We have reached the final round of the 2021 NRL season and for some teams, it also means the end of the line for their year.
With Sydney’s COVID-19 outbreak showing no signs of improving in the short term, it is all but certain the entire NRL finals series will be staged in Queensland, culminating in a historic Suncorp Stadium grand final which is expected to be confirmed by the end of the week.
Before then, several teams will be out to fine-tune their preparations for September, while three other teams – the Sharks, Raiders and Titans – will be fighting it out for the final top-eight berth with seven places already confirmed.
The Raiders can strike the first blow by beating the Roosters on Thursday night, but if the Sharks can somehow upset the Melbourne Storm on Friday night they will lock up the eight, leaving the Titans and Warriors to contest a meaningless match on Sunday.
If the Storm are beaten, then the Penrith Panthers can reclaim top spot and thus take out the minor premiership with a win over the Parramatta Eels, who themselves need a win to keep their top-four hopes alive, on Friday night.
The regular season concludes with a dead rubber match between the Wests Tigers and Bulldogs, with the latter team already guaranteed its first wooden spoon since 2008.
Here is your preview to Round 25.
Raiders versus Roosters
We will have a finals entree to kick off the final round when the Canberra Raiders and Sydney Roosters lock horns in Mackay on Thursday night.
For the Raiders, the equation is simple – win on Thursday night, then hope the Sharks are beaten by the Storm on Friday night and Ricky Stuart’s men will play finals for a third consecutive year.
Last Friday night they came from 16-0 down to beat the Warriors by 28-16 in what was literally a reversal of roles from their Round 3 clash, whereby the Green Machine lost 34-31 after having led by 25-6 at halftime.
They will fancy their chances against a Roosters side that is smarting from a heavy loss to the Rabbitohs but have otherwise defied a horror injury toll to earn themselves a top-six finish for the eighth time in nine years.
Not only were the Chooks badly beaten on the scoreboard, losing 54-12, they also lost centre Joseph Manu to a sickening fractural injury after being on the wrong end of a brutal shoulder charge from Latrell Mitchell which has cost him a six-match suspension.
The defeat dropped Trent Robinson’s men to sixth on the ladder, but they still remain a chance of finishing in the top four and booking themselves a likely first-week finals showdown with premiership favourites the Melbourne Storm.
To do that, they must beat the Raiders, then hope that the Eels and Sea Eagles both suffer defeats at the hands of the Panthers and Cowboys, respectively, later in the round.
A win by the Chooks would also deliver last rites to the Raiders’ season, and also leave the door open for either the Sharks or Titans to snatch the final place in the eight.
With plenty to play for, and given their opposition’s injury toll, I think the Raiders can take the points.
Prediction: Raiders by eight points.
Sharks versus Storm
By the time the Sharks take to the field to play the Melbourne Storm on Friday night, they will know exactly where they stand in the finals race.
Going into the final round, the Sharks are equal on premiership points with the Raiders, but with a slightly better points differential (-24 to the Raiders’ -73), meaning the equation for Josh Hannay’s side is as simple as this – win and they’re in.
They go into the final round having won their past two matches – against non-finals teams the Wests Tigers and Broncos – to move back into the eight.
It has been a remarkable effort from the men from the Shire to remain in finals contention given the poor start to the season they endured, plus the drama surrounding former coach John Morris and his dramatic exit from the club earlier this year.
Their streak of six consecutive finals series is second only to the Storm in terms of active finals streaks, and it’s one they will be hoping to keep alive against a side which has clearly been the benchmark side of the past decade (or so).
Last week, Craig Bellamy’s side were denied their place in Australian rugby league history when they had their record 19-match winning streak ended by the Parramatta Eels, losing 22-10.
Not only did it deny them what would’ve been a record-setting 20th consecutive victory, it was also their first loss anywhere in Queensland since mid-2017 when they lost a high-scoring match against the Gold Coast Titans at Suncorp Stadium.
There is nothing the Storm would love to do than hit back on Friday night, and not only would a win wrap up the minor premiership, it would also put an end to the Sharks’ season and sentence them to a finals-free September for the first time since 2014.
Prediction: Storm by 14 points.
Eels versus Panthers
Depending on the result of the Sharks versus Storm match earlier on Friday night, the Penrith Panthers will either be playing to take back top spot on the ladder, or, for potentially, a meaningless home ground advantage in next week’s qualifying final against the Rabbitohs.
After the Storm’s shock loss to the Eels last Saturday night, the Panthers returned to minor premiership calculations, and reversed their round 13 loss to the Wests Tigers with a straight-forward 30-16 win in Redcliffe last Sunday.
