Dally M Watch
We said last week the red-hot form of Eels custodian Jarryd Hayne had him firming to take out his second Dally M Medal.
The 2009 winner did nothing to undermine that prediction by once again winning a match almost single-handedly for the Eels with his third consecutive two-try effort helping edge out the Raiders in Darwin.
We also said last week Hayne's task was made easier by a fortnight in which two of his main rivals, Ben Hunt and Sam Burgess, had likely polled zero points between them.
That all changed in Round 22, with Burgess back from a shoulder injury to put in a man-of-the-match effort against ladder leaders Manly, while Hunt was also back in form with a possible three Dally M points as his Broncos lapped the Bulldogs.
And of course there's Johnathan Thurston, equal with Hunt on 19 points after Round 16, one ahead of Hayne, Burgess and Dragon Gareth Widdop (who has almost certainly fallen too far behind now to make a late charge to the medal).
Thurston, like Hayne, has quite possibly polled three points in the past three or maybe four games now.
However unlike Hayne, Thurston is facing stiff competition for points on a game-by-game basis from teammates – in-form Kangaroos prop Matt Scott and 2014 revelation Michael Morgan in particular.
Manly's Kieran Foran had three back-to-back man-of-the-match awards prior to Friday's loss to the Rabbitohs but is coming from a fair way off the pace and sharing points with halves partner Daly Cherry-Evans and fullback Brett Stewart. The 2013 winner Cooper Cronk is in tremendous form but missed too many games due to a broken arm, coupled with strong form from teammates including Billy Slater and Jesse Bromwich.
However the race is clearly wide open when it comes to Hayne and Thurston, with Hunt and Burgess still in the contest.
Finals picture slowly becomes clearer
The shape of the top and bottom half of the top eight became a fair bit clearer over the weekend with the aid of one or two surprising results.
The in-form Storm, who seemed to be making a solid charge into the top four, were dealt a blow by a miraculous comeback win by Newcastle
. They're not beyond earning a home final but they now seem far more likely to finish in the lower half of the finals zone.
The battle-scarred Panthers just keep finding ways to win regardless of how many key players get ruled out with season-ending injuries. Regardless of what happens between the Roosters and Titans on Monday night, Penrith will finish the round in third – and four points clear of whichever team is in fifth place.
They have three of their final four regular season games at home, although all four games are against sides currently between first and seventh, so it isn't a done deal yet.
The biggest question around the top four now seems to be whether it will be the Roosters, Cowboys, Warriors or Storm to claim the final place.
The other three of those sides are now likely to fill out the lower half of the eight, where the final position could go to the out-of-sorts Bulldogs if they can regain their mojo, otherwise the Eels can lean on their own relatively friendly run home to push them out.
That question is likely to be answered as early as next week when the two sides meet at ANZ. Of the sides below them, only the Broncos (24 points) are still in striking distance but with two of their four remaining games being tough road trips to face Souths and Melbourne, and needing to win at least three of their last four, they look to have left their run too late.
Using NRL.com's ladder predictor and attempting to pick mostly favourites – possibly an exercise in futility given the always unpredictable nature of NRL games – our top eight now falls thus:
1. Rabbitohs (38), 2. Sea Eagles (38), 3. Cowboys (32), 4. Roosters (32), 5. Warriors (32), 6. Panthers (32), 7. Storm (32), 8. *** (32).
Where *** is the winner of next Friday's Bulldogs Eels clash, with the loser of that one to finish in ninth place – on 30 points.
It would also mean all sides from third to eighth would finish level on 32 points. That is admittedly still an unlikely outcome but it is a testament to the closeness of this year's competition.
No doubt there are plenty more upsets to come between now and the end of the season, but if results did somehow go mostly to expectations, it would represent the first time in a 16-team top-eight format that a side finishing on 30 competition points has missed the finals. One way or another it makes for an exciting last four rounds.