There are just two rounds remaining in the NRL season and there is no doubt that the final fortnight will not disappoint as teams start to display their finals credentials with the play-offs just around the corner.
The Sydney Roosters’ (1st, 17-5, 38 points, +311) surprise loss to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks (5th, 13-9, 28 points, +1) has opened up the race for the minor premiership, with the South Sydney Rabbitohs (second, 17-5, 38 points, +202) back in business following an alarming form slump which saw them lose three of four matches with Greg Inglis out injured.
Both teams are favoured to win their ties this weekend, which will make the Round 26 showdown between the two oldest clubs in Australian rugby league very interesting and intriguing.
The Roosters are the ones with the superior percentage; the only way they could lose the minor premiership without losing its match against the Titans is if the Rabbitohs thrash them in the final round (that is assuming the Rabbitohs beat the Wests Tigers this Friday night).
There is another key pivotal match this weekend and that is between the Melbourne Storm (3rd, 15-1-6, 35 points, +235) and the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (4th, 14-1-7, 33 points, 33 points), two of the NRL’s modern-day rivals.
On three occasions since 2007, these two clubs have, in tandem, dominated the top of the ladder, while also sharing in five of the last six grand final victories, including one each in 2007 (Melbourne) and 2008 (Manly). Please note the wording here.
Their showdown this weekend may as well decide who finishes third at the end of the season. This could potentially mean a first round finals showdown against the red-hot Roosters, seen by many as the favourites for the premiership, despite their terrible slip-up against the Sharks on the weekend.
Both teams continued to show why they have been the two most consistent teams over the last decade, as evidenced by crushing victories over the Eels and Raiders respectively.
In particular, the Storm’s victory sent a warning to their higher-ranked rivals that they are here to defend a hard-fought premiership which they won back just two years after the salary cap scandal threatened to bring the club down.
Following the penultimate round showdown, both teams are at home to the Titans (9th, 10-12, 24 points, -25) and Panthers (10th, 10-12, 24 points, -29), respectively; by this time, both teams could still be in contention for the finals, pending their results this weekend.
The season for Shane Flanagan’s men have been clouded by ASADA all season but the club has performed strongly on the field and so deserve their place in September this year.
Their performance against the Roosters on Monday night was nothing short of five-star football rarely seen from the Sharks. Ironically, this came just five weeks after their worst effort of the year, when they were wiped out by this very same team back in Round 19.
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (6th, 12-10, 28 points, +51) endured a tough start to the season but they are looking the goods as they get set to gear up for a second consecutive finals series (the first time they have done so since 2006-7), but an improbable tilt at the premiership.
Des Hasler’s men face the Panthers this weekend, after which is followed by a trip to Brisbane to face the Broncos (13th, 9-1-12, 23 points, -40) next Thursday night.
The equation is simple for the Bulldogs: win this weekend and they are guaranteed to play finals this year.
The Newcastle Knights (7th, 10-1-11, 25 points, +50) must win at least one of its two remaining matches, just to be sure, against the Broncos and Eels, or risk falling to as low as 13th by the end of the season.
Their match against the Broncos this Friday night comes just 28 days after the two teams fought out a desperate draw in Newcastle, in what was then a crucial match for both clubs and their finals hopes.
Exactly what were the Cowboys’ (8th, 10-12, 24 points, +35) board thinking when they decided that Neil Henry should not continue on as coach next year?
In the four matches that followed the announcement that he would not be required next year, the Cowboys went undefeated; this includes impressive victories over the Rabbitohs, Panthers, Titans and Knights, and hauled themselves into the top eight for the first time since Round 8.
Perhaps the Cowboys’ board should consider reversing their decision to sack Henry, if the club eventually fares well in September.
The Titans have it tough if they want to participate in next month’s play-offs, as they have the toughest draw of the teams still in finals contention.
The club is away to the ladder-leading Roosters this weekend, after which is followed by a trip down to Bleak City to face the defending premiers, the Storm, in their own backyard.
The Panthers also have it equally tough, following its’ match against the Bulldogs this Saturday, they are on the road again as they take on the Sea Eagles at Brookvale Oval, a venue which does not bring any good memories for the team.
It was back in 2005 when the Panthers let slip what was supposedly a match winning lead at 26-6 with 50 minutes gone to lose by 36-26.
Two teams still in with a shot are the New Zealand Warriors (11th, 10-12, 24 points, -84) and the Canberra Raiders (12th, 10-12, 24 points, -136).
Mathematically, these two teams could still make the finals, but one team must be excluded from these calculations as not only do the two teams face each other this weekend, both have a very poor percentage.
Going by their inconsistent form all year, it’s unlikely either team will make the play-offs.
The final team that is in contention for the finals, but a very long shot away, are the Brisbane Broncos, all the way down in 13th.
The Broncos must beat the Knights, against whom they had a draw with back in Round 21, and the Bulldogs in the final round, to remain in the race, otherwise the once-dominant club will have their name missing from the play-offs for only the second time in the last two decades.
Making their last two assignments slightly easier is the fact that both matches are at home, and that the Broncos have not lost to a side coached by Wayne Bennett since 2010.
The Wests Tigers, St. George Illawarra Dragons and Parramatta Eels all cannot make the finals, with the latter team having all but claimed the 2013 wooden spoon.
This will make for an intriguing final fortnight of the 2013 NRL season. Which team will win the minor premiership? Who will win the pivotal third-place play-off between the Sea Eagles and the Storm this weekend? Which teams will still remain in the finals race after this weekend?
All this is bound to be answered this weekend.