With the 2020 Finals Series approaching, let’s look at which teams are ready to go deep into October, and which ones face an early exit.
Penrith: The fairytale team of 2020, Penrith are riding a 15-game winning streak: while they’ve had a pretty charmed run, their intensity hasn’t wavered. The prime example was their round 20 game against Canterbury-Bankstown: while Canberra and Melbourne rested a lot of their stars, Penrith (with the minor premiership secure) had a relatively strong side and destroyed the Bulldogs 42-0.
While they’ve earnt the garden path to the grand final, Penrith’s ability to adjust to the finals intensity will be tested against the experienced Sydney Roosters on Friday night.
Penrith will expect to at least make the grand final (on the 30th anniversary of their first grand final appearance): can they complete the fairytale with their third title?
Melbourne: Established in the top four for most of the season, Melbourne have been waiting for the finals for a while. They won four in a row to seal second spot, which gave them the luxury of resting their stars in the final round against St George Illawarra. Though the Dragons won, Melbourne wouldn’t have been too worried.
While the Storm haven’t played in Melbourne since June, they’ve won six straight “home” games at the Sunshine Coast. Ideally, their qualifying final against Parramatta would be at Sunshine Coast Stadium, rather than Suncorp Stadium (despite their strong Lang Park record).
Assuming they can avoid any Canberra-style finals upsets this year, Melbourne will be confident of making another grand final.
Parramatta: The Eels finished third thanks to the Roosters’ shock loss to Souths in round 20, and their own win over the Wests Tigers; whether they deserve to be there is another question.
Parramatta have been declining in the last month, with losses to Souths and Penrith, and tighter-than-expected wins over the NZ Warriors, Brisbane, and Wests.
While they beat their qualifying final opponent Melbourne 14-0 in round 15, it wasn’t as impressive as it looked on paper.
While it’s hard to see them beating Melbourne, can they rebound quickly in their home semi-final and make the preliminary final? Or will they be knocked out in straight sets?
Sydney Roosters: While the Roosters’ form has improved in the last few weeks (five straight wins from rounds 15 to 19), their big final round loss to Souths could be telling. Was it a tactical loss to avoid the Storm and a trip to Brisbane? Their qualifying final against Penrith will be fascinating: as two-time premiers, will their recent finals experience overwhelm Penrith, or will the Panthers use the emotion and home crowd support to their advantage?
While the Roosters are capable of claiming a premiership hat-trick, their loss to Souths means they’ll have to do it from fourth place, something Canberra nearly achieved last year. Plus, no team has won a premiership after conceding 50 points in a single game.
Canberra: Canberra coach Ricky Stuart seemed happy finishing fifth (with their slim top four hopes reliant on both them and the Wests Tigers winning), giving his stars a nice rest in round 20. Canberra will enter the finals on a three-game winning streak, with the Baby Raiders out-enthusing the Sharks last weekend; they’ll have a bit of travel ahead if they keep winning.
If any team can upset the establishment and slip into the grand final through the back door, it’s Canberra. They traditionally play their best when they’re the underdogs.
One unexpected factor: Canberra Milk are returning as major sponsor in 2021. Raiders fans are delighted by this news, so could that goodwill give the boys from Bruce an extra bit of motivation?
South Sydney: While Souths have been erratic, they’re exciting when they click, with huge wins over Parramatta and the Roosters. On the other side, they had a competitive loss to Melbourne, nearly got run down by the Tigers, and lost to the then-last placed Canterbury.
While Souths should eliminate Newcastle, can they go beyond the second week and match last year’s preliminary final appearance?
Newcastle: The Knights will be grateful for the shortened season, as they’ve limped into their first finals campaign since 2013.
In the past month, they’ve been belted by the Warriors, Titans, and Roosters, and in turn belted Cronulla and the Dragons.
Sadly, after such a long drought, Newcastle’s finals campaign will probably end against Souths this weekend.
Cronulla-Sutherland: In a scary stat, Cronulla haven’t beaten a top eight team this season: they even lost to the Baby Raiders in round 20. Trailing 24-4 after half-an-hour, Cronulla threatened to come over the top late, but Canberra hung on, keeping the Sharks scoreless for the last 13 minutes.
Before that, the Sharks lost to Newcastle, sealed their top eight spot with a win over the Warriors, and then lost to the Roosters.
The Sharks will travel to Canberra to face a full-strength and rested Raiders in the elimination final. With no Shaun Johnson, it’s hard to see them causing an upset.