NRL Round 26 Preview

Here it is folks the final round before the playoffs and boy have we got some doozies heading your way. The Top 4 looks decided though the positions not quite settled but the dynamite race for the bottom half of the 8 is going right to the end of the wick! Four into three won’t go and the playoff positions will not be decided until late Sunday afternoon. Whoever handles the pressure and conquers their nerves best will move onwards and hopefully upwards while one club will miss out and the season seen as a failure. Hard school the NRL!

North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos

What a game to begin the final round of the regular season! The QLD derby with the Cowboys walking wounded trying to muster a massive effort to plunge into the playoffs. A points differential only marginally better than Manly’s have the Cowboys walking a very thin line. A big loss and it could be nighty night. If a finals spot was awarded for courage the Cowboys would get it but the NRL is no place for compassion. Michael Morgan and Co must scrap to try scrape in. Jason Taumalolo will ignite beast mode and Coen Hess explode from the bench so the Broncos had better aim up. In bad news for the Cowboys they bump into the Broncos rebounding from their worst performance of the season in the capitulation at the hands of the Eels. The touch footy trial is over, expect a typical hard yakka display as Wayne Bennett will demand his men roll up the sleeves and get down and dirty. If Adam Blair offloads from the kick off again he will have to borrow one of ole Clint Bennett’s horses to ride home! A loss could propel the Broncos into a week one finals trip to Melbourne which is a one-way ticket to trouble and one hell of a motivating factor. The Cowboys need raucous home support to lift them over the line and into the playoffs but they’re running on empty. Wayne Bennett’s Broncos will ride out of town leaving a trail of tired tattered Cowboys strewn all over the place.

Broncos by 10

Parramatta Eels v South Sydney Rabbitohs

A game the Eels should win, a game the Eels must win, a game the Eels will win. Ok I’ll flesh the preview out a bit. If Parramatta are a Top 4 side that want to cause chaos in the finals they should skin the Bunnies. The Eels were outstanding in demolishing the Broncos and Brad Arthur would love to see that style backed up this week with substance. Finals eve is not time to put the cue in the rack, now is the moment for Parramatta to make a statement. Nathan Brown will place a target on Sam Burgess and the collisions will be colossal, don’t take it personally Sam you’re just the benchmark for toughness in the NRL. Brown just cleaned up at the Eels club awards and is in career best form. He’s taken his game to a new level under Brad Arthur along with his teammates. Parramatta are powering into the playoffs. The Rabbitohs are still recovering from the Storm cell that blew through them last week. Souths had been in good form but the Melbourne mauling will still scar and scare the other sides glad it was them not us! The Bunnies love to throw the ball about and will try to end the season on a high note by taking the Eels down a peg. The form Mitchell Moses and Corey Norman are in, the Rabbitohs will be hanging from the clothesline after copping another hammering.

Eels by 20

Sydney Roosters v Gold Coast Titans

This match should provide the Roosters with a marvellous opportunity to prepare for the playoffs. It’s a glorified training run as the Titans should offer up minimal resistance as their season from Hell ends as it started racked with injuries. The Chooks have worked hard to earn second spot on the ladder and they won’t want to give up the chance to play a home final in front of a packed house! Just kidding they’ll only crack 20,000 if there’s a buy one latte get the second free deal on. The Chooks forwards are cooking with gas and handled the Sharks big men confidently so the Titans will hold no fear especially with Ryan James still injured and Jarrod Wallace out suspended. Jarrod is probably glad to get out of the joint early! Boyd Cordner is back to his battering ram best and he will give the Roosters lethal left edge lift off. Rocket on down to the bookies and get on Latrell Mitchell crossing the stripe at least once if you like a flutter. The Titans are stumbling to the finish line, they’ve been pummelled on and off the field from pillar to post. I admire the fight they’ve shown under extreme duress but the past month has been poor, they’re done and dusted. The Hayne Plane has one last chance to leave an impression on his fellow players and the incoming coach, whoever that may be, that he is on board and still has plenty to offer. Jarryd, I won’t hold my breath. The Roosters have the motivation and the talent to do quite a number on the Gold Coast and will send the Titans back to the Glitter Strip torn to shreds like confetti.

Roosters by 30

Manly Sea Eagles v Penrith Panthers

The match of the round due to the magnitude of the result. The winner is guaranteed playoff status, the loser is in the lap of the footy Gods especially if it’s Manly and their ordinary points differential in comparison to the other contenders. Daly Cherry-Evans stood up when Manly most needed him as they were ordinary until DCE’s late left foot magic show. They are lacking confidence but DCE’s golden boot may be the kick that sparks the Sea Eagles. Tom Trbojevic stepped up too in the dying stages as the Warriors waned and his speed up the middle will worry the Panthers. The Panthers do have a mobile forward pack to plug that gap but one weary moment is all Tommy Turbo needs to turn a game and a season on its head. The Panthers winning streak has ended and they’ll hope they haven’t peaked too soon. Injuries have reared their ugly head. Rookie gun Dylan Edwards is out and joins Matt Moylan on the sideline, though Moylan has been named on an extended bench. If he’s any chance he’ll play it’s that important. Pressure is piling up on the young head of Nathan Cleary, lucky he eats pressure for brekky, alongside his dad whose melon he’s inherited. The Cleary Cherry-Evans matchup is the key battle of this contest. The Panthers bench with Bryce Cartwright and Trent Merrin has X factor written large and a huge advantage. Both sides are desperate the Manly faithful will play 18th man inspiring the Sea Eagles, influencing the officials, and intimidating the Panthers. Manly may be playing at Lottoland but it will unlucky for them, the Panthers to win and Manly to miss the finals.

