We’re now five weeks out from the finals and as the competition ladder starts to take shape I think it is now down to a battle between four.
We learnt a lot about what we might expect come finals time last weekend and I’m pretty confident now that the premiers will be one of the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Storm or Sea Eagles.
Souths have suffered a few shock losses of late but am I worried for them? No. I see it as merely a hiccup in an unbelievable season. There’s no doubt they are not playing the football they have been for most of the year but it is something they will learn from and regroup from before the finals. That will no doubt be helped by John Sutton and Greg Inglis coming back from injury. If anything there is an opportunity now for both John and Greg to be refreshed after what has been a big season for both of them individually. They’ll be ready to fire up for the finals campaign ahead.
Having said that, their traditional rivals the Roosters will be full of confidence given not only how well they have been playing but also how Souths have come back to the field the past few weeks.
The great sign for them is how they performed against Penrith last week without Sonny Bill Williams. While Souths have struggled without GI, the Roosters aimed up and delivered a pretty commanding performance. That will fill them with confidence to be able to produce that without a player as influential as Sonny Bill.
Still, they will be looking over their shoulder at the Melbourne Storm following the reigning premiers’ 68-4 thrashing of Canberra on Sunday. To be honest, I didn’t read too much into the Storm’s form slump over the past few months. I probably drew on what they did last year.
You often see a side that is so clinical and focussed on their performances go through a period like this but if they needed to show other teams that they can go all the way again, that was a performance that definitely would have made everyone take notice.
And Manly have the advantage of flying under the radar at the moment. The way that the Rabbitohs and Roosters are being talked about, it’s almost as if Manly is skirting along behind the scenes, which is a great scenario for them. All the scrutiny is elsewhere while Manly have their momentum quietly bubbling along in the background. They are one of the form teams at the moment and I think they are going to be very hard to beat.
As for the other four sides currently in the top eight, I really can’t see any of them troubling the top four. No doubt the Raiders’ hopes took a huge dive with that loss to Melbourne on the weekend. It showed to the rugby league public that they are still a step off the top level. It has been a great year so far for them but it will be interesting to see how they bounce back from such a body blow.
The Knights are a team that has done really well to be where they are at the moment but I’m not convinced they are contenders yet. It would take some big performances from them in the coming weeks to bring them into the mix.
As for Cronulla, with everything that is happening around them at the moment with ASADA, it’s hard to see them being able to overcome those hurdles. They have been going through a long process and will continue to go through that process in the coming months.
And the Bulldogs just aren’t the same team that was so brilliant 12 months ago. They were the team to beat this time last year because of the influence of Ben Barba. You take him out of the equation and I don’t think they have the same attacking spark they delivered last year. It will really test them to be able to replicate that without him.
Then again, never say never. I know from experience that there are sides that have gone into the finals full of momentum only to hit a hurdle and have their whole campaign derailed. I’ve been in situations where my team has gone into the finals full of confidence and had something happen to derail us. On the other hand, when I won the comp with Brisbane in 2006 we basically limped into the finals but were able to generate a tremendous amount of momentum with some big wins that took us into the grand final full of confidence.
So this far out I would hate to judge whether a team is going to win a premiership based on what’s happening now. I think it will come down to the final round and how teams are shaping up then, as well as what they do in that first finals appearance. We’ll know a lot more about their chances by then.