Six weeks to go, two blockbusters which have been somewhat spoilt by injury and the race for the finals. Here is the Round 20 preview.
BB Print Stadium, 7:50pm, Thursday July 29
Team News: Josh Morris is recalled with Billy Smith ruled out for the rest of 2021, while Matt Ikuvalu's ankle injury sees Joseph Manu shift to the wing, and Adam Keighran start in the centres. Siosiua Taukeiaho replaces Fletcher Baker on the interchange.
Prediction: Arguably the most important clash this round. If Parramatta lose this match and the Rabbitohs beat the Dragons, there'll be a six point gap between third and fourth, and could get worse with the Eels facing the Bunnies next week. The Roosters need to win to stay in touch with the top four, but what have they got to lose?
Parramatta have lost a lot with Mitchell Moses on the sideline, they really lacked direction last week against Canberra, and paid the price. Clint Gutherson is having to carry a big load at the moment, he's really pushing himself to get involved in attack but it can fatigue him late in a contest.
The Roosters are in a similar spot, carrying Sam Walker through the year despite the hits he's taken. He's arguably got the better supporting cast, with Tedesco and Manu around the ball. It's almost too close to call, in Jared Warea-Hargreaves 250th NRL game, the boys from Bondi will snare the narrowest of victories, potentially in golden point.
Rooters by 1.
Suncorp Stadium, 6:00pm, Friday July 30
Team News: Luke Garner is out, his spot taken by Shawn Blore. Moses Mbye and Joe Ofahengaue are both promoted to the starting side, for Junior Pauga and Thomas Mikaele respectively. Alex Seyfarth is out with a knee issue, while Tom Amone, Michael Chee Kam and Alex Twal all join the bench.
Peta Hiku returns to the side at five-eighth, pushing Kodi Nikorima to the bench, while Sean O'Sullivan is named at halfback with Chad Townsend hurt. Props Addin Fonua-Blake and Matt Lodge will miss the clash, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Ben Murdoch-Masilla come in for the duo. Taniella Otukolo starts at hooker, Jazz Tevaga drops back to the bench and Jack Murchie drops out of the side. Kane Evans is on the bench with Leeson Ah Mau returning to New Zealand.
Prediction: Get ready for a lot of points. The Warriors farewelled Roger Tuvasa-Sheck today, which could add some emotion to this clash for the Kiwis. The Tigers are rudderless, some weeks they can just turn it on, and others they flounder. There's no consistency, the same players stand tall each week but it's as a team, they struggle to gel at times. The Warriors won a thriller when these clubs met a few months ago, going down to the final play, and it may be a similar case here.
It's a weak halves pairing for the New Zealanders this week, Peta Hiku and Sean O'Sullivan combing at the scrum base for the first time in their career. Hiku has some history at five-eighth but only in short stints, it's surprising to see Kodi Nikorima benched here.
Adam Doueihi has the poise to take control of this match and Stefano Utoikamanu could dominate the middle with both of the Warriors' starting props middle. It'll be something along the lines of 36-28, the Tigers just have a little more stability in their combinations, and enough points to out score the Warriors in a thriller.
Tigers by 8.
Brisbane Broncos vs North Queensland Cowboys
Suncorp Stadium, 8:05pm, Friday July 30
Prediction: Could it be... This rivalry is becoming a must watch clash again? The Brisbane-Cowboys matches were THE games to see in the 2014-18 seasons, though dropped off as both clubs fell down the ladder. It's starting to reignite, which club will be the first to kick themselves into gear and start climbing the ladder?
There's some good individual battles, Kyle Feldt v Corey Oates is a 2015 Grand Final rematch, Jason Taumalolo vs Payne Haas are probably the two real 'different' forwards in the game. The way they dominate a game with their pace and footwork as big men, and have such massive motors as well, it's mouth watering.
The Cowboys won a 19-18 thriller against Brisbane back in Round 9, though the Broncos have regained strike weapon Kotoni Staggs since that clash. Once again, it's going to go down to the wire. Tom Dearden has lost 21 straight games as a starting half, the chance of breaking that against his former club will motivate the youngster as he slots his first career field goal to hand the Cowboys a rare win.
Cowboys by 1.
St. George Illawarra Dragons vs South Sydney Rabbitohs
Browne Park, 3:00pm, Saturday July 31
Team News: Tyrell Sloan replaces Matt Dufty, Corey Norman will play centre with Cody Ramsey hurt, and Junior Amone's inclusion in the three-quarter line pushes Gerard Beale to the wing and Jordan Pereira out.
Campbell Graham is back in the centres after missing last weeks clash with the Warriors, replacing Taane Milne. Blake Taaffe is the new bench utility in lieu of Braidon Burns. Cameron Murray's suspension promotes Jai Arrow to lock and Liam Knight returns on the bench.
Prediction: After some close clashes to start the round, there had to be a blowout eventually. The Dragons unfortunately look so weak this game, the COVID suspensions alongside individual form and injuries look set to force the club out of the top eight. Corey Norman is playing in the centres, and South Sydney scored 60 points against the Warriors last week. This could be a cricket score.
The Red V have lost by 14 and 22 respectively since 'BBQgate', it'll get worse this weekend. Damien Cook played his best game of the season last round, laying on three try-assists in a game where the Bunnies starting forward pack scored six tries between them. It'll be as simple as the South Sydney middle, notably Thomas Burgess and Jai Arrow, eating metres through the middle while the spine does the rest. The Dragons will give up too much easy yardage to put up a fight against this rampant Rabbitoh outfit.
