NRL News Form: Eels v Broncos

OVERVIEW:
While the Brisbane Broncos are missing custodian Karmichael Hunt, Justin Hodges, Brent Tate and captain Darren Lockyer – leaving them light-on in the backline. Apart from the missing Sam Thaiday, the Broncos forward pack is full strength and ready to take up the slack tonight.

For the Parramatta Eels they have their giant centre Ben Smith back from a leg gash, but are still missing Daniel Wagon and Luke Burt for tonights clash. The Eels have been fortunate to be blessed with good depth in the backs and have covered for the Burt loss well – injecting sensation Jarryd Hayne into the custodian role.

RECENT FORM:
The Brisbane Broncos currently sit in 5th spot on the NRL Table after fighting back from shocking early season form and have now managed a stretch of five wins in succession, however their mettle will be tested – as they will certainly miss the the skill and experience of a representative backline not only tonight but continuing into the lead-up to the NRL Top 8 Finals.

For Parramatta their coach Michael Hagan has spoke about improving their away win record (currently 3 from 5) as the Eels move towards the finals, his other areas of concern is the Eels in-ability to build pressure in attack during the past month. With such a classy and varied backline, the Eels have been able to get enough line breaks recently but have been unable to convert these efforts to points. The Eels managing just 5 tries in their previous 2 outings (Knights and Souths). Fortunately for the Eels they have chipped away quietly at the NRL Table and have managed to hold down a top 4 spot without attracting too much media attention.

PLAYER MATCH-UPS:

HOOKER:
Shaun Berrigan (Broncos) VS Mark Riddell (Eels)

The face off between these two elder statesmen of the hooking role will have a significant impact on the match. For the Eels, so often when Mark Riddell fires up – the Parramatta side lift behind him (in defence and attack) and for Brisbane, they will look to the experience of Berrigan to guide the younger crew around the park.

Berrigan has been pivotal in the Broncos revival since Bennett moved him to the position last season, with his zip and creativity out of dummy half causing havoc for opposition defences. A durable player who reads the game well in both defence and attack – Berrigan has been instrumental in much of the Broncos attack this season with his uncanny ability to dart from dummy half and pop a short pass to support runners.

In the Eels camp, the dual edge weapon of Mark ‘Piggy’ Riddell and PJ Marsh is almost impossible to contain. Riddell is dynamic close to the line, with his trademark bash and barge. The Eels also lift as a side when Piggy gets going – his roll forward and fearless charges are inspirational to the Parramatta side. A side often critised for lack of passion – they will look to Riddell and Finch to talk it up.

HALVES
Michael Ennis (Broncos) vs Tim Smith (Eels)

For journeyman Michael Ennis, he has come a long way after a shattering leg injury early last year and frequently changing clubs of late. Now a pivotal utility in the Broncos arsenal, his kicking game is now even more important after the loss of Lockyer and he is another experienced campaigner that will add starch to a young squad.

Tim Smith since nabbing the rookie of the year award in 2005, has really been trying to find his niche in the Eels side. He has done well considering personnel changes to the Eels forwards and coaching ranks over the past few years – but he seems to be developing a good link with halves partner Brett Finch. He has started attacking the line more this year and has a talented kicking game at times compared to the level of Andrew Johns. Currently ranking sixth for NRL try assists in 2007, Smith is critical to the Eels in attack.

TIP:
PARRAMATTA EELS
While plenty are talking the Broncos down after losing their entire backline, Wayne Bennett won’t be hanging himself just yet. A crowd upwards of 25,000 at least can be expected and the Queenslands will hope the Eels attitude plays into their hands. The Eels will have appreciated the hard clash with the Bunnies last week and would hoped to have honed their rusty skills since the BYE and the Knights debacle. The Broncos will lack a little in attack with their playmakers missing, the Eels should have enough to do the job tonight – if they fail it will certainly raise some questions about their ability in the NRL Finals.

NRL News

Brad Fittler can equal coaching record

Newly appointed Sydney City Roosters coach Brad Fittler can equal the record number of wins set by a newly appointed mid season coach this week when the Roosters take on the Melbourne Storm in Sydney.

The chance to equal the record set by Peter Sharp at Manly in 1999 with 3 wins – comes against the highly fancied Melbourne Storm outfit, the Storm are currently on a 7 game winning streak and miles ahead of the NRL pack.

