Petero Civoniceva, NRL.com
With two rounds remaining, we’re set for a thrilling finish to the regular season with seven sides – Newcastle, North Queensland, the Gold Coast, Penrith, the Warriors, Canberra and Brisbane – still in contention to grab the last two spots in the top eight. But in my opinion there are really only three in with a realistic chance – the Knights, Cowboys and Warriors.
As it stands I favour the Knights and Cowboys to make it and the Warriors to just miss out although some crucial matches this weekend will determine who makes it and who falls away.
Newcastle have a slight advantage over the other sides because they are one point ahead on 25 points but face a big game away to the Broncos this week. With some injuries in the forwards and Kade Snowden out for the rest of the year it won’t be easy – but perhaps Wayne Bennett being up against his old team will have them fired up for a big performance.
Newcastle’s advantage is that they might still be able to afford one loss and make it and given they face Parramatta at home in Round 26 they remain a strong chance either way. Still, they need to look at this week’s game as their grand final. If they win both remaining games, which they are more than capable of, they are definitely in and will have built a bit of momentum heading into the finals.
Likewise, North Queensland – one of the form teams of the competition with four wins in a row – hold their fate in their hands. Should they sneak in, the seven other finals sides will have one eye on them but first comes a tough trip to Cronulla this week. To be honest, it’s amazing that they have picked themselves up off the canvas to get to where they are right now. The form they’ve shown all year has been so disappointing but Neil Henry gets sacked and all of a sudden this form comes out of nowhere.
It is a huge task going in against a Cronulla side that would be on ‘cloud nine’ after knocking over the Roosters but with the team they have the Cowboys certainly have the ability to win this game. Much like Newcastle, they will expect to beat Wests Tigers in Round 26 so this is their grand final. They should throw everything into this game knowing it would just about guarantee them finals footy.
Unfortunately for the Gold Coast, injuries have come at such a crucial time of the year and in such devastating fashion that I think it’s really going to hurt their chances. They are actually struggling to field 17 fit players this weekend and also have the hardest run home out of any side in the competition with the Roosters and Melbourne to come, so it doesn’t look good for them. They won’t be featuring this September.
Penrith is an interesting one. They were gone two weeks ago but after two wins in a row they are back in the mix. The thing about this time of year is that momentum is the key. You take so much confidence out of what you’ve done in the weeks leading into semi-final footy. It really sets you up for the way you can attack the finals series.
Penrith are a team that have no expectations on them but have been able to pick up a couple of big scalps and all of a sudden there is a different feel among them. I wouldn’t rule them out and they could even cause another upset leading into the finals. The problem for them, again, is a tough run home with Canterbury and Manly. It will be tough for them to win both of those and I can’t see them making it – but they have been written off before, so who knows?
The Warriors are potentially a bogy side for anyone they play. They can throw anything at any team and when their passes stick they can cause havoc. They had a great run going a month ago before hitting a few hurdles but they beat the Gold Coast last week and if they can build on that these next few weeks they can cause problems.
A lot of people speak about their poor points differential but if you look at the respective runs home for each side and how things might play out, the Warriors are a huge chance of sneaking into the eight with a home game against Canberra this week and then a trip across the Tasman to face the Dragons. If they beat Canberra this week they will be fired up to get that win in the final round.
The Raiders are in a tough place much like the Titans, albeit for different reasons given the controversy surrounding Blake Ferguson and the sacking of their coach.
That doesn’t help with building confidence at this time of year. They also have two tough games against the Warriors and Cronulla to go with their injury concerns. It’s just been such a tough few months and I expect that will prove too much for them.
Finally we have the Broncos.
Last week’s loss to Penrith has really hurt their finals chances and to be honest they probably don’t deserve to be there because they have been so up and down.
They do have two big games at home which could be a huge factor in the way they play. No doubt they will lift – they have to if they are any chance of surviving – and that’s how they will approach these two games against the Knights and Bulldogs.
But even if they win their two games they are relying on other results to go their way. I hate to say it but I think they might be walking the tightrope a bit much – they are relying too much on outside results to save them so I think that might see them out.
That leaves us with three likely scenarios.
If Newcastle and North Queensland win, which I think they can both do, they will finish seventh and eighth. Or if one or both of those two slip up, the Warriors are likely to sneak in. That makes the Cowboys’ clash with Cronulla decisive because if they win and Newcastle loses this week we’re likely to see the Cowboys and Warriors in the finals, while if they lose they are likely to miss out with the Knights and Warriors in.
It makes for a fascinating last two weeks!