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League Round 26 preview panel

Preview of NRL Round 26 matches (all times AEST):
League Round 26 preview panel
by AAP

SYDNEY, Sept 4 AAP - Preview of NRL Round 26 matches (all times AEST):

THURSDAY, September 5

Brisbane v Canterbury at Suncorp Stadium, 7.45pm AEST

Head to head: Broncos 23, Bulldogs 19, one draw.

Last clash: Bulldogs 24 bt Broncos 14 at ANZ Stadium, round 11 2013

Tab Sportsbet: Bulldogs $1.50 Broncos $2.65

FootyTAB: Broncos +4.5

All the talk ahead of this clash has centred on Ben Barba. Imagine the hype if he was definitely playing. The Bulldogs insist an ankle injury - not the NRL probe into the club's handling of his early-season suspension - will keep him out, but the whispers continue that he will play. Canterbury could also find it hard to get up for a game that won't have any major finals impact. Whether they finish fifth or sixth they still get to host a knockout final next week. Then there's the Broncos. The knives have come out as they look to end the worst season in their history after missing the finals for the second time in 21 years. Oh, and they will also be sweating on the NRL probe after snapping up Barba on a three-year deal. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Key: Scott Prince. Much maligned pivot will want to end his 16 season career with a 300th game to remember with a Brisbane side promising to throw caution to the wind in their last hurrah for 2013.

Tip: Bulldogs

FRIDAY, Sept 6

South Sydney v Sydney Roosters at ANZ Stadium 7.45pm

Head to Head: Souths 108 Roosters 93 drawn 5

Last clash: Round 1 2013 - Souths 28 bt Roosters 10 at Allianz Stadium

Tab Sportsbet: Souths $1.52 Roosters $2.60

FootyTAB: Roosters +5.5

The biggest regular season clash in years - one v two with the minor premiership and title favouritism on the line. Both sides have played down the importance of the minor premiership, saying the big one is all they are after, but try telling that to the fans on either side of the local derby. Souths appear in ominous form save for concerns over the fitness of Greg Inglis, while the Roosters desperately need a win to take some momentum into the finals. Watch out for Sam Burgess v Sonny Bill Williams - the two most explosive forwards in the game who went at each other when they clashed in the season opener.

Key: The halves. Current NSW Origin pair Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney up against the men most think will take their Blues spots in 2014 - Adam Reynolds and John Sutton.

Tip: Souths


St George Illawarra v Warriors at WIN Stadium Wollongong, 3pm

Head to head: Dragons 15, Warriors four.

Last clash: Dragons 38 bt Warriors 6 at WIN Stadium, round 25 2012

Tab Sportsbet: Dragons $4 Warriors $1.26

FootyTAB: Dragons +11.5

The path to the NRL finals is so tricky for the Warriors they will have to create history just to start it. The 15th-placed Dragons may be battling after six straight losses but New Zealand have been burnt every time they have travelled to Wollongong. The only occasion the Warriors have left the city victorious was in 1996 when they downed the Illawarra Steelers. Still, they will back themselves to end their jinx after coming off a 50-16 last round win - albeit over Canberra. That victory snuck them into the top eight for the first time this season - only to be punted to 10th barely 24 hours later. To avoid the same fate this weekend, the Warriors must down the Dragons before sweating on two of their fellow top eight aspirants - Newcastle, North Queensland and Gold Coast losing their matches. Either way an anxious wait looms for Warriors fans.

Key: Dragons' pride. St George Illawarra will want to send out retiring duo Matt Cooper and Nathan Fien as well as Michael Weyman (Hull KR) out winners - not by extending their embarrassing six-match record losing run.

Tip: Warriors

Melbourne v Gold Coast at AAMI Park, 5pm

Head-to-head: Storm 6, Titans 4.

Last clash: Titans 18 bt Storm 12 at Skilled Park, round 15 2013

Tab Sportsbet: Storm 1.11 Titans $7

FootyTAB: Titans +22.5

It would seem a classic David v Goliath battle with the injury ravaged Titans limping into Melbourne to face off against the reigning premiers. Then again so did the Titans' last round clash in Sydney against the Roosters. The Gold Coast's shock plucking of the Roosters has kept their finals hopes alive but still firmly placed in the "faint" category. The Titans will be desperate to avoid missing the finals for the third straight year and attract unwelcome attention to coach John Cartwright as new CEO Graham Annesley launches a football department review. They downed Melbourne the last time they met but without the likes of Ashley Harrison, Mark Minichiello, Jamal Idris, William Zillman, David Mead and most likely Nate Myles (ankle), the Gold Coast will do well just to be competitive against a Melbourne side still smarting from last round's loss to Manly.

Key: David Taylor. With so many big stars missing for the Titans, the big fella must finally shine if they are to be any chance of keeping their finals hopes alive.

Tip: Storm

North Queensland v Wests Tigers at 1300SMILES Stadium, Townsville, 7.30pm

Head to head: Tigers 15, Cowboys 12.

Last clash: Tigers 22 bt Cowboys 20 at Leichhardt Oval, round 11 2013

Tab Sportsbet: Cowboys $1.15 Tigers $5.75

FootyTAB: Wests Tigers +15.5

There will be at least 1300SMILES in Townsville if the Cowboys pull off their finals miracle with victory against the Wests Tigers - but few will be in the North Queensland boardroom. If it is possible to have mixed feelings about a top eight finish the Cowboys power brokers will be experiencing it after telling coach Neil Henry his services won't be required at season's end five weeks ago. They haven't lost since. But Henry will be an afterthought for the rabid Townsville crowd if they clinch a sixth straight win and a finals berth in their favourite son Matt Bowen's final home game. The Cowboys pack will be without co-captain Matt Scott (broken finger). But with revitalised duo Johnathan Thurston and Bowen pulling the strings for North Queensland, few will be putting their hard earned on the lowly Wests Tigers who will be forgiven for just wanting their horror season to end.

Key: Benji Marshall. Just what will the playmaking enigma conjure in his final game in Wests Tigers colours?

Tip: Cowboys

SUNDAY, Sept 8

Manly v Penrith at Brookvale Oval 2.00pm

Head to Head: Sea Eagles 49 Panthers 27 drawn 1

Last clash: Round 12 2012 - Panthers 22 bt Sea Eagles 4 at Centrebet Stadium

Tab Sportsbet: Sea Eagles $1.15 Panthers $5.75

FootyTAB: Panthers +15.5

Locked into finishing either third or fourth, Manly don't have much to gain against a Penrith side already out of finals contention. That much was obvious when both Brett Stewart and Anthony Watmough were not named, the pair given the weekend off to rest injuries. Coach Geoff Toovey could also give some other stars more time on the bench, with the possibility of the Sea Eagles having a short preparation for their opening finals encounter.

Key: Motivation. What is in it for either side to get the win other than keeping their fans happy?

Tip: Sea Eagles

Newcastle v Parramatta at Hunter Stadium 3.00pm

Head to Head: Knights 23 Eels 19 drawn 1

Last clash: Round 17 2012 - Knights 20 bt Eels 12 at Parramatta Stadium

Tab Sportsbet: Knights $1.08 Eels $8.50

FootyTAB: Parramatta +22.5

Given they will be the last of the sides not yet locked into a finals spot to play this weekend, the Knights have the comfort of knowing exactly what they need to do to stay in the top eight. If that isn't motivation enough, 'Old Boys' day should do the trick with Newcastle boasting an imposing record when playing in front of all the former Knights players. Jarryd Hayne hasn't been named for Parramatta, but could yet make a shock return for the Eels' season finale.

Key: Danny Buderus. With no Kurt Gidley, the veteran hooker will now have to play big minutes in one of the most demanding positions on the field.

Tip: Knights

Canberra v Cronulla at Canberra Stadium 7.00pm

Head to Head: Raiders 28 Sharks 32

Last clash: Round 10 2013 - Sharks 30 bt Raiders 20 at Remondis Stadium

Tab Sportsbet: Raiders $2.10 Sharks $1.75

FootyTAB: Raiders +3.5

Another pair of sides with little to play for, the Raiders' season done and Cronulla already locked into finishing either fifth or sixth. As the last match in the round, the Sharks will at least have the opportunity of engineering a result for who they would like to play in the opening week of the finals. No Paul Gallen for the Sharks due to suspension, but Todd Carney is tipped to be back on deck. The Raiders will have a look at the future with NYC halfback Mitch Cornish to make his NRL debut.

Key: Will it be in the Sharks' best interest to win or lose? Depending on who they would like to play in the finals could affect Cronulla's motivation to win on Sunday night.

Tip: Raiders

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