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Soward: Eels closing on big two; Rabbitohs exposed

With nine rounds done, I don't see the top five teams changing in the rankings much anymore except when they play each other.

Below them, there's a logjam of sides whose seasons are half there, half not as they push for the lower end of the top eight.

And for a few of the bottom clubs, Magic Round is their desperation stakes - they can't afford many more losses.

1. Penrith Panthers (Last week: 1)

A colossal battle for supremacy continues with Melbourne. Two great teams - one looking for redemption and one saying, "come get us".

As I said last week, I've got a bit of a query on how Penrith's players will emerge from the State of Origin period, but at the moment they're No.1.

2. Melbourne Storm (2) 

They keep doing Storm things. The manner in which they tore the Rabbitohs apart was really impressive. They can get you in so many different ways.

3. Parramatta Eels (4)

Weren't pretty in attack by any means and still have some issues, but needed to beat the Roosters to be in the conversation this year. The Eels have proved to me they've turned a corner in terms of their patience.

I'm rewarding Parramatta by getting them in the top three. But they have a tricky game - one they would typically probably lose - against the Warriors on Sunday afternoon.

Every try from Round 9

4. Sydney Roosters (5)

People may be asking, "How could you put them up a spot?" Because I reckon the Roosters showed something in their loss to the Eels that no one else apart from the top three teams could produce.

They'll cause some hassle if they can get a few injured players back. And if the Rabbitohs and Roosters met this weekend, I think Trent Robinson's men would win, so that's why they're ranked higher.

5. South Sydney Rabbitohs (3)

I've had concerns about South Sydney's defence for the last couple of weeks but didn't move them too much because they were winning. They got exposed against the Storm.

While the Rabbitohs had a heap of key players out injured, that doesn't change the systems you've been working on.

6. Manly Sea Eagles (6)

Could've had them higher, but I don't think Manly are in the top echelon just yet. Last week against the Panthers was their chance to prove it to me. Tom Trbojevic... Amazing. The end.

Get Caught Up: Round 9 must-see moments

7. New Zealand Warriors (7)

Really impressed with the Warriors. I know they lost to Manly, but they're one or two gritty performances away from building some momentum and putting the competition on notice.

If they had Addin Fonua-Blake and fewer injuries, they're definitely a top-eight side. They still need to work out their halves situation though. I don't know if you can carry a half on the bench.

8. St George Illawarra Dragons (8)

I expected the clash with the Bulldogs to be a bit scrappy. Both teams were out of form and were probably a bit tight, but St George Illawarra's class shone through and they worked really hard for each other. 

With a massive test coming in the form of Melbourne, I thought about moving them down a spot. But given the Dragons have a positive win-loss record, they deserve a chance to show where they're really at against the big guns.

Which player will bring the magic to Magic Round

9. Newcastle Knights (9)

The comeback against the Raiders was the best Knights win I've seen in probably two years. Kalyn Ponga played first-receiver and I think that will be the key going forward. He needs to get his hands on the ball in the attacking half instead of waiting for people to get it to him out the back or staying on the left-hand side where he's easier to read.

It remains to be seen if they can back it up in Magic Round and that's why I didn't go gung-ho and move them up.

10. Gold Coast Titans (10)

The Titans' starts have been amazing and then they've suddenly eased up and made it a game. It must be so frustrating for coach Justin Holbrook. It's immaturity coming back into their side. 

I can't reward the Titans for beating the Tigers the way they did. They needed that win, but it wasn't by any means a shot to the rest of the competition to say, "Hey, we're back". 

11. North Queensland Cowboys (12)

What a turnaround. There's an excitement in North Queensland with Valentine Holmes and Jason Taumalolo firing. They look like they might push for the bottom half of the top eight.

I only raised them one spot because they're beating lower teams and I want to see it against quality opposition. If the Cowboys beat the Roosters this weekend, then they'll be starting to cook.

Relive the final moments of Cowboys-Broncos

12. Canberra Raiders (11)

Canberra are probably the biggest disappointment this year. They've gone from a stout defensive side that would make you work for everything back to trying to beat everyone 24-22.

I know they've got issues and it must be hard, but the Raiders I previewed at the start of the year wouldn't have let a 16-0 lead go against the Knights. Something's changed and I think they're done.

13. Brisbane Broncos (15)

Again, they were a lot better. Emotionally they were there against the Cowboys in the Queensland derby but just couldn't get it done. Game management cost the Broncos in the closing stages.

They're not going to finish last - I think they turned a corner with their win over the Titans in round eight. The challenge now is getting some wins from the teams that are around them on the ladder.

League leaders: James Tamou

14. Wests Tigers (14)

The Tigers were great last week and I didn't drop them after Saturday's loss to the Titans because their effort was there at times. The challenge for the bottom teams is performing week-to-week.

Unless the Tigers start winning consistently very, very soon, I can't see them getting out of the bottom three or four.

15. Cronulla Sharks (13)

The Sharks have faced last year's grand finalists in consecutive weeks. There's no shame in being beaten by the best, but it's the way they've looked.

Their back five ran combined for little more than 300 metres against the Panthers on Friday. Defensively they're off and you wonder how much of a toll the sacking of coach John Morris has taken.

16. Canterbury Bulldogs (16)

Went backwards against the Dragons. Had no rhythm to their attack and they don't create any momentum which makes it hard for the halfback to get anything on.

All their good work against the Sharks a couple of weeks ago has been forgotten and the Bulldogs have bigger issues than when they were winless. 

 

NRL Magic Round Brisbane 1-Day & 3-Day Passes are now on sale with eight massive games across round 10 at Suncorp Stadium this weekend. With the league's best players all heading to Brisbane, you'd hate to miss it! Tickets at NRL.com/Tickets

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.