Erin Molan, NRL.com
State of Origin is over – no more for 2014. While it was another amazing series of Origin footy (with a pretty good result I might add), it's now time to focus on one of the most interesting and open NRL season finishes in years. What a run home it promises to be.
Usually at this time of year there's a handful of teams who can't make the finals. Many of us are faced with the prospect of our "off-season" starting in July – having to cheer and support a side with no chance of making the final eight. That's not an easy thing to do – but one we do regardless because we love our teams and are passionate about the game. But this year every single one of us is starting this last phase of the season with some hope (even if it's just a small glimmer).
Sharks, Knights and yes – even Raiders fans – your season is still alive! The three bottom teams are only eight points – that's just four wins – away from fourth place...
This is the most congested, tightly contested competition the NRL has seen in more than 20 years. And isn't it exciting? Adding to the sense of expectation are the upsets we've already seen this year, the spectacular come-from-behind wins, and the results not even the Great Houdini could have predicted – the end of season possibilities are endless.
We've seen the Sharks re-write the history books with massive wins over the Broncos and then the Roosters last week. We've seen the Rabbitohs play a brand of footy that is so out of character for them you had to keep checking it was actually them on the field... And the Melbourne Storm – like Queensland weather: perfect one week, pretty horrendous the next. There's nothing like the unpredictability of a season to keep us all on the edge of our seats.
While it strikes dread in the heart of those leading the tipping competitions (not me), it fills fans' hearts with hope, excitement and anticipation about what might unfold. We've had every sort of drama this year – on and off the field. Clubs have been forced to deal with injury problems that have tested their capacity to even field a team – let alone a winning one; we've had coaches coming and going, we've celebrated new stars, had player sackings, and… we have 16 teams still in with a chance of playing finals footy.
Can the Titans find the form that had them leading at the start of the year? Will it start this week against the Raiders? Can Ricky Stuart inspire Canberra to the heights we all know they're capable of reaching – despite missing star centre Jack Wighton with a broken thumb? Can the Storm put in a clinical performance and beat the full-of-confidence, third-placed Bulldogs? Can the Warriors continue their exciting brand of football and their impressive record at home against the Eels? Can the ladder-leading – non-Origin-affected Panthers hold onto top spot on the ladder? Beating the Broncos is a must…
One of the great things about NRL supporters is their genuine passion and commitment – not only for their teams but for the great game of rugby league. This year's run home rewards that passion, where there's life there's hope – and this year each and every one of us still has hope. While I know it might take an awful lot of luck for some teams, some more monumental upsets, and some unexpected twists and turns, the top eight is still wide open. Bring on Round 18!