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No shortage of incentives

NRL players out to enhance their State of Origin selection prospects; up to 13 teams capable of making the  AFL  finals;  Super Rugby players sure to step up with their international season looming …  all makes for a very interesting weekend.

NRL (Round 13)

There are a host of 50/50 matches this weekend, so you could be spending plenty of time analysing the fortunes of teams before
making a decision. Keep your ear to the ground when it comes to ”ins”  and “outs”, especially after three key players withdrew from the Sea Eagles at the 11th hour before facing the Panthers last weekend.

7-SEA EAGLES v 10-DRAGONS: The Sea Eagles have only won three of their past 15 games against the Dragons, while the Dragons have only won two of their past 14 games on the road. The return of Kieran Foran and Jason King will boost the Sea Eagles, and the return of Beau Scott is a shot in the arm for the Dragons. The loss of Steve Matai is a blow for the premiers but, unlike the Dragons, who struggled against the Eels last weekend, it’s hard to be critical of their attacking prowess and scoring tries isn’t an issue. Tip: SEA EAGLES

12-TITANS v 6-COWBOYS: There are clear signs that the Titans are starting to gell, while the Cowboys have been among the best teams all season. Winning at home has been a drama for the Titans in 2012 but, in contrast, the Cowboys have been superb on the road and didn’t lose too many friends in an honourable loss to the Tigers last weekend. Amazingly, the Titans got the Cowboys in Townsville in Round 1 when they triumphed 18-0. Tariq Sims is a big loss for the Cowboys and the Titans boast arguably the best back in the NRL. Tip: COWBOYS

13-RAIDERS v 8-TIGERS: With Terry Campese leading the way, the Raiders got the Tigers on a Monday night at Campbelltown in Round 4. The Tigers then suffered two narrow defeats, at the hands of the Broncos and Rabbitohs, before winning their next five games, so revenge in Canberra is a distinct possibility. The return of regular fullback Josh Dugan will help the Raiders immeasurably, but will he be effective at five-eighth? It’s a huge risk and Benji Marshall will test him out. The Tigers named Blake Ayshford at five-eighth, but he is unlikely to play because of injury. Tip: TIGERS

5-BULLDOGS v 4-RABBITOHS: Could be a classic contest if both teams come to play. The Bulldogs have had the wood on the Rabbitohs in recent years, but everyone took notice when Souths got the cash at ANZ Stadium during the Easter period. The defence of the Bulldogs is perhaps a bit more reliable, but can they stop Greg Inglis. Rival fullback Ben Barba will certainly keep the Souths defence on its toes. The fact that the Bulldogs played on Monday night is significant as the Rabbitohs have had an extra three days to prepare for the game. Tip: RABBITOHS

9-WARRIORS v 1-STORM: The Warriors are fresh after the bye and have won  nine of their past 10 games at Mt Smart, but are you game enough to tip against the Storm? In recent times, little has separated the teams in Auckland — Storm 4-2 (2007), Warriors 8-6 (2008), Warriors 13-6 (2010) and Storm 16-8 (2011). The Storm will never take the Warriors lightly again following their infamous finals clash in 2008, but there is a huge gulf between the teams when you compare their points differential — Storm (+199) and Warriors (-6). Tip: STORM

2-BRONCOS v 11-KNIGHTS: It’s official. The Knights miss the injured Kurt Gidley more than the Broncos miss the retired Darren Lockyer. The Knights have got nothing in attack, while the Broncos have a habit of turning it on at Suncorp Stadium. The return of Sam Thaiday, Petero Civoniceva and Justin Hodges spells trouble for the Knights. The Broncos won’t make an impression in the finals race unless they field their best team and it’s hard to see the hapless Knights making the eight. Wayne Bennett is 1-4 at Suncorp since leaving the Broncos. Tip: BRONCOS

