NRL Preview: Thompson banned, Whitehead returns & Best boosts Newcastle

Luke Thompson in action for Canterbury Bulldogs

We preview each game set to take place during round 20 of the NRL season.

Sydney Roosters v Parramatta Eels (Thursday, 10:55am, Sky Sports Mix or Watch NRL)

Josh Morris will return for the Roosters

The round opens up with an intriguing battle between fourth placed Parramatta and fifth placed Sydney. A win here could have serious implications as to who makes the top four with only two points separating the pair. The Roosters have the better points difference so will take fourth spot with a victory while the Eels need to shake off a tough loss to Canberra last week and with a hard run of games to finish the season that sees them face four sides within the top six, their mentality and toughness will certainly be tested.

Team news: Sydney welcomes the return of Josh Morris who replaces Billy Smith at centre. Adam Keighran also comes in at centre while Joey Manu shifts to the wing in place of Matt Ikuvalu (ankle).

Will Penisini drops to reserves as Tom Opacic returns at centre for Parramatta. Bryce Cartwright comes on to the bench with Marata Niukore (knee) out.

Wests Tigers v New Zealand Warriors (Friday, 9am, Watch NRL)

Ben Murdoch-Masila is in the front-row for the Warriors

The Warriors have been down on their luck in recent weeks after losing their last seven and couple that with the early exit of influential captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who is set to move to rugby union, it looks like it will be a tough end to the season for Todd Payten’s men. They still have every chance to come away with a win here though as they face a Tigers side that have only won one in their last five themselves.

Team news: Shawn Blore is the new man in the Tigers’ second-row with Luke Garner (ankle) out. Joe Ofahengaue moves from the bench to loose forward with Thomas Mikaele sidelined while Moses Mbye has also been promoted to the starting side and will take Junior Pauga’s place in the centres. Tom Amone, Alex Twal and Michael Chee Kam move up onto the interchange.

Peta Hiku returns from injury at stand-off with Kodi Nikorima moving down to the bench while Sean O’Sullivan will partner Hiku in the halves as Chad Townsend sits out with a shoulder issue. Addin Fonua-Blake’s finger injury means Jamayne Taunoa-Brown earns a recall from his stint at the Dragons to start at prop. Matt Lodge (suspended) is also out so Ben Murdoch-Masila is the other man in the front-row and Taniela Otukolo takes up the dummy half role.

Brisbane Broncos v North Queensland (Friday, 11:05am, Watch NRL)

Brisbane will be without Thomas Flegler

The second game of Friday’s double header sees a big Queensland derby between Brisbane and North Queensland. Both teams may have been on the losing side last week but there was still plenty of positives to take away as they pushed two of the biggest juggernauts in the competition all the way. The Broncos nearly pulled off another big upset as a late stumble saw them just miss out against Penrith while the Cowboys were all over the Storm only to just let it slip away in a 20-16 defeat.

Team news: Keenan Palasia starts at prop for Brisbane as Thomas Flegler (suspended) sits out.

The Cowboys name an unchanged squad.

St George Illawarra Dragons v South Sydney Rabbitohs (Saturday, 6am, Watch NRL)

Campbell Graham is back at centre for the Rabbitohs

With only six games remaining the pressure is on for St George Illawarra as the battle for that final play-off spot heats up. The Dragons find themselves in a three-way-tie for seventh place with Cronulla and Canberra while the likes of Gold Coast and Newcastle linger in the background just one game back. Its going to be a tough run of games to end their season as well and it all starts with a Rabbitohs side that have one of the most lethal attacks in the league and are firmly within the top four so a win here could certainly give Anthony Griffin’s men a great deal of confidence going forward.

Team news: Corey Norman is back from his COVID breach ban and will start at centre for the Dragons while Matt Dufty drops to the extended bench with Tyrell Sloan returning to the starting side to take his place at full-back. Talatau Amone comes in for Cody Ramsey (wrist) to partner Norman in the centres. The trio of Bill Burns, Tyrell Fuimaono and Poasa Faamausili move into the starting 13 as Jack De Belin, Blake Lawrie and Jack Bird are all serving bans.

