2013 NRL season: Round Five preview

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It was a brutal weekend of football last week, and two sides remain unbeaten as we head into round five.

Manly and the Sydney Roosters ramped up their attack, victimising the Wests Tigers and Parramatta respectively, Melbourne and Souths remain unbeaten and Krisnan Inu is set to miss five weeks following one of the ugliest dangerous throws in recent history.

Not to mention, the Dragons and Warriors both got off the mark last week with their first victories for the season.

This makes for what should be another intriguing round of NRL action this week.

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs vs. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Friday, April 5
7:35pm
ANZ Stadium

Last meeting: Bulldogs 16-10 at ANZ Stadium, first qualifying final, 2012.

Last week: The Bulldogs were just edged out by the Rabbitohs, whilst the Sea Eagles brutalised the Wests Tigers.

If there was ever one positive to come out of the Bulldogs’ loss last week, it was the return of Ben Barba. Despite his return from a temporary suspension in which he had to deal with issues involving his personal life and gambling problems, he could not get the Bulldogs past the line against a South Sydney outfit which is so far enjoying its best start to a season since 1971.

But this is the time when the team will need him the most. The Bulldogs are 1-3 for the season and this week they face a Manly side which are getting better by the week. Their attack needs to be on from the get-go, though their defence did improve last week after coughing up 22 points against the Melbourne Storm in Round 3. Barba’s defence will also be crucial to the Bulldogs’ chances of victory this Friday night.

Despite the nature of Manly’s victory last week, they were at times sloppy with their ball play – at one stage, they had a completion rate of 50% – not a good statistic for an attacking team of their stature. They could have won by so much more had they managed to hold on to the ball at those crucial times in the first half when the team was struggling to score points. Only in the second half did they really click with their ball use and attack, and again this will be the key to their chances of victory in this match.

MATCH-UP: Ben Barba vs. Brett Stewart. Two of the fastest men in the game go head-to-head in what should be a blockbuster of a match.

KEY: Manly’s poor ball use, as exhibited last week, can be severely punished especially against a team like the Bulldogs of War.

TIP: Sea Eagles by 10 points.

Gold Coast Titans vs. Brisbane Broncos
Friday, April 5
7:35pm
Skilled Park

Last meeting: Titans 14-10 at Skilled Park, Round 20, 2012.

Last week: The Titans continued their impressive start to the season by beating the Panthers, whilst the Broncos were poor in the first half against the Melbourne Storm.

The Titans are a team on the rise and there is no doubt that this team is destined for great success this season after last week’s impressive victory over the Penrith Panthers.

Their recent imports are living up to their price tags, namely Nate Myles, Jamal Idris and Greg Bird. Not only that, Albert Kelly could prove to be one of the feel-good stories of the season, given he has filled the former role of Scott Prince superbly, and that is to direct the attack from the scrumbase.

Fans should also remember that this time last year, the existence of the team was in doubt. Debt issues, as well as the team having come off a poor season in which it landed the wooden spoon, was threatening to derail the club.

But their on-field success now suggests that those dark days are well and truly behind them and that the rebuilding process has been fast-tracked by this three-match winning streak which they can extend to four with a victory over their northern neighbours.

Apart from a brief patch in the second half last week, the Broncos were generally very poor against the Melbourne Storm. They lacked any direction in the first half, and only in the second half did they really get anything working. Three tries to start the second half had them in the lead, but it didn’t last long.

If the Broncos get off to another slow start this week, especially against the Titans who are on fire at the moment, it will cost them.

Their season so far proves that they have clearly moved on from the glory days of the noughties, when they were carving up teams at will and scoring points relentlessly. Though they did test the Storm’s defence last week, I can’t see a repeat performance this week. The Titans are a good defensive side and their three victories this season prove just that.

MATCH-UP: Albert Kelly vs. Scott Prince. It’s the feel-good story against the traitor. Titans fans will be serving it up to their old Prince no doubt.

KEY: Can the Titans’ new look continue their impressive resurgence?

TIP: Titans by 16 points.

Parramatta Eels vs. Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Saturday, April 6
5:30pm
Parramatta Stadium

Last meeting: Eels 29-20 at Parramatta Stadium, Round 13, 2012.

Last week: Both teams were very poor, Parramatta being shut out by the Sydney Roosters and the Sharks becoming the Dragons’ first victims of season 2013.

Parra-thetic. That’s the only word I can describe Parramatta’s effort last week against the Sydney Roosters. They lacked direction, confidence and just about everything within a football team.

It’s now very clear that their first round victory over the Warriors is a false dawn to the club’s supporters who were anticipating a massive improvement from the team this year.

Pride should be the main focus on each player’s minds at the moment. And the Eels have experienced it and done it before. Eight years ago, the Eels had endured a horrific 54-14 defeat to the Brisbane Broncos in Brisbane, yet the following week they flew down to Melbourne and recorded a 26-14 victory over the Melbourne Storm (who, at the time were not the team that they are now).

Whilst I’m not going far to suggest that the Eels won’t do it again, they need to put in a more committed effort than they did against the Roosters, otherwise the team will suffer yet another loss and fans will start to grow impatient.

