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Opinion

And then there were four: NRL's contenders emerge as pretenders fall away

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13th September, 2020
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Round 18 has now come and gone. With just two rounds to go, the top eight has been decided.

So that means that the bottom eight can begin their soul searching and planning for next year, while the top eight all remain in the contest for the 2020 premiership. Right?

Wrong!

Only four of the top eight teams have a realistic chance of adding to their premiership, and they are the Panthers, Storm, Roosters and Raiders. Souths, Newcastle, Cronulla and Parramatta are now just making up the numbers and can forget their dreams of a victory lap on October 25, regardless of how things pan out in the next two rounds.

An analysis of their performances over the last three rounds leads me to that conclusion.

Souths had a big win against Parramatta in Round 16, then lost to Melbourne the following week, and most recently just crept home against a hot and cold Wests Tigers side. For me, the Round 16 Parramatta result speaks more to the shortcomings of the Eels than it does to the ability of Souths.

The Bunnies had a chance to make a statement against the Storm in Round 17, and even led for most of the match against a rusty Storm. But in the end, they couldn’t hold the opposition off when the Storm decided to engage second gear with 20 just minutes to go. Then, against the generally underperforming Tigers, Souths jumped away to a 20-point lead after only 27 minutes, but then switched off and in the end were lucky to run out winners by two points.

While Souths halves Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker are good at sparking the attack, their game management when the heat is on leaves a lot to be desired. Souths forwards all try hard but can’t sustain the effort, and dominate the middle for eighty minutes.

Adam Reynolds and the Rabbitohs look on.

Souths (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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The loss of Latrell Mitchell further weakens Souths’ premiership aspirations.

In the last three weeks the Knights have been thrashed by 30 points by the Warriors, comfortably defeated a very disappointing and undisciplined Sharks team, and then got rolled by another 30 points by the Roosters. After a promising start to the season, a string of injuries and declining form now sees them all at sea.

Their forwards are beginning to look pedestrian, and if Kaylyn Ponga doesn’t fire, their attack is far too predictable to trouble a well-organised defence.

Mitchell Pearce has well and truly lost his 2019 mojo while Kurt Mann is now far less effective at hooker than he was playing in the halves. Recent form suggests that they are no chance to defeat any team above them on the ladder in the finals.

Parramatta started the season like a house on fire. Their forwards were dominating the opposition, Maika Sivo was scoring tries, Dylan Brown and Mitchell Moses were creating opportunities, and Clint Gutherson was everywhere, and racking up the running metres. Now, only Gutherson still appears to be switched on, and the Eels have hit the wall. Hard.

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In their last three matches they were totally taken apart by Souths, just finished in front of the lowly but improving Warriors, and failed to get across the line against the Panthers. The final score line in this match of 20-2 flattered the Eels, as the Panthers could easily have scored 40+ with better execution.

The Eels’ early season success was characterised by a terrific roll on, as Blake Ferguson, Maika Sivo, Junior Paulo and Reagan Campbell-Gillard carved a hole into the opposition middle, allowing the halves and Clint Gutherson to capitalise. Those days are now gone and despite currently sitting in fourth place, the Eels have lost their way. Recent performances don’t indicate a return to their best anytime soon.

The Cronulla Sharks have been hanging on to their place in the top eight for some time but aren’t impressing even their most loyal fans. Round 16 saw them defeat a poorly performed Cowboys team and this last round they just got home against the Warriors, but for me their season was defined by their terrible Round 17 effort against Newcastle, going down by nearly 30 points in an undisciplined performance that lacked any real effort.

The Sharks have some impressive young players on the way up but it is their more experienced players who are really letting them down at the moment, with some uninterested displays. If they weren’t prepared to compete against fellow top-eight side Newcastle, they won’t stand a chance against the rest.

So roll on the finals, and may the best team win.