Seven Teams, Two Spots: Who Makes The NRL Finals?
The premiership contenders are way out in front which has left a log-jam of average teams fighting for two spots in the top half of the NRL ladder.
While the fate of these average teams in Week 1 of the finals seems like a foregone conclusion, the jostling for position over the last three rounds adds an element of intrigue we don't always see at this point of the season.
The Knights have one hand on a Top 8 spot, but we know better than to trust any of these teams to go on with the job without a hitch. The Titans and Raiders are best-positioned behind the Knights while the Warriors, Sharks, Tigers and Dragons still have their calculators out with the hope of an unlikely run towards finals footy in mind.
Getting Three Into Two
Top 8: 83.3%
Schedule Difficulty: Bulldogs, Titans, Broncos
The Newcastle Knights have the easiest remaining schedule in the NRL with two of their three games coming against teams currently running 15th and 16th on the ladder. Beating the Titans in what is effectively a four-point game between the pair will all but confirm their place in the finals.
What needs to go right: Two competition points ahead of 8th on the NRL ladder and with the easiest draw over the last three rounds, Newcastle's destiny is in their hands.
Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga are both healthy. Interestingly, the Knights have won six of the seven games in which Pearce has played the full 80 minutes this season. The pair will determine how far this team goes in 2021.
Newcastle is limited in what they can do with the ball. They've not been afforded the time on the field with their first-choice spine to really hone in on their attack. However, their left edge remains as one of the most difficult to handle and can source enough points to play finals football, if not push somebody close in Week 1.
What could go wrong: Newcastle have allowed some big scores to be piled up on them this season. In the three weeks before conceding 14 points to the Sharks, they saw an injury-ravaged Roosters score 28 points before an out-of-form Raiders scored 24 points a week later. Allowing the 15th-placed Broncos to score 20 is a slight cause for concern, too.
The Knights should cement a spot in the Top 8 from here. If they don't, it will be a result of poor defence more than an inability to score points.
Gold Coast Titans
Top 8: 54.8%
Schedule Difficulty: Storm, Knights, Warriors
Simply playing the Storm is enough to award the Gold Coast Titans the third-hardest remaining draw in the competition. Round 24 against the Knights could also have massive implications. Playing the Warriors on the Gold Coast doesn't make for the easiest must-win situation for Round 25.
What needs to go right: The Titans have made some promising improvements recently to now be 8th on the ladder and slight favourites over the rest to be there after Round 25.
We saw the Titans at their very best in wins over the Dragons, Bulldogs and Cowboys in Round 20-22.
However, their limitations were on full display in Round 22 as the Rabbitohs made it look easy as 36-6 winners.
David Fifita needs to turn up every week to spearhead the Titans attack. While they have slowly started to add some more variation to not be so reliant on the big backrower, he is still the catalyst for so many of the good actions the Titans complete. Ash Taylor has started to get his career back on track by controlling the left edge. A strong Fifita carry down the right scrum line has often been the play prior to a Taylor-led left shift.
For better or worse, Fifita's focus and application needs to be 100% for the Titans to guarantee an end to their finals drought.
What could go wrong: We saw it in Round 22 and have seen it far too often throughout the 2021 season.
When the Titans are put on the back foot, they struggle to wrestle back control of a game. They're a side that can be beaten in 20 minutes. Outside of the Bulldogs and their genuine inability to score points regardless of the situation, there isn't a team that looks less likely of making a comeback than the Titans.
Let's chalk up Round 23 as a loss to the Storm. If the Titans don't start well against the Knights and Warriors, there is every chance 2021 ends on a four-game losing streak.
Top 8: 44.0%
Schedule Difficulty: Sea Eagles, Warriors, Roosters
The Canberra Raiders draw could look a lot different by the time some of their matches kickoff. Currently the fifth-hardest remaining draw, it gets a lot easier if Tom Trbojevic doesn't recover from his cheek injury for Round 23. The Roosters may then look to rest troops in Round 25 should their position on the ladder already be confirmed.
