There are just seven rounds remaining this season, and for several teams this is their last roll of the finals dice, while for others the chase for the all-important double chance will continue in earnest.
Just over six months after they contested a battle for the ages, another chapter in the Storm versus Roosters rivalry will be written when they clash at the SCG, the venue of their preliminary final showdown last year, to kick off the round.
The Penrith Panthers will shoot for a club-record nine wins in succession when they face the Warriors on Friday night, but it won’t come easy, with the Kiwis having picked up some much-needed form in recent weeks under caretaker coach Todd Payten.
Meanwhile, Friday night’s clash with the Parramatta Eels comes after the Dragons fulfilled rumours and sacked coach Paul McGregor on Wednesday night.
Saturday sees all three Queensland sides in action, while on Sunday the Knights and Tigers should start favourites to take care of the Sea Eagles and Bulldogs respectively.
Here is your guide to Round 14.
Roosters versus Storm
Round 14 starts with a beauty, with the Sydney Roosters and Melbourne Storm to face off at the SCG only six weeks after they contested one of the matches of the season at Suncorp Stadium.
Early last month the Storm won a hard-fought golden point contest 27-25 after they had led 24-22 with less than five minutes left, only for Kyle Flanagan to pot a penalty goal for the Roosters before both sides kicked a field goal each at the death to send the match into overtime.
It was regarded as one of the best matches of the year, and you can bet that the sequel will be just as exciting, with both the Storm and Roosters sitting in the top four as we enter Round 14.
Despite their 24-16 win over the Dragons being their third straight win, the Roosters’ form has stagnated in the past month, not least due to injuries to several key players, including Boyd Cordner, who has missed the last few matches due to a head knock.
Meantime, the Storm continue to roll along well, moving up to second place on the ladder on the back of seven consecutive victories despite being without captain Cameron Smith for the past two matches due to a shoulder injury.
His looming return to the side might be what Craig Bellamy’s side need as they prepare to be without Cameron Munster for up to a month after he suffered a knee injury in the 41-10 thrashing of the Bulldogs on the Central Coast.
The SCG will provide the backdrop for the latest chapter in the recent rivalry between the two sides, which also includes last year’s preliminary final, which the Roosters won en route to successfully defending their premiership.
It will only be the second time the Storm play at the iconic ground and, owing to the Roosters’ injury woes, I think they can take the points back to their temporary Sunshine Coast base.
Prediction: Storm by four points.
Panthers versus Warriors
The first match on Friday night will see the Penrith Panthers shoot for a record-breaking ninth consecutive win when they travel up to the Central Coast to face a rejuvenated New Zealand Warriors side.
The mountain men made a mockery of what was supposed to be a tough clash against the Canberra Raiders last Saturday night, putting the game to bed by leading 24-0 at half-time and then getting on with the job despite being held scoreless in the second half.
It is their best winning run since 2003 – the year they won their most recent premiership – and this has led to many believing that this current crop of Panthers can replicate their heroes from 17 years ago and deliver a third title to the foot of the mountains.
But while Ivan Cleary’s side will start favourites to make it nine straight on Friday night, they’ll be wary of a Warriors side that has picked up some form in recent weeks, winning their last two games against the Wests Tigers and Sea Eagles, both away from the Central Coast.
It’s unlikely the Kiwis will make the finals this year but they can at least provide some nuisance value to teams jockeying for places in the eight, as they have done in the past fortnight.
That being said, while they can produce the football that is capable of beating the contenders, I still think the Panthers firepower will get them home on the Central Coast.
Prediction: Panthers by 14 points.
Eels versus Dragons
There will be nowhere to hide for St George Illawarra when they head to Bankwest Stadium to face the Parramatta Eels in the second Friday night match.
It has been reported that the game against the Eels could be the final game in charge for besieged coach Paul McGregor, whose future is expected to be reviewed when the Dragons conduct their board meeting next week.