Fittler may use the blueprint from enemies South Sydney against the Storm – with the Bunnies the only team to even trouble Melbourne in recent weeks. The Rabbitohs all but had the Storm beaten in Gosford recently with an agressive style defence that frustrated the Storm and forced them to kick for most of their points.

The Roosters players have obviously responded well to Fittler at the helm and Freddy will be keen for things to continue – as the young coach is assessed by Nick Politis and his boys for a possible role next year and beyond at Bondi.

Following this week against the Storm, the Roosters have the following run home:

Round 21: Warriors (Home)
Round 22: Wests Tigers (Away)
Round 23: Titans (Away)
Round 24: Panthers (Home)
Round 25: Rabbitohs (Away)

On current form, the Roosters should be able to take at least 2 wins (4 points) from this group of matches. Leaving them on 20 points at seasons end – surely enough for the Sydney City club to retain Fittler moving into 2008.

NRL Table as Finals Approach

The NRL Table now sees a stack of teams jammed up on 20 and 18 points. Plenty of NRL teams will hope the Brisbane Broncos lose to the Parramatta Eels tonight – keeping the lower half of the Top 8 an achievable goal for the teams on 18 points.

Amazingly the Newcastle Knights, South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Gold Coast Titans still have a chance to sneak into the NRL Top 8 Finals. Seemingly gone with some recent losses, if these clubs can get it together in the weeks ahead – the opportunity is still there.

The North Queensland Cowboys stutter against the Bunnies will motivate the Eels even more – as the Parramatta club can get a leg up to achieving a Top 4 spot should they defeat the Broncos tonight.

Looking back in the pack, the Sydney Roosters under Brad Fittler have now moved to 16 points. No, its not a mistake – the Sydney Roosters now join the Sharks and the Raiders on 16 points. Something unthinkable only a few weeks ago. The Roosters are mathematically a chance of making the finals, should they win all their remaining games.

W L B +/- Pts
1 Storm 16 2 1 271 34
2 Sea Eagles 14 4 1 189 30
3 Eels 10 7 1 51 22
4 Cowboys 10 8 1 -69 22
5 Broncos 9 8 1 82 20
6 Warriors 9 9 1 69 20
7 Bulldogs 9 9 1 44 20
8 Tigers 9 9 1 -18 20
9 Rabbitohs 8 10 1 -8 18
10 Titans 8 10 1 -80 18
11 Knights 8 10 1 -150 18
12 Sharks 7 11 1 49 16
13 Raiders 7 11 1 -61 16
14 Dragons 7 11 1 -74 16
15 Roosters 7 11 1 -183 16
16 Panthers 5 13 1 -112 12

South Sydney Stamp Top 8 Claims

Rabbitohs 20 defeated Cowboys 14

RABBITOHS coach Jason Taylor and co-captain Roy Asotasi both described rookie hooker Issac Luke as “a superstar in the making” following his man of the match performance in the Rabbitohs 20-14 win over the Cowboys today.

In his run-on debut Issac Luke, who team mates nicknamed ‘Uncle Bully’ for his toughness – constantly tormented the Cowboys defence out of dummy half and was a rock in the defence in the middle of the park, an effort that earned him the Rabbitohs players’ player award and the Channel Nine man of the match honours.

Luke scored his first NRL try in his first game in the Rabbitohs no.9 and Taylor said he had a big future ahead of him as long as he kept working hard on his game.

“Issac had another good game for us, we need to keep his feet on the ground, but I thought he was the difference today,” Taylor said. If only the Bunnies had the hooker in place last week against the Eels, it could have made a difference to the side that has struggled in attack at times.

“When I brought him into first grade for the first time against Melbourne I was looking for a little bit more in attack. I didn’t know if he was ready and he was so nervous he was tired after one minute. Today when I pulled him off after about 25 minutes he wasn’t happy to get replaced so that is a good sign.”

Asotasi has acted as a mentor to Luke since he joined the club at the end of last year.

“He is a superstar in the making,” Asotasi said.

“He gives us that go forward he is so quick off the mark. We’ve got to keep his feet on the ground, he’s a fellow Kiwi and we have to look after each other.”

