South Sydney Rabbitohs vs. Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
ANZ Stadium, 7:50pm, Thursday September 17
Team News: Jaxson Paulo comes in on the wing for the suspended Dane Gagai while Hame Sele returns in place of Patrick Mago on the bench. Matt Doorey is injured, meaning Josh Jackson shifts to an edge, Chris Smith starts at lock, Luke Thompson at prop and Renouf To’omaga dropping to the bench. Tim Lafai’s return sees DWZ move to the wing with Nick Meaney dropping out, and Sione Katoa replaces Dean Britt on the interchange.
Prediction: This is actually quite the test for South Sydney. This time of the year you want to be playing the top sides to have you finals primed, so these are games the Bunnies must win and win well. The Dogs will be hungry, they need a win to avoid the spoon and when better than Josh Jackson’s 200th. The Rabbitohs hit their straps in the opening quarter against the Tigers last week and then faded fast, letting the Tigers come within two points, while the Dogs let their strong opening fade even worse. This will be a forward’s game and the Bunnies have more oomph and more dimensions in the pack, and should grind out a win, though it’ll be narrower than expected. South Sydney by 8.
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 6:00pm, Friday September 18
Team News: Murray Taulagi replaces Justin O’Neill in the centres. Josh McGuire is suspended, shifting Francis Molo to lock, Corey Jensen starts at prop, Emry Pere and Ben Condon join the interchange with John Asiata also suspended. Api Koroisau has been rested and is replaced by Mitch Kenny. Prop duo James Tamou and Zane Tetevano have also been given the week off, which sees Moses Leota move into the starting side and Kurt Capewell and Jack Hetherington joining the bench.
Prediction: To be honest, I’m excited to see Jack Hetherington on the field again. The firebrand was enormous for the Warriors during his loan stint and will bring a stack of energy off the bench for the Panthers, and could be pivotal if the Cowboys are missing Josh McGuire and James Taumalolo. Nathan Cleary was big against Parramatta and he’ll be big again, though they need to put their foot down on the road. This is their fourth non-Sydney game this season, and while the previous three have been wins, none were convincing. A 13 point win over Brisbane, they beat the Warriors on the Central Coast by a converted try and the Titans at Cbus by 8. There’s a chance they could have to travel to Queensland in the finals, so this road trip is a great chance to smooth out the bumps. They’ll be primed. Panthers by 19.
Parramatta Eels vs. Brisbane Broncos
Bankwest Stadium, 7:55pm, Friday September 18
Team News: Reed Mahoney returns in place of Ray Stone. Tyson Gamble starts at five-eighth with Sean O’Sullivan dropped, Payne Haas has left the bubble and Rhys Kennedy is suspended meaning Ben Te’o and Joe Ofahengaue start in the front-row, with Ethan Bullemor and Jamil Hopoate are on the bench.
Prediction: Surely this is the game to reignite the Eels, or at least show some signs of life. They’ve been held try-less in two of their last three, scored 20+ twice in their last ten, and look lost. Pre-season Dally M favourite Mitchell Moses only has five try-assists this year. A win for Brisbane almost guarantees they dodge the spoon, but without Haas, this won’t be pretty. Parramatta to bounce back in a big way, but nowhere near as much as the last time these sides met at Bankwest. Parramatta by 22.
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Manly Warringah Sea Eagles vs. Gold Coast Titans
Lottoland, 3:00pm, Saturday September 19
Team News: Cade Cust’s season is over, handing Lachlan Croker a start at five-eighth with Corey Waddell joining the bench and Danny Levi returning to the starting side. Tom Trbojevic is among the reserves. Kevin Proctor is back for the Titans in a straight swap for the injured Beau Fermor, with Tanah Boyd taking Erin Clark’s bench spot.
Prediction: The only ‘dead rubber’ of the round with every other clash featuring a top eight side, expect some flare. The Titans haven’t won four on the trot in six years, and could hinge on Manly’s reserves list, number 21 mainly. Tom Trbojevic. Des Hasler said he’s a very strong chance to make his return on Saturday, and at Lottoland, expect him to be enormous. Hasler wouldn’t risk Turbo now his side is no longer a mathematical chance of playing finals and certainly wouldn’t put him on the field under 100% fitness. He’s raring to go and I expect him and DCE to bring a screeching halt to the Titan’s winning ways, as well as Addin Fonua-Blake against a potential suitor. Manly by 14.
