Okay folks, it's settled - St. George Illawarra are the real deal. A near 20 point victory over Melbourne has confirmed the Dragons as premiership favourites, and rightfully so. We're nine rounds into the competition, and we're starting to get a clearer picture of who's on top now.
The Dragons are clear leaders, but the likes pf New Zealand, Melbourne and South Sydney aren't too far off. The wheels are growing shaky on Ivan Cleary's bus, and the Roosters are far from the finished product most pundits expected.
This is one of the most important rounds of the season, an entire weekend dedicated to the Indigenous Australians within and around our game. Blessed with the likes of Jonathan Thurston, Greg Inglis and more, they aren't only superstars, but excellent role models as well. It's another wonderful aspect to the great game that is rugby league.
Wests Tigers vs. North Queensland Cowboys
Leichhardt Oval, 7:50pm, Thursday May 10
Team News: Russell Packer's return sees Suaso Sue drop to the bench and Tim Grant out of the side. Jacob Liddle replaces Pita Godinet. North Queensland are unchanged.
Injury Watch: Josh Reynolds is aiming for next round.
Prediction: Both sides have enjoyed mixed luck in recent weeks, with Wests suffering a heavy loss to the Warriors, while North Queensland raced to a 20-0 lead against a Penrith, but only managed a six point victory. While the Cowboys are starting to find their form, a losing Tigers outfit returning to Leichardt Oval should see Wests get home. Expect a cracking battle between Benji Marshall and Jonathan Thurston. Tigers by 8.
Newcastle Knights vs. Penrith Panthers
McDonalds Jones Stadium, 6pm, Friday May 11
Team News: Brock Lamb replaces Jack Cogger at halfback, while Danny Levi and Luke Yates join the bench with Jamie Buhrer and Jacob Saifiti dropped. Jacob Lillyman has also been dropped, replaced by Josh King. Trent Merrin has been named despite a finger injury, though Moses Leota and Jack Hetherington will miss the game, replaced by Kaide Ellis and Jarome Luai on the bench.
Injury Watch: Moses Leota will miss eight weeks with a torn pectoral muscle.
Prediction: North Queensland exposed some serious chinks in Penrith's outfit last round, while South Sydney handed Newcastle their first home loss of the season. Kalyn Ponga is even being talked about as a possible Origin debutant in his rookie season, his form has been that strong. The loss of Mitchell Pearce really showed last week, and will ultimately be the reason Newcastle fall again this week. Hopefully Ken Sio has learnt from last weeks bombed try as well. Panthers by 12.
Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs vs. Parramatta Eels
ANZ Stadium, 7:55pm, Friday May 11
Team News: Renouf Toomaga replaces Clay Priest on the bench. Tim Mannah and Kaysa Pritchard are injured, meaning Will Smith starts at hooker and Siosaia Vave and Beau Scott join the bench.
Injury Watch: Kaysa Pritchard has a minor groin injury, while Tim Mannah's fractured cheekbone will see him miss three weeks.
Prediction: The Bulldogs heartbreaking loss last week will certainly be on their mind this week, while Parramatta fell by two points as well, courtesy of a missed Mitchell Moses conversion. Both sides will be desperate for a victory after below average starts to the year. Parramatta by 4.
New Zealand Warriors vs. Sydney Roosters
Mt Smart Stadium, 3pm, Saturday May 12
Team News: Mason Lino replaces Shaun Johnson at halfback. Isaac Luke has been named despite a shoulder injury, while Simon Mannering and Isaiah Papali'i swap between the back-row and the bench. The Sydney Roosters are unchanged, with Victor Radley to fight his charge.
Injury Watch: Shaun Johnson will miss the match with an ankle injury, its severity is unknown.
Prediction: The Warriors bounced back to form after a heavy loss to Melbourne, while the Roosters only just scraped past a struggling Manly outfit. The loss of Shaun Johnson will see New Zealand come crashing back down to Earth. Despite missing their halfback, New Zealand should gain their second victory over the Roosters this season, though it will certainly be closer than the 30-6 score line of last match. Warriors by 6.
Melbourne Storm vs. Gold Coast Titans
Suncorp Stadium, 5:30pm, Saturday May 12
Team News: Curtis Scott returns, replacing Justin Olam. Dale Finucane starts with Kenny Bromwich moving to the interchange bench. Bryce Cartwright has been dropped to the bench, handing AJ Brimson a debut at five-eighth. Konrad Hurrell has been dropped and Brendan Elliot is out, replaced by Dale Copley and Brenko Lee. Jai Arrow is also out, with Jarrod Wallace moving to lock, Ryan James to prop and Will Matthews to the back-row.
