The lockdown in south-east Queensland has created a difficult scheduling situation for the NRL as we enter the last five weeks of the regular season.
Already the Newcastle Knights are being faced with a four-day turnaround between games, and even the St George Illawarra Dragons and Canberra Raiders have lost a crucial day in preparation with their respective seasons on the line.
Those three teams are stuck in a logjam on 18 points apiece and already had enough pressure on them before the rescheduling of games in Round 20, so so getting the prep right is the top priority for the clubs this week.
Parramatta and Penrith are two sides who have largely avoided the microscope in 2021, but they will have huge questions asked of them when they play against the Rabbitohs and Roosters respectively.
Round 21 is guaranteed to be full of drama, so let’s take a look at how the weekend is shaping up.
Knights vs Broncos
A few weeks ago this looked like a slam dunk for the Knights, but some indifferent form and a four-day turnaround make this a huge fork-in-the-road moment for their 2021 season. They were fantastic in a 34-24 win over the Raiders, but how will they recover from the warm conditions on Sunday afternoon? Brisbane were full of energy in their win over the Cowboys but will be without Kotoni Staggs for the remainder of the year, which makes them a little less dangerous on their right edge. If Brisbane are able to play with the same intensity as they did last week, they are a huge chance despite the $3.25 head-to-head price with Sportsbet. They also present a good option in a same-game multi at the +9.5 line based on Newcastle’s short turnaround. The Knights will need Mitchell Pearce to return for punters to feel confident about their chances.
Raiders vs Dragons
Canberra were dealt a reality check against the Knights and will need to bounce back quickly to ensure their recent three-game win streak wasn’t for nothing. St George Illawarra fell out of the top eight for the first time since Round 2 after a dismal showing against the Rabbitohs, with the effects of COVID suspensions starting to take their toll. This is effectively a four-point game, so there should be no lack of motivation for either side. Ben Hunt’s arm fracture might prove to be another nail in the coffin of the Dragons’ season as they blow out to $3.75 in the head-to-head market, while Canberra come in as a short $1.28 to keep their campaign alive.
Eels vs Rabbitohs
Parramatta have been labelled ‘flat-track bullies’ by the media, and their 2021 campaign is starting to look a lot like their 2020 season. As soon as the pressure builds towards the end of the year and they match up against other top-four sides, they wilt far too easily. The Eels have conceded 38 points in each of their last three games against the South Sydney Rabbitohs, failing miserably to contain the dangerous playmaking spine the Bunnies possess. They are paying $3 for the win, but Parra will be friendless in the betting after the Rabbitohs scored 50 points for the second-consecutive week. Unless Parramatta can stand up and get a much-needed win against a $1.39 favourite, they’ll face the prospect of adding another year to the competition’s longest premiership drought. Mitchell Moses will be touch-and-go to return for this game from his back injury, and his selection status could be critical given the Eels have scored only 12 points across two games without him.
Warriors vs Cronulla
The Warriors fell across the finish line against the Tigers in Round 20 to break a streak of seven consecutive losses, but they’ll remain a $4 outsider heading into their clash with Cronulla. With no Roger Tuivasa-Sheck or Tohu Harris for the remainder of the season, there is a big leadership vacuum which is putting pressure on a young team who should have been playing their final game in Australia before a home game in New Zealand. Cronulla were soundly beaten 40-22 by Manly on the back of a Tom Trbojevic masterclass, but they will still have favouritism at $1.25 and a big -13.5 line with the online bookies. Coach Josh Hannay has also indicated Matt Moylan isn’t far away from returning from his hamstring injury and Jesse Ramien will be back from an ear infection, so they will be names to keep an eye out for.
Roosters vs Panthers
How the Penrith Panthers bounce back from their flogging against the Storm is the huge question mark coming into this game. Isaah Yeo, James Fisher-Harris and Apisai Koroisau will return for the clash with the Roosters, but even without Nathan Cleary and Brian To’o they come into the contest as a surprising $1.31 favourite. The Roosters might be battered and bruised, but they are going to cause tremendous headaches against a side who appear to be waiting for the finals to start, and as a $3.50 outsider, they present absolutely tremendous value for an upset. Josh Morris is facing five weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, so Sydney will have to dig deep into their squad again to find a replacement, but such is the heart of this club that punters will be lining up to take the +11.5 handicap on offer. Tevita Pangai Jr will make his club debut for the Panthers after getting a release from Brisbane a few weeks ago.
Sea Eagles vs Storm
This game is always close, no matter where the two teams are placed on the ladder. The Manly Sea Eagles have been absolutely flying in recent weeks, yet they are $3.75 outsiders against this all-conquering Storm side. Tom Trbojevic scored another hat-trick in what is becoming an almost regular occurrence, but the chances of him doing so against a stout Melbourne defence and leading Manly to a famous win look to be remote. Melbourne are playing for a 17th consecutive win this week as the $1.28 favourite, which would level the 2020 Panthers and 2002 Bulldogs as the second-greatest winning streak in Australian rugby league history. The Storm only have a -11.5 handicap so far, which is comfortably the smallest they’ve had in several weeks, but that could drift by a point or two the later the week goes depending on any niggling injuries that pop up for Manly on a short five-day turnaround.
Bulldogs vs Tigers
If the capitulation against the Warriors wasn’t rock bottom, a loss for the Wests Tigers against the Bulldogs would be a five-alarm fire and extinguish absolutely any hope of them playing finals for a 10th straight season. They are the $1.45 favourite purely based on how poor Canterbury were against the Titans in their 34-6 loss, but such is the NRL in 2021, the Tigers should handle the game comfortably for no other reason than the fact that Canterbury are terrible. Daine Laurie will miss the remainder of the season due to an ankle injury, so who Michael Maguire uses in the fullback role will be interesting to see. The Bulldogs are currently $2.75 in the head-to-head market, but they will realistically drift closer to the $3 mark the longer the week goes.
Titans vs Cowboys
The Titans have won three of their last four to move back into seventh place with an 8-11 record and will start as the $1.39 betting favourite. They proved far too strong for Canterbury and have played well in games against Canberra and St George Illawarra in recent weeks also, so the -8.5 start feels like a given for them to cover. Toby Sexton’s introduction to NRL football at halfback will give coach Justin Holbrook a selection headache when Jamal Fogarty is ready to return from a finger injury, with the youngster showing he has a cool head on his shoulders. The North Queensland Cowboys have now lost seven games in a row, and the $3 price feels about right for them based on their injury woes.
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