The Cowboys opened the scoring through an Ashley Graham try in the 15th minute for an early 4-0 lead. That was until Luke’s co-run-on debutante halfback Eddie Paea sliced through the Cowboys defence from close range for his first NRL try in the 22nd minute. With Nathan Merritt’s conversion the Rabbitohs led 6-4.

From there Souths looked the side most likely to score again but a Merritt penalty goal, after Carl Webb was penalised for a high shot on Paea, in the 40th minute was the only addition to the score and the Rabbitohs went to the break leading 8-4.

The NRL’s leading tryscorer Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen struck soon after the break for his 17th try in 18 games this year. And when Johnathan Thurston landed the conversion North Queesland led 10-8 after 45 minutes.

Luke then scored the Rabbitohs second try of the game in the 55th minute after a series of short passes on the Cowboys line to give the home side the lead 12-10. Five minutes later Paea put Ben Rogers through a hole from a scrum on the 50m line and the Souths five-eighth showed good pace to score his side’s third try. Merritt landed the conversion and Souths led 18-10 in the 61st minute.

Cowboys centre Scott Minto scored to peg the score back to 18-14 with 10 minutes to play which set the scene for a nerve-racking finish. Another penalty goal from Merritt, after Webb was penalised for holding down Luke in the play-the-ball, put the Rabbitohs a converted try clear and a 20-14 lead and that is the way things stayed until the full-time siren.

A loss would have had the Rabbitohs behind the eight ball in the race for the eight but now they remain well and truly in the hunt.

“We needed a win to stay in touch with the eight,” Taylor said.

“It’s exciting for our fans and exciting for our players and that’s what we set out to do at the start of the season. We wanted to be in contention for the top eight towards the end of the season and we are. For the fans and everyone associated with the club that’s very exciting.”

South Sydney Rabbitohs 20 (Eddie Paea, Issac Luke, Ben Rogers tries; Nathan Merritt 4 goals)

defeated

North Queensland Cowboys 14 (Ashley Graham, Matt Bowen, Scott Minto tries; Johnathan Thurston goal)

Crowd – 10,022.

NZ Warriors eyeing NRL Finals Spot

Warriors 28 def Wests Tigers 16

The NZ Warriors were flamboyant and precise today; as they disposed of the Wests Tigers on their own turf. A comprehensive display from the Kiwi side, winning 28 points to 16 and virtually sewing the game up before half time.

Plenty of possession in the first half was just the tonic the NZ Warriors needed to keep their impressive form run going – a momentum roll that became way too big for the Wests Tigers to control.

65% possession at one stage had the Warriors lining up to get involved, with George Gatis the instigator from dummy half – running for plenty of metres and positioning the big forwards Steve Price and Ruben Wiki beautifully – for them to plow over the advantage line on every play.

The Tigers obviously had a plan to stick to Wade McKinnon like glue, which they did – however the man power that McKinnon was sucking in – left plenty of gaps for Grent Rovelli and Michael Witt to press through and position their support play to perfection.

It was quality football from the NZ Warriors and an enjoyable style to watch when compared with last nights games of much lower standard. The away win for the Warriors proves their ready for NRL Top 8 Finals football in 2007 and won’t be just making up the numbers. Their injury list isn’t hurting them and they have hit form at the opportune time.

The Wests Tigers were their own enemy in some parts of the game today, minor mistakes compounding the Warriors juggernaut. Failing to find the dirt quickly near the in-goal resulting in costly drop-outs, pushed passes and dropped ball kept the possession pressure against the Campbelltown side all day.

The Tigers refused to take the Warriors on mid field and who could blame them, the Warriors were hitting with maximum impact – even winger Manu Vatuvei had Tigers running for cover as he steamed ahead. As the Tigers tried to go round the Warriors the mistakes came; the Kiwi side jamming in nicely to snuff out most raids.

Robbie Farrah at half back continues to leave such a vacant hole at hooker for the Tigers; the man tipped to oust Danny Buderus at NSW Origin level for the hooking role is wasted away from his natural spot. Don’t get me wrong, he is a ball player and has the instincts of a half back – but this guy is a possible Australian hooker one day! Use him in his god given role!

