Clubs that won't reach the finals have plenty to play for

With six rounds to go and the competition tight, there few teams are lacking incentive to perform in the home stretch. But as close as this season has been at the top, it's been just as hard to separate those at the other end of the ladder.

The desire to avoid the wooden spoon provides plenty of motivation in itself, but what can these teams, whose seasons are as good as over, look to as a source of inspiration to set them apart?

Eels: Do it for the future

Few could have expected a side on the trajectory the Eels were once tracking to now be so deep in the mire. They were a top-four side last year and a finals-quality side the year before.

Brad Arthur's exasperation as he struggles to find answers is there for all to see. They shouldn't get ahead of themselves, but if the Eels find motivation a struggle they'd do well to remember that they have a state-of-the-art stadium coming next year.

Their fans have stuck with them during the rebuild, the move to ANZ and the loss of Semi Radradra, and as much as everyone will be excited to head to the new arena next year, players and fans alike will want a team playing a winning brand of football.

Cowboys - Do it for JT

Much like Parramatta, few people who saw the depleted Cowboys defy the odds to surge to the 2017 grand final thought this season would go the way it has. It appeared so simple on paper – "grand final side + Johnathan Thurston = success" – and the multitude of pre-season predictions from experts indicated as much. It hasn't been that straightforward.

They've had injuries, but showed as recently as 12 months ago that they were equipped – mentally as much as physically – to overcome them. They've had arguably the greatest playmaker of this generation with a point to prove in his final year, backed up by a talented roster, and yet they still find themselves in a battle for the wooden spoon.

There's no escaping the fact that we won't see Thurston in the NRL finals again, so the only focus now should be on sending him out as the champion he is, and on the kind of high his illustrious career deserves.

Sea Eagles - Do it for Barrett

The half-time sight of a Manly team in a semi-circle around an empty seat painted a telling picture on Sunday. With the game already lost, and the hopes of finals footy long gone, Trent Barrett was at a loss to explain the source of Manly's regression.

On their day, the Sea Eagles have shown an ability to match it with the best – they've beaten Penrith, Brisbane and Melbourne in recent weeks – but that success has been tempered by losses to more lowly opposition – conceding over 50 points twice along the way.

Manly forward Jake Trbojevic.
Manly forward Jake Trbojevic. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Manly have had to overcome plenty of adversity of their own in recent years, including salary cap issues and more, but with a talented roster including the Trbojevic brothers, DCE, Joel Thompson, Api Koroisau and more, expectations were high.

Bulldogs - Do it for fun

You have to feel for Dean Pay. He made his coaching debut for the club he loves, only to see the squad slashed on account of factors that were out of his control.

The Bulldogs' attacking woes are nothing new, but any side that lost Moses Mbye and Aaron Woods less than a year after saying goodbye to Josh Reynolds and James Graham was going to struggle.

Their own season might be over, but with five of their final six games against finals hopefuls, they can still have a massive influence on the end of the year.

Their recent desire to throw the ball around and play expansive football won't always pay off, but it's an approach that could benefit the young attack, punish the complacency of any contender who sees the game as an easy win and give fans a reason to smile during a year that has provided few.

If they can come through the back end of the year enjoying their football, playing bravely and earning a win or two along the way, next year could be a cause for far more optimism than concern.

Even though your team might not be a premiership contender this year, there’s still plenty left to play for.