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Already two rounds have passed in the new season and it’s clear to see just who are the contenders and pretenders for this year’s NRL premiership.
Two wins from as many matches see the St George Illawarra Dragons sitting on top of the ladder, and they’ll be heavily favoured to continue their strong start to the season when they face the Gold Coast Titans in Toowoomba.
Manly are also emerging as one of the dark horses after their record thrashing of Parramatta last week, which has exposed the Eels as premiership pretenders just six months after reaching the semi-finals.
Thursday night will see two of the title favourites, the Storm and Cowboys, face off for the first time since last year’s grand final with both teams coming off close losses to the Wests Tigers and Broncos respectively.
That match kicks off my Round 3 preview.
Storm versus Cowboys
Round three kicks off with the grand final rematch between the Storm and Cowboys, and its status as the Thursday night match means it will take place at the same time Richmond and Carlton do battle in the AFL season opener on the other side of the railway line at the MCG.
After thrashing the Bulldogs 36-18 in their season opener, the Storm suffered an uncharacteristic loss to the Wests Tigers last week, souring what was supposed to be a celebration for fullback Billy Slater in his 300th NRL game.
They will be hoping for a better outcome when they face the Cowboys in an NRL match for the first time since last year’s grand final, in which the Storm won in a landslide to claim its third legitimate premiership.
It must be noted that the Cowboys, which advanced to the big dance after finishing eighth on the ladder, were missing both their co-captains, Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, to long-term injuries suffered last year.
With both back on deck, the Cowboys were able to unofficially extract some revenge for their huge defeat last October, defeating the Storm in a recent testimonial match played at Suncorp Stadium last month.
The northerners could so easily have beaten the Broncos last Friday night, only for the goalposts to deny Scott Bolton what would’ve been another miraculous victory masterminded by you-know-who – Thurston.
The challenge facing Paul Green’s men is that not only do they have to face the reigning premiers on their home turf – they are also on the road for the second straight week, making one of the NRL’s longest road trips in the process.
At home, the Storm should bounce back.
Prediction: Storm by eight points.
Bulldogs versus Panthers
The first match on Friday night will see the Bulldogs attempt to break their season duck when they face the undefeated Penrith Panthers in their first ‘home’ game for the season at ANZ Stadium.
In some ways the Dogs could be considered unlucky, having had to face last year’s top-two NRL teams, the Storm and Roosters, in the opening two rounds of the season (as did the Wests Tigers).
But the manner in which they suffered defeats to both of those clubs has rookie coach Dean Pay under pressure, and another loss could see the Berries’ season continue to slip away quickly.
The Panthers, on the other hand, appear to have followed a similar script in their opening two matches of the season.
In Round 1 at home against the Eels, they fell behind 14-0 before overhauling their western Sydney rivals in the second half to win 24-14, while last week against the Rabbitohs, they also trailed 14-0 in the first half before going on to win by 18-14 and remain unbeaten after two rounds.
After arriving at the foot of the mountains as a direct replacement for Matt Moylan, two-time premiership winner James Maloney has impressed in his new colours and again the mountain men will be relying on him and his experience to extend their season record to 3-0.
Because after all, there doesn’t seem to be a rift at the foot of the mountains, isn’t there?
Prediction: Panthers by 12 points.
Wests Tigers versus Broncos
Once again, Matthew Lodge will become public enemy number one in Sydney when the Broncos head south to face the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium for the first time since 2014.
More allegations about Lodge’s violent past have surfaced recently, but for the sake of it we won’t go into too much detail about it.
A fortnight after being booed and jeered by a pro-Dragons crowd at Kogarah Oval, the 22-year-old is again expected to face a hostile crowd as he faces the club he represented twelve times between 2014 and 2015, before his well-documented drunken rampage in New York which resulted in the Tigers terminating his contract.
More importantly, the Broncos ended a week of criticism following their dismal season-opening loss to the Dragons by edging out their northern cousins, the Cowboys, 24-20 after a desperate tackle from prop Tevita Pangai Jr in the dying minutes saved them from potentially more embarrassment.
