The seven-way dogfight to avoid the wooden spoon
Johnathan Thurston is facing the very real prospect of finishing his magnificent career as captain of the best "worst" team in NRL history, with North Queensland in a seven-way dogfight to avoid the wooden spoon.
Despite winning two of their last three matches and falling short 26-20 against the Sydney Roosters, the Cowboys are bottom of the NRL ladder just three rounds from the end of a season in which many predicted they would send Thurston out with another premiership.
Canberra, Newcastle, Manly, Gold Coast, Canterbury and Parramatta are the other teams in contention for the dreaded wooden spoon, with the Sea Eagles (16), Bulldogs (14), Eels (14) and Cowboys (14) having finally hit form in recent weeks to close the gap with the Raiders (18), Knights (18) and Titans (16).
It is the tightest wooden spoon battle since the establishment of the top eight finals format in 1995, with the seven clubs separated by just four points after 22 rounds – although the 2015 Telstra Premiership finished with the 10th-placed Raiders on 24 points and last-placed Knights on 20 points.
If there was a place for a "wild card" in the NRL finals, the likes of Manly, Parramatta and North Queensland may have enough momentum at the right end of the season to be a force in the play-offs.
Remarkably, Canberra and Gold Coast were vying for finals places until Round 16 but they now need to win at least one of their remaining matches to ensure they don't finish last and there is a genuine possibility the spoon could be decided in the final round clash between the Titans and Cowboys.
After winning eight of their 24 matches in 2015, Newcastle can lay claim to being the most successful wooden spooners in NRL history but they did not have players of the calibre of Thurston and fellow North Queensland superstar Jason Taumalolo.
The Cowboys have lost six games by a converted try or less, including three one point defeats to South Sydney (twice) and Melbourne, and another match by seven points against the Warriors.
Yet if Thurston had not laid on a 76th-minute try for Coen Hess with a grubber kick into the Brisbane in-goal to snatch a dramatic 34-30 win in another epic clash between the two Queensland clubs last Thursday night, the Cowboys would be stranded alone on 12 points.
With his last match in Sydney against sixth-placed Cronulla on Saturday night, the fate of the Cowboys is likely to be decided in Thurston's home farewell against the Eels on Friday, August 24 or the final round clash with the Titans at the Gold Coast on Saturday, September 1.
Such a scenario seemed inconceivable at the start of the season after North Queensland overcame a run to last year's finals in which they lost five of their last six matches to reach the grand final against Melbourne without the services of either Thurston or Australia's No.1 prop Matt Scott.
However, the toll of doing so on the Cowboys was evident by the fact North Queensland (four) had the second lowest World Cup representation behind the Titans (one), as a number of players required post-season surgery.
In addition, Kangaroos representatives, Michael Morgan and new recruit Jordan McLean, have had injury-disrupted seasons, while Taumalolo has had to take on a greater workload since his return from leading Tonga's World Cup campaign and Kiwis playmaker Te Maire Martin is now playing fullback.
Parramatta are another club to have suffered a dramatic fall from grace after finishing in the top eight last season, but the Eels have won three of their last four matches as they fight to avoid the wooden spoon.
While it is difficult to identify the exact reason for the late-season turnaround of teams at the bottom of the ladder, the Eels no longer have the pressure of trying to qualify for the finals, players are playing for their futures and coach Brad Arthur is free to experiment with positions.
Parramatta have also benefitted in recent weeks from a combination of youth in rookie five-eighth Jaeman Salmon and experience as Jarryd Hayne has finally shrugged off the injury concerns that had plagued him since rejoining the club this season.
Manly also has greater stability, with Dylan Walker returning from injury to fill the five-eighth void and rookie hooker Manase Fainu having played five NRL games since being cleared to join the club's top 30 squad after Jackson Hastings left for the Super League.
After surrendering a 24-6 lead with just 13 minutes remaining to lose 28-24 against Penrith three weeks ago, the Sea Eagles have celebrated back-to-back wins over Cronulla and Canterbury.
Manly play the Titans on Friday night in another match with significance for the wooden spoon battle, while they could also have an influence over the top eight with matches against ninth-placed Wests Tigers and eighth-placed Brisbane.
Canterbury, Canberra and Newcastle play top-eight teams in each of their remaining three matches and if they do not win another game it is possible that any of the bottom seven teams could finish last, depending on other results.
While that may seem unlikely, Newcastle's for-and-against (-165) is the worst in the NRL, while only the Knights (533), Sea Eagles (510) and Titans (508) have conceded more points than Canberra (496).