Holden Cup road to the finals
There are only six rounds to go in the Holden Cup and while the Panthers have all but locked up the Minor Premiership, there is still plenty of teams fighting out for all important places leading into the finals.
Here is each club's run to the finals.
Run home: Warriors (A), Roosters (H), Knights (A), Wests Tigers (H), Titans (A), Sea Eagles (H).
Ladder position: 1st – 35 points*
Key clash: Unbeaten since Round 1, the Panthers have enjoyed the greatest season in Holden Cup history. They only face a pair of top-eight sides in the next six weeks and are starting to regain some of their stars from Intrust Super Premiership duties. A showdown with the third-placed Roosters in Round 22 looms as their toughest challenge. The Tricolours boast plenty of firepower in the form of star trio Jackson Hastings, Jayden Nikorima and Joseph Manu and have scored 82 points in their last two games.
Six points clear (with a game in hand) with six rounds to go, anything but the minor premiership would be a disaster for the defending champions.
Run home: Storm (H), Wests Tigers (A), Roosters (A), Warriors (H), Bulldogs (A), Titans (H).
Ladder position: 2nd – 29 points
Key clash: A top-two finish won't mean much unless their first-grade side can also earn a home final in the first week of the playoffs, but the Cowboys will still want to replicate last year's second-place finish. Their Round 23 clash against the Roosters at Allianz Stadium will probably decide who finishes second and who runs third, with the victor set to earn bragging rights leading into the finals.
A lot rests on the availability of star halfback Cooper Bambling who hasn't played since injuring his ankle in the Under-20s State of Origin clash. The Cowboys have some of the best attacking weapons in the NYC, with Kalyn Ponga and Gideon Gela-Mosby ripping opposition defences to shreds in 2016.
Run home: Broncos (H), Panthers (A), Cowboys (H), Dragons (H), Sharks (A), Broncos (A).
Ladder position: 3rd – 28 points
Key clash: The draw hasn't been kind to the Roosters, with the Tricolours set to face fellow top-four sides the Panthers, Cowboys and Dragons in consecutive weeks. They are 0-3 against those teams in 2016, and will be particularly keen to avenge their 50-4 loss at the hands of the Panthers in Round 7.
Jackson Hastings's move back to the Holden Cup has worked wonders, with the Roosters piling on 82 points in the two games he's played. Could finish as high as second, or as low fourth depending on how they handle the next month.
St George Illawarra Dragons
Run home: Bulldogs (A), Broncos (H), Sharks (H), Roosters (A), Eels (A), Knights (H).
Ladder position: 4th – 27 points
Key clash: There's nothing quite like a local derby to bring out the best in a team as they prepare for the finals. The Dragons will get their chance to atone for their 26-24 loss to the Sharks at the start of the year when the sides meet in Round 23. This is the sort of match that could have huge ramifications in what is a tightly-contested top eight.
The Dragons have probably snuck under the radar in 2016. Their last-start loss to the Wests Tigers was the first time they'd been defeated since Round 7 and they currently boast the third-best attack in the NYC. They should comfortably bank wins against the Bulldogs and Knights, but the four games in between will determine whether they can maintain their spot in the top four.
Run home: Eels (A), Cowboys (H), Titans (H), Panthers (A), Warriors (A), Raiders (H).
Ladder position: 5th – 26 points
Key clash: With two games at Leichhardt Oval to come in 2016, the Wests Tigers will be licking their lips at banking another four competition points. They are unbeaten at the venue in 2016 but will be tested against the Cowboys in Round 22. The second-placed North Queenslanders have been in formidable form the past two seasons, but could be without halfback Cooper Bambling.
The Wests Tigers are staring down the barrel of back-to-back fifth-place finishes in the Holden Cup. Their draw is anything but straightforward with four games against fellow top-eight sides, having just played another couple of top-four sides in the past fortnight.
Run home: Wests Tigers (H), Sea Eagles (H), Broncos (A), Raiders (A), Dragons (H), Warriors (A).
Ladder position: 6th – 26 points
Key clash: The Eels will start the round in sixth spot on the ladder, but will move up a spot if they can beat the Wests Tigers at home. They pumped them 40-4 on Easter Monday and would love to find some form after being trounced by 42 points last weekend.
With four games against sides currently below them on the ladder, the Eels are well positioned to make a late charge for a spot in the top four. The halves pairing of Michael Doolan and Troy Dragan will be key as to where they finish in 2016.
Run home: Titans (A), Raiders (H), Dragons (A), Rabbitohs (A), Roosters (H), Storm (A).
Ladder position: 7th – 25 points
Key clash: Sitting just one win outside the Holden Cup top four, the Sharks know that every match until the finals is crucial if they want to earn a second chance in week one of the playoffs. They play two games against fellow top-eight sides, but it's their Round 26 match against the Storm that looms as the trickiest of the lot. When the sides met in Round 4, the Sharks came back from 34-6 down to record the biggest comeback in NYC history to run out 48-40 winners. The Storm will want revenge in the final round of the regular season and have the attacking firepower to do so.
The Sharks will play finals footy, but where they finish is another thing altogether. Big forwards, classy backs and the competition's best player (Jayden Brailey) will make them one of the dark horses in September.
Run home: Rabbitohs (A), Sharks (A), Storm (H), Eels (H), Sea Eagles (A), Wests Tigers (A).
Ladder position: 8th – 22 points
Key clash: The Raiders will start favourites in three of their six matches, and should win each of them. But even if they finish on 28 points, it might not be enough given their disastrous for and against of -170. That makes their Round 24 against the Eels a must-win affair. It will be Canberra's last game at home in 2016 and one final chance to take advantage of the freezing conditions in the nation's capital.
