Interesting is an understatement this round. The burning questions to be answered are: Can the Titans stop the Sharks' streak?, Can the Cowboys win without Thurston?, and exactly where are the Broncos?.
Roosters v Broncos (Thursday 28/07, 7.50pm)
The Roosters are officially out of the finals race. If the Broncos don't start putting some wins together they could very quickly find themselves in the same boat. The big outs for the Broncos are Thaiday and McGuire. As of Wednesday Gillett had still not passed his fitness test and Bennett was going to bench him too. This is the perfect opportunity for the Roosters to strike. Pearce is the key to match. If he can cause trouble of the undermanned Broncos forward pack they might notch one up. This can also be their failing as ALL of the Roosters attack goes through Pearce. The plan for the Broncos will be 'shut down Pearce, you shut down the Roosters'. The Broncos are still under-cooked and under-manned, Roosters in an upset.
Bulldogs v Dragons (Friday 29/07, 7.50pm)
I would hate to be the Dragons this weekend. The Bulldogs were supposed to be premiership contenders, and last week, in one half, Thurston single-handedly picked them apart and made them look like a team of under 10's.The game was over in 15 minutes. What does that mean?. Well for the Dragons it means they are going to face a very angry, very fired up Bulldogs forward pack. The Dragons don't seem to have points in them and a loss this weekend means their finals hopes rely on mathematics. The Dragons need to keep this game away from the middle third, so expect Marshall to go wide early in sets. When the Bulldogs have the ball they will steer back to the centre of the ground and try and roll up the middle. The Bulldogs have more stake with a top 4 finish ever more important in the modern era. Dogs by 14.
Warriors v Panthers (Sat 30/07, 3.00pm)
Can the Warriors find the form they held in the Origin period? Every fan of the Warriors and every fan of the game hopes so (all except Panthers fans of course). The finals are so much more exciting with the Warriors in them, and they will need at least another 4 wins this year to get there. Playing at home is a good start. The Panthers young side are coming on a whole lot faster than everyone probably thought they would. Cleary reads the the game as good as any no 7. in the competition and plays well beyond his 18 years. When I think of Nathan Cleary I automatically think of young Ash Taylor for the Titans and the prospect of them facing up in Origin jerseys in 4-5 years time (mouth watering!). But back to this week. Both teams have so much attacking prowess, if we can get a clean play of the ball, this match should open up and be a belter. In a high scoring game the road trip will be a bit too much for Penrith. Warriors 32-26.
Eels v Tigers (Sat 30/07, 5.30pm)
It's the question on everyone's lips?. Was the Farah decision the right one. I have my own opinions on it, but the bottom line is the coach hasn't picked him. The coach lives and dies by his decisions and the question will be if they don't make the top 8 was the decision the right one?. The Eels season is over, so it's now about whether or not they can get up for games. This situation is perfect for any coach (Brad Arthur included) to get experimental with his side. With the Eels so undermanned the game plan will probably shift to Mannah and Wicks up the middle, and Woods will be charged with stopping them. Being the Australian prop means that he should do that, and once he does Moses and Brooks come into play. Even though the Tigers still can't seem to complete a performance, they have the strike power and confidence to get away with the result. Tigers by 12.
Cowboys v Storm (Sat 30/07, 7.30pm)
With Thurston missing in any year previous to this one a loss would have been a foregone conclusion. However the Storm can't underestimate the ability of Ray Thompson who is always solid for the Cowboys. Morgan now a few weeks back from injury should be about back to his best and it is chance for the young apprentice to show if he has the mettle to run the Cowboys for the full 80 minutes. Against the Storm it is more than a baptism under fire. Bromwich up the middle and the Cronk/Smith combination might be watered down a little by a couple of factors. Firstly the weather. Coming from close to zero temperatures down south to the hot, humid, hostile environment, Smiles stadium has wiped the smile of every opponents face this season with the Cowboys undefeated at home. Second the Storm look tired. Even Bellamy admits Smith and Cronk need a rest somewhere he just doesn't know where. Against the Cowboys isn't the time but they might just run out of steam before they get the chance at a rest. Without JT the premiers wont have a stack of points in them, then again neither will Melbourne. A close match as is always the case between these sides. I can't split them. I flipped a coin it came up Storm. So Storm in golden point.
Rabbitohs v Raiders (Sun 31/07, 2.00pm)
This match up is a real chance for the Raiders to put together an 80 minute performance. They have strike power all over the park, and if I have to say it every week until the end of the year I will. Croker is now one of the best players I have ever seen to not have earned a NSW call up. I digress. Where are the Rabbitohs of 2014? The Rabbitohs seem to look worse every week. Last week they had so many easy turnovers in attack and in defense they look unstructured and uninterested. With Reynolds still dusty from long stints out of the game and desperately missing Inglis, this should be a match that Canberra firm their top 4 hopes. All Stuart wants the Raiders to do is believe in their game plan and trust their structures. You can see them coming along. Many want to see them return to the glory days of the early 90's 'Green Machine', when the Raiders lime was flowing. A win this week for Canberra.
Sea Eagles v Knights (Sun 31/07, 4.00pm)
Even though they are a long way from September, I still have the Sea Eagles as my 'roughie' to make the top 8. If DCE and Lyon stay fit they form a combination as good as any halves pairing in the NRL. Also Remember the Stewart combination, Glenn and Brett, that went a long way to ensuring Manly's dominance in the early 2000's. Well Manly have a new brother pairing now, a little harder to pronounce the Trbjoveic brothers re two of the best young talents in the comp. I Tom keeps playing the way he does, there is every chance he will make 4 nations train on squad some October. The Knights are again missing Mullen, but their structure looks a little better with Mamo at the back and Gagai in the centres. Unfortunately the Brookvale road trip will be a bridge too far for the Knights. I like everyone are hopefully the Knights upset someone by seasons end. It just wont be this week. Manly at home by 14.
Titans v Sharks (Mon, 01/08, 7.00pm)
The Match of the round. Why is it the Match of the round. Because I am tipping an upset. If there is one thing the Titans do better than any team in the competition is they play with enthusiasm and they play to their potential. The Sharks have all the skill you could ask for in a list. But the Titans have desire, they have belief and they are happy to win ugly. The Titans don't shut off for 80minutes and I think If they can get the Sharks in the trench for 80 minutes they will win. Bird is the key. He loves [ the bad guy and who better to spoil the run of the Sharks than Gallens NSW team mate and long time friend!. As weird as it seems I think the Ennis retirement goes against the Sharks this weeks. It has put a lot of focus on the club and I think the pressure of keeping the streak going and playing for Ennis will unravel them a little. I'm predicting some pre-September jitters. The problem for the rest of the comp will be that it will refocus them on the title. Titans by 2.
Bring on September!