Tipping point is on the horizon for the many NRL finals contenders/pretenders trying to fill the other four places in the top eight.
Cronulla look the safest bet (gamble responsively) outside the Rabbitohs, Roosters, Storm and Sea Eagles, to make the playoffs but they’re patchy win over the Wests Tigers shows they’re still not in the upper echelon.
Canberra, Newcastle, Penrith and the Warriors are on the rise, the Bulldogs are up and down, while the Titans and Cowboys are occasionally hot but mainly cold.
Put a line through the Broncos, Dragons, Eels and Tigers – their season ends at round 26.
1. Rabbitohs (last week 1): Sunday’s 30-13 win after trailing 13-6 at half-time proved the Bunnies are made of sterner stuff this year. That was a finals-like atmosphere and the in-form Warriors threw everything they had at Souths but supercoach Maguire’s men held firm.
2. Roosters (2): While Sonny Bill Williams gets the plaudits for his multi-faceted forward play, the last couple of weeks have shown how much the Roosters rely on Jared Waerea-Hargreaves up front. Since he’s been back from suspension, they have been even stronger in defence – no mean feat.
3. Storm (3): Maurice Blair has become the anti-Adam Blair. The non-related ex-Storm teammate of the Wests Tigers forward has been in a purple patch in the Melbourne purple in recent weeks, giving plenty of value for his contract money.
4. Sea Eagles (4): The biggest surprise out of Monday night’s win over Parramatta was not the ease of victory, the 50-point margin or even Brett Stewart handing a try to Kieran Foran over the try line. Steve Matai got punched in the face and instead of hitting back, he tried to grab Eels prop Mitchell Allgood’s fists of fury. The NRL will be happy – it appears the “don’t punch or you’re off” policy is sinking into the players’ psyches.
5. Sharks (6): Stewart Mills is a definite chance of becoming Jonathan Wright’s permanent centre partner but judging by his efforts at fullback in last Friday’s hot-and-cold-then-warm-enough-to-win effort against the Tigers, supercoach Flanagan will be happy when Michael Gordon is back at the back.
6. Raiders (8): Every team needs one – a hard worker who does more than his fair share, much more, and rarely gets the kudos. At the Raiders, that player is lock Shaun Fensom. He made 51 tackles in Sunday’s victory over the Cowboys and for 98% of players in the NRL, that’d be a major achievement but for him, it’s pretty much par for the course.
7. Bulldogs (5): Last year, the Dogs went to Mackay, Ben Barba was magical and the team went on to play in the grand final. On Sunday back in Barba’s hometown, he came up with a line break and tried his hardest to rediscover the charmed run of 2012, but it just didn’t happen. A loss to Newcastle doesn’t mean their title chances are over but premiership teams are rarely still searching for top gear at this stage of the season.
8. Warriors (7): No team likes losing but judging by the smiles and obligatory friendly chit-chat with opponents you see from players post game after a defeat these days, some don’t seem to show the pain of defeat. The Warriors could have been satisfied with a gallant defeat to Souths in Perth but supercoach Elliott seems to have instilled a steelier edge to this team in a short space of time.
9. Panthers (10): Supercoach Cleary has been following a similar path to supercoach Hasler’s “under the radar” mantra by saying Penrith are in a rebuilding year even though they keep racking up wins. The ploy’s effectiveness is twofold – it reinforces the notion that they’re easybeats to opponents and reduces expectations on his players. Despite what he says, they are a tough team to knock over and the team should expect, and want, to make the playoffs now they’re well and truly in the hunt.
10. Knights (11): For a team with a poor away record this year, the trip to Mackay to face Canterbury at Ben Barba’s hometown looked like a mission of improbable likelihood of success. But the Knights backed up their flashy flogging of the Titans by winning a gritty nail-biter to revive hopes of getting to the finals and not just making up the numbers.
11. Cowboys (9): Finding a long-term halves partner for Johnathan Thurston is still an unsolved mystery in the tropics. Robert Lui has been ineffective this season and was shown up badly in defence by Anthony Milford as the Raiders young gun scorched his way past him to the try line.
12. Titans (9): Some fans believe supercoach Cartwright’s side has been under-rated this season. Not so. It was always going to be the case with the Gold Coast that once injuries and representative commitments took their toll, they’d be exposed. Back-to-back hidings at the hands of Newcastle and Penrith are proof that the Titans are fading fast at the wrong time of the year.
13. Tigers (13): It’s not easy to score three straight tries when 24-0 down but it’s much harder to do it when a match is in the balance. The Tigers have a habit of flashy late comebacks after gifting huge leads. Their fans would prefer greater application from the start to negate the need for hit-and-miss catch-up footy.
14. Broncos (14): Following the release of the schedule for the final six rounds, it’s official – this team could cop a caning every week and still get the Friday night prime time slot. They owe a great debt to Queensland parochialism because surely any discerning NRL fan in the Sunshine State would prefer to tune in to see any old team at the moment rather than this rabble of Broncos, who were lapped in Melbourne last week, that’s right, on Friday night, polluting the free-to-air exposure that other better-performing teams can only dream about.
15. Dragons (15): Axing assistant coach Steve Folkes means it’s all on supercoach Price’s head next year. He’ll have a relatively inexperienced bunch of assistant coaches by his side and an influx of top talent to boost his roster. Unless he can experience a charmed run from the board like Nathan Brown enjoyed while his star-studded roster under-performed during his tenure, Price will have to achieve success or find alternative employment.
16. Eels (16): To quote Foo Fighters, there is nothing to lose, supercoach Stuart may as well blood as many young first-grade wannabes over the remaining rounds. The sink or swim policy would be better than selecting the likes of Ben Roberts, whose NRL career sank a long time ago.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.