2014 NRL season: Round 3 preview

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    We are now two rounds down in 2014 and although crowds have disappointed, most of the matches we have already been treated to have been of high quality, with the obvious exception of losses for the Eels and Sharks last weekend.

    This round will see a number of interesting matches, such as the first versus last battle between the Dragons and the Sharks, and a big test for the Brisbane Broncos, who welcome the 2013 premiers, the Sydney Roosters, into their own backyard for only the fourth time since 2003.

    Both of those matches will be previewed in detail here.

    Broncos versus Roosters
    As impressive as the Broncos have been in starting their season with two narrow victories, just how far they have come after the worst season in their history will be put to the test against the seemingly indestructible Sydney Roosters outfit well assembled by Trent Robinson.

    While the Broncos finished 12th on the ladder, the Roosters compiled one of the most dominant seasons in recent NRL history, sweeping all before them en route to winning a well-deserved 13th premiership and recording six shutouts, one of which was against the Broncos in the corresponding match last year.

    This will be only the Roosters’ fourth trip to Brisbane to face the Broncos (five if you include their 2010 preliminary final against the Gold Coast Titans) since 2003, but they know what it’s like to win here, having won on their last three trips to the sunshine capital.

    The interesting match-up to watch here is that of the Broncos’ new recruit, Ben Barba, against the Roosters veteran and captain, Anthony Minichiello, who scored his first career hat-trick as the team bounced back from its’ season-opening loss to Souths by crushing Parramatta at home for the second year in a row.

    Martin Kennedy will also be in for a baptism of fire as he opposes his old club for the first time, and only the more passionate Roosters fans may also remember that Ben Hannant once played for them before moving to the Broncos in 2006.

    For mine, this is the match of the round, and while it will be difficult to pick a winner with real confidence, I’ll back the Roosters – but only by just.

    Sharks versus Dragons
    After two rounds, it’s pretty clear who has impressed and who hasn’t.

    The Dragons are sitting on top of the ladder on four and against, having won their first two matches in convincing fashion with new recruit Gareth Widdop once again leading the way against the Warriors in Auckland.

    Incredibly, this was the same team who last year suffered their worst ever season, winning only seven matches and finishing third from last on the ladder; it was those results which really questioned Steve Price’s ability to coach such a successful team.

    But now Price has the team that he wants and his investment in the club’s off-season recruits have paid off massive dividends, and it’s them who should take the club back to the finals in 2014.

    By contrast, their bitter rivals the Sharks were hit hard by the investigation into the club’s supplements program which has seen its coach, Shane Flanagan, suspended for 12 months.

    Not only that, the team have also suffered on the field, as evidenced when the injury-ravaged side were heavily thrashed 42-4 by the Bulldogs last Monday night.

    As a result of that heavy loss, the Sharks find themselves last on the ladder, and even with the Dragons coming to town on Saturday night, their fortunes may have to wait another week to change.

    The Sharks will have the advantage of this match being played at home, but the big question will be whether they can bounce back from such a devastating loss with only four full days rest.

    Prediction: Dragons by 18 points.

    Other matches: Wests Tigers versus Rabbitohs
    The Tigers were impressive in defeating the Titans last weekend but they will be in for a very big test when they face up to the Rabbitohs this Friday night.

    The Bunnies were impressive in beating the Roosters in their season opener but suffered a narrow defeat to Manly last weekend, further questioning whether they are contenders or pretenders for the premiership.

    But expect them to bounce back here, though this will be a Wests Tigers home match.

    Prediction: Rabbitohs by 16 points

    Panthers versus Bulldogs
    Despite last week’s loss to the Storm, the Panthers put in a brave effort against one of the premier teams in the competition, just missing out on the victory when Peter Wallace sprayed a penalty shot after the siren.

    But if they are to bounce back in front of their fans this weekend, they will have to be at their very best against the Bulldogs, who were devastating in putting the poor old Sharks to the sword by the scoreline of 42-4.

    This should be a good match, and with the home ground advantage, the Panthers should get home in this one.

    Prediction: Panthers by 6 points.

    Cowboys versus Warriors
    Both the Cowboys and Warriors enter this match on the back of losses; the Cowboys were just pipped by the Broncos while the Warriors were disappointing at home against the Dragons.

    However, its the Cowboys who have already had a win, back in Round 1 against Canberra, while the Warriors are still left searching for their first victory after previously going down to Parramatta in Round 1.

    Another loss for the Warriors, likely given the club have not won a match in Townsville since 2002, will put Matthew Elliott under pressure for not producing the results with the team that he has at his disposal.

    Prediction: Cowboys by 16 points.

    Sea Eagles versus Eels
    In what threatens to be another mismatch, last year’s runners-up Manly face off against back-to-back wooden spooners Parramatta, who are coming off another heavy loss to the Roosters, which has made their Round 1 victory over the Warriors a distant memory.

    The Silvertails bounced back from their heartbreaking season-opening loss against the Storm to just edge out the Rabbitohs, the victory made all the more impressive given they were without both Stewart brothers through injury.

    Despite the Eels’ heavy loss last week, the Sea Eagles should still be in for a serious challenge, if you consider their pre-season meeting at Brookvale Oval which the Sea Eagles had to come from behind to win.

    But in all seriousness, Geoff Toovey’s men should be too good for this one.

    Prediction: Sea Eagles by 20 points.

    Raiders versus Titans
    After opening their season with consecutive trips to Townsville and Newcastle, the Canberra Raiders return to the ACT for their first home game of the season against the Gold Coast Titans on Sunday night.

    Ricky Stuart’s troops were narrow losers against the Cowboys but made up for it against Newcastle, and as a result of that their percentage is a perfect 100 (in other words, their for-and-against is 0) but are 11th on the ladder, with their opponents, the Titans, just a rung below them in 12th.

    The Titans were poor against the Tigers in front of their home fans last week but two factors contributed to it – the hot weather, and a virus which spread through the squad forcing Mark Minichiello’s absence from the match.

    In their favour will be an 8-5 head-to-head record against the Raiders, but the possible sudden change in weather conditions may suit the Green Machine well.

    Prediction: Raiders by 14 points.

    Storm versus Knights
    A coaching rivalry will resume on Monday night when the Storm and Knights lock horns for the first time since the latter ended the premiership defence of Craig Bellamy’s men in last year’s NRL finals.

    Wayne Bennett and his Knights turned last year’s finals series on its head when a great defensive second half saw them knock out the Storm in the semi-finals, in the process going on to reach their first preliminary final since 2001.

    But now it’s desperate times for the Knights and Bennett, who are none from two this season and are without their fullback in Darius Boyd, who suffered a hamstring injury in their season-opening loss to Penrith two weeks ago.

    By contrast, the Storm are two from two this season but are far from impressive, requiring golden point to beat Manly and just escaping against Penrith when Peter Wallace missed a penalty shot after the siren.

    At home, the Storm should just be too good, though they will be wary of the very team that ended their premiership defence six months ago.

    Prediction: Storm by 10 points.

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