With the representative season complete the eight matches to be played over Round 18 will pit a number of sides against one another with massive implications for the seemingly determined top eight finalists.
PANTHERS V SHARKS – FRIDAY, 6.00PM – PANTHERS STADIUM
Buoyed by a season-defining performance without their Origin stars last Friday, the fourth placed Panthers will be wary of the threat posed by a Cronulla side that has claimed victory in 9 of the past 11 meetings. Opting to maintain the young guns that thrived against the Warriors, New Zealand fullback Caleb Aekins will become the sixth player to make his NRL debut for Penrith this year after impressing in reserve grade. Fresh off the bye, the inclusion of former Penrith junior Wade Graham should stiffen the Sharks forward pack in an otherwise unchanged side. Sitting in sixth position with a relatively soft run home, the 2016 premiers will be hopeful of positioning themselves for another shot at the premiership title.
KNIGHTS V EELS – FRIDAY, 7.55PM – MCDONALD JONES STADIUM
Enduring a dismal run in the absence of their star off-season purchase, Mitchell Pearce is set to make his long-awaited return to help steer the Knights back on course in the final weeks of 2018. Unable to draw upon the services of representative pair Kalyn Ponga and Slade Griffin, debutant Nick Meaney and Danny Levi will come into the key spine positions, while Fijian prop Daniel Saifiti will make a welcome return at home. Enduring a heartbreaking defeat against the Dragons a fortnight ago the Eels will be praying for a strong finish to an utterly tragic season. Winning in their past two visits to Newcastle, Corey Norman will play his 100th game for the club, while Tepai Moeroa returns in place of former Newcastle lower grader Will Smith.
BULLDOGS V RABBITOHS – SATURDAY, 3.00PM – ANZ STADIUM
Losing an unlosable game at their spiritual home last Saturday, the Bulldogs will eye off an unlikely upset against the top of the table Rabbitohs. Gaining the services of NSW prop David Klemmer in place of Greg Eastwood, captain Josh Jackson will play his 150th game for the club. Sitting atop the premiership ladder after Round 17 for the first time since 2013, the Rabbitohs will have high hopes of a ninth consecutive win – their longest winning run since a 12 game streak back in 1989. With Greg Inglis and Jason Clark out through injury and suspension respectively, Hymel Hunt and Marc Nicholls will have the opportunity to press their claims for further game time in the NRL.
SEA EAGLES V STORM – SATURDAY, 5.30PM – LOTTOLAND
In the return bout of the year’s fieriest contest, the Sea Eagles will be eager to defeat their archrivals twice in the same season for only the third time in history. Retaining the services of rookie dummy half Manase Fainu despite allegations of an unsavoury off-field indiscretion coming to light, coach Trent Barrett has named a 22-man squad as cover for any potential injuries sustained by the club’s representative trio on Wednesday night. Running in 52 points but conceding 30 in a hard-to-gauge performance against the Dragons last Thursday, the Storm will be looking to finish the weekend atop the premiership ladder should results fall favourably. Naming all their representative stars for the Lottoland fixture along with returning Kiwi prop Jesse Bromwich, all eyes will be on the personal duel between Curtis Scott and Dylan Walker after the spirited events of Round 11.
RAIDERS V COWBOYS – SATURDAY, 7.35PM – GIO STADIUM
Scoring 18 points in five minutes to snatch a win in a performance labelled as ‘pathetic’ by coach Ricky Stuart, the Raiders will be aware of the stakes at play as they look to stay in touch with the top eight. Losing Brad Abbey following a nasty concussion in the dying stages of last week’s 32-28 victory, Jordan Rapana has been named to return in a backline reshuffle that sees young gun Nick Cotric shift to the number one jersey, while former Kangaroos prop Shannon Boyd will miss the next few weeks with a calf strain. Enduring a season few could have envisioned following the success of qualifying for the grand final a year earlier, the Cowboys will be hoping to finish the season in contrast to the disappointment endured for much of 2018. Gaining the services of underrated forward John Asiata in his first match since Round 7, Queensland duo Gavin Coper and Coen Hess have been named to back up from Wednesday night’s final Origin.
BRONCOS V WARRIORS – SUNDAY, 2.00PM – SUNCORP STADIUM
Proving themselves to be the quiet achievers of the competition after stringing together three wins on the trot, the Broncos will relish the opportunity to host their first daytime appearance at Suncorp Stadium in three years. Boosted by the services of their Origin quartet, impressive youngster Kotoni Staggs has been included on the bench despite being assisted off against the Titans with concussion. In a season that has shown enormous growth from years of mediocrity, the Warriors will be determined to prove that the embarrassment of last Friday night was a one-off and not indicative of yet another final third capitulation. Responding to the 36-4 Penrith debacle by drafting in Joseph Vuna and Anthony Gelling on the bench, recent Kiwi debutant Ken Maumalo will miss Sunday’s match through a knee injury – his place will be taken by former Brisbane utility Gerard Beale.
DRAGONS V TIGERS – SUNDAY, 4.10PM – WIN JUBILEE OVAL
Returning to Kogarah for the first time since the beginning of May, the Dragons will be determined to improve their defence after conceding a half century last Thursday. Naming the five players selected for Origin duty and reverting Jason Nightingale back to the wing, the experience provided should reassure the joint venture after their anomalous showing in Melbourne. Needing to recover six points from eighth-placed Brisbane, the Wests Tigers will be looking to record only their second ever win UOW Jubilee Oval in their first appearance at the venue since 2012. With mid-season pick-ups Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah benefitting from additional preparation with their new teammates, the Tigers will have high hopes of upsetting the competition heavyweights.
TITANS V ROOSTERS – SUNDAY, 6.30PM – CBUS SUPER STADIUM
Producing an insipid showing in front of an optimistic home crowd last Sunday, the Titans will be desperate to make amends in order to remain in contention for the play-offs. Losing experienced three-quarter Dale Copley for the season with a torn hamstring, Konrad Hurrell will start in the backline following an underwhelming stint in the forwards against Brisbane. Sitting one win outside the top four with easily the best for-and-against differential of the four sides locked on 22 competition points, the Roosters will be hopeful of continued success over the Gold Coast following five wins from the past six clashes. Resting captain Boyd Cordner for the Sunday affair, Blues backs James Tedesco and Latrell Mitchell have been named to back up from Wednesday night.