NRL PREVIEW – ROUND 22

Recognising the valuable contributions made by ‘Women In League’ over the course of the round, the eight matches to be contested in Round 22 should confirm the makeup of the top eight, along with resuming hostilities between some of rugby league’s greatest club rivalries.

COWBOYS V BRONCOS – 1300SMILES STADIUM – THURSDAY, 7.50PM
Going down to the wire in defeat against the in-form Roosters last Saturday, the North Queensland Cowboys will be out to put aside their season of disappointment with a fitting finale to Johnathan Thurston’s illustrious career opposing the Broncos. Elevating prop Corey Jensen to the bench in place of Shaun Fensom in an otherwise unchanged squad, the Cowboys will be hopeful of continuing a strong run of form over their higher profile Queensland rivals, having won seven of the past nine clashes in Townsville. Needing to bounce back from a woeful showing against the out-of-contention Bulldogs last week, the Brisbane Broncos will be out to overcome a poor recent record in Townsville in order to confirm a place in the finals. In response to the disappointment of last Thursday, coach Wayne Bennett has made the bold call to drop New Zealand international Jordan Kahu, with teenage centre Gehamat Shibasaki coming into the backline for his NRL debut, while retiring club legend Sam Thaiday will become the latest player to reach the 300 game milestone.

WARRIORS V KNIGHTS – MT. SMART STADIUM – FRIDAY, 6.00PM
Producing their first victory in Wollongong in over two decades courtesy of a resounding first half showing, the New Zealand Warriors will have high hopes of pushing for a top four finish against the out-of-contention Knights. Making minimal changes to the side that who downed the Dragons 18-12 last Saturday, veteran hooker Issac Luke is set to play his 250th game in the NRL after debuting with South Sydney back in 2007. Unable to deliver a major blow to the Tigers’ finals aspirations in a fast finish last Friday night, the Newcastle Knights will be hoping to put aside a woeful record in New Zealand where they have managed a single win since 2006. Unable to draw upon Connor Watson and with Mitchell Pearce in doubt for his 250th appearance in first grade, the makeup of the side’s halves pairing is likely to be determined prior to kick-off, while 20-year-old prop Pasami Saulo will make his NRL debut off the bench.

RABBITOHS V ROOSTERS – ANZ STADIUM – FRIDAY, 7.55PM
Moving back into first position with an emphatic victory over the reigning premiers last week, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will relish the prospect of putting a dent in their bitter rivals top four hopes. Losing Rookie of the Year candidate Adam Doueihi for the remainder of 2018 with a suspected ACL tear, Richie Kennar has been named to return for his first NRL appearance since April, while Braidon Burns has been afforded the responsibility of bench utility ahead of Tyrell Fuimaono. Holding off a spirited Cowboys’ outfit last Saturday to move within striking distance of pole position on the competition ladder, the Sydney Roosters will be eager to hit back against their historic foes after suffering a shock loss to the Rabbitohs back in April. With Luke Keary expected to be sidelined for at least another week, coach Trent Robinson has stuck solid with the squad that triumphed over North Queensland.

TITANS V PANTHERS – CBUS SUPER STADIUM – SATURDAY, 3.00PM
Taking a number of steps backwards against the Eels having produced their finest performance of 2018 a week earlier, the Gold Coast Titans will be hoping to record a rare win over the Panthers in an effort to reward long-suffering home fans. In the only change for the side beaten 28-12 last Saturday, Keegan Hipgrave will return in the second row at the expense of Jai Whitbread. Taking the audacious stance to sack coach Anthony Griffin a month out from the finals, the Penrith Panthers, under the interim tutelage of former journeyman Cameron Ciraldo, will be looking for a stronger defensive showing in the sunshine state having conceded over 100 points in their past three matches combined. Despite the change in coach the Panthers will field the same 17 players that downed the Raiders last Sunday, with Reagan Campbell-Gillard reverting to starting side ahead of Moses Leota in the only positional tweak.

SEA EAGLES V BULLDOGS – MCGRATH FOUNDATION STADIUM – SATURDAY, 5.30PM
Snatching a golden point victory over the in-form Sharks last Sunday, the Manly Sea Eagles will be hoping to record their first genuine win at home since March in an effort to move out of wooden spoon contention. Sticking with the same 17 players that got the job done last weekend, coach Trent Barrett will be hoping his side can replicate their 36-0 thrashing against Canterbury when the two sides last clashed on the northern beaches in the early rounds of 2017. Dominating the finals-bound Broncos last Thursday in their best performance of 2018, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs will be out to extend a dominant run of form having triumphed in seven of the past eight meetings opposing their weekend opponents. Regaining the services of representative prop David Klemmer at the expense of Greg Eastwood, Jeremy Marshall-King has been preferred at halfback despite a strong showing from late call-up Matt Frawley against Brisbane.

EELS V DRAGONS – ANZ STADIUM – SATURDAY, 7.35PM
Buoyant from a comprehensive performance against the Titans last Saturday, the Parramatta Eels will be out to shed the wooden spoon by resuming their strong record over the Dragons, highlighted by six wins from the past seven clashes. In a major backline reshuffle Bevan French has been axed with rookie playmaker Jaeman Salmon coming into the halves in a move that sees Corey Norman (fullback), Jarryd Hayne (wing) and Clinton Gutherson (centre) all change positions. Having led the competition after getting out of jail against the Eels six weeks ago, the St. George Illawarra Dragons will be looking to overcome a dismal record in recent weeks having managed just one win from their past five matches. Still without the services of dynamic winger Nene MacDonald, injured NSW prop Paul Vaughan will miss the next month in a forward reshuffle that sees Blake Lawrie come onto the bench.

RAIDERS V TIGERS – GIO STADIUM – SUNDAY, 2.00PM
Left to deal with the fallout of another second half collapse – their eighth this season – the Canberra Raiders will be hoping to record another mammoth victory against the Tigers, having outscored the joint venture 206-34 in the past four meetings. Despite conceding 16 points with 15 minutes to play against Penrith, coach Ricky Stuart has retained the same 17 players for Sunday’s clash. Needing to win their remaining four matches to be any chance of playing finals football, the Wests Tigers will have no shortage of motivation on Sunday as they look to atone for an atrocious showing against Canberra earlier in the year. Unable to draw upon the services of Corey Thompson following a season-ending injury sustained against Newcastle, Malakai Watene-Zelezniak has been selected by coach Ivan Cleary for the must-win contest.

STORM V SHARKS – AAMI PARK – SUNDAY, 4.10PM
Establishing an early lead only to be outplayed by South Sydney last Friday night, the opportunity to bounce back at home should see the Melbourne Storm rise to the occasion against their former grand final foes. Despite coming off with the result beyond doubt against the Rabbitohs, Melbourne skipper Cameron Smith is expected to take his place at hooker, while prolific try-scorer Suliasi Vunivalu has been named to return after missing last week for personal reasons. Left to rue an assumed victory over the hapless Sea Eagles at home last Sunday, the Cronulla Sharks will be out to bounce back with a much-improved defensive showing in order to build confidence leading into the play-offs. Resisting the urge to drop players following last week’s golden point defeat, coach Shane Flanagan has opted to retain Valentine Holmes at fullback, despite the return of marquee signing Josh Dugan from a lengthy stint on the sidelines.

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