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2021 NRL season: Round 22 preview

The Dragons (Matt King/Getty Images)
Roar Guru
10th August, 2021
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1083 Reads

With four rounds remaining before the finals get underway, all but two teams remain in finals contention, but for some teams this weekend is their final roll of the dice before they are ruled out of contention for September.

The Saturday twilight match between the Cowboys and Wests Tigers is a virtual elimination final, but with the sides sitting in 14th and 13th place respectively, and their points-differentials well in the red, it’s fair to say that both sides will already be turning their focus to season 2022.

It’s also the last chance for the Bulldogs to avoid the wooden spoon; if the Broncos upset the Roosters on Friday night, then the Dogs must beat the Warriors on Sunday otherwise they will end up with the dreaded kitchenware for the first time since 2008, and third since 1964.

All matches this round will be spread across south-east Queensland, so as to avoid an overload on Suncorp Stadium which is continuing to firm in its bid to host this year’s NRL Grand Final.

Here is your preview to round 22.

Storm vs Raiders
The round kicks off with the Melbourne Storm playing at its “second” home when they take on the Canberra Raiders on the Sunshine Coast.

The COVID situation in Victoria has meant that the Storm have not played in front of their home fans since Round 8 and appear unlikely to play at AAMI Park for the remainder of the season, even if the COVID situation in Melbourne improves dramatically.

However, they still have every right to feel at home, having played on the Sunshine Coast semi-regularly over the past twelve months; in addition the club have won their past twenty-eight matches in Queensland, dating back to mid-2017.

Last Saturday night, Craig Bellamy’s side withstood a serious challenge from the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles to win their 17th consecutive match, matching the records set by the Penrith Panthers (last year) and the Bulldogs (2002) for the longest winning streak by any side this century.

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While the Panthers had their winning streak ended by the Storm in last year’s decider, the Bulldogs class of 2002 were later revealed to have cheated the salary cap, sending the club from certain premiership contenders to wooden spooners all in one hit.

Coincidentally, the Bulldogs play the Warriors this Sunday; it was the Kiwi club that put an end to the Dogs’ 17-game winning streak 19 years ago, a result which started a stunning chain of events culminating in the Dogs’ moment of shame.

Back on topic, and the Storm have the chance to further extend their winning streak to 18, which would put them to within one of the all-time 19-in-a-row set by the Sydney Roosters back in 1975.

But while the Victorian club will start favourites, it will not come easy especially with Bellamy coming up against his premiership-winning teammate Ricky Stuart and his Raiders, who have broken back into the eight after winning four of their last five matches.

The Green Machine started slowly against the Dragons, and were level at 12-all at half-time, before scoring the only try of the second half to claim their ninth win of the season, also reversing their round 15 loss in Wollongong in the process.

The club have had a recent strong record against the Storm but it’s hard to see the Victorian club being beaten the way that they are playing at the moment.

Prediction: Storm by 20 points.

Josh Addo-Carr of the Storm

(Photo by Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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Dragons vs Panthers
The first match of the Friday night Suncorp Stadium double-header sees St George Illawarra fight to keep their finals hopes alive when they face the second-placed Penrith Panthers.

After starting the season with four wins from five matches the Dragons have fallen into a heap, and go into round 22 without a win in its previous four matches, during which the club was embroiled in the infamous BBQ-gate scandal which resulted in Paul Vaughan being sacked by the club.

Their poor form has seen them drop to eleventh place on the ladder and facing the finals-bound Panthers is the last thing they would want as they attempt to turn things around.

They started brightly against the Raiders last Friday night, and went into half-time level on 12-all before failing to score in the second half.

Meantime the Panthers were tested in its match against the Roosters, but were able to get over the line 20-14 thanks to a man-of-the-match performance from Matt Burton, who continues to perform well in the absence of co-captain Nathan Cleary.

His performance will have no doubt attracted the attention of Bulldogs supporters, with the hope that he and Josh Addo-Carr will turn their side’s fortunes around when the pair move to Belmore next season.

Cleary is a chance to return against the Dragons on Friday night, having been named as a reserve, though whether he plays will remain unknown until game day.

Regardless, expect the Panthers to continue their run to the finals with a strong win on Friday night, with the knowledge that they cannot finish any lower than third.

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Prediction: Panthers by 24 points.

Jarome Luai of the Panthers passes the ball

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Broncos vs Roosters
The later match sees the Broncos and Roosters square off at Suncorp Stadium for the first time since round four last year, when the Chooks put the cleaners through the home side with a 59-0 romp.

