State of Origin is over and the race to the NRL Telstra Premiership finals is now well and truly on. You can already sense a different level of intensity and purpose as teams jostle for the all-important top-eight spots. Round 19 bore witness to the rise of the heavyweight contenders, with several clubs flexing their premiership credentials.
It started with the Bulldogs, a team that has never really hit top gear this season. It's hard to get a read on the men from Belmore, but there is no doubting Des Hasler's ability to time his run to perfection and get his side to that first weekend in October. They were still nowhere near their best on Friday night but they were still way too good for Parramatta, beating the Eels by 24 points, and will only get better leading into September.
Just when you thought the Storm were done, that they couldn't win without Billy Slater and were out of the running after four straight losses, they came out for Cameron Smith's 300th game and put 50 points on the Panthers. It was a strong statement from a club that has all the characteristics of their intense and meticulous coach Craig Bellamy. They are not a spent force in this competition. Not with Cooper Cronk playing the way he did. Not with Smith as their heartbeat. Not by a long shot. The challenge for Melbourne will be when they face fellow premiership contenders.
Enter the reigning premiers South Sydney, who started the year by winning everything. It didn't matter what competition, format or which hemisphere, the Rabbitohs belted all in their path. But somewhere along the way the Premiers lost their mojo. They were suddenly beatable, suffered a mid-season stutter and their invincible aura had gone up in smoke. The Rabbitohs are still a far cry from their juggernaut best which won them a competition last year, but they are heading back in the right direction. You can sense that this team is building and again has glory in their eyes.
One team to have already hit top gear is the Roosters. On Sunday afternoon they hosted a red-hot Warriors outfit who were making their own charge off the back of three straight wins and the Tricolours bullied them out of the game, with a 24-point shutout. It was a strong message from a team that has long been favoured to win the 2015 NRL Telstra Premiership. On paper they have arguably the best roster and under Trent Robinson, they know they can go all the way. The Warriors have hit the benchmark and will now know what they need to do to win the big games in September. They'll be better for the experience, while the Roosters are looking more and more like the real deal.
Wayne Bennett and the Broncos deep in finals football, you could set your watch to it, regular as clockwork. The Broncos looked every bit like premiership heavyweights when they stormed to a 26-0 lead over the Wests Tigers on Sunday afternoon. There is a core group of young players who have matured beautifully this season. Hooker Andrew McCullough has always been held in high regard, as has inaugural 2008 under-20s Player of the Year Ben Hunt. With Darius Boyd at fullback, Justin Hodges in vintage form and Anthony Milford showing his class, this is a quality football side. In one of the closest competitions in recent memory, the Broncos are currently four points clear of the second-placed Cowboys and 10 points clear of the fifth placed Roosters. The only question mark is whether Brisbane have another gear in reserve come the bigger games of the year.
And then we come to two teams of mixed fortunes who both started the season as premiership favourites. The Cowboys are led by an international front row, a crafty hooker, Queensland's latest super sub Michael Morgan and of course their inspirational leader Johnathan Thurston, who has a stranglehold on an unprecedented fourth Dally M Medal. They have won 12 of their past 13 heading into tonight's clash with Manly at Brookvale Oval and could send a powerful message by beating a fast-finishing Sea Eagles outfit on their home turf and effectively extinguishing any chance of them sneaking into the finals. The Cowboys appear a team steeled by previous failures, a team that simply refuses to yield. A team committed to each other, with anything short of the Provan Summons trophy regarded as a failure. They certainly have the roster, the leader and the motivation to go all the way.
Manly are at the last chance saloon. For a decade they have been premiership heavyweights; for a decade they have made the finals. For almost a decade they have been the team to beat. But this has not been their year. Can they somehow pull it out of the fire? For so long a champion team, with Brett Stewart's amazing form, the killer instincts of Jamie Lyon and Steve Matai and the direction and flair of Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran, this is their chance to make a last stand.
The race to the finals has started, the premiership heavies have made a loud statement and started to make their move, it's now up to the rest of the competition to go with them or perish.
Over to you, Cowboys and Sea Eagles.