NRL Magic Round lived up to its name in a stunning weekend of cliffhangers, comebacks and boilovers.

The Raiders’ and Warriors’ backs-to-the-wall victories and the Sharks’ heavyweight statement ensured each day of the footy festival produced a match to live long in the memory.

Meanwhile, the average margin was less than nine points, with only one match decided by 13+.

Ricky’s Raiders reek of resolve

The current crop of Canberra Raiders boast a fraction of the star power of the 1994 vintage that reunited in Brisbane to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their premiership triumph, but they continue to punch above their weight and look set to prove a joker in the NRL finals race.

Fresh off inking a four-year extension, Ricky Stuart galvanised his troops to overcome a 20-12 deficit and a pair of sin-binnings in a gutsy 24-20 defeat of in-form Canterbury.

The Raiders belatedly settled after a bizarre opening 40 minutes, with Ethan Strange putting back-rower Hudson Young over for two tries in the space of nine minutes to get the Green Machine home.

The 19-year-old Strange may be too much of a gamble for NSW just 11 games into his career, but he outplayed Blues No.6 contender Matt Burton and plays with phenomenal poise and heart.

Meanwhile, Kaeo Weekes continues to shine as the No.7 fill-in and the ageless Elliott Whitehead was an inspiration, blotting out Bulldogs game-breaker Viliame Kikau.

On the ninth line of premiership betting at $51, the Raiders are shaping as arguably the best value in the Top 8 market at $2.15.

Coming on Armstrong

Amid the plague of injuries to big-name players, a slew of unknowns are grasping their NRL opportunity with both hands – but none more so than Newcastle’s quicksilver fullback David Armstrong.

After a 2-5 start to the year and a seemingly season-ruining long-term injury to Kalyn Ponga, the Knights have stormed into the Top 8 via four straight tight wins with Armstrong in the No.1.

They peeled back a 14-point deficit to edge the injury-ravaged Titans – albeit in controversial circumstances – 28-24 on the back of a hat-trick to the lightweight rookie, who already has 16 Dally M votes from a less than a month in the top grade.

The demotion of Dolphins surprise packet Trai Fuller – justified by Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow’s two-try, best-on-ground display on his return in a 24-12 win over the Tigers – was a reminder of the harsh realities of filling in for superstars.

But Adam O’Brien will be rearranging his puzzle pieces to figure out a way to keep Armstrong in the side when Ponga returns in August for a Knights side that is $2.75 to feature in the playoffs.

Canberra’s playmaking solution Kaeo Weekes, Melbourne’s Mr. Fix-it Tyran Wishart and Parramatta rookie Blaize Talagi – a sole shining light in a heavy Eels loss to the Storm – are following Armstrong’s lead in plugging vital spine gaps in style.

Sharks sink their teeth into fellow contenders

A week after rolling a similarly depleted Melbourne at AAMI Park, Cronulla emphatically laid down its premiership credentials by outlasting Sydney Roosters 38-30 in a spectacular Saturday night shootout.

The Sharks had won just one of their last nine against the in-form, near-full-strength Roosters. But after giving up the lead on halftime, Craig Fitzgibbon’s side fully shed the ‘flat-track bully’ tag that haunted them in 2023 with three tries to one in the second half.

Nicho Hynes stood tall in a high-pressure contest against elite opposition, nailing his NSW Origin audition and climbing to the top of the Dally M Medal standings.

Cult hero prop Tom Hazelton did his Blues chances no harm with his fifth try in eight games to seal the result at Suncorp Stadium. Ditto Jesse Ramien with one of the NSW centre spots now wide open.

The ladder-leading Sharks get another opportunity to take a big scalp next week when they host the Cleary-less Panthers, which could put further space between them and the chasing pack in the minor premiership market.

Cronulla is already a red-hot $1.75 favourite to collect the JJ Gilitnan Shield for the first time in 25 years, with Penrith on the second line at $4.50. Meanwhile, the Sharks have joined the Roosters on the third line of title betting at $6.00.


The desperate Warriors put four consecutive increasingly insipid losses behind them to pull off arguably their greatest-ever regular season win – and certainly one of their unlikeliest.

Going into a daunting assignment against Penrith without eight members of their generally accepted strongest 17, the Warriors conceded a try inside two minutes and lost influential hooker Wayde Egan in the 12th minute.

But a patched-up side dug deep, fought back from deficits on three occasions and somehow conjured a late 22-20 escape built on pure desire.

Hardheads Dylan Walker, Mitch Barnett and Jazz Tevaga set the attitudinal tone for a host of unlikely heroes to follow.

Te Maire Martin, painfully quiet during the Warriors’ losing streak and shaky early on, stepped into Shaun Johnson’s No.7 shoes to lay on all three second-half tries and kick his team out of trouble.

Diminutive fullback Taine Tuaupiki recovered from putting the opening kick-off dead on the full to produce an inspirational display at the back, then scored his first NRL try with nine minutes to go and buried the match-winning conversion from the sideline.

Paul Roache played like a veteran in Egan’s stead in just his third NRL game – one of several players who created a happy selection headache for Andrew Webster moving forward, along with the likes of centres Ali Leiataua and Adam Pompey.

The Warriors blew out to $101 in the wake of their drubbing from the Roosters but are back in to $41 to win the premiership, and $2.50 to make the Top 8. Another crunch game at home to the Dolphins looms on Sunday before a welcome bye.

Casualty ward reaching capacity

The injury list from Magic Round was relatively brief, but again it featured some of the NRL’s biggest names and harboured potential State of Origin ramifications.

Payne Haas sent Michael Maguire and Kevin Walters into a catatonic state when he was helped off with an ankle injury in Brisbane’s 13-12 nail-biter against Manly, only to return to the field in Lazarus-like fashion.

But the Blues and Broncos will be sweating on a clean bill of health for the game’s best prop.

Likely NSW centre Bradman Best became the latest victim of the NRL’s spate of serious hamstring injuries in a setback that will almost certainly rule him out of retaining his rep jersey.

While Queensland will have no reservations about handing the No.6 duties to Tom Dearden if required, Melbourne’s compelling premiership bid was on tenterhooks as Cam Munster reeled out of a tackle with a groin injury.

Early indications are it may not be as serious as first thought…but the talisman’s injury is a huge concern after he already missed the opening four rounds of the season.

Munster has never been absent for more than six games of a season since becoming a permanent first-grader in 2015 – but that streak appears likely to come to an end, as does his run of playing in 18 of the last 19 Origins for the Maroons.