With the release of the schedule for the final six weeks of the 2014 regular season, we dig deep to discover which match-ups are likely to have the greatest bearing on the final make-up of the top eight.
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Wests Tigers v Storm (Round 21)
Monday, August 4, 7pm
This one comes smack bang in the middle of one hell of a tough run for the Tiges, who will take on the Sea Eagles at Brookvale and the resurgent Dragons in the fortnight leading into Round 21 and then the Cowboys in Townsville followed by the Roosters and Bulldogs in the two weeks after. It's going to be a tough ask without fullback James Tedesco, but the Tigers need to jag at least three wins out of this period to keep their bright start to the year from going to waste, and this clash with the Storm shapes as one of their more winnable games over the last six weeks. Melbourne themselves will be thankful this game is at Campbelltown, where they've never lost, and not the Tigers' other suburban base of Leichhardt Oval, where their track record is four wins from 12 starts. Like the Tigers, the Storm will be looking for what will likely be a crucial two points as they battle for a spot in the bottom half of the top eight.
Rabbitohs v Sea Eagles (Round 22)
Sydney Cricket Ground
Friday, August 8, 7.45pm
While it's a bit too early for the minor premiership to be decided on this one, Manly could well be putting themselves in the box seat for top honours by knocking off a strong contender in what shapes up as a bumper clash at the SCG for Heritage Round. For Souths, the clash kicks off a tough run home, with games against the Broncos, Cowboys, Bulldogs and Roosters wrapping up the final month of the regular season, so starting off with some momentum against the Sea Eagles will be crucial. Also rest assured the Bunnies wouldn't mind putting to bed those suggestions they can't handle the heat in the big games, and who better to do so against than Manly, the same outfit they clocked off half an hour early against in last year's Preliminary Final and found themselves 'celebrating' Mad Monday a week earlier than expected as a result.
Cowboys v Wests Tigers (Round 22)
Saturday, August 9, 7.30pm
With two tough away trips to play the Panthers and Rabbitohs in the fortnight following, this is one that the Cowboys need to chalk up as a victory if they are going to give themselves a decent chance of a home final. Currently on 16 points with nine games remaining, a top four finish is not out of reach mathematically but a late charge to finish fifth or sixth seems a lot more attainable. The Tigers will go into this one on the back of three home games (Bulldogs, Dragons and Storm) and finish the season with games against the lowly Raiders and Sharks. The Tigers' record at Townsville is a poor four wins from 14 appearances but they did record consecutive wins up north in 2010 and 2011. And of course, there's always the 2005 Grand Final to fall back on for bragging rights. If the Cowboys can make a significant statement here, it might give other finals aspirants cause to look over their shoulder.
Eels v Bulldogs (Round 23)
Friday, August 15, 7.45pm
Both of these proud western Sydney rivals have looked to be overachieving somewhat at various stages of 2014, surprising plenty of pundits with their charges to first (Bulldogs as recently as Round 12) and equal third (Eels, as recently as Round 14) before recent stumbles. Each side has now won just two of their past five meaning and this Round 23 clash shapes as a critical turning point in their respective seasons and a chance to show whether they are contenders or pretenders in 2014. The Eels come into this one on the back of a hat-trick of comparatively 'soft' games against the struggling Titans, Raiders and Sharks, with two of those matches at their home ground, meaning there's every chance this game shapes as an opportunity to continue a good run or to bring their season to a halt. Every match between now and then for the Bulldogs is against a side that is currently in the top eight or a good chance of finishing there – a tough run making two points against the Eels here even more vital.
Panthers v Cowboys (Round 23)
Monday, August 18, 7.00pm
For much of the year, the jury has been out on whether Penrith have earned the right to be considered genuine premiership contenders. Now here's their chance. Normally, those credentials are sorted out quickly and early in September, but their Round 23 Monday night clash against the Cowboys is the start of a testing final month that includes thorough examinations against heavyweights Melbourne and Manly and a tricky finish against the Warriors. On paper, the Panthers will enter a game against a side renowned for their difficulties on the road as favourites. On paper, they've now got a side littered with players that have been there and done it before. But as well know, games aren't played on paper, so we'll find out how good the new-look Panthers really are.
Bulldogs v Wests Tigers (Round 24)
Thursday, August 21, 7.45pm
One week after what will be an emotional local derby against Parramatta at ANZ Stadium, the Bulldogs return to Homebush to face another up-and-comer in the Wests Tigers, who will use this test against the competition heavyweights – and the potential blockbuster crowd that'll come with it – to see how far they've really come. By now, Bulldogs coach Des Hasler will see the emotional and physical impact Origin has had on NSW Origin heroes Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds. In contrast, Tigers rookie Luke Brooks will be at the back-end of what has been a gruelling first season in the NRL. Top that with another battle between competitive skippers Robbie Farah and Mick Ennis and you'll know from the kick-off that the big games have arrived.