Jai Arrow starts at loose forward for the Rabbitohs as Cameron Murray serves a one-game suspension for a crusher tackle. Campbell Graham is back at centre while Liam Knight also returns off the bench.

Newcastle Knights v Canberra Raiders (Saturday, 8:30am, Sky Sports Arena or Watch NRL)

Elliott Whitehead is back for Canberra

A big match-up in terms of the NRL finals as both these sides are in the midst of a dogfight to try and secure a finals place. The Raiders look to be finishing the season strong, winning their last three fixtures after last week’s impressive win over Parramatta and they now find themselves tied for seventh while Newcastle remain in 11th just a sole win behind the Raiders, but they will need to get rid of some shaky form to come away with the victory here and gain ground on their rivals.

Team news: Dom Young drops out of the squad as Knights centre Bradman Best (ankle) makes his way back into starting side after being sidelined by injury since round 14. David Klemmer also returns and will take a spot on the bench.

A big boost for Canberra sees Elliott Whitehead and Jack Wighton both return from injury to start in the second-row and five-eighth retrospectively. Whitehead replaces Ryan Sutton (chest) while Hudson Young moves to loose forward.

Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers (Saturday, 10:35am, Sky Sports Arena or Watch NRL)

Cameron Munster is back for Melbourne

As battles go it does not get much better than these two juggernauts going at it as they easily stand as two of best sides in the competition today. The Storm are on a blistering run of form, winning 15 straight games while Penrith look to be finding their footing once again after a tough Origin period. Both teams boast some of the finest talent on show in the game today and sit level at the top of the ladder in first so a win here may just decide who goes on to win the Minor Premiership.

Team news: A big plus for Melbourne sees Dale Finucane, Felise Kaufusi and chief playmaker Cameron Munster all back on deck. Nicho Hynes again retains the full-back role as Ryan Papenhuyzen has been named on the bench. Harry Grant (hamstring) has been included on the extended bench.

A few changes for Penrith as star winger Brian To’o (ankle) is set to miss six weeks and will be replaced by Robert Jennings. Matt Burton again shifts to stand-off as Tyrone May (MCL) is out. Brent Naden comes in at centre and Jarome Luai moves to scrum-half. Isaah Yeo is also out so Matt Eisenhuth fills in at lock.

Canterbury Bulldogs v Gold Coast Titans (Sunday, 5am, Watch NRL)

England international Luke Thompson has been given a three-match ban

The Bulldogs have shown plenty of fight when going up against top eight sides recently, but wins have still been hard to come by as they last saw victory in round 14. This week they face a side looking to force their way into the finals picture themselves as Gold Coast sit just outside in 10th place after a big win over the Dragons. They will need nothing but a win here if they want to keep the pressure on those above them, but they will have to do it against a team that has displayed a good few signs of improvement.

Team news: After a dazzling display in round 19, Canterbury’s Luke Thompson remains on the sidelines this week after receiving a three-game ban for a late shot against Cronulla’s Blayke Brailey. Kyle Flanagan has been given a reprieve and will be given another chance at half-back while Adam Elliott is back from injury to start in the second-row.

Esan Marsters is in for Patrick Herbert and will start at centre for the Titans. Jamal Fogarty has been included on the extended bench and may take to the field if he can get through contact training.

Cronulla Sharks v Manly Sea Eagles (Sunday, 7:05am, Watch NRL)

Aiden Tolman is back in Cronulla’s starting line-up

The Sharks may be well within the top eight race, but they have it all to do here when they take on sixth placed Manly. The 2016 champions have not been able to win back-to-back games for the last month so more consistency will be needed if they want to cement their place inside the top eight while the Sea Eagles’ slow start to the season is well and truly within the rearview mirror now as they look like a team that could quite possibly make a decent run in the play-offs.

Team news: Aiden Tolman is back in the Cronulla starting line-up after serving his suspension, so Toby Rudolf reverts back to loose forward.

Both Dylan Walker and Lachlan Croker are doubts for Manly as they will have to go through concussion protocols before taking the field.

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