With the Dragons sitting in outright first and the gap between contenders and pretenders becoming clearer, Round 9 sees eight matches full of storylines, including an upset in the offering waiting to unfold.
BRONCOS V BULLDOGS – THURSDAY, 7.50PM – SUNCORP STADIUM
Coming into the Round 9 fixture with a 4-4 record, the Broncos will be hoping to kick-start their inconsistent season against a Canterbury side struggling to find the try line. Receiving mixed news on the injury front, the return of experienced hooker Andrew McCullough will be offset by the loss of Australian and Queensland forward Josh McGuire. After a promising first half at Penrith last Friday, the Bulldogs have responded to their faltering start to the year by dropping NZ representative Greg Eastwood in favour of former Canberra prop Clay Priest. Despite being named on the extended bench, there is speculation that Matt Frawley and Rhyse Martin could come into the final 17, with Michael Lichaa and Asipeli Fine under pressure to hold their places in first grade.
KNIGHTS V RABBITOHS – FRIDAY, 6.00PM – MCDONALD JONES STADIUM
Having spent six of the first eight weeks on the road, Newcastle are set to receive strong home support over the next three months with eight of their next ten matches to be played at McDonald Jones Stadium. Unbeaten at home in 2018 and sticking with the same squad that knocked off Manly last week, coach Nathan Brown will be wary of a dreadful record in recent years which has seen the Knights winless against the Bunnies since 2011. Unable to capitalise on a dominant start last Thursday, look for Rabbitohs halfback Adam Reynolds to step up after being lambasted for his defence in the aftermath of the loss to Brisbane. With winger Richie Kennar out for an unknown period, young gun Campbell Graham will start in the backline for the first time this season.
PANTHERS V COWBOYS – FRIDAY, 7.55PM – CARRINGTON PARK, BATHURST
Returning to Bathurst for the fifth straight year, the Panthers have been forced into more changes after fullback Dylan Edwards became the eighth first-grader unavailable through injury. Handing former Bulldogs flyer Tyrone Phillips his first start at Penrith, coach Anthony Griffin will be hoping his players can produce another strong performance in Peter Wallace’s 100th game for the club. While they may sit four wins behind their opponents, the class of the North Queensland line-up should make for a thrilling affair, giving Johnathan Thurston the chance to show regional NSW just how good he is and getting the Cowboys season back on track. Having come under pressure to make changes to his side, coach Paul Green has stuck firm with the players that have served him so well in recent seasons.
RAIDERS V TITANS – SATURDAY, 3.00PM – GIO STADIUM
After a horror start that kicked off with a Round 1 collapse to the Titans, Canberra has rediscovered its confidence with three wins over the past month. Growing in confidence and able to name a consistent team from week to week, coach Ricky Stuart will be eager to gauge where his side sits after the first third of the season. Valiant in defeat with a much-improved showing against the Sharks, the Titans will be hoping to stay in touch with the top eight following a run of three straight losses. With both sides sitting outside the top eight, the incentive to finish on top should make for a high-scoring affair.
WARRIORS V TIGERS – SATURDAY, 5.30PM – MT. SMART STADIUM
Left shell-shocked in Melbourne last Wednesday, the Warriors will be out to make immediate amends with a host of returning stars named to take the field, while former Titans utility Karl Lawton is set to make his club debut from the bench. Unable to hold on despite seemingly doing enough to get the two-points over the past fortnight, the Tigers will be seeking to reclaim the tenacious edge that saw them gain plenty of admirers over their first six matches. Responding to the Eels loss, coach Ivan Cleary has dropped promising dummy half Jacob Liddle in favour of Kiwi utility Elijah Taylor.
SHARKS V EELS – SATURDAY, 7.30PM – SOUTHERN CROSS GROUP STADIUM
With Josh Dugan suffering a broken foot, Valentine Holmes will be hoping for a second coming at fullback as the Sharks look to claim their second victory over Parramatta this season. Coming away with back-to-back wins over the Sea Eagles and Tigers, Brad Arthur appears to be a much-relieved coach with his side liberated from the difficulties of losing their opening six matches. With experienced forward Tony Williams sustaining another ACL tear, regular first grader Tepai Moeroa has been called upon to fill the void left in the second row. While their standing on the premiership ladder has them anchored on the bottom, the Eels appear to be in a much better position than the Cowboys, Bulldogs and Sea Eagles who sit alongside them on four competition points.
DRAGONS V STORM – SUNDAY, 2.00PM – UOW JUBILEE OVAL
Squandering a brilliant start to miss the finals completely twelve months ago, the transformation displayed by the Dragons over the first two months has resulted in their most impressive form since the premiership glory of 2010. Retaining the majority of the same side used all season, Reece Robson is in line to make his NRL debut off the bench as cover for proposed NSW hooker Cameron McInnes. After a rough beginning to the post-Cronk era, the decision to elevate Ryley Jacks to halfback has seen the Storm find their attacking best with over a century of points posted in the past three weeks. Gaining the services of Dale Finucane in an injury swap with Tim Glasby, doubts remain over the fitness of Curtis Scott, with perennial 18th Young Tonumaipea on stand-by should he be unavailable.
ROOSTERS V SEA EAGLES – SUNDAY, 4.10PM – ALLIANZ STADIUM
While a farcical decision inflated the final margin of the loss, ANZAC Day showed the Roosters are far from where experts predicted at the start of 2018. Despite the result, coach Trent Robinson has opted against changes to the team. Coming off an improved showing at home, the issues on and off the field have left the Sea Eagles in a world of hurt with Lachlan Croker’s season-ending injury leaving Trent Barrett with just 21 players to call upon. Electing to name Dylan Walker at five-eighth, discarded centre Moses Suli is in line to make his first appearance for Manly in the centres. As the centre of attention in recent weeks, Jackson Hastings has been included to face off against his former club on the extended bench, but whether he is selected as part of the final 17 remains to be seen.