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It’s tough trying to settle on the contenders and the pretenders

The pretenders continue to leave their mark in the NRL, which is unusual because history suggests that they usually fall away at this time of year. A few teams still have a slight chance of making the finals and the battle for the wooden spoon is hotting up, so good luck splitting teams in the 50/50 contests.

Meanwhile, the contenders are starting to flex their muscle in the AFL, although, with three rounds to go, four teams sitting outside the top eight are capable of cracking a spot in the finals.

The Rugby Championship kicks off this weekend and there’s no doubt Australia and Argentina will be primed to produce their best. However, New Zealand and South Africa will take some stopping.

  NRL (Round 24)

7-BRONCOS v 2-STORM: Since downing the Storm in the 2006 grand final, the Broncos have only won two of the next 12 matches against the Melbourne outfit. With Lockyer on deck, there’s no way the Broncos would have blown a 14-0 lead against the Bulldogs. The Storm are back in form with impressive wins over the Panthers and Titans, and they always lift against the Broncos. A Broncos win is possible, but it would be a surprise. There’s not much love between the clubs, so a loss will sting. Tip: STORM.

1-BULLDOGS v 8-TIGERS: The Bulldogs have strung 11 wins together and are clearly the team to beat in 2012. The Tigers bounced back to form with wins over the Eels and Dragons after falling to top eight teams — the Cowboys and Rabbitohs — but the Bulldogs are a different kettle of fish. It’s a big game for the Tigers, but defence is a worry and the Bulldogs cleaned them up 32-20 in Round 18. It’s hard to fault any aspect of the Bulldogs’ game. Barba v Marshall and Farah v Ennis is huge. Tip: BULLDOGS.

10-RAIDERS v 14-ROOSTERS: It was a big game for the Roosters against the Eels last weekend, but their finals bid folded once and for all with an inept display and it’s hard to see them toppling the revitalised Raiders. However, the Raiders have struggled against the Roosters over the years having only won seven of the past 26 contests. The Raiders, who are aiming for three wins in a row, have driven tipsters around the bend all season, but you may as well give it away if they fall to the Roosters. Tip: RAIDERS.

6-SHARKS v 3-RABBITOHS: Gigantic game and a genuine toss of the coin. The Sharks are getting the wobbles and the Rabbitohs got a dose of reality when they proved no match for the Sea Eagles in a “big game”. The Sharks have lost four of their last five games and it’s no coincidence that they’ve lost their edge since Pomeroy went down with injury. The Rabbitohs welcome back Inglis and Asotasi is tipped to be a late inclusion. The Rabbitohs boast a good recent record against the Sharks, but the Sharks boast an outstanding record against the Rabbitohs at home. Tip: RABBITOHS.

13-WARRIORS v 15-PANTHERS: After wins against the Roosters and Sharks, the Panthers have slipped up against the Storm and Raiders and, unless things improve, they could end the season with the dreaded wooden spoon. After a narrow loss to the Broncos, the Warriors somehow grabbed defeat from the jaws of victory against the Knights and Sea Eagles before capitulating against the Sharks (45-4) and Cowboys (52-12). The Warriors finished on top 30-16 when last both teams clashed in Round 14 and they should get the cash at home. Tip: WARRIORS.

11-TITANS v 16-EELS: The Titans were gallant when they fell to the Storm last weekend, but they have struggled at home this season with a 3-7 record. In the corresponding match last year, the Eels avoided the wooden spoon when they toppled the Titans, who ended up finishing in 16th place a year after missing the grand final by a game. The Eels are a genuine chance of rolling the Titans again, especially as they have won three of their past four games despite sitting at the foot of the ladder. The Titans remain a slight chance of making the finals, so surely they will lift with their season on the line. Tip: TITANS.

4-SEA EAGLES v 9-KNIGHTS: The Knights are on a roll, having won four of their past five games, including a 32-6 win over the visiting Sea Eagles five weeks ago. Minus King and Matai, the Sea Eagles made it three wins a row last weekend when they outclassed the Rabbitohs. Significantly, the Sea Eagles have won their past three games in Perth, Townsville and Gosford, so you would expect them to thrive back at home. The Sea Eagles have won 10 of their past 12 games against the Knights at Brookvale and right now they’re the only team capable of stopping the Bulldogs. Tip: SEA EAGLES.

12-DRAGONS v 5-COWBOYS: The Dragons have won nine of their 13 home games against the Cowboys; however, three of those four losses have come at Wollongong. The Dragons have won five of their past six games at WIN Stadium, but will have to produce a rabbit out of the hat to stop the Cowboys. The in-form Cowboys are a serious premiership threat and are virtually at full strength, so if they can’t win this match then they will only be making up the numbers come September. The Dragons rolled the Storm when last they appeared in Wollongong. Tip: COWBOYS.

 AFL (Round 21)

7-CATS v 10-SAINTS: The loss of Riewoldt is massive for the Saints. In contrast, the Cats welcome back Corey, Kelly, Chapman, Hunt and West. The Cats were highly courageous in a narrow loss to the Eagles in Perth, while the Saints had a routine win over the Demons. Hawkins is also set to line up for the Cats, so it could be a difficult night for the Saints. A win for the Cats will enhance their prospects of avoiding the Eagles in an elimination final in Perth. Last roll of the dice for the Saints, but losing their captain hurts. Tip: CATS.