Rabbitohs by 40.
Suncorp Stadium, 5:30pm, Saturday July 31
Jack Wighton's return from a rib injury boosts Canberra, forcing Matt Frawley out of the side. Elliot Whitehead also returns in the second-row, moving Hudson Young into the middle third, with Ryan Sutton set to miss a week or two after succumbing to a chest injury.
Prediction: Both these sides have to win this game. They have to. Both are narrowly outside the eight, the Raiders sit on 18 points equal with the Dragons, but a likely loss for the Red V hands Canberra the chance to leapfrog them into the finals. The Knights sit on 16 points, but such a disastrous for-and-against means they need to win to stay in touch with the eight. Both teams have some big guns returning, with one man the key - Mitchell Pearce.
The halfback has been named in the reserves as he looks to return from a hamstring injury, if he lines up for Newcastle, they win. They've looked so strong when they've got a full strength spine at their disposal, Pearce's game management so vital for a young half like Clifford. He needs that senior figure to lighten the load, though his kicking game has been strong since joining the club mid-season. Jack Wighton is a big in for the Raiders, who have won three straight, two of which against top six teams.
Provided Pearce is out, Canberra are hitting form at the right time, with Sam Williams a surprise star. Kalyn Ponga will do some Kalyn Ponga things but they don't have enough structure without Pearce to stop the Green Machine winning a fourth straight.
Raiders by 10.
Suncorp Stadium, 7:35pm, Saturday July 31
Team News: Cam Munster is in for Cooper Johns at five-eighth, Dale Finucane's return at lock pushes Tui Kamikamica to the interchange, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona drops out. Felise Kaufusi is in for Trent Loiero.
Tyrone May's MCL injury forces Matt Burton into the halves, allowing a recall for Brent Naden in the centres. Robert Jennings will start on the left flank following news of Brian To'o suffering a syndesmosis injury. James Fisher-Harris has left the bubble for three works for the birth of his child, handing Liam Martin a start in the front-row, and J'maine Hopgood joins the bench. Isaah Yeo is rested after a big concussion. Matt Eisenhuth is the lock, and Izack Tago is named on the pine.
Prediction: Things are going wrong for Penrith at the wrong time. They were blessed with injuries last year, but it's coming unstuck here. A loss here and a Rabbitoh win will see the Bunnies climb to equal second, and hand the Storm a four-point lead at the top. Melbourne actually haven't lost since they faced Penrith in Round 3, Viliame Kikau holding up Justin Olam on the final play.
Brian To'o is such a bigger loss than he appears. The metres he makes are vital, losing him and James Fisher-Harris will put so much pressure on the forward pack, but also the back three for the Panthers to make up for those lost metres. There's not much to say about the Storm. They're so good Ryan Papenhuyzen is on the bench. They are on another planet to other sides and there's no sign that this train slows down. This is going to be Penrith's biggest loss in over a year.
Melbourne by 20.
Canterbury Bulldogs vs Gold Coast Titans
Cbus Super Stadium, 2:00pm, Sunday August 1
Team News: Luke Thompson has been named at prop, Josh Jackson reverting to lock and Adam Elliot returns in the back-row. Ava Seumanufagai drops to the bench, where he's joined by Matt Doorey, taking the places of Renouf Atoni and Joe Stimson. Kyle Flanagan has earned a recall in the halves, Lachlan Lewis is the unlucky man.
Prediction: It's hard to really get excited for this clash, the Titans have a lot more excitement machines in their line-up but if they don't respect the Bulldogs, this could become an error-fest. Since copping a 66-0 shellacking from the Sea Eagles, the Dogs are scoring over 20 points per game across their last three outings. It's their defence they must tighten. But without Luke Thompson, the Titans forward pack could go nuts.
David Fifita is the walking headline, but Moe Fotuaika has been fantastic of late, and Jarrod Wallace has scored a career-high five tries this year, and that's not mentioning Tino Fa'asuamaleaui. Canterbury can score but they won't be able to stop those big boppers from rolling through. AJ Brimson is due for a big game, and the underrated Corey Thompson will be eager to get one over the club he played a Grand Final for seven years ago.
Titans by 18.
Cronulla Sharks vs Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Moreton Daily Stadium, 4:05pm, Sunday August 1
Prediction: Shaun Johnson was the best player on the field before he injured his hamstring last weekend, he's a big loss for the Sharks as they look to retain their spot in the eight. Manly would've copped a spray from Des Hasler after leaking 24 points to the Tigers, despite the big score they put on.
Daly Cherry-Evans is pulling the strings for Manly at the moment, and having Josh Schuster in the side is akin to the impact that a Wade Graham or Victor Radley have on a side. That ball-playing element takes so much pressure off the halves, Karl Lawton playing in the back-row has helped as well.
While Manly are certainly the better outfit on paper, Cronulla have this menacing sort of grind in their DNA, they can just strangle these games and force a close contact through the way they defend. They'll be right up for this, even without Johnson. Blayke Brailey has been an unsung hero for Cronulla, the way the forwards play off the back of him is setting the pace. Regardless, there's a few too many weapons at the Sea Eagles, they'll sneak home in a close contest.
Sea Eagles by 2.