With seven teams confirmed for the NRL finals, the battle for that last place in the eight is set to go down to the wire, as well as those for the minor premiership, wooden spoon and fourth place.
In contention: St George Illawarra Dragons and Manly Sea Eagles
St George Illawarra had a chance to officially lock up the top eight last Sunday but their 28-26 loss to the Gold Coast Titans means Manly still remain a mathematical hope of overhauling the Dragons in the battle for eighth spot.
However, the Sea Eagles’ points differential, which was exactly at 0 entering Round 25, fell to -36 after they lost by that margin to the Sydney Roosters at Brookvale Oval last Friday night.
They must first hope that the Dragons, whose points differential is +25, get thrashed by the Wests Tigers at ANZ Stadium on Saturday, and then defeat the finals-bound Cronulla Sharks by a comfortable margin at Remondis Stadium on Sunday to snatch eighth place from the Dragons.
The combined margin from this scenario must be at least 61 points, so for example, if the Dragons are beaten by 30 points, the Sea Eagles would have to win by 32 points or more to replace the Dragons in the top eight.
This would mean that the Wests Tigers, the Dragons’ opponents on Saturday night, would all but avoid the wooden spoon regardless of the result from the match between the Penrith Panthers and Newcastle Knights earlier in the day.
Likely eighth place finalist: St George Illawarra Dragons
Minor premiership and fourth place
In contention (minor premiership): Brisbane Broncos and Sydney Roosters
In contention (fourth place): Cronulla Sharks, Melbourne Storm, Canterbury Bulldogs, South Sydney Rabbitohs
The Broncos and Storm kick off the final round on Thursday night, with both teams looking to keep alive their hopes of the minor premiership and a double chance in the finals, respectively.
The Broncos must defeat the Storm on Thursday night, and then hope that the Sydney Roosters lose to the South Sydney Rabbitohs the following night if they are to win their first minor premiership since 2000.
That would end the Storm’s top-four hopes, and leave them at possible risk of a first-round finals elimination.
The Storm, meanwhile, must win, and then hope that the Sharks are defeated by the Sea Eagles on Sunday, if they are to finish fourth (the Storm’s points differential is +112 to the Sharks’ -5, while the Bulldogs’ and Rabbitohs’ differentials are +38 and +28 respectively).
The Sharks, Bulldogs and Rabbitohs also remain in contention for a fourth place finish, with the former team one win clear of the Storm in fourth place, in the box seat to secure the coveted double-chance.
All they need to do is defeat Manly on Sunday.
As for the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs, either side can only finish fourth if both the Sharks and Storm are beaten by the Sea Eagles and Broncos respectively.
The Rabbitohs can claim fourth place by beating the Roosters and then hope that the Bulldogs lose to the Warriors on Sunday night, while the Bulldogs can only finish fourth if they beat the Warriors, and the Rabbitohs either beat the Roosters by 10 points or less, or lose.
Whichever team eventually finishes fourth will very likely have a first-week qualifying final against the Roosters, who could have a third straight minor premiership wrapped up by the time they take to the field against the Rabbitohs on Friday night.
The only way the Chooks can lose top spot is if they are beaten by the injury-hit Rabbitohs on Friday night 24 hours after the Broncos defeat the Storm at Suncorp Stadium, or if they are defeated by an unlikely record margin if the Broncos had already lost.
Top spot is the Roosters’ to lose.
Likely minor premiers: Sydney Roosters
Likely fourth place finalist: Cronulla Sharks
In contention: Wests Tigers, Penrith Panthers and Newcastle Knights
The wooden spoon is also set to be decided when the 15th-placed Panthers host the last-placed Knights at Pepper Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Both teams are on 20 competition points, and have endured woeful seasons for contrasting reasons, but it’s the Knights in last place thanks to their points differential of -136 as opposed to the Panthers’ -96.
The Panthers, who reached the preliminary final last year despite a horror injury toll, were expected to contend for the premiership this season but have again been cruelled by injuries to key players, resulting in a dramatic fall from grace that could see them win a third wooden spoon since 2001.
The Knights, on the other hand, have clearly struggled to move on from the ill-fated Wayne Bennett era and the career-ending neck injury suffered by Alex McKinnon last year. In late July they sacked their coach, Rick Stone, with Danny Buderus currently serving in a caretaker capacity.
The Tigers are also equal with the Panthers and Knights on 20 competition points, but with a better points differential of -73. They moved off the bottom of the ladder following their 50-16 thrashing of the New Zealand Warriors last Sunday. The only way they could win the wooden spoon is if they are beaten by the Dragons on Saturday, and either the Panthers and Knights fight out a draw earlier in the day, or if the Panthers’ losing margin is smaller than that of the Tigers by at least 23 points.
For example, if the Tigers are beaten by 30 points, the Panthers can avoid the wooden spoon by either simply beating the Knights or losing by fewer than seven points.
Should the Tigers and Panthers both have the same points differential at the end of Round 26, the latter team will claim the wooden spoon by way of fewer points scored against more points conceded.
A Newcastle loss will all but see them finish in last place for just the second time in club history, due to their aforementioned poor points differential, while a win could see them leapfrog up to five teams on the ladder.
Likely wooden spooner: Newcastle Knights
Those are just some of the key matches and scenarios in Round 26 that could shape the final ladder, and the make-up of the 2015 NRL finals series.
Can the Roosters clinch a third straight minor premiership? Can the Sharks continue their rise from wooden spooners to premiership contenders? And which club will finish with the wooden spoon?
All is set for what should be a blockbuster Round 26 of the NRL before the finals get underway. If the results unfold as expected, the first week of the finals would be as follows:
Sydney Roosters versus Cronulla Sharks
Brisbane Broncos versus North Queensland Cowboys
Canterbury Bulldogs versus St George Illawarra Dragons
Melbourne Storm versus South Sydney Rabbitohs