Before last weekend, I had six teams still in with a chance to win the NRL premiership, but a combination of disturbing results for several of those and some key injuries had me cut that number in half.
Particularly when the benchmark set by the Storm is so high. Just when you think they can’t get much better, they peel off a 64-6 win over South Sydney at home.
There is no sense in rating too many teams outside of Melbourne as a hope when it is this late in the season, that is the standard they must at least get close to reaching and some have significant issues.
So I’m setting aside Cronulla, Penrith and Brisbane, even though the latter will still finish in the top four.
North Queensland, Manly and St George Illawarra were already each clearly not good enough to win it.
Two weeks ago, the Storm’s biggest opposition might have come from the bottom half of the eight, because it was likely both Parramatta and the Panthers would end there.
But now the Eels, courtesy of a 52-34 win over the Broncos on the road, should finish in the top four by beating Souths at ANZ Stadium on Friday night.
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I was never really convinced by Brisbane. Their 42-12 loss at home against Melbourne in Round 17 stuck in my mind and now they have conceded 50-plus at home only two weeks before the finals.
Plus, they have lost prop Korbin Sims to injury for the rest of the season, on top of hooker Andrew McCullough already being out.
I just can’t see them pulling it all the way back from there, particularly when Melbourne aren’t likely to come down much.
The Roosters looked like they had blown an opportunity to finish in the all-important top two, but their courageous win over the Sharks on the road combined with Brisbane’s loss has put them in the box seat to run second.
It was only recently that the Roosters gave the Storm a close contest on the road.
The Eels are the real deal. They’re not the world’s biggest side, but they’re so tough and hopefully for them they’ll get fullback Bevan French back from injury for the first week of the finals.
That could well be a first versus fourth match-up against the runaway minor premiers, but I’m not writing off the chances of Parramatta finishing as high as third and playing the Roosters instead of Melbourne.
I give the Cowboys a decent shot at beating Brisbane at home on Thursday night and condemning the Broncos to a trip to Melbourne.
North Queensland have found it particularly difficult without Johnathan Thurston recently, but they have at least stayed competitive and, who knows? The Broncos could be a bit shaky coming off that loss to Parramatta.
I was really disappointed by Penrith in their 16-14 loss to St George Illawarra at home. I know, the Dragons played well, but this was a chance for the Panthers to capitalise on a great run of seven straight wins by making it eight to finally clinch a place in the finals.
They should have been at their most intense but they weren’t and that has left them at some risk of actually missing the eight.
Plus, they have lost one of their in-form players, fullback Dylan Edwards, to injury and would have to go deep into the finals before seeing him back on the field.
Penrith captain Matt Moylan has been included among the four added reserves for Sunday’s game against Manly at Lottoland, but that may be more in hope than anything else. Appearing in an interview, he didn’t seem confident about getting over a hamstring injury in time to play this week.
Cronulla have lost three of their last four games. Yes, I know they lost four out of their last five regular-season games last year, but there’s more to the story now.
There have been enough signs this season to suggest the Sharks haven’t come up quite as well as they did last year, when they had enough wins in the bank to overcome that poor finish to the regular season before going on to win the premiership.
This season, their disappointing late-season form is set to see them finish in the bottom half of the top eight, and even in the knowledge that was a risk of happening if they didn’t rack up another win in time, they almost certainly won’t avoid it now.
The Sharks look like yet another team that is going to be unable to make it back-to-back titles.