The inconsistencies of the ‘crackdown’ are under the microscope again!
After last year’s festival was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Magic Round returns this year, with Suncorp Stadium to play host to all eight matches this weekend.
Following a recent COVID scare in Sydney, all players have been placed under the same stage three restrictions that most, if not all, of Australia were subject to at the height of the pandemic last year, for what is hoped to only be a brief period.
That means players are only allowed to leave home to attend training or shop for groceries, while they are banned from eating at restaurants and cafes as well as attending crowded venues.
Among the matches this weekend include the Broncos playing an ‘away’ game against the Sea Eagles on their own home turf, as well as the Roosters hosting the Cowboys where the northerners are more likely to get the crowd support.
We’ll also see a reprisal of the 1999 grand final, with the Storm hosting the Dragons at a venue where they have not been beaten since 2017. For Craig Bellamy’s side, it will be a return to south-east Queensland where they were based for the second half of last season.
The Panthers will also start hot favourites to extend their undefeated start to the 2021 season when they face the Gold Coast Titans at the end of the round.
Here is your full preview of Magic Round.
Wests Tigers vs Knights
The first match of Magic Round sees the Newcastle Knights get the chance to reverse their Round 3 loss to the Wests Tigers, a result which saw their season spiral out of control after having won their first two matches.
It was in Round 3, at McDonald Jones Stadium, where the Tigers ruined Mitchell Pearce’s 300th NRL match with a 24-20 victory, the first of only two wins so far this year for Michael Maguire’s men.
Since then, they have only won once more, against the Dragons in Round 8, and last week were again found wanting against the Gold Coast Titans with a poor defensive display proving costly as they lost 36-28 at Campbelltown Stadium.
They have now sunk to second-last place on the ladder and face a long way back if they are to salvage something out of the season.
Meantime, the Knights got things back on track, coming from behind to beat the Raiders by 24-16 after they had trailed by 16-0 at halftime.
The Novocastrians appeared down and out at halftime, but suddenly turned things around in the second half scoring four unanswered tries, with coach Adam O’Brien lauding his side’s mental toughness in such a potentially difficult situation.
Veteran halfback Mitchell Pearce is still to return but rookie utility Phoenix Crossland, Kalyn Ponga and five-eighth Kurt Mann were all instrumental in the second-half comeback.
On the back of a confidence-boosting win, the Knights can make it five wins for the year, which would square their season ledger ahead of the State of Origin series beginning next month.
Prediction: Knights by eight points.
Sea Eagles vs Broncos
The match to be seen on Channel Nine this Friday night pits the improving Sea Eagles up against the local side, the Brisbane Broncos, who as the ‘away’ team will be consigned to using the visitors’ sheds on this occasion.
The Silvertails’ resurgence continued last Sunday, with Tom Trbojevic marking his 100th game with an impressive individual performance as they held off the New Zealand Warriors by 38-32 at Brookvale Oval.
It marked their fourth win in their past five games and they get the chance to make further inroads on the top eight when they ‘host’ the Broncos.
Kevin Walters’ side appear to have turned a corner in recent weeks, first coming from behind to upset the Titans at home, before falling agonisingly short of victory against the Cowboys in Townsville, losing 19-18 last Saturday night.
As if that wasn’t enough, stand-in captain Patrick Carrigan will miss the rest of the season after suffering the dreaded ACL injury in the loss to their northern rivals, leaving them void of any leadership.
With the improved form of both the Sea Eagles and Broncos in recent weeks, this match could go either way and while the Broncos will be the ‘away’ side, the ‘home’ ground advantage should gift them a third win for the year.
Prediction: Broncos by six points.
Bulldogs vs Raiders
To kick off Super Saturday, two clubs desperate for a win will go head-to-head, with the Raiders seeking to put an end to a five-match losing streak which has seen them drop out of the eight, and the Bulldogs looking to put another stinging week of criticism behind them.
High-profile recruit Kyle Flanagan again failed to fire as the Bulldogs suffered embarrassment against the Dragons at Kogarah Oval last Sunday, losing 32-12 despite trailing by only 6-0 at halftime.
