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Round 22 preview: Crunch time for Eels, Storm and Panthers go head-to-head

Only four rounds remain before the finals get underway and for several sides this is the chance to either flex their September muscles, fight to remain alive in the finals race or even avoid the wooden spoon.

Nearly two years removed from their grand final meeting, the Panthers and Storm face off at the foot of the mountains to kick off round 22, with the Panthers looking to continue to prove that they can perform without their starting halves.

Crunch time arrives for the inconsistent Eels, who face the red-hot Rabbitohs on Friday night, with that result set to prove crucial as the race for a top-six finish, with which comes at least one home final, starts to heat up.

The North Queensland Cowboys will be the final team in the history of Australian rugby league to step foot into the Sydney Cricket Ground when they face the Roosters in the venue’s penultimate match of the year, and will be hoping to retain their place in the top two.

Things do not get any easier for the struggling Wests Tigers and Knights, who face the finals-bound Sharks and Broncos respectively to round out the Saturday schedule, while the Raiders will be without their coach for their Sunday showdown against the Dragons.

Here is your preview of Round 22.

Panthers vs Storm

It was a case of no Luai, no Cleary, no worries for the Penrith Panthers who overcame both of their absences to thrash the Canberra Raiders on the road last Saturday night.

While Luai is set to miss another week due to injury, Cleary has just served the first of a five-match suspension incurred from a dangerous throw charge which saw him sent off in the Panthers’ round 20 loss to the Eels.

Dylan Brown of the Eels is tackled dangerously by Nathan Cleary

(Photo by Joshua Davis/Getty Images)

Their premiership defence will continue to be put to the test when they welcome the Melbourne Storm to the foot of the mountains, with Craig Bellamy’s side not as dominant as they have been for most of the past two decades.

At one point, the Storm lost six of nine matches, including a four-match winless streak for the first time since 2015, but in the past fortnight they have hit back with wins over cellar-dwellars the Warriors and Titans.

The win over the Titans was masterminded by Cameron Munster, who scored three tries in a best-on-ground performance, with the side’s return to form showing that they are still right in the race for this year’s premiership.

But without a host of others, including fullback Ryan Papenhuyzen, their credentials will be put to the test against the Panthers who despite their own injury and suspension woes remain the team to beat in season 2022.

In fact, if the finals were to be brought forward to start this weekend, this match would be the first qualifying final, to be played at Panthers Stadium, the venue for this Thursday night’s clash.

Only once since the start of 2020 have the mountain men been beaten at home, and it would take a mountainous effort by the Storm to be the second team in that period, after the Eels earlier this year, to leave Penrith with two premiership points.

Prediction: Panthers by 12 points.

Warriors vs Bulldogs

Friday night’s match between the Warriors and Bulldogs marks two decades since the home side famously put an end to the Dogs’ 17-match winning streak in this very round, which would set off a stunning chain of events that would throw the 2002 premiership race wide open.

Shortly after that result, it emerged that the Bulldogs had engaged in long-term salary cap breaches that would see them stripped of 37 competition points and plummet from the top of the ladder to the bottom of it, effectively guaranteeing them the wooden spoon.

Fast forward to today and while there is nothing at stake for both sides who are struggling in 14th and 12th place on the ladder respectively, the Warriors would love nothing more than to repeat the dose in what is only their third true home game this year.

It has understandably been a tough season for the Kiwis, as illustrated by their 5-15 win-loss record (at one stage, they were 3-2), but the time for excuses has come to an end as they get set to play more regularly at home next year.

Awaiting them are a much-improved Bulldogs side which have won three matches since Trent Barrett’s departure, including two of their past three, to move away from wooden spoon contention.

Last Sunday in Bundaberg, they pushed the Cowboys for more than a half of football before losing 28-14; still, despite the mess the club finds itself in now there are positive signs ahead for the future with Cameron Ciraldo expected to be named their new coach shortly.

They now head across the ditch for the first time since 2019, when the club suffered a humiliating 40-6 loss to a Warriors side that had reached the finals the previous year.

However, with much better form than their opponents, the boys from Belmore should return home with the points this time around.

Prediction: Bulldogs by eight points.