They will face a Wests Tigers side high on confidence following twin upset wins over the Roosters and Storm, two of the favourites for this year’s premiership, by the same scoreline of 10-8.
Ivan Cleary’s men must have followed the script, as they scored their only (but most important) try in the final five minutes in both matches, to see them among five teams undefeated after two rounds.
As tough as their wins over the Roosters and Storm were, their clash against the Broncos will just be another tough assignment in itself, given the Tigers have only tasted success against the northeners just five times, four of them at Suncorp Stadium (the other was in the 2005 semi-final at Allianz Stadium).
This will be the first time the Tigers host the Broncos in their own backyard since 2014, and this will also be the first time the Tigers host a Wayne Bennett-coached team in a regular season match since Round 22, 2011.
Despite the Tigers’ new-found confidence, I still think the Broncos should prove too strong here, and thus send the Tigers crashing back to earth.
Prediction: Broncos by 18 points.
Raiders versus Warriors
If there’s one frustrated coach in the NRL at the moment, it’s Ricky Stuart.
The number two appears to be an unlucky number for the Raiders, who suffered as many losses by that margin in the opening two rounds of the new season.
After twice blowing an 18-point lead in their Round 1 loss to the Titans, the Green Machine conceded a late try in the final ten minutes to suffer a gut-wrenching 30-28 loss to the Newcastle Knights at home.
This Saturday afternoon they will get their chance to unleash their fury on the New Zealand Warriors, who have defied their critics to start a season 2-0 for the first time since 2009.
But if that year was anything to go by, then Warriors fans need not got excited yet – that same year, they finished third from the bottom of the ladder.
They must also contend with a dismal record in the nation’s capital, having won just once at Canberra Stadium since 1997.
Still, confidence at the Warriors must be at highs not seen in a long time, and the Stephen Kearney-coached club will be keen to continue on their impressive start and continue to prove their doubters wrong.
However, the Raiders will be desperate to bury the demons of two heartbreaking losses to start the season and log their first win for 2018 in front of their home fans.
Prediction: Raiders by 12 points.
Rabbitohs versus Sea Eagles
The first match of the ANZ Stadium double-header will see the Rabbitohs attempt to break their duck when they host a red-hot Sea Eagles team coming off a record win over Parramatta and announcing themselves as true premiership contenders in 2018.
After a disappointing first-round loss to the New Zealand Warriors in Perth, the Rabbitohs performed slightly better against the Panthers, leading by 14-0 at half-time before conceding three tries in the second half to lose 18-14.
The result could have been totally different had Greg Inglis not come off in the second half due to concussion, which has put him in doubt for Saturday night’s clash against the Sea Eagles.
The men from the northern beaches may have been plagued by allegations of salary cap breaches during the pre-season, but they didn’t allow it to be a distraction as they thrashed the Parramatta Eels by a record 54-0 in a match played in heatwave-like conditions.
It was the perfect way for Trent Barrett’s men to hit back after they were nudged out by the Newcastle Knights in extra time in Round 1, going down by 19-18.
While the Rabbitohs should present more of a genuine challenge given their impressive display in the first half against the Panthers last week, the Sea Eagles should again prevail here.
Prediction: Sea Eagles by 14 points.
Eels versus Sharks
The only match this round pitting two winless teams against each other will see the Eels attempt to bounce back from their record humiliation by Manly when they face the equally-desperate Sharks in the second match of the ANZ Stadium double-header.
After reaching the semi-finals last season, and with prodigal son Jarryd Hayne back on deck, a lot was expected from the Eels in 2018.
But to say the least, their season has got off to a disastrous start, having conceded 78 unanswered points since last scoring midway through the opening half in their Round 1 loss to the Panthers.
This includes last week’s 54-0 loss to the Sea Eagles, a result which has left the club sitting dead last on the ladder on percentage and having to create history if they are to take out this year’s premiership.
