NRL Power Rankings: Round 22
Here's the unofficial form guide for all 16 NRL clubs after this week's matches as we edge closer to the NRL Telstra Premiership finals.
1. Storm (Last week: 1)
Melbourne yet again showed they're a class above the chasing pack, with Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk putting on a masterclass in a 40-6 demolition of the Sea Eagles in Smith's 350th NRL game. The skipper laid on four tries including a perfectly executed set move for Cronk – drifting left before sending a grubber kick infield in one of the Storm's favourite pet plays – and it was barely noticed that the Storm's win came despite Billy Slater sitting the match out with concussion.
2. Roosters (Last week: 2)
Things were looking shaky at half-time for the Roosters, but they dominated the second term against the Cowboys to clinch a third straight victory. They haven't quite been at their best recently but they've still managed to get the job done, although they face a tricky couple of matches in the next fortnight away to Manly and Melbourne.
3. Sharks (Last week: 3)
Cronulla have claimed two 26-12 victories on the trot, defeating the Warriors after beating Souths by the same scoreline. They're renowned for grinding out close victories but their attack is on the improve; in the first 14 rounds the Sharks scored more than 20 points just three times – and now they've done it four times in the six games since then.
4. Cowboys (Last week: 4)
When they led 16-6 at half-time against the Roosters in Sydney, Paul Green's men looked on track for a fifth straight win – with Green himself in pole position for Coach of the Year honours. Alas the Roosters came home strong in the second term to take the win, but the Cowboys remain one of the premiership dark horses even without Johnathan Thurston. Friday night's clash with the Storm in Townsville will be a blockbuster.
5. Eels (Last week: 7)
It's hard to overstate the importance of Parramatta's win over Brisbane on Friday. For one thing, it showed they can beat a top-eight side without injured star Clint Gutherson. For another, it stretched their winning streak to five – the best in the league right now. That result has all but secured what would be their first finals berth since 2009, and it has them in the running for a potential top-four spot as well.
6. Broncos (Last week: 5)
The bad news for Brisbane was their 28-14 loss to the Eels, but the worse news was a season-ending injury to hooker Andrew McCullough. McCullough is one of the game's most underrated players and hardest workers, and one player that – for all their depth – the Broncos can't easily replace. An 80-minute hooker, McCullough's absence affects Brisbane's attack, defence and bench rotation and how they cope without him is now the biggest unknown for their premiership prospects.
7. Panthers (Last week: 9)
Penrith's late charge towards the finals continues, with a comfortable win over the Bulldogs making it four straight with another very winnable match against the Wests Tigers coming up. That Tigers game will actually be one of the most intriguing of the weekend – it's another must-win for a Penrith side still outside the eight, the Tigers are coming off a great win over the Titans on the Gold Coast, and it's the first father-son battle between Tigers coach Ivan Cleary and Panthers half Nathan.
8. Sea Eagles (Last week: 6)
Are the wheels starting to come off for Manly? Three weeks ago they were sitting in third place on the ladder, but now they've lost three of their last four and conceded 92 points in the past fortnight. They rank best in the league for attack but third-worst for missed tackles, and are now locked in a three-way battle with the Panthers and Dragons for the final two spots in the finals.
9. Raiders (Last week: 11)
Canberra are now just two wins outside the eight, having outplayed the Rabbitohs on Sunday, but a poor stretch in the middle of the season and the rise of the Panthers has them only an outside chance of sneaking into the finals. They do still have to face both of last year's grand finalists, starting with a visit to Cronulla this week.
10. Dragons (Last week: 8)
It's a good thing St George Illawarra were super-consistent for the first two months of the season, because they've been anything but consistent lately. Last week's stunning 52-22 thrashing of Manly appeared to be a dramatic return to form after losing four of their previous five games, but Saturday's loss to the last-placed Knights undid all of that momentum. The Dragons still have a tenuous grip on eighth place but even with a relatively "easy" draw they'll need to lift their game to secure a finals spot.
11. Wests Tigers (Last week: 14)
We've been a little generous in giving the Tigers a big jump in the rankings this week, but their 22-point away win over the Titans was an impressive performance in a week when most bottom-eight sides struggled. Ivan Cleary is starting to get the most out of the team at his disposal – last week's one-point loss to the in-form Eels was another strong effort – and the Tigers have the chance to build some late-season momentum to give them some confidence heading into 2018.
12. Titans (Last week: 10)
Sunday afternoon's loss to the Tigers was probably the Gold Coast's worst of the season, even factoring in the loss of Kevin Proctor. The Titans have been one of the grittiest teams in the league this year but they didn't show much of that fight against at Tigers side that had just four wins to their name all season. The Titans' slim finals hopes are now gone and they have a tough finish to the season coming up.
13. Rabbitohs (Last week: 12)
After three straight losses to tough opponents, South Sydney had a real chance to upset a scratchy Raiders team at ANZ Stadium but they never got sight of a lead, trailing for almost the entire contest even before losing Adam Reynolds to a head knock and Angus Crichton to a sin-binning. They can still prove nuisance value against this week's opponents St George Illawarra at least.
14. Warriors (Last week: 13)
Like South Sydney the Warriors have now lost four straight, in a sign that this season's focus on ball control (they have the third-fewest offloads and the third-fewest errors in the league) simply hasn't paid off. Granted, all those recent losses have come against teams in the top eight or close to it, but serious questions will be asked if they can't get a win against the Knights in Newcastle on Saturday.
15. Bulldogs (Last week: 15)
It was the same old story again for Canterbury against Penrith, with the Bulldogs keeping themselves in the contest but let down by their misfiring attack. Since Round 7 they've only scored more than 20 points in a game once (and that was against the only team below them in our rankings) and averaged just 12.5 points per game in that time.
16. Knights (Last week: 16)
Newcastle's third victory of the season was met with rapturous applause from a 15,000-strong crowd at McDonald Jones Stadium, with the Knights finally able to hold onto a half-time lead. They were on the right side of a few 50-50 calls from the officials but that hardly matters to the Newcastle faithful with their team now targeting a real chance of back-to-back wins when the out-of-form Warriors visit this week.