Recently, I wrote on the unpredictability of the NRL over the past decade and how several teams still remain very much in the hunt for Premiership glory in 2013. In hope as much as expectation, I’ve run through the NRL Ladder Predictor on nrl.com in order to find out which matches remaining this season have the greatest impact on your team’s finals hopes.
With just 8 Rounds of action separating us from the Rugby League finals, what are the key games that drastically effect the landscape of the NRL? Which teams are still in with a realistic shot of making the top 8 and who will eventually make the cut?
The several games that have the potential to alter the finals all involve teams on the fringe of the Top 8. How will they respond when the stakes are highest? The next two months will show us.
Knights v Panthers (Round 19)
The winner moves to 5th on the ladder, the loser to 9th. With nothing but point differential separating teams 5 through 8, the Warriors’ and Raiders finals dreams also rest on this game.
We’ve assumed a Penrith victory on the back of the Knights’ greater inconsistency, however in recent weeks, these two sides have played at a relatively even level. The Knights come into this game off the bye however and despite Wayne Bennett’s experience, will be a step off the pace. James Segeyaro to be the difference in a close one.
Impact: A Knights victory sees the Warriors steal the Panthers finals spot come September with the Raiders just behind on point difference. A Penrith win secures their finals appearance.
Warriors v Sharks (Round 21)
In New Zealand, the Warriors should get the job done. Regardless, they need to impress to prove to themselves that they can be a contender despite their current ladder position.
Whether Paul Gallen is back for this clash will go a long way to determining its result, but assuming that he isn’t, we could see the halves dominate in what on paper, looks like a forward-oriented match. Johnson and Carney both have the running, passing and kicking games on their day, but only the Sharks playmaker has been able to exploit his consistently.
The Warriors will rely on their young international halfback in Shaun Johnson and we don’t think he won’t disappoint in a high-scoring thriller.
Impact: A win for the Sharks will give them the all-important 5th place on the ladder and allow them to avoid playing the unpredictable Knights in the first round of the finals. The Raiders will also benefit from a Cronulla victory with them poised to leap-frog the Warriors.
Titans v Wests Tigers (Round 21)
Two hopefuls playing it out to remain in contention. Both will most likely finish between 11th and 13th on the ladder, however remain an outside chance if they can muster an upset or two in the final rounds. The loser goes home. The winner dreams on.
Throughout the 2013 season, the composed play of inexperienced halves duo Albert Kelly and Aiden Sezer has perplexed everyone. Coming up against the playmaking prowess of Marshall and Farah, expect the youngsters to become flustered when chasing points. Benji to have his best game of the season and guide Wests home by a slender margin.
Impact: The winner will finish 2 points behind 7th place come the end of the year whilst the loser will finish 4 points adrift. In effect, this is a must-win clash and could provide some inspiration for the victor, who would then just have point differential separating themselves and September.
Sharks v Knights (Round 22)
The Storm v Rabbitohs is undoubtedly the game of the round, however its repercussions include finals momentum and that is about it. Whilst the Sharks don’t pin their finals hopes on this match, Newcastle can determine whether they’re a team worthy of playing in September. A loss will resign them to 7th or 8th position; a win gives them a chance to play for 5th and 6th.
Cronulla should be too good as the Knights continue to stumble when it matters. A healthy two-try margin will help Paul Gallen’s men as they will still retain hopes of taking 5th spot off the Bulldogs. After all, just 10 points of differential will separate the two sides come the conclusion of Round 26.
Impact: If the Sharks lose, they will finish the season 2 points behind the Bulldogs in 5th position. If they win, boosts to their point difference become paramount to securing that 5th spot. If the Knights manage an upset, they separate themselves from the other 3 teams we think will finish on 26 points. Our predictions have these two matched-up against each other in the 1st week of the Finals so this contest carries extra weight.
Raider v Bulldogs (Round 23)
How good are the Raiders in Canberra? The answer is, very. In fact, the ‘Green Machine’ are an undefeated 7 from 7 when playing in the freezing temperatures of the nation’s capital.
Their comeback win against the Roosters earlier this season gives us all the evidence we need to suggest they should be able to get the job done again over the resurgent but still vulnerable Bulldogs. Expect a thriller with just 2 points (or maybe even less) determining the result.
