In the final shortened round before the run home to September, the growing top eight divide will see eight teams improve their standing by virtue of a bye while the four matches played leading into Origin 3 are set to have huge implications in determining the coveted top four finalists.
STORM V DRAGONS – THURSDAY, 7.50PM – AAMI PARK
Missing six representatives but gaining the services of Cameron Smith for his first Origin-affected fixture since 2003, the Storm will be intent upon consolidating third position with a loss potentially dropping the reigning premiers as low as sixth. Recalling Brodie Croft for his first appearance since Round 5, underrated forward Christian Welch will bring up 50 games for the Storm having made his first grade debut back in 2015, while Young Tonumaipea will play his final match for the club before departing on a Mormon mission overseas. Blessed with the good fortune of retaining a near-identical line up over the first 16 weeks of the competition, the ladder leading Dragons will have their depth severely tested following the omissions of five Origin representatives. In a largely unrecognisable forward pack rookies Jacob Host, Blake Lawrie and Luciano Leilua will look to carry the load as the joint venture endeavours to record their first win in Melbourne since 1999, while at age 29 Darren Nicholls will make his NRL debut at halfback.
PANTHERS V WARRIORS – FRIDAY, 7.55PM – PANTHERS STADIUM
Underwhelming in defeat against the lowly Sea Eagles last week, the Panthers will be hoping to reverse their Origin slump against a New Zealand side they have triumphed over in eight of the past ten meetings. Naming Jarome Luai and Tyrone May in the halves, recalling strike centre Waqa Blake back from injury and handing Isaah Yeo his first ever appointment as captain, coach Anthony Griffin will be stressing the importance of Friday’s result to his new-look side given the two point separation between third and eighth positions. Squandering an early lead to go down in dubious circumstances across the ditch, the Warriors will be out to finish the Origin period inside the top four for the first time since 2002. Boosted by the returns of internationals Ken Maumalo, David Fusitua and Adam Blair from the team that went down to the Sharks seven days earlier, the Auckland-based outfit will be eager to make the most of a rare free-to-air appearance – their first in more than twelve months.
BULLDOGS V RAIDERS – SATURDAY, 7.35PM – BELMORE SPORTS GROUND
Silencing critics who dismissed their prospects for the remainder of 2018 with their strongest performance of the season, the Bulldogs will be out to make amends at their spiritual home ground following a deplorable showing three weeks ago. Missing David Klemmer due to Origin in an otherwise unchanged squad that sees hardworking prop Danny Fualalo bring up 50 NRL games for the club, the chance to edge further away from wooden spoon territory should serve as a strong motivator for a much-improved finish to the season from Canterbury. Blowing a golden opportunity to press their case for a surge towards the play-offs after leading 16-0 with 40 minutes to play against Brisbane, the Raiders will be sweating on Saturday’s result falling in their favour if they are to feature beyond Round 25. Recalling Sam Williams as an unconventional replacement for Queensland prop Josh Papalii that sees Blake Austin shifted to the bench, former Canterbury first grader Brad Abbey has been retained at fullback following Jack Wighton’s omission due to legal sentencing.
TITANS V BRONCOS – SUNDAY, 4.10PM – CBUS SUPER STADIUM
Proving to be the quiet achievers of the NRL with back-to-back victories over the Bulldogs and Tigers, the chance to record consecutive wins over Brisbane in the same year should ensure the Titans are met with strong support at home on Sunday afternoon. Without leading forwards Jarrod Wallace, Jai Arrow and potentially captain Ryan James, Tongan representative Konrad Hurrell has been recalled on the bench alongside promising forward Morgan Boyle. Sitting in eighth position but just one win outside the top four, the Broncos will have high hopes of maintaining a 75% success rate over their neighbouring rivals. Humiliated by the Titans at Easter, the absence of four Origin representatives will test the sides depth with Jake Turpin named to debut at hooker, while winger Jonus Pearson will come in for just his second match of 2018 – ironically also against the Gold Coast.