With only two rounds remaining, the top eight is a locked shop for season 2020, but the battles for the minor premiership and the wooden spoon could be decided as early as this weekend.
Currently with a three-point buffer at the top of the ladder, the Penrith Panthers can officially lock up the minor premiership when they make the hit-and-run trip to the tropics to face the Cowboys on Friday night.
But should they fail to beat the northerners, the Melbourne Storm can close the gap to a solitary point with victory over the Wests Tigers on the Sunshine Coast on Saturday afternoon.
Meantime, down at the wrong end of the ladder, Thursday night’s clash against the South Sydney Rabbitohs shapes as the Bulldogs’ final chance to avoid the wooden spoon, as it is certain they will start underdogs against minor premiers-to-be Penrith next weekend.
If the Dogs can cause an upset, then it will put the Broncos on the bottom of the ladder on for and against ahead of their showdown against the Eels at Bankwest Stadium, in what will be their first match at the venue since their 58-0 finals humiliation last year.
Those are just two of the permutations that can play out in the final fortnight of the regular season, while the order of the final ladder is also still to be determined.
Here is your preview to Round 19.
Rabbitohs vs Bulldogs
Despite the missed chances, the Dogs’ form has fluctuated between good and bad since Dean Pay departed the club after Round 9.
Last Friday night, the Dogs couldn’t keep up with the Sea Eagles, crashing to a 32-20 defeat, which sees them move closer to their first piece of woodwork since 2008.
Meanwhile, Souths have won six of their last seven matches, with the only blot being a 22-16 loss to the Melbourne Storm in Round 17.
Last week, the Bunnies survived a major scare from the Tigers, escaping with a 26-24 victory which ensures the Pride of the League will play finals for a third consecutive season.
But coach Wayne Bennett would not have been impressed by the narrow scoreline, and he will no doubt be putting the onus on his team to register a large victory which, pending the Raiders’ match against the Warriors on Sunday, would put the Bunnies in fifth place on the ladder.
They already boast one win against the Bulldogs this year, by way of a 26-10 victory at Bankwest Stadium in Round 8, but even with the return match being at ANZ Stadium, a maximum crowd of up to 10,000 will only be allowed for a match-up that traditionally draws a large crowd.
At home, the Rabbitohs should get the job done.
Prediction: Rabbitohs by ten points.
Cowboys vs Panthers
Unfancied at the start of the season, the mountain men have exceeded their own expectations in more ways than one, only dropping one match (against Parramatta in Round 5), while also being forced to share the points with the Knights in Round 3.
Since then, Ivan Cleary’s side have won a club-record 13 straight matches, including eight at Panthers Stadium, the latest of them a 20-2 victory over the Eels last Friday night.
Halfback Nathan Cleary has redeemed himself on and off the field as he closes in on the NSW guernsey he lost due to injury midway through last year.
Meantime, the Cowboys just can’t wait for the season to end quickly enough, being thrashed 36-20 by Melbourne on the Sunshine Coast and having prop forward Josh McGuire sin-binned after swearing at referee Grant Atkins in the opening minutes, which will cost McGuire at least a week’s suspension.
When the two teams met in Round 10, Penrith had to come from behind to win, after which it was announced that the Cowboys’ 2015 premiership coach, Paul Green, would be moved on.
Try as they might at home, the Cowboys don’t have it in them to cause a major upset.
Prediction: Panthers by 16 points.
(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)
Eels vs Broncos
Last week the NRL’s glamour club (if we can still call them that) made history for all the wrong reasons – not once, but twice.
Firstly, they crashed to a ninth consecutive defeat – beating the records set in late 2003 and late 2005 (plus Round 1 in 2006) – and the class of 2020 also became the first team to be beaten by any Gold Coast side twice in the one regular season.
Despite scoring the first try of the match through soon-to-be-retiree Darius Boyd, the Broncos then conceded 18 points unabated and it has become clear the players have had enough of their season from hell.
369 days will have passed since Brisbane suffered a then-club record 58-0 defeat against Parramatta when they step foot into Bankwest Stadium. It will have also been nearly four months since these teams faced off in the season-resuming match at Suncorp Stadium on May 28, which the blue and gold won 34-6.
As for Parra, they are gearing up for a third finals appearance in four seasons.
Just weeks after being blanked 38-0 by the Rabbitohs in front of their home fans, the Eels’ finals preparations copped another blow when, despite some strong defence, they fell to a 20-2 defeat at the hands of the Panthers, again failing to score a try against a top-eight side.
But after some patchy form, Parramatta should take the points here.
Prediction: Eels by 18 points.
Maika Sivo (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
Sea Eagles vs Titans
The first match on Saturday is effectively a dead rubber, with neither the Sea Eagles or Titans able to qualify for finals.
The Silvertails have been ravaged by injuries to key players, including fullback Tom Trbojevic and controversial forward Addin Fonua-Blake, but while they managed to beat the Bulldogs last Friday night, it wasn’t until the Sharks beat the Warriors that the Sea Eagles’ finals hopes were officially killed off.
