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It’s heating up in the battle to cap off season with tipping honours

NRL – Round 25
BRONCOS v KNIGHTS: These two sides are at opposite ends of the seven team log jam vying for the remaining two finals spots. There’s no two ways about it for the 13th placed Broncos, they need to win their remaining two games for an outside chance of sneaking into the top eight. The seventh placed Knights might get another chance next week, but they’ll be looking to seal it here after a lacklustre 26-6 loss to the Cowboys on Saturday. After being overrun by the Panthers last Friday, the Broncos will be buoyed by the return of Alex Glenn at centre, while Knights enforcer Willie Mason returns for the suspended Kade Snowden.
TIGERS v RABBITOHS: A big mismatch here. Second place takes on third last. A win for the Rabbitohs sets up a blockbuster next week against the Roosters for the minor premiership. Sam Burgess’ return from suspension means all four Burgess brothers will play together for the first time in the NRL. The Tigers ended a six game losing streak last week, albeit against the lowly Dragons. While Tigers skipper Robbie Farah returns from injury and Benji Marshall will be playing his 200th NRL game, this one should be all one-way traffic in favour of the Bunnies.
WARRIORS v RAIDERS: This is another do-or-die clash as both teams need a win to have a crack at making the top eight. The 12th placed Raiders have been through a week from hell. Coach David Furner was sacked, they racked up a fourth straight loss when they were beaten by Manly, and now their main strike weapon Blake Ferguson has been stood down for going AWOL, drinking while injured and being charged by police for allegedly driving under suspension. However the good news for the Raiders is the return of captain Terry Campese and forward Tom Learoyd-Lahrs. The Warriors go into this clash unchanged from their narrow win over the Titans. It would take a massive turnaround for the Raiders to get up in Auckland. They’ve lost nine of their 11 away matches this year.
BULLDOGS v PANTHERS: Here’s another match-up with significant finals ramifications. Looking dead and buried after four straight losses, the Panthers have resurrected their finals hopes with two wins against fellow finals contenders the Warriors and Broncos. While the Bulldogs are pretty much assured a top eight spot, they’ll want a win here to secure a home final. However they’ll have to do so without second rower Frank Pritchard, who has accepted a two week suspension after a shoulder charge in the loss to the Rabbitohs on Friday. With their season on the line, the Panthers have a lot more to play for and might just force a third consecutive upset.
SEA EAGLES v STORM: The Storm (third) can still finish in the top two, while Manly (fourth) are yet to lock down a top four finals spot. Manly haven’t beaten a top four side all year, and they’ll be looking to do so here to lift their confidence heading into the finals. Manly have lost Anthony Watmough but get back fullback Brett Stewart, while Tohu Harris returns for Melbourne at the expense of Tim Glasby. Not much separates these two sides, as the Storm have won four of their last five, and Manly seven of their last eight. Like most games between these two rivals, this one will be a cracker. The Storm’s recent hot form, including last week’s 64-4 win over the Eels, edges them ahead as narrow favourites.
SHARKS v COWBOYS: Both sides head into this clash in red hot form. Since North Queensland coach Neil Henry was informed he wasn’t required at the club in 2014, the Cowboys have won four straight to jump up to eighth spot. But their last month could come crashing down at the hands of the Sharks, who can still pinch a top four finish after upsetting the Roosters on Monday. With Ray Thompson injured, Rory Kostjasyn will start at hooker for the Cowboys and Jayden Hodges, cousin of Broncos star Justin, will make his debut off the bench. The Sharks’ are unchanged and their dominant win over the competition leaders last round earns them the narrow favouritism in this one.
ROOSTERS v TITANS: The ninth placed Titans are on the ropes. With an away match against Melbourne next week, a third straight loss here will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to reach the top eight. Roosters captain Anthony Minichiello returns, shifting Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to wing and Shaun Kenny-Dowall to centre. The Titans will be without Ashley Harrison and Mark Minichiello, but fortunately have Luke Bailey and Greg Bird returning. The Roosters will be out to make up for Monday night’s loss against the Sharks, which ended an eight game winning streak. Expect them to bounce back for their run up towards the finals.
EELS v DRAGONS: Pride. That’s pretty much all there is to play for in this battle of the cellar dwellers with the wooden spoon already in the firm grips of the Eels. Eels superstar Jarryd Hayne returns to the side at fullback for Jake Mullaney, while the Dragons have brought Josh Drinkwater onto the bench for Craig Garvey. The Dragons have lost eight of their last nine games, including the last five, the most recent being a 34-18 defeat to the lowly Wests Tigers. The Eels are arguably travelling worse, losing 12 of their last 13, which culminated with a 60 point thrashing at the hands of the Storm on Sunday. The irony is that in a round full of sudden death clashes, this is probably the hardest winner to pick.
