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

Tim Gore Columnist

By Tim Gore, Tim Gore is a Roar Expert

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    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.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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)

    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

    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.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.

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    The Crowd Says (68)

    • Roar Rookie

      August 9th 2018 @ 6:44am
      Tim Carter said | August 9th 2018 @ 6:44am | ! Report

      Broncos and Sharks are on the same points as the Warriors. They must be some risk of being overhauled by the Tigers too. Both sides play the Cowboys who finally have their props back.

      • August 9th 2018 @ 6:55am
        Max Danger said | August 9th 2018 @ 6:55am | ! Report

        no one is at risk of being over hauled by the tigers

        • Roar Rookie

          August 9th 2018 @ 11:05pm
          Tim Carter said | August 9th 2018 @ 11:05pm | ! Report

          Brisbane just lost to the Cowboys. Tigers have a sniff

    • August 9th 2018 @ 7:12am
      Paul said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:12am | ! Report

      Hard to find fault with anything you’ve written Tim. I don’t think there are likely to be the sort of upsets this year, with a bottom 4 side making a run, because all sides have shown some inconsistencies this year. It depends which teams can string 2 or 3 games together and you’re right, the ones most likely to do that are Souths, East and Melbourne.

      • Roar Guru

        August 9th 2018 @ 8:24am
        The Barry said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:24am | ! Report

        That’s interesting Paul. It’s because of the inconsistency of the top four I think we MAY see a side come from outside the top four.

        I think any of the Broncs, Sharks, Warriors or Panthers can string four wins together against this opposition.

        Of the top four Souths are impressive but the Storm are a long way from the undeniable force they were last year.

        The Roosters are improving and are 8 from their last 9 but mostly against bottom 8 sides. Still not convinced about their consistency against the top end.

        The Dragons need a massive form reversal to be any danger. At their best they could win the comp but at the moment it’s not hard to see them getting rolled by any of the bottom half of the eight sides.

        I was probably more confident of it about a month ago, but still think it’s more of a chance than any year recently.

        • August 9th 2018 @ 9:43am
          Paul said | August 9th 2018 @ 9:43am | ! Report

          It’s winning games in a row which concerns me, TB. I thought for example, Souths were going to be beaten by the Storm a few weeks ago but would treat the Tigers as a speed bump, but they were thrashed by 16 points and cleaned up Melbourne.

          Completely agree the bottom sides are a chance because of the inconsistency this year, but stringing enough wins to take out the GF is a huge ask for the sides in the bottom 4.

          • Roar Rookie

            August 9th 2018 @ 12:22pm
            Flat White said | August 9th 2018 @ 12:22pm | ! Report

            The recent Storm loss to the Rabbits is pure mind games. The Storm will win the GF this year.

    • August 9th 2018 @ 7:35am
      Major Bumsore said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:35am | ! Report

      These things rarely ever play out as predicted .
      After the second half performance of the Cows against the Roosters last round , I see them causing a few upsets in the next few weeks .
      They have nothing to lose and will be hoping to send JT out on a better note.
      The Roosters worry me with their second half performances, and if they can’t beat Souths this round , I can’t see them beating them in the GF , but I’m tipping them to roll the Rabbits this weekend and step up another level.
      I don’t think the Storm will make it to the GF, that fairytale isn’t going to happen, because in true NRL scripted BS style they would have to give the CC medal to both Slater and Smith on a losing side and the NRL can’t afford two of them.

    • Roar Guru

      August 9th 2018 @ 7:42am
      Michael Keeffe said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:42am | ! Report

      Tim the whole Ashley Klein penalty from round 3 is a bit old isn’t it. You must have been hanging out with Phil Rothfield to be bringing this up. It was the 87th minute so the most likely result would have been a draw which means the Broncos still make the 8 and that’s based on your assumptions of who wins what games over the next few weeks. No guarantee the Tigers actually win the game. And it was round 3, they’ve had all year to make the 8. Time to move on from that one isn’t it?

      • August 9th 2018 @ 8:33am
        mushi said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:33am | ! Report

        Yep the other what 26,000 poessions have been inconsequenatial.

        The corpse of Cecchin’s career is still warm and Tim “I fully support referees but…” Gore is at it again.

        • August 9th 2018 @ 10:24am
          Kramer said | August 9th 2018 @ 10:24am | ! Report

          The guy is unbelievable still showing his childish behaviour when it comes to referees! It’s not fair.

          I am still flabbergasted someone hasn’t pulled him aside and said “mate, you’re coming across like a looney with the referees thing, acting like a spoilt brat, let it go and understand things like this happen, it’s just a game and as Matt Cecchin has showed, it’s not worth it, as people have feelings, you know like when you abuse anyone that’s disagrees with you…they’re called feelings”

          • August 9th 2018 @ 11:16am
            Major Bumsore said | August 9th 2018 @ 11:16am | ! Report

            Sorta kinda like referring to him as a Looney?

            • Roar Guru

              August 9th 2018 @ 11:37am
              Emcie said | August 9th 2018 @ 11:37am | ! Report

              Yeah, I can see how those two things are comparable…

              • August 9th 2018 @ 6:54pm
                Kramer said | August 9th 2018 @ 6:54pm | ! Report

                Bad choice of words…but when Tim got a petition going to get people sacked (referree coaches) and wanted people from this site to sign it… I thought he has gone to far and someone should have told him he has gone to far! It’s just a game and twl people are involved…the world seems desensitised to this fact. but you’re right…bad choice of words!