This will be just the second time that Des Hasler has failed to take the men from the northern beaches to the finals, the other time being in his first season, 2004, when they finished 13th.
It will also be the third time Hasler hasn’t taken a side to the finals, his sixth and final year as Bulldogs coach ending without a berth.
The Titans have won three straight matches for the first time since 2017 and have shown significant improvement.
It is proof that they are heading in the right direction under rookie coach Justin Holbrook, particularly with David Fifita joining the club next year.
In what will be their final match in Sydney this year, Gold Coast can take the points.
Prediction: Titans by ten points.
Storm vs Wests Tigers
The twilight match takes us to the Sunshine Coast for the Storm’s final ‘home’ game of the year.
It has been nearly three months since a second coronavirus outbreak in Victoria forced the Storm into their Sunshine Coast hub. But the move has not affected the club’s form and they go into this match having won 11 of their last 12 games, with the only loss being against Parramatta in Round 15 where, without several key players, they failed to score a point.
Last week they thrashed the Cowboys, but coach Craig Bellamy would’ve been fuming after they allowed the men from Townsville to score 20 points, which was the first time since Round 8 that the Storm had conceded more than 20 points in a game.
The Tigers are playing for pride after being officially knocked out of the finals race last week, overcoming a poor first half to get within two points of the Rabbitohs before falling short 26-24.
The club currently sit ninth and have become the target of jokes referring to a ladder position they have finished in the last two years in a row.
Some good news for long-suffering supporters is that if they lose, they will slip below the winner of the earlier Sea Eagles vs Titans tie, and could slip below the Warriors by round’s end if the Kiwis beat the Raiders in Canberra on Sunday.
But onto serious matters now, and there should be no excuse for the Storm not to take the points in this contest.
Prediction: Storm by 20 points.
Roosters vs Sharks
Cronulla have overcome several on and off-field issues in John Morris’ second season as coach and officially punched their ticket to the finals – to be their eighth appearance in nine seasons, and sixth consecutive – with a 22-14 victory over the Warriors.
What made the win even sweeter was that it marked the first time ex-Warriors halfback Shaun Johnson captained the side.
But their toughest test awaits in the Roosters and comeback kid Sonny Bill Williams (if we can still call him that).
The Chooks made a mockery of what was supposed to be a tough clash against the Knights, winning 42-12 and just about securing the double chance that comes with finishing in the top four.
SBW again played limited minutes as he adjusts to life back in the NRL, but nonetheless made an impact as the boys from Bondi push towards a third consecutive premiership.
Despite fears over his wellbeing following the sudden death of his cousin, Boyd Cordner has been named to play, as has Williams, but fullback James Tedesco will miss.
At the SCG for the final time in the regular season, there should be no excuses for the Chooks not to take the points.
Prediction: Roosters by 12 points.
Raiders vs Warriors
After a tough loss to the Roosters at home in Round 17, the Green Machine unleashed their anger on the Dragons in Wollongong last Saturday, conceding the first try before storming to a 37-8 victory.
That leaves them in fifth place on the ladder with two rounds still to play, and should Parramatta slip up in their game, the Raiders will have the chance to jump into the top four.
Meantime, after thrashing the Knights 36-6 in Tamworth in Round 16, the Warriors suffered two agonising defeats at the hands of the Eels and Sharks to officially drop out of finals contention for season 2020.
Nonetheless, they have earned the respect and admiration of the rest of the competition for their willingness to sacrifice their lives at home for the sake of restarting the season back in May.
Now that they cannot break into the eight, they can provide some nuisance value against the Raiders, before they wrap up with a home game against the Sea Eagles on the Central Coast.
But with a top-four berth at stake for Canberra, expect them to show no mercy at home.
Prediction: Raiders by 24 points.
(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
Knights vs Dragons
The Knights – despite being ravaged by injuries to key players, including mid-season import Andrew McCullough and hooker Connor Watson – have made their first finals series since 2013.
However, last week’s heavy loss to the Roosters seems an indication that their time in finals football could be brief.
Meantime, the Dragons can’t wait for the season to finish, being thrashed 37-8 by the Raiders in their final match at WIN Stadium for the year.
It came following Anthony Griffin being announced as the club’s next coach, with the ex-Broncos and Panthers mentor to take the reins from caretaker Dean Young in 2021.
The heavy loss to Canberra, the Dragons’ third straight, highlighted the work Griffin has to do if he is to turn around an underachieving culture at the club.
One highlight for the side, however, was the debut of Nines sensation Cody Ramsey, whose family was in the stands to watch him score two first-half tries – the only tries scored by the Dragons for the match.
The Red V have an impressive record in Newcastle, having only lost there twice since 2003, when a conversion from Andrew Johns saw the Knights escape with a 32-30 victory.
But with the finals in sight, now is not the time for complacency at McDonald Jones Stadium, and the Knights should bring the chocolates home.
Prediction: Knights by six points.