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Finals picture getting clearer?

There are signs that the NRL’s top eight could already be decided, while in the AFL there are 13 teams still in the hunt for finals action. Meanwhile, can Wales, Ireland and England salvage victory against their southern hemisphere rivals in the final match of  their respective Test series?

 NRL (Round 16)

11-DRAGONS v 10-TITANS: It has been 23 years since a Gold Coast-based team has won in Wollongong. The Dragons have battled in recent weeks, but they will be hard to beat if they can continue from where they left off in the second half against the Bulldogs last Friday night. In contrast, the Titans are on the way up, but losing Zillman, Champion, White and perhaps Bird to injury could hinder their chances. Along with the Warriors, the Dragons and Titans are the only teams capable of forcing their way into the top eight, so it should be a willing contest. Tip: DRAGONS
3-BRONCOS v 4-RABBITOHS: Apart from the fact that it’s Civoniceva’s 300th game, the fact that the Broncos were held scoreless in Townsville last week spells trouble for the Rabbitohs. Hannant aside, the Broncos will be fielding their strongest side with Thaiday, Parker and Civoniceva returning. The Rabbitohs were ahead 12-0 against the Broncos in Perth earlier in the season before succumbing 20-12, so they will be out for retribution. The Rabbitohs are flying and cannot be written off, but history suggests they have had their struggles against the Broncos. Tip: BRONCOS
6-COWBOYS v 12-RAIDERS: The Cowboys made a huge statement last week when they not only kept the Broncos scoreless, but made it a season double over their Queensland rivals for the first time in years. The loss of Tariq Sims is a blow for the Cowboys because they’re good enough to crack the top four and create a few waves in September. The Raiders were fantastic in Newcastle a fortnight ago, but they have lost five of their past six games in Townsville and haven’t won in north Queensland for six years. The Cowboys should win comfortably. Tip: COWBOYS
15-PANTHERS v 16-EELS: These two teams are desperate for victory as they strive to avoid the wooden spoon. The Panthers creamed the Eels at Parramatta Stadium in Round 4 and, to make matters worse for the Eels, they have only won one game away from their home base in their past 20 matches. The Panthers have won their past three matches against the Eels, which included a remarkable home win after the final siren last year, but haven’t posted four straight wins against their neighbours since 1971. The return of Lewis, Jennings and Grant enhances the Panthers’ prospects enormously. Tip: PANTHERS 
2-BULLDOGS v 1-STORM: On form, this should be a wonderful match. The Bulldogs have won just two of their past 11 games against the Storm, but they were at Gosford and Adelaide. Can the Bulldogs win another match on neutral turf against the Storm in Mackay? The Storm were narrow winners over the Bulldogs in Round 7 so, at their best, the Bulldogs are good enough to get the cash. The Storm are missing Slater, but they keep winning and to win at Brookvale was outstanding. The Storm perhaps have the edge in defence and you would be brave to tip against them. Tip: STORM
13-ROOSTERS v 8-SEA EAGLES: Both teams have been inconsistent of late. The Roosters were great last week, but for obvious reasons the Tigers were not at their best. The injury to Glenn Stewart probably cost the Sea Eagles victory against the Storm. The Roosters have only won two of their past 11 matches against the Sea Eagles — and they, too, were at Allianz Stadium on a Sunday afternoon. These two teams clashed five weeks ago with the Sea Eagles prevailing 18-10 at home. The return of Matai is a boost for the Sea Eagles, but are injuries starting to take their toll on the premiers? For the Roosters, the Sea Eagles could be ripe for the picking. Cherry-Evans will be out to impress Maroons selectors against Blues halfback Pearce. Tip: SEA EAGLES
14-KNIGHTS v 7-TIGERS: Should Farah return to the Tigers line-up, it’s hard to see the Knights winning. Even if the NSW hooker doesn’t take the field in Newcastle, it would come as a huge surprise if the Tigers were to lose. After winning seven straight, the Tigers are certain to play better after going down to the Roosters last weekend. It has been almost two months since the Knights have won a game and unless things change they could be in a dogfight for the wooden spoon. It’s obvious now that the loss of Gidley for the Knights is massive. The Tigers haven’t lost in Newcastle since 2004. Tip: TIGERS

AFL (Round 13)