So much so, Bulldogs coach Trent Barrett had no choice but to bench his playmaker at halftime, only for Flanagan to return to the field when Corey Allan was stretchered off midway through the second half.
Flanagan has been axed for this match, given a week off to ponder his poor start to life at Belmore after being released by the Sydney Roosters last year.
It is proof that the Dogs have yet to improve on last season’s 15th-place finish, when they were competitive in most games and avoided the wooden spoon with an upset win over the Rabbitohs in the penultimate round.
Meantime, Ricky Stuart would be scratching his head as to where it went wrong for his side as they squandered a 16-0 halftime lead to lose 24-16 to the Newcastle Knights in Wagga Wagga.
From a 3-1 start to the season, they have now dropped to 3-6, with their five-game losing streak being their worst since late-2014.
Alarmingly, they have been outscored 93-8 in the second half in each of their past five matches, something that Stuart will want to address to his players at training this week.
While they get the chance to right their wrongs against the Bulldogs on Saturday, another loss could see them lose touch with the top eight and leave them at risk of missing the finals for the first time since 2018.
Prediction: Raiders by 18 points.
Sharks vs Rabbitohs
Redemption will be on the menu for both the Sharks and Rabbitohs, after both suffered embarrassing shut-out losses against last year’s grand finalists, the Panthers and Storm, respectively last week.
It is a well-known stat that no team has won a premiership after conceding 50 or more points during the regular season, and if the Bunnies’ 50-0 thumping by the Storm is anything to go by, then they can just about kiss their title hopes goodbye.
It was also their heaviest loss since Round 16, 2006 when they were blanked 66-0 by the New Zealand Warriors, also at Stadium Australia, back in the days when the club was struggling to adjust back into the NRL, having been readmitted into the competition in 2002.
But in some much needed good news for Wayne Bennett’s side, they’ll get Adam Reynolds back from a thumb injury while Latrell Mitchell has one more match to serve of his four-match suspension from the Round 6 match against the Wests Tigers.
Twenty-four hours after the Bunnies’ shut-out loss, the Sharks suffered the same fate against the Penrith Panthers at the foot of the mountains, losing 48-0 and becoming the third side this season to be shut out by Ivan Cleary’s side.
The Sharks offered nothing in attack as they became victim to another masterclass showing from Charlie Staines, the Panthers’ winger who scored four tries on his debut in the corresponding match last year and again tormented the men from the Shire with a hat-trick.
It was their fifth-straight loss and it sunk them to 13th on the ladder, leaving them at risk of their worst season since they claimed the wooden spoon in 2014.
With the return of Adam Reynolds, who appears certain to pack his bags and depart Redfern at season’s end, the Bunnies should hit back and hit back hard with a win on Saturday night.
Prediction: Rabbitohs by 14 points.
Roosters vs Cowboys
It would hurt to be coach Trent Robinson right now given the Roosters’ injury toll, which last week claimed another victim when Drew Hutchison was hospitalised after being kneed in the back by Eels five-eighth Dylan Brown.
Despite the adversities faced by the men from Bondi Junction and the scoreline suggesting otherwise, the Chooks punched well above their weight against the Eels, scoring the first try and being within arm’s reach for most of the match before eventually losing 31-18.
They now sit in fifth place on the ladder but get the chance to break back into the top four, though this is dependent on the Rabbitohs and Storm both suffering unlikely losses over the course of Magic Round.
Next in the firing line are the Cowboys, who have revived their season by winning four of their past five matches, the highlight being their epic 19-18 win over the Broncos in the Queensland derby in Townsville last Saturday night.
The two sunshine state rivals did not disappoint as they put on another thriller in the tropics, with Kyle Feldt outstretching his arm to score a try, while Valentine Holmes proved to be the hero by potting a field goal at the death to give his side a second straight win over the Broncos.
The crowd of 22,222 was also believed to be the first in Australian rugby league history where the crowd figure contained only one number.
The Cows’ newfound form has them believing they can cause an upset this Saturday night and given the Chooks’ injury toll, the northerners can pull off another win and make it five wins from their last six.
Prediction: Cowboys by six points.
Warriors vs Eels
If the New Zealand Warriors are to prove themselves as genuine finals contenders, then they need to start winning matches against them.
That starts on Sunday, when they face the second-placed Parramatta Eels who have lost just one match for the season and were ultra-impressive in downing the Sydney Roosters at Bankwest Stadium last Friday night.
But the win came at a cost for Brad Arthur’s men, with Dylan Brown suspended by the tribunal for putting his knees into the back of Drew Hutchison, who was sent to hospital as a result of his serious injury.
Still, the blue and golds are tracking well and will start favourites to down the Warriors, who, despite their second loss to the Sea Eagles inside five weeks, remain inside the eight but with a poor points differential of -27.
The Kiwi side had started well, but fell victim to a Tom Trbojevic masterclass in what was the Manly custodian’s 100th NRL game, and the best performance by any individual player so far this season.
Prior to that, Nathan Brown’s side burst out of the blocks against the Cowboys in Gosford, leading 24-4 at halftime before just holding on to win 24-20.
The clash against the second-placed Eels will present the Warriors another challenge and a test of their credentials so far and while they should give a good account of themselves, the westerners should prove too strong here.
Prediction: Eels by 12 points.
Storm vs Dragons
Whenever the Storm and Dragons clash you can always expect that there will be a bit of feeling and intrigue.
Last Thursday night, the Storm put the rest of the competition on notice and demonstrated why they are the defending premiers, inflicting a half-century on the South Sydney Rabbitohs in their second game back at Stadium Australia since last year’s grand final.
It was highlighted by a history-making individual performance from Josh Addo-Carr, who became the first player in over 70 years to score six tries in a premiership match, and first since Valentine Holmes scored that many in one match during the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
They certainly could’ve won by a bigger margin had Cameron Munster not missed a few shots at goal; still, it was a world-class performance and comes to show that the Storm, even in the post-Cameron Smith era, will not give up their title without a fight.
Meantime, the Dragons got their season back on track after three straight losses, running riot in the second half to thrash the Bulldogs by 32-12 with the highlight being tries to debutants Mat Feagai and Junior Amone, the latter set up by Ben Hunt.
In winning, they retained their place in the eight but will face their toughest test yet when they face the Storm, whom they beat in the final round last year, though the eventual premiers were without rested captain Cameron Smith, who remained on the Sunshine Coast hub.
Luckily for the Dragons, this will be the third-straight year they’ve not had to face the Storm in Melbourne, where they haven’t won since 1999, but facing them in Brisbane will be a huge ask as the Storm have rarely lost in the sunshine capital this century.
They also won’t have to face Storm key players Cameron Munster or Harry Grant, after both were ruled out of the trip to Brisbane due to injuries.
Despite this, the Storm, who will set up camp on the Sunshine Coast for the next few weeks during which they will be able to engage with the community after not being able to do so last year, should take the points.
Prediction: Storm by 20 points.
Titans vs Panthers
To finish off Magic Round, the Gold Coast Titans will need to draw on whatever strengths and beliefs they have if they are to cause an upset and hand the Penrith Panthers their first loss of the season.
Last week, the Titans, who have been touted as potential improvers this season, broke a three-match losing streak with a strong win against the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium, the result seeing them end the round in seventh place on the ladder.
But they will need to bring their A-game when they tackle the Panthers, who are the only team left undefeated this year and have won 26 of their past 27 matches dating back to Round 6 last season.
Last Friday night, 24 hours after the Storm’s 50-0 masterclass against the Rabbitohs, the mountain men ran roughshod over the struggling Sharks, winning 48-0 and recording their third clean sheet this season to cement themselves as the team to beat in season 2021.
Ten months after scoring four tries on his first grade debut, Charlie Staines again tormented the 2016 premiers, scoring a hat-trick of tries, while Nathan Cleary continues to firm in favouritism for the Dally M Medal.
Their points differential is now a massive 200 while they are also the only side to have not yet conceded 100 points in the opening nine rounds, highlighting just how dominant they have been not just in the past two seasons but also this one alone.
While the Titans should have some support in the crowd, the Panthers’ class should see them rack up a tenth straight victory as they look to stay ahead of the second-placed Eels on the ladder.
Prediction: Panthers by 24 points.