The only negative for the Warriors today was pivot Michael Witt breaking his conversion record, reaching 28 successive goals – dating back to 2005 the classy pivot had not missed a kick. His 3rd kick today was from the sideline and he managed to nail it and keep the record in tact, only missing out – as he sprayed his next easier conversion to left hand side.

The NZ Warriors are now 4 wins from 9 games in Australia this 2007 NRL season, a much better record than in previous years. They take on strugglers Newcastle in Auckland next week and on current form – they will not only get the win, but improve their points difference out of sight.

For the Wests Tigers who are already on 20 points, while the loss is not ideal – it’s certainly not the end of the world. Sheens will need to get some structure and confidence back into his side – most importantly prop up their struggling forward pack as the Tigers face the force of the North Queensland Cowboys. Its another home game for the Tigers, but one they must win against a top 4 side to give themselves a chance of finishing higher in the NRL top 8.

NRL News Saturday Results

Generic NRL Super Saturday Results – More articles and in depth discussion to follow during the weekend.

Dragons 38 def Panthers 20

ST George-Illawarra capped Mark Gasnier’s long-awaited NRL return with a hard-fought 38-20 victory over Penrith at CUA Stadium.
The star five-eighth was solid in his first game of the season after suffering a ruptured pectoral muscle in the Dragons Charity Shield pre-season game in March.
His most telling moment came in the dying seconds when he sent Jason Nightingale over for his second and the Dragons’ seventh try of the night.
It was one of three late tries by the away team which ended a spirited fightback from the bottom-placed Panthers, and left the Dragons – temporarily at least – within two points of the top eight.
Gasnier admitted he was rusty in his comeback.
But after spending the past 18 rounds watching his teammates from the sidelines, the 26-year-old could hardly hide his joy of getting through his comeback match unscathed.
“It was just fun to be back with the guys,” Gasnier said.
“Now I can go back and surf tomorrow morning feeling guilt free, and get back to the way life used to be.
“I didn’t expect to set the world on fire tonight, there’s a lot of rust there, but it’s something that’s going to come with playing football.
“The good thing is I get to play next week, it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for about 18 weeks.
“I’ve missed a lot of football the past three or so years, so I don’t really take it for granted much more.
“I think the past two years I’ve enjoyed my football a lot more than what I did when I was younger.
“I probably took it a little bit for granted when I was younger, but I really appreciate it now.”
The Dragons rebounded well from their heavy defeat against the New Zealand Warriors last week to claim their third win from four games.
They looked to have the game in their keeping after charging to a 22-10 lead after two tries – to Josh Morris and Rangi Chase – within three minutes before and after half-time.
The Panthers, though, clawed back to 22-20 down with 20 minutes to play when Richie Williams scored against his former club and then Nick Youngquest touched down from a Peter Wallace kick – the fifth try on the night coming from a boot.
They had their chances to take the lead soon after, but came up short, allowing the Dragons to seal the result with tries to Matt Cooper, Ben Creagh and Nightingale in the final 12 minutes.
“We created enough opportunities to win that game quite easily,” said Panthers coach Matt Elliott after his side’s sixth loss in seven games left the club rooted to last place.
“And when we didn’t take those opportunities, the opposition went down the other end of the field and took theirs.”
Williams, who endured a rocky ride with the Dragons to start the year before joining Penrith mid-season, was “stoked” to get a try against his former club.
“To get the victory would have been sweet, obviously we didn’t, but oh well,” he said.
Adding further to the Panthers woes, Luke Lewis (groin) and fullback Michael Gordon (hamstring) both suffered injuries.
AAP


