Who will claim a top four spot in the NRL premiership race?
Who will claim a top four spot in the NRL premiership race?

Mad scramble for the NRL top four

THE battle for the NRL top eight appears to be sewn up but the race to the top four shapes as a mad scramble.

St George Illawarra, who are on 26 points, must beat Melbourne on Thursday if they want to remain the sole ladder leaders.

South Sydney have the bye this weekend and will also jump to 26 points at the conclusion of the round, making the Dragons clash against the Storm all the more important.

A win for the Dragons gives them a one-game buffer from the rest of the chasing pack.

Hooker Cameron McInnes says every side currently in the top eight will be looking to finish as high as possible on the ladder.

He says for teams that are in contention earning a second chance during the finals series is even more of an incentive than aiming for the minor premiership.

McInnes knows the importance of a strong finish. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
McInnes knows the importance of a strong finish. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

"The higher you finish on the ladder the better," he said.

"You want to be in that top four come the end of the season because you want to have that next opportunity if you need it in the finals.

"But in saying that we want to win every game. So if we win every game from here on in then the minor premiership is a goal, obviously looking past that, there are bigger goals but it would be a nice thing to tick off along the way."

Of the teams in the top eight as it stands the Dragons have one of the softest runs home. From their remaining nine games they play six teams currently in the bottom half of the ladder.

But after almost being ambushed at home against the lowly placed Parramatta last Thursday, McInnes says his side won't be taking any team they face at the back end of season lightly.

He conceded his side were guilty of thinking the Eels would be a gift two competition points.

 

The Dragons lost a bit of focus against the Eels. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
The Dragons lost a bit of focus against the Eels. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

 

"We didn't play to our best but even though Parramatta are coming last they played well. They've got a lot of talent in their team and I think sometimes we get caught up in looking at first versus last and thinking 'we're coming first we should put thirty on them' but that's not the case because every team can win on their day," he said.

The Dragons will be without their biggest stars on Thursday night with five players on away on Origin duty and McInnes says he is ready to stand-up and lead in their absence.

 

Luciano Leilua could get his first start. (Brett Costello)
Luciano Leilua could get his first start. (Brett Costello)

 

"It's my responsibility to make sure I'm at my best. I don't need to go out and do anything different, I don't need to try win the game myself or anything like that. But I do need to make sure that I'm at my best because I am one of the more experienced players that will be out there," he said.

Rising forward Luciano Leilua looks set to be named to start for the first time in the backrow and hinted coach Paul McGregor is expecting him to play the full 80-minutes.

"It's a big week for us as a club with a lot of boys away. The coach wants me to stay mentally prepared and just get my head around me starting and maybe playing the whole eighty. I definitely think I can do that," he said.

 

DRAGONS

1st 26pts +137PD

Storm (A), Tigers (H), Cowboys (A), Roosters (A), Warriors (H), Eels (A), Tigers (A), Bulldogs (H), Knights (A)

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $5.50; Grand finalist $2.75; Top 4 $1.15

Injuries: None

One of the softer draws for the run home. They only play three teams in the top eight. Thursday night's clash will be a tough ask, depleted due to Origin and away to Melbourne. With no major injuries concerns, barring a drastic slump in form a top- four spot is assured.

Predicted finish: 40 points

 

Is this South Sydney’s season? (Brendan Radke)
Is this South Sydney’s season? (Brendan Radke)

 

RABBITOHS

2nd 24pts +122PD

Bye, Bulldogs (A), Tigers (A), Eels (H), Storm (H), Roosters (H), Broncos (A), Raiders (A), Tigers (H)

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $4.50; Grand finalist $2.40; Top 4 $1.20

Injuries: Braidon Burns, knee, indefinite; Richie Kennar, foot, round 19; Greg Inglis, broken thumb, TBC

South Sydney have a favourable month coming which could help springboard them to the top of the ladder. They won't play a team in the top eight until round 21 and that will be a home game against Melbourne. Losing Greg Inglis for six weeks hurts but Anthony Seibold has the depth to cover his inspirational leader.

Predicted finish: 42 points

 

The reigning premiers look in good form. (AAP Image/David Mariuz)
The reigning premiers look in good form. (AAP Image/David Mariuz)

 

STORM

3rd 22pts +111PD

Dragons (H), Sea Eagles (A), Warriors (A), Raiders (H), Rabbitohs (A), Sharks (H), Eels (H), Titans (A), Panthers (H)

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $6; Grand finalist $3; Top 4 $1.60

Injuries: Sam Kasiano, knee, round 25; Dale Finucane, thumb, round 18; Jesse Bromwich, hamstring, round 19-20

Barring injury to their Origin stars, Melbourne head into the pointy end of the season with their best possible 17. A top-two finish is probably unlikely but if there is a log-jam for that final spot in the top four, their strong points differential will play in their favour.

Predicted finish: 36 points

 

The injuries could get to the Panthers. (Tony Feder/Getty Images)
The injuries could get to the Panthers. (Tony Feder/Getty Images)

 

PANTHERS

4th 22pts +76PD

Warriors (H), Sharks (H), Broncos (A), Sea Eagles (A), Raiders (H), Titans (A), Knights (H), Warriors (A), Storm (A)

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $9; Grand finalist $4.25; Top 4 $1.80

Injuries: Reagan Campbell-Gillard, broken jaw, round 21-22; Tim Browne, ruptured bowel, retired; Sam McKendry, knee, season; Josh Mansour, cheekbone, round 20; Dylan Edwards, shoulder, season; Peter Wallace, shoulder, retired; Waqa Blake, ankle, round 17-18

Viliame Kikau, knee, TBC

Few teams can sustain the kind of injury pressure the Panthers have had to endure. If they are any hope of a top-four spot they'll need their stars to remain fit for the next few rounds. They face five top-eight sides and considering they're in the midst of a form slump, a finish in the top four might be a task too tough.

Predicted finish: 34 points

 

Will the Warriors run out of steam? (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)
Will the Warriors run out of steam? (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

 

WARRIORS

5th 22pts +22PD

Panthers (A), Broncos (A), Storm (H), Titans (A), Dragons (A), Knights (H), Bulldogs (A), Panthers (H), Raiders (H)

LADBROKESODDS

Premiership $15; Grand finalist $7; Top 4 $2.60

Injuries: Nathaniel Roache, back, season; Leivaha Pulu, ankle, round 20; Bunty Afoa, elbow, TBC; Tohu Harris, knee, TBC

Back-to-back away games against top-eight opposition might just be enough to end their top-four chances. They have possibly the toughest month of all the likely finalists, four of their next five games are against top-eight opposition. The fifth game is against the plucky Titans. The Warriors could easily go winless over the next five rounds.

Predicted finish: 34 points

 

The Roosters will have to do it the hard way (AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)
The Roosters will have to do it the hard way (AAP Image/Brendon Thorne)

 

ROOSTERS

6th 20pts +95PD

Bye, Titans (A), Sea Eagles (A), Dragons (H), Cowboys (H), Rabