South Sydney Rabbitohs vs Penrith Panthers – Thursday night – Accor Stadium
It's a replay of the 2021 grand final, when the Panthers prevailed in a low scoring contest by 14-12. There was next to nothing between the sides on the night, with the Panthers scoring a try from an intercept, and Reynolds just missing an opportunity to level the contest from out wide late in the game. Quite a lot has changed since then. The Rabbitohs have a new(ish) coach with Wayne Bennett moving to the Peninsula. Adam Reynolds, Dane Gagai and Benji Marshall are no longer there, and Tom Burgess is still injured so won't be playing on Thursday night. The big inclusion of course is Latrell Mitchell, who missed the grand final last year. It won't change the history books but I'm utterly convinced they would have won last year if Mitchell were available, and I cite the improved performances we have seen from the Rabbitohs this season since Mitchell has returned. They've lost once, in extra time, to a side entrenched in the top four, and they had three chances to ice that game but couldn't get the chocolates. This team can win a premiership (especially if they can force their way into the top four). As for the Panthers, the list of players that were in the grand final but not playing Thursday is long and significant - Clearly, Luai, Fisher-Harris, Burton, Capewell and Momirovski. Last week the Storm kept the Panthers scoreless in Penrith, which tells you that if you take enough blocks out of the Panthers Jenga Tower the whole thing will fall over eventually. Notably, Edwards is back at fullback, and he is a very important block. That improves their prospects but I have to tip the Bunnies in this.
Verdict – Rabbitohs by 7
Result – Panthers 26 defeated Rabbitohs 22
North Queensland Cowboys vs New Zealand Warriors – Friday night – Queensland Country Bank Stadium
There is a theory, and it may have merit, that the Cowboys are a tired football side. They played more State of Origin than most teams, and they travel a lot. For some context, people in Sydney think of a Cowboys game in Brisbane as a virtual home game, but that home game involves 500km more travel than a Sydney team playing in Melbourne. Townsville is further away from Sydney than Auckland, and all those miles take a toll eventually. I think the Cowboys advantage this season has been their fitness, so if they are tired they've lost their advantage. What will definitely take a toll is the death of former Cowboys coach Paul Green. I've no doubt it affected them negatively against the Roosters. We don't know how it will affect them on Friday night, playing at home for the first time since the horrible news. They could be ten foot tall and bulletproof or a rabble. We should know after ten minutes. I'm hoping they'll be bulletproof.
Verdict – Cowboys by 10
Result – Cowboys 48 defeated Warriors 4
Brisbane Broncos vs Melbourne Storm – Friday night – Suncorp Stadium
The Broncos have named an unchanged line-up for Friday night. They won, but you couldn't say they were impressive. Now they take on a team that held the defending premiers to zero last week. The Storm were terrific against the Panthers, and they'll be a better side with the return of Jahrome Hughes. What's more, their record at Suncorp is better than their record at AAMI Park. And Munster won't mind the opportunity to show the Dolphins how much he's worth in 2024.
Verdict – Storm by 16
Result – Storm 60 defeated Broncos 12
Parramatta Eels vs Canterbury Bulldogs – Saturday afternoon – CommBank Stadium
The Bulldogs are sitting in that dead zone on the ladder - safe from the wooden spoon but unable to make the top eight. I never like tipping teams in that position, and last week they played like a team in that position. They'll probably lift a little because this is a big Sydney derby, but I doubt they can lift high enough. The Eels will make the finals this year but they wouldn't want to finish 7th or 8th and run the risk of travelling to Melbourne or Brisbane for a knock-out final. Mitch Moses returns in the halves and his kicking game alone should get them over the line.
Verdict – Eels by 8
Result – Eels 42 defeated Bulldogs 6
Manly Sea Eagles vs Cronulla Sharks – Saturday night – 4 Pines Park
I'm calling it...Manly are a splintered group and a rabble. Their season is over and the Sharks will tear them to pieces on Saturday night.
Verdict – Sharks by 13
Result – Sharks 40 defeated Sea Eagles 6
Sydney Roosters vs Wests Tigers – Saturday night – Sydney Cricket Ground
The Tigers aren't a splintered group or a rabble, but their prospects on Saturday night aren't much better than the Sea Eagles. This will be the Roosters last home game at the Sydney Cricket Ground and I expect they will go out in style.
Verdict – Roosters by 14
Result – Roosters 72 defeated Tigers 6
St George Illawarra Dragons vs Gold Coast Titans – Sunday afternoon – WIN Stadium
The Dragons top eight hopes are officially dashed this season, and the Titans were impressive victors over the Sea Eagles last week. I'm tempering my expectations around the Titans because their opponent last week is a rabble and they were playing at home. While the Dragons don't have a lot to play for, Ben Hunt is well and truly on track for a Dally M medal. He could single-handedly drag his team over the line in this.
Verdict – Dragons by 4
Result – Dragons 46 defeated Titans 26
Newcastle Knights vs Canberra Raiders – Sunday afternoon – McDonald Jones Stadium
What do Kalyn Ponga, Reece Walsh, Cameron Munster and Brandon Smith all have in common? No, not that. They've all rejected offers to play with the Dolphins next year. The Knights put their foot down and ruled out Enari Tuala and Bradman Best for not meeting expectations off the field. You could mount an argument that those two aren't meeting expectations on the field either, but I'll put that discussion on hold for now. If those two are dropped for being late for a bus, what sort of sanction are Ponga and Mann going to get if they fail their drug test? It's hard to know of course, because the Knights have waited just long enough for the pair to pass the drug test. Given Ponga is trying to overcome concussion issues, I do wonder if drinking so much you need a mate to help you in the toilet is good for your brain. Anyhoo, the Knights are a bigger rabble than the Sea Eagles and the Raiders have their coach back and some hope of making the top eight.
Verdict – Raiders by 18
Result – Raiders 28 defeated Knights 22
Wally Lewis - round twenty three selections (in bold)
Note: tips from Wally will be published on Wednesday night or Thursday morning
- RABBITOHS vs Panthers
- COWBOYS vs Warriors
- Broncos vs STORM
- EELS vs Bulldogs
- Sea Eagles vs SHARKS
- ROOSTERS vs Tigers
- DRAGONS vs Titans
- Knights vs RAIDERS