The Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys are on track to not only finish one-two on the ladder, but also face off in the NRL’s first ever all-Queensland grand final.
Can any other team can stop the Maroon decider?
The Broncos have reemerged as premiership contenders this year after luring Wayne Bennett home following six years away from the club. Their strong form this season, in which they have dropped just three matches, has them on track to win their first minor premiership since 2000.
Four times previously the club have finished first at the end of the regular season, and on each occasion they have gone on to win the premiership. Thus, if the Broncos finish first after Round 26, their fans will have reason to believe that their club can mount the premiership dais.
Doing so would see the club end a nine-year premiership drought, the longest in club history. During that time, the Broncos farewelled Bennett for a first time in 2008, before going through the Ivan Henjak (2009-10) and Anthony Griffin (2011-14) eras for only moderate success.
The Broncos squad is capable of winning the premiership this year, with halves Anthony Milford and Ben Hunt being lauded as the club’s greatest 6 and 7 pairing since Kevin Walters and Allan Langer in the 1990s.
Darius Boyd has returned to top form after an Achilles injury, while Justin Hodges is showing no signs of slowing down even though his retirement from the game is imminent.
The side most likely to challenge the Broncos for the premiership is the Johnathan Thurston-led North Queensland Cowboys, whose one and only shot at the NRL premiership was thwarted by the Wests Tigers in 2005.
After a slow start to the season had the critics questioning their premiership credentials, the Cowboys have lost just once (against the Sharks in Round 16) to currently be sitting second on the NRL ladder.
Thurston, who doesn’t consider himself to be a premiership player despite featuring as a utility in the Bulldogs side that won in 2004, would love nothing more than to lead his beloved club to its maiden premiership.
The possibility of a Broncos versus Cowboys grand final remains high, and that would be the last thing New South Wales fans would want to endure, having already seen their state surrender the Origin shield in humiliating fashion.
The Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs are the two clubs that appear capable of stopping the all-Queensland grand final, with the premiers of the last two seasons sitting behind the two Queensland clubs in third and fourth place on the ladder.
Despite losing Anthony Minichiello and Sonny Bill Williams at the end of last season, and losing four matches in a row earlier this season, the Roosters are the bookies’ premiership favourites.
Trent Robinson’s men have won nine of their last ten matches, the only blot being an upset loss to the Cronulla Sharks in Round 13, to be among the biggest movers on the ladder in the last few months.
Mitchell Pearce has performed consistently at club level this season and will bring up his 200th NRL game against the Bulldogs on Friday night, becoming the youngest player in history to do so. He and Jake Friend have performed well as co-captains this season, while Blake Ferguson has proven his worth with the Chooks after spending a year away from the game following his sacking from Canberra at the end of 2013.
Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs have been inconsistent in their premiership defence, not managing to win more than three matches in a row at any stage this season.
They have also lost to lowly clubs the Parramatta Eels and Wests Tigers (but did defeat these two clubs in other matches), and between Rounds 4 and 10 logged just two wins against five losses.
However, if last week’s Greg Inglis-led 52-6 humiliation of the Newcastle Knights is anything to go by, the club won’t be giving up their crown without a fight.
The Bunnies face a tough run home, including a Thursday night trip to Townsville to face the Cowboys, a return home fixture against the Broncos who will pose a different threat to the side that lost 36-6 at home in Round 1, and then the Roosters in the final round in a match that could decide third place.
And so, with the likelihood of an all-Queensland grand final looming, it’s up to the Roosters and Rabbitohs to sabotage those plans and perhaps salvage some pride for New South Wales.