We’ve pencilled the Raiders in for a golden point loss at home against Manly in Round 24.
Impact: The maths is simple. Canberra must win at least 1 of these 2 games. Splitting these games will leave them out of the 8 on nothing but point differential. Narrow losses in both have them finishing the season in 11th position… behind the Broncos. For the Bulldogs, a win will help them secure the 5th position we feel they’re destined for come the end of the home and away season.
Warriors v Panthers (Round 23)
Another team that thrives at home, another chance for Penrith to secure their spot in the finals, another match to throw our projections into a tailspin.
Whenever the finals picture appears to develop some clarity, the Warriors or Raiders home-records seemingly muddy the waters once more.
The Panthers have won their past 2 matches away from Centrebet Stadium, however if their Round 14 trip to Canberra is an indication of how they’ll play in an opposition fortress, expect the Warriors to come out and win comfortably.
Impact: These two will finish right on the edge of the Top 8. Which side of the cut-off they fall on could very well be determined by this match. A win to the Panthers sees them finish the season in 7th, above the Knights. This means they avoid the Bulldogs and get the more favourable match-up against the Sharks in the Qualifying Finals.
Bulldogs v Penrith (Round 25)
The Bulldogs have the opportunity to push for 5th position on the ladder whilst the Panthers have a chance to secure a Top 8 spot ahead of their Round 26 clash with Manly.
Coming off 3 losses in their past 5 games, the Panthers have no momentum going into the finals and don’t have a choice but to win this one. The Bulldogs come off a probable loss to the Rabbitohs but with a 7-day turnaround, expect Des Hasler’s men to have recovered from the adverse impact of fatigue, leaving them with nothing but the hunger a loss usually instills.
If Penrith lose this clash and still make the finals, they’ll do so on the back of 5 losses in their final 7 games of the season. Of teams who have experienced a similar streak:
- Brisbane in 2003 won 0 of their final 7 games and lost in the Qualifying Finals
- Cronulla in 2005 won 2 of their last 7 games and lost in the Qualifying Finals
- Brisbane in 2007 won 2 of their last 7 games and lost 40-0 in the Qualifying Finals
- North Queensland in 2009 won 2 of their last 7 games and fell from a finals position to finish 12th
- Brisbane in 2010 won 2 of their final 7 games to fall from a finals position to finish 10th
- St. George in 2011 won 2 of their final 7 games and despite finishing 5th, crashed out with consecutive defeats
- Brisbane in 2012 won 1 of their last 7 games and lost in the Qualifying Finals
- Cronulla in 2012 won 2 of their last 7 games and lost in the Qualifying Finals
Impact: In essence, Penrith can’t afford to lose this one unless they want to become the 7th team since 2002 to enter the Finals on such a run of form and not win a game. To raise the stakes, these two fins themselves facing off in the finals under our predictions.
Dragons v Warriors (Round 26)
How badly do the Warriors want to play in the 2013 Finals? Depending on this game, they could finish as high as 7th or as low as 9th.
If they do make the cut, they’ll be playing their finals games in Australia, meaning that if they want to experience any success, they’re going to have to find a way to win this side of the ditch. Since Round 11, the Warriors have beaten the Roosters and Broncos away from home by a combined 49 points with their lone loss in Australia coming against the unbeatable Rabbitohs.
Dugan has been a revelation for the Dragons but with nothing left to play for, his poor temperament will see his performance drop off. The Warriors should win and do so comfortably.
Impact: The Warriors will finish 7th with their victory whilst the Dragons finish 15th regardless of their performance. New Zealand’s season will end today or they will face the Sharks, a terrific match-up for them in the Finals.
The Finals Picture
As we touched on earlier this week, once the finals arrive, momentum is key. Several teams will hit September with the wind in their sails, but none more so than the Bulldogs, Roosters, Storm and Rabbitohs.
That isn’t to mention the Warriors; proven surprise performers in the finals. If they can find form on Australian turf, they’ll have a great chance to upset the rhythm of teams they face.
Nothing is for certain, but if we’re even remotely accurate, this 26 points will be the magic number to make the Top 8, and point difference will play the defining role it always does.