Injury Watch: Jai Arrow will only miss one game with a rib contusion, while Nathan Peats is a chance of returning after being named on the reserves.
Prediction: This clash last year was surprisingly one of the best games of the season, with a late Konrad Hurrell try handing Gold Coast a 34-30 victory. Gold Coast have handed promising young half AJ Brimson a debut, but without the likes of Jai Arrow, expect Melbourne Storm to be way too strong in this one, with Billy Slater to score a double. Melbourne by 16.
Manly Warringah Sea Eagles vs. Brisbane Broncos
Suncorp Stadium, 7:35pm, Saturday May 12
Team News: Manly are unchanged. Jack Bird moves back to the centres, with Kodi Nikorima starting at halfback and moving Tom Opacic back to the bench. Payne Haas has been named despite an ankle injury.
Injury Watch: No immediate injury concerns.
Prediction: There's something that's just not right about Manly. They were better against the Roosters, but they simply aren't up to scratch at the moment. Meanwhile Brisbane are suddenly finding a way to win, and with Nikorima keen to keep his spot at halfback, expect another Bronco victory. Brisbane by 12.
South Sydney Rabbitohs vs. St. George Illawarra Dragons
ANZ Stadium, 2pm, Sunday May 13
Team News: Sam Burgess returns at lock, moving Cameron Murray back to the bench and dropping Adam Douiehi to the reserves. Zac Lomax replaces Reece Robson on the bench for St. George Illawarra.
Injury Watch: Zane Musgrove and Tyrell Fuimaono are still a few weeks away.
Prediction: Match of the round. The Dragons have surely shrugged the doubters after defeating Melbourne comprehensively, while South Sydney have been mesmerising to watch this season. They have two of the best attackers in the competition in Damien Cook and Cody Walker, and will be out to impress again this week. The Dragons have only dropped one game this year, but South Sydney have the team to do it. Rabbitohs by 2.
Canberra Raiders vs. Cronulla Sharks
GIO Stadium, 4:10pm, Sunday May 13
Team News: Junior Paulo is out, with Shannon Boyd starting and Charlie Gubb joining the bench. Jason Bukuya returns in place of Wade Graham. Paul Gallen returns, moving Joseph Paulo to the bench and the injured Scott Sorensen dropping out. Jack Williams will debut from the bench in place of Kurt Dillon.
Injury Watch: Junior Paulo will miss two months with a foot injury. Wade Graham and Scott Sorensen will miss 2-3 weeks each with hamstring and hand injuries respectively.
Prediction: This has the makings to be a great contest or a slugfest. Cronulla have a knack of struggling their opponents out of a match, and Canberra have been incredibly inconsistent. If Canberra is switched on, they could win this, and win it well. It's just going to come down to whichever team starts the game well. Canberra by 1.
Point To Prove
Euan Aitken. Aitken has been on fire in 2018, after an injury-plagued season last year, has shot into the Origin frame following some dominant performances. His season highlight, however, was the Round 5 try where he pushed off Greg Inglis to score. Coming up against Inglis again on Sunday afternoon, if Aitken can contain GI, it'll slingshot him into Origin favouritism to mark up against the Queensland centre again in a few weeks time.
Tom Trbojevic. Tommy Turbo is just not himself at the moment. Handling errors, bad timing, it's a simple result of a club in crisis. At short odds to gain a maiden Blues jersey this year, Turbo will need to switch on and regain his form.
Zac Lomax. The youngster fought hard for a spot in the backline over the pre-season and impressed in trials, but an empty casualty ward in Wollongong coupled with an in-form backline has seen Lomax spend this season in reserve grade so far. But with Origin coming up and the likes of Euan Aitken a possible selection, Paul McGregor is hedging his bets and ensuring his replacements will be ready.
Photo of the Week
Moments like these make you realise at the end of the day, rugby league is just a game. pic.twitter.com/WdX7lLQs78
— Jack Blyth (@jblesfooty224) May 8, 2018
Quote of the Week
"It's like we're not supposed to win" - Dean Pay, comments that have seen him fined $25,000 for criticising the referees.
Melbourne Storm 13+. They may have fallen to the Dragons, but Melbourne have the second best attack in the competition, while Gold Coast leak points, whether they're winning or not. Melbourne always lift at Suncorp, and they will against the Titans.
Rumour of the Week
Josh Papalii is a huge chance for a Canberra exit, with South Sydney winning the race for the Queensland back-rower's signature. Set to lose both their starting second-rower's (John Sutton to retirement, Angus Crichton to the Sydney Roosters), Sam Burgess is set to move to the left edge, with Cam Murray at lock. Expect Papalii to fill that right edge role in Redfern next season.