Sunday

Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys @ Sunshine Coast Stadium – 4:05 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Storm: Ryan Papenhuyzen misses this one with an achilles injury, but the Storm have a more than capable backup in Nicho Hynes. Suliasi Vunivalu and Nelson Asofa-Solomona return to replace Isaac Lumelume and Christian Welch. Lumelume will come off the bench with Ryley Jacks replacing Chris Lewis on the pine.
  • Cowboys: Josh Hannay has named the same Cowboys 17 that ended the nine-game losing streak last week.

Key Factor: Defence

This game comes down to defence. Primarily, the North Queensland Cowboys defence. Conceding 25.6 points per game, only the hapless Broncos allow more points to be scored through them. Kyle Feldt comfortably leads the competition in try causes with 21 this season. Esan Marsters has 14 despite only playing in 11 games. Coen Hess, while not named this week, leads all back rowers in the NRL with 13 try causes. The holes have been in this Cowboys defence for much of the season. Should Josh Hannay split Marsters and Feldt again this week, the Melbourne Storm have vulnerable targets on both sides.

Meanwhile, the Storm defence concedes the fewest points in the NRL at just 12 per game. It doesn’t matter who is injured or what position players fill, they all know their role to work in a well-oiled and cohesive unit.

The Cowboys have a few points in them, but not enough to go back and forth with the Storm in a shootout. How the Cowboys aim up in defence will decide this one.

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v New Zealand Warriors @ Netstrata Jubilee Stadium – 6:30 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Sharks: Shaun Johnson returns to face his former club while Chad Townsend will sit in the naughty corner following his brain-snap last week. Connor Tracey starts in the halves with Braydon Trindall out of the 17. With Wade Graham sat with Townsend this week, Siosifa Talakai starts in the back row. Sione Katoa takes his place back on the wing for Bryson Goodwin while Andrew Fifita has a spot on the bench after failing to crack the side last week.
  • Warriors: Loanees George Jennings and Daniel Alvaro are back in the side for this week replacing Gerard Beale and Josh Curran. Isaiah Papali’i has been named to start at prop with Lachlan Burr to come off the bench.

Key Factor: Shaun Johnson

The Cronulla-Sharks have missed Shaun Johnson over the last three weeks. They plugged different players into the right side and ran the same shapes, but lacked the quality of the Kiwi international. Too often the last pass went wide to leave points on the table. He returns to play his former team this week and will be the focus for both the Sharks and New Zealand Warriors.

The Warriors know better than any side what Johnson is capable of doing. He’s playing some of the best football of his career at the moment. When looking across his last two seasons with the Warriors in 2017-18 and first two with the Sharks, he’s sending teammates across the line more than ever.

Shaun Johnson Try Assist (2017-2020)

Despite missing Cronulla’s last three games, Johnson still leads the competition in try assists with 20 – five ahead of second. Just as it was in his time with the Warriors, when Johnson is firing, the Sharks are piling up points. He’s averaged 1.75 try assists in the eight games the Sharks have won with him this season compared to the one try assist he has averaged in the six they have lost. With both sides desperate to claim the two points and add to their finals hopes, Johnson holds the key to victory one way or the other.

Thursday

Wests Tigers v South Sydney Rabbitohs @ Bankwest Stadium – 7:50 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Tigers: Michael Maguire has named the same 17 that beat the Sea Eagles for this week.
  • Rabbitohs: As he has been over the last two weeks, Dane Gagai is again named in the centres. He takes Jaxson Paulo’s place on the wing. Tevita Tatola is out with Liam Knight to start and Jed Cartwright joining the bench. Boom rookie Keaon Koloamatagi is named on the bench but needs to clear HIA protocols to play.

MORE: “Keaon Koloamatangi that rates the biggest mention”

Key Factor: Nofa v AJ

David Nofoaluma and Alex Johnston have both been in the headlines this week.

One random tweet triggered a wave of rumours that suggested Nofoaluma and Josh Addo-Carr might swap places. Michael Maguire was quick to shut that idea down on Wednesday. Meanwhile, after being told he was unlikely to be re-signed and free to look elsewhere, Johnston has locked in a two-year extension with the South Sydney Rabbitohs. Now, the two go head-to-head in a battle that will go a long way to deciding the winner on Thursday night.

