And so, as the prophecy foretold, it has come to this: sudden death, instant death, extremely painful and bloody death, if you will, it’s preliminary finals time of this our 2021 NRL Premiership.
Round 15 of the NRL is in the books and the top eight is looking more and more certain.
With the Sharks in eighth spot with a four-point gap to ninth, there doesn’t look like much pressure is being put on the top eight.
Arguably embarrassingly for those outside the top eight, the Warriors with a 3–2 record in the past five are the only team with a positive ledger.
The Dragons are a close second, but the Tigers and Sea Eagles (both one and four), are looking like they would prefer to start Mad Monday (with social distancing) than make a push for the finals.
In terms of why some teams are performing better than others, it’s the halves that are separating the winners from the losers. It’s no coincidence that the Dragons have found form with their halves being settled – Adam Clune in particular offering a steady hand, and deft kicking game that suits the Dragons.
The Warriors even without the departed Blake Green are playing well, Kodi Nikorima has stepped up and played the senior role, allowing Chanel Harris-Tevita and Paul Harris against the Bulldogs to focus on their role.
While the top eight looks settled, the Sharks are probably on the bubble and fortunate to have had a kind draw in terms of opposition and timing.
Bookending two thrashings from the Panthers by a combined 94 to 36 the Sharks got past the Warriors, Dragons, Broncos and Titans, suffering a close loss in the wet to the Eels.
Fortunately for the Sharks they probably only need to win two from five remaining games and with the Cowboys this weekend, it leaves them needing one win from four, and after the Cowboys they play the Knights who barely have a halves pairing left!
Another factor in the Sharks favour is a much superior points difference to the Dragons and the Warriors, showing how crucial it is to not get thrashed too often (they will be glad they only play the Panthers twice!)
Further up the table and when it comes to finals time, it would appear at least six teams have potential premiership credentials. The current top five and the Rabbitohs in seventh have looked impressive and it will in large part come down to how healthy the respective rosters are come finals time.
What will be interesting is well is the finals positions as finishing in the top four and having two lives could be crucial.
A team like the Raiders have had not had a great month, thrashed by the Panthers and doing the Queensland trifecta – hardly something to build for the finals on. The good news for them is that they finish with some hard games, including the Roosters, and three teams who could be desperate, the Dragons, Warriors and Sharks.
With five rounds to go the cream is really at the top. The challenge may be keeping these players fresh for the next two – three months of football left. The Panthers are in the enviable situation of being virtually injury free and unbeaten in ten games.
The challenge for them would be, do they rest players with heavy workloads prior to the finals and risk a loss, or rely on the youthfulness of the team for this not to be an issue?
The Eels look primed to go deep into the finals, and the match up on the 11th of September with the Panthers could be a Western derby for the ages. Finally, the Roosters and Storm, two perennial rivals are actually in the same boat.
Both have stars expected back from injury in the coming weeks, and with no representative breaks this year, the rest may be what they needed prior to the finals.
The Storm have a comfortable draw heading into the finals, the Roosters will be pushed harder by the Raiders and the Rabbitohs in particular, but a well-rested Luke Keary could be the difference in the pressure cooker of finals football.
For a season that looked like it may not happen, the 2020 season is shaping up quite nicely.
The rule changes have sped up the games, and with finals six weeks away, it will be fascinating how the coaches plan for the finals, what risks they take prior to the finals, and how they manage their troops leading into it.
Being the year 2020 has been so far I’m sure there is another twist or two before we reach the finals!