It's getting closer. The difference between 8th and 9th is now only two wins, and with Wests Tigers and Canberra firing, and Brisbane faltering, the gap could narrow even more this weekend. South Sydney are outright leaders, while Melbourne have snuck into second, the Dragons have dropped to third and the Roosters have squeezed into the top four.
A host of stars are returning from injury and Origin duty, and that means the start of the run home is here. Desperation reaches new levels, but only eight teams can feature in September. Is the top eight decided? Too early to tell. But this weekend could change that. And a special mention to John Sutton, who becomes the first Rabbitoh to play 300 NRL games, despite South Sydney being the league's oldest club. Massive achievement.
Seven weeks until finals footy, preparation starts now.
Parramatta Eels vs. Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
ANZ Stadium, 7:50pm, Thursday July 19
Team News: Kaysa Pritchard replaces Cameron King, while the Bulldogs are unchanged.
Injury Watch: Cameron King has picked up a minor knee injury.
Prediction: Parramatta start favourites surprisingly, despite sitting firmly at the bottom of the ladder. After two narrow losses, the Eels are building towards a big win. The Bulldogs went backwards last weekend against the Rabbitohs, and expect an unlucky Parramatta outfit to capitalise in a big way. Parramatta by 14.
Cronulla Sharks vs. Canberra Raiders
Southern Cross Group Stadium, 6pm, Friday July 20
Team News: Jesse Ramien returns in place of Kurt Capewell. Jarrod Croker's season-ending knee injury sees Michael Oldfield shift to centre, Nick Cotric to the wing and Brad Abbey return at fullback.
Injury Watch: Jarrod Croker's knee injury has ruled him out for the season, while Kurt Capewell's broken thumb sees him sidelined until Round 24.
Prediction: This could be one very entertaining game. Both are known for their ability to score points, and are hitting form at the right time. Matt Moylan played his best game for Cronulla yet last weekend, while the Raiders just keep finding ways to build on their form. The Raiders will be desperate for a win, but Cronulla's middle third will get the job done for the Sharks. Cronulla by 8.
Brisbane Broncos vs. Penrith Panthers
Suncorp Stadium, 7:55pm, Friday July 20
Team News: Jaydn Su'A is out for the season, with James Roberts returning at centre. Tevita Pangai Jnr returns in place of David Fifita. Dallin Watene-Zellezniak, Josh Mansour, Nathan Cleary, James Maloney and Tyrone Peachey are welcomed back, with Peachey to come off the bench. Wayde Egan, Jarome Luai, Tyrone Phillips, Caleb Aekins and Tyrone May drop out.
Injury Watch: Jaydn Su'A has a broken ankle, which will see him miss the remainder of the season.
Prediction: This has the potential to be a great clash. With five rep stars returning, Penrith will be eager to win and re-implement themselves into the top four. Meanwhile for Brisbane, a loss could see them go even closer to dropping out of the top eight. If Penrith's returning stars can gel early on, expect the Panthers to grab an important victory. Penrith by 4.
Newcastle Knights vs. Gold Coast Titans
McDonald Jones Stadium, 3pm, Saturday July 21
Team News: Sione Mata'utia is out with concussion, with Nathan Ross starting and Lachlan Fitzgibbon returning on the bench. Jai Arrow and Keegan Hipgrave return, pushing Jarrod Wallace to prop, Moeaki Fotuaika and Will Matthews to the bench and Leilani Latu and Jai Whitbread to the reserves.
Injury Watch: Mata'utia has been rested after suffering another concussion.
Prediction: Don't listen to the odds with this one. Gold Coast head into the match favourites, but on a sunny Saturday afternoon in the Hunter, Mitchell Pearce and co will be raring to go. The Titans will be hurting after the Roosters scored two fortuitous tries, one of which has now been labelled as the wrong call. But Newcastle will be ready for the Gold Coast, and if they can contain their middle third, the Knights should win this one. Newcastle by 10.
Wests Tigers vs. South Sydney Rabbitohs
ANZ Stadium, 5:30pm, Saturday July 21
Team News: Chris Lawrence's hamstring injury sees Michael Chee-Kam start, and Alex Twal join the bench. Jason Clark replaces Mark Nicholls on the bench for South Sydney.
Injury Watch: Chris Lawrence has succumbed to a hamstring injury, while Josh Reynolds has been officially ruled out for the season.
Prediction: There's a lot going on in this one. Robbie Farah takes on his former club, whilst playing his 250th match for the Wests Tigers. Meanwhile, South Sydney's John Sutton will become the first man in Rabbitohs history to play 300 games for the club. This is a danger game for the Bunnies - the Tigers need to win to climb the ladder, and teams can become complacent after a long winning streak. The Rabbitohs haven't lost since April, and while Wests will push them, Souths will ensure they make it ten straight. Rabbitohs by 2.