AFL – Round 23
SWANS v HAWKS: Hawthorn will secure top spot on the ladder with victory. Should that happen, both teams can expect a rematch in the first week of finals. The Swans continue to rack up the injuries at the wrong time of the season and have lost Rhyce Shaw, Dan Hannebery and Nick Smith. The Hawks won’t risk Cyril Rioli and Liam Shiels, nursing sore ankles, or Brent Guerra, who has a sore back. Hawks spearhead Lance Franklin might be able to do some reconnaissance ahead of a possible move to next-door Skoda Stadium with GWS next season. He excels in this type of match, and will be keen to muster form ahead of the finals.
SAINTS v DOCKERS: Interesting that Sportingbet reported a big move for St Kilda on Wednesday and suspended markets – correctly believing it was an indication the Dockers would rest star players ahead of this match. The Dockers have made 10 changes. For Saints Stephen Milne, Justin Koschitzke and Jason Blake, it will be their last AFL match and they’ll hope to give the Saints their fifth win of the year as they contemplate rebuilding. Koschitzke and small forward Adam Schneider also bring up the 200 game milestone. The roll call of Dockers having the weekend off includes stars David Mundy, Nat Fyfe, Hayden Ballantyne, Stephen Hill, Michael Walters and Michael Johnson, among others, which gives the Saints a big chance.
CATS v LIONS: Geelong will secure second spot with victory here, or even top spot if Hawthorn are knocked off the night before. Brisbane can put themselves right in the hunt for the now-vacant last finals berth if they can upset the Cats – as they did earlier this season at the Gabba. The killer stat here is that Geelong have lost once at their home ground fortress in the past six seasons. The Cats are resting ruckman Nathan Vardy, replaced by Trent West, who had been out of form and favour. He faces a tough battle against in-form Brisbane counterpart Matthew Leuenberger, although the Cats should have the edge elsewhere.
POWER v BLUES: The key domino to fall in the battle for the golden ticket to this season’s finals. If Carlton win, they’ll play finals next week after Essendon’s elimination. No other results will matter. But Port will be looking to rebound from a disappointing performance against Fremantle last weekend to hit the finals in form. It is also the last AFL match to be played at Football Park before both the Power and Crows move base to Adelaide Oval next season. The return of Andrew Walker, Jeff Garlett and Matthew Kreuzer will be welcome for Carlton, but the loss of Brock McLean is a big blow to a midfield already without Chris Judd and Andrew Carrazzo.
BOMBERS v TIGERS: After such a difficult few days to cap off a nightmarish month, this all depends on where the Bombers’ heads are at. If they can show the fight they did to beat Carlton last weekend, Richmond could be in for a torrid encounter they’d prefer not to have the week before their first finals appearance in 12 years. If the bans, fines, elimination from finals and exile of their coach has flattened the Bombers, the Tigers will coast. Essendon have promoted David Hille, 32, and 30-year-old Nathan Lovett-Murray for farewell games. Essendon assistant Simon Goodwin will slip into the big chair in Hird’s absence against former Bomber Damien Hardwick. Bombers skipper Jobe Watson has been immense for his club through a difficult period. Can he keep producing?
EAGLES v CROWS: Two teams with the slimmest of finals hopes, which may be non-existent by the time they kick off. Both finalists last season, little has gone to plan for either in 2013 and they’ll be looking to reload for next year. The Eagles will be farewelling Andrew Embley and Adam Selwood. Could this be premiership coach John Worsfold’s last match in charge of the Eagles? A loss will have him thinking of the merits in going on.
SUNS v GIANTS: The Suns will be hoping to round off a promising season with victory over their expansion rivals. Few would have seen the Suns winning seven matches this season already. GWS have won just once in 2013, and in Kevin Sheedy’s coaching swansong, would love to send him out a winner. But Gold Coast have shown such signs of life this season it is hard to see them letting one slip against a Giants team which will hope to emulate the Suns’ efforts next season. Gold Coast skipper Gary Ablett has had a couple of quietish weeks. Here’s an opportunity for three Brownlow votes.
MAGPIES v KANGAROOS: By the time of their match, North Melbourne will know if they can make the finals, and what they must to do to get there. Collingwood can finish either fifth or sixth, and should Richmond have won on Saturday night, it is almost certain to be sixth unless they get the mother of all percentage boosts here. The expected return of Dayne Beams is a plus for the Magpies but they’ve lost Luke Ball. Will North be alive by kickoff?
BULLDOGS v DEMONS: Pride is all that’s at stake here. The Bulldogs’ super run of form came to an end with their narrow loss to Brisbane last weekend – a slow start costing them dearly. But they have made great strides this season under Brendan McCartney, and will be looking to end their year on a high. Melbourne have been shamefully bad all year, and could still finish bottom if they lose badly here and GWS knock off the Suns. Bulldogs veteran Daniel Cross plays his final match for the club. He wants to continue on elsewhere next season, so look for him to shine in the shop window, and to farewell his club of 13 years in style.

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