We are now past the halfway mark of the 2020 NRL season and for the first time since the season resumption, we have a new competition leader.
The Eels’ shock 22-18 loss to the Sea Eagles has allowed the Penrith Panthers to take the outright competition lead for the first time since their premiership-winning season of 2003.
Elsewhere, Paul Green has become the latest victim of the coaching merry-go-round, departing the Cowboys after six-and-a-half seasons in charge of the club, during which he led them to a historic premiership victory in 2015.
He is the third coach to fall this season, after Stephen Kearney and Dean Pay also left their posts at the Warriors and Bulldogs respectively.
Among the matches to watch this weekend is the southern Sydney derby between the Sharks and the Dragons, which despite being a Sharks home game will actually be played at Kogarah Oval, right in Dragons heartland.
There is also the match between the Raiders and Rabbitohs to watch, in what will be their first clash since last year’s gripping preliminary final which the Green Machine won in front of a packed Canberra Stadium crowd.
Here is your full preview to round eleven.
Eels versus Wests Tigers
Having seemingly cruised through the first half of the season, last week saw the Eels brought crashing down to earth thanks to a 22-18 loss to the Sea Eagles at Lottoland.
Still missing halfback Mitchell Moses due to injury, an uncharacteristically poor first half saw the Eels trail 22-4 at halftime, and while they improved in the second half, they were left to rue their slow start as they fell to their second loss of the season.
That followed on from a rather unconvincing 10-4 win over the Newcastle Knights, which was their first match away from Bankwest Stadium since Round 3.
Now they return home for a showdown against the Wests Tigers, who produced the most dominant performance by any team in Round 10 when they blanked the Brisbane Broncos 48-0 at Leichhardt Oval.
With halfback Luke Brooks demoted to the bench, veteran Benji Marshall pulled the strings as the Tigers recorded their first shut-out since mid-2012, and also recorded their first home win over the Broncos in a regular season match.
Another highlight was the first NRL try scored by Billy Walters – the son of current Queensland coach and 2000 Broncos premiership-winning captain Kevin Walters.
As good as the Tigers were last week, they’ll need to be even better if they are to break their Bankwest Stadium duck against the Eels, having lost to the home tenants in both matches last year, including a 51-6 loss on Easter Monday.
However, at home, the Eels should rebound in front of their fans in what shapes as a genuine western Sydney blockbuster.
Prediction: Eels by 12 points.
Cowboys versus Sea Eagles
A new era will dawn at the North Queensland Cowboys when they face the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles at QCB Stadium in the early match on Friday night.
After a poor start to the season which netted just three wins from their opening ten matches, premiership coach Paul Green made the decision to walk away from the club, thus giving the club some fresh air as they seek to appoint their next coach.
The Cows were far from disgraced against the Panthers at Penrith Stadium last week, being level 4-all at halftime and then taking the lead 10-4 early in the second half before they capitulated to lose 22-10.
Assistant coach and former player Josh Hannay will now take the reins on an interim basis, with his first task being to plot an upset of the team that upset the previous competition leaders last week.
Six nights after being humiliated 34-4 by St George Illawarra at Kogarah Oval, the Sea Eagles shot out of the blocks to lead the Parramatta Eels 22-4 at halftime, and despite being held scoreless in the second half, held on for a well-deserved 22-18 victory.
They’ll still be without fullback Tom Trbojevic due to injury, while Addin Fonua-Blake will have to wait another week to return despite completing his two-game suspension for abusing the referee in their dramatic Round 8 loss to the Knights.
This is because he has refused to take a jab for the flu vaccine and those that don’t are prohibited from entering the state of Queensland.
But after what has been a dramatic week for the Cowboys, I think they’ll take the points in Townsville.
Prediction: Cowboys by six points.
Broncos versus Storm
Another difficult week could be headed the way of Red Hill when the Brisbane Broncos welcome the Melbourne Storm to Suncorp Stadium on Friday night.
The Broncos have become the target of criticism and ridicule for another week after copping a 48-0 humiliation at the hands of Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval – where the northerners hadn’t lost since 1991 – last Friday night.
Key players Anthony Milford and Darius Boyd have copped most of the criticism, and it appears the board is starting to lose patience with second-year coach Anthony Seibold, giving him a ten-game ultimatum in which the club must win at least five matches if he is to remain at Red Hill past this season.
