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It’s the business end: Here are the contenders and the pretenders

Damien Cook of the Rabbitohs evades Billy Slater as he breaks away to score a try. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Expert
8th August, 2018
68

With four rounds to go the NRL top eight is now almost certainly set. The only possible change is that the Warriors exchange places with the Wests Tigers. However, that is a very skinny chance.

So of the final eight contenders we have, who are the genuine contenders and who are just making up the numbers?

Firstly, let’s look at how the ladder is likely to finish up. This will show us the home ground advantage for the first week of the finals, as well as the vital top-four spots who will get a second crack at the cherry.

As we know, the last side to win from outside the top four was the Bulldogs in 1995 – that’s 23 seasons ago. That side had also played in the decider the previous season.

Here’s how I see the ladder finishing up:

Ladder Team Points Wins Losses Differential
1st Rabbitohs 40 Roosters (h), Broncos (a), Raiders (a), Wests Tigers (h) Nil 170
2nd Storm 36 Eels (h), Titans (a), Panthers (h) Sharks (h) 206
3rd Roosters 36 Raiders (a), Broncos (h), Eels (a) Rabbitohs (a), 183
4th Dragons 34 Eels (a), Bulldogs (h), Knights (a) Wests Tigers (A) 131
5th Panthers 34 Titans (a), Knights (h), Warriors (a) Storm (a) 107
6th Sharks 34 Storm (a), Cowboys (h), Knights (h), Bulldogs (a) Nil 91
7th Warriors 32 Knights (h), Bulldogs (a), Raiders (h) Panthers (h) 34
8th Broncos 30 Cowboys (a), Sea Eagles (h) Rabbitohs (h), Roosters (a) -6
9th Wests Tigers 28 Raiders (a), Dragons (h), Sea Eagles (h) Rabbitohs (a) -18

Things to note:
• Points differential will be crucial for the Storm and Roosters in deciding who gets the home final in the first week.
• The Dragons superior points differential will likely see them sneak into the top four, with the Panthers recent profligate defence really helping that happen.
• The Panthers are still a chance to get knocked into sixth on points differential by the Sharks.
• The Sharks’ loss to the Sea Eagles cost them any chance of making the top four.
• How vital is that Ashley Klein penalty for the Broncos in Round 3? If my calculations are borne out it will be the difference between which of the Broncos or Wests Tigers actually make the finals.
• The Wests Tigers may still have an opportunity to get into the eight if they can beat the Rabbitohs in the final round. However, their for and against is a big problem.

The pretenders

The Wests Tigers
If Ivan Cleary manages to get his bus to the finals I suspect they will be a Week 1 exit. Finals are won by sides that chance their arm and post a score.

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The Wests Tigers points per match is the lowest of all 16 clubs at just 15.7 a game. Their missed tackles are the worst in the league at 33.7 a game, and their line breaks are the third worst.

Ivan Cleary in a Wests Tigers jacket.

The Broncos
The Broncos will probably crawl into the finals but an away final first up will await them and five of their eight loses in 2018 have been on the road.

The vast majority of their stats averages see them ranked from seventh through to 10th, good enough to make the finals, but not good enough to go beyond week one without luck. While their forward pack has some distinct promise and great youth coming through, their backs have been a real disappointment in 2018.

The Warriors
You remember back in Round 5 when the Warriors were undefeated and on top of the table? So many of us thought they had finally turned the corner and would now challenge.

No. Wrong. While they’ll make the finals this year – and they clearly have the potential to challenge – they lack an essential spark that is required to be genuine contenders.

Roger Tuivasa-Sheck is capable of brilliance, but he is not a match winner. Shaun Johnson should be mentioned in the same breath as James Maloney, Cooper Cronk and Johnathan Thurston but he isn’t because he has no consistency.

They need to get another Kevin Campion type in to sort a few of them out and get them focused properly. Until they do that they’ll continue to be pretenders.

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The Sharks
I don’t want to completely write the Sharkies off as I believe they are capable of making a real charge. However, it requires Josh Dugan to actually get on the paddock and stay there. He has participated in only nine of the Sharks 20 games this season.