Tevita Pangai Jr, who is playing out the season with the club before he and Matt Burton join the Bulldogs next year, proved his worth with a strong try in the second half and his physicality up forward could be what the Panthers need as they look to go one better in 2021.
But while Ivan Cleary’s side would love to finish top of the ladder for a second straight year, their primary focus is on winning a third premiership, and first since 2003.
Meantime, fresh off its upset win over the Melbourne Storm which put an end to their 19-match winning streak, the Parramatta Eels will attempt to make it two boilovers in as many weeks and give themselves another morale-booster going into September.
On his return from injury, Blake Ferguson scored two tries as the Eels made it two wins over the Storm in one season for the first time since 2001 – a year in which they made the grand final only to be on the receiving end of a masterclass from Andrew Johns and the Knights.
It was their second straight win and comes off the back of a poor month of football in which they suffered heavy losses to the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles, which cast in doubt the coaching future of Brad Arthur.
Now they can cause a psychological blow with a win over the Panthers, which would lift them back into the top four, though that is dependent on the Roosters losing the previous night, and the Sea Eagles suffering an upset loss to the Cowboys on Saturday night.
But with bigger fish to fry, the Panthers should take the points – and with some luck could finish first on the ladder.
Prediction: Panthers by 18 points.
Broncos versus Knights
The first match on Saturday afternoon is virtually a dead rubber, because not only will the Broncos finish in the bottom three for a third straight year, the Knights’ ladder position will not change regardless of whether they win or not.
While it has been a challenging first season as coach for 2000 premiership captain Kevin Walters, there have been a few bright spots for the club’s supporters, not least of which includes wins over the Titans, Cowboys and Roosters.
And with Kurt Capewell and Adam Reynolds to join the club next year, there is bound to be better times ahead, even with the club’s premiership drought – currently the longest in their history – set to extend into a fifteenth completed season.
Before they can think about next year, though, they will be keen to give their supporters one final reason to cheer when they face the Knights, who can attest to where the Broncos are at now.
It wasn’t very long ago that the Novocastrians were the perennial strugglers of the competition, claiming a hat-trick of wooden spoons between 2015-17 as the club tried to clean up the mess that was left behind by Wayne Bennett.
Thanks to the heroics of Mitchell Pearce, the Knights punched their ticket to September for the second consecutive year with a 15-14 win, with the former NSW Origin halfback stepping up at the death to give his side their twelfth win for the season.
Though they are locked in to finish seventh on the ladder, they will surely not entertain the thought of resting star players, but rather, fine-tune their preparations ahead of a possible knock-out final against the Roosters next weekend.
On that note, Adam O’Brien’s side should take the points, and continue their good form entering the finals.
Prediction: Knights by 16 points.
Cowboys versus Sea Eagles
The final berth in the top four is in the mercy of the Sea Eagles, when they make the trip north to the tropics to face a North Queensland side that has nothing to play for this Saturday night.
After a horror start to the season in which they lost their first four matches, Des Hasler’s side quickly climbed up the ladder, and entered the top four for the first time upon coming from behind to beat the Bulldogs in Redcliffe last Sunday.
Reuben Garrick became the first man in premiership history to score 20 tries and kick 100 goals in the season, while Tom Trbojevic continues to ramp up the jets ahead of the club returning to finals for the first time since 2019.
They face a Cowboys side which is brimming with confidence after coming from 20-10 down at halftime to beat the Dragons by 38-26, reversing their Round 2 loss in Townsville and also putting an end to a ten-match losing streak – the longest by any side this season.
The club will miss the finals for the fourth consecutive year – making this their longest streak without playing in September (or October, in the case of last year) since the early noughties.
It is hoped that the arrival of Chad Townsend from the Sharks, via the Warriors, will help to fill the void left by the retired Johnathan Thurston in 2018 – shoes that have proven so large to fill at Queensland Country Bank Stadium.
But before they can even start thinking about next year, they can finish the season on a high by upsetting the Sea Eagles, which they did in the final round in 2014 to prevent the Silvertails claiming the minor premiership.
However, with a double chance at stake, I just can’t see the Sea Eagles dropping the points in this one.
Prediction: Sea Eagles by 20 points.
Rabbitohs versus Dragons
The final regular season Saturday night match of the season sees traditional rivals the Rabbitohs and Dragons go head-to-head, with the stakes very high in the former team’s case, and the latter having nothing to play for after a second-half season collapse.
Last Friday night saw the Bunnies run riot against the Roosters, winning 52-14 for their third consecutive victory against their eastern suburbs rivals, but it came at significant cost with Latrell Mitchell copping a six-week suspension for a shoulder charge on Joseph Manu.
