North Queensland Cowboys vs Brisbane Broncos – Thursday night – 1300SMILES Stadium
Where relevant I'll do my best to explain the implications of different outcomes when it comes to the top eight.
The Cowboys, currently 7th, could finish as high as 5th and as low as 9th. 5th or 9th are unlikely, but possible. If they stay in the top eight they will be travelling to Sydney for the first week of the finals, unless they can get themselves into 5th or 6th place with a win on Thursday night. A loss means they could miss the eight, but may not. If the Dragons lose on Sunday, the Cowboys are in the top eight regardless of all other results. The Broncos, currently 3rd, cannot drop out of the top four, but there is a chance (albeit slim) that they can finish in the top two. With the Storm as minor premiers, no-one really wants to finish fourth. If the Broncos win, they avoid 4th.
I certainly gave the Eels a chance last week, but that performance by the Broncos in round 25 has me scratching my head harder than ever. It wasn't just the loss, or the magnitude of the loss – it was the way the Broncos lost that left me baffled. To quote Gus the Snail – it was very unBroncos. Poor defence and schoolboy errors...a repeat of that performance and they'll be losing again. My tip here is on a hunch really, and I'm hunching the Broncos one really bad game is out of the way before the finals commence. September is not the month to have a bad game. The Cowboys picked up their first win in a while last round but they had to work for it. I'm assuming a switched on Broncos is a tougher opponent than the Tigers. Five minutes into this game and we will know if the Broncos switch is on or off. I'm tipping on.
Verdict – Broncos by 10
Result – Broncos by 10
Parramatta Eels vs South Sydney Rabbitohs – Friday night – ANZ Stadium
A home game for the Eels played at the home ground for the Bunnies, but given the circumstances I expect the Eels will still have the bulk of the support in the crowd. This game is essentially meaningless for the Rabbits – they can't even break into the top ten and the worst they can do is drop one place on the ladder from 11th to 12th. They aren't farewelling any legends of the club on Friday night...so why would they try? Pride I suppose. The pride of Redfern. The Eels could move to third (technically they could move to second but it's so unlikely it hardly seems worth mentioning). Even if they don't have the carrot of a top three finish to play for they can avoid the stick of falling out of the top four with a win. A loss and the Sharks can potentially take their place in the top four. Whether fourth spot is a carrot this season remains to be seen. As mentioned previously, fourth spot means a trip to Melbourne next week. In any case, I think the Rabbitohs are only turning up to this game to be polite, and the Eels would have to try really hard if they wanted to lose. I've seen some pretty weird things on rugby league fields over the years but that would be right near the top of the weird list. I say the Eels win this by 40, and head down to Melbourne with a sense of self-belief...and legitimately so.
Verdict – Eels by 40
Result – Eels by 6
Sydney Roosters vs Gold Coast Titans – Saturday afternoon – Allianz Stadium
Providing the Broncos and/or Eels win earlier games, the Chooks need a win to stay in the top two. The Titans could (possibly) move up one place on the ladder to 13th with a win, or could (possibly) slip down one place to 15th with a place. The Titans will be without James, Wallace, Peats, Roberts and Copley. The Chooks are one winger short of naming their best seventeen. Nothing is certain in this game, but this is right next door to certain.
Verdict – Roosters by 28
Result – Roosters by 4
Manly Sea Eagles vs Penrith Panthers – Saturday night – Lottoland
If the three teams below the Panthers on the ladder win the Panthers are out of the top eight with a loss. It seems unlikely, but it's not crazy unlikely. With a win the best they can do is move to fifth, which isn't much different to finishing sixth in the scheme of things. There's a little more pressure on the Sea Eagles – a loss leaves the door open for the Dragons to take that last spot in the top eight away from them. The Sea Eagles have had a pretty good season to be fair but to my eye it looks like they peaked some time ago. In the last three weeks they've lost to the 15th placed Tigers and the 12th placed Bulldogs and they barely got away with a golden point win over the Warriors (who haven't looked like beating anyone forever). Compare that form to the Panthers – in the last three weeks they have faced an opponent with everything to play for. The Panthers have won twice and lost narrowly to the Dragons last weekend. That form should be good enough, and the Panthers did beat the Sea Eagles in round 18. Given the circumstances I could almost call this for game of the round, except that every time the Cowboys and Broncos play each other they give us a rip-snorter.
Verdict – Panthers by 2
Result – Sea Eagles by 16
Melbourne Storm vs Canberra Raiders – Saturday night – AAMI Park
There are only two games this round that will have no influence on our top eight, and this is one of them. You don't need me to tell you how dominant the Storm have been this season, but let me tell you this – The Storm have a points differential of +271. Only one other team (Broncos) have a differential higher than +100, and the next best differential in the top eight is on +68. What's even more disturbing is that they are getting better as the season wears on (or their opposition is getting worse). In their last five games they've scored 190 points and conceded just 45. If they were performing at that level all season their points differential would be +667. Sheesus McSneezus. Is this competition over? It almost looks like it.
Verdict – Storm by 14
Result – Storm by 26
Newcastle Knights vs Cronulla Sharks – Sunday afternoon – McDonald Jones Stadium
I think we have all accepted that the Knights have won the wooden spoon, but I doubt any team has ever won the wooden spoon with as much class as the Knights have done in season 2017. I hope they pack the joint out on Sunday afternoon, and I hope they win. The Sharks can (potentially) finish 8th with a loss but it's pretty darn unlikely. If the Eels managed to lose to the Rabbits the Sharks could be playing for a top four spot (again...unlikely) and they're too far behind the Broncos on points differential to think they can move past them. So to me it looks like the Sharks may not have much to play for by the time this game kicks off. Because of that, and because they haven't been that impressive in recent weeks anyway, I'm tipping what the bookies are telling me is an outrageous upset. Those of you winning your tipping comps shouldn't do this, but I'm not winning so here goes nothing...
Verdict – Knights by 2
Result – Sharks by 8
St George Illawarra Dragons vs Canterbury Bulldogs – Sunday afternoon – ANZ Stadium
The good news for the Dragons is that they are definitely playing for a top eight spot...unless the Panthers and Sea Eagles game ends in a draw. The Red V have a superior points differential to the three teams above them on the ladder. It's a big game. Note that this is the second game this round where the home team is playing at ANZ – the home ground of the away team. The Bulldogs are in a rich vein of form by their standards, and they did beat the Dragons earlier this season, but given the circumstances I can't see them winning this.
Verdict – Dragons by 8
Result – Bulldogs by 6
Wests Tigers vs New Zealand Warriors – Sunday night – Leichhardt Oval
It's almost cruel that these two teams are playing the last game of the regular season, because these are the two teams that would really like this season to be over. The Warriors have won just one game away from home all year. The Tigers might be in 15th place but I've no reason to believe the Warriors will do anything to improve their away record now. The Tigers get to farewell Aaron Woods and James Tedesco with a home game...and Woodsy loves this ground. Back the big hairy bear to score a try at any old price.
Verdict – Tigers by 8
Result – Tigers by 12
Wally Lewis - round twenty six selections (in bold)
Note: tips from Wally will be published on Wednesday night or early Thursday morning.
- Cowboys vs BRONCOS
- EELS vs Rabbitohs
- ROOSTERS vs Titans
- SEA EAGLES vs Panthers
- STORM vs Raiders
- Knights vs SHARKS
- DRAGONS vs Bulldogs
- TIGERS vs Warriors