              • Columnist

                August 9th 2018 @ 9:28pm
                Tim Gore said | August 9th 2018 @ 9:28pm | ! Report

                Well “Kramer”, thanks for your input from behind your pseudonym.
                It’s not just a game, it’s a multi billion dollar industry. The petition – not made by me – was calling for two incompetents to be sacked. I totally agree with that call and support it. I watched as Archer and Sutton completely scapegoated Macfarlane when Bernard’s brother Gerard could have fixed it by calling an attacking scrum and perenara could have fixed it by sending it back down as refs call advising of the flag. Both totally failed. Totally. Yet Neither suffered sanction while Macfarlane is still in Reggie’s. And Funky Reynolds is still dropped for calling a pass forward. This is a travesty. They dropped Cecchin from origin for unspecified allegations of poor form and gave his spot to Ash Klein who got dropped in round three. They dropped Grant Atkins for the finals out of the blue last year after clearly having him as one of their top three refs all year. They are nepotistic, biased and dreadful at their jobs. They are not adequately supporting the officials.That has been proved time and time again. I know. I talk to the officials, present and past. They tell me what total (insert expletives) archer and Sutton are. I’m trying to get those blokes a fair go. I reckon they should be sacked.
                If you reckon that makes me a looney that’s your right, I reckon it makes me a bloke who cares about getting people a fair go.

              • August 10th 2018 @ 10:06am
                Kramer said | August 10th 2018 @ 10:06am | ! Report

                My name is Damon Nicholson. Now you’re all about transparency Tim please tell us these people who hate/complain about The referee coaches Archer and Sutton. I imagine their would be disgruntled people that dislike those 2 but after having 8 people doing the Head referee job in Cecchin’s refereeing tenure and those 8 people being fired i imagine its a poison chalice and not everyone is going to get along…but you know whats happening in the dark corridors and want to sign a petition to get these guys sacked after the “Travesty” to Funky (we get it, you know his nickname, you’re in the know, you impress me) MacFarlene…so tell us more about the conspiracy with Greenberg and Canavan to keep these guys around? OR…maybe they are actually doing there best under extremely immense pressure. I’m not talking about getting off your arse and signing a petition kind of pressure, i’m talking working with each other day in and day out getting hosed by the media and wannabes like yourself who have no solution but just get emotional, get out there pitchforks and scream “sack them!!!!…just like the other referee bosses before them. You think you’re helping but you’re not!

                Also what happens when there is no one left to the do the referee’s job because of the emotional distress and toll it takes on them like the referees? Like it did on Cecchin, like it did on the sacked referee coaches before?…i do believe even though we love to hate Archer and Sutton they are human as well and are doing the best they can under scrutiny by know it all’s like yourself Rothfield, Alan Jones, Ray Hadley etc….where does it say the referees bosses are automatically our enemy when they get the job? maybe if we took deep breaths we will understand that they are doing there best but mistakes will happen, they are human…maybe Greenberg and Canavan know more than you and know how hard the job is day to day!..hard to believe i know Tim you knowing Warren Smith and all but just maybe there closer to the action than you are…

                SO even though you tell me i hide behind a monikor, you hide behind your computer as well telling everyone the sky is falling, do you do anything about it? no, just whinge like Rothfield, Kent and co…oh sorry you did sign a petition! if you love the game so much and think there is an issue get out and become a referee like i did, you just told me Archer and Sutton are “terrible” at there jobs so you obviously know how its run day in day out and you “know” people so get it going and make a difference. And good luck if you ever get into the position of referees bosses, you’re going to need it!

      • August 9th 2018 @ 8:55am
        Sam Knox said | August 9th 2018 @ 8:55am | ! Report

        You do understand that the Broncos would lose a point and the Tigers would have gained one in the event of a draw. Then looking at his predictions would then have them equal on 29 competition points with a current points diff of -8 to -16 broncos way which is nothing. So if that game was a draw it would have put 8th spot on a knife edge. It didn’t cost the Tigers their season but in hindsight could be the difference.

        • August 9th 2018 @ 10:53am
          Gray-Hand said | August 9th 2018 @ 10:53am | ! Report

          Every single team could point to at least a dozen different incorrect refereeing decisions over the course of the season that could have given them 2 points more or 2 points less on the table if they had gone the other way.

          The Tigers aren’t any less fortunate than any other team.

          • August 9th 2018 @ 3:21pm
            Jacko said | August 9th 2018 @ 3:21pm | ! Report

            You are probably right that the Tigers are no more unlucky than most other teams but the Bronco’s seem to get more “luck” than most

    • August 9th 2018 @ 7:53am
      RandyM said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:53am | ! Report

      Warriors and Sharks look more likely to make a GF than the Dragons or Panthers to me. Dragons are done and will go out in straight sets. I can’t see the Panthers coming together for a finals charge after whats happened.

    • August 9th 2018 @ 7:55am
      Forty Twenty said | August 9th 2018 @ 7:55am | ! Report

      Last year it was considered a certainty that the Cows were wasting their time making the 8. It would be great to watch Shaun Johnson fire up and do something special and who knows it could happen.

      The Burgi and friends really fired up come finals time when they won a title a few years back and I wonder if they have peaked too early this time around?

      They are the Top Dog forward pack going around and are rightful favorites but it’s about time someone emerged from the clouds to win the title.

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