We have reached the business end of the NRL season and it’s up to seven teams to prevent the Melbourne Storm repeating as premiers.
Craig Bellamy’s men have qualified for September for an 11th straight season, which is the longest active finals streak of any club in the NRL.
From last year’s finals line-up, the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Roosters, Eels and Knights also return, while the Sea Eagles and Titans both return to the furnace for the first time since 2019 and 2016, respectively.
The Eels’ elimination final is a chance to settle a score from 20 years ago, having suffered a nightmare loss to the Knights in the 2001 grand final – a result which continues to haunt the club’s elder legion of fans.
The Storm and Sea Eagles will face off in finals for the fifth time, including the 2008 and ’07 grand finals, while the Panthers and Rabbitohs will face each other nearly 12 months after they contested a classic preliminary final last October.
The Roosters vs Titans and Panthers vs Rabbitohs matches will be played on Saturday, forming a Townsville double-header, while the Storm and Eels will contest their respective home finals on the Sunshine Coast and in Rockhampton.
Storm vs Sea Eagles
Friday, September 10, 7:50pm
Sunshine Coast Stadium
Last meeting in a final: Storm won 40-12 in the second preliminary final, 2012, at AAMI Park.
This season: Storm won 28-18 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 21.
In the first season of the post-Cameron Smith era, Melbourne have continued to go from strength to strength, winning 21 of their 24 regular season matches, including a premiership record-equaling 19 wins in a row between Rounds 4 and 23.
They could have written themselves into the history books with a record 20th consecutive win in Round 24, only to be denied by Parramatta at Suncorp Stadium as they also suffered their first defeat anywhere in Queensland since mid-2017.
They also finished the regular season with a points differential of +499, but it’s not the raw numbers the club will be really fussed about, rather, their bid to win back-to-back premierships for the first time in club history.
Awaiting them are Manly, who lost their first four matches by an average of 28 points to be dead last on the ladder after Round 4.
But from there on in, the club only lost four more matches for the season, none of them consecutively, and go into the finals on the back of four consecutive victories.
Instrumental to their season revival was the form of Tom Trbojevic, who was awarded the Wally Lewis Medal as the best player during New South Wales’ successful Origin campaign, and Reuben Garrick, who became the first man in league history to score twenty tries and kick a hundred goals in a regular season.
The teams’ only regular season meeting this year, in Round 21 at Suncorp Stadium, saw the Storm come from behind to win 28-18 after the first half finished deadlocked at 8-all.
Though the Sea Eagles are expected to mount a serious challenge, Bellamy’s men, who have not played a home game since the end of April, should win it in front of their adopted Sunshine Coast supporters.
For the winner: a week off and a home preliminary final likely to be played at Suncorp Stadium.
For the loser: facing the winner of Saturday’s knockout final between the Roosters and Titans in next Friday night’s semi-final.
Prediction: Storm by 20 points.
Roosters vs Titans
Saturday, September 11, 5:40pm
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Last meeting in a final: Roosters won 32-6 in the first preliminary final, 2010, at Suncorp Stadium.
This season: Roosters won 35-34 at Cbus Super Stadium in Round 14.
Two years of steady progress under coach Justin Holbrook, following a wooden spoon season which claimed the scalp of his predecessor Garth Brennan in 2019, has seen the Titans return to the finals for just the second time since 2010.
Going into the final round of the minor premiership, all the Titans needed to do was to beat the Warriors by 11 points, and they more than met that threshold, winning by 44-0 to also register their biggest marginal win since entering the NRL in 2007.
It was their fifth win in their previous nine games, and saw them finish eighth on the ladder with a 10-14 record and points differential of -3.
Their reward is a knock-out final against the Roosters, a club Holbrook represented as a player in 2002, before injury forced him into retirement after only 17 NRL games, and where he worked as an assistant under Trent Robinson.
Despite a horror season on the injury front, which saw players such as Luke Keary, Brett Morris and Lindsay Collins suffer season-ending injuries, the Chooks have done well to finish fifth on the ladder with a 16-8 record and points differential of +141.
After Keary did his knee against the Rabbitohs in Round 3, rookie halfback Sam Walker was thrown in the deep end and displayed maturity beyond his years to keep the side’s double-chance hopes afloat for much of the season.
In the Round 14 match against the Titans on the Gold Coast three months ago, Walker demonstrated his ability to act under pressure when he potted a field goal at the death to give his side a 35-34 victory.