Eels vs Rabbitohs

It’s fifth vs sixth in a pre-finals preview when the Parramatta Eels play host to the South Sydney Rabbitohs at CommBank Stadium on Friday night.

Since their most recent meeting, which the Rabbitohs won 30-12, the Eels have won four out of their last five to remain in contention for the double chance, while the Bunnies have not lost consecutive matches since the start of the season, and whose only loss since Round 15 was against the Sharks in golden point.

There has been speculation surrounding the future of Eels coach Brad Arthur, who could be moved on at season’s end if his side continues to underachieve in September, having won just two finals matches since their miracle run to the grand final in 2009.

Eels head coach Brad Arthur

Eels head coach Brad Arthur (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Their form has bordered on inconsistent all season, with two wins over the Panthers (the first team to achieve this since the Raiders in 2019) contrasting with a huge loss to the then-last placed Bulldogs which Arthur described as “embarrassing”.

They now face a tough task against the Rabbitohs, who go into the match on the back of a crushing 48-10 win over the Warriors, the result marking the fifth straight time they had put at least 30 points on the Kiwis.

For the Bunnies it is the start of a tough run to September which also has them facing the top two, the Panthers and Cowboys in consecutive weeks after this weekend, as well as the Roosters in the grand reopening of Allianz Stadium in the final round.

While the Eels would love to perform in front of their home fans, the Rabbitohs should prove too strong, but only by just.

Prediction: Rabbitohs by six points.

Roosters vs Cowboys

The North Queensland Cowboys will tick another venue off their to-do list when they step foot into the historic Sydney Cricket Ground for the first time to face the Sydney Roosters on Saturday afternoon.

The Cowboys have emerged as the most improved team this season under second-year coach Todd Payten, rocketing from a second-last place finish to be sitting in the top four with four rounds still to play.

Currently sitting in second place on the ladder, they are still with a chance of recording their highest-ever finish on the ladder, having finished in third place on two previous occasions – in 2007 and 2015 – winning their maiden premiership title in the latter year.

While they will start slight favourites in what’s likely to be the only time they step foot into the SCG, they do face a side that handed them a 28-4 hiding at home back in Round 4.

On that occasion, the Cowboys had three players – including halfback Chad Townsend – sin-binned for separate dissent offences as the Chooks ran riot scoring six tries to one in Townsville.

But a lot has changed since then and despite starting the season among the favourites for the title, the Roosters sit in eighth place with an 11-9 record as they look to avoid sitting out September for just the second time since 2012.

They did, however, make sure of their current placing with a strong 34-16 win over the Broncos last week, and will be hoping to make it a clean sweep over the Queensland sides for the season on Saturday.

The clash against the northerners is the start of a tough run to September for Trent Robinson’s men, who also have a trip to Melbourne to face the Storm and a final-round blockbuster against the Rabbitohs at the brand new Allianz Stadium to look forward to.

Trent Robinson

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

With the stronger form between the sides, I think the Cowboys should take the points on Saturday afternoon.

Prediction: Cowboys by 10 points.

Wests Tigers vs Sharks

Things do not get any easier for the Wests Tigers when they clash with the third-placed Cronulla Sharks in Tamworth on Saturday night.

The Tigers overcame a week of controversy surrounding their loss to the Cowboys in Townsville by upsetting the Broncos in Brisbane in round 20, but could not back it up last week, going down to the Knights by 14-10 at Campbelltown Stadium.

It seems they cannot wait for the season to end sooner enough, with the club having won just one match since Michael Maguire was given his marching orders and replaced by Brett Kimmorley in the interim.

At least they do have their long-term future sorted, with Tim Sheens returning to the head coaching role for two seasons from next year before handing over to Benji Marshall who will then take the reins for three seasons from 2025.

But their focus will be on the final month of the season and an uneasy run which also includes facing the Roosters in what’s likely to be the final match of regular rugby league at the SCG for the foreseeable future, save for some special fixtures the NRL may schedule.

The Sharks have bigger fish to fry in the run to September, with rookie coach Craig Fitzgibbon lifting them into the top four on the back of some very consistent football all season round.