16-EELS v 3-SHARKS: The Eels were valiant against the Dragons last weekend and surely a win is just around the corner, but they have only  won two of their past eight games against the Sharks. The Origin period will test the Sharks and many expect them to eventually slide down the ladder, but the good news is that they welcome back Paul Gallen and Todd Carney. The Sharks have lost five of their past six games at Parramatta Stadium, while the Eels have only won two of their past 19 NRL games. The Sharks just have more players producing the goods on a regular basis. Tip: SHARKS

AFL (Round 10)

The good news is that the Saints-Tigers, Hawks-Kangaroos, Dockers-Crows, Power-Blues and Swans-Bulldogs fixtures could go right down to the wire. Unfortuantely, it could be one-way traffic in the other four games. The Suns and Giants, who face the 2011 grand finalists, are still on a learning curve, while it could get ugly unless the Demons and Lions bring their A-grade game to the table.

7-SAINTS v 12-TIGERS: The Saints have suddenly clicked into gear and in their past two appearances at Etihad Stadium they were far too good for the Blues and Swans. The Tigers have been threatening to claim a big scalp in recent weeks and they delivered in spades last weekend when they devastated the Hawks. The Tigers haven’t rolled the Saints since 2003, although last year’s clash at the MCG ended in a draw. Tip: SAINTS

9-CATS v 16-GIANTS: A spot in the top four is an unlikely prospect for the Cats at this stage, but at their best they can still make the finals and to enhance their hopes they need to improve their percentage. A big win over the Giants at home is on the cards, but will the Cats be as imposing as last year when they clocked the Demons (186 points) and the Suns (150 points)? Will the Giants mirror Geelong’s recent success in 10 years? Tip: CATS

8-HAWKS v 11-KANGAROOS: The Hawks belted the Dockers when last they appeared in Launceston, so they will be relieved to be back in Tasmania after a shocking loss at the hands of the Tigers. They are clearly missing Luke Hodge. After a bewildering defeat against the Power, the Kangaroos bounced back to sink the Lions, but they did concede four late goals. Victory over the Cats is the only big scalp the Kangaroos have toppled this year. Tip: HAWKS

10-DOCKERS v 3-CROWS: The Dockers have copped plenty of stick this week and it will be interesting to see how they respond. The other big question is whether or not the Dockers can lift after last week’s “derby” against the Eagles. It’s hard to believe that the Crows didn’t kick a goal in the last term when they fell to the Magpies last weekend.
The Dockers are a chance, but if consistency can be used as guide then the Crows are deserved favourites. Tip: CROWS

2-BOMBERS v 18-DEMONS: It’s hard to believe that the Bombers are arguably the best team in Victoria, but they are travelling beautifully and will cement their place in the top four with a win over the worst team in Victoria. It’s hard to see the Demons getting within 50 points of the Bombers, who are showing no weaknesses in any aspect of their game. The secret for the Demons is to stay focussed for four quarters. Tip: BOMBERS

15-POWER v 6-BLUES: Can the Power make it three wins in a row? It has been 21 months since Port have gone three weeks without a loss. The Blues are an imposing assignment. Carlton have been far from their best and need to flex their muscle once again to prove to the world that they are indeed a force in the premiership race. At their best, the Power will be competitive. At their best, the Blues will win easily. Tip: BLUES

14-LIONS v 1-EAGLES: The Lions finished with a wet sail despite succumbing to the Kangaroos last weekend, which gives supporters hope. The fact that the Lions have only rolled the Suns and Giants at the Gabba must be a concern for supporters. And the fact that Simon Black is out for the Lions makes life a lot easier for the Eagles. It’s a long way to Brisbane for the Eagles, but they just hold too many aces and should win comfortably. Tip: EAGLES

5-SWANS v 13-BULLDOGS: The Bulldogs have been far from disgraced in  recents weeks and with only two defeats in the past four rounds would  fancy their chances against a Swans outfit who have battled against the stronger teams without Adam Goodes. The likely return of ruckman Shane Mumford will be a huge inclusion for the Swans, who overwhelmed the Demons when last they appeared at the SCG. The Swans are a good side at  home. Tip: SWANS