They had led by 30-4 with half an hour to go, only for the men from the holiday strip to storm back into the contest to lead 34-30 with less than ten minutes remaining before a late try to Matt Ikuvalu, followed by Walker’s field goal, got the away team home.
While they never lost more than two matches in a row this season, the Tricolours did suffer some heavy defeats along the way, including a 46-0 hiding by the Melbourne Storm in Round 16 and a 54-12 thumping by Souths at Suncorp Stadium in Round 24.
The Chooks rebounded from the latter loss by thrashing the Canberra Raiders 40-16 in the final round, the result ensuring they finished fifth on the ladder, while also sentencing the Green Machine to an early September holiday.
It will be the second time the Roosters and Titans have met in a final, after the Chooks won by 32-6 in a preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium in 2010.
The Titans have only ever won one finals match – the 2010 qualifying final against the Warriors which earned them that home preliminary final in Brisbane – and will go into their fourth finals campaign with nothing to lose.
For the winner: a semi-final showdown against the loser of the Storm vs Sea Eagles qualifying final.
For the loser: season over.
Prediction: Roosters by 16 points.
Panthers vs Rabbitohs
Saturday, September 11, 7:50pm
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Last meeting in a final: Panthers won 20-16 in the first preliminary final, 2020, at Stadium Australia.
This season: Panthers won 56-12 at Apex Oval in Round 11; Panthers won 25-12 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 23.
The Panthers have produced another magnificent season to finish in the top two, suffering just the three losses for the season, of which only one was against a fellow finalist – the Storm (a 37-10 loss in Brisbane in Round 20).
Last week they warmed up for their sixth finals campaign in eight years with a clinical 40-6 win over the Eels, with Cleary again pulling the strings.
Awaiting them are the Rabbitohs, whom they beat twice this season, including by 56-12 in Dubbo in Round 11.
While no team in Australian premiership rugby league history has ever won a premiership after conceding 50 points in a regular-season game, South’ class of 2021 could buck the trend under outgoing coach Wayne Bennett.
They do, however, go into September without suspended fullback Latrell Mitchell, with Blake Taaffe to deputise.
Last week against the Dragons they led by as much as 20-0 midway through the second half, before slowing down and very nearly allowing the Red V to steal it at the death.
But with Adam Reynolds and co. back on deck, they will give it everything as they attempt to take the express route to the grand final.
For the winner: direct passage to the preliminary final, likely to be played at Suncorp Stadium.
For the loser: face the winner of Sunday’s knockout final between the Eels and Knights in the semi-final next Saturday night.
Prediction: Panthers by eight points.
Eels vs Knights
Sunday, September 12, 4:05pm
Browne Park, Rockhampton
Last meeting in a final: Knights 30 defeated Eels 24 in the 2001 NRL grand final.
This season: Eels won 40-4 at McDonald Jones Stadium in Round 13.
It is 20 years since the Eels and Knights met since the 2001 grand final and it’s hard to believe that this will be the first meeting between the two sides in a finals since.
Fast forward to the present and just a week after upsetting Melbourne 22-10, ending their 19-match winning streak and denying them a place in rugby league history, the Eels reverted back to recent habits, going down to the Panthers 40-6.
It was their sixth loss in nine games and again raised questions over Brad Arthur’s coaching credentials, with suggestions the club has to win at least one final for him to be assured of his future with the club.
The club has only won one final in the past decade – when they defeated the Brisbane Broncos by a finals-record 58-0 in 2019 – and have twice wasted a double chance in that period, going out in straight sets in 2017 and last season.
The Knights have qualified for the finals for a second consecutive season under Adam O’Brien, but do go into September on the back of a poor loss to Brisbane.
The Novocastrians had won five consecutive matches going into Round 25, although none by more than ten points, to force their way back into the eight.
To beat the Eels, they will need to rely on key players such as Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce – we saw how cool the latter could be when he potted over a field goal against the Titans in a 15-14 win just under two weeks ago.
Despite their recent poor form, the Eels should take the chocolates, but it will not heal the wounds nor bury the demons of that fateful defeat to their 2001 premiership nemesis.
For the winner: a semi-final showdown against the loser of the Panthers vs Rabbitohs qualifying final.
For the loser: season over and a long trip back home.
Prediction: Eels by 14 points.