It was a good thing back then that fans weren’t permitted inside the ground to witness this massacre, otherwise the local fans would’ve given their side a chilling send-off down the race at full-time.

Fourteen months on, crowds will be permitted back into games in Queensland, with a permitted capacity of 25,000 hoping to see the Broncos complete a shock double against the Roosters this season, after pulling off a stunning 34-16 win at the SCG in round eleven.

That, and a Warriors win over the Bulldogs on Sunday, will see the Broncos avoid a second consecutive wooden spoon as Kevin Walters continues to lay the groundwork for future success at Red Hill.

Having beaten the Cowboys at home in round twenty, the Broncos failed to make it consecutive wins, going down to the Knights at “home” by 28-20 in a match that saw the now-departed halfback Brodie Croft subbed off with twenty minutes remaining.

Croft, who failed to make an impact at Red Hill after leaving the Melbourne Storm at the end of 2019, has now signed with the Salford City Devils in the English Super League.

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The Roosters, on the other hand, have bigger fish to fry with four rounds remaining before they embark on another finals campaign.

Despite being decimated by injuries to key players, Trent Robinson’s side hasn’t allowed it to be a distraction, and while they had the chance to break into the top four they blew their chance with a 20-14 loss to the Panthers last Saturday night.

Before that, the Chooks showed us just what they are capable of, blanking the Parramatta Eels by 28-0 to join them on 28 competition points.

This Friday night they have another chance to move into the top four, but not only must they beat the Broncos at Suncorp but must also hope that the Eels slip up against the Sea Eagles twenty-four hours later.

Prediction: Roosters by 12 points.

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Rabbitohs vs Titans
The South Sydney Rabbitohs will be favoured to make it ten straight wins when they “host” the Gold Coast Titans in their own backyard, Cbus Super Stadium, on Saturday afternoon.

After copping heavy losses to the Storm and Panthers before the Origin period, the Bunnies have hit back with a vengeance, winning their past nine matches while not allowing the impending departure of Adam Reynolds at season’s end to distract them.

In fact it is driving the Pride of the League to win a 21st title before Wayne Bennett hands the keys over to Jason Demetriou at the end of the season.

Reynolds last week became the highest point-scorer in Rabbitohs history as they thrashed the Parramatta Eels 40-12, proving to the league that while all eyes may be on the Storm and Panthers in the race for this year’s premiership, the Bunnies may be flying under the radar.

Wayne Bennett

Wayne Bennett, Coach of Souths, looks on before the round 10 NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Newcastle Knights at Bankwest Stadium on July 18, 2020 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Also impressive last week were the Gold Coast Titans, who made it two wins against the Cowboys this season, three straight against them, and four wins from their past five matches with a 36-14 win last Sunday.

It was anchored by an impressive performance from four-gamer Toby Sexton, whom coach Justin Holbrook has confirmed will again start in the halfback role for his biggest assignment yet against Reynolds.

They now sit in seventh place on the ladder, equal on points with the Raiders and Knights, but a loss this weekend could see them back out of it should the Raiders and Knights also win over the weekend.

Prediction: Rabbitohs by 20 points.

Cowboys vs Wests Tigers
Having not won since late-May, the Cowboys will be out to avoid a ninth straight loss when they welcome the Wests Tigers to the tropics in the Saturday twilight clash.

Having lost their first four matches to start the season, Todd Payten’s side briefly gained some form by winning six of eight matches to enter the top eight.

That stretch started with a 34-30 win over the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval, in which the home side was booed off after a disgraceful first half, this coming following the news that Western Suburbs legend Tommy Raudonikis had passed away during the week.

But since beating the Warriors in round twelve, the northerners have lost their last eight matches, currently the longest losing run of any side this season, to all but ensure they will not play finals for a fourth straight year.

Their cause has not been helped with forward Jason Taumalolo ruled out of Saturday’s clash against the Wests Tigers due to a hand injury.

Currently in third-last place on the ladder, the Cowboys can unleash their frustration and also end the finals hopes of the Tigers, who head into the final four rounds of the season off the back of a 28-16 win over the Bulldogs.

Coach Michael Maguire labeled it a “scrappy win” but knows that he and the side must do more if they are to somehow force their way into the eight, however, it’s more realistic that the Tigers will turn their focus to 2022 especially with a tough run home.

Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on

(Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Saturday’s trip to Townsville will be their first in over twenty-four months, but it will also be the first time they play at the new North Queensland Stadium since it opened in 2020.

