With all the off-field drama that surrounds the National Rugby League it is sometimes easy to forget there is a premiership to be won. After 20 rounds of the 2014 season only a handful of teams are out of the running for finals football.
Above them however is a long line of contenders and pretenders ready to sink or swim in what the NRL has promoted as the “glory rounds” in recent seasons, and despite most people having their favourite for the title already pencilled in, there are still a number of teams on the cusp, and the next few weeks will decide their fate.
Here are the five teams that need to move and move now:
New Zealand Warriors
Three weeks ago the Warriors put 48 points on the Parramatta Eels in one of the most impressive performances of the season with halfback Shaun Johnson and Englishman Sam Tomkins leading the way.
The following week they continued that form, shooting out of the gates against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium. But something went awry like it always seems to do with the Warriors and they eventually gave up the two competition points in one of the games of the year.
They have now lost two on the trot and the annual NRL dark horses have to find that winning feeling quickly if they are to climb the ladder through the final six rounds.
Sitting just outside the top eight, the Auckland-based side has the bottom three sides in the NRL over the next few weeks: Canberra (away), Cronulla (home) and Newcastle (away). There is no better chance to play themselves back into form against these sides that are all planning their end-of-year trip.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Since new coach Paul McGregor took over and the Gareth Widdop/Benji Marshall combination has had a chance to click, the Dragons look like a completely different side, and what might be even more impressive for fans of St George Illawarra is the fact that their maligned forward pack is actually having a dig.
The halves can’t win them any game of football if their forwards aren’t at least matching the opposition engine room and what they have been doing, and the results are there for everyone to see.
They need to keep winning and it doesn’t get any easier this week when they travel to Moore Park to face the reigning and defending premiers.
Apparently their coach is under pressure – heard about this one?
For all the off-field crap that continues to drag this young team down they keep bouncing back and finding a way to win and it was no more evident than two weeks ago when they destroyed NRL heavyweights Canterbury at ANZ Stadium.
Like all youthful, attacking-minded sides, they struggled to back it up last week against the Dragons and were outplayed. But don’t count them out just yet because this side has no fear on the field and are wonderful to watch. They may drop some games but they’re still going to shock you too.
Wests return to Campbelltown in round 21 for a showdown with the visiting Melbourne Storm before a tough road trip to North Queensland and a meeting with the Sydney Roosters at Leichhardt.
A tough ask but they are at home for two of the matches.
The Jarryd Hayne Show rolled on last week with the superstar custodian dismantling the hapless Gold Coast Titans at Robina on Saturday night. Like the Tigers, Parramatta can produce something from nothing anywhere on the footy field and it is these kinds of sides that worry opposition coaches at this time of the year.
You can complete your sets and get in the grind all you want, but if Hayne or Chris Sandow decide to play then look out because there is no stopping it.
They are however way down in twelfth place with a poor -96 points differential which may cost them a finals birth at the end of the day.
Mark down their Friday night footy clash with premiership favourites Manly-Warringah in round 24 as a blockbuster but only if they can set themselves up with wins in the next few weeks against Cronulla, Canberra and Canterbury.
A few weeks ago they were a legitimate hope of winning the premiership and yes they still sit inside the top four with less than two months to play in the season proper. But how quickly things can change in the ruthless battleground we call the NRL.
They have lost two on the trot and more alarmingly they have lost their halfback Peter Wallace for the season whose combination with enigmatic five-eight Jamie Soward had fans at the foot of the mountains pumped for a big run into the playoffs.
The loss last weekend to lowly Cronulla must have those same fans worried, with Canterbury, Roosters and Melbourne Storm all sitting just behind them on the table.
They now face Canterbury who are themselves on a losing streak this Friday night and then face the inform Dragons, North Queensland and Melbourne in coming weeks.
They must stop the rot now.
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