Via ‘Edge’

Nofoaluma is having the better individual season of the two. He’s a high-usage winger that goes searching for the ball when the Wests Tigers work out of their own end. If anything, the biggest concern with Nofoaluma (other than his defence) is he can search too far for the ball. Nonetheless, the Tigers would be lost without his 187 running metres and 6.7 tackle breaks per game along with 17 tries this season. Johnston, on the other hand, is more of a finishing winger. He has scored 13 tries in the 12 games he has played on the wing this season. When AJ is doing little more than ading the icing to a long left shift, South Sydney are playing their best football.

They’re two very different wingers in playing style, but one is likely to influence the result one way or another in this one.

Friday

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles @ ANZ Stadium – 6:00 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Bulldogs: The Bulldogs look a different side this week. Marcelo Montoya, Kerrod Holland, Kieran Foran and Dylan Napa are all out. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak moves into the centres, Jayden Okunbor onto the wing, Jake Averillo into five-eighth and Aiden Tolman to prop. Luke Thompson is back and will start at lock while Brandon Wakeham and Sauaso Sue join the bench.
  • Sea Eagles: Jorge Taufua and Josh Schuster are the latest Sea Eagles players out for the season. Abbas Miski comes onto the bench with Cade Cust recalled at five-eighth.

Key Factor: Taking Chances

The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles rank 13th and 14th in running metres per game. They’ve struggled to get up the field all season, and it shows in their 13.9 points and 17.1 points per game respectively. Efficiency inside the opposition 20-metre line is a problem both need to solve this week.

Canterbury’s 0.5 points per tackle inside the opposition 20 is the worst rate in the competition. Manly’s 0.6 points per tackle inside the opposition 20 isn’t much better to be ranked 13th. The loss of Kieran Foran is another hurdle the Bulldogs need to leap if they’re to find enough points to win on Friday evening. He’s been their best attacking player all season with Jake Averillo now tasked with playing his first game in the halves.

While the Sea Eagles deal with another season-ending injury every week, Addin Fonua-Blake, Marty Taupau, Jake Trbojevic and Taniela Paseka still remain. If the foursome can surpass Manly’s season average of 1,552 metres per game and give Daly Cherry-Evans enough chances to find points, even their 0.6 points per tackle in good ball areas should be enough to beat a hapless Bulldogs outfit.

Penrith Panthers v Parramatta Eels @ Panthers Stadium – 7:55 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Panthers: Isaah Yeo is back into lock with James Fisher-Harris shifting to prop and Moses Leota to the bench. Kurt Capewell is out of the side.
  • Eels: Reed Mahoney has been named but is no certainty of starting on Friday night. Andrew Davey taking Marata Niukore’s spot on the bench is the only confirmed change.

Key Factor: The 7’s

Nathan Cleary v Mitchell Moses was an argument worth having in 2019. Moses was at least talked about as an option in the New South Wales halves following a promising start to the season. However, that argument hasn’t even started in 2020.

Cleary has been the far superior player all season and is one of the best players in the NRL right now. The tempo he plays with keeps the defence on their toes at all times, and if he’s not setting up tries through subtle plays in the middle, he’s taking the line on himself. Moses, on the other hand, has offered little to the Eels attack recently. Parramatta’s dip in form aligns directly with Moses’ return from injury in Round 11. He hasn’t been the same player, and the Eels haven’t been the same team. Once one of the best attacking teams in the NRL, Parramatta went five consecutive weeks without scoring 20 points before putting 24 on the Warriors in Round 17. They did a lot of their damage with an extra man on the field, too.

We know what Cleary is likely to produce on Friday night. It’s up to Moses to recapture his form and make a game of it. Penrith won’t have any problem’s winning their 13th game on the trot if Moses isn’t at his best.

Saturday

St. George-Illawarra Dragons v Canberra Raiders @ WIN Stadium – 3:00 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Dragons: Cody Ramsey replaces Mikaele Ravalawa on the wing while Paul Vaughan returns from suspension to join Kaide Ellis in the front row. Josh Kerr and Blake Lawrie move to the bench with Tyrell Fuimaiono out of the side.
  • Raiders: Ricky Stuart has named the same 17 again this week.

Key Factor: The Centre-Third

Paul Vaughan’s return and the elevation of Kaide Ellis into the starting 13 gives the St. George-Illawarra Dragons hope through the middle this week. Currently ranked 5th in yardage at 1,796 metres per game, it’s an underrated part of the Red V’s game. Vaughan, in particular, can be a game-changer. Meanwhile, an injury to Josh Papalii, while he has been named to play, is sure to have an impact on the barnstorming prop. He’s been outstanding this season and a large contributor to the Canberra Raiders 1,669 metres per game (9th).

While the Dragons attack is far from consistent, they can threaten in good ball areas. Matt Dufty has a wicked long ball while Zac Lomax and Euan Aitken are powerful options close to the goal line. It’s important that the Dragons middle first lays the foundations to work their way up the field, though. With Jack Wighton in stellar form and the Raiders attack on the improve, the Dragons need to win the territory battle and avoid defending their own goal line too often if they’re to cause an upset.

It’s up to Vaughan, Ellis, Josh Kerr and Blake Lawrie to rumble up the field in attack and clog up the middle in defence.

Gold Coast Titans v Brisbane Broncos @ Cbus Super Stadium – 5:30 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Titans: Brian Kelly and Jaimin Jolliffe are both out due to injury. Beau Fermor moves into the centres, Keegan Hipgrave into the back row and Moeaki Fotuaika to prop. Nathan Peats has been named in the reserves and is a chance at returning to hooker.
  • Broncos: Alex Glenn makes his return from injury this week to push Ben Te’o to the bench. Jamil Hopoate and Jordan Riki are both suspended while Joe Ofahengaue returns from his ban. Xavier Coates takes Ethan Bullemor’s place on the bench.

Key Factor: Containing Kotoni and Fifi

The Brisbane Broncos have offered next to nothing in attack for the majority of the season. At times, their only option is to throw the ball to Kotoni Staggs and David Fifita and hope for the best. They’re both in the top end in the competition for tackle breaks per game, and they need to be the main focus of the Gold Coasts Titans defence this week.

Tackle Break Percentile (2020)

If the Titans can cut down the space Staggs has to move on the edge and contain Fifita on his ranging sideways runs that so often end with him crashing through the defence to score, the Broncos will be forced to explore other options in attack. They’ve not offered many alternatives in recent weeks outside of hanging one up for Corey Oates on the 5th tackle in Round 17.

It’s simple for the Titans: Shut down Staggs and Fifita and you will more than likely take the chocolates.

Sydney Roosters v Newcastle Knights @ Sydney Cricket Ground – 7:35 pm AEST

Team List Notes

  • Roosters: Jake Friend is back in a dummy half after missing last week. He replaces Freddy Lussick as the only confirmed change.
  • Knights: Kalyn Ponga, Mitch Barnett and Hymel Hunt have all been rested. Tex Hoy to fullback, Herman Ese’ese to lock and Edrick Lee to the wing. In better news, Daniel Saifiti will return via the bench while Sione Mata’utia has been named in the reserves.

Key Factor: Daniel Saifiti

The importance of Daniel Saifiti’s return for the Newcastle Knights can’t be understated. It’s not a coincidence that their overall performance has coincided with a career-best season from the 24-year-old. He returns this week with the absence of Kalyn Ponga, Mitch Barnett and Hymel Hunt only adding to the pressure.

With the Knights missing so much in attack, they can’t afford to be dominated through the middle. This Sydney Roosters outfit is too good to be letting them get downhill with quick play-the-balls. Saifiti’s head-to-head battle with Jared Waerea-Hargreaves is one that will determine how competitive this depleted Knights team is on Saturday night.

Waerea-Hargreaves v D.Saifiti (2020)

If Saifiti can come off the bench and outplay Waerea-Hargreaves while receiving a competent level of support from the forwards around him, a Knights side most expects to struggle can compete with the defending premiers.

Your Edge: Fast Finishers, Bench Beasts & Try Scorer Analytics

Round 18 Value Plays