With every contest being of major significance in finalising the top eight (and wooden spoon), the eight matches to be held over Round 19 will reveal the sides primed to make a charge towards September and those in danger of squandering strong starts to 2018.
EELS V BULLDOGS – THURSDAY, 7.50PM – ANZ STADIUM
Denied by the slightest of margins against the Knights last Friday, the Eels will be out to knock off their bitter rivals in an attempt to ensure the race for the wooden spoon goes down to the wire. Opting for Kaysa Pritchard at hooker in place of Cameron King, coach Brad Arthur has resisted further changes despite his side managing a single win in the past three months. Gallant in defeat against competition leaders South Sydney, the Bulldogs will be hoping for a result similar to their 20-12 victory over Parramatta back in May to avoid finishing the year in last position for the first time in a decade. Despite posting a single try last Saturday, coach Dean Pay has retained the same squad in an effort to build cohesion throughout the playing group.
SHARKS V RAIDERS – FRIDAY, 6.00PM – SOUTHERN CROSS GROUP STADIUM
Edging closer towards a top four finish few would have predicted at the beginning of 2018, the Sharks will fancy their chances in what has become a passionate rivalry against Canberra in recent seasons. Regaining the services of Jesse Ramien after being a late omission against Penrith, the Newcastle-bound centre takes the place of Kurt Capewell in the backline. Producing a dominant performance over North Queensland to keep their finals dream alive, the Raiders will be aware of the challenge confronting them over the remaining seven rounds, but having triumphed at Cronulla in their past four visits Ricky Stuart’s men will be confident of another strong finish to the season. Losing Jarrod Croker for the remainder of 2018 with a knee injury, Josh Hodgson takes over as captain while Brad Abbey returns at fullback after sitting out the Cowboys match due to concussion.
BRONCOS V PANTHERS – FRIDAY, 7.55PM – SUNCORP STADIUM
Humbled by the Warriors in a lacklustre performance last Sunday, the Broncos will be hoping to maintain distance from the likes of Canberra and the Tigers in the race towards September. Losing impressive youngster Jadyn Su’a with an ankle injury, Tevita Pangai jr will start in the second row, while victorious NSW centre James Roberts returns after being rested after Origin 3. Gaining the services of New South Wales trio Nathan Cleary, James Maloney and Tyrone Peachey along with injured backline duo Dallin Watene-Zelezniak and Josh Mansour after a fortnight of strong performances from graduates of the club’s development pathways, the Panthers will be hopeful of overturning a poor record at Suncorp Stadium where they have triumphed just once in their past six visits. In a personal milestone for fill-in captain Isaah Yeo, the versatile second rower will play his 100th game in the NRL, while Nathan Cleary will bring up his 50th game after debuting midway through 2016.
KNIGHTS V TITANS – SATURDAY, 3.00PM – MCDONALD JONES STADIUM
Keeping a flickering hope of playing finals football alive after recording a narrow win against Parramatta, the Knights will be eager to repay their passionate supporters with a strong performance at home. After missing the past two matches through suspension Lachlan Fitzgibbon returns on the bench, while Nathan Ross will start in the backline in place of injured centre Sione Mata’utia. Needing to win their remaining seven matches to have any hopes of extending their season beyond the home-and-away rounds, the Titans will be out to continue a strong run of form over Newcastle that has seen them triumph in four of the past five meetings. Boosted by the inclusion of Queensland representative Jai Arrow, hot headed forward Keegan Hipgrave has been named in the second row after missing the loss to the Roosters through concussion.
TIGERS V RABBITOHS – SATURDAY, 5.30PM – ANZ STADIUM
Commemorating the belated milestone of Robbie Farah’s 250th game for the club against the side he was contracted to only a month earlier, the Tigers will be looking to gauge their standing in the premiership hierarchy by knocking off the competition leaders. In the only change from the side that downed the Dragons last Sunday, Alex Twal comes into the squad in place of injured co-captain Chris Lawrence. Recording their ninth consecutive win against Canterbury, the Rabbitohs will be out to atone for a disappointing record against the joint venture that has seen them manage a single win from their past five meetings. Currently the most-capped player for South Sydney, premiership-winning captain John Sutton will become the first player to break the triple century barrier for the revered club, while Warrington-bound forward Jason Clark replaces Marc Nicholls on the bench.
COWBOYS V DRAGONS – SATURDAY, 7.35PM – 1300SMILES STADIUM
In a season that has been an enduring run of disappointment for last year’s beaten grand finalists, the Cowboys will look to maintain their stranglehold against the Dragons having lost just twice against the joint venture in Townsville. Having spent the past month in Queensland Cup with the Townsville Blackhawks, dual-premiership winning outside back Justin O’Neill has been named on the wing in place of Antonio Winterstein. Dropping to third position following a disappointing run over the past three matches, the Dragons will be looking to steady their form against a North Queensland outfit lacking the class of previous seasons. Despite dropping last Sunday’s match against the Tigers at home, coach Paul McGregor has maintained continuity throughout his side.
WARRIORS V STORM – SUNDAY, 2.00PM – MT. SMART STADIUM
Bouncing back from a disgraceful performance at Penrith to dominate the Broncos on their home turf, the Warriors will be out to inch closer to a return to finals football for the first time since 2011. Boosted by the return of Ken Maumalo at the expense of Anthony Gelling, journeyman James Gavet will play his 50th game in the NRL having started his professional career in the Warriors Under 20s squad a decade ago. Producing an unfashionable performance to down the Sea Eagles at Lottoland last Saturday, Melbourne will be out to extend their winning run against the Warriors to six consecutive matches dating back to 2016. Regaining their Origin representatives after sitting out the past fortnight, Brodie Croft has been preferred ahead of Ryley Jacks and Jahrome Hughes in the three-way duel to play halfback.
SEA EAGLES V ROOSTERS – SUNDAY, 4.10PM – LOTTOLAND
Squandering a healthy lead to lose to their bitter rivals Melbourne last Saturday, the Sea Eagles will have their sights set on recovering in front of their home fans by extending their dominant run against the Roosters to nine wins from the past eleven meetings held on the northern beaches. With Dylan Walker still sidelined, young playmaker Tom Wright has been retained in the halves ahead of mid-season recruit Trent Hodkinson. Coming away with two competition points in a controversial performance on the Gold Coast, the Eastern Suburbs outfit will be out to consolidate a place in the top four over the remaining weeks of regular season. Bolstered by the inclusion of six established stars that sat out the 20-12 win over the Titans, Queensland forward Dylan Napa is the only player missing from the Roosters’ best possible 17.