Inside Word: Who will make the eight

Since retiring I have been asked to be a “celebrity/expert” tipper for a number of NRL tipping competitions … and I have to admit, I am terrible at it! I had no idea it would be so hard.

Nevertheless, this week I am going to give you my tip on the make-up of the top eight. Peter Sterling has already talked about the top four spots in his column “Sterling Gold” this week, and I have to say I agree with him.

He said that with seven games to play until finals football “it is fairly clear that there are just four teams in line to do the victory lap come the first Sunday in October” – the Dragons, Sea Eagles, Broncos and Storm.

He backs that up with a stat that 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.

I can’t see that changing this season either. With the points table the way it is, the Cowboys should join those four teams as certainties to make the eight, but the next three spots are wide open.

Seven teams are within four points of each other and are vying for the remaining finals berths. While the Eels, on 15 points, are mathematically a chance of making the eight, you would have to say it is highly unlikely. Along with the Raiders (14), Roosters (14) and Titans (12), season 2011 is technically over for them.

The top five – Storm (32), Sea Eagles (30), Dragons (29), Broncos (28) and Cowboys (26) – are like a breakaway pack in the Tour de France and have established a substantial lead that will guarantee them a place in this year’s finals footy.

The tussle in the peleton – the Warriors (22), Wests Tigers (20), Panthers (20), Knights (20), Sharks (18), Rabbitohs (18) and Bulldogs (18) – is going to be the most intriguing, as seven into three just does not fit!

I am tipping that the Rabbitohs, Warriors and Wests Tigers will complete the eight and have the thrill of playing finals footy in September.

The Rabbitohs showed in their golden point win over the Roosters last Saturday that they are not far off where they need to be. They need to improve their finishing at the back end of sets, but have a good team and some fine players coming back.

In tight games, players like Greg Inglis and John Sutton who can come up with the big plays are a huge advantage. The key for the Rabbitohs is to grind teams out and play with a bit of caution and patience. Sometimes they have to be prepared to 'play boring'.

It’s up to their halves to put some polish on the back end of their sets. When Souths are building pressure they have to come up with the plays and make it easier for themselves. 

The Tigers have done it before, but are running out of time. They have been patchy and need to get on a bit of a run - now.

The off-field movements haven’t helped – even though publicly they are saying it hasn’t affected them. With Benji Marshall in form they are a very confident team … anything is likely to happen. They have the players and the coach to warrant a finals spot.

No team coming up against the Wests Tigers in the finals would be comfortable.

The Warriors have a lot of home games in the run to the finals and are likely to win most of those. They are a pretty unpredictable team: you don’t know what you are going to get at times, but that can work in their favour.

They are another team no one really wants to play in the finals.

As for the teams who I believe will miss out, I feel sorry for the Sharks. They fought hard to win four in a row and I admire the effort they put in. But they look tired, and it showed last Monday against the Dragons (who were very good on the night though).

The effort has taken its toll on them and captain Paul Gallen, who really looks tired. The Sharks need a few things to go their way, but their biggest concern is that Gallen is carrying an injury. He is so important to them.

Steve Georgallis has done a great job with the Panthers in recent weeks and Phil Gould has stirred things up a little - which seems to have worked. They are a hard team to beat at home, but I think they will need some luck with teams above them. I am not sure they have the team to make it.

The Bulldogs are going through some tough times. I spoke with caretaker head coach Jim Dymock yesterday and he has a tough job ahead instilling some confidence in them for the remaining games. He has made a hard call by dropping Josh Morris this week, but that shows he means business.

They need big game players like Jamal Idris and Ben Barba back on track. The Dogs have the attack if they can hang in for the arm wrestle. Their attitude has also been a little hit and miss, which you can see in some of their performances.

Their major concern is the loss of hooker Mick Ennis. I don’t believe they have won a game without him on the field. He takes a lot of pressure off the halves and is one of their most senior players. He could be their next captain after Andrew Ryan.

The Knights need to get all their players on the paddock at the one time. Kurt Gidley is back this week, but now they have lost Wes Naiqama.

Kurt, like most players, plays best when he can string lots of games together. He will always try for them, but will struggle when he is missing games and carrying a hamstring injury. He and Jarrod Mullen are the keys, if they can come into some form together.

The Knights will finish well, but I expect them to be just out if it.