As well, Matt Moylan needs to step up a gear in attack. The loss to the Sea Eagles almost destroyed their top four chances and – while they could get to the grand final – history is well against them winning it.

Matt Moylan

The semi-contenders

The Panthers
Sacking your coach four rounds out from the finals would seem bizarre – especially when the side is going to make the play offs. However, they do things differently at the foot of the mountains.

By all accounts Cameron Ciraldo has had the reigns for a while now. The Panthers faithful will be hoping their recent defensive disasters will be quickly curtailed.

They have conceded 129 points in the last four rounds at a rate of 32 points a game. You can’t win a premiership with defence like that.

Reagan Campbell-Gillard’s return is very well timed to assist in this. Their tackle breaks, line breaks and tries scored are all brilliant, however, their missed tackles are the third worst in the league.

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As I said before the season started, Jimmy Maloney is a winner and while he’s fit the Panthers are a strong chance of winning the comp.

James Maloney of the Panthers

The Dragons
The Red V are contenders simply because they will be in the top four. After winning their first six games straight the Dragons have won seven and lost seven.

The last time they beat another side that was in the top eight was way back in Round 9 when they beat the Storm 34-14 at Kogarah.

In Round 8 they beat the Roosters 24-8. Since then they have played top eight sides five times and lost all of them. They have lost those games by a combined score of 158-72, that averages out at 32-14. I can see the Dragons going out in straight sets.

James Graham

The actual contenders

The Roosters
The Roosters haven’t convinced me all season. However, all of a sudden it might be starting to click.

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The form of Latrell Mitchell is incendiary. His brain explosions – so prevalent in previous seasons – have started to dry up and he looks like the best centre prospect since a young Malcolm Meninga: Fast, strong, skilled, brilliant.

Add to that a backline with James Tedesco, Blake Ferguson and Cooper Cronk and you’ve got a side capable of blowing sides off the park. Their demolition jobs on the Sea Eagles and Dragons show what they are capable of.

I reckon they’ll just miss out on second spot on points differential but I think they can win anywhere at this point. If they have a weakness it is that I’m not convinced their pack is up to the standard of the Storm and the Rabbitohs.

The Storm
It’s finals time and the Storm will be taking their place for the 18th time in their 21 year history. It will be the 13th time they have finished in the top four.

It is safe to say that they know the drill. However, this year so much rests on Cam Smith.

Without Cooper Cronk he has had to assume even more responsibility over the team. However, here’s the thing, he’s totally up to it. You can also bet that Billy Slater wants to go out with a bang.

And all of a sudden it is four weeks out from the finals and the Purple Horde is at full strength and they’ve won eight of their last nine games. Standing between them being the first side since the Broncos in 1993* to go back to back are the Rabbitohs.

Billy Slater

The Storm host the Sharks in a replay of the 2016 grand final. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

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The Rabbitohs
The Cardinal and Myrtle’s win over the Storm last round was very impressive. It was a very high quality game and the Rabbitohs outmuscled the Storm pack.

And that’s why the Rabbits are where they are: The Burgii are fully back in gear for the first time since 2014. Joining them in great form in the forwards are the brilliant Damien Cook, Angus Crichton and Cam Murray.

Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker have formed a great combination and Alex Johnstone looks great at the back. And Dane Gagai’s is in the side.

The bloke is a total gun. If Greg Inglis can get back on the field then this could really happen.

The Rabbitohs have the best average score in the NRL (excluding the Raiders) with 24.5 points a game. They are the equal best metre gaining side in the competition and no side comes close to their line breaks.

Their only real Achilles heel is their relatively high error rate. I just got a feeling it is the Rabbits’ year.

How it will play out
I’ve gazed into my crystal ball and this is what I see happening:

Week 1
Rabbitohs defeat Dragons
Storm defeat Roosters
Panthers beat Broncos
Sharks beat Warriors

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Week 2
Roosters beat Sharks
Panthers beat Dragons

Week 3
Rabbitohs beat Roosters
Storm beat Panthers

Week 4
Rabbitohs beat Storm

*The Broncos’ grand final victory in 1997 (followed by another in 1998) doesn’t count as it was a split competition.