4-MAGPIES v 17-SUNS: Even if the Suns had an extra 21 Gary Abletts in their team they would still battle to stop the Magpies in Melbourne. It is certainly a mis-match of the highest proportions and the Magpies should have the “cue in the rack” by halftime as they prepare for the Demons next weekend. Injuries continue to haunt the Magpies, but their win over the Crows was a clear sign that they are contenders in 2012.  Playing at the MCG may just bring the best out of the Suns. Tip: MAGPIES

Super Rugby (Round 15)

By the end of this weekend a number of questions will be answered. We’ll find out if the Highlanders are the real deal, if the Hurricanes are in the midst of a late-season charge and just who exactly is the best team in South Africa. There were a number of exciting games last weekend, but of the six games this weekend it’s hard to see the Brumbies, Chiefs and Sharks stumbling.

5-CRUSADERS v 7-HIGHLANDERS: The two teams from the South Island are enjoying excellent seasons. The Highlanders started 2012 with a bang and, although they sit just outside the top six, are more than a decent chance to qualify for the finals. The Crusaders are in full flight after a slow start to the season and will be striving to make it
six wins from their past seven starts. Fresh from the bye, the Crusaders will be out to avenge a narrow loss in Dunedin in Round 2. The Highlanders defeated the Blues on the road last weekend, but it doesn’t get any tougher when you visit Christchurch. Tip: CRUSADERS

12-REBELS v 3-BRUMBIES: A missed penalty goal right on fulltime cost the Brumbies victory against the Reds last weekend. Seemingly bound for the finals under coach Jake White, the Brumbies face a slightly easier assignment when they visit Melbourne after sinking the Rebels 37-6 in Canberra in Round 8. However, the Rebels did get the Crusaders at AAMI Park. Stirling Mortlock and Mark Gerrard are tipped to start for the Rebels, but there’s no James O’Connor or Kurtley Beale. How will the Rebels recover from their shellacking in Wellington? Tip: BRUMBIES

14-BLUES v 1-CHIEFS: The Blues have been a major disappointment this year, so victory over the Chiefs would border on the staggering. Scheduling a home game from Eden Park to North Harbour Stadium may bring the best out of the Blues, but it’s unlikely. The Chiefs, criticised for their approach in the past, are a genuine chance this season and it’s hard to see them capitulating at this stage of the season. The Chiefs were too good for the Blues in Hamilton in Round 2 and are bouyant after rolling the Bulls last weeeknd. Ma’a Nonu v Sonny Bill Williams is big. Tip: CHIEFS

11-WARATAHS v 9-HURRICANES: They’ve teased us all season, but the Hurricanes have finally clicked into gear and after winning three of  their past four games to indicate that a late season charge is in full swing. The Waratahs were competitive in South Africa, but to crash at the hands of the Cheetahs after pushing the Stormers may have finally taken its toll. The Waratahs cannot be written off at home, but stopping an opponent who posted 66 points last weekend won’t be easy. The Hurricanes just seem to be playing better, but tipping teams on the road is a dangerous pastime. Tip: HURRICANES

15-LIONS v 6-SHARKS: The Bulls and Stormers are the two South African teams who have received plenty of plaudits, but it’s time to treat the  Sharks with similar respect. They have been on the march since returning  from Australasia and victory against the Lions will be their fifth straight in as many weeks. The Sharks made everyone stand up and notice when they got the Stormers last weekend and are absolute certainties to get the cash in Johannesburg. The Lions are back from a four-match tour of Australasia and, although they never won a game, they never copped a hiding. Tip: SHARKS

4-BULLS v 2-STORMERS: Sportsword loves it when two teams from South Africa go toe to toe and this match should be a peach. The Stormers, who boast a good record in Pretoria, edged the Bulls 20-17 in Cape Town in Round 6 and it should be another epic contest when the Bulls host a match that might well be a prelude to this year’s final. The Bulls came close to toppling the Chiefs last weekend in their final tour match, while the Stormers couldn’t match the Sharks in Durban. Both teams could be battling it out for home ground advantage come the finals so neither will hold back. Tip: BULLS

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