Again, poor decision-making under pressure proved to be their downfall as they crashed to a 26-18 defeat to the Roosters, that being their third straight loss since defeating the Bulldogs at home in Round 10.
Next is a daunting trip to Bankwest Stadium, where the Dragons have come up empty-handed on three previous attempts, including twice this year to the Bulldogs and Roosters in rounds four and seven respectively.
Facing an Eels side that has been rather unconvincing in recent months is the last thing the Red V would want as they embrace for the possibility of a huge return to form from a side that has slipped to third on the ladder.
The westerners had to work hard to grind out a 14-12 victory over the Sharks at a rain-sodden Kogarah Oval, that being their seventh win this season by a converted try or less and their second consecutive by two points after their narrow escape against the Bulldogs in Round 12.
Perhaps a rev-up by coach Brad Arthur and increased intensity at training by the players might spark a revival in terms of their winning margins as they plough towards just their third finals appearance in the past decade.
Back at home where they have not yet been beaten this year, the Eels should run out comfortable winners.
Prediction: Eels by 16 points.
Sharks versus Titans
The first match on Saturday sees the Sharks come up against the Titans for the second time this season.
Back in Round 8 the Sharks defeated the Titans 40-10, one of many wins John Morris’s men have enjoyed en route to climbing up the ladder after losing four of their first five matches this season.
Now they’ll be out to make it a double over the men from the Gold Coast, but it won’t come easy for a variety of reasons.
First, the Sharks are coming off a rather controversial loss to the Parramatta Eels in which Morris questioned the referees’ impartiality after they failed to pick up a knock-on from the opposition.
It was just their second loss since Round 5, but it does dent their chances of finishing in the top four.
On the other hand, the Titans are now the best of the three Queensland clubs, which occupy positions 13-15 on the ladder, after beating the Cowboys 30-10 at home last week and putting an end to a ten-match losing streak against their northern cousins.
They produced their best first half of the year to lead 20-0 at half-time before an even second half saw them claim their fourth victory for the season, one ahead of both the Cowboys and Broncos (three wins each).
It is proof that the Titans continue to be a work in progress under rookie coach Justin Holbrook, though they will lose captain Ryan James at the end of this season to join the Canberra Raiders in 2021.
The Titans will now get their chance to prove themselves against genuine finals contenders in the Sharks, but I think the locals will take the points as they continue their push towards an eighth finals series in nine years.
Prediction: Sharks by 18 points.
Cowboys versus Rabbitohs
The twilight match sees the South Sydney Rabbitohs make the hit-and-run trip to Townsville, where the third-last placed North Queensland Cowboys await.
With head coach Wayne Bennett placed in a COVID-bubble, his successor for 2022, Jason Demetriou, was given the reins to the club for the match against the Brisbane Broncos last week, with the Bunnies rarely troubled as they scooted to a 28-10 victory.
Though Demetriou isn’t slated to take the reins for another 18 months, it could come to show that the Bunnies are in for a stable future once Bennett officially finishes up at Redfern at the end of the 2021 season.
Onto current affairs now, and next for the Pride of the League is a clash against the 14th-placed Cowboys, whose caretaker coach Josh Hannay declared that his side trashed the guernsey in their 30-10 loss to the Gold Coast Titans last Sunday.
After trailing 20-0 at half-time, the Cowboys managed to break even with the Titans in the second half, which finished tied at ten-all, but by then the damage had already been done.
It was their ninth defeat in their past ten games, with only an earlier win over the Titans in Round 3 as well as a win over the Knights in Round 7, both at home, to show for their efforts since the season resumption.
Hannay will be hoping for a much better effort from his troops this Saturday night, but they will start underdogs against the Bunnies, who claimed both meetings against the northerners last year.
Prediction: Rabbitohs by ten points.
Raiders versus Broncos
Already facing their worst season in over 30 years of club history, things could get even worse for the Brisbane Broncos when they travel to the nation’s capital to face the Canberra Raiders on Saturday night.
The Broncos will be without coach Anthony Seibold for a fortnight, with the second-year coach self-isolating upon his return to Brisbane following a family matter.
