Gold Coast co-captain Jamal Fogarty has been linked with a move to Canberra despite extending his contract with the Titans in August.
While there have been far too many lopsided games this season, and you can never discount the possibility of some of the following teams simply failing to turn up, this weekend should serve up some cracking NRL matches.
Specifically, we have a game that could well decide which team finishes in the top four, one that could go a long way to seeing which team scrapes into the finals in eighth place, and a game that seems set to determine just who will take out the 2021 JJ Giltinan Shield as the competition’s minor premiers.
In effect, these three games are each worth four points.
And it all starts on Thursday night.
Roosters versus Eels
We start Round 20 with the fifth-placed Roosters, on 26 points, taking on the fourth-placed Eels, on 28 points.
In the lead-up to the finals, the Chooks will then face the Panthers, Broncos, Dragons, Rabbitohs and Raiders. Realistically, they should win three of those games.
As for Parra, they take on the Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles, Cowboys, Storm and Panthers – a much more difficult run, but they would at least aim to win two of them.
The Sea Eagles – sixth, on 24 points – could possibly scrape into fourth but at this stage it does appear to be a battle between the Tricolours and the Eels, which means Thursday’s game could very well decide which of these two sides get the leg-up of being in the top four heading into September.
It’s worth remembering that in the NRL era no team has won the grand final from outside the top four. And with the Roosters, in particular, so depleted of troops, the chance to earn a week off in the finals would be all the more appetising.
As far as form goes, the Bondi boys come in on the back of a resounding 28-8 win over the Knights, while Jordan Rapana’s hip was all that stopped Brad Arthur’s side from a last-gasp victory over the Raiders, going down 12-10.
However, the Roosters’ casualty ward swelled further in their victory, Matt Ikuvalu and Billy Smith suffering ankle injuries that mean they are unlikely to play this week.
For their part, Parramatta will be without halfback Mitch Moses who, the Eels website tells us, suffered a “minor back fracture” in Origin 3 (which makes a serious injury sound like a mere inconvenience).
As far as a prediction goes, I keep waiting for the weight of injuries to catch up with the Roosters but the machine Trent Robinson has created somehow just continues to grind out wins. I mean, take all the players that are out injured for the season or have retired and apply it to almost any other club and they’d be in a battle for the wooden spoon. Yet the Roosters are playing for fourth.
But maybe that says more about the state of the comp than anything else because, barring their shock loss to the Broncos, the Roosters’ defeats this season have come against the teams above them on the ladder – Penrith, Melbourne, Souths and, in Round 9, going down 31-18 to the Eels.
Basically, when faced with quality opposition, the Roosters’ injuries come home to, ah, roost.
The Tricolours won’t die wondering but I’ll back the Eels to get the chocolates on Thursday.
Knights versus Raiders
While 11th playing ninth doesn’t look like a battle for eighth spot, this is a game that could genuinely determine whether Newcastle or Canberra play finals footy this year, due to the logjam of teams at the bottom of finals contention, with the Sharks at seventh on 18 points, followed by the Dragons (18), Raiders (18), Titans (16) and Knights (16).
It’s difficult to work out exactly how many points will be the cut-off for this year’s finals, but I wouldn’t be surprised if 26 was enough.
The Knights’ final five games are against the Broncos, Sharks, Bulldogs, Titans and Broncos (again). Ladder positioning says they win three of those, although wins over the Sharks and Titans are not beyond the realm of possibility either.
As for the Raiders, they take on the Dragons, Storm, Sea Eagles, Warriors and Roosters. A far tougher task, they’ll see St George Illawarra and the New Zealanders as where they’ll pick up points, with Manly and the Chooks possible victories as well.
But to get to 26 points, both clubs really need a win on Saturday night.
The two sides are on opposite ends of the form spectrum, the Raiders having finally ditched the ‘faders’ tag that caused them so many losses this season – including to the Novocastrians in Round 9, when they were up 16-0 at halftime only to give up 24 unanswered points in the second stanza – to currently be on a three-game winning streak, having secured wins over a trio of top-eight sides in the Sea Eagles, Sharks and Eels.
As for Newcastle, their 38-0 shutout of the Cowboys in Round 16 was followed by a bye, a 48-4 walloping at the hands of the Storm and then last week’s 28-8 loss to the Roosters, meaning they’re seeking to avoid their third successive defeat.
Following the most recent loss, there was talk of the Knights’ season being on life support but I was no more worried than I had been following the win over the Cowboys – Newcastle were never going to get over the Storm or Roosters, especially without Mitchell Pearce.
But put their regular number seven in and they’re a different side. So a lot rests on the 17 Adam O’Brien announces this afternoon.
As such, and because you don’t tip against your team (well, not when there’s effectively nothing riding on your tip), I’m saying the Knights get the win and kickstart an end-of-season effort that has them flying into the eight by the conclusion of Round 25.
(Obviously at this point, you can head on down to the comments section and ridicule that prediction mercilessly. I deserve that.)
Storm versus Panthers
Such is the entrenched attitude at Channel Nine that the Broncos rate, the match of the round – no, of the whole year! – is being played on Saturday evening, while 15th-placed Brisbane take on 13th-placed North Queensland in Friday night primetime.
Has anyone at Nine looked at the ladder for the past two years? No, they weren’t to know when drawing up the 2021 schedule that this game would see the Storm out to make club history with a 16-match winning streak, taking on a Panthers side that have lost three regular-season games in two seasons.
But how hard would it have been to realise that the grand final rematch is going to be a better game than the worst Queensland sides of the past two years making half-hearted attempts to grab each other’s jerseys?
We’re a long time removed from the 2015 grand final is all I’m saying.
Anyway, heading into this game, the Storm and Panthers are both on 34 points, with Melbourne in first spot based on their superior points differential.
As far as their matches after Saturday, Craig Bellamy’s boys do battle with the Sea Eagles, Raiders, Titans, Eels and Sharks, while Ivan Cleary’s side’s final five are the Roosters, Dragons, Rabbitohs, Tigers and Eels.
Some matches are obviously harder than others, but neither of these teams should drop any games after this weekend.
So if all goes as it logically should, Saturday night’s game is for the minor premiership, with the prize money and theoretically easier finals draw it brings.
As for who wins it, well, I just don’t know who can beat the Storm at the moment, particularly a Panthers side without their halfback, hooker and best prop.
Come finals time and with Nathan Cleary, Api Koroisau and James Fisher-Harris all back on board, as well as Tevita Pangai Jr pressing his claims for a spot in the team, we’re having a different conversation.
But the Storm should get it done this week and effectively seal the club’s fifth legitimate minor premiership.