Former NSW Origin coaches Phil Gould and Laurie Daley have slammed the Broncos’ stance, with Gould stating it as “stupid” while Daley believes it was completely made up.
Already it has been reported that ex-Cowboys coach Paul Green has been linked to the job, though this would depend on just how much the board are prepared to persist with Seibold at the helm.
In contrast to the drama that is unfolding at Red Hill, it’s much calmer waters at the Melbourne Storm, which have won their past four matches despite having to evacuate from Victoria in the wake of the second wave of coronavirus cases in the state.
They show no signs of slowing down, thrashing the Titans 42-6 to record their fourth consecutive victory, and eighth from ten starts this season.
In their favour is a very strong recent record against the Broncos, having not lost to them anywhere since 2016 and not at Suncorp Stadium since Round 2, 2009.
In fact, the Broncos have only managed to take the points from the Storm only four times since the 2006 grand final, and in their most recent meeting, in Round 20 last year, the Storm won by 40-4 at Suncorp – the venue for this Friday night’s clash.
And judging by the Broncos’ recent form, I can’t see the Storm losing this one.
Prediction: Storm by 20 points.
Warriors versus Roosters
The first match on Saturday sees the Sydney Roosters make the trip up to Central Coast Stadium where they will face the New Zealand Warriors.
After a flying start upon the season resumption, the Chooks have hit turbulence, with Sam Verrills and Victor Radley both succumbing to season-ending injuries while James Tedesco, Jake Friend and Boyd Cordner have all spent some time on the sidelines.
They’ve also lost two of their past three matches, albeit narrowly against the Storm and Raiders at Suncorp Stadium and the SCG, respectively, on either side of a 42-16 win over the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville.
Their next task will be facing the New Zealand Warriors, who have done well to emerge from the first half of the season with three victories, against the Dragons, Cowboys and Broncos – teams that are unlikely to play finals football in season 2020.
Last week, however, the Warriors suffered another heavy defeat, going down 46-10 to the Cronulla Sharks.
The match against the Roosters will be the last match for four players – including David Fusitu’a, whose wife is expecting their first child – for at least a month after they were granted permission to return home to New Zealand.
Whether they return to the Central Coast to complete the season is another question, because the players would have to quarantine for a fortnight upon returning to New Zealand, and should they return to Australia, they’ll have to spend another fortnight in hotel quarantine before rejoining their teammates.
That means the four players who have opted to return home would miss at least four matches.
But now, their focus will turn to attempting to cause the boilover of the season against the two-time reigning premiers, and I simply cannot see that happening.
Prediction: Roosters by 18 points.
Sharks versus Dragons
Six weeks ago, Dragons coach Paul McGregor appeared to be a dead man walking, with many predicting that he would become the first coach to lose his job after his side lost their first four matches of the season.
Fast forward to now and the pressure appears to have alleviated off McGregor for now, with his side rediscovering some good form in recent weeks, winning four of their past six matches with the only losses being against last year’s grand finalists, the Roosters and Raiders.
Last week, the Dragons came from 22-10 down to snatch a 28-22 win against the Bulldogs in Wollongong, thanks to a three-try burst in the final fifteen minutes including the match-winner from the much-maligned Corey Norman at the death.
Shifting the magnets in the starting side seems to have paid dividends for McGregor, with Adam Clune’s improved performances in the halfback role forcing Ben Hunt to dummy half duties and captain Cameron McInnes to the back of the scrum.
Now they get the chance to complete a season double over the Sharks when they face the men from the Shire, but while the match will be at Kogarah Oval, it will actually be a Sharks home game, with the ground to be taken over by club sponsors and their cheerleaders.
This will consign the Dragons to use the visitors’ sheds, and Sharks members and supporters will get first priority as far as attendance at this match is concerned.
After being thrashed 56-24 by the Panthers last start, the Sharks rebounded to beat the New Zealand Warriors 46-10 on the Central Coast, with Shaun Johnson at the forefront as he masterminded the downfall of his former club.
This has also alleviated some of the pressure off second-year Sharks coach John Morris, with suggestions that ex-Cowboys coach Paul Green could be in the mix for the top job at Shark Park.
However, I think the Dragons’ recent strong form should get them home in this one.
Prediction: Dragons by 10 points.
