Michael Morgan makes a line break against the Rabbitohs on Saturday night. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos.
1. Rabbitohs (1)
It wasn't exactly a gold ticket that slipped through their fingers, but one hell of an opportunity to nab pole position on the NRL ladder from the Sea Eagles went begging all the same as they were out-enthused and outclassed by the Cowboys. If they win their remaining two games they're still a fair shot at claiming their first minor premiership since '89, but that's no sure thing given they line up against the Dogs and Roosters to round out the regular season.
2. Roosters (3)
Would've felt right at home with seven Kiwis in their line-up as they ventured to the land of the long white cloud, and didn't they look it? They welcomed back Sonny Bill and Jake Friend, racked up eight tries to two in a bottler of a performance and with a top-four spot pretty much in their keeping and the minor premiership still in sight, things are suddenly looking very rosy indeed down in Rooster Town.
3. Sea Eagles (2)
Manly were quick to declare their loss to the Rabbits a few weeks back as a necessary "wake-up call". If so they've been guilty of whacking the snooze button over the last fortnight, squeaking out of the Gold Coast with a tight win and then getting thoroughly overrun by the Eels despite leading 12-0 at the break. It looks to be little more than a late-season power nap, but this mini-slump may well cost them the minor premiership.
4. Cowboys (5)
Two weeks out from the semis is a fair old time to play your best game of the season and upset the competition favourites, and but for Matt Moylan's clutch field goal last week, the Cowboys could well be on a run of four straight wins in Sin City. Not too shabby at all for a side that got queasy at the mere thought of a road trip midway through the year.
5. Storm (6)
The Storm clouds were brewing at the base of the mountains long before kickoff against the Panthers, and who are we to argue with Mother Nature? A few uncharacteristic errors in the first half were put to bed with some very familiar dominance in the second, and along with the Cowboys, the boys from the south will have the NRL's big guns looking over their shoulders after that showing.
6. Panthers (4)
Gave the Cowboys a lesson in finals footy last week and received one themselves from Melbourne seven days later. A string of decisive second-half penalties and a late contender for bonehead play of the year from Josh Mansour – who inexplicably toed the ball ahead from his own 10-metre line to gift the Storm prime field position – took the Panthers out of the contest, and showed Ivan Cleary's men just how costly an error in judgement can be this time of year.
7. Bulldogs (8)
Definitely could've, probably should've, but ultimately failed to go on with it after leading 24-zip against the Tigers. They did at least push their differential back into the black and themselves to the brink of a certain finals berth. Need to show much more with the ball in hand against the competition's best defence than they did against its worse if they're to spring an unlikely upset over the rampant Rabbitohs.
8. Eels (9)
None other than favourite blue and gold son Peter Sterling called it: "They've done a Manly on Manly." The Eels turned it on with their best 40 minutes of the year and 22 unanswered points with the type of sweeping backline moves and bruising forward play they usually do up in their sleep up Brookvale way. They're now staring down a first finals appearance since 2009, not so coincidently the last time they looked this damn good.
9. Broncos (10)
Anthony Griffin may be handing over his clipboard to Wayne Bennett at the end of the year, but the Broncs' shellacking of the Knights means he'll at least do so with definitive bragging rights over the supercoach, taking his record against Bennett to a commanding six wins and a draw from their eight showdowns.
10. Warriors (7)
The Kiwi crowds have given us plenty of entertainment this year, from Mr Bean to top notch schoolboy humour using Shaun Johnson's last name, and they deserved better than the 50 missed tackles and eight tries the Warriors conceded in glorious conditions on Sunday. Finals hopes are looking dicey after four losses from their last six.
11. Dragons (11)
Responded to Paul McGregor's installation as long-term coach with what skipper Ben Creagh declared "their most mature performance" of the season, even if it did come against a depleted and deplorable Titans outfit. Keep their faint playoff hopes alive, but will need an almighty effort to back it up on the short turnaround in Brisbane.
12. Knights (12)
Wayne Bennett is a master at motivating, so one of the game's great anomalies is his record against former teams St George Illawarra and Brisbane, which now stands at a thoroughly unimpressive two wins, a draw and 12 losses against his old clubs. A chance to rectify that a smidge looms when they host the Dragons in Round 26, and a return to Hunter Stadium should see an upswing in their performance this week against the Eels. In any case, they can't get much worse than last week's second half, where they opened the door and walked the Broncos through for six tries in 22 minutes.
13. Titans (13)
Greg Bird summed it up best: "the end can't come soon enough after that performance". Hear, hear Birdy, and for those of us at the ground we counted down every second of that lacklustre effort that saw the Gold Coast make 45 missed tackles and produce a completion rate that struggled to push above 50 per cent for much of the "contest".
14. Raiders (16)
They got past a spare parts Sharks side, but largely due to a bloke who will be out the door in a fortnight's time. And while we're on those 14-day time periods, Round 25 against the Tigers is Ricky Stuart's last chance to register back-to-back wins and break a drought that stretches back to mid-2009. By our calculations that's 142 fortnights.
15. Tigers (15)
The end can't come soon enough for this lot. They shape up to the Raiders and Sharks over the final two rounds, and given they've now had 170 points put past them in the past four games – that's more than a point every two minutes – are no certainties to score a face-saving win from matches that should've been used as a tune-up for a finals assault.
16. Sharks (14)
Their season from hell reached its lowest ebb last week, and have all but picked up a memento out of Spoonbowl – the only competition where the loser claims the trophy – to commemorate their wretched year.