and Anthony Milford that stood tall to lead the Broncos. The Warriors were deplorable against Penrith, and look a real chance of sliding out of the eight if this form continues. The Broncos will simply be too strong for a consistently inconsistent Warriors outfit, and make the most of a rare Sunday afternoon Suncorp match. Broncos by 10.

St. George Illawarra Dragons vs. Wests Tigers
Jubilee Oval, 4:10pm, Sunday July 15

Team News: The Dragons’ Origin players return, pushing Luciano Leilua and Leeson Ah Mau to the bench. Jason Nightingale returns to the starting line-up on the wing, with Kurt Mann dropping to the bench. Benji Marshall returns at five-eighth with Josh Reynolds out. David Nofoaluma replaces Malakai Watene-Zellezniak on the wing, while Ben Matulino’s return sees Alex Twal drop to the bench. Josh Aloiai starts in the second-row with Chris McQueen dropping to the reserves.

Injury Watch: Josh Reynolds has picked up a minor knee injury and will miss the clash.

Prediction: It’s been nearly half a decade since we last saw Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall combine, so this match should be a treat, but the scoreboard mightn’t agree. The Dragons will be keen to bounce back after a 22 point loss at AAMI Park, while the Tigers overplayed their hand in their last game, a loss to the Gold Coast at Leichhardt. Benji will steady the ship, and don’t be surprised if Wests do spring an upset, the Dragons returning Origin stars and unblemished home record will speak for themselves. Dragons by 13.

Gold Coast Titans vs. Sydney Roosters
Cbus Super Stadium, 6:30pm, Sunday July 15

Team News: Konrad Hurrell starts at centre with Dale Copley out with a hamstring injury, and Jack Stockwell joined the bench. Jarrod Wallace and Jai Arrow will back up from Origin, pushing Morgan Boyle and Leilani Latu out. The Roosters Origin stats return minus Boyd Cordner, who will be rested to manage his calf injury. Joey Manu returns at centre in place of Matt Ikuvalu. Jared Warea-Hargreaves replaces Dylan Napa at prop, while Mitch Aubusson replaces Sitili Tupouniua on the bench.

Injury Watch: Dylan Napa is out indefinitely with an ankle injury.

Prediction: This could get ugly. The Roosters can smell the top four, and after the Titans’ miserable performance against Brisbane, they should expect more pain. Ryan James and Jarrod Wallace will help their middle third, but if the Gold Coast are to go close to pulling a monumental upset, Ash Taylor will need to stand tall. But the likes of Tedesco, Cronk and Keary will steal the show in this one. Roosters by 20.

Point To Prove: Mitchell Pearce. The Newcastle Knights halfback returns from the first major injury in his career, after missing two and a half months though a pec tear. Pearce has seen his club side struggle and his state succeed without him, and will be eager to stamp his mark in his return against the cellar dwellers, Parramatta. On home soil, expect Pearce and his side to make a big statement as they look to build towards the back end of the season.

Struggle Street: Peta Hiku. The Kiwi international was nothing short of abysmal against Penrith, missing seven tackles and dropping the ball twice, as well as throwing another pass over the sideline. Set to mark fellow New Zealander Jordan Kahu, another poor performance from Hiku could see Brisbane run riot down the Warriors right edge.

Rookie Watch: Nick Meaney. The Knights fullback has already been plucked by Canterbury for 2019, but gets his first shot at the NRL against Parramatta following Ponga’s injury. With speed to burn, if Meaney can form a quick combination with Pearce, the Knights should be able to snag a victory on the back of his determination. Expect a meat pie on debut.

Photo of the Week:

Quote of the Week: "I'm not saying they are the same player but I can see in Kalyn's game that ability to get in the front line and set people up like Locky” - Billy Slater talking about his Origin successor, Kalyn Ponga.

Best Bet: Melbourne 13+/Roosters 13+. This two leg multi may not be paying a heap, but jump on because these two teams will be certain to put their attacking flair on show.

Rumour of the Week: Corey Oates may or may not have met with Melbourne Storm coach Craig Bellamy, with Bellamy considering bringing in Oates as a replacement for Ryan Hoffman. Scary to imagine what Oates could do as a back-rower running off Cameron Munster.

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