4-SWANS v 7-CATS: The Swans will enhance their top four hopes with victory, while the Cats will be pushing for a top four spot should they get the cash in Sydney. Both teams have had two weeks to prepare for the match. The Swans were superb for three quarters against the Bombers a fortnight ago before almost blowing it in the last term; the Cats had to work hard before overcoming the underwhelming Blues. The Cats will be out for revenge after the Swans ended their impeccable home record last year, but the Swans are playing well and to have Goodes back at the SCG is a bonus. Tip: SWANS
13-BULLDOGS v 15-LIONS: If the game was being held in Brisbane, you’d strongly consider the Lions. However, it’s taking place in Melbourne and therefore you’d feel pretty confident if you settled on the Bulldogs. Had the Bulldogs been a lot more accurate, they would have blown the Power away last weekend, while it would have been an uglier scoreline had the Hawks kicked a lot straighter in a 65-point win over the Lions. The Lions are tipped to welcome back Black and McGrath, but back-to-back games in Melbourne is a tough ask. In the end, the Bulldogs perhaps boast more class and experience than the Lions. Tip: BULLDOGS
3-MAGPIES v 1-EAGLES: Both teams have had excellent seasons, especially when you consider their injury concerns, and this is clearly one of the biggest games of the year. Both teams have played well at home and on the road, so settling on a winner is no easy task. The return of Reid, Toovey and Shaw is good news for the Magpies, while the Eagles welcome back Waters. No Didak for the Magpies or Adam Selwood for the Eagles. The battle between Scott Selwood and Dane Swan will be captivating, while Jolly has to deal with Cox and Naitanui. The Magpies got the Eagles by 20 points in a qualifying final last year at the MCG, and for the Eagles to edge a faltering Blues by just 10 points last week perhaps gives the Pies the edge. Tip: MAGPIES
11-DOCKERS v 6-BOMBERS: Unless the Bombers can bounce back to winning form, the Dockers may end up taking their spot in the top eight at the end of the home and away rounds. Two weeks ago, the Dockers posted an unexpected road win over the Tigers, while the Bombers suffered an unexpected home defeat to the Swans despite turning a 47-point deficit at three-quarter time into an agonising four point loss. The loss of Sandilands, Dawson and Hill is a blow for the Dockers, but the Bombers appear to be stumbling after such a promising start to 2012. The Bombers are favourites, but winning in Perth hasn’t been easy for the Bombers in recent years against the Dockers or Eagles. Tip: DOCKERS
16-DEMONS v 17-GIANTS: The Giants stuck it right up the Tigers last weekend to suggest they will be more than competitive against the Demons, who are nowhere near as good as the Tigers. The Demons were no match for the Magpies a fortnight ago, but prior to that match they toppled the Bombers to suggest that if they can put four quarters together they’ll get the Giants. For the Giants, it’s their first appearance at the MCG, which may prove too much for a number of their younger players. Giants pair Scully and McDonald cut ties with the Demons, and neither was amicable, so it could end up being a spicy contest. Giants coach Kevin Sheedy will be keen to get the four points as the Demons overlooked him as coach a few years ago before appointing Dean Bailey. Tip: DEMONS
12-KANGAROOS v 2-CROWS: The Kangaroos have hit the wall big time, while the Crows continue to impress. The Kangaroos have to find form soon or else a finals spot is out of the question, but if recent results is any guide they’re only making up the numbers this season. The Crows are among a handful of teams capable of winning the premiership and they should maintain their spot in the top four with a regulation win. The Crows were too good for the Saints last week and the Kangaroos, seven-point winners over the Suns a week ago, will have their hands full containing twin towers Tippett and Walker in front of goal. The Crows smashed the Blues when last they played at Etihad, so the Kangaroos will have to produce something very special. Tip: CROWS

Rugby union

Wales, Ireland and England were desperately unlucky to fall to respective opponents, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, last weekend. The three teams from the southern hemisphere are all ahead 2-0 in their three Test series, so will the three northern hemisphere teams be able to lift a final time before heading home?
Wales have named an unchanged line up for the Test in Sydney, while Beale comes into the Wallabies team for last week’s match-winner Harris. The Wallabies saw first-hand why Wales ended up winning the 2012 Six Nations and so victory will be no easy task. Meanwhile, Ireland were worthy of at least a draw in Christchurch last weekend before Carter potted a face-saving drop goal for the All Blacks. Carter will miss the third Test in Hamilton because of injury, with Cruden taking his place. Cruden is one of six changes to the All Blacks team. The Irish have made three changes with Wallace becoming O’Driscoll’s third centre partner in as many Tests.
After 107 years of trying, can Ireland finally register their first ever win over New Zealand? The Springboks have made three changes to their team for the third Test against England in Port Elizabeth. The English, who have suffered a 22-17 defeat in Durban and a 36-27 loss in Johannesburg, have made six changes for the dead rubber. England won’t lie down but, like Australia and New Zealand, it’s unlikely South Africa will drop their guard with The Rugby Championship on the horizon.
 Other international fixtures: Samoa v Scotland in Apia, Argentina v France in Tucuman, USA v Italy in Houston, Canada v Georgia in Vancouver, Fiji v Tonga in Lautoka.

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