NRL Round 18: Friday Match Previews & Betting Tips

The Warriors are a different beast away from Auckland – will their streak continue as they face Cronulla in Wellington? The Panthers are on the prowl into the top eight, can they make it seven wins straight against an imploding Dragons?

James Baxter
Wed, 17 Jul, 12:00 AM

Cronulla Sharks vs. New Zealand Warriors – Westpac Stadium (Wellington) - 6pm

The Sharks are in freefall, four straight losses seeing them slide from a top four darkhorse to now completely outside the eight. Their 40-16 defeat from Melbourne was different to their previous three defeats – this time it wasn’t goalkicking to cost them victory, instead it was being outclassed.

There were flashes of the spirit which drove the Sharks up the ladder in happier times, despite trailing 18-4 at halftime Cronulla fought back strongly to open the second half. Shaun Johnson was pivotal to the flourish with his side scoring consecutive tries – converted too, a nice change from recent woes – but when Melbourne picked up the intensity, the Sharks were left in the dust.

Injuries didn’t help their cause but considering how depleted Cronulla were when they ambushed the Storm at home earlier this year, it can’t be used as an excuse. Josh Dugan’s hamstring injury forced a backline reshuffle, which considering fullback Matt Moylan was already out with his own dodgy hammy was hardly ideal.

Despite this, the loss of veterans Paul Gallen and Wade Graham proved the hardest to overcome. Andrew Fifita tried his heart out but was unable to power through the Storm pack on his own. Ex-Origin prop Matt Prior had a night to forget and once Melbourne gained momentum through the middle, Cronulla couldn’t hold them off. It leaves coach John Morris’s side at a crossroads.

They arguably overachieved in the first half of 2019 with injuries and off-field turmoil doing a number on them. But there’s little doubt confidence from the Shire has slumped across the last four rounds. Another defeat and suddenly Cronulla’s finals hopes will be in serious jeopardy – a far cry from just six weeks ago.

The good news after last week’s trip to Brisbane was the Warriors stretched their away unbeaten run to five straight. The bad news was it came via a golden point 18-all draw leaving New Zealand with an even tougher battle to make finals footy. You couldn’t fault the Warriors’ effort – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck was in fine form at fullback to clock 334 run metres while Jazz Tevaga shrugged off his ankle injury to become a tackling machine, pulling off a mind-blowing 74 tackles to do everything but tackle himself into the Suncorp ground.

There were the typical Warrior mistakes throughout the night – hooker Issac Luke bobbled a grubber to gift Darius Boyd a try, Tevaga thwarting a perfect field goal chance in extra time with a tired knock-on, Kodi Nikorima missing three previous one-point attempts – but it was balanced with a sustained effort combined with moments of magic.

David Fusitu’a hasn’t replicated his breakout 2018 year but his spectacular put-down off some superb RTS ballplaying gave the Warriors a ten point lead at one stage. The match continued the Warriors’ bizarre pattern of playing better away from Mt Smart Stadium, leaving an interesting conundrum this week given they’re facing the Sharks at Wellington’s Westpac Stadium.

Drawing with Brisbane leaves the Warriors with a tiny margin of error to make the playoffs, making this game must-win especially considering Cronulla are fighting to re-enter the top eight. There’s no doubting the Warriors are giving everything they’ve got – Adam Blair is a great example of responding to his axing with some of his better performances since joining the club – but an inability to consistently execute sums up where the Warriors currently sit – being good isn’t good enough to make the finals.

Key Stats:

Cronulla have a dominant 9-2 record over the Warriors since 2012.

- Across 10 matches since 2001 the Warriors are yet to win two straight matches in Wellington.

- Only once since 2012 have the Warriors scored 20+ points against the Sharks.

- The last time the Warriors won in New Zealand was round 4 and their last match in NZ away from Auckland was a 46-12 belting from Manly in Christchurch.

Tip: Sharks

Best bet: Sharks -1.5 - $1.90* (TAB)

Value bet: Race to 20 points – Cronulla  - $2.55* (Sportsbet)

Penrith Panthers vs. St George Illawarra Dragons – Panthers Stadium - 7:55pm

No Nathan Cleary, no worries for Penrith as their mid-season resurgence continued in an easy 24-2 win over the Titans. Cleary was close to a return from his ankle injury but instead James Maloney was asked to back up from Origin in the half’s place. The veteran delivered with two beautiful try assists while five-eighth Jarome Luai had another impressive match with his ability to keep defenders guessing as he drifts across field.

There have been more convincing performances in Penrith’s winning run than the Gold Coast win but it’s not like the Panthers had to pull out all the stops over the broken Titans, who sacked coach Garth Brennan fewer than 48 hours later. Brent Naden got his break into first grade via a seemingly cursed run of injuries to more established centres but he’s now emerging as a potential future automatic starter, racking up 229 run metres and building a great partnership with fellow rookie Brian To’o on the wing.

Penrith have emerged from their rock bottom after their horrible round 10 loss to the Warriors as a side taking more chances in attack and backing their ever-improving defence. The upside to their earlier season injury is the confidence some of their rookies have now gained at the top level.

Penrith’s production line is the best in the league and the latest product Jed Cartwright – son of legendary Panther John and grandson of Merv – made a solid debut from the bench to maintain the feelgood wave Ivan Cleary’s side are experiencing. Nathan Cleary will slot seamlessly back into the halves and with the Dragons out of confidence, it could be a perfect matchup for the NSW rep to work his way comfortably back into action.

The way the Dragons self-destructed on Sunday night to Canberra hardly inspires faith this is a team fighting for their season. Their 36-14 loss at home doesn’t do justice to how poor they were as the Raiders played them off the park.

The best way of illustrating this was the Raiders looked the better team despite having Nick Cotric sent off for a spear tackle on Tim Lafai, winning that spell 10-4. Aside from a brief burst midway through the second half when forwards Korbin Sims and Luciano Leilua scored back-to-back, the Dragons showed precious little in attack and not much resistance in defence.

Four Canberra tries came off simple one-out passes – if you believe a team’s attitude stems from defence then alarm bells would be ringing off the wall for Dragons punters. Tariq Sims aside, the Dragons pack didn’t live up to their potential on the night while Queensland reps Ben Hunt and Corey Norman looked shadows of the Maroons pair who took the game to New South Wales just days earlier.

A scheduling quirk has given the Dragons a run of five from seven matches at home but midway into the streak, they only have a 1-2 record to show and for a team needing every break to go their way to mount a finals charge, it’s simply not good enough. Perhaps the most damning aspect of where the Dragons sit is they’re only two wins clear of the dead-last Titans.

Hunt has been rested this week, not exactly a promising sign for what they perceive their finals hopes now are. Instead coach Paul McGregor has the grim task of now needing to keep an eye out for the two clubs below the Dragons instead of planning a charge into the finals.

Key stats:

Penrith’s games during their 6 straight wins have been low scoring, averaging 30.33 points with the highest Panther score 24 points.

- Josh Mansour has 4 tries in his last 5 starts against the Dragons.

Tip: Panthers

Best bet: Under 36.5 points - $1.89* (Sportsbet)

Value bet: Josh Mansour anytime tryscorer - $2.30* (TAB)

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