Run home: Top four battle, finals up for grabs
WITH three rounds to go every spot in the NRL top eight can change hands as teams jostle for the double chance and the outsiders look to force their way in.
ADAM MOBBS predicts how the ladder will finish.
1. MELBOURNE STORM
Run home: Rd 23 v Titans (H), Rd 24 v Sea Eagles (A), Rd 25 v Cowboys (H)
Analysis: The issue isn't whether Melbourne will finish first, it's who they will face in week one of the finals.
Following last week's shock home loss to Canberra, the issue for Craig Bellamy is that of the teams who can finish fourth and face them in week one of the finals, both Canberra and Manly have beaten the Storm in Melbourne this season.
The Storm blew an 18-0 lead at home and can still win the J.J. Giltinan Shield in a canter, with home games against the Gold Coast and North Queensland to come. But, wedged in between that is an away clash against Manly. Lose that and you're giving away a massive psychological edge to a potential finals opponent.
Melbourne still have plenty to play for.
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Run home: Rd 23 v Dragons (A), Rd 24 v Panthers (H), Rd 25 v Rabbitohs (A)
Analysis: A win ahead of Canberra in the race for a top-two spot and a first-week home final. The Roosters' superior points differential means that even a loss to either St George Illawarra (away), Penrith (home) or South Sydney (away) shouldn't dislodge them from that position.
It's hard to see Trent Robinson's men dropping any of those games, especially with captain Boyd Cordner and Sio Siua Taukeiaho still to return from calf injuries.
Run home: Rd 23 v Sea Eagles (H), Rd 24 v Sharks (A), Rd 25 v Warriors (H)
Analysis: Show of hands who thought after a home loss to the Roosters and trailing 18-0 to the Storm in Melbourne that the Raiders were about to stamp their premiership credentials?
Canberra will take untold confidence from that come-from-behind win into a tough run home against Manly (home), Cronulla (away) and New Zealand (home) that ensures a top-four position is not yet guaranteed. However, two wins from their final three should keep them in third place.
4 SEA EAGLES
Run home: Rd 23 v Raiders (A), Rd 24 v Storm (H), Rd 25 v Eels (A)
Analysis: Good news for Manly fans: you're in the top four with three games remaining. Bad news for Manly fans: you still have to face Canberra (away), Melbourne (home) and Parramatta (away) to hold on to that spot.
Given Souths' slump, the round 25 Eels-Sea Eagles Bankwest Stadium clash could decide which of last season's bottom two sides finish in the top four. Amazing turnaround.
Run home: Rd 23 v Bulldogs (H), Rd 24 v Broncos (A), Rd 25 v Sea Eagles (H)
Analysis: Last year's wooden spooners will play finals football in 2019, now it's time to see how high they can finish.
If Parramatta keep going they could go from fourth in 2017, to last in 2018, and back to fourth in 2019.
The Eels' four straight wins is the second longest current streak behind the Roosters (five) ahead of Thursday's danger game against bitter rivals Canterbury, who have already tripped up Penrith's finals charge and dented Souths' top-four hopes.
The Bulldogs would love nothing more than to burst the Eels' bubble.
Run home: Rd 23 v Broncos (A), Rd 24 v Warriors (A), Rd 25 v Roosters (H)
Analysis: Wayne Bennett is right: Souths' slide is bordering on terminal. A three-match losing run and matches against Anthony Seibold's top-eight chasing Brisbane (away), New Zealand (away) and the Roosters (home) means the Rabbitohs could head into the finals having lost five of their last six games.
Injuries to Sam Burgess and the luckless Braidon Burns are further blows and even if Souths can turn around their form, a top-four finish could hinge on the outcome of the round 25 Parramatta-Manly clash.
Run home: Rd 23 v Warriors (H), Rd 24 v Raiders (H), Rd 25 v Wests Tigers (A)
Analysis: Back in the eight but can still miss the finals, even if they win two of their last three games.
The round 24 blockbuster against Canberra at home will be pivotal, as will the fortunes of Brisbane, Penrith and Newcastle, the latter of whom face off in round 25.
With matches against New Zealand (home), Canberra (away) and Wests (away), the Sharks are in control of their own destiny but can't afford a slip up.
Run home: Rd 23 v Rabbitohs (H), Rd 24 v Eels (H), Rd 25 v Bulldogs (A)
Analysis: That round 17 draw with New Zealand literally gives the Broncos a crucial point of difference. They can win two of their last three games, finish on 27 points and it will likely be enough for them to qualify for the finals.
Anthony Seibold hosts Wayne Bennett's Bunnies at an opportune time - in a form slump and facing key injuries. If they don't win that grudge match, the round 24 home clash with Parramatta will decide their fate before finishing off the season away to Canterbury.
Run home: Rd 23 v Wests Tigers (A), Rd 24 v Titans (H), Rd 25 v Panthers (A)
Analysis: When was the last time a team had losing streaks of five and six games respectively in the same season, finished with 26 competition points and still made the finals?
Newcastle could do it with games against Wests, Gold Coast and a last-round clash with Penrith that could decide the eight. Although their positive points differential is a bonus, they would be relying heavily on other results, hoping Brisbane and Cronulla drop games.
Run home: Rd 23 v Cowboys (A), Rd 24 v Roosters (A), Rd 25 v Knights (H)
Analysis: A disappointing loss to top-eight rival Brisbane, a horrible points differential and still needing to play the Roosters. Stuck in a logjam of teams, if the Panthers can roll the Cowboys in Townsville this week, it's back home for a monumental challenge against the Roosters before a potentially finals-deciding battle with Newcastle at Panthers Stadium. Penrith will be hoping other results (Brisbane and Cronulla both losing) go their way in the mean time.
Run home: Rd 23 v Knights (H), Rd 24 v Dragons (A), Rd 25 v Sharks (H)
Analysis: Have left them in the finals running because a) 'mathematically' they can still make it on 26 points, pending other results, and b) Tigers fans need some positivity given how their season has fallen away.
Even if they beat Newcastle (home), St George Illawarra (away) and Cronulla (home), their horrendous points differential remains a big problem.
This week we say goodbye to:
12 New Zealand. Once were, and always shall be, Warriors. Strong on paper, paper thin on the paddock.
14 St George Illawarra
15 North Queensland
16 Gold Coast Titans