The dates and times for the final six round of the 2016 NRL Telstra Premiership season have been revealed so it's time to eye off some of the crunch games in the run home to the finals series.
Warriors v Panthers, Round 21 – Saturday, July 30, 5.00pm (NZ)
A battle of two similar teams who have talent to burn but find themselves just outside the top eight at the time of writing. The Warriors can be both frustratingly erratic and stunningly brilliant – often in the same play – while the Panthers are the NRL's offload kings, led in that category by rising star Bryce Cartwright. Both sides seem capable of beating or losing to any opponent on any given day, but will need to find some consistency to secure a top-eight berth by finals time. What better time to start than in this clash.
Cowboys v Storm, Round 21 – Saturday, July 30, 7.30pm
The reigning premiers are unbeaten at home so far this season and are on track for another top-four finish, but the ever-present Melbourne Storm sit ahead of them on the ladder and could really make a statement with a win here. The Storm haven't missed a beat since losing Billy Slater to a season-ending injury and with Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk having already secured another State of Origin title (playing alongside a handful of Cowboys stars they'll be facing here) their focus will be on securing what would be their first minor premiership since 2011.
Sharks v Raiders, Round 22 – Saturday, August 6, 5.30pm
Two of the NRL's big improvers face off here, with the Cronulla Sharks the frontrunners for the minor premiership and the Canberra Raiders on track to return to finals football for the first time in four years. Cronulla will start as favourites on their home turf – particularly since they earned a 40-16 win in Canberra back in Round 7 – but this Raiders side is on the up after landing a couple of key mid-season recruits in the forwards and they boast a better attacking record than the Sharks this season.
Titans v Warriors, Round 22 – Sunday, August 7, 2.00pm
Two teams that started the campaign with very different expectations find themselves in a mid-table battle for finals spots, with the Titans being one of the year's biggest surprise packets after being tipped to finish at the foot of the ladder while the Warriors have again struggled despite recruiting Kiwis stars Issac Luke and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (who was ruled out for the season after seven games). Both are in the running for the top eight and will see this as a crucial encounter in the run home.
Raiders v Storm, Round 23 – Monday, August 15, 7.00pm
Are the Raiders a genuine premiership dark horse? Will the Storm be a genuine chance of taking poll position into the finals? Those questions could be answered here in a cracker of a Monday night contest in Round 23. It's a game in which losing wouldn't be the end of the world for either team, but winning would be a major confidence boost a few weeks out from the business end of the season.
Sea Eagles v Storm, Round 24 – Saturday, August 20, 5.30pm
It's been a season to forget for Manly, with the arrival of a new coach in Trent Barrett and new signings Martin Taupau, Dylan Walker, Matt Parcell and Apisai Koroisau not enough to make them a finals force again. And yet, the memories of their gladiatorial battles with old rivals Melbourne – at Brookvale Oval in particular – could be enough to spark some life into the Sea Eagles for this game. Manly have had the wood over Melbourne recently – they beat the Storm twice last season – and with this the only battle between the sides in 2016 any result is possible.
Cowboys v Warriors, Round 24 – Saturday, August 20, 7.30pm
Depending on how results pan out for them, this could be the last throw of the dice for the Warriors in their bid to land a top-eight berth – and it doesn't get much tougher than a clash with reigning champs the Cowboys in Townsville. But the Warriors are one team capable of producing a shock result, no matter what their recent form looks like. They bounced back from back-to-back defeats in New Zealand against Penrith and Canberra to defeat the high-flying Broncos in Round 13, and they came within four points of the Cowboys in Townsville last season.
Storm v Broncos, Round 25 – Friday, August 26, 7.50pm
A massive clash a fortnight before the NRL finals series kicks off, featuring two teams that could be battling it out on Grand Final Day on October 2. The Storm boast the best defence in the league and are as professional as ever, while the Broncos have talent all across the park and will be desperate to avenge last year's cruel defeat in the premiership decider. Whoever loses this one could have their confidence rattled ahead of the finals.
Cowboys v Titans, Round 26 – Saturday, September 3, 5.30pm
An all-Queensland battle between a Cowboys side looking to win back-to-back and a Titans outfit out to stun the critics and play their way into finals football. The visitors will be long odds to win this one but the Gold Coast have repeatedly proven this season they are not a team to be taken lightly. They could even get a leg up if the Cowboys opt to rest one or two stars ahead of the qualifying semi-finals a week later.
Storm v Sharks, Round 26 – Saturday, September 3, 7.30pm
Could this be the battle for the minor premiership? These teams currently occupy the top two spots on the NRL ladder, having dominated just about every facet of the game in the first half of the season. Will home ground advantage and the Smith-Cronk combination prove irresistible for Melbourne, or will Cronulla's powerhouse pack and the wily smarts of Michael Ennis and James Maloney hand the Sharks No.1 spot going into the semi-finals? Even if the minor premiership is not on the line here, this one should be a mouth-watering preview of the kind of footy NRL fans can expect in September.