Melbourne Storm vs. Wests Tigers
Sunshine Coast Stadium, 5:30pm, Saturday September 19
Team News: Christian Welch’s return from suspension at prop creates a reshuffle for Melbourne’s forwards, moving Nelson Asofa-Solomona to lock, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui to the interchange and Darren Schonig dropping out. Joey Leilua replaces Tommy Talau at centre, Josh Reynolds starts in the halves for the suspended Luke Brooks, Zane Musgrove and Russell Packer replace Elijah Taylor and Jacob Liddle on the bench, and Sam McIntyre’s move into the starting second-row sees Luke Garner benched.
Prediction: Can Wests’ hold onto the treasured 9th place? Melbourne just find ways to click regardless of who plays, and their pack gets even more worrisome with Welch returning. Don’t forget they still have Dale Finucane and Brandon Smith (named in the reserves) to return, but take this as anther tune up for the Storm. Will the Tigers use last week’s comeback to inspire them for this week, or will the mathematical impossibility of them playing finals footy break them? It’s unlike a Michael Maguire side to be mentally defeated, however this isn’t a roster Madge built. Benji Marshall and Chris Lawrence, two of the Tigers’ most capped players of all-time, have at most two games left each, hopefully the side can do the veterans proud but against Cam Smith and his men in purple, there’s only one way this ends. Storm by 26.
SCG, 7:35pm, Saturday September 19
Team News: James Tedesco and Siosiua Taukieaho have been rested. Joseph Manu starts at fullback, Mitch Aubusson moves into the centres with Freddy Lussick joining the bench while Jared Ware-Hargreaves returns at prop. Lindsay Collins starts in the front-row with Angus Crichton back to the bench. Cronulla are unchanged.
Prediction: The only clash this round featuring two finals-bound clubs, this isn’t as one-sided as you think. The Roosters have rested the best prop and the best fullback in the world, and while they have the troops to cover for them, Cronulla have been a bogey side for the Roosters to some extent recently. The Chooks still have a world class side on paper, it comes down to how Cronulla’s young forwards can handle the class of the tricolours. Toby Rudolf, Royce Hunt, Braden Hamlin-Uele and Siosifa Talakai have been phenomenal this season but have their work cut out against JWH, Cordner, Crichton, Collins, Liu and more. Mitch Aubusson plays match 303, making him the Roosters’ all-time most capped player. Lining up in the centres, tip him to cross the stripe as the Roosters beat the Sharks in a thriller. Roosters by 6.
GIO Stadium, 2:00pm, Sunday September 20
Team News: Siliva Havili starts at hooker with Tom Starling dropping to the bench. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown is suspended while Daniel Alvaro and George Jennings have returned to the Eels, with Lachlan Burr starting at prop and Eli Katoa on the bench. Adam Keighran starts at centre, pushing Hayze Perham to the wing, and debutant Tom Ale is named in jersey 17.
Prediction: Spare a thought for the Warriors. Without loan players, they’re forced to put a halfback in the centres, and while Eli Katoa was originally set to miss the remainder of the season, he’s rushed back so the club can field a full 21-man squad. Canberra still have an outside chance of slipping into the top four, though they need the Eels to drop a game to either the Broncos or Tigers. While unlikely, where there’s a will there’s a way and Canberra will find a way. They have the potential to blow the Warriors off the park, but while it won’t be a cricket score, it won’t be narrow either. Canberra by 20.
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Newcastle Knights vs. St George Illawarra Dragons
McDonald Jones Stadium, 4:05pm, Sunday September 20
Team News: Kalyn Ponga returns from his rest at fullback, pushing Tex Hoy to five-eighth and Mason Lino dropped. Chris Randall is the new starting hooker with Kurt Mann suspended, while Hymel Hunt will play centre in place of Gehamat Shibasaki and Phoenix Crossland is back on the bench. Mitchell Barnett also comes back at lock, pushing Jacob Saifiti to the bench and Josh King out of the side. Tariq Sims returns on the bench in place of Billy Brittan, while Tyrell Fuimaono has been dropped for debutant Max .
Prediction: A true shame the Knight’s can’t pack the stadium for old boys day this year, but the side will play like there’s 30,000 in the stands. Tex Hoy finally gets a run at five-eighth and will have future Knight Tyson Frizell running at him. The Novacastrians were blown away by the Roosters last week but are buoyed by the well-rested Ponga, Barnett and Hunt returning to the side.
Kurt Mann, a man who belongs among this season’s contenders for the Danny Buderus medal, is quite a loss but Chris Randall is strong defensively and will do an adequate job while Mann watches on. The Dragons could be the most infuriating side for fan’s with the talent in their roster, and the amount of quality youngsters who are languishing in the reserves while certain individuals are picked week after week despite poor showings. The Dragons might start strong, hopefully we see more flashes from Cody Ramsey, but it’ll be Newcastle’s day as they fight for a home semi. Knights by 18.