Melbourne Storm 34 def Raiders 6

SEETHING Canberra coach Neil Henry accused referee Jared Maxwell of having a “pre-conceived idea” about his team’s match with Melbourne Storm at Olympic Park.
Canberra lost 34-6 to the competition front-runner and while Henry admitted the better side had won, he said his team was hard done by around the ruck area.
“Did Jared Maxwell have a good game in my opinion? We got beat by a very good side but no he didn’t,” Henry said.
“In my opinion did he have a pre-conceived idea how this game should go? Yes he did.
“They got leap-frogged up the field a number of times.
“It’s hard enough to come here as it is but when well in the game (the penalty count is) 7-1 … I thought it was very lopsided.”
But Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy said Maxwell could have blown up more penalties and accused Canberra of repeatedly being offside as it pressured Storm’s kickers.
The final penalty count was 8-5 and Bellamy believed there should have been a greater disparity.
“He (Maxwell) could have gone a little further and blew the pea right out of the whistle but he didn’t.
“You don’t want a thousand penalties in a game but I thought they could have been penalised a little bit more.
“They went right to the edge there tonight.
“You have a look at the kick pressure, two or three of them were offside nearly every kick pressure.
“They get called offside but the referee should be penalising them.”
It provided an interesting end to an otherwise fairly standard match, during which Melbourne proved it could play below par and still win comfortably.
It was Storm’s seventh successive victory and maintained its four-point buffer over second-placed Manly, and kept the Raiders winless in Melbourne since 2000.
Backing up from the Monday night shellacking of Newcastle, Storm looked flat early on and put itself under pressure with a spate of uncharacteristic errors and only led 16-6 at the break.
Canberra, who is outside the eight, also deserved credit as it toiled hard and out-enthused the home side in the chilly seven degree conditions.
Melbourne scored six tries, with five-eighth Greg Inglis in his first game back from a knee injury suffered during Origin, collecting a double.
Halfback Cooper Cronk set up two through his kicks.
The first came five minutes into the match as he put a perfectly-weighted 40m kick through which sat up just over the try-line, with veteran winger Matt Geyer winning the race to the ball.
His second was similar, seven minutes into the second half, with fellow winger Steve Turner collecting the spoils which opened the lead out to 22-6.
One of the other tries of the night was scored by tearaway teen Israel Folau, who showed he has pace to match his power.
The giant 18-year-old ran on to a pass and palmed off one defender, stepped out of a tackle and then stepped around another defender in a 30m dash to the line.
Inglis’s knee flared again while fullback Billy Slater suffered a knock to the ankle however neither injury was rated seriously.
Bellamy said he was satisfied with his side’s performance.
“We got off to a good start but then we lost our way with some handling, we just couldn’t get out of our half.
“The second half ended up into a grind but I was happy with the way we grinded.”
AAP


Roosters 20 def Knights 17

SYDNEY Roosters continued Brad Fittler’s unbeaten record as coach with a late 20-17 win over a courageous Newcastle Knights at EnergyAustralia Stadium.
Centre Mitchell Aubusson stepped over the tryline with three minutes remaining to hand rookie coach Fittler his second win from as many games since taking over the duties from Chris Anderson.
“It’s good fun as a coach,” said a cheeky Fittler after the tense win.
“It was a great finish and great that they kept believing.
“I watched it (the game) a bit more closely, the first one I was a bit more excited.
“(But) there’s not much you can do up there (in the coach’s box), you can pass on the messages but no one listens.”
But as Fittler continued smiling his way through the coaching journey his Newcastle opposite Brian Smith had to put on a brave face as he fielded his most depleted Knights side of the season with injured New South Wales Origin stars Danny Buderus, Steve Simpson and Jarrod Mullen all sidelined and prop Adam Woolnough a late withdrawal due to a virus.
The news only gets worse too with talented young back rower Zeb Taia injuring the AC joint in his shoulder.
Newcastle led 12-10 at half-time but the Roosters struck early in the second half through Lopini Paea before Knights winger Cooper Vuna hit back to complete his double and level scores 16-all in the 55th minute.
Rookie Knights halfback Luke Walsh booted a 66th minute field goal to grab a 17-16 lead and raise hopes of an against-the-odds win but the Roosters – with seven Origin experienced players and a Kiwi international – had the nerve to rally at the death.
Smith felt his side deserved the victory but lacked the experience to dominate down the stretch and close out the result.
“We did not dominate enough to feel completely comfortable (with a one-point lead) but at the back end I thought we had done enough to win,” said Smith.
“If you don’t dominate the game you run the risk of losing it.
“We have a lot of young fellas in that team and guys who are not comfortable in first grade dealing with that sort of pressure down the stretch.
“We were a bit stiff not to get the cash tonight.”
The Roosters victory keeps alive slim finals hopes, moving to 16 competition points but remaining in 15th place due to an atrocious for and against record.
More importantly, with Penrith losing to St George-Illawarra, they hold a handy four-point gap over the last-placed Panthers to ease pressure of claiming the wooden spoon in their centenary season.
But Fittler is refusing to consider both finals and wooden spoon chances.
“It’s the one thing I’ve promised myself, not to look at the ladder,” said Fittler.
“Just keep plugging along.
“(I’ll look at the ladder) at the last round, or the week before that.”
Centre Sia Soliola is the Roosters’ only concern after he suffered a fractured eye socket late in the game and could miss four weeks.
AAP

