Sterling Gold: Only four can win it
Since the introduction of the top-eight McIntyre system in 1999 no club that has finished further back than fifth after the domestic rounds has gone on to win the premiership title.
That will not change this season.
In fact with seven games still to play until finals football, it is in my opinion fairly clear that there are just four teams in line to do the victory lap come the first Sunday in October.
Last Sunday’s rivalry round again emphasised the gulf that exists between the real contenders and those in their wake.
Despite being relegated back to third on the competition ladder, St George Illawarra are the favourites to successfully defend their crown.
Their drop over the last six weeks is a back-handed compliment as a result of their heavy representation during that Origin period. They provided eight players in total, with Darius Boyd, Mark Gasnier, Jamie Soward and Ben Creagh a constant in all three matches. Only injuries stopped that being more.
My first column of the year spoke about the need for even premiership winners to improve if they were any chance of going back-to-back.
The Dragons have done this whilst still maintaining the highest of standards that took them to ultimate success last year.
In 2011 their attacking game has improved considerably and in the process of strangling opponents with their defence they are now much more adept at getting the scoreboard ticking over.
Their right side attack is much more effective with Mark Gasnier now having plenty of games under his belt.
It is easy to overlook the fact that this strike weapon did not return to the NRL until round 17 last season and the grand final was only his ninth game back in the code.
The Dragons now go his way more often, shown by Jason Nightingale actually shading opposite winger Brett Morris in the try-scoring department.
However I believe the biggest improvement has been a greater emphasis in their second-phase play.
Under Wayne Bennett there had never been an emphasis on off-loading the football but with some big men with good hands in Michael Weyman, Trent Merrin and especially Adam Cuthbertson in the fold it has been more prevalent.
The Dragons were back to their best against Cronulla and after a crisp and precise opening had the game wrapped up at half-time with a 24-0 lead.
This was achieved without Ben Hornby, Beau Scott and Dean Young, against a team that had won four in a row.
I see Manly as their main danger due to the physical and athletic style of the Eagles' play.
Despite fielding the oldest forward pack in the competition they have tremendous line-speed with the ability to “up the ante” at crucial times.
Ironically this physical onslaught is often initiated by five-eighth Keiran Foran, but there are always plenty of teammates willing to jump on board.
At the beginning of the season there was a real question mark over Manly again having to pair rookie halves following the departure of Trent Hodkinson. There was no need for concern, with both playing with a maturity beyond their years.
Helping the cause is that along with hooker Matt Ballin they have not missed a game, and in a short period of time have established an effective relationship with fullback Brett Stewart.
Showing that previous visits mean nothing, Manly outclassed and frustrated Newcastle and once Jamie Lyon had crossed in the opening minute the result was never in doubt.
On the same day in the national capital the Melbourne Storm became the first side to keep Canberra scoreless on home turf in the Raiders 29-year history.
Not a bad effort from a squad that bears little resemblance to that fielded last year, and whose star players have also endured the heaviest of workloads.
On the back of a series of grinding wins over the Rabbits, Tigers, Warriors and Bulldogs, the Storm still found the necessary energy to make it seven straight wins.
They are still the best team at controlling the speed of the ruck area and in today’s game that is priceless.
In the past their wrestling may have taken place on the ground, but now they have all but perfected the key part of the tackle while the ball-carrier is still standing.
Invariably the first contact in defence is made high with at least two tacklers holding the man and stopping any off-load. A low tackler will then come in (not in a “cannonball” fashion) to finish off and in unison all will put the attacker down.
However the secret to success is that in putting the ball-carrier on the deck they twist him so that he lands on his back or in a position that makes it impossible to quickly play the ball. Usually it will be in a way that the tacklers finish on top and then must be given time to naturally peel off.
The choreography of their work makes it difficult for referees to find cause to penalise and allows the Storm to control the tempo of the contest. Skipper Cameron Smith is a genius at this.
Finally, Brisbane are reaping the rewards of blooding so many talented youngsters in recent times.
It may have cost them a final’s berth for the first time in 19 years last year but sometimes that is the sacrifice that needs to be made to avoid a much longer drought.
It is in fact a nice mix with the experience of Darren Lockyer, Sam Thaiday, Peter Wallace and Corey Parker complementing the multitude of youth around them.
This was again evident in the second half against the Titans with Lockyer rising to the occasion with the team needing a lift to create the necessary points to kill off the opposition.
I’m not sure if they are capable of providing a fairytale end for their skipper but the Broncos cannot and should not be underestimated.
I understand that there have been teams in the last couple of seasons that have stormed home with a string of timely victories and on a wave of momentum. Parramatta did it in ’09 and both Canberra and the Roosters were at their best late last year.
However I don’t see the potential for this to happen in this year’s crop.
There is no side showing signs of winning six or seven in a row and that is what would be needed to cause any concern to our leaders.