NZ Newswire July 25, 2013, 4:56 pm
PREVIEW OF NRL ROUND 20 MATCHES (all NZ times):
FRIDAY, July 26
North Queensland v Brisbane at 1300SMILES Stadium, 9.35pm
Head to Head: Cowboys 8 Broncos 25 drawn 2
Last clash: Round 6 2013 - Broncos 12 bt Cowboys 10 at Suncorp Stadium
Six points adrift of the top eight, Brisbane must win six of their last seven games to keep their slim finals hopes alive. If unsuccessful, they'll miss the playoffs for only the second time in 21 years. Running out of time and patience, coach Anthony Griffin dumped Parramatta-bound Corey Norman to start Josh Hoffman at fullback with Ben Hunt the new halfback at the expense of Peter Wallace. Former Test prop Ben Hannant has been ruled out again with his troublesome calf injury with Mitchell Dodds slotting into the front row. The Cowboys will be bolstered by the return of Origin stars Johnathan Thurston, Brent Tate, Matt Scott and James Tamou.
Key: If Thurston takes out his displeasure at ASADA's early-morning knock on his door mid-week on the opposition, it will be curtains for the Broncos.
Canterbury v Parramatta at ANZ Stadium, 9.35pm
Head to Head: Bulldogs 71 Eels 57 drawn 5
Last clash: Round 2 2013 - Bulldogs 20 bt Eels 16 at ANZ Stadium
Offering 20.5 points start, bookmakers give the Eels no chance of ending their worst losing run in 18 years. Ricky Stuart's hapless cellar dwellers haven't won away all season or anywhere since 10 and are rightfully odds-on to be lumbered with back-to-back wooden spoons for the first time since 1961. The sixth-placed Bulldogs should be primed after enjoying the bye last week, following their round-18 thrashing of Melbourne.
Key: The Eels must score first against their arch rivals or face the prospect of yet another hiding.
SATURDAY, July 27
St George-Illawarra v Canberra at WIN Stadium, 7.30pm
Head to Head: Dragons 15 Raiders 6 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 3 2013 - Raiders 30 bt Dragons 17 at Canberra Stadium
Buoyed by their last-start conquest of front-running South Sydney, the Dragons are chasing a first win over their bogey side since 2007. Fallen Canberra star Blake Ferguson has been somewhat controversially reinstated this week to the NRL after pleading not guilty to indecent assaulting a woman at a Sydney bar while out drinking with Dragons fullback Josh Dugan earlier this season, but it remains to be seen if the two former Raiders teammates will go head-to-head. Ferguson hasn't been named but could yet earn a start in a vital match for the eighth-placed Raiders.
Key: Continuing from where he left off in State of Origin three, Dugan was superb against the Rabbitohs and the Raiders will need to keep their former hero in check to remain in the top eight.
Gold Coast v South Sydney at Skilled Park, 9.30pm
Head to Head: Titans 4 Souths 5
Last clash: Round 14 2013 - Souths 30 bt Titans 24 at Barlow Park
Souths' surprise extra-time loss to the Dragons has loosened their grip on the club's first minor premiership since 1989 and they must win or risk relinquishing top spot on the ladder to the Sydney Roosters. Already anxious over superstar Greg Inglis' extended stint on the sidelines, Rabbitohs fans will be sweating on a swift bounce back as the Bunnies embark on a tough month of action on the road on the Gold Coast, in Townsville, Melbourne and Gosford. The Titans delivered an improved showing against Manly last outing but have nevertheless slipped to 10th to be in a do-or-die dilemma.
Key: The Titans need returning Origin stars Greg Bird and Nate Myles to stand up to have any realistic hope of springing a boilover.
SUNDAY, July 28
Warriors v Melbourne at Mt Smart Stadium, 2pm
Head to Head: Warriors 13 Storm 17 drawn 2
Last clash: Round 7 2013 - Storm 28 bt Warriors 18 at AAMI Park
After suffering a lengthy post-Origin hangover last year, Melbourne's representative stars could be excused for reaching for the Berocca ahead of their latest showdown with their long-time nemesis. The unpredictable Warriors have made a habit of upsetting the league's perennial benchmark and will fancy their chances of ambushing the premiers again after winning six of their past seven matches. But after a slow start to the season, the Warriors are still languishing in 11th place and must keep the roll going to remain in the finals race.
Key: The Storm lost four straight after Origin last year and this danger game marks the return of representative linchpins Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cam Smith, who must stand up.
Cronulla v Penrith at Remondis Stadium, 4pm
Head to Head: Sharks 41 Panthers 37 drawn 3
Last clash: Round 21 2012 - Panthers 21 bt Sharks 20 at Remondis Stadium
The ongoing ASADA investigation continues to cast a shadow over the sixth-placed Sharks and they need to hit back after last week's 40-0 hammering at the hands of the Roosters to steady the ship. Big guns Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Anthony Tupou and Beau Ryan are sidelined but classy back-rower Wade Graham returns from a shoulder injury and has been handed the captaincy. After three straight wins, the Panthers' bubble burst against Newcastle and they too need a win to stay within striking distance of the eight.
Key: Cronulla fullback Michael Gordon's goalkicking accuracy against his old club could prove decisive in what looms as a tight encounter.
Newcastle v Sydney Roosters at Hunter Stadium, 5pm
Head to Head: Knights 18 Roosters 22 drawn 2
Last clash: Round 9 2012 - Roosters 24 bt Knights 6 at Allianz Stadium
The Roosters find themselves premiership favourites for the first time since the Brad Fittler era in 2004 after recording a fifth shut-out of the season against the Sharks. Making the Knights' task even more daunting is the return of Sonny Bill Williams from a hamstring injury. Victory for the Roosters and defeat for the Rabbitohs will vault the tricolours to the competition summit. The Knights, though, are going quietly about their business, rising almost unnoticed to fifth. Kade Snowden's two-match suspension is a blow but an upset win this weekend would keep the Knights' top-four hopes flickering.
Key: It's stating the obvious but the Knights simply must stop Williams - and his offloads - to compete with the relentless Roosters.
MONDAY, July 29
Wests Tigers v Manly at Campbelltown Sports Stadium, 9pm
Head to Head: Tigers 7 Sea Eagles 11
Last clash: Round 4 2013 - Sea Eagles 26 bt Tigers 0 at Bluetongue Stadium
After a mid-season slump, the Sea Eagles have rediscovered their mojo to string together three wins to cement a place in the top four approaching the finals. The Tigers have been the disappointments of the season and are clinging to the mathematical possibility of making the playoffs. Still, they could be inspired by skipper Robbie Farah's 200th first grade game, Liam Fulton's 150th or Benji Marshall's farewell appearance at Campbelltown, where the Sea Eagles haven't played in 15 years.
Key: Manly's resurgence has coincided with Brett Stewart's return from a knee injury and the Tigers, not regarded for their defence, must keep the prolific fullback in check to have any hope.
Tip: Sea Eagles