Manly scrape home over spare parts Sharks

Manly Sea Eagles 29 def Cronulla Sharks 22

The 21 year hoodoo was finally broken by Manly at Shark Park tonight; but only just – as a young and enthusiastic Sharks outfit went within millimetres of taking the win.

From the onset, the Sharks looked like winning just through sheer enthusiasm as they drove Manly backwards with the ball and gang tackled effectively to make a game of it.

Manly missing Matt Orford and Travis Burns did lack their usual precision and direction around centre field, but Michael Monaghan again showed his worth – probing all night, laying on some fine passing and closing the match out with a long range field goal in the final minutes.

The nerves were evident from Manly in the beginning and it wasn’t until the inexperienced Sharks pack began to tire, that Manly found the gaps and grew in confidence. Similar to NSW in Origin 3 however, the Sea Eagles just couldn’t find the killer blow until the final minutes.

With the scores locked at 22 all and under 10 minutes remaining, fill-in half back Brett Seymour went for a 12 metre field goal – narrowly missing as he hit the right hand up right. From the return set, the Sea Eagles get a penalty and go on to score – that was the different in the end. A single penalty that turned the game.

While Ricky Stuart will be happy with the effort of a spare parts team; he will be frustrated with the one that got away – knowing the Sharks could have easily stolen that game.

Mitch Brown and Fraser Anderson were standouts for the Sharks, with Luke Douglas physical and effective centre field.

Manly would have enjoyed the test tonight, and the form of forwards Adam Cuthbertson and Glenn Hall will have Des Hasler breathing easier. Brett Stewart continues to be slick in attack, an effective Manly weapon with pure speed that opposition teams simply cannot plan for.

The negative for Manly was the amount of points they leaked tonight. The usually bulletproof Sea Eagles line was pierced several times tonight; with the Sharks possibly handing other Top 8 sides a blueprint for scoring against Manly.

Jamie Lyon continues to lack defensive technique suited to pivot, his sliding style and failure to read short second man plays proved a problem for Manly as did the continued aggression of Steve Matai on the left edge. The Sharks baited Matai and executed a quality trap play to suck Matai in and send the wide defender in for the try – something they obviously talked about and Ricky Stuart couldn’t hide his delight as the set play came off.

On the bright side, it’s much better for Manly to find these problems now and Des Hasler and the squad will work overtime to iron out the issues before they face the Eels at Parramatta Stadium next week.

Bulldogs find flair against Titans

Bulldogs 36 def Gold Coast Titans 12

The Bulldogs pulled together strongly tonight to polish off the Gold Coast Titans comfortably on the coast; most likely ending the NRL Top 8 Final hopes of the young Titans club.

While without Willie Mason and Mark O’Meley; the Dogs looked strong from early on and always looked like running away with the match. The Titans did well to stop the score from blowing out even further; as the Bulldogs were in a try scoring mood and switched the ball from left to right in damaging fashion.

Luke Patten was at his flawless best tonight; rock solid in his sweeper role and injecting well in attack – the General getting a double for his efforts. Sonny Bill Williams as he so often does, stepped up in the absence of the big names for the Bulldogs and was brutal in his defence throughout the game. SBW looked mean and eager; throwing his shoulder around with devastating effect. If only Sonny Bill could play at this level when the Bulldogs are full strength – they would be unstoppable.

SBW’s efforts were paying off for his team mates. As Williams attracted 3 and sometimes 4 players to stop him; Reni Maitua began running off SBW’s hip and it caused headaches all night for the Titans. This was easily Reni’s best match for some time and his form progression is good timing as the Dogs near the finals.

Hazem El Masri is back to his best with the boot, kicking 6 from 6 and gaining much needed confidence with his conversions after some forgettable weeks for the master.

