NRL Schedule Difficulty: Which Clubs Have The Easiest/Hardest Finish?

We're almost through the disrupted portion of the NRL season and into the final couple of months of the home and away season. 

The Panthers and Storm appear to be locked in at 1st and 2nd on the ladder but there is a fight for the two remaining places in the top four. Below them, seven teams are trying to claim two spots in the Top 8 while three others aim to avoid the wooden spoon.

There is still plenty to play for throughout the last nine rounds of the season. So with that in mind, here is your club's run home to Round 25 with the hardest to start.

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's full season NRL projections 

Parramatta Eels

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 2.1

They're 4th on the NRL ladder and three wins ahead of the Sea Eagles at 5th, but the Parramatta Eels face a tough run home from here. 

With the Titans and Raiders to come in the fortnight after the bye, the Eels will go into finals footy either battle-hardened or low on confidence following a six-week stint up against the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Sea Eagles, Cowboys, Storm and Panthers.

Circled on the calendar: @ Sea Eagles, Round 22

The Sea Eagles are flying and are much further down this list which suggests they can close the current 70-point difference in for and against by a considerable margin. The Round 22 clash between these two sides could well decide who finishes 4th and 5th.

St. George-Illawarra Dragons

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 1.8

The St. George-Illawarra Dragons picked up a 19-18 win over the Warriors in Round 16 to keep their place in the Top 8 for another week. However, the post-match celebrations which breached the NRL's biosecurity protocols will more than likely cost them a spot in finals footy given their remaining draw.

- Paul Vaughan has been suspended for eight weeks
- 12 other Dragons players will serve a one-game suspension throughout the next 2-4 rounds
- The Dragons have the second-hardest remaining schedule in the NRL

Circled on the calendar: Titans, Round 19

The Dragons have some decisions to make around which players they will serve their suspensions and when. Round 19 against the Titans is a game they should circle as one for the best team possible. Given the Titans are a side also flirting around the Top 8 (23.1%) a win or loss here could prove pivotal to their finals hopes.

Canberra Raiders

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.9

Things are going from bad to worse on the field for the Canberra Raiders. And, unfortunately, they still have the third-hardest remaining draw to come.

Canberra's only wins since Round 4 have come against the Bulldogs (16th) and Broncos (15th) but they play neither of the cellar-dwellers again this season. In fact, outside of the Knights who are 9th but at 53.8% to play finals football, the Raiders play just one more team currently outside the Top 8: Warriors, Round 24.

Circled on the calendar: @ Sea Eagles, Round 18

Such is the state of the NRL right now, the Raiders can win just two of their last 11 games and still be a Top 8 chance...A bad team is playing finals footy this year and it may yet be the Raiders. However, if they can't beat an Origin and injury-depleted Sea Eagles side in Round 17, then we can all but put a line through them as a finals chance.

North Queensland Cowboys

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.7

The North Queensland Cowboys are a tough side to pick at the moment.

At their best, they only have 40 minutes of good football in them a week. Victory is determined by how far ahead they can get before collapsing, or how close they can keep with the opposition when enduring another slow start. 

At their worst, they turn up and lose 38-0 to the Knights in Round 16.

They have the squad to reach the Top 8 but their inconsistent play and a difficult draw has seen them tumble down to 12.7% to extend their season beyond Round 25.

Circled on the calendar: @ Broncos, Round 20

The NRL needs close and exciting games more than ever and no matchup produces them more consistently than Broncos v Cowboys. Regardless of where they sit on the ladder at the time, this is a Friday night blockbuster everybody will be tuning in to see.

Melbourne Storm

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.6

It doesn't matter who the Melbourne Storm play from here. They're the form team of the competition and still have Ryan Papenhuyzen and Harry Grant to add to the mix before the end of the season. 

While State of Origin will still play a part in their Round 18 clash against the Knights, no team plugs players into their side better than the Storm. It's all about getting healthy and avoiding suspensions from here for Craig Bellamy's men.

Circled on the calendar: Panthers, Round 20

Nathan Cleary is currently out with a shoulder injury, but his earliest possible return does coincide with Penrith's meeting with Melbourne in Round 20. We're going to hear "Grand Final Preview" mentioned a lot in the build-up to this one. Whether Cleary plays or not, this game will give us a good idea of where the two teams are at with a little over a month left to run in the regular season.