Raiders versus Rabbitohs
Later on Saturday night, the South Sydney Rabbitohs will make the trip down the Federal Highway to Canberra for their first clash against the Raiders since last year’s preliminary final.
It was on the last Friday night in September last year that the Raiders edged out the Bunnies 16-10 in front of the largest NRL crowd the Australian capital had ever seen.
But come this Saturday night and only a handful of supporters will be allowed into the ground, with coronavirus restrictions continuing to limit how many people can attend matches and gather at other venues in the Australian Capital Territory.
The Rabbitohs will be looking for a strong start after falling behind 0-14 against the Knights at halftime – and then 0-18 early in the second half – before waking up in the final quarter to eventually fall short of a miracle comeback, losing 20-18.
Making their task against the Raiders all the more harder will be the fact that they’ll be without Origin stars James Roberts and Ethan Lowe, who both suffered potentially season-ending injuries in the loss to the Knights.
The Green Machine are up and about again – despite being without several key players, including John Bateman and Josh Hodgson, Ricky Stuart’s side managed to score an upset 24-20 win over the Roosters in the grand final rematch last Thursday night.
That saw them move to six wins and four losses for the season, the same as the Chooks, but their for-and-against is slightly inferior, meaning they sit in sixth place on the ladder.
It will be just their third true home game for the season, and there’s no way the Raiders are going to let the Bunnies run away with the two competition points on Saturday night.
Prediction: Raiders by 14 points.
Knights versus Bulldogs
The first of two matches on Sunday takes us up to Newcastle where a small but passionate crowd will be expected when the Knights welcome the Bulldogs to McDonald Jones Stadium.
The Knights’ season of improvement under rookie coach Adam O’Brien continued last weekend when they led from start to finish to defeat the Rabbitohs 20-18, that’s despite leading 18-0 midway through the second half.
The halves – Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce – have been instrumental in their side’s impressive first half of the season as they press for a first finals appearance since 2013.
Their plight is nothing compared to the Bulldogs, who have only won one game this season and are coming off a gut-wrenching 28-22 loss to the St George Illawarra Dragons in Wollongong, also last Saturday.
The Bulldogs conceded the season’s quickest try and were down 10-0 after as many minutes, but hit back with three straight tries to lead 20-10 at halftime.
But an injury to playmaker Kieran Foran conspired against them as they conceded three tries in the last 15 minutes to lose the match at the death – with Marcelo Montoya losing the ball that resulted in Corey Norman scoring the winner for the Dragons.
It was a bitter end to what had been a dramatic week at Belmore, whereby coach Dean Pay resigned after being informed that his services were no longer required in 2021.
It has been reported that the Bulldogs are chasing Trent Barrett to be their next coach – with an announcement imminent this week.
But for now, interim coach Steve Georgallis – who has been in this position before when he assumed the interim duties after Matthew Elliott departed the Panthers in mid-2011 – will have a tough task on his hands in trying to lift the Bulldogs ahead of their trip to Newcastle.
At home, the Knights should show no mercy.
Prediction: Knights by 12 points.
Titans versus Panthers
The final match of Round 11 sees the Penrith Panthers make the hit-and-run trip to the Gold Coast where the Titans will await.
After watching the Parramatta Eels fall to the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval last Saturday night, the Panthers pounced on top spot and despite a poor first half, proceeded to beat the Cowboys 22-10.
Halfback Nathan Cleary was best on ground as the mountain men claimed the outright premiership lead for the first time since their premiership winning year of 2003.
Their next assignment is taking on the Gold Coast Titans, who in their last match suffered a 42-6 thrashing at the hands of the Melbourne Storm at Sunshine Coast Stadium.
They had beaten the Warriors in their previous match, to add to wins over the Wests Tigers and Broncos from earlier in the season.
But heavy defeats to the Raiders, Sharks and Storm, among other results, is proof enough that there is no short-term solution to the club’s current woes.
And the last thing they would want is to face a Penrith Panthers side that are flying under the radar in season 2020.
In fact, the last time they faced the mountain men, they failed to score a try as they lost 24-2 – after which Justin Holbrook’s predecessor as Titans coach – Garth Brennan – was given his marching orders.
Even at home, I can’t see the Titans pulling off an upset against the new competition leaders, who should make it nine wins from eleven starts.
Prediction: Panthers by 18 points.