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The four-point games that will decide finals equation

While there are a handful of teams who are all but guaranteed to finish up top or miss the finals altogether, there is a mighty tussle going on for the last two places in the top four and top eight.

Plenty of the teams in the thick of it play each other over the finals five rounds of the season.

Teams like seventh-placed Gold Coast and Cronulla, a rung below on for and against, have destiny in their hands.

"It's up to us now, there's five games left, we believe we've got five wins left in this competition before finals," Sharks prop Aiden Tolman said.

Some teams could have their fate decided by their for and against record, like 11th-placed Newcastle, who have easily the worst differential of -147 of the five teams sitting on 18 points, but coach Adam O'Brien said that wasn't a focus.

"I don't really base it on for and against," he said. "I want us to defend well all the time. I want us defending our best every week and [our for and against] should take care of itself."

Based on each match being decided by a 12-point margin, the highest and lowest places each team can finish after round 20.
Based on each match being decided by a 12-point margin, the highest and lowest places each team can finish after round 20. © Stats

And then there are teams like the Warriors who need a near miracle to get into the post-season.

"I feel like we are still a chance of making the eight with the run we've got home and hopefully a couple of other teams fall by the wayside," Euan Aitken said. Stats has taken a look at the key clashes which will decide this year's finals equation.

Round 21

Raiders v Dragons, Friday 6pm

We immediately dive in with a match that epitomises a four-point game in the run to the finals, with the Raiders and Dragons sitting ninth and 10th on the ladder and level on 18 competition points with each precariously placed after a round 20 loss.

The winner could finish round 21 inside the top eight while the loser could slip to 11th.

Eels v Rabbitohs, Friday 8.05pm

The Bunnies drew level with Penrith after their big round-20 win and have a genuine chance of a top-two finish while Parramatta's past two losses have them at genuine risk of slipping out of the top four this weekend.

The blue-and-golds have a nightmare run home but it can work in their favour if they can knock off some of the other top teams – which they'll need to do if they want to nab a top-four spot and vital second chance.

"We started off the year really well and put ourselves in a good position to be able to play finals footy now," returning Eels halfback Mitch Moses said.

"It's just about where we finish on the ladder now, obviously top four's the goal. It's been the goal since the start of the year. We'll be looking to try and cement a top four spot."

Sharks v Warriors, Saturday 3pm

It's just about the last roll of the dice for the Warriors. Last week's win kept them within two wins of the cluster of sides on 18 points with the eighth-placed Sharks a key victim if they want to stay in the hunt.

For Cronulla, last week's loss to Manly was a missed chance to pull clear of that pack but it should separate a little this week and they desperately need not only to be one of the sides that win but also to keep the next of the chasing sides at bay.

"I know we play a couple of the teams around the same points as us," said Sharks prop Aiden Tolman.

"If we win all our games we'll definitely be in it, that's our goal starting with the Warriors this week."

With some winnable games to come, the Warriors were certainly still aiming for finals, according to Euan Aitken.

"I just want to win, that's my competitive nature, and if we keep winning it is so much more enjoyable. We are not getting too far ahead of ourselves but I want to play finals footy and I think everyone here does," he said.

Titans v Cowboys, Sunday 4.05pm

The Gold Coast moved back into the top eight with round 20's win over Canterbury and have a golden chance to consolidate that spot as they look to hold off the likes of the Raiders, Knights and Dragons.

The Cowboys are quickly slipping from finals relevance but right now are still just two wins out of it and can put themselves back in the hunt with a couple of quick wins.

Round 22

Dragons v Panthers, Friday 6pm

The Dragons' nightmare run home continues with the second-placed Panthers looking to get their season back on track.

Penrith have looked a touch vulnerable of late but will field a stronger team here compared to their round 20 loss to the Storm. The Red V needs a win to keep themselves in the frame for finals spots while the Panthers are in danger of losing their top-two billing.

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Sea Eagles v Eels, Saturday 7.35pm

Manly's charge towards an unlikely top-four finish can really pick up steam if they can knock off the Eels, one of the two teams they need to leapfrog to get there.

The Eels head into this one having faced the Raiders, Roosters and Rabbitohs in the three previous rounds with the picture becoming clearer as to whether they will put up a serious fight for a top four finish.

Sharks v Knights, Sunday 4.05pm

Another game that absolutely epitomises a four-point clash in the run to the finals, with the Sharks (eighth) and Knights (11th) among two of the five teams level on 18 points and only separated by differential.

Winning this game will be almost as important for the two points denied to the opposition as it will for the two points claimed.

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Round 23

Raiders v Sea Eagles, Friday 6pm

By the time this game kicks off the Sea Eagles could be even closer to a top-four berth than they are now, while the Raiders will almost certainly still be in a dogfight with a few other teams for the last two finals spots.

Panthers v Rabbitohs, Friday 7.55pm

The two heavyweights are neck and neck in the race for top-two spots, and also can't afford to drop too many games with the Roosters and Sea Eagles making up ground on the top four.

Souths will be hunting revenge for their previous shellacking at the hands of the Panthers and a chance to leapfrog Ivan Cleary's men here makes this an even more crucial clash.

Wests Tigers v Sharks, Saturday 3pm

If the Tigers are still in the finals hunt come round 23 then this will be an absolute must-win for them, with the Sharks one of their main rivals for spots at the lower part of the top eight.

For the Sharks, a "soft" draw won't mean much if they can't put away the teams just below them clamouring to leapfrog them into the finals zone.

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Round 24

Knights v Titans, Thursday 7.50pm

The first game of round 24 could have enormous stakes for the two clubs involved. After round 20 these two teams are level on 18 points but sit in 11th and seventh respectively based on differential.

There's every chance both are still in the hunt for top eight spots by the time this kicks off, but it's also pretty unlikely both will qualify meaning this could well be in winner-takes-all territory.

Roosters v Rabbitohs, Friday 7.55pm

Aside from being one of the most anticipated games of the remaining regular season and another instalment of one of the oldest and fiercest rivalries in Australian sport, this also shapes as a monster clash in terms of top four ramifications.

Souths have two top-four opponents between now and this game against one for the Roosters so it's possible the narrow gap between the two clubs narrows further ahead of this one.

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Round 25

Raiders v Roosters, Thursday 7.50pm

It's possible though unlikely the Raiders will be pressing to overtake the Roosters by round 25 but it's almost certain this match will have huge implications for spots in the top four and top eight.

This could be an all-or-nothing shot at finals for the Raiders while the Roosters could find themselves needing a win here to book a top four spot.

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Eels v Panthers, Friday 7.55pm

An absolute blockbuster to finish the season.

Both clubs have had the wobbly boots on of late but with troops set to return, if each can right the ship between now and then there could be top-two or top-four spots on the line for one or both clubs in the final round of the regular season.

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



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