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Wests Tigers’ loss to North Queensland last Monday night and the horrendous injury toll that accompanied it has opened the finals race right up, with a number of sides currently outside the top eight now in with a great chance of staking their claim over the final six rounds of the season.

As it stands, there are currently five teams – the Warriors, Newcastle, Canberra, St George Illawarra and the Gold Coast – locked on 20 competition points and now just two points behind the ailing, eighth-placed Tigers. But can any of them do it and, if so, who?

Notably, no side that sat outside the top eight after 20 rounds last season managed to push their way in, so there are no guarantees.

But we’ve also seen plenty of examples of sides storming home and carrying that momentum right through to the grand final: Wests Tigers in 2005, Parramatta in 2009 and the Warriors last year all spring to mind.

So with the action heating up, we run the rule over the five finals hopefuls as they seek to salvage something from their topsy-turvy seasons.

Today we look at the Warriors and the Knights; tomorrow it’s the Titans, Raiders and Dragons.

Rd 21 v Sea Eagles (a)
Rd 22 v Sharks (h)
Rd 23 v Cowboys (a)
Rd 24 v Panthers (h)
Rd 25 v Dragons (a)
Rd 26 v Raiders (h)

It was around this time last year that the Warriors began the surge that took them all the way to the finals – but can they do it all again? Among the pre-season premiership favourites, they’ve failed to gain any real momentum at any stage this year and face a daunting task over the next three weeks to keep their finals hopes alive. This week they fly all the way to Perth for the grand final rematch with Manly, then back home where they host Cronulla before jetting off again to Townsville where the in-form Cowboys await. That means they face the two biggest road trips in the NRL in consecutive away games which plants their backs firmly up against the wall. There is no doubt that they boast the raw talent to storm home again but it will be interesting to see whether they can bounce back from the disappointment of last weekend when they threw away an early 18-0 lead to go down 24-19 to Newcastle.

Where They’ve Excelled: Scoring points hasn’t been a problem for the Warriors this season. In fact, only Melbourne (78) has scored more tries than the Auckland-based club in 2012 so there is no doubting the threat their impressive backline poses. The halves are the Warriors’ great strength: Shaun Johnson is a genuine superstar of the game, having made 12 line-breaks for nine tries, produced 15 try assists, six line-break assists and 65 tackle-breaks while James Maloney has added 11 line-breaks, 13 try assists, nine line-break assists and 60 tackle-breaks.

Where They Must Improve: Defensive lapses have been the Warriors’ Achilles heel in 2012. Right from Round 1, when they trailed 16-0 after 20 minutes before finally bursting to life, they’ve paid the price for fading in and out of the game. It was an identical story against the Bulldogs in Round 3, while more recently they’ve been starting strongly but fading late. Against Cronulla in Round 15 they led 19-8 with 12 minutes remaining before falling to Cronulla 20-19 and they won’t soon forget last Sunday’s loss to Newcastle. How valuable those competition points would be now. Incidentally, the Warriors have conceded 71 tries this season – only Canberra, Sydney Roosters, Penrith and Parramatta have conceded more.

Player To Watch: Shaun Johnson is the go-to man and a player that can certainly spark them into action when required. His nine tries this season have been an exhibition of lightning pace and exhilarating footwork – as evidenced by his superb solo effort against the Knights last week. He stunned Melbourne in last year’s grand final qualifier with a moment of brilliance and the Warriors need him to do so a few more times this year if they are to sneak into the top eight. From there, who knows?

Injury Update: The Warriors have welcomed back hooker Nathan Friend and fullback Kevin Locke in recent weeks with both having endured injury-plagued seasons; however they will be without Jerome Ropati for the rest of the year (knee) and are hoping prop Sam Rapira recovers from an arm injury before the end of the season. Impressive young hooker Alehana Mara is due back next week, along with Micheal Luck and skipper Simon Mannering.

Steve Price says: “I think we’ve proved that we can score points but there have been some soft tries scored against us at crucial times. We haven’t been losing by much but we’ve had some good leads and we’ve let those leads slip away. We go through periods where we defend really well but then all of a sudden something will go against us – we’ll make an error or give away a penalty – and the opposition will score a try, then score again almost straight away. We’ve done that consistently throughout the year. When we lose the momentum, it’s not just a small swing back the other way but a huge one and we’ve really found it difficult to get that momentum back. We’ve been playing pretty well for the most part but the lapses have been costly. We need to address that.”

Rd 21 v Raiders (a)
Rd 22 v Bulldogs (h)
Rd 23 v Sharks (h)
Rd 24 v Sea Eagles (a)
Rd 25 v Cowboys (a)
Rd 26 v Rabbitohs (h)

One of a handful of sides starting to find form at the right time of the year, Newcastle is finally starting to live up to the hype that greeted the arrival of coach Wayne Bennett and star players Darius Boyd, Kade Snowden, Timana Tahu and Danny Buderus at the start of the year. A stunning 32-6 thrashing of Manly two weeks ago was by far their best performance of the season while their confidence will surely have enjoyed a massive boost after they recovered from an early 18-0 deficit to upset the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium last Saturday. The arrival of Willie Mason mid-season has bolstered the Knights’ pack but it is the form of Boyd and winger Akuila Uate that looms as the side’s best chance of salvaging something from what has been a tough year so far. They still have six games to go but we’ll learn much more about their fate in 2012 when they line up in a do-or-die battle with Canberra this Sunday.

Where They’ve Excelled: The kicking game of Jarrod Mullen has been a highlight of Newcastle’s season. The Knights rank fourth in the NRL for total metres gained from the boot, with Mullen contributing 7741 of those. He has also found open space a respectable 56.1 per cent of the time.

Where They Must Improve: The Knights’ forwards have some work to do if they are to provide the metres for Boyd and co. to get the job done. Newcastle have averaged fewer metres per game than any other side in 2012 at just 1257 per outing – a whopping 163 metres fewer than top-ranked metre-gainers North Queensland. That’s quite a deficit to make up. The Knights also need to toughen up their one-on-one defence. They have conceded the most offloads of any side so far this season (239) and also boast the poorest effective tackle percentage in the NRL at 85.5 per cent, with 614 missed tackles and 373 ineffective tackles.

Player to Watch: So much of Newcastle’s success relies on the attack of Darius Boyd. While St George Illawarra are clearly missing Boyd’s presence this season, he has struggled at times to find his best form since joining the Knights yet the signs have been promising since he scored a double for Queensland in the State of Origin opener. He starred against the Warriors last week with two try assists and it is that sort of form that is Newcastle’s best chance of storming home.

Injury Update: The loss of captain Kurt Gidley for the season has been a huge hurdle for the Knights to overcome and it is yet to be seen whether they can cover for his experience when the whips are cracking. Newcastle is also sweating on the return of prop Kade Snowden (knee) and winger James McManus (eye) with both due back around Round 24. Will it be too late? The Knights’ halves stocks have taken a big hit this year, with Gidley’s absence compounded by a season-ending eye injury to Ryan Stig suffered way back in Round 8.

Paul Harragon says: “There has been a lot of pressure on the side all year with Wayne Bennett’s arrival, a whole heap of new players and of course Nathan Tinkler’s involvement. I think that’s been tough to overcome but the one thing I am certain of is that it’s only a matter of time before we find that week-to-week consistency that we need. Can we make the finals this year? I don’t know. The Canberra game this weekend is massive – I think it will smash the finals race wide open – so we’ll know more then. But we don’t have a great record down there. The big thing for us is simple completion rates and I think we’ve seen over the past few weeks that when we get the basics right, our star players come into their own.”

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National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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