Despite having lost their past eight matches, the home ground advantage should get the Cowboys the points in this one.

Prediction: Cowboys by 18 points.

Sea Eagles vs Eels
The second match on the Sunshine Coast this weekend will see a finals preview when the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and Parramatta Eels face off in the evening.

After a horror start to the season, the Sea Eagles have picked up form over the past four months, winning twelve of their last sixteen matches to rocket into sixth place on the ladder, with the chance to even finish higher as the regular season winds down.

Over that period they have developed a three wins, one loss pattern and that continued last Saturday night with a 28-18 loss to the Melbourne Storm in the Battle of Brisbane last Saturday night.

Going by that, they should win their next three matches, but given they face the struggling Cowboys in the final round it is likely they will finish off with four straight wins leading into September.

The Silvertails will start favourites against the Parramatta Eels, who have not only struggled for form in recent weeks but have also lost hooker Reed Mahoney for the season due to a shoulder injury.

Brad Arthur’s side have lost four of their past five matches, including their last two by 28 points against the Roosters (28-0) and Rabbitohs (40-12).

That has raised some concerns over how the Eels will fare in September, with signs that the added pressure of attempting to break a 35-year premiership drought is getting to them.

Their recent poor form means they can now no longer finish higher than fourth on the ladder, and if they do they may have to again face the Melbourne Storm in a first-week final, likely to be played at Suncorp Stadium.

But that’s still ahead of them; first, they need to turn their form around, and without Mahoney I just can’t see them doing that against the Sea Eagles.

Prediction: Sea Eagles by 10 points.

Manly Warringah Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler attends the 2011 NRL Grand Final Fan Day

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Warriors vs Bulldogs
Redcliffe will witness NRL action for the first time by way of a Sunday double header, the first of which sees the New Zealand Warriors take on the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in the early afternoon match.

Before the current Sydney COVID outbreak began, the Warriors had hoped for this match to be a homecoming of sorts, only for the current situation to put paid to those hopes, ensuring the club will finish the season in Queensland.

Nathan Brown’s side have copped it more than most over the past two years, but despite all the adversity they have faced in that time they have continued to rock up week in, week out, doing what they love best and that is playing football.

They have won their past two matches, albeit by only two points, against the Wests Tigers and Sharks to move out of the bottom four and keep their finals chances alive, though with a poor for-and-against of -127 they are unlikely to feature in September.

They will, however, start favourites to beat the bottom-placed Bulldogs who have lost their past seven matches and are staring down the barrel of a first wooden spoon since 2008, and third since 1964.

Trent Barrett must’ve watched Matt Burton’s best-on-ground performance for the Panthers against the Roosters last week and surely his and Josh Addo-Carr’s arrival at Belmore cannot come quickly enough for the struggling club.

In fact, if the Broncos beat the Roosters on Friday night, the Dogs of War simply must win on Sunday otherwise they will be doomed to finish last due to poor performance for just the second time since 1964*, after also taking out the wooden spoon in 2008.

However, the Warriors should show no mercy here and continue the Dogs’ miserable season.

* – note: the Bulldogs also finished last in 2002, but had been demoted to the wooden spoon position after salary cap breaches were uncovered towards the end of that season.

Prediction: Warriors by 18 points.

Sharks vs Knights
The final match of round 22 sees the Cronulla Sharks and Newcastle Knights battle to keep their finals hopes alive in the second match of the Redcliffe double header.

Both sides sit in tenth and ninth on the ladder respectively, highlighting the importance of this match to both sides as the regular season comes to a close.

The Knights go into this match having beaten the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, with their win being driven by veteran halfback Mitchell Pearce, who has missed most of the season due to a pectoral injury.

While they are on equal premiership points with the Titans and Raiders, their poor for-and-against of -139 means they sit where they are on the ladder, so to break into the eight they must hope that both those sides are beaten, and then win on Sunday.

Kalyn Ponga of the Newcastle Knights scores a try

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Last week, the Sharks were unlucky to have gone down to the Warriors by 18-16, with stand-in coach Josh Hannay taking responsibility for his side opting not to go for a penalty goal in the final six minutes, which would’ve leveled the scores.

They had led 16-6 at half-time, taking advantage of an extra man after Warrior Kane Evans was sin-binned five minutes out from half-time, but failed to score thereafter, leaving their finals hopes on life support.

Should they fail to qualify for September this year it will be just the second time the Sharks have not featured in finals action since 2011.

With a lot on the line, expect both sides to throw everything at each other, and I have the Knights winning it by just.

Prediction: Knights by six points.

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