Penrith Panthers vs Parramatta Eels – Thursday night – BlueBet Stadium
The 2022 grand finalists meet again, and the fortunes of both clubs seem to have taken very different paths as the year progressed. It's hard to believe that when they met in round 4 it was the Eels who prevailed. The Panthers keep on keeping on, and the Eels can plan an early holiday. Mathemagicians will put together a combination of circumstances that will get the Eels into the top eight, but the odds of it happening are at Powerball levels. Brian To'o returns for the home side and with a minor premiership up for grabs I expect the Panthers to do what they do, and what they do is win. Note that the Eels have the bye next weekend, so this is probably their last game for the year. With that in mind, the Eels get the earliest holiday of all the teams in the NRL. It's quite a fall from the dizzying heights of 2022.
Verdict – Panthers by 13
Result – Eels 32 defeated Panthers 18
New Zealand Warriors vs St George Illawarra Dragons – Friday night – Go Media Stadium, Auckland
Even if the Warriors win their last two regular season games this year, and they probably will, I can't see them forcing their way into the top two on the ladder. If they happened to lose their last two games, and they probably won't, there is some chance they could lose a spot in the top four. And it will be the latter, the risk of losing a top four spot, that should drive them to victory on Friday night. This is also their last regular season game at home, so we can assume another packed venue in front of a group of fans who are passionately engaged with the fortunes of their team. Apparently there's a Rugby World Cup on soon, but this is the team the Kiwis have fallen in love with, and the Warriors deserve it. Lomax returns for the Dragons which will help a little, and they wouldn't want the Tigers winning any more games this season. Regardless, the Warriors will be wah-wah-winning.
Verdict – Warriors by 10
Result – Warriors 18 defeated Dragons 6
Redclifffe Dolphins vs North Queensland Cowboys – Friday night – Suncorp Stadium
It's a must-win game for the Cowboys (9th). They're level on points with both the Rabbitohs (8th) and the Roosters (10th) - the Roosters will probably win this weekend and the Rabbitohs (bye) are guaranteed the two points. They're not playing like winners of late, but the circumstances could be enough to see them lift. The Dolphins have won just one of their last ten, which isn't a surprise given the circumstances. What is nice to see is the continuing effort from the new club, who continue to be competitive without getting the points. Three of their last four losses have been by two points or less, so they're close. They also have some key returns on Friday night, with Tabuai-Fidow, Lemuelu and Kenny Bromwich returning to the starting side. They'll be competitive again but I wonder if history will repeat itself here - another narrow loss. Stay strong Dolphins fans. Keep your Chins up. Keep your Chins up.
Verdict – Cowboys by 2
Result – Cowboys 34 defeated Dolphins 10
Melbourne Storm vs Gold Coast Titans – Saturday afternoon – AAMI Park
It's the last game at home for the Storm, for a while at least - providing they retain their place in the top four they are guaranteed at least one finals game at home. Papenhuyzen returns on an extended bench and there's some chance he could be a late inclusion. The Titans are essentially playing for pride at this point. I expect they'll play with more pride next week, in their final game at home against a team they should beat. Kieran Foran returns in the halves from a sternum injury. A significant inclusion no doubt, but the injuries to Campbell and Sami are heavy losses, and we could see a heavy loss for the Titans on Saturday.
Verdict – Storm by 16
Result – Storm 37 defeated Titans 16
Sydney Roosters vs Wests Tigers – Saturday night – Allianz Stadium
A few moons ago I suggested there was a chance that the Chooks and the Bunnies could be playing for the last spot in the finals in their last game of the regular season. As each week has passed the probability of that event taking place has increased. The Chooks do need to take it one game at a time though, and that means winning on Saturday. They'll be doing it without their club captain who is out with concussion protocols, but Joseph Manu is a more than handy replacement at fullback. The Roosters also welcome back Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Walker this weekend - timely returns at the business end of proceedings. The Tigers notched up a rare win last week, but only just. They face stiffer opposition here, and an opponent with much more on the line. What's the big deal about Brooks getting a BBQ from the club? Giving it to him on the field is a bit weird, but at least they were transparent about it.
Verdict – Roosters by 10
Result – Roosters 32 defeated Tigers 8
Canberra Raiders vs Brisbane Broncos – Saturday night – GIO Stadium
Theoretically the Raiders can still miss the top eight, and that would probably be a fitting result. Their points differential (-108) is barely better than the Titans (-109) or Dolphins (-111) and there wouldn't be many people that think either of those teams deserve to be in the finals this year. A win on Saturday puts an end to any doubts, but this isn't easy. The Broncos are resting Reynolds for another week, but his absence didn't stop them blowing away the Cowboys in Townsville a fortnight ago. Since the last State of Origin game, the Broncos have won four from four and scored 164 points. To put those recent performances in perspective, if they played like that all season their points differential for the year would be +576. To add more weight to those numbers, those four games were all against teams fighting for a top eight finish. They're going well, and they can win the whole thing.
Verdict – Broncos by 10
Result – Broncos 29 defeated Raiders 18
Canterbury Bulldogs vs Manly Sea Eagles – Sunday afternoon – Accor Stadium
Apologies to anyone that listened to me when I said the Sea Eagles could still make the top eight, because they can't. They gave a good account of themselves in New Zealand last week, and a few interesting calls didn't go their way, but it was not to be and their season is over. With that in mind, I'm tipping the Dogs in an upset here. The visitors will be feeling a bit empty and they are backing up from the trip across the ditch. This is the Bulldogs last game at home for the year, and I'm hoping give their fans a day out. They're a clear outsider, and that's fair, but I'm not afraid to tip a mad result every now and then. Here's me...getting mad.
Verdict – Bulldogs by 4
Result – Sea Eagles 42 defeated Bulldogs 24
Newcastle Knights vs Cronulla Sharks – Sunday afternoon – McDonald Jones Stadium
7th plays 5th in what could be the game of the round. Both teams are in form and have all but guaranteed themselves a finals berth (theoretically the Knights could miss out, but it's a theory that wouldn't hold up to much scientific rigour). The Sharks did beat the Knights quite convincingly earlier this season in Coffs Harbour, but this Knights team have come a long way. This is also the Knights 'Old Boy's game and their last regular season game at home. I'll leap to the conclusion that this game sells out (if it hasn't already), and I see no reason to get off the Knight train. Sing it with me peeps.
Verdict – Knights by 7
Result – Knights 32 defeated Sharks 6
Wally Lewis - round twenty six selections (in bold)
Note: tips from Wally will be published on Wednesday night or Thursday morning
- PANTHERS vs Eels
- WARRIORS vs Dragons
- Dolphins vs COWBOYS
- STORM vs Titans
- ROOSTERS vs Tigers
- Raiders vs BRONCOS
- Bulldogs vs SEA EAGLES
- Knights vs SHARKS