Andrew Bryan, NRL.com
How is your team placed heading into the business end of the NRL season? Does your team have an ideal draw, or is it a horror stretch at the worst possible time? We look at every team and how many times they tackle top-eight opposition in the run to the finals.
There are some massive games on the calendar and they will have a huge bearing on final positions. South Sydney face the fewest top-eight sides in the run home (two), while Newcastle face the most (seven).
But the question is, would you rather play tougher games heading into the finals, or would you like a seemingly easier path into September? Facing top-eight sides means you can control your own destiny by beating the teams around you; the catch – they are tougher games.
Here are all 16 clubs and their fixtures for the final eight matches of the regular season.
1. STORM 28 points (3/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Melbourne Storm have been the benchmark of the 2012 season, but are now only two points clear of the competition after a shock loss to Canberra. They have a seemingly comfortable next five weeks but have what looks to be a great preparation coming into the finals, with big games against Brisbane, Cronulla and the Wests Tigers. These games should give coach Craig Bellamy a real preview of what to expect in the knock-out stages and a guide to how his team is travelling against other finals contenders.
Storm: Cowboys (h), Eels (a), Dragons (a), Panthers (h), Titans (h), Broncos (a), Sharks (h), Wests Tigers (a)
2. BULLDOGS 26 pts (3/8 games against top-eight sides)
Canterbury-Bankstown is well positioned heading into the back half of the year. You get the sense coach Des Hasler has his chargers primed for a big finish to the season. He guided the Sea Eagles to the premiership last season and knows how to time his side's run to perfection. Consecutive home games against the Broncos and Wests Tigers in Rounds 23 and 24 will be a highlight on the calendar and will tell us a lot about the Bulldogs' prospects. They are still a real chance of claiming the minor premiership, but no doubt Hasler will be eying the bigger prize.
Bulldogs: Eels (h), Sea Eagles (a), Cowboys (h), Knights (a), Broncos (h), Wests Tigers (h), Raiders (a), Roosters (h)
3. SHARKS 25 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Sharks play four sides in the top eight in their run home, and they will have to navigate a testing five-week stretch before the finals. They play the Warriors and Knights away in consecutive weeks before clashing with the Rabbitohs at home, Storm away and Cowboys at home. How they respond to these big games and the testing itinerary will determine if they are seen as a genuine premiership chance. Cronulla has surprised everyone with their determination, grit and ability to continually perform with a maturity not usually seen in a side that is relatively new on paper. But can they overcome a tough finish to the season and peak at the right time of the year?
Sharks: Dragons (a), Raiders (h), Panthers (h), Warriors (a), Knights (a), Rabbitohs (h), Storm (a), Cowboys (h)
4. BRONCOS 24 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Broncos tackle four sides currently in the top eight in their run home and three of them just happen to be the leading contenders to take out the premiership. Want more of a challenge? Try playing them all in a row! It will be interesting to see how the Broncos back up for all three massive games when they clash with the Bulldogs, Storm and Sea Eagles in succession. This will have a massive bearing on the top four and with the new finals system in place, these games will be crucial and have an over-arching effect on the whole competition. Strap yourselves in, these are going to be absolute classics.
Broncos: Warriors (h), Titans (a), Eels (h), Raiders (a), Bulldogs (a), Storm (h), Sea Eagles (a), Panthers (h)
5. SEA EAGLES 24 pts (5/8 games against top-eight sides)
Five of Manly's last six games are against top-eight opposition and these games will be vital to their claims for a top-four finish. The Sea Eagles have been inconsistent this year with injuries and suspensions leaving the defending premiers struggling to keep a consistent structure. If Manly can get their full complement back on the field, they will again be one of the teams to beat in the big end of season games. Momentum is key for the Sea Eagles' title defence. Will they continue to be inconsistent, or can they rediscover their ruthless streak at the right time of the year?
Sea Eagles: Knights (a), Bulldogs (h), Warriors (h), Cowboys (a), Rabbitohs (a), Knights (h), Broncos (h), Titans (a)
6. RABBITOHS 24 pts (2/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Rabbitohs have a favourable draw and will fancy themselves to finish inside the top four. They only play two sides currently in the top eight in their run home. The club coached by Michael Maguire looks ready to become a more consistent team and be prepared to battle and grind when they have to. If the Rabbitohs can win all the games against sides outside of the top eight, they will be in a strong position to make a charge during the finals. The challenge will be whether the Rabbitohs can be ruthless against lesser opposition. Have the Rabbitohs finally emerged as the real deal, or will their lapses in games ultimately cost them?
Rabbitohs: Roosters (a), Dragons (h), Wests Tigers (h), Titans (a), Sea Eagles (h), Sharks (a), Eels (h), Knights (a)
7. COWBOYS 22 pts (5/8 games against top-eight sides)
It is a tough next five weeks for the Cowboys, who have to take on the Storm, Wests Tigers, Bulldogs Sea Eagles and Warriors in consecutive weeks. The Cowboys will need to win a couple of these to cement their position in the top eight. With the competition so tight, these games will have a huge impact on the make-up of the top eight and where teams ultimately finish. Two away games to Melbourne (1st) and Bulldogs (2nd) will give us an insight into the potential of this North Queensland side. Are they a real premiership contender? This next five weeks will tell us a lot.