Panthers by 6

Melbourne Storm v Canberra Raiders

This match is all about mindset. The Raiders travel to Melbourne disappointed that their season has ended too soon for the talent laden team’s liking. Can Ricky Stuart get his proud men up for this contest? Melbourne are not the team to run into if your head is not in the game. The Green Machine will want to get stuck into the Storm to prove a point: that they belong in the top echelon despite the fact they failed to fire into the finals. Halves Blake Austin and Aidan Sezer haven’t sealed the deal in closing out games and the work for next year begins now. Sia Soliola returns from suspension just in time to reacquaint himself with Billy Slater. Sia may want to hide behind his hair like the famous singer as the Storm faithful send Sia a chorus of unsavoury chords hailing down like purple rain with language that would make doves cry. The Storm have the minor premiership all wrapped up and Craig Bellamy will be keen for his magnificent men to keep the machine humming heading into the finals. Standards slipping are not acceptable in these parts and with on field generals Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith at the helm it won’t happen. The Storm are in irrepressible form and even though the Raiders will challenge them the Melbourne forwards can handle them and have too much firepower out wide, I see the Raiders aces Jordan Rapana and Nic Cotric and raise it with the Storm’s royal flush flankers Suliasi Vunivalu and Josh Addo-Carr.

Storm by 14

Newcastle Knights v Cronulla Sharks

Old Boys day in Newcastle usually pumps the Knights tyres up like a monster truck and they’ll need to be as a pack of mighty mean men are heading their way with fire in their belly. The Sharks are hurting after last week’s loss to the Roosters pushed them out of the Top 4 and put the reigning premier’s chances of going back to back in jeopardy. Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita need to muscle up if the Sharks are to do any damage in the playoffs and it starts here in the Hunter. Key edge man Wade Graham has been named so that’s good news for a club still brewing at the way they lost. Shane Flanagan was displeased with the penalty that cost them, the insularity of the Shire feeding the ‘us against them’ attitude which canny coaches like Flanno will use to motivate his men. The Knights played okay in Canberra last week, weight of possession cost them early but they finished strongly. Shaun Kenny-Dowall raided successfully against Canberra last week and would love to get a couple more four pointers against the Sharkies but it’s all on the forwards it always is when you take on Cronulla. Lachlan Fitzgibbon has been superb in his rookie season, his improvement has spiked as the NRL obviously agrees with him and he will relish the challenge Gallen and Fifita pose. Nathan Brown has blooded some beauties, Fitzgibbon one of the best, and though it’s been another tough year, they will benefit eventually but not this week.

Sharks by 10

St George Illawarra Dragons v Canterbury Bulldogs

The equation for the Dragons is simple, win and they’re in! Lose and it’s Mad Monday at the Taj Mahal. Josh Dugan has had a reprieve and been selected with Mary McGregor no doubt hoping the embarrassment of last week’s demotion will have pricked Dugan’s pride and he’ll repay Mary’s faith with a blinder. Duges has purchased an alarm clock for each room of his house so he won’t be late for the bus again, just hope he remembers to set it for AM not PM. The Dragons were excellent in pouncing all over the Panthers, Tariq Sims and Paul Vaughan especially lifted in the desperation and will need to again. The Bulldogs love for the Red V is well known and the Dogs would wish for nothing more than win three in a row to end their season and douse the Dragons dreams at the same time. Michael Lichaa has belatedly been given licence from Des Hasler to run from dummy half and it’s unleashed the Dogs from a stuttering clunky side to a glittering funky team. The Morris twins are enjoying the extra space and freedom though Brett is missing this week which collars the Bulldogs and his combination with brother Josh. Unfortunately Des let the Dogs out too late but it does offer a glimmer of hope for 2018. Gareth Widdop is the Saints superstar and the man who’ll be the difference. This should be a close game but with the playoffs as the prize on offer that should be enough to prise the precious two points from the Dogs and into the Dragons den and send the Saints marching into the playoffs.

Dragons by 8     

Wests Tigers v New Zealand Warriors

The regular season ends with a match that is for the fans, of these two teams because no one else really cares. Playoff positions will have been finalised by kick off so the two teams can just cut loose and have some fun in the twilight at Leichhardt. I’ll predict there will be more tries than meat pies eaten as both teams will look to end the year on a high. The Tigers are travelling well and had the Cowboys game in the bag until the final ten minute meltdown. Aaron Woods and James Tedesco will want to farewell Tiger Town in style so expect huge games from them and plenty of tears at the final hooter. Balmain boys don’t cry but reckon there may be a dust storm blowing through. Tui Lolohea playing against his old Warriors team mates will want to put one over the Kiwis and also put his name in the frame for the Rugby League World Cup. The Warriors are on a long losing streak that should have been snapped last week but they froze with the finish line in sight against the Sea Eagles. Shaun Johnson will look to light Leichhardt up and also get another game under his belt before the RLWC. Ben Matulino farewells the Warriors playing against the club he’s joining so expect Big Ben to ring some bells and hold a ding dong battle against Aaron Woods the man he’s replacing. That clash will be a cracker and this game good value. The Tigers at home will condemn the Warriors downward spiralling season to another sapping defeat and put them out of their misery.

Tigers by 8

Enjoy the footy and remember gamble responsibly. Who makes the finals and in what order we’ll know after what is destined to be an absorbing final round. The only sure thing is Melbourne are minor premiers and everyone else are Storm chasers. My tip is Manly miss out which means the Sea Eagles will probably take out the title!

If the Dragons fall short, Josh Dugan will begin his new life at Cronulla almost immediately starting with Sharkies Summer School and a Discipline 101 course with Paul Gallen tutoring with an iron rod. Lesson One – stay away from Northies Pub!