The race for the NRL finals is heating up and this weekend will see several tantalising match-ups that are certain to shape the make-up of the top eight.
The Panthers face the Storm tonight, before Parramatta take on South Sydney on Friday night and the Roosters play the Cowboys on Saturday afternoon.
“I think the top four battle is heating up for sure,” Fox League’s Lara Pitt told news.com.au ahead of round 22.
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“I think the Storm have probably got a tough one to win against the Panthers even though Penrith don’t have (Nathan) Cleary and (Jarome) Luai — they’re always extremely tough to beat at home.
“The Eels-Rabbitohs game is one of the hardest of the round, equally Roosters-Cowboys. Those two games are massive. I found those the hardest to pick but I’ve gone with the Roosters and Parramatta.
“The Parramatta Eels, that’s a huge game against the Rabbitohs, if they win that they’re into the top four.
The Panthers sit three games clear on top of the ladder and are red-hot favourites to win back-to-back premierships, but Pitt believes Cronulla are a “dark horse” heading into finals.
“I’ve been at the last couple of Sharks games on the sideline and been really impressed with how gritty and the style of football they’re playing,” she said.
“They can get into an arm wrestle. They still haven’t hit peak form, there’s still improvement to come for them.
“They’re winning ugly, they’re winning tough, then when they play well they can score points. I’d say the Sharks are possibly the dark horse.
“I think the eight is pretty much settled when I look at the standings at the teams that have kind of fallen over at the wrong end of the season — Manly, Raiders and Dragons unfortunately have left it a bit too late.
“I think the eight is probably the way it is now but everyone will be jostling for where they actually finish in the eight. I back the Roosters and the Broncos to secure their place in finals, it’s just about how high they can finish.”
Gruesome injuries ‘hardest part’ of the job
In her role as Fox League’s sideline reporter, Pitt has witnessed several nasty injuries this season including Stephen Crichton’s mauled ear, Ryan Papenhuyzen suffering a fractured knee cap and Aaron Booth rupturing his ACL last weekend.
Pitt said having to interview players after they’ve suffered season-ending injuries is the “hardest part” of her job.
“The Stephen Crichton one stands out the most,” she said.
“I think even he probably was in shock himself and didn’t realise his ear was hanging off walking around the stadium saying g’day to the fans at the end of the game, then had to head off to hospital and have a plastic surgeon sew his ear together.
“There’s been that one and obviously seeing Aaron Booth go down for the Titans last week, he has sustained the most serious knee injury you can get.
“I spoke to him after the game. He knows he’s got a long road to recovery but I was pretty surprised at how strong he was and how he looked like he was going to take it head on, which is pretty incredible when he’s just sustained a horrific knee injury.
“It’s probably not the best part of the job at all and speaking to players just after they’ve ruined their year or they’ve got that long comeback trail ahead of them, that’s probably the hardest part.
“I don’t like watching the replays of horrendous injuries, that’s for sure. I’ll certainly look away. I’m not too frightened by the blood and the gore of it, but I’m not watching the replays of knees going the wrong way, that’s for sure.”
Dragons need star power around Hunt
St George Illawarra take on the Raiders in a Fox League exclusive game on Sunday and while both sides appear out of the finals race, they will be desperate for a win.
Pitt believes the Dragons need to recruit some star players in the spine to support Ben Hunt, if they are any chance to make finals in 2023.
“The club has made some moves to change the support staff around Anthony Griffin. Clearly they can see it’s not working,” she said.
“The concern is now that they’re not bringing on board any high calibre players into the roster to help Ben Hunt and he desperately needs the help. It’s hard to see how they’ll be any better next year with just some assistant coaching movements.
“If that’s the case, then the pressure will be firmly on the club and the coach early next year if they don’t make any movement in performance on the field.
“Overall, just hugely disappointing that they haven’t improved this year and they’ve failed to make finals.”
Watch the St George Illawarra Dragons vs Canberra Raiders at 1pm on Sunday only on Fox League.