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NRL round 15 preview: Shaping the 8

Round 15 will be pivotal in shaping the top 8 as finals football fast approaches.

The Eels and Storm will be looking to secure their places in the top 4 when they clash on Thursday night, while Manly will look to keep their finals hopes alive with a win over the Rabbitohs.

The Raiders are knocking on the door of the top 4, so a win over the Titans is vital, while the injury-depleted Roosters will be desperate to hold onto 4th spot when they face the Tigers.

Parramatta Eels (3rd) vs Melbourne Storm (2nd) Thursday 20 August 7.50pm @Bankwest Stadium

This is a clash between two top 4 sides, but the pressure if firmly on the Eels with the Storm missing a host of stars.

The Eels were the form team in the competition six weeks ago but have struggled to get going in recent weeks.

They are coming off two games played in torrential conditions so will be looking for a dry night in Sydney tonight.

They have a full complement of players to choose from so there is no excuse for them to drop this match.

The Storm were missing Cameron Smith and Cameron Munster for last week’s victory over the Roosters, but unfortunately lost another four stars during the week.

Dale Finucane, Jahrome Hughes, Jesse Bromwich and Suliasi Vunivalu join Smith and Munster on the sidelines, which will provide a good test for the Storm’s depth.

One of the players called in is their backup halfback, Cooper Johns, who will make his NRL debut. Johns is the youngest son of former NRL player Matty Johns so there may be a little added pressure in his first game.

If it was any other side facing the injury crisis the Storm are in right now you would rule them out completely, but the Storm just find a way of being able to win games when they shouldn’t.

cooper johns passing a ball
Cooper Johns will make his debut for the Storm on Thursday night.

Penrith Panthers (1st) vs Cronulla Sharks (7th) Friday 21 August 6pm @Panthers Stadium

The Panthers are the premiership favourites after nine straight wins and with a clean bill of health will head into this clash full of confidence.

The Panthers racked up 10 tries as they smashed the Sharks 56-24 back in round 9 and will no doubt be looking for more of the same.

The Sharks game last week will be remembered for the Kevin Proctor bite on Shaun Johnson, but the Sharks were in a real arm wrestle with the Titans before Proctor was sent off.

The Sharks find themselves 7th on the ladder but are yet to defeat another team inside the top 8, so will be looking at this clash as an opportunity to announce themselves as genuine contenders.

Brisbane Broncos (15th) vs St George Illawarra Dragons (11th) Friday 21 August 7.55pm @Suncorp Stadium

Just when it seems like the Broncos hit rock bottom this season, they find another way to dig themselves a little bit deeper.

Last week they were competitive for the first half before being blown away by the Raiders and have now lost Jake Turpin and Thomas Flegler to injury and their best player Payne Haas has been suspended for two weeks.

Isaac Luke comes in for Turpin, while Anthony Milford comes into five-eighth, dropping Brodie Croft out of the 17.

It has been a disastrous season from the Broncos and it seems like Anthony Seibold is going to need a miracle to keep his job next season.

The Dragons are coming off their best win of the season as they farewelled Paul McGregor in style with a win over the Eels.

It makes you wonder why they had to wait until his last game to play that well, but it certainly gives them the blueprint on how to win games moving forward.

The Dragons still have the tiniest chance at playing finals this season so they should be looking to pile even more misery on the Broncos here.

The Dragons played their best game of the season last week and will be looking to pile more misery on the Broncos.

Gold Coast Titans (13th) vs Canberra Raiders (5th) Saturday 22 August 3pm @Cbus Super Stadium

The Titans match last week was marred by the Proctor biting incident, but they matched it with the Sharks before he was sent off.

In fact, the Titans have matched it with the Panthers and Roosters in recent weeks and are no longer the easy beats they once were.

Unfortunately, they have lost Proctor and Jai Arrow for this match, so some of their young stars will have to step up in their absence.

The Raiders are coming off their biggest win of the season against the Broncos, but the Titans will offer more resistance this week.