The Raiders looked in all sorts midway through the season, but with six wins from their last seven starts, the Green Machine has surged into eighth spot with six rounds remaining. With games against three of the bottom four teams to come, a finals berth is a distinct possibility for the inaugural NYC premiers.
Run home: Sea Eagles (A), Bulldogs (H), Panthers (H), Titans (H), Rabbitohs (H), Dragons (A).
Ladder position: 9th – 21 points
Key clash: With four games against teams currently below them on the ladder, the Knights could well have eighth spot wrapped up by Round 26. But if they stumble along the way, their match against the Dragons in the final game of the regular season will most likely determine if they play on in 2016.
The Knights looked like morals to make the eight, and were an outside chance of pushing for a top-four spot a month ago, but four-straight losses has them at risk of missing the finals altogether. The one point they earned against the Wests Tigers could be the difference between them making or missing the finals.
Run home: Roosters (A), Dragons (A), Eels (H), Bulldogs (H), Storm (A), Roosters (H).
Ladder position: 10th – 20 points
Key clash: After a heart-stopping loss to the seemingly unbeatable Panthers last weekend, the Broncos must respond immediately to resurrect their push for the finals. That starts on Thursday against the Roosters, who they will also face in Round 26. Brisbane knocked off the Tricolours twice in 2015 and will probably have to win at least one of their meetings this year if they are to make the eight.
The Broncos will head into the final six weeks of the season with an 0-4 record against the teams they're set to play. The equation is simple for the team that finished third in 2015; win four more games and you're back in the finals. Easier said than done.
Gold Coast Titans
Run home: Sharks (H), Warriors (H), Wests Tigers (A), Knights (A), Panthers (H), Cowboys (A).
Ladder position: 11th – 18 points
Key clash: The Titans need to win five of their last six games if they want to reach the finals. With three other teams battling it out for the last spot in the eight, Gold Coast must beat the Knights in Round 24 in what shapes as a four-point game. They were outclassed 34-18 back in Round 1, and will have to travel this time around, but desperate times could bring out the Titans' best.
The Titans have done well against top eight teams in 2016, beating the Eels, Dragons, Tigers and Raiders, and even pushing the Panthers all the way, yet they still find themselves four points out of the finals race. They've developed into one of the most entertaining teams in the NYC, but consistency will ultimately be their downfall.
Run home: Panthers (H), Titans (A), Rabbitohs (H), Cowboys (A), Wests Tigers (H), Eels (H).
Ladder position: 12th – 18 points
Key clash: Barring a miracle, the Warriors will miss out on the finals for the first time in Holden Cup history. With very little to play for, they can use revenge as motivation when they face the Panthers in Round 21. Penrith knocked them out of the 2015 finals series in the grand final qualifier and also beat them in the 2013 decider.
It's been a tough year for the New Zealanders, with the Warriors entering the final six rounds of the season with the worst attack in the competition. They are still a mathematical chance of making the eight, but it seems unlikely that they have another five wins in them in 2016.
Run home: Cowboys (A), Rabbitohs (H), Raiders (A), Sea Eagles (A), Broncos (H), Sharks (H).
Ladder position: 13th – 16 points*
Key clash: The Storm won't be playing finals footy in 2016, and it's matches like their Round 4 loss to the Sharks that have ultimately cost them. The Storm have lost four games this year when they've scored 30 or more points, but the most frustrating defeat was when they blew a 34-6 lead in the Shire to go down 48-40. Revenge could be on the cards on the final Saturday of the regular season.
It's rare to see a team with the fifth best attack sitting so low on the ladder, but the Storm have been let down by their defence throughout 2016. Still, they have a great chance to finish off the season with plenty of their famed 'purple-pride' and should win at least three of their remaining fixtures.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Run home: Raiders (H), Storm (A), Warriors (A), Sharks (H), Knights (A), Bulldogs (A).
Ladder position: 14th – 16 points
Key clash: It seems like a lifetime ago that the Rabbitohs played in a grand final against the Warriors, but rewind to 2010 and that's exactly what happened. The Bunnies went down 42-28 on that occasion, and with nothing left for either team to play for in 2016, bragging rights are perhaps a consolation prize worth fighting for.
The Rabbitohs looked like finals contenders with four wins from their first seven matches, but have managed just two wins since. Incredibly, they've beaten the second-placed Cowboys twice in 2016, but they won't be joining North Queensland in the finals.
Run home: Dragons (H), Knights (A), Sea Eagles (H), Broncos (A), Cowboys (H), Rabbitohs (H).
Ladder position: 15th – 15 points
Key clash: The battle for 15th will most likely come down to a meeting between the Bulldogs and Rabbitohs in Round 26. South Sydney got the chocolates when they first met, but the Bulldogs have shown enough since then to deserve favouritism this time around.
The Bulldogs could easily be battling for a top-eight finish, but are instead staring at a bottom-four finish after three straight losses by two points in the middle of the season. The blue and whites have some tough assignments, but it's probably the best run home they could have asked for.
Manly Sea Eagles
Run home: Knights (H), Eels (A), Bulldogs (A), Storm (H), Raiders (H), Panthers (A).
Ladder position: 16th – 8 points
Key clash: What a difference a year makes. The Sea Eagles will most likely head into their grand final replay against the Panthers in Round 26 in 16th spot on the ladder, while the men from Penrith will be sitting pretty in first. Revenge will be a key motivator, and with the Panthers expected to rest a few of their stars for the game, Manly will be out to end their season on a high against a team that obliterated them 60-6 earlier in the year.
Things just haven't gone right this year for the 2015 beaten grand finalists. Replacing Tom Trbojevic has proven more difficult than anyone could have imagined, with the Sea Eagles heading into the final six rounds of the year with the worst attack and defence in the NYC.
* The Round 13 game between the Storm and Panthers was postponed due to inclement weather.