They have not lost consecutive matches all season and their only loss since the Round 13 bye came against the Penrith Panthers at the foot of the mountains, where they had shot out to an early 10-0 lead only to then cough up 20 unanswered points.

A win, coupled with a Cowboys loss earlier in the day, would see the Sharks join the northerners on 32 competition points but they would still remain third on percentage at the end of the round.

Prediction: Sharks by 18 points.

Broncos vs Knights

Another rare Saturday night match against a cellar-dweller sees the Brisbane Broncos fight to keep their top-four hopes alive when they welcome the Newcastle Knights to the sunshine capital.

After appearing well on track to secure a double chance for the first time since 2017, the Broncos have stumbled in recent weeks, first losing to the last-placed Wests Tigers at home before being blown off the park by the Roosters at the SCG last Thursday night.

They will start favourites though to bounce back against the Knights, who did what the Broncos couldn’t and that was beat the Tigers last Sunday.

The Novocastrians are enduring a poor season which has put third-year coach Adam O’Brien under pressure, but not even their win last week has alleviated the pressure off him with growing speculation he could be moved on sooner rather than later.

Without fullback Kalyn Ponga, who is sitting out the rest of the season due to concussion protocols, the Knights face a tough task in the sunshine capital as the Broncos attempt to get their top four aspirations back on track.

Kalyn Ponga in action for Newcastle Knights

(Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

While Suncorp has seen a couple of memorable wins by the Knights, not least in 2004 when they upstaged the home side in golden point, don’t expect a miracle from the present-day side this time around.

Prediction: Broncos by 20 points.

Raiders vs Dragons

Though the Raiders should start hot favourites against the Dragons on Sunday afternoon, they will be severely tested by the absence of head coach Ricky Stuart who has copped a week-long ban following his controversial post-match press conference last week.

The 55-year-old mentor will not be allowed to communicate or see his players in this period, which means one of his assistant coaches will have to step into the breach on game day; further, he has been fined $25,000 for his derogatory comments towards Panther Jaeman Salmon.

The Raiders’ September hopes took a hit with the 26-6 loss to the Panthers, which leaves them in ninth place on the ladder behind the Roosters, with Sunday’s match against the Dragons now looming as a virtual elimination final.

Pressure continues to mount on Anthony Griffin at the Dragons, the ex-Broncos and Panthers mentor having failed to extract the best from his club, which has attracted criticism for recruiting older players at the expense of developing its youngsters.

Their 24-18 loss to the Sharks in last week’s southern Sydney derby was their fifth straight against the men from the Shire, and has seen them drift further away from finals calculations.

Set to be without Tariq Sims for the rest of the season, the Dragons now face a tough road trip to Canberra, where they have not won since 2015, and on the basis of their poor form for most of the year this is a hoodoo I cannot see them putting an end to this Sunday.

Prediction: Raiders by 16 points.

Titans vs Sea Eagles

The Sea Eagles travel to the Gold Coast on Sunday attempting to keep their finals hopes alive in what will also serve as a preview of what Kieran Foran can expect when he moves to the holiday strip at the end of the season.

Had Daly Cherry-Evans not infamously backflipped on his agreement to join the Titans back in 2015, next season would’ve seen the Sea Eagles’ 2011 premiership halves reunited in the sunshine state.

Des Hasler’s side have lost their past three matches, the last two to finals aspirants the Roosters and Eels, to currently be sitting in tenth place on the ladder, a game behind the Roosters who currently sit in eighth.

But they will start hot favourites to bounce back against the Titans, who have lost their past 10 matches in succession to sink to last place on the ladder.

Given the Titans’ largest winning margin this season was by only four points in a golden point win against the Dragons in Round 10, they could so easily be winless up to this point in the season, something which could’ve seen coach Justin Holbrook axed not long ago.

Still, the third-year coach finds himself under the pump, having seen a dramatic regression of his side’s fortunes following their heartbreaking elimination final loss to the Roosters last September when they were just a simple pass away from winning the match.

There will be no respite this Sunday, as Foran and Cherry-Evans look to weave their magic and keep their side’s finals chances alive.

Prediction: Sea Eagles by 14 points.

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