John Bateman and Corey Harawira-Naera played their best games of the season last round and with three games under their belts, should be looking to hit their straps.

The 36 points they scored against the Broncos is their biggest total all season, so hopefully their attack can continue to flow off the back of that performance.

The Raiders are in 5th place on the ladder so every game in the run home is vital as they look to secure a top 4 spot.

Wests Tigers (9th) vs Sydney Roosters (4th) Saturday 22 August 5.30pm @Leichardt Oval

The Tigers escaped with a one-point victory over the Bulldogs last week, but it was hardly a convincing performance.

Their finals hopes are still just alive, but they will need to be almost flawless in their final six games to avoid another 9th placed finish.

Coach Michael Maguire has stuck with the same side that defeated the Bulldogs, but they will need to improve as a whole to beat the Roosters.

The Roosters have been cruelled by injuries in recent weeks, but there wouldn’t be too many feeling sorry for the star-studded side.

They lost Luke Keary, Lachlan Lam and Mitchell Aubusson to injury during their 24-6 loss to the Storm last week, but Brett Morris and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves return to the side.

Kyle Flanagan also earns a reprieve at halfback and will partner Drew Hutchison in a new-look halves pairing.

Their position in the top 4 is under threat, so they can’t afford to drop this one.

The Roosters will be looking to keep their spot in the top 4 while the Tigers look to keep their finals hopes alive.

South Sydney Rabbitohs (8th) vs Manly Sea Eagles (10th) Saturday 22 August 7.35pm @ANZ Stadium

The Rabbitohs pulled off a remarkable victory over the Cowboys last round to put themselves two games clear of the 9th-placed Tigers.

Wayne Bennett will be allowed to coach his side on Saturday after serving his 14-day quarantine period for breaching the COVID protocols.

Manly have now lost their past three matches and have slipped to 10th on the ladder with finals seeming highly unlikely now.

They were right in the contest against the Knights last week and showed they’re still capable of playing some quality footy.

They lost their replacement fullback Brendan Elliott to an ACL injury which means Reuben Garrick will shift to fullback to cover.

Canterbury Bulldogs (16th) vs New Zealand Warriors (12th) Sunday 23 August 2pm @ANZ Stadium

The Bulldogs have been knocking on the door for their third win of the season that will lift them above the Broncos on the ladder.

They were desperately close last week against the Tigers and now get another chance against a bottom 8 side.

Jack Cogger keeps his spot at halfback after a strong showing last week and Jeremy Marshall-King slots into hooker after his best game for the club.

The Warriors continue to prove everyone wrong as they pushed the ladder-leading Panthers side all the way last week.

They won’t play finals this season, but the Warriors have won plenty of admirers with the way they have dealt with trying circumstances this season.

The Bulldogs are no easy beats at the moment, so the Warriors will need to maintain their current form to topple them.

Newcastle Knights (6th) vs North Queensland Cowboys (14th) Sunday 23 August 4.05pm @McDonald Jones Stadium

The Knights look to have secured their first finals berth since 2013 and will now be eyeing off a spot in the top 4.

They just got over the line against the Sea Eagles last week in a high scoring affair, so defence will likely be the priority against the Cowboys.

Daniel Saifiti is out with another knee injury with brother Jacob replacing him in the starting side and Pasami Saulo comes onto the bench.

The Knights lost to the Cowboys 32-20 back in round 7, so they won’t be taking their opponents lightly.

The Cowboys have lost seven straight matches since that victory over the Knights but went close against the Rabbitohs last week.

Scott Drinkwater returning to fullback added some extra ball-playing to their attack, but it was their defence that continues to let them down.

The Cowboys are 15th for defence this season, having allowed 374 points in 14 matches this season and will have their hands full this week against a Knights side that has scored 70 points in their last two matches.

The Knights will be looking to get one back over the Cowboys as they push for a top 4 finish.

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Ian Cubitts
Ian Cubitts