We’re getting down to the wire, with only a handful of rounds left to run until finals time. While the finals places may be more or less decided, unless you’re a Panthers or Eels fan, there’s still a lot to play for.
The better teams are looking to secure a pathway through the finals that doesn’t involve playing the Storm. The lesser teams are using their time constructively too. By planning Mad Monday activities six weeks in advance, I’m sure they can negotiate a discount at their venue of choice. There might also be some focus on next year and not sucking so much but that’s surely more of a coach problem than a player problem. Just ask Des Hasler.
Canterbury (6-12) @ Penrith (9-9)
The Bulldogs have nothing left to play for. They were embarrassed by the Broncos last week, so they don’t even have pride left. There’s just an interminable series of six games left to go before they can go hide for a while and go back to whatever it is Canterbury players do in the off-time. I really don’t want to know what that is.
Penrith are the only team currently outside the top eight that could conceivably still finish inside the warm embrace of finals contention. It’s an ask but they need to win games like this, even if it’s just to avoid the indignity of losing to this particular version of Canterbury. Seeing as the game plan recently has been “pass the ball to Nathan Cleary and get out of his goddamn way”, I think that will be as effective against the Bulldogs as it was against the Warriors, so I think Penrith will keep the home fans happy with a victory.
Cronulla (12-6) @ New Zealand (7-11)
The Panthers proved two weeks ago that Mt Smart is not a Kiwi version of Saddam’s nuclear bunker but rather a stadium where the Warriors have been a bit more fortunate than when playing in Australia. Cronulla make the trip across the Tasman this week and most would agree that the Sharks are the better of the two teams.
I, however, have reached the following conclusion: Cronulla are going to batter the Warriors. The Sharks are tougher, more resilient and more skillful, particularly when it comes to scoring points, not conceding points and winning games. These three elements are generally considered integral to a successful premiership campaign, a fact Cronulla would have learned last year. I’m not sure how much more obvious my analysis can get but I’m angling for a TV pundit gig.
Fun fact: I almost complimented the Sharks’ ability to hold on to the ball compared to the Warriors but thought I should check the stats first. Cronulla are league leaders in errors while the Warriors are fourteenth. Some of that is possession but most of it is sheer ineptitude. Imagine how good the Sharks would be if they stopped dropping the ball.
Brisbane (12-6) @ Parramatta (11-7)
Clint Gutherson’s knee blowing out is one of the least surprising things to come out of round 20. The dude’s been carrying sixteen teammates since March, it was bound to come under strain at some point. That massive blow and the rudimentary state of their halves’ gelatinisation means Parramatta are playing at less than full strength.
For the Donkeys, Milford, Hunt and Marshall fill out the halves and Nikorima had an excellent debut at fullback. He won’t be needed as Boyd was listed in the 1 jersey as of Tuesday and Kodi may be struggling with a hip thing. Other than Corey Oates’ staph infection – a disease I refuse to joke about in case it gets serious and he dies – the Broncos are getting back to normal. It should be remembered, back in the mists of time prior to this year’s Origin series, that the Broncos looked very good when at full strength, so I’m tipping Brisbane.
St George Illawarra (10-8) @ Newcastle (2-16)
Newcastle have gotten so bad lately that other teams’ fans feel bad for them. You’re not even allowed to drag them on social media. So without further ado, a Dragons side coming off smashing the Sea Eagles into the dust will comfortably beat the recently bought-out Knights. It’s not a contest.
Canberra (7-11) @ South Sydney (6-12)
This is a contest. It will be a bad contest, offensive to the eyes and the soul, but a contest nonetheless. The Raiders have recently defined themselves as a side who, as the old saying goes, when the going gets tough, they chuck a tanty a three year old would be proud of and start smacking their opponents around. If there’s anyone left on the Raiders’ roster by season’s end who isn’t suspended, it will only be by the divine intervention of the NRL.
Souths, on the other hand, can match Canberra’s ability to commit errors but are somewhat more cool-headed about it. I think that stack of wooden spoons back at Redfern means the team doesn’t find losing all that frustrating. It’s the normal state of affairs. So if Burgess can keep his head, he should lead the Bunnies to a victory.
Bonus tip: Raiders to finish with no more than twelve men on the field.
North Queensland (12-6) @ Sydney City (13-5)
Outside of North Queensland, there’s not a lot of people rating the Cowboys at the moment. I tell you who rates the Cowboys: the Greeks. Not the nationality but the collection of Elo rating models, which currently have the Cowboys pegged at around or better than the Roosters. The Roosters are favoured by some of the Greeks in the tipping but only because of home ground advantage.
The thing is that North Queensland haven’t been tested that much lately. They’ve had one solid outing – a golden point loss to the Storm during Origin – since round 11. The Cowboys face the Roosters, Storm, Sharks, Broncos and a very motivated Panthers between now and the finals. It will be fascinating to see how they go.
The Roosters, on the other hand, sit second on the ladder despite not showing any promising and consistent good football. Go figure. I’m tipping Sydney but only because they have an annoying habit of winning games like this.
Manly (11-7) @ Melbourne (14-4)
I’ll need a few moments while I collect myself at the thought of the Sea Eagles challenging Melbourne.
Phew, OK. I asked the giant spreadsheet to tell me the last time Manly beat Melbourne and it told me to “go fuck myself”*. It might still be upset about the 2007 grand final. It’s hard to tell though because it’s a spreadsheet.
I digress. I don’t care that the Storm don’t have Billy Slater. There’s probably a chamber under AAMI Park which has six clones of him growing in a big glass tubes. If not, the conveyor belt of talent available to the Storm is ridiculous. Don’t forget that Melbourne still has Smith, Cronk, Munster and two very good wingers in Vunivalu and Addo-Carr. It’s more than the Sea Eagles can handle, so I’m tipping Melbourne.
Wests Tigers (4-14) @ Gold Coast (7-11)
Wests are the one of the whipping boys of the competition. Any team with a Tigers, Bulldogs or Knights game in the next few weeks has already chalked up the win. It’s a sad state of affairs for the Tigers, who at least have some talented players and lot of people who care about the club, which is more than we can say for the Titans, which have neither.
Undoubtedly, this is a game that will see Jarryd Hayne rear his head. He likes to win and win big. Sure he can’t be bothered putting in the team effort to get the Titans there but when the oppo lacks a lot of firepower, he’s there to capitalise. Sorry, I just couldn’t resist.
On paper, the Titans have played well lately with three wins from four outings while the Tigers have the opposite record. Wests’ away record is not as bad as their home record (even Newcastle have played better at home this season) but it’s not going to be enough. Gold Coast to win.
Last week I mentioned that I expected at least two upsets in the eight games because nothing is that certain. I was wrong. There was only one and the result wasn’t as surprising as the margin of victory for the Dragons, not to mention the hilarious humiliation inflicted on the Sea Eagles.
Your panel of tipsters managed 7 from 8 except for Eratosthenes, who was the lone wolf picking the Manly-St George game correctly. Despite this, I am unfortunately in the awkward position of being third last in my work tipping comp of people who haven’t yet given up. Guess I’ll solider on.
After round 20:
* It was 2015 in case you were wondering. Manly won both games that year.