That follows the club being expected to sack prop forward Tevita Pangai Jr for breaching the NRL’s COVID bubble in addition to him being suspended too many times since the start of the 2019 season.
On the field, the Broncos crashed to a disappointing 28-10 loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs, which has all but ruled them out of finals contention for 2020, ensuring the NRL’s glamour club will be absent from the post-season for just the sixth time ever.
The Raiders are also coming off a disappointing defeat on the road, being downed by the Penrith Panthers at the foot of the mountains after they had trailed 24-0 at half-time in a display that would have infuriated coach Ricky Stuart.
To their credit, however, the Green Machine managed to keep the mountain men on a leash in the second half, pegging back two tries while keeping the Panthers to only as many penalty goals.
The loss leaves the Raiders in fifth place on the ladder, still with a chance to finish in the top four, though this is dependent on how the Eels and Roosters fare in the final two months of the regular season.
At home, the Green Machine should take the points and ensures that the Broncos season of misery continues.
Prediction: Raiders by 20 points.
Knights versus Sea Eagles
The first of two matches on Sunday sees the Knights and Sea Eagles square off for the first time since their controversial Round 8 encounter, which saw the Novocastrians win 14-12 but not without a messy ending to proceedings.
In that match the Sea Eagles launched one final attacking raid at the death only to be denied by the desperate Knights defence, after which Sea Eagles prop Addin Fonua-Blake was sent off for verbally abusing referee Grant Atkins.
Warning: Video contains explicit language
The Sea Eagles have since struggled with poor form and injuries to key players and sit outside the eight with seven rounds of the minor premiership still to be played.
Des Hasler’s side have lost five of their past seven matches to sit in ninth place on the ladder with a points differential of -48, with their only two wins in that period being against then-ladder leaders the Parramatta Eels as well as a win against the Cowboys in Townsville.
Meantime, the Knights have rebounded after some disappointing defeats and injuries to key players in recent weeks, thrashing the Wests Tigers 44-4.
With mid-season import Blake Green in tow, the Knights produced their best attacking performance since their Round 2 win over the Tigers, which on that occasion was played with no fans in attendance at Leichhardt Oval.
They will get the chance to register back-to-back victories for the first time since the season resumption, but as was the case for their matches against the Bulldogs and Tigers, only local supporters will be permitted to attend, with Sydney-based members to remain locked out.
At home the Knights should take the points.
Prediction: Knights by 10 points.
Wests Tigers versus Bulldogs
The final match of Round 14 sees the Wests Tigers look to revive their finals hopes when they face the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at Bankwest Stadium.
The Tigers’ inconsistent season continued last week when they fell 44-4 to the Newcastle Knights, that defeat marking their fifth in their past six games, with the only win in that period being when they shut out the Brisbane Broncos 48-0 at Leichhardt Oval in Round 10.
Michael Maguire’s men sit in tenth place on the ladder with a 5-8 record, and if they are to break an eight-season finals drought, they must start winning games again, starting with a potentially tricky clash against the Bulldogs this Sunday.
The Dogs’ form has lifted in recent weeks following Dean Pay’s departure, with the club defeating the Newcastle Knights on the road in between gut-wrenching losses to St George Illawarra and Parramatta in Rounds 10 and 12 respectively.
Last week, however, the Berries were no match for the Melbourne Storm on the Sunshine Coast, losing 41-10 and having playmaker Lachlan Lewis suspended by the tribunal for an ugly tackle on Cameron Munster.
This will be the second meeting between the clubs this year, with the Tigers winning by 16 points back in Round 6.
Since then, the Tigers’ form has suffered, with the club winning only once in the past six weeks, but surely the rematch will present Michael Maguire’s men with a golden opportunity to revive their finals hopes or risk sitting out the post-season for a ninth straight year.
That being said, the Tigers should take the points, but not without an almighty challenge from the Dogs.
Prediction: Wests Tigers by six points.