State of Origin has come and gone for another year – and it was great, but now it's time to get back to the business of club footy. The byes are done and dusted, we’re back to eight games every weekend for the next two months and can now start to assess who will still be around when the weather starts to warm up.
This is a great period of the season. Some teams set themselves for premiership glory, some become involved in the pressure cooker of having their season being on the line week to week, a loss meaning the end. The bottom few will look forward to next year, but remain intent on ruining chances and grabbing a big scalp to give their fans hope for the future.
I think the top six sides at the moment will be there come September - Melbourne, Canterbury, Cronulla, Brisbane, Manly and Souths.
There are five teams who I think are already out of contention - Sydney Roosters, Gold Coast, Newcastle, Penrith and Parramatta.
That leaves five clubs - North Queensland, New Zealand, Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra and Canberra - chasing the final two semi-final positions.
Looking at the table as it stands, current form and the run home for all clubs, I’m prepared to take a stab, dismiss half of the competition and predict who will make the top eight.
The side that could sneak up on everyone and grab one of the spots are the Raiders. I know I’m placing a fair bit of faith in a team that has been inconsistent and for the most, pretty ordinary. However their draw is the most favourable of those five teams and I’m thinking their run has already started.
They accounted for the Dragons and the Storm in a five-day period. Granted, it was Melbourne without Slater and Smith but considering they were two-from-20 all-time against the competition front runners, that will do plenty for their self-belief.
Over the final eight rounds, Canberra play four of the sides below them on the ladder and three of these are at home. They’ll need to get results in all of these, but with their poor differential, they would still require another two wins from their remaining four games to finish on 30 points. These are against top-eight sides, a much tougher ask, but two are in Canberra.
If their run is under way, it makes this week against the Titans critical. Momentum is the key, they can’t let it go now.
Should the unexpected happen and the Raiders qualify, it leaves one spot open.
Let's eliminate the Dragons, who have only missed the semis three times since they became a joint venture. They just don’t give me the feeling they're ready for anything special.
Of the others, the Cowboys definitely have an advantage over the rest as they’re already sitting on 22 points. Their draw, however, sees them meet five current top-eight sides and two others in contention. Despite their position in the eight and the quality of their line up, the draw might get the better of them.
The Warriors are a side blessed with plenty of match winners and after what they did last year, it would be folly to dismiss their chances altogether. There is still time for them to find some consistency and go on a charge, however there is something unconvincing about the Warriors of 2012. They’re booked to play the Raiders in New Zealand in round 26. Could mean plenty.
The final spot, in my opinion, will be won by Wests Tigers.
Their draw isn’t an easy one, with four top-eight sides among their remaining games. Their next month of footy is where they’ll need to put themselves in the firing line, because rounds 24 and 26 are against the Dogs and Storm respectively. With Gareth Ellis set to return, they take on a different look as a pack and he should give them more steel in the middle of the ruck. Throw together Marshall and Farah and the Tigers just might scrape in.
Already I am preparing for what should be a thrilling and classic finals series.
The run into the finals is where all the fun begins, it should be intense and captivating. The heat is on - watch the top sides stand tall.
THERE has been a lot of talk in recent weeks about Ricky Stuart coaching NSW again in 2013.
I think Ricky should lead the Blues again - but only if he is fulltime.
The days are long gone when I believe a coach could guide the NSW side along with an NRL club.
Origin is too difficult to juggle if a coach also has club commitments.
Two years ago the NSWRL determined that the Blues should adopt Queensland's policy and employ a non-NRL coach.
It has worked - even though NSW hasn't won a series in that time. Ricky has done a wonderful job - showing an Origin coach has to devote all his time to the job.
Coaching NSW would consume about nine months of the year. It is so much bigger than three games over eight weeks.
Ricky and Mal Meninga did a stellar job promoting this year's series. That is because they had the necessary time to do it properly.
It would be near-impossible for a coach to try and equally divide his time between a club and NSW. Talk about putting pressure on yourself.
And can you imagine the drama if we lose again and Ricky is also coaching a club side?
Everyone in NSW wants Ricky Stuart back in charge next season. But I can't see that happening if he has agreed to a return to the NRL.
No coach can do both.