What needs to go right: Des Hasler deciding to rest Tom Trbojevic for Round 23 would certainly help. The Raiders have played their best football recently when they focus on a direct style through the middle. In Josh Papalii, Joseph Tapine, Emre Guler, Ryan Sutton and Hudson Young, the Green Machine has an excellent blend of power and mobility in the centre-third. Any one of the Sea Eagles, Warriors and Roosters are there to be beaten if the Raiders win the middle.
They more than likely need to win all three to claim their spot in the Top 8, though.
If the Raiders can lay a platform for Josh Hodgson to play on the ball and for Jack Wighton to get downhill on the left edge, the Raiders will give themselves a chance.
What could go wrong: The Raiders have struggled for a Plan B for much of this season. If Hodgson isn't able to pull the strings around the ruck and crash players over from close to the line, the attack on the edges hasn't made up the difference.
Scoring 16 points against the Storm in Round 22 is encouraging. But there have been encouraging moments this season before.
It again comes down to the middle. It's unlikely that the Raiders formulate a Plan B and C across the last three rounds if they're not on top of the match in the centre-third.
New Zealand Warriors
Top 8: 7.1%
Schedule Difficulty: Broncos, Raiders, Titans
Awarded the fourth-easiest remaining draw through to Round 25, the New Zealand Warriors can dare to dream. If the Warriors can get past the Broncos and Raiders, they'll back themselves to beat the Titans at a venture they've found a lot of success at in the past.
What needs to go right: While the coach conceded that finals football "looked beyond us" following their heavy defeat to the Rabbitohs in Round 19, the playing group has had other ideas to win three on the bounce. However, the Warriors need to be perfect from here.
The defence that has conceded just 14 points per game over the last three weeks can't switch off. In attack, the promising combination of Chanel Harris-Tavita and Reece Walsh needs to be provided with the platform to keep developing.
Addin Fonua-Blake's superb form can't waver. He has cracked 200+ running metres in three of his last four games. That sets the tone for the Warriors. A tone that has seen Josh Curran become one of the better edge backrowers in the NRL over the last month and allowed a limited Sean O'Sullivan to maximise his influence on the side.
Not only do the Warriors need to go a perfect 3-0 to finish the season. They'll need a few results to go their way, too.
What could go wrong: The captain of the club flew home to New Zealand in the same week their coach put a line through finals football. It feels as though a second season on the road along with a mountain of injury and suspension issues could derail this group at any moment.
They have exceeded expectations for most already this season. A disrupted start to the year and a lack of cohesion on top of no home crowd had plenty tipping the Warriors to win the spoon. They have put in spoon-worthy performances at times this year. One more will kill their dream of an unlikely finals finish to 2021.
Top 8: 6.4%
Schedule Difficulty: Tigers, Broncos, Storm
A probable must-win match against the Storm in Round 25 doesn't paint a pretty picture for the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks. Although, there is every chance that Craig Bellamy opts to rest players should his side already have the Minor Premiership wrapped up.
What needs to go right: Injuries have made things difficult for the Sharks all year. Their latest is a sobering reminder of the brutality of the game with Andrew Fifita in an induced coma at the time of writing as he prepares for throat surgery and possible retirement. A healthy finish is the first thing the Sharks need if they're to sneak into the Top 8.
Cronulla's middle defence is what needs to improve more than anything else. They concede the fourth-most running metres at 1,546 metres per game according to Fox Sports Lab. As a result, only the Bulldogs and Broncos (16th and 14th in points conceded per game) have allowed more tries through the middle of the fieldthan the Sharks' 24 this season.
While the Sharks need to find some consistency in attack, it would all be for nothing if their defence doesn't tighten up in the middle.
What could go wrong: Should the Sharks beat the Tigers and Broncos - two very winnable games - they face a Storm side that could well be riding a 19-game winning streak into Round 25.