In 110 years of professional rugby league, no team has ever won the premiership after conceding more than 50 points in a match, the closest coming when the North Queensland Cowboys lost to the Wests Tigers in the 2005 grand final, three weeks after being thrashed by that same side 50-6.
Like the Eels, the Sharks will also be desperate to get on the board after two close but rather disappointing losses to the Cowboys and Dragons in their opening two matches.
They kept the Cowboys honest in Townsville, and then got off to a strong start against the Dragons at home, only to capitulate in the second half and start a season with two straight losses for the first time since 2015.
While Shane Flanagan’s men should start favourites, they’ll be wary of a Parramatta side also keen to bounce back after such a horrid opening fortnight of the season, in which they suffered demoralising losses in matches played in the unrelenting Sydney heat.
In the end, I have the Sharks taking the chocolates here.
Prediction: Sharks by 10 points.
Titans versus Dragons
In stark contrast to what the Parramatta Eels are facing at the moment, the St George Illawarra Dragons sit pretty at the top of the ladder after two rounds, and will be heavily favoured to stay there when they face the Gold Coast Titans in Toowoomba.
The upcoming Commonwealth Games will force the Titans on the road for the next month or so, while their regular home ground, Cbus Super Stadium, is utilised for the rugby events.
After coming from behind to edge out the Canberra Raiders in the opening round, a trip across the ditch and a short turnaround conspired against the Titans as they went down 20-8 to the New Zealand Warriors in Auckland, going tryless until the dying minutes.
On the other hand, the Dragons came from behind to edge out local rivals the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, and they must be thankful that the Titans did score a try in the final minutes as they remain on top of the ladder, just ahead of the Warriors (+26 to +24) on points difference.
A try to Nene Macdonald, which was initially called a no-try but was later awarded by the video referee, proved to be the turning point as they overhauled their rivals in the second half, despite having winger Jason Nightingale sin-binned for a professional foul.
Captain Gareth Widdop has said that having Ben Hunt in the halves reminds him of his days playing for the Melbourne Storm, such is that the pair are proving to have an impact on the team after just two rounds.
Another player also making an impact for the Dragons is prop James Graham, who has provided leadership and experience to a forward pack rated by many as the best in the NRL.
While it is only early days as far as the Titans are concerned, the Dragons should come home strong and leave Toowoomba with the premiership points.
Prediction: Dragons by 14 points.
Roosters versus Knights
The final match of the round will pit two of the game’s best halfbacks in what can only be described as extraordinary circumstances.
Last April, when Cooper Cronk announced that he would be leaving the Melbourne Storm to be closer to his wife, and at the time his NRL future remained uncertain.
After the Storm took out last year’s premiership, Cronk decided to play on, eventually choosing the Sydney Roosters as his destination and therefore putting incumbent Mitchell Pearce in an awkward and uncomfortable position.
Pearce, clearly unhappy over the Roosters’ acquisition of the Maroons halfback, then decided to pack his bags and, along with Connor Watson and Aidan Guerra, head up the M1 to join the struggling Newcastle Knights.
Already, the incumbent Blues halfback has made a strong impact for his new club, guiding them to thrilling wins over the Sea Eagles (in which he kicked the match-winning field goal in golden point extra time) and the Raiders in the opening two rounds, to see his new club sit in fifth place on the ladder.
Conversely, Cronk endured a quiet debut as a Rooster as his side suffered an upset loss to the Wests Tigers in the opening round, but was solid as the Chooks registered their first win of the season against the Bulldogs last Friday night.
Pearce’s return to Allianz Stadium will at the very least give Roosters fans a proper chance to bid farewell to their former co-captain, but also adding intrigue to the match will be the presence of ex-Roosters Watson and Guerra, as well as Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
It’s a bit of a shame that the match will be played in the Sunday twilight timeslot, typically a low-drawing one as it is very close to the start of the working week.
Still, a solid crowd is expected at Moore Park to watch the battle of the halfbacks, and while Pearce has impressed at the Knights, I can see Cronk and the Roosters taking out this one – but only by just.
Prediction: Roosters by two points.