Origin is done and dusted, congratulations to QLD, commiserations to NSW (again). The battered and bruised elite now pick themselves up – the Blues from off the bloodied canvas, the Maroons from off the floor after a victorious night on the tiles – to re-enter club land. This is the last shortened round as four teams receive their final bye. From here on it’s full on as the pack power to the line, finals footy in sight. Every game matters.
New Zealand Warriors v Penrith Panthers
A bumper clash to begin round 19, this is a virtual last man standing. Both teams are two wins off eighth spot but with the Dragons on the slide there’s a real opportunity to take. The winner can edge closer to the finals while the loser is all but banished to the Last Chance Saloon for a top up, needing luck and faith in the little green fairy. Absinthe makes the heart grow fonder and your chances for finals bound glory seem achievable. The Warriors have extra motivation with Manu Vatuvei farewelling the NRL for Salford – they’ve renamed the stadium for the game in his honour! The Panthers will hope the officials are as kind to them as they were last week against Manly. Penrith are still not quite clicking but are not far off, they’ll look to Matt Moylan for inspiration and his halves clash with Shaun Johnson will be pivotal. The Warriors will want to send out Big Manu out a winner, even if they lose Manu will still leave a winner because he’s been a champion.
Panthers by 4
Canberra Raiders v St George Illawarra Dragons
Speaking of must wins, hello Canberra! Six points separate these two, the Dragons are heading south rapidly and for the Raiders to save their season and head north this is a must win, as basically all their remaining games are. The Raiders were appalling last start but Ricky Stuart hasn’t panicked, he has faith in his squad so there’s been no shake up. Josh Hodgson returns in a huge boost to their confidence and chances. Joey Leilua needs to lift and breathe life into both his and the Raiders season. Expect Leilua to enter Beast Mode to seek and destroy. The halves of both sides are the keys to success. Aidan Sezer has been poor and must take the wheel of the wobbly Green Machine. The Dragons must arrest their mid-season malaise and Gareth Widdop has a big job on his hands. The fire in the Dragons forwards has faded to a flicker. They need to rediscover their mojo or the finals are a no go. Mary McGregor is under the pump from passionate Red V fans, another loss and I’d avoid social media, it won’t be pretty. In front of a raucous Canberra crowd and driven by desire and desperation, the Raiders need to get on a roll – losing is not an option.
Raiders by 14
Newcastle Knights v Brisbane Broncos
Unlucky last start loser, the heart broken Knights dejectedly trundled home and face a Broncos side with players coming off Origin hoping their stars survived the battering and the beer. This is a danger game for the Broncos as the Knights are due to break their drought, the rains have been coming but the clouds won’t burst. The Knights are so close but continue to pile on the errors and the emails from the Chairman to Nathan Brown. At least Brian McGuigan doesn’t hide his agenda, you won’t find the sentence “full backing of the board” in any correspondence. The Broncos are a very professional unit but are down on troops missing Darius Boyd, Anthony Milford and Corey Oates. Benji Marshall and Ben Hunt will be expected to take the reins and steer the Broncos around and strike when the chances arise, which against the Knights is often. I’ve checked the radar around the Hunter Valley and there’s dark clouds hovering this weekend, precipitation imminent! Knights fans will hope Dane Gagai can bring back some Origin victory vibes from QLD and that it doesn’t come down to a sideline conversion to win the game. Apparently the local pubs have added Brock Lamb shanks to the menu for a limited time only after last week’s shocking miss.
Knights by 8
Gold Coast Titans v Cronulla Sharks
Both teams have plenty of players backing up from Origin. The Titans season is all but gone, relying on complicated algorithms to make the finals so they obviously have to win. On paper it’s a good side but it’s all about pride and attitude for the rest of the year. Jarryd Hayne has been the main attacking weapon this past month, the Hayne Plane impressing since reverting to the custodian position and if he’s recovered well from Origin III he could be the tonic the Titans need to topple the Sharks and keep their faint finals flame flickering – just kidding the Titans are NRL road kill for 2017. The Sharks will rely on old man river Paul Gallen to lead the way with so many rep stars returning especially as mentally they’ll be hurting, except for Valentine Holmes, the hat trick hero of QLD will be a foot taller bouncing back to Shark life. Shane Flanagan has a job on his hands preparing all these tired men for battle, though all Origin players pride themselves on backing up and doing it in style. This is a tough game to call but the Sharks have more to play for.
Sharks by 2
Manly Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers
I pity the Wests Tigers. They travel to Lottloland hoping to receive the luck the Panthers got against the Sea Eagles last week. Daly Cherry-Evans and Trent Barrett will still be seething at the penalty count and if there’s one thing they do better than any club is play the Grudge Card. Manly are the masters of using motivational grievances like ‘us against them’, you can’t get into the Sea Eagles Leagues Club without a chip on your shoulder. The Tigers are still basking in the glory of their Spoon Bowl triumph for the ages against the Knights a couple of weeks ago, and why wouldn’t you? When you’ve won about as many games as you’ve had coaches for the season you have the green light to party hard in my book. The Tigers are improving and uncovered a couple of gems in Esan Marsters and Matt Eisenhuth but when your diamonds are surrounded by a clump of rocks it makes league life as hard as granite. The Sea Eagles are seeking a top four finish minimum. Last week was an aberration they will make the Tigers pay for. The Sea Eagles will fly away with this one into the distance leaving the Tigers wondering what hit them – call the Leagues Club and ask to speak to Marty ‘Kapow’ Taupau.
Sea Eagles by 26
South Sydney Rabbitohs v North Queensland Cowboys
The last game of the final shortened round before the NRL returns to a full dance card is heading to Cairns, so get on your dancing shoes as we have some Northern Soul kicking off. In an amazing act of generosity the Rabbitohs have decided to take a home game to the tropics and play North QLD in the heart of the Cowboys range. Maybe the humidity has got to them and they’ve gone troppo? Last week’s loss to arch rivals the Roosters has ended the Rabbitohs run so they could be a dangerous prospect as they’ll be free to throw the ball around and have some fun in the sun. Hopefully Alex Johnston can see some ball as his brilliant form of late was wasted on the wing as the Bunnies lost their way and couldn’t locate him. My highlight will be the almighty collisions between the Bunnies best Sam Burgess and Angus Crichton tearing into the Cowboys colossal monument men Jason Taumalolo and Coen Hess. The G-forces will flatten sugar cane crops and be felt all the way up to the Atherton Tablelands. If the Cowboys get on top, Jake Granville will chow down on the monster metre-eaters momentum and then the main man Michael Morgan will take over. Morgan was superb in Origin III and has gone ahead in leaps and bounds in both game management and leading his troops, his class and confidence will be the difference.
Cowboys by 10
Enjoy the footy and remember gamble responsibly. With some players backing up and some pulling out due to injury and soreness, it’s always a difficult round to tip post-Origin. The only sure thing I can pick is the media feeding frenzy and debate around the ramifications of the NSW Origin defeat will be still lingering by the time this round ends.
I’m just pleased the NRL is returning to the back pages and the excitement will build as we head towards September.