As we come round the final bend of the 2013 season before hitting the straight, and gaze upon the top eight, I think it’s just about time to start predicting the four teams that will challenge – the Roosters, the Sea Eagles, the Storm and the Rabbitohs.
A sobering reality for the remainder of the competition is that I see only two spots available in the top eight, neither of which belongs to a Queensland side.
Let’s start with the rest, and who will be there with the top four. The Sharks currently sit in 5th position, with Todd Carney finding form, a favourable draw, and star captain Paul Gallen set to return, they will remain and likely finish 5th or 6th.
The Bulldogs aren’t playing great, but they are a step above those challenging for the eight. Their next four games are against teams below them – one versing the Rabbitohs, which will be a good test in the penultimate round before the finals, then they finish with a contest against the struggling Broncos who will have nothing to play for – that should give them a confidence boost. They should expect at least four more wins before the season is out and push up another couple of places.
The Knights and the Panthers I see as the two shaky prospects currently residing in 6th and 7th on points differential with the Bulldogs, Titans and Raiders. One of these teams will be out of the eight this weekend as they battle at the foot of mountains. The Knights shooting for three in a row, while the Panthers aim for their 4th consecutive. There is nothing better than two in-form teams playing to stay in the hunt.
After this round, they each play the Roosters and Sharks. The Panthers run into the Eagles in the final round, which I believe may be the difference between a finals appearance and a commendable effort with a developing squad.
The Titans, although they sit 9th, and equal on points with the 6th place Knights, they will not play finals. They play the top four sides, plus the surging Bulldogs and a Warriors team who I expect will be in the midst of a late finals charge. Coming off two losses, big Jamal out for the season, and young halves, I think they’ll be downhill skiing for the remainder of the season.
The Raiders and Warriors are two clubs that will have all the teams nervous; particularly those seeded five through nine. They love a late season pulse, and in recent years we have seen them leave the consistent teams in their wake around this time of the year. The Raiders need Blake Ferguson back. With him in the side, they are dangerous. They will have some crucial games against the Bulldogs, Warriors, and finish with the Sharks. They can chalk up wins two and three on the trot against the Eels and Dragons in the next fortnight, but if Blake hasn’t made an appearance by the Storm game, I’d be a worried Raiders fan.
The Warriors just suffered their first loss after four wins in a row. They’ve found some form, and I keep waiting for them to really hit their straps. As always you never know with the Warriors, but they are just one win outside the top eight. Both the Raiders and Warriors have point differentials, which could see them needing an extra win against a top four opponent to get an edge over the rest. With four games remaining at Mt Smart, including the Storm and Sharks consecutively, they will need a spirited home ground performance; as we are all aware of their travel sickness.
The Dragons are a lost cause. The Tigers have managed to claw back to earn some of that respect lost earlier in the season – but I don’t see the ugly exit of Benji Marshall helping the situation. It doesn’t seem to have that inspirational feel to it, more of a bitter divorce process with a few smiles for the kids.
Either the Broncos or the Cowboys will be out of the race as they play off other Friday week. I expect it to be the Broncos, with the Cowboys holding the slightest glimmer of hope. If any team could win the remainder of its games, it is a team with that roster. The Rabbits are the only top four side the Cowboys have encountered. It will be an almighty ask, but that team owes it to themselves, their fans, and the whole NRL competition.
A finals series without a Queensland team, Wayne Bennett in danger of missing the finals for the second straight season, the rebuilding Panthers are admirably fighting for the finals, and the Eels propping up the entire table.
At least some things went as planned.