Fitness key for finals
We all know that for the side that wins the comp, often it is just as important to look at how many fit players they have from their top roster as much as the overall quality of that top roster, and the team overall.
With that in mind we run an eye over the key factors affecting each side's finals hopes.
Roosters: Currently have valuable utility Mitch Aubusson and one-game rookie Jackson Hastings – the very promising 18-year-old son of club legend Kevin – plugging the massive gap left by the injury to Jake Friend, as well as to back-up hooker Heath L'Estrange. 'Aubo' looked very much at home in the side's win over South Sydney on Thursday but whether that's enough to take them deep through the 2014 finals is another matter, and neither specialist rake is guaranteed to be back in the next fortnight.
They also currently have Frank-Paul Nuuausala spending a short stint on the sidelines with a foot sprain, and their forward stocks will be further dented in Week 1 of the finals with Aidan Guerra (chicken wing tackle) to miss the clash with the Panthers, while Dylan Napa (shoulder charge) will need to beat his charge at the judiciary on Tuesday night if he's to play again in 2014.
Missing: Jake Friend (late finals), Heath L'Estrange (week to week), Frank-Paul Nuuausala (week to week), Dylan Napa (available this week or out for season, depending on judiciary outcome), Aidan Guerra (Finals Week 2).
Finals strength: Shaky.
Sea Eagles: Big problems at Manly with 80-minute hooker Matt Ballin (leg fracture) and his obvious replacement Jamie Buhrer (ACL) out for the season. Buhrer would have left a huge hole as it is, given how impressive he has been at lock this year filling in for long-term absentee Glenn Stewart (ankle). It meant Jayden Hodges was handed a Round 26 debut and while it's hard to blame the youngster for the team's underperformance the signs overall weren't good. Fullback Brett Stewart also missed that Round 26 loss to the Cowboys, reportedly with a rolled ankle, which the club will be hoping doesn't cause him to miss any finals action – although he's only rated a 50-50 chance of playing at this stage. Brenton Lawrence has been pulling out on match eve of late with a knee complaint – and it's not a forward pack that can afford to be missing any big guns.
Missing: Matt Ballin (season), Jamie Buhrer (season), Brett Stewart (week to week), Brenton Lawrence (week to week), Glenn Stewart (season).
Finals strength: Concerning.
Rabbitohs: Winning the finals fitness race, with captain John Sutton coming through his return from injury in Round 26 unscathed and halfback Adam Reynolds due back from a one-week suspension for the first finals game. Currently only the suspended Ben Te'o is absent from a best-17.
Missing: Ben Te'o (Finals Week 2).
Finals strength: Excellent.
Panthers: How the Panthers keep on winning with more players in the casualty ward than on the field is anyone's guess, and a credit to the coach to boot. The returns of James Segeyaro (death of father) and Brent Kite (pectoral) in Round 26 were a huge boost but they still have plenty of stars sidelined for the year with injury, including halfback Peter Wallace, ball-playing back-rowers Tyrone Peachey and Bryce Cartwright, tackling machine Elijah Taylor and reserve hooker Kevin Kingston. Winger Dave Simmons is also still out, along with back-up players Isaac John, George Jennings and Shaun Spence.
Missing: Peter Wallace (season), Tyrone Peachey (season), Elijah Taylor (season), Bryce Cartwright (season), Kevin Kingston (season), Dave Simmons (week to week).
Finals strength: Critical (but it won't worry them).
Cowboys: The other side, along with the Rabbitohs, doing well in the finals fitness battle. The club was frustrated to lose three-quarter Matt Wright in the ASADA fallout but is blessed with a host of talented replacements, headed by Kyle Feldt, whose back end of 2014 is more akin to his brilliant Auckland Nines campaign than the error-laden start of the season was. There is also mid-season recruit Tautau Moga and Bulldogs-bound Curtis Rona. Which is good, because they lost a bloody good centre in Brent Tate during the Origin series. Aside from that, it's worth mentioning fullback Lachlan Coote, although he did his ACL before he'd even played an NRL game for the club, and back-up hooker Cam King went out early in the season, and young forward Ben Spina. Their big guns – led by Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott – are all fit and firing, which is the main thing.
Missing: Brent Tate (retired), Cam King (season), Lachlan Coote (season), Matt Wright (season), Ben Spina (season).
Finals strength: Solid.
Storm: A Round 26 ankle injury to skipper Cameron Smith is their number 1 concern. If he's out for even the next fortnight we reckon you can put a red line through them now, such is his influence. If the seemingly unbreakable Kangaroos captain gets on the park this weekend (and really, who'd bet against it?) they can't be counted out as premiership contenders, even from down in sixth place. Aside from that they have no major worries – talented winger Matt Duffie is a long-term absentee with a host of fit and willing backline replacements available, while forwards Slade Griffin and Mitch Garbutt are at best back-ups to a full-strength pack.
Missing: Cameron Smith (maybe).
Finals strength: Excellent (if Smith plays) or dire (if he doesn't).
Bulldogs: There is more concern over their current form than their fitness. They received a finals-eve boost with the return of long-term absentee Frank Pritchard (pectoral) although Sam Kasiano (ankle) isn't expected back this year. Tim Browne (skull fracture) is expected back sooner rather than later, while Lloyd Perrett and Chase Stanley are each expected to be available later in the finals if the club is still in contention.
Missing: Sam Kasiano (season), Lloyd Perrett (Finals Week 3), Tim Browne (Finals Week 1), Chase Stanley (Finals).
Finals strength: Good.
Broncos: Spent an entire weekend on tenterhooks after that loss to Melbourne, but scraped in as first Canberra then Penrith did them enormous favours. Much like the Bulldogs, their concerns are more form than fitness-related, with the wins starting to dry up later in the season. Fullback or five-eighth Josh Hoffman is still out with an ankle injury, with centre Justin Hodges proving a more than handy stop-gap – but the loss for the season of in-form centre Jack Reed on finals eve means their backline is starting to look a bit skinny. They certainly can't afford to lose anyone else from their three-quarter line before Hoffman gets back on the park (and that's if they get past the Cowboys this week).
Missing: Josh Hoffman (week to week), Jack Reed (season), David Stagg (possibly season).
Finals strength: Precarious.
A follow up to last week's final-round predictions
On our 2014 tipping form we'd struggle to tip the winner of a delayed game even if we already knew the final score. So we'll give ourselves a little plug for suggesting, a week ago, that the Broncos would lose to the Storm in Round 26 and still make the finals after the Eels and Warriors would also fall at the final hurdle.
A couple of our other predictions were very dusty but we did predict a narrow win to the Roosters over Souths coupled with a Manly loss for a successive red, white and blue minor premiership. In fact, our suggestion the Cowboys would down the Sea Eagles 32-16 went agonisingly close, with an eventual 30-16 scoreline.
Our predicted final ladder placings from a week ago came off all the way from first through to eighth, with the Chooks nabbing the minor premiership, the Broncos sneaking in on 28 points and Panthers finishing top four.