The drama and disruption surrounding competition leaders Melbourne and Manly has opened the door for the Broncos to give retiring captain Darren Lockyer a fairytale send-off.
Between them they will be without seven suspended players for anything from one to the next five weeks, but the Storm will still finish with the minor premiership and the Sea Eagles second ahead of Brisbane, who they play at Suncorp Stadium this Sunday.
I am expecting to see a Storm v Broncos Grand Final, come Sunday, October 2 at ANZ Stadium - a repeat of the last non-NSW Grand Final in 2006. I really give Brisbane a massive chance, not only because of the disruption with the other two sides, but you can’t underestimate the 'Locky' factor of emotion - and they have been playing good footy.
It will be no more evident this weekend when the Broncos play the Sea Eagles in front of a sell-out crowd at Suncorp Stadium. The blokes he plays with want him to win and the crowd of 55,000 will want the same thing.
Regardless of the result, the Broncos can’t finish any better or worse than third, but there are some great other battles set to take place. In fact the final round of the regular season could not have been scripted better, with crucial matches to determine not only the make-up of the top four and final eight, but also the unwanted wooden spoon.
Sadly for the Eels and new coach Stephen Kearney, the dubious honour of finishing last is almost certain to go to Parramatta ahead of their Saturday night opponents the Titans, who are just one point ahead of them on the bottom of the ladder.
Whether you are a player or a coach, you don’t want to win it. Parramatta last won it in 1972 - it’s not something you want to remember. Those three recent heart-breaking golden point losses have been costly for the Eels, who have lost their past seven games straight.
It has been a disastrous season for both teams, who have good coaches and, on paper, good rosters. I can’t put my finger on what has gone wrong at the Titans under coach John Cartwright, while for the Eels, it will probably take Kearney some time to learn how they operate and how he wants them to operate. They have been unsettled in the halves. You would have to say the Jarryd Hayne experiment at five-eighth hasn’t worked and get him back to fullback.
They could look back at the end of the season and think if they had just won a couple of those games they lost by 1-2 points. It’s such a fickle thing. But by their own standards they have not played that well. Do they deserve the spoon? The points table says so.
As for the play-off for eighth, while the Bulldogs are mathematically a chance, it will come down to who wins out of the Rabbitohs and Knights tonight in Newcastle. I am tipping the Rabbitohs. I was quite impressed with their effort against the Broncos last weekend (even though they lost), while the Knights haven’t played well in recent weeks. I can’t see them beating the No. 1 team and going beyond the first week of the finals series though.
As for the fourth spot, the Wests Tigers, Dragons, Cowboys and Warriors are all in contention, but a win by Wests Tigers over the Sharks on Saturday at Toyota Stadium will secure the spot for them. The Warriors and Cowboys are playing each other in a tough contest in Auckland, while the Dragons need to win against the Panthers for some confidence going into the finals.
The defending premiers worked hard for the win against the Warriors on Sunday, but it’s what they back up with this week that is the important point. They need to have two wins in a row leading into the finals, otherwise the players and coach start questioning themselves.
Looking ahead to next week’s Dally M awards, the Storm’s Craig Bellamy is a certainty for Coach of the Year, not only for what he has done to turn the team around this year from where they have come from in 2010, but I like what he does with unsung heroes in his team. Players like Bryan Norrie, Jaiman Lowe and Ryan Hinchcliffe - he turns regular players into quality first graders. That’s the mark of an outstanding coach.
Runner-up prize goes to Manly’s Des Hasler. He doesn’t get a lot of accolades because he hates it, but he has done a great job with the Sea Eagles this year.
NOTE: Graham Murray is currently in Samoa as coach of the Jillaroos, the Australian women’s rugby league team. They will play a Test against Samoa over the weekend (Sunday afternoon in Australia)