Another hat-trick from Alex Johnston saw him move up to 27 tries for the season, meaning he will almost certainly finish the season as the competition’s leading try-scorer.
On Saturday night they’ll start hot favourites against the Dragons, who after a strong start to the season have crashed and burned since the Origin period, having not won a match since beating the Warriors by 19-18 in Round 16.
The infamous BBQ-gate scandal, which saw Paul Vaughan sacked by the club and several other players suspended, has proven to be a millstone in the club’s season, with the club losing their past seven matches to tumble out of finals contention.
Last week, they led the Cowboys 20-10 at halftime, but were outscored 6-28 in the second half to gift the northerners their first win since May.
With nothing to play for now, all the Dragons can do is cause a psychological blow to the Bunnies’ finals hopes, but with a six-match losing streak against the Pride of the League hovering over their heads, I just cannot see it happening.
Prediction: Rabbitohs by 22 points.
Titans versus Warriors
Whether the Titans go into the final Sunday of the regular season with a chance to break into the eight is dependent on the Raiders and Sharks losing their respective final-round ties against the Roosters and Storm earlier in the round.
If that is the case, then the clash against the Warriors shapes as the club’s best chance to qualify for just their fourth finals series, following post-season appearances in 2009, 2010 and 2016.
Their task certainly could’ve been easier had they not lost to the Knights last Thursday night, whereby they were sunk at the death by a field goal from Mitchell Pearce with the scores locked at 14-all.
There have been some bright spots for the club this year, not least the impressive form shown by Jayden Campbell – the son of foundation Titan and Panthers premiership player Preston – in the opportunities he has been afforded.
On the other hand, another long season away from home is about to come to an end for the New Zealand Warriors, who since the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March last year have lived up to their reputation as “road warriors”.
The club had done well to remain in finals contention for most of the season but had their flame officially extinguished last Friday night when they lost to the Canberra Raiders by 28-16 after having led 16-0 at one stage in the game.
All things considered, it has otherwise been a reasonable first season for Nathan Brown at the helm, and he’ll be keen to see his side improve in 2022, even if the club does not get the chance to play at home for a third straight year.
In their final home game for the season, the Titans should take the points, and with some luck might sneak their way into September but only if the Raiders and Sharks lose earlier in the round.
Prediction: Titans by 10 points.
Wests Tigers versus Bulldogs
The final match of the regular season is a dead rubber, with the Wests Tigers sentenced to finish outside the top eight for the tenth year in a row, while the Bulldogs are already guaranteed of the wooden spoon.
Another inconsistent season from the Concord-based club, which has become the subject of the Fox League documentary “Wild Wests: Tales from Tiger Town”, sees the club sit in 13th place with one round of the minor premiership still to play.
At least they won’t be taunted to any “finishing ninth” jokes, as the highest they could finish is tenth place. Still, the club’s finals drought is currently the longest of any club, and it’ll be hard seeing that barren run end anytime in the short term.
Last Sunday, against the Panthers, they managed to keep pace with their opponents in the first half before going down by 30-16. Still, the club gave a good account of themselves against the team they beat at Leichhardt Oval nearly three months ago.
Michael Maguire’s men can finish the season on a high this Sunday with a win against the Bulldogs in what will be their second meeting in a month.
It has been another long and miserable season for the boys from Belmore, winning only two matches and suffering the indignity of losing to every team in the league.
Though they did beat the Sharks and Dragons in rounds seven and fourteen respectively, they also lost to those clubs in other matches this season, most notably against the latter team in Round 9 in which Kyle Flanagan was hooked by coach Trent Barrett in a 32-12 loss.
The intermittent form of Jake Averillo has also been a highlight, and the impending arrivals of Matt Burton and Josh Addo-Carr will help the club in its bid to climb the ladder next year.
Due to the Cowboys beating the Dragons last Sunday, the Bulldogs now have the longest active losing streak of any side this season with ten, and will want to avoid making it eleven in a row to finish what is set to be their worst ever season on record.
However, there is no way the Wests Tigers will entertain the thought of losing to the wooden spooners this Sunday, and the joint venture will start favourites to win their ninth match for the season.
Prediction: Wests Tigers by 14 points.
If results go as predicted above, the first week of the finals series would look like this:
First qualifying final: Storm versus Sea Eagles
Second qualifying final: Panthers versus Rabbitohs
First elimination final: Eels versus Raiders
Second elimination final: Roosters versus Knights
Venues, dates and times will be confirmed by the NRL once the regular season ends, with Suncorp Stadium the likely venue for the two qualifying finals, and Cbus Super Stadium the likely venue for the two elimination finals.
From there on in, Suncorp is likely to host the remainder of the finals series, including the grand final which is scheduled for Sunday, October 3.