RELATED: It's Melbourne and Penrith's World And We're Just Living In It

Penrith Panthers

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.5

Nathan Cleary's injury changes things for the Panthers in the coming weeks. Still, the Round 17 bye is a blessing. So too are games against the struggling Warriors and battling Broncos that follow. It's only their clash with the Storm that will put some doubt in the minds of Panthers fans.

Their place in the Top 4 is sealed but Penrith does need to negotiate their time without Cleary with 2nd on the ladder in mind. Currently two points ahead of the Rabbitohs at 3rd, the Panthers are playing for home ground advantage through to the Grand Final if not the Minor Premiership.

Circled on the calendar: Rabbitohs, Round 23

Let's assume for a moment that Cleary isn't fit to play the Storm in Round 20. That will most likely result in a loss. Penrith's Round 23 match against South Sydney will all of a sudden be a key fixture in the race for 2nd. The 56-12 thrashing the Panthers handed the Rabbitohs in Round 11 adds another wrinkle to this one, too.

Gold Coast Titans

Overall Schedule Difficulty: 0.1

If not for the Raiders, the Gold Coast Titans would be considered the most disappointing team in the NRL so far in 2021. All the hype, some of the skill, but none of the consistency.

Their middling draw does offer some hope of a late-season run, though. Especially given the fact they will be one of the beneficiaries of St. George-Illawarra's spate of suspensions to be served in the coming weeks. 

The Gold Coast still have three of the top four teams on their draw. However, they won't be short of opportunities to leap teams on the ladder with four games against teams currently sat between 7th and 12th on the ladder.

We saw the Titans at their best in Round 16. The key is bottling at least some of that and producing it regularly over their last nine games.

Circled on the calendar: Warriors, Round 25

It's asking a lot of both teams, but Titans v Warriors in Round 25 might be a game that decides 8th on the ladder. It's a fixture that so often produces the goods. Give the people what they want, footy gods.

RELATED: NRL 2021: Stats Insider's Team Of The Month - June

Sydney Roosters

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.3

The gap between good and bad in the NRL right now is as big as it has ever been. The Sydney Roosters are a middling team, but they're 5th on the ladder and already at 98.3% to play finals football. 

Injuries and suspensions have made things difficult. Still, the Roosters find ways to be relevant and their middling remaining draw gives them an opportunity to wind up into the finals and at least be a chance at pulling off an upset in September.

Circled on the calendar: Panthers, Round 21

The Roosters weren't as far behind the Panthers in Round 15 as the final 38-12 score suggests. They were ahead 12-10 after 22 minutes, but a dodgy Siosiua Taukeiaho sin-binning turned the game on its head with the Roosters 20-12 behind when he returned to the field. Sydney will come into this one somewhat confident if they're remotely healthy. 

Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.4

The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs could have the easiest remaining draw in the NRL and still be overwhelming favourites to end up with the wooden spoon.

There is some hope for a classic late-season run, though. After getting through the Roosters, Rabbitohs and Sharks in the next three weeks, the Bulldogs play just one more team that is currently outside the Top 8.

Circled on the calendar: Tigers, Round 21

A Bulldogs game at Belmore is always an occasion. It just so happens that this one against the Tigers looks like the Bulldogs' most winnable game on the remaining draw. If the Dogs get up in Round 21 and the Tigers continue to struggle, another matchup between these two in Round 25 will also need circling. 

Brisbane Broncos

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.4

Have the Brisbane Broncos finally started their rise back to relevance?

A 26-18 win over the Sharks at Suncorp Stadium has set them up ahead of the bye with the Tigers and Cowboys to come in the following three weeks. The Broncos will also benefit from playing the Panthers without Nathan Cleary in Round 19.

Kevin Walters won't be coaching a finals side his first season in charge. However, the draw is set up nicely for him to avoid the wooden spoon and claim an improvement over his predecessor. 

Circled on the calendar: Warriors, Round 23

The Warriors have become a dumping ground for the Broncos in recent seasons and this one will act as a return home for Matt Lodge, Kodi Nikorima and Sean O'Sullivan. It may even be an audition for Nikorima who is aiming to return to Brisbane at the end of the 2021 NRL season. Hosting the Cowboys in Round 20 is the obvious highlight of the remaining draw, but the Broncos and Warriors have produced some close games of their own in recent years.

RELATED: Why The Bronco's Year From Hell Mightn't Be Permanent

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.5

The South Sydney Rabbitohs have conceded 50 points twice this season. As meaningless as the "no team has ever conceded 50 points in a season and gone on to win the premiership" stat is, it's one that will be repeated ad nauseam as the finals approach. 

Souths need a strong finish to the regular season. In defence, especially. Blessed with a draw featuring the Cowboys, Bulldogs, Warriors and two games against the crumbling Dragons, the Rabbitohs have an excellent opportunity to improve their defensive numbers from the current 20.2 points conceded per game.

Circled on the calendar: Panthers, Round 23

The Panthers embarrassed the Rabbitohs in Dubbo to win 56-12 in Round 11. It's a game Souths won't have forgotten. This rematch in Round 23 will give us a good idea of how far the Rabbitohs have come since that thrashing and whether or not they're capable of rising up to the quality of the Panthers and Storm in September.

Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.7

The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles will play six of their last nine games at home and only two of those will be against teams currently above them on the NRL ladder.

Manly's slow start to the season is long-forgotten. They've dominated since the return of Tom Trbojevic and are only getting better as the players around him improve. 

While the opposition hasn't been of the highest quality, to score 50+ points in three consecutive games is an incredible achievement as the Sea Eagles fly into the second half of the season.

Circled on the calendar: Storm, Round 21

The Battle of Brookvale always features on the hype reel to get footy fans ready for this fixture. We don't need it this year as two of the best-attacking teams in the competition prepare to go head-to-head. The Sea Eagles are a rung or two below the Storm at the moment, but this match will act as a measuring stick ahead of the finals.

New Zealand Warriors

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.9

Homesickness hasn't been such an issue for the Warriors this season. However, four losses on the bounce and a slow slip out of Top 8 contention might promote a few thoughts of home in the coming weeks.

One thing in the Kiwi clubs favour is their draw. While the Panthers and Rabbitohs make for a tough fortnight across Round 18 and 19, the Warriors only play two games against Top 8 teams - both of those against the Sharks through to Round 25. A handful of wins over other teams in the congested portion of the ladder fighting to make the eight will make or break their season.

Circled on the calendar: Sharks, Round 17

The Shaun Johnson element is a big factor. This will be his first game against the Warriors since agreeing to re-sign with the club for 2022. However, it's crucial that the Warriors snap their losing streak in Round 17 ahead of matches against the Panthers and Rabbitohs. A seven-game losing streak would mark the end of their finals push.

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -0.9

The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks have proven themselves as a possible Top 8 side despite their surprise loss to the Broncos in Round 16. They're beating the teams they should more often than not, and like last season, that could again be enough to sneak into the finals.

If there's one thing the Sharks have done relatively consistently over the last 18 months, it's beat sides below them on the ladder. As it stands, only two of their nine remaining games will come against teams above them.

Circled on the calendar: Knights, Round 22

The Knights are on the up. They are coming for the Sharks' 8th spot and possibly aiming even higher for 7th. With so many teams on the fringes of finals football heading into the last two months of the season, this Round 22 match may well be a deciding factor.

Newcastle Knights

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -1.0

The Newcastle Knights would obviously have liked their full-strength side for the whole season. However, if they had to choose which half of the draw they'd like to be fit, it's the second.

Kalyn Ponga is back and the Knights named their first-choice spine for the first time since Round 2 last season, just as they prepared to navigate the second-easiest remaining draw of all 16 teams.

The Stats Insider Futures Model has signalled the Knights as a Top 8 side at 53.8% through 16 rounds.

Circled on the calendar: Titans, Round 24

The same reasons the Knights are circled on the Sharks' calendar can be applied here. Although, we can change things up by adding the Titans to the mix. Another team on the fringes and threatening to finish the season well, these games against other Top 8 contending teams grow in importance every week.

Wests Tigers

Overall Schedule Difficulty: -1.6

Wests Tigers have been one of the worst teams in the NRL all season. The last three weeks in which they have conceded 48 points per game is just the tip of the iceberg. However, there is hope of an encouraging finish with the Tigers left with the easiest remaining draw in the NRL.

Just two of their last eight games will be against teams 7th or above on the ladder. They have the Broncos to come after the bye and the Bulldogs twice before the end of the season. The Warriors could be done and dusted by the time they meet in Round 20 as well.

The finals drought will continue and we've not seen many promising signs of it ending in recent weeks, but there is time in 2021.

Circled on the calendar: Broncos, Round 18

The Tigers simply need to win this one. Michael Maguire's position as head coach will be questioned if they don't. The axe will once again be swung through the side if they can't beat the wooden spoon contending Broncos. In fact, the Tigers will be wooden spoon contenders themselves if they fail to take the two points in Round 18.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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