8-BOMBERS v 11-BLUES: The Bombers are in free fall after proving no match for the Kangaroos last weekend, while the Blues kept their remote top eight hopes alive with a win over the Lions. The Bombers could drop out of the eight with a loss, while the Blues can prepare for their end of season trip if they can’t get over the line. Ryder, Stanton and Zaharakis return for the Bombers, while Judd returns from suspension for the Blues. The Bombers got the cash in Round 4 by 30 points, but this vital match is a lottery. Tip: BLUES.

18-GIANTS v 16-DEMONS: If the Giants can overcome the Power at home, then surely they’re some chance of lowering the colours of the Demons in Canberra. The Demons crushed the Giants by 78 points in Round 13, but it’s more of a level playing field on this occasion. The Giants will lift for Power’s 300th game, but losing key forwards Patton and Cameron to season-ending surgery gives the Demons a sniff as far as winning their first interstate match under coach Neeld. Sheedy would love to get one over the club who overlooked him for the coaching position after parting company with the Bombers. Tip: DEMONS.

 9-DOCKERS v 12-TIGERS: Yet another game with end-of-season ramifications. With the Bombers getting the staggers, the Dockers may find themselves in the top eight by the end of the weekend. Mathematically, the Tigers can still make the finals, but they need to win their last three games and they need a great deal of luck. McPharlin, Fyfe and perhaps Sandilands look set to return for the Dockers, which isn’t good news for the Tigers. The Dockers have been fantastic in Perth in recent weeks and Pavlich has been nothing short of unstoppable. The Tigers will be desperate. Tip: DOCKERS.

3-MAGPIES v 6-KANGAROOS: Clearly the match of the round and it’s an important game for both teams. Victory for the Magpies will keep the acid on the Swans and Crows in the race for the minor premiership. The Kangaroos need to win to avoid a trip to Perth for an elimination final. The Magpies once again stunned the Swans in Sydney, while the Kangaroos are on song having registered eight wins in their past nine starts. The Kangaroos have their injury concerns, but key forwards Petrie, Hansen and Tarrant spell danger for the Magpies. The Magpies are unchanged, which means Swan is still missing, and they haven’t had too many problems with the Kangaroos in recent meetings. The Magpies may win, but the Kangaroos are a serious proposition on this occasion. Tip: MAGPIES.

13-LIONS v 2-CROWS: The Crows got the Lions by five points at the Gabba last year, but in 2012 the Crows have found another gear while the Lions have found it tough going against the top teams. The Lions have lost five of their past six games and it’s unlikely they will cause the Crows too many problems. Ending the premiership rounds in either first or second spot will enhance the Crows’ prospects of making the grand final as they could host two home finals, so it’s unlikely they will blow it against the Lions. The bottom line is that the Crows boast too much class and they will be out to improve their percentage. Tip: CROWS.

14-POWER v 5-EAGLES: At their best, the Eagles should encounter few problems against the Power who have played second fiddle to the top teams all season. Hard to believe the Power got the Saints and Kangaroos earlier in the season, but those two wins were achieved in Adelaide and therefore the Eagles can’t afford to lose focus. With Lynch and Hill in attack, Cox and Naitanui in the ruck, Priddis and Kerr on the ball, and Glass and Waters in defence it’s hard to see the Power getting near the Eagles. Tip: EAGLES.

15-BULLDOGS v 1-SWANS: The Swans belted the Bulldogs in Round 10 and if recent form is any guide then it could once again be one-way traffic. Stung by a game they should have won when inaccuracy cost them against the Magpies, the Swans should bounce back to form and maintain their mantle at the top of the ladder. The Bulldogs might welcome back Cooney and Griffen and Higgins, but they have made a host of changes after failing to find a spark in a 70 point loss to the Tigers. The Swans are certainties. Tip: SWANS.

4-HAWKS v 17-SUNS: The Hawks boast the best percentage in the competition (156.5) and that will only increase when they face the Suns, who are last-start winners. The Hawks won by nine points when last both teams clashed on the Gold Coast last year, but the Hawks were already assured of a finals spot and were by no means at full strength. The Hawks have obliterated the Kangaroos and Bombers this season, so it could be a long day for the Suns with key forwards Franklin and Roughead returning to the Hawks fold. If the Swans are certainties, then the Hawks are just about the bet of the year. Tip: HAWKS.

 Rugby Championship (Week 1)

AUSTRALIA v NEW ZEALAND: The Wallabies will be competitive, but the facts are that only six players are backing up from the team that fell to the All Blacks in a World Cup semi-final in Auckland last October. The All Blacks feature players who excelled for the Chiefs and Crusaders during the semi-finals of Super Rugby and a packed house at ANZ Stadium in Sydney won’t be a problem. The All Blacks appear to have the Wallabies covered all over the ground. Former All Blacks hardman Richard Loe can only see the Wallabies winning one game — at home against Argentina. Tip: ALL BLACKS.

SOUTH AFRICA v ARGENTINA: The Springboks have their injury concerns, with key players recovering from a demanding Super Rugby season, but they’re still fielding a pretty strong team and should show the Pumas little sympathy when they make their debut against the three southern hemisphere heavyweights. The Pumas have excelled at World Cups, so they will give the Springboks a run for their money at Newlands in Cape Town. The Pumas were missing key players when they downed France and Italy earlier this year, so the fact that they have adequate depth is a good sign. Tip: SPRINGBOKS.





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