There is no doubt the Sharks will be on high alert, and they should be aware that they are facing a team who are coming off such a terrible loss. But the Sharks themselves were very poor last week, losing to their more successful neighbours, the Dragons, at home, in a match which I believe they should have won. Any hopes they have of bouncing back this week have been dented by a foot injury to Todd Carney, which could see him out for at least a fortnight.

Last week’s loss highlights their inconsistency. They can be good one week, bad the next. Many also say that the team over-rely on Paul Gallen, who made the most metres than any other man on the field last week. Yes, Gallen is the heart and soul of the Sharks, but the Sharks cannot burden the workload on just one man.

The workload also needs to be shared around the other plays, particularly Carney, if they are to win more matches this season.

MATCH-UP: Two poor teams. This is how I would describe both teams’ efforts last week.

KEY: The Eels have been in this position before, bouncing back after a heavy defeat. But I can’t see history repeating this Saturday night.

TIP: Sharks by 10 points.

North Queensland Cowboys vs. Penrith Panthers
Saturday, April 6
6:30pm
Dairy Farmers Stadium

Last meeting: Cowboys 30-28 at Dairy Farmers Stadium, Round 11, 2012.

Last week: The Cowboys became the Warriors’ first victims of 2013, whilst the Panthers put in an ill-disciplined performance against the Titans.

It’s desperate times for both the Cowboys and the Panthers – since opening their seasons with respective victories over the Bulldogs and Raiders last month, neither team has come close to winning another match.

The Cowboys have had the most disappointing losing run since that first round triumph over last year’s Grand Finalists. They lost to the Melbourne Storm and Newcastle Knights, coughing up 30 or more points in both matches, and let slip a 12-0 lead to lose against the Warriors in Auckland last week.

News that Johnathan Thurston has resigned with the club until the end of 2017 after the Bulldogs match was met with fanfare, but the club has not won a match since and another loss this Saturday night could see their finals dreams further fade away.

The Panthers have never looked like winning another match since thrashing the Raiders in the opening round. They could not beat a Tigers side coming off a first round loss to Newcastle, and then ran into two in-form sides at home in the Rabbitohs and Titans in the past fortnight.

Whether the form of both sides contributed to Penrith’s poor start to the season still remains to be seen. The team needs to get some structures working if they are to win a lot of matches this season, and this will all be dependent on the playmaking department.

MATCH-UP: Two desperate teams. Expect them to be playing with grand-final like intensity this Saturday night.

KEY: The Cowboys are back to their accustomed conditions of playing in the heat. This could work in their favour as they try to get back to form.

TIP: Cowboys by 8 points.

St. George Illawarra Dragons vs. Newcastle Knights
Sunday, April 7
3:00pm
WIN Jubilee Oval

Last meeting: Dragons 12-4 at WIN Jubilee Oval, Round 7, 2012.

Last week: The Dragons got off the mark against the Sharks, whilst Newcastle continued on its merry way against the Canberra Raiders.

What a way to get your first win of the season against one of your most fiercest rivals in the NRL. The Dragons last week served it up to the Sharks, who were caught unaware of their intention to get something started this season. At least the pressure is off Steve Price for now, but the pressure will still remain on the team to build on last week’s victory.

Jamie Soward and Nathan Fien finally clicked in their fourth game together this season, scoring the team’s first two tries and directing the attack, which has come under fire during the three losses that started their season, well. Their defence also deserves a thumbs up after they restricted the Sharks to only 12 points.

Now, they face their old coach, and the Newcastle Knights, who are being touted for big things this year. The Knights have turned Hunter Stadium into a fortress, claiming three teams – the Tigers, Cowboys and Raiders, in the process. But this will be their second trip out of the Steel City, and the last time they headed down the F3, the result was a 32-0 loss to the Manly Sea Eagles in Round 2.

However, judging by the way they have bounced back in the past fortnight, albeit at home, you would expect that the Knights would put in a much better effort this time. And there is no reason why I can’t see the Knights pulling off a victory this Sunday, given how impressive they have been to start the season (not including the aforementioned shut-out against the Sea Eagles which I mentioned earlier).

MATCH-UP: Jamie Soward vs. Tyrone Roberts. Soward last week was impressive, whilst Tyrone Roberts showed why he is the future of Newcastle’s playmaking department with a great performance against the Raiders.

KEY: Can the Dragons build on last week’s victory, or will the Knights send them back to reality?

TIP: Knights by 6 points.

New Zealand Warriors vs. South Sydney Rabbitohs
Sunday, April 7
4:00pm
Mount Smart Stadium

Last meeting: Warriors 44-22 at Mount Smart Stadium, Round 7, 2012.

Last week: The Warriors got off the mark by beating the Cowboys, whilst the Rabbitohs held off the Bulldogs to remain unbeaten.

The Warriors are no longer worriers. Last week’s victory over the Cowboys was one of the most courageous victories in the club’s recent history, and it shows that they can perform in the face of adversity. They faced being down 12-0 at half-time, but they suddenly got some structures working in the second half and this was the key to their narrow victory last week.