Cowboys: Storm (a), Wests Tigers (h), Bulldogs (a), Sea Eagles (h), Warriors (h), Dragons (a), Knights (h), Sharks (a)
8. WARRIORS 20 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
Last year's grand finalists haven't quite lived up to the hype this year, but are close enough if good enough to make another late charge towards the finals. The Warriors will be hoping to again catch fire and build a momentum-fuelled charge late into the season. Three of their four games against top-eight opposition are away from home, so the Warriors will need to get used to winning the big games on the road. If they can manage that, it will be great preparation for the finals. They did it last year. Some clubs would be getting nervous when they see the New Zealand based side in their fixtures list.
Warriors: Broncos (a), Knights (h), Sea Eagles (a), Sharks (h), Cowboys (a), Panthers (h), Dragons (a), Raiders (h)
9. WESTS TIGERS 20 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
Wests Tigers need to keep winning to put themselves in the top eight, but they'll have to do it against top-eight sides. While the Tigers have shown signs of being a genuine premiership force this year, the fact remains that they are currently in ninth position and a few losses will see the pressure mount as the finals approach. These games will make or break the Wests Tigers campaign. It could either steel them for finals football, or could bundle them out of the top eight. It is certainly going to be an interesting run home.
Wests Tigers: Panthers (h), Cowboys (a), Rabbitohs (a), Eels (h), Dragons (h), Bulldogs (a), Roosters (a), Storm (h)
10. DRAGONS 18 pts (5/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Dragons are close enough if good enough and should be happy that they take on plenty of top-eight teams in the quest to make the finals. Ultimately it means that their fate is in their own hands, if they can beat the teams above them, they will pull themselves into the top eight. Games against the Wests Tigers, Roosters and Warriors could be season-defining clashes.
Dragons: Sharks (h), Rabbitohs (a), Storm (h), Roosters (a), Wests Tigers (a), Cowboys (h), Warriors (h), Eels
11. RAIDERS 18 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
Canberra has charged into finals contention with big wins over the Dragons and the ladder-leading Storm in consecutive weeks. Can the Raiders build momentum and keep it going? They'll need to. They have been much maligned this season, but are now just one win outside the top eight. They have five home games remaining and if the can win a majority of those, they might just be able to sneak in the top eight. They'll be looking for a big finish and parochial support in the nation's capital to get them over the line.
Raiders: Titans (h), Sharks (a), Knights (h), Broncos (h), Panthers (a), Roosters (h), Bulldogs (h), Warriors (a)
12. ROOSTERS 17 pts (3/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Roosters are three points outside of the top eight and face only three teams inside the top eight in their run home. Their final two games are against the Wests Tigers and Bulldogs, so the Bondi club will be looking to make a charge in the next six weeks, starting with a crucial clash with bitter rivals South Sydney on Monday night. If they can overcome this first challenge, finals football will seem like a realistic goal. The importance of Monday night's clash at Allianz Stadium cannot be emphasized enough.
Roosters: Rabbitohs (h), Panthers (a), Titans (h), Dragons (h), Eels (a), Raiders (a), Wests Tigers (h), Bulldogs (a)
13. TITANS 16 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
The Titans are two wins outside of the top eight and are running out of time to make the finals. They'll need to get their Origin players back on deck to be a realistic chance of finals football, but can't afford to lose many more games. They'll be heartened by the fact that three of their four games against top-eight opposition are at home.
Titans: Raiders (a), Broncos (h), Roosters (a), Rabbitohs (h), Storm (a), Eels (h), Panthers (a), Sea Eagles (h)
14. KINGHTS 16 pts (7/8 games against top-eight sides)
Newcastle have the toughest finish of any team in the NRL. Only one game of their final eight is against a team outside the top eight. It gives them a unique opportunity to cause havoc leading into the finals. Like the Titans though, they cannot afford any more losses. It is a tough ask, but they could cause some headaches for the teams around them.
Knights: Sea Eagles (h), Warriors (a), Raiders (a), Bulldogs (h), Sharks (h), Sea Eagles (a), Cowboys (a), Rabbitohs (h)
15. PANTHERS 12 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
A disappointing year for the Panthers hasn't got any better with the news that Luke Lewis will leave the club at the end of the season. Penrith take on four top eight sides in their final eight games but their match against the Titans in Round 25 looks set to be an emotional one, with local hero Lewis to play his last home game for the club.
Panthers: Wests Tigers (a), Roosters (h), Sharks (a), Storm (a), Raiders (h), Warriors (a), Titans (h), Broncos (a)
16. EELS 10 pts (4/8 games against top-eight sides)
After a heavy defeat to Manly on Sunday afternoon, when they conceded 34 unanswered points in the first half, it doesn't get any easier for Parramatta. They take on top-of-the-table Bulldogs and Storm in consecutive weeks, followed by the Broncos and desperate Wests Tigers. It could be a long final eight weeks for suffering blue and gold fans. But with club legends Luke Burt and Nathan Hindmarsh set to retire, their last game against the Dragons should be an emotion-charged affair.
Eels: Bulldogs (a), Storm (h), Broncos (a), Wests Tigers (a), Roosters (h), Titans (a), Rabbitohs (a), Dragons (h)
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