North Queensland Cowboys vs. St George Illawarra Dragons
1300SMILES Stadium, 7:35pm, Saturday July 21
Team News: Justin O'Neill replaces Antonio Winterstein on the wing, while Coen Hess starts instead of Shane Wright, with Francis Molo joining the bench. The Dragons are unchanged.
Injury Watch: No immediate concerns.
Prediction: This could get interesting. The Cowboys are overdue for a win, but the Dragons are coming off back-to-back losses. It comes down to Ben Hunt. His team needs him to step up and take the Dragons by the scruff of the neck in the run to the finals, or they could slip down the ladder with a host of teams only two points behind them. North Queensland are down on confidence, expect St George Illawarra to target that. Dragons by 6.
New Zealand Warriors vs. Melbourne Storm
Mt Smart Stadium, 2pm, Sunday July 22
Team News: Peta Hiku drops to the bench, with Gerard Beale starting in the centres, and Ken Maumalo returning on the wing. Melbourne's Origin stars return, while Brodie Croft retains the halfback role.
Injury Watch: Dale Finucane is a chance of returning from a thumb injury after being named 18th man for Melbourne.
Prediction: Melbourne are favourites heading into this one, but the Warriors are definitely the Storm's 'bogey team'. Their ability to play what's in front of them and constant offloads have always worried the very structured Melbourne outfit, and if the Warriors' offloads stick, then they could certainly nab the win here. But Brodie Croft has been handed the halfback role, and will put in a big performance to keep it. Melbourne by 8.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles vs. Sydney Roosters
Lottoland, 4:10pm, Sunday July 22
Team News: Manly are unchanged, while the Rooster welcome back James Tedesco, Cooper Cronk, Latrell Mitchell, Boyd Cordner, Mitch Aubusson and Victor Radley, with Matthew Ikuvalu, Paul Momirovski, Sean O'Sullivan, Nat Butcher, Lindsay Collins and Poasa Faamausili dropping out.
Injury Watch: No immediate concerns.
Prediction: Manly aren't letting the club's outside drama get to them at the moment, beating Penrith and then narrowly falling to the Storm. The Roosters were lucky to get away with a win last weekend, but with six stars returning this week, will be a lot better. The Trbojevic brothers and DCE will do everything they can, but the Roosters will cement their spot in the top four with a decent win at Lottoland. Roosters by 13.
Point To Prove: Robbie Farah. It seems his name ends up in this segment more than most, but it's always with good reason. Farah comes up against his former club on Saturday afternoon, in his 250th game for the Wests Tigers, a milestone that seemed impossible two years ago. Coming off a great performance against the Dragons, Farah will be eager to get one over South Sydney and boost the Tigers towards the top eight.
Struggle Street: Jake Granville. The Cowboys hooker was barely mentioned in the race for the Queensland hooking role earlier this year, and looking at his form, it's easy to see why. Granville has lost his spark in 2018, and following five missed tackles, two penalties and an error against Canberra, the North Queensland number nine needs to find his dynamic best if the Cowboys are to put in a late season surge.
Rookie Watch: Ofahiki Ogden. The young prop has played three games for the Dogs this year, and has been strong off the bench. While the likes of Aiden Tolman and Dave Klemmer play the majority of the minutes up front, Ogden's limited stints has bent the opposition's defensive line backwards, and quick play the balls has the likes of Michael Lichaa rolling forward and getting Canterbury on the front foot. He'll certainly worry Parramatta, who have struggled in the front-row department this year.
Photo of the Week:
Quote of the Week: "Along the way, he has been creating history for himself and in 110 years he is the first person to play 300 games for the club. What a story. We are so grateful, all of us, to be a part of it." - Sam Burgess on John Sutton ahead of his 300th NRL game this Saturday.
Best Bet: Parramatta 13+. I know, they're last, but the Eels have this weird aura about them in 2018. They lose, again and again, they bottle it up, and then for one game, they explode. In a good way. Parramatta lost to the Dragons in the dying minutes, and last Friday saw Bevan French denied a last minute match winner. After the Bulldogs beat them with only a few minutes on the clock last time, expect Parramatta to wipe Canterbury off the park.
Rumour of the Week: The Sydney Roosters are on the verge of signing not one, but TWO test wingers after losing Blake Ferguson to Parramatta. Englishman Ryan Hall looks set to finally make the jump to the NRL at age 31, while the Tricolours also remain firmly in the box seat to snare Brett Morris on a one-year deal. Looking at the track record of English backs in the NRL, Hall may be better off sticking with Leeds.