Following a weekend of comebacks, hard-fought wins and attacking master classes, the eight matches to be contested during Round 21 will help determine the minor premiers, confirm several side’s place in the finals and shape the recipient of the dreaded wooden spoon.
BULLDOGS V BRONCOS – THURSDAY, 7.50PM – ANZ STADIUM
Edging closer towards avoiding the wooden spoon the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs will be out to avenge their controversial defeat in Brisbane earlier this season by disrupting the Broncos’ finals preparation. With representative prop David Klemmer out suspended, mid-season purchase Chris Smith will make his debut for Canterbury off the bench in the only change to last week’s team. Producing greatly improved form in the aftermath of a dismal showing against the Warriors three weeks ago, the Brisbane Broncos will be out push their case for a top four finish by accounting for the lowly ranked Bulldogs. After successfully defeating Penrith and Cronulla with an unchanged squad, Wayne Bennett has opted for consistency once again with Joe Ofahengaue set to start despite wearing jersey 15.
KNIGHTS V TIGERS – FRIDAY, 6.00PM – MCDONALD JONES STADIUM
Squandering a tremendous start by dishing up a season ending final 40 minutes in Townsville last Friday the Newcastle Knights will be looking to mark the personal milestones of Shaun Kenny-Dowall (250 NRL games), Herman Ese’ese (50 NRL games) and Mitchell Barnett (50 games for Newcastle) with a win. In response to the 20-18 loss to the Cowboys, coach Nathan Brown has selected Cory Denniss, Connor Watson and former Tigers’ prop JJ Felise in place of Nathan Ross, Jack Cogger and Jacob Lillyman. Unable to account for a Canterbury outfit battling to avoid the wooden spoon after disposing of the high-flying Dragons and Rabbitohs in consecutive weeks, the Wests Tigers will be desperate for a run of luck if they are to feature beyond Round 25. In the only change from the team beaten 16-4 last Friday, former Newcastle forward Robbie Rochow has been preferred ahead of Chris McQueen on the bench.
RABBITOHS V STORM – FRIDAY, 7.55PM – ANZ STADIUM
In a precursor to finals football the South Sydney Rabbitohs will be out to gauge their standing in the premiership hierarchy against the competition leaders. Still without the services of captain Greg Inglis, coach Anthony Seibold has retained the same squad that downed Parramatta last Saturday. Humiliating the Raiders in the process of recording their eighth win in a row last Saturday, the Melbourne Storm will be out to create distance between competitors vying for the minor premiership as they look to become the first club in two decades to defend their grand final crown. Fielding one of their strongest line-ups of 2018, retiring second rower Ryan Hoffman has been named to return in place of Cheyse Blair in the only change.
DRAGONS V WARRIORS – SATURDAY, 3.00PM – WIN STADIUM
Embarrassed by the Roosters to leave Paul McGregor with serious concerns in the run up to September, the St. George Illawarra Dragons will be hoping to extend their unbeaten run over the Warriors in Wollongong to 11 consecutive matches. Despite copping a 36-18 loss last Sunday, the Dragons have retained the same 17 players with winger Nene MacDonald still unavailable. Needing to capitalise upon their lowly opponents last Sunday to allay fears of another post-Origin collapse, the New Zealand Warriors will be desperate to make amends for a dismal second half showing on the Gold Coast in order to maintain distance from the 9th placed Tigers. Boosted by the inclusions of Issac Luke, Tohu Harris and Adam Blair, coach Stephen Kearney will be looking to the experienced trio to lead the way as the Warriors chase back-to-back wins over the joint venture for the first time in history.
EELS V TITANS – SATURDAY, 5.30PM – ANZ STADIUM
Pushing the Rabbitohs to the death in a performance filled in equal measure with promise and frustration, the Parramatta Eels will be sweating on a win to ensure the race for the wooden spoon is as competitive over the closing weeks as the contests for the top four and minor premiership. In response to last week’s loss, coach Brad Arthur has recalled George Jennings and Kane Evans while talented playmaker Jaeman Salmon will make his NRL debut off the bench. Producing one of their finest performances to demolish the Warriors at home last Sunday, the Gold Coast Titans will be out to finish the year with a run of wins in order to build towards 2019. After posting a dominant win at home to move out of wooden spoon contention, coach Garth Brennan has stuck with the players that performed so strongly in last week’s 36-12 victory.
ROOSTERS V COWBOYS – SATURDAY, 7.35PM – ALLIANZ STADIUM
Emphatically accounting for one the competition heavyweights last Sunday, the Sydney Roosters will be out to flex their premiership credentials against a Cowboys side with a woeful regular season record at Allianz Stadium. Regaining the services of QLD prop Dylan Napa but losing Luke Keary for a month with a knee injury, Ryan Matterson has been selected at five-eighth, however Sean O’Sullivan or Mitchell Cornish could come into the side as a late inclusion. Rediscovering their winning ways in an unflattering performance against Newcastle to move slightly out of wooden spoon contention, the North Queensland Cowboys will be out to derail the Roosters’ premiership aspirations as they did in the preliminary final twelve months ago. Retaining the same 17 players that downed the Knights last Friday, Matt Scott will start in the front row ahead of John Asiata.
SHARKS V SEA EAGLES – SUNDAY, 2.00PM – SOUTHERN CROSS GROUP STADIUM
Needing to produce a performance wherein refereeing decisions have no bearing on the outcome of the match, the Cronulla Sharks will be looking to overcome a pathetic record against Manly in recent seasons having managed a 2/16 success rate dating back to 2012. Boosted by the inclusion of Wade Graham in the second row, representative outside back Josh Dugan could be a late inclusion after being named on an extended bench. Suffering a heartbreaking collapse after establishing a seemingly match-winning lead against Penrith last Saturday, the Manly Sea Eagles will be out to end their season of woe on a positive note with another major scalp. In the only change from the side shocked by the Panthers, Martin Taupau will start at prop ahead of impressive rookie Taniela Paseka.
PANTHERS V RAIDERS – SUNDAY, 4.10PM – PANTHERS STADIUM
Lucky to salvage a win in undeserving circumstances by scoring 22 points in six minutes last Saturday, the Penrith Panthers will need to produce a drastically improved showing if they are to be regarded as genuine threats in the premiership race. Sticking with the same playing group that got out of jail against Manly, representative prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard will be eyeing his comeback from a broken jaw after being named on the extended bench. Dishing up a weak performance in Melbourne last Saturday evening to leave their September aspirations in tatters, the Canberra Raiders will be out to throw the ball around over the remaining five weeks of the competition in order to remain positive in the waning weeks of a season full of missed opportunities. Boosted by the returns of halfback Aidan Sezer,and prop Shannon Boyd, a backline reshuffle sees Blake Austin move to the centres with Nick Cotric and Brad Abbey switching between fullback and wing.