But whether it was the Warriors being revitalised, or the Cowboys just collapsing after that dominant first half, remains to be seen. This week, they face a team that can punish slow starts by opposition teams very easily, and that is the South Sydney Rabbitohs, who are experiencing their best start to a season since 1971, the year of the club’s last premiership.

Last week’s victory over the Bulldogs vindicates the experts’ predictions that the Bunnies will be the big movers this season. After last year’s preliminary final heartbreak against the Bulldogs, fans will be hoping that the club goes one better this season and make the Grand Final.

But their form can be a bit patchy. In Round 1, they scored an attacking victory over the Roosters, whereas in Round 2 they were forced to endure a scoreless second half against the Sharks. In Round 3, their attack went all out in a win over Penrith, whilst last week they had to come from behind to beat the Bulldogs. Could this mean the Rabbitohs are in for an attacking exhibition this week?

MATCH-UP: Shaun Johnson vs. Adam Reynolds. Johnson last week was the mastermind behind the Warriors’ victory, whilst Reynolds continues to get better every week.

KEY: The Rabbitohs no longer have the fear of playing away but this will be their first match outside of Sydney this year. Can they adopt to the cold conditions of Auckland?

TIP: Rabbitohs by 8 points.

Canberra Raiders vs. Sydney Roosters
Sunday, April 7
6:30pm
Canberra Stadium

Last meeting: Raiders 24-20 at Canberra Stadium, Round 24, 2012.

Last week: The Raiders could not back up its first victory of the season, losing to Newcastle, whilst the Roosters were absolutely merciless against the Parramatta Eels, winning 50-0.

The Raiders’ loss to Newcastle last week was the expected reality check I forecast for the team before the match. Apart from a first half which saw them lead at half-time, they were just generally poor in the second half whereby they were unable to score a point against the Knights’ tough defence. This shows that the Raiders are very likely to continue to struggle this season against the competition’s top teams as they try to move on from the Josh Dugan saga.

Any chances they have of a second victory this season will not be forthcoming this week, as they face a red-hot Sydney Roosters side who are playing just unbelievably this season. Over the last fortnight, the Roosters have outscored their opposition by 58-0 (8-0 over the Broncos and 50-0 over the Eels) and did not concede a single line break in 160 gruelling minutes of football.

There is no doubt the Roosters will be the biggest improvers this season. If I could pick a premiership favourite other than the Melbourne Storm right now, it’d be the boys from Bondi Junction, who last week successfully defended their Great Wall of Bondi from another attacking raid for the second week in a row. Sonny Bill Williams hasn’t lost any of the magic which he produced when he was at the Bulldogs, and Michael Jennings and James Maloney are also living up to their price tags at last.

If the Raiders are going to beat them, which is very unlikely, even at Canberra Stadium, they will need to structure their game plan around shutting down SBW.

MATCH-UP: A poor side against an all-stars side. The Roosters’ playing squad has all the names their fans could ask for – which the Raiders don’t.

KEY: Can the Raiders bounce back, or will the Sydney Roosters’ Great Wall of Bondi continue to hold firm?

TIP: Roosters by 16 points.

Melbourne Storm vs. Wests Tigers
Monday, April 8
7:00pm
AAMI Park

Last meeting: Storm 26-6 at Leichhardt Oval, Round 26, 2012.

Last week: The Storm remained undefeated in its premiership defence, beating the Brisbane Broncos, whilst the Wests Tigers were shut-out by the Manly Sea Eagles in Gosford.

Is there anything negative I can say about this Melbourne Storm side at the moment? No. Four teams have tried unsuccessfully to test the premiership status of the Melbourne Storm, with only the Bulldogs coming closest in Round 3 when they fell short by four points.

The Wests Tigers are the next team in line to challenge the Storm, but if there’s any hope for their fans, it’s that the Tigers won their last meeting in Melbourne, in Round 14 last year.

Billy Slater’s game last week featured a hat-trick of tries, but also a near-fatal error in the final five minutes which threatened to lose the match for the Storm. That came when the match was still in the balance at 32-26, by then which the Storm’s victory wasn’t assured just yet.

Last week highlighted the Storm’s inability to build on their first-half dominance; in Round 3, they almost let the Bulldogs take the match from their hands and last week they even trailed the Broncos when they shouldn’t have. And against the Tigers, another slow second half will be punished, but not severely.

The Tigers were dealt a massive reality blow last week against the Sea Eagles last week, despite being unable to capitalise on Manly’s poor completion rate last week. They had their chances in the first hour of the match, but fell away terribly to lose by 26-0 when the score was only 4-0 at half-time.

If the Tigers don’t tighten up their defence against the attacking brand of the Storm, then there is a big chance they could be in for a long night down in Melbourne. But take note that their last meeting came before State of Origin II, so there will be no mercy this time around.

MATCH-UP: Cameron Smith vs. Robbie Farah. Could this be State of Origin 1/2?

KEY: Melbourne’s Big Three of Slater, Cronk and Smith will be hard to crack, especially at home.

TIP: Storm by 16 points.

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