Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Ipswich Jets co-coach Ben Walker believes his side are in the best possible shape to go deep into the Intrust Super Cup finals after receiving a well-timed bye last weekend.
Benny and his Jets will travel to Barlow Park in Cairns to take on minor premiers Northern Pride in what shapes as a must-win Round 25 clash for the visitors if they are to keep alive their hopes of a top three finish.
The Jets currently sit in fourth spot with 32 points, one point ahead of Tweed Heads Seagulls and three points above the PNG Hunters in sixth spot. They are one win shy of the third-placed Wynnum Manly Seagulls who have the luxury of the bye this weekend and an automatic two points.
In order to make the semi-finals, the Jets must win one of their remaining two games this season against either the Pride on Saturday night or the Redcliffe Dolphins the following weekend.
The Intrust Super Cup operates with a five-team finals format, meaning finishing in the top-three guarantees a second chance for the side who loses their opening match of the finals series.
In contrast, a fourth or fifth-placed finish would leave the Jets flying a little too low to the ground for their liking, although that doesn’t faze former Broncos half Walker, who coaches the Jets alongside younger brother Shane.
"If we win our next two and other results go our way then we can finish in that top three. That would be nice but anywhere in the semi-finals are fine," Walker said.
"I guess it is still in our hands and to finish third would be great, but with the week off we've just had it doesn’t really matter because we are really fresh and rested up ready to have a crack at the semis.
"The bye has been helpful to us because we've got a few battered bodies heading into the end of the season. We gave the boys the whole week off training last week and to be honest they've came back on Tuesday looking better than they have all year, so it's obvious the bye has done them the world of good."
After a 135-game NRL career spanning 10 seasons for Ben and 149 NRL games over 11 seasons for Shane, the Walker brothers have been involved with the Jets since 2009 and became co-coaches after taking over from another former Bronco, Glenn Lazarus, during the 2010 season.
The pair guided the Jets from the wooden spoon in 2010 to three consecutive top-five finishes with another finals appearance looking likely again this season.
However, it won't be an easy task to seal a finals position when they travel to Barlow Park. The Pride have won their past six games against the Jets in Cairns with the visiting team's only win at the venue coming back in 2008.
Surprisingly, the Jets have won three of their past four games against the Pride but all of those wins have come at North Ipswich Reserve, including their 24-18 victory in Round 8.
The Northern Pride are currently on a 12-match winning streak and have an ominous record at Barlow Park, having not lost at home all season with their last defeat coming in the Major Semi-Final last year.
Pride's proud home record is a statistic Walker is fully aware of although he is backing his troops to push the minor premiers all the way after the northerners only just scraped home 18-16 against eighth-placed Mackay in their last start.
"They're tough at home the Pride and always have been. I've been involved with the Jets for a fair few years and we haven’t beaten them up there yet," he said.
"We beat them earlier in the year down here but it's always a tough road trip. They're a strong team right across the park and they don’t have any obvious weaknesses, so we've just got to prepare the best we can and I'm sure we'll give them a real shake."
In other Round 25 Intrust Super Cup fixtures, Tweed Heads will look to overtake the Jets on the ladder with a win against the bottom-placed Falcons on the Sunshine Coast. Souths Logan Magpies host the Hunters with PNG needing to win away from home in order to keep in touch with the top five.
The remaining three matches of the round have no bearing on the finals with Mackay Cutters hosting Central Queensland Capras, Norths Devils playing Redcliffe at Bishop Park and in Channel Nine's Sunday TV game the Burleigh Bears will welcome Easts Tigers to Pizzey Park.