The difference in the Bulldogs side this week was their ball control. They were prepared to build pressure and get repeat sets rather than force the issue in attack; something Brent Sherwin has been guilty of lately. Tonight they got it all right.

The Titans scrambled for much of the match; Luke Bailey and Nathan Friend both standouts. Bailey actually getting over the try line twice – in a rare double for the big man. Friend was tireless with 41 tackles, yet still was lively in attack. The Titans probably played a little too flat in attack – making it easy for the Dogs to get up an in, shutting plays down early.

Preston Campbell remains a shadow of his former self. The little fullback was cautious on most runs and didn’t look comfortable at times. The return of Chris Walker didn’t have a massive affect, Walker getting limited chances tonight – a little rusty from his time away from the top level, but valuable minutes on the field helped his cause.

The power of the penalty was again proved tonight; on two occasions when the Titans still had a sniff of coming back – they conceded a penalty and the Bulldogs scored from both the following sets.

With such a poor for and against record; it looks like tonight may have been the end of the Titans finals charge. The Bulldogs will breathe a little easier to get some more points in the bank, moving up safely into the Top 8.

Manly Lose Stars before Kick-off

Manly has officially lost Matt Orford and Travis Burns for tonights clash with the Cronulla Sharks. The missing halves might provide some relief for the Sharks; who themselves are missing 8 regular first graders.

Ricky Stuart has taken his team away for a 3 day closed camp this week and reports that the attitude and feeling amongst the Sharks team is impressive considering the situation.

NRL Kick-off in 60 minutes from now.

NRL Friday Night Final Thoughts

We are only hours away from two key match-ups in Friday NRL tonight – with the Cronulla Sharks hosting the Manly Sea Eagles and the Gold Coast Titans at home to the Bulldogs in Queensland. Here’s how NRL News sees the key match-ups:

Cronulla Sharks vs Manly Sea Eagles: Many NRL punters have written the Sharks off here; with so many players out who could blame them? However, Ricky Stuart will have spent the week building up the hopes of the young Sharks and a siege mentality would be embedded into the minds of the Shire boys for tonight.

Don’t forget the Sharks are most certainly playing for their lives in terms of the NRL Top 8 finals; they have plenty more to play for than the Sea Eagles. On top of their NRL table woes, the Sharks are also fielding players that were previously unwanted and a few young outsiders who get their chance to flex some muscle – surely they will want to show their wares and will be choc full of passion.

The Manly Sea Eagles report a few niggling injuries and have hinted that they may rest some stars for this game. The Eagles have revved up their form over the past few weeks and even without their stars, realistically should be able to comfortably overpower the Sharks.

While the hoodoo of Shark Park will be spoken about within the Sea Eagles camp, the obvious risk for them is the comfort factor. If the Manly boys take this lightly, it could be a long night.

Summary: Manly Sea Eagles must be tipped to win; however I feel this game will be closer than most people think. Both sides love defence, so depending on the mood of Shane Hayne – this could be a slugfest in the ruck.

Gold Coast Titans vs Bulldogs Another game and plenty of favoritism to the Bulldogs. Both sides hit hard by injury, certainly to some key players also. The loss of Scott Prince is huge for the Titans, who have struggled in attack to rack up points at times.

The suggested move of Preston Campbell from fullback to the halves should prove fruitful and the able Chris Walker coming into the fullback role is a smart one for John Cartwright. The Titans should be up for the challenge; as most NRL sides bounce back hard after a big loss – their Canberra fiasco will have them motivated surely.

The Titans still have plenty of punch in the starting forward pack of:

Luke Bailey, Nathan Friend, Ian Donelly, Gavin Cooper, Mark Minichiello, Luke Swain – its the reserve bench where the Bulldogs may have the edge, with form players ready to be injected by Steve Folkes.

The Bulldogs form is extremely hard to judge. They can literally change their form even during a match, a bad half then a stunning half. Sonny Bill Williams will be expected to perform tonight; as last time Willie Mason and Shrek were out – SBW had the game of his young life. Expect more of that tonight.

Summary: The Bulldogs have the bench power and SBW in a leadership role; which should be enough to get them home tonight. Expect a top forward battle tonight with the likes of Luke Bailey vs Andrew Ryan and expect a good showing from NRL bad boy Chris Walker as he tries to restake his claim as a top outside back for the Titans.

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