Parramatta’s hopes of ending their 35-year premiership drought may be determined in coming weeks as the fourth-placed Eels face Melbourne, Penrith, South Sydney, Sydney Roosters and Manly in the toughest run home of any team in finals contention.
With the Storm, Panthers, Rabbitohs and Eels guaranteed to finish in the top eight and the Roosters and Sea Eagles also considered virtual certainties, there is much interest in the eight-team race for the last two spots.
However, the battle for the top four and the minor premiership remains just as intriguing as joint competition leaders Melbourne and Penrith meet next week – possibly at AAMI Park – and the Eels take on the teams just below them, as well as those above them on the Telstra Premiership ladder.
No team has ever won the NRL grand final after finishing outside the top four and Parramatta captain Clint Gutherson said the Eels were aware of the importance of the matches ahead.
“We verse Manly and we verse the Roosters in the next four or five weeks, and they are on our tails so we just need to keep making sure we do what we need to do to win,” Gutherson said.
“Once we get to the back end of the year, the more you can be in front, and if you can secure that top four spot with a few rounds to go, it is pretty critical so that’s what we are trying to do.”
The Eels are four points clear of the Roosters (24 points) and six points ahead of Manly (22) with seven rounds to go but can’t afford to lose either match as they also face the third-placed Rabbitohs (30), as well as Melbourne and Penrith in the final two weeks before the play-offs.
Parramatta, who play the ninth-placed Raiders on Thursday night before matches against the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles, had considered adding out-of-favour Broncos playmaker Anthony Milford to their squad for the rest of the season as a bench utility.
Back-up halfback Jordan Rankin hasn’t travelled with the Eels to Queensland and Gutherson said Milford "definitely has that x-factor".
However, Parramatta coach Brad Arthur said he wanted to show faith in the players who had helped get the team into the top four.
“We’re very, very happy with the roster we’ve got," Arthur told SEN 1170 Breakfast.
“In regards to Anthony, he’s a quality player, but it was only a minor discussion early in the piece. I can’t see it going any further.
“We’ve got a lot of players who have worked extremely hard in this team. We preach hard about what DNA we stand for and what we preach as a club, we’re all in this together, we’re very tight.
“We’ve had a squad that was able to get us into this position and I feel like we’ve got a squad that can take us forward
“We have a couple of blokes that can play that utility role for us in Bryce Cartwright and Will Smith, so I feel like my loyalty is to them.”
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Melbourne are leading the competition on for-and-against from Penrith and haven’t given up hope of hosting the team they beat in last year’s grand final at AAMI Park on July 31 if Victoria’s lockdown is lifted before then.
The Storm, who last week exceeded 27,000 members for the first time in the club’s history, are also due to play home games against Canberra and Parramatta but the venue for those matches is likely to depend on decisions by the Victorian and Queensland governments.
“Absolutely, we are still hoping to play those games at home, but it is out of our hands,” Melbourne GM of football Frank Ponissi said.
The two clubs have been so dominant this season that many expect another Storm-Panthers grand final and the round 20 clash, which is set to feature the return of Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary and Melbourne hooker Harry Grant, could decide the minor premiership.
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However, according to NRL.com data to determine the best-and-worst possible outcomes for each team, Souths, Parramatta, and even the Roosters and Sea Eagles, can all still finish in the top two.
Besides the Eels, Manly only have one other match (Melbourne) against another of the top six teams who have broken away from the pack of finals hopefuls, led by the Dragons (18 points), Sharks, Raiders, Knights (all 16), Titans, Tigers, Cowboys (all 14) and Warriors (12).
The Panthers play the Storm, Rabbitohs, Roosters and Eels, while the Rabbitohs’ top-two hopes are likely to be determined in the matches against Parramatta, the Roosters and Penrith.
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St George Illawarra blew the chance to all but secure a finals berth with their second-half capitulation in last Friday night’s 32-18 loss to Manly, whom they would have joined in equal sixth place with a win.
The Dragons are now in danger of being leapfrogged by one of the teams behind them as they face the Rabbitohs (twice), Panthers and Roosters, as well as the Titans, Raiders and Cowboys.
Newcastle have arguably the best draw of the teams chasing one of the two remaining top eight spots, with matches against the 15th-placed Broncos (twice) and last-placed Bulldogs, while the Roosters are their only opponent among the leading six teams.
In contrast, the Raiders play the Eels, Storm, Sea Eagles and Roosters, as well as the Knights, Dragons and Warriors.
“Our focus coming into the back end of the year is to try and win as many games as possible and try to push for that seventh or eighth spot,” Canberra second-rower Hudson Young said.
Fellow Raiders forward Corey Harawira-Naera said last Saturday’s 34-18 defeat of the Sharks was crucial for their finals hopes and had given the team confidence for the matches ahead.
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“Obviously the potential of losing that game would have meant they jump four points in front of us, which would have made it a lot harder to get in so we have given ourselves a chance,” Harawira-Naera said.
The Sharks play the Storm and Sea Eagles, as well as the Knights, Tigers, Warriors, Brisbane and Canterbury, while the Tigers face Manly, Penrith, Cronulla, North Queensland, the Warriors and Canterbury (twice).
“I think there is definitely an opportunity for us to push to make the top eight and that is something we are really focused on,” Tigers winger David Nofoaluma said.
The Titans play the Rabbitohs and Storm, as well the Dragons, Bulldogs, Cowboys, Knights and Warriors, while North Queensland take on Melbourne, Manly and Parramatta, along with Gold Coast, St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers and Brisbane.
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.