Craig Bellamy isn't afraid to rest players. It could benefit the Sharks if things break right. However, if the Panthers continue to win and the Storm needs a victory in the last game of the regular season to secure the Minor Premiership, the Sharks might find themselves in a must-win game against one of the best teams in NRL history.
An injury to Will Kennedy, Connor Tracey or Braydon Trindall would see it all go wrong before then, though. The Sharks are running out of key playmakers in spine positions and can't afford to send another combination out onto the field with their season on the line.
Top 8: 2.5%
Schedule Difficulty: Sharks, Panthers, Bulldogs
Cynical Wests Tigers fans are looking at that draw and thinking their team is more likely to beat the Panthers than they are the Bulldogs if their season is on the line in Round 25. Regardless, Wests' -132 points differential means they probably need to win all three games from here.
What needs to go right:
Adam Doueihi and Luke Brooks have formed an exciting partnership in the halves to finish the season. Michael Maguire corrected his mind-boggling mistake of playing Doueihi in the centres for the Tigers to win three of the four games they have played since moving him back to five-eighth. The 23-year-old has dished out seven try assists in the process.
Brooks' form has improved with a genuine attacking weapon beside him. He has taken on a traditional #7 role and the Tigers have looked a lot better for it.
Just as in the first half, Wests soon used a similar shape to create another try.— Jason Oliver (@JasonNRL) August 16, 2021
Brooks makes a beeline for the same gap in the defensive line he did only eight minutes earlier.
The four-in defender does turn in this time around which allows Brooks to play out the back. pic.twitter.com/4XdhPNTDRi
It might have all come too late for the Tigers in 2021. However, these two continuing to control games will provide them with their best chance of sneaking into the finals.
What could go wrong: The scenario of needing to beat the Bulldogs in Round 25 to secure a spot in the Top 8 has already given the Tigers faithful nightmares. And for good reason. This is a team that doesn't get off the bus on game day far too often.
They have been poor in defence all season to concede 28.4 points per game - fourth-most in the NRL. A lack of cohesion has contributed to their poor performances without the ball. However, a lack of effort and application to the little things required to be even an average defensive team have been evident all too often. Regardless of the opposition, one more of 'those' Tigers games in defence will lock in what is already an NRL-long ten-year finals drought.
St. George Illawarra Dragons
Top 8: 1.9%
Schedule Difficulty: Roosters, Cowboys, Rabbitohs
The St. George-Illawarra Dragons did well to keep their season alive for so long. However, it's unlikely that they have done enough to give themselves enough of a head start against the fourth-hardest remaining draw in the NRL.
What needs to go right: Plenty of the Red V faithful would have taken an 11th placed finish before the season started. Few in NRL circles tipped them to be a relevant team in the push towards the finals at this point of the year, even if they're only a 1.9% chance to do so.
While they have exceeded expectations to win eight games this season, St. George-Illawarra's yardage game has always been an issue.
The Dragons rank 14th in yardage with just 1,530 running metres per game. In a time when getting up the field and building pressure is the overwhelming recipe for success, Anthony Griffin's side haven't been doing it well enough to keep their spot in the Top 8.
If the Dragons are to do the unthinkable and put themselves in a position for other results to determine when their season ends, they need to make big improvements in how they get up the field.
What could go wrong: What hasn't already, really?
Having done so much of the hard work to spend 18 of the first 20 rounds inside the Top 8, over a third of the playing group broke covid protocols to take 12 players out of the team list selection across four rounds.
Shortly after, Ben Hunt suffered another injury that could well end his best season in years.
What could go wrong for the Dragons already has and they're unlikely to be part of this conversation beyond Round 23.
Did you enjoy this article? Join our free mailing list to get the best content delivered straight to your inbox, or join the conversation by leaving a comment below or on the Stats Insider Twitter or Facebook page.