As the NRL season begins to wind down, we head into the last six rounds with competition points at more of a premium than ever with the race for top eight spots heating up.
Some teams have all but guaranteed their spot in the finals this year, whereas others will be looking for a good run home in order to take theirs. The Storm on 32 competition points are all but guaranteed a top four finish along with the Roosters on 30. Brisbane, Cronulla and North Queensland will seemingly battle it out in the last six weeks for the third and fourth place so it seems as though the top five are all but locked in.
Sixth, seventh and eighth are where it gets interesting; there’s an array of teams that could make a late push and force their way in. But which ones do I think are going to make it?
6th – Manly
Manly have been the surprise package of the 2017 season, you would be hard pressed to find a league buff that had them making the eight at the start of the year. Daly Cherry-Evans has gone some way towards justifying the ludicrous amounts of money he’s being paid with his excellent performances this year, he along with the right edge of Sironen, Walker and a reborn Akuila Uate have been a huge part of the Eagles successes. Down the stretch they play both Melbourne and Sydney Roosters along with a potentially huge game against Penrith in round 26.
7th – Parramatta
The Eels have been in excellent form as of late winning six of their last seven, the emergence of middle forward Nathan Brown as a workhorse has helped their somewhat depleted pack. Parra have a somewhat favourable run home playing 4 four of the bottom eight in their last six. Should Clint Gutherson miss time through a knee injury it could hinder their run home, but Bevan French could comfortably step into the fullback role if needed.
8th – St. George Illawarra
The Dragons started the year in red-hot form, and were one of the early competition front-runners, however once Gareth Widdop went down against the Roosters on ANZAC Day their season took a nosedive. Up until that point Widdop had been the form player of the NRL and his loss had a huge impact on the progression of their season. The Red-V seemed to regain some form after recent struggles with their 52-22 victory over Manly this past weekend and they have a favourable run home with five of their six remaining games against bottom eight sides.
9th – Penrith Panthers
After starting the season as premiership favourites the young Panthers side struggled out of the gates to a 2-7 start, much to everyone’s surprise. It wasn’t until they put on a clinic against a pitiful Canterbury outfit in round 13 that they looked to regain some confidence. Nathan Cleary has continued to emerge as a force and he’s formed a halves partnership with captain Matt Moylan, who looks to have had new life breathed into him in the second half of the year. The Panthers sit two points behind St. George and have games against all three aforementioned teams; they will be looking to win those games desperately in order to make serious ground on the other top 8 contenders.
10th – 13th – Let’s face it, probably not going to be there.
Four teams sit tied on 18 competition points; the Raiders, Titans, Warriors and Bulldogs, all four points behind Penrith. Realistically I can’t see any of these teams battling their way into the eight apart from perhaps the Raiders; that is if they can somehow discover the consistency they’ve been lacking all year.
The Raiders have been a shadow of what they were last year, which, much like the Panthers, has left a lot of league followers perplexed. BJ Leilua has often gone missing for them this year as opposed to combining with Jordan Rapana to wreak havoc like last season.
Gold Coast have found some form lately but their most recent performance against Penrith wasn’t a very promising sign, young gun Ash Taylor seems to be lacking in-game management skills so I can’t see him carrying them to a finals berth. Ryan James and Jarrod Wallace have been excellent up front for the Titans and young forwards Max King has provided some stability through the middle.
Shaun Johnson missing for what looks to be the remainder of the season with a PCL injury all but ends the Warriors hopes of making it to the finals, historically they struggle without him. Their performance against the Cowboys was admirable in Johnson’s absence but he’s just too big of a loss for that side. Simon Mannering and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck will really need to step up if they’re to have any sort of impact.
The Bulldogs, what is there to say other than: tragic. Up until last week, Canterbury was one of the 3 best defensive sides in the NRL but that’s not their problem; their problem is, they cannot score. They average just a meagre 14 points per game through the season and their attack is really quite tough to watch.
1st – Storm
2nd – Roosters
3rd – Sharks
4th – Cowboys
5th – Broncos
6th – Dragons
7th – Sea Eagles
8th – Eels
I can’t see much wiggle room in the eight at this point, the Panthers are a chance of making a late push but they would need to beat the other teams vying for spots in order to make it; their game against the Bulldogs this week is a must win. I’ve dropped Parramatta down to 8th in the assumption that Clint Gutherson will miss some time, seeing as he’s been such a huge part of their attack this season. I can easily see Manly bouncing back from conceding 52 points and solidifying their spot in this year’s finals series, and scoring those 52 will, in my mind, give the Dragons the confidence boost they’ve been missing in recent weeks to push back up the ladder.
Whatever happens, we’re in for an exciting race to the end of the season.