PREVIEW OF NRL ROUND 21 MATCHES (all NZ times):
FRIDAY, Aug 2
Newcastle Knights v Brisbane Broncos at Hunter Stadium, 9.35pm
Head to Head: Knights 12 Broncos 27
Last clash: Round 13 2012 - Broncos 50 bt Knights 24 at Suncorp Stadium
The Broncos continue to walk the finals tightrope, with any more slip-ups almost certain to remove them from the playoff race Bo Ying Compound Eu Yan Sang
. In a boost, coach Anthony Griffin has welcomed international centre Jack Reed back from a broken collarbone weeks ahead of schedule and he will give former Test prop Ben Hannant until game day to overcome a calf injury. Clinging to their own place in the top eight, the Knights must do without former representative props Willie Mason (cheekbone, calf) and Kade Snowden (suspension).
Key: With no Mason and Snowden, the pressure is on David Faalogo and Zane Tetevano to provide the upfront grunt for the Knights to compete with the Broncos' go-forward.
Penrith Panthers v Sydney Roosters at Centrebet Stadium, 9.35pm
Head to Head: Panthers 30 Roosters 49 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 8 2013 - Roosters 30 bt Panthers 6 at Allianz Stadium
Even without suspended superstar Sonny Bill Williams, everything points to the Roosters continuing on their merry way to temporarily at least leapfrogging Souths to go top of the league. The Roosters have won five straight and conceded just 12 points in their past three matches, while the Panthers have dropped out of the eight with back-to-back defeats and another loss could leave them perilously placed four points adrift of the finals zone. Mitch Aubusson comes into the back row in place of Williams.
Key: Mitchell Pearce's left-side combination with hard-running back-rower Boyd Coydner is proving deadly for the Roosters and the Panthers must nullify the State of Origin duo to have any hope.
SATURDAY, Aug 3
Warriors v Cronulla Sharks at Mt Smart Stadium, 5pm
Head to Head: Warriors 14 Sharks 16
Last clash: Round 3 2013 - Sharks 28 bt Warriors 4 at Remondis Stadium
The Sharks were impressive in a 28-point thumping of the Panthers on Sunday but, with the club in upheaval after the walkout of CEO Bruno Cullen and the players facing untimely and distracting ASADA interviews, they will be doing very well to hold out the rampant Warriors on their home patch. The Kiwis have won seven of their past eight and knocked over the premiers last week. A big win over the sixth-placed Sharks could even see the two sides trade places on the ladder and the Warriors finally crack the top eight.
Key: The Sharks have been the big winners out of Todd Carney's Origin snubbing while Warriors half Shaun Johnson has also been electric and whichever playmaker excels is likely to swing the result.
Parramatta Eels v Manly Sea Eagles at Parramatta Stadium, 7.30pm
Head to Head: Eels 45 Sea Eagles 80 drawn 4
Last clash: Round 17 2013 - Sea Eagles 50 bt Eels 10 at Brookvale Oval
With the Eagles on the up and the Eels on the nose, this could get ugly. While Manly are flying, four straight wins propelling them into third spot, the Eels have been dreadful for months and face the grim prospect of not only 10 consecutive defeats, but also 10 losses in a row to their bitter rivals. With no Jarryd Hayne children’s bedroom furniture
, it's hard to see where the Eels' points will come from. Certainly not from Chris Sandow, who has slipped further down the halfback pecking order and can't even get a start after youngster Luke Kelly was ruled out. With the result a fait accompli, the big question is whether Manly hardman Steve Matai squares up with Mitch Allgood after the Eels prop belted him at Brookvale last month.
Key: Even the home-ground advantage can't save the Eels to the key, in truth, is trying to stop the Eagles racking up another 50 points.
Tip: Sea Eagles
North Queensland Cowboys v South Sydney Rabbitohs at 1300SMILES Stadium, 9.30pm
Head to Head: Cowboys 9 Souths 13 drawn 1
Last clash: Round 9 2013 - Souths 28 bt Cowboys 10 at ANZ Stadium
Unless the Roosters misfire, the Rabbitohs must win to retain top spot and should do so with the Cowboys' season on life support. But six points out of the eight, the lowly Cowboys haven't completely given up the ghost and are vowing to send sacked coach Neil Henry out with a bang by winning six straight to sneak into the finals. That would be some turnaround after losing their past three. Young gun Luke Keary has again been named on extended bench despite his two-try salvo as a super-sub against the Gold Coast, while veteran Matt King has retained spot in the starting side after a superb return after almost a year out with a broken arm.
Key: One of the anomalies in sport is that teams tend to lift following the sacking of their coach - in ways that would previously have kept the coach's job safe. The Cowboys are in desperate need of inspiration in any way, shape or form.
SUNDAY, Aug 4
Canberra v Melbourne Storm at Canberra Stadium, 4pm
Head to Head: Raiders 9 Storm 23
Last clash: Round 8 2013 - Raiders 24 bt Storm 20 at AAMI Park
Playing at their fortress, the Raiders will fancy their chances of continuing the premiers' post-Origin blues with a 13th straight win in the national capital. With three wins on the trot, the seventh-placed Raiders are travelling so comfortably that coach David Furner has resisted the temptation to rush backline star Blake Ferguson back from exile. Ferguson scored for Mounties in the NSW Cup in his first match since being suspended by the NRL for his costly late-night drinking session before Origin II. He still may get a late call-up, but the Raiders may not need him to conquer the Storm, who have lost their past two games to slip to fourth.
Key: Canberra's home record this season is as intimidating as the NRL has to offer, but the Storm are used to chilly weather and will be desperate to reverse their run of outs.
Gold Coast Titans v Wests Tigers at Skilled Park 5.00pm
Head to Head: Titans 5 Tigers 5
Last clash: Round 9 2012 - Tigers 15 bt Titans 14 at Skilled Park
After four successive defeats, it's do or die for the Titans, already two points adrift of the top eight and with a poor points differential. Not helping their cause is a hefty injury toll and the Titans will be without forward leader Luke Bailey and playmaker Albert Kelly. Titans coach John Cartwright is also under pressure as his side face's the prospect of missing the finals for the third straight season. The Tigers Canadian Chartered Institute of Business Administration
, already out of the running, are playing for pride, which could made them dangerous, especially departing superstar Benji Marshall.
Key: The Titans have struggled to replace injured fullback William Zillman but the speedy David Mead's inclusion at No.1 has the potential to spark them into life.
MONDAY, Aug 5
St George Illawarra Dragons v Canterbury at Oki Jubilee Stadium 9.00pm
Head to Head: Dragons 10 Bulldogs 15
Last clash: Round 12 2013 - Bulldogs 16 bt Dragons 14 at ANZ Stadium
Any momentum St George Illawarra might have gained from their shock win over Souths was stopped dead by Canberra last week and with only pride to play for the Bulldogs should have the Dragons' measure. Canterbury sit in a logjam of teams in the bottom of the eight and this is virtually a must-win for them. Saints have been poor at Kogarah this year and the Dogs look to have far too many points in them, even without Ben Barba.
Key: Sam Perrett. Put in a man-of-the-match effort in the win over the Eels last week after Ben Barba limped off and will need to keep up that sort of form with the superstar fullback out for five weeks with an ankle injury, if Canterbury are to snare a finals spot.