Warriors v Roosters (Round 24)
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday, August 24, 2pm (NZ)
The Warriors have themselves one of the more favourable runs home of the teams vying for a spot in the top eight and could well lock themselves in for a finals berth with a win over the premiers on home turf. They'll fancy their chances against the Chooks too, having not dropped a game against them across the ditch in six years. The Roosters are also likely to be jockeying for a spot in the all-important top four at this point, and with games against the Storm and Rabbitohs rounding out the final few rounds after this clash, an away win on one of the NRL's tougher road trips would give them some welcome momentum heading into the business end of the season.
Dragons v Titans (Round 24)
WIN Jubilee Oval
Sunday, August 24, 3pm
This game will represent one of two things: A desperate final attempt to stay in mathematical reckoning for a finals berth or the death knell on a season that started well for both teams before it petered out. After a month of the season these two teams each boasted a record of four wins and three losses but a meeting in Round 15 gave some indication of the trajectory they were both on. The Dragons' one-point win under interim coach Paul McGregor was followed up a win over the Storm while the Titans head to South Sydney on Monday night trying to avoid a club record seventh straight defeat. The last home game of the year for the Red V should ensure a big turnout on a Sunday afternoon at Kogarah and if there's any sniff of a finals berth still in the offing, a passionate home crowd could make all the difference. A concern for Dragons fans is the fact that the Titans have never lost at WIN Jubilee (wins in 2010 and 2011) and their record on the road this year is better than what they have delivered at home. By the time we get to Round 24 this could very well be a dead rubber but we've got a sneaking suspicion that it could have a significant impact on the bottom half of the top eight.
Roosters v Rabbitohs (Round 26)
Thursday, September 4, 7.45pm
A blockbusting final round of matches kicks off with the oldest rival in Australian rugby league. We probably don't need to remind you that these two clubs entered the corresponding fixture in 2013 as the two form teams of the competition and the only two sides still in a position to claim the minor premiership that had seemed certain to go to the Roosters until they slipped up with losses in Round 24 (32-22 to the Sharks at Remondis Stadium) and 25 (30-22 to the Titans at Allianz Stadium). It meant the Rabbitohs headed into Round 26 two points clear of the Roosters on 40 points but with an inferior differential, setting up a tantalising Round 26 minor premiership playoff. Of course the Roosters went on to win that one 24-12, avenging their Round 1 loss to the same side, and setting themselves up for a run through the finals to an eventual premiership while the Bunnies bowed out in the Grand Final qualifier to Manly. With each side currently on 20 points and having won four of their past five, a repeat scenario is looking entirely possible.
Storm v Broncos (Round 26)
Friday, September 5, 7.45pm
Two proud clubs with long histories of sustained success find themselves on either side of the top-eight cut-off through 16 rounds and few could have predicted back in March that it would be the Broncos who would be the better placed. The Broncos – who have the bye this week – get a shot at establishing a mental edge when they host Melbourne in Round 20 which they may well need; they've won one game in the Victorian capital since 2003. After taking on the Knights and Sharks, the Storm will test their credentials against top-four aspirants the Panthers and the Roosters and have the potential to run into September football with some big scalps under their belt. A win here will almost certainly secure a finals berth for either team and play a major role in determining which teams play where in Week One of the finals.
Cowboys v Sea Eagles (Round 26)
Saturday, September 6, 7.30pm
It may come as a surprise to some that Manly are outright ladder leaders after 16 rounds given the disruption to their forward stocks over the off-season and injury toll at various stages but it really shouldn't – this is as club that thrives on adversity and finds ways to win games no matter what. They seem the side most likely to break the Roosters-Rabbitohs mortgage on top-two finishes but with how close the competition is there's every chance this last game will be a must win to ensure either the minor premiership, a home final in Week One or a tricky away assignment. For the Cowboys, a side many are tipping to make a late push for the top eight between now and the end of the year, their finals hopes may rest on the outcome of this game. If that is the case they'll need to shake off their victim mentality and focus on getting the job done. After a shocking call allowed Kieran Foran a crucial try in a Manly comeback at Gosford in Round 7 – two years after a knock-on from the same player helped Manly score a try and end the Cowboys' 2012 season – coach Paul Green volunteered to walk nude down Pitt St and captain Johnathan Thurston said players expect those calls when wearing a Cowboys jersey. The players need to worry about what they can control to get the job done here.
Panthers v Warriors (Round 26)
Sunday, September 7, 6.30pm
And here we are, at the doorstep of the business end of the season, the final game of the 2014 regular season. The culmination of 26 rounds, 196 games, and roughly 15,000 minutes of rugby league arrives when the final whistle blows at the foot of the mountains. Half the fans in the competition prepare for the biggest game of their season, while the other half go and contemplate the 'what ifs' of another premiership dream gone bust. For the Panthers, the game could be a celebration of a home semi-final for the first time in four years, or the nervousness of a daunting trip away. For the Warriors, the final game of the regular season could be the difference between what would be a remarkable recovery from the mid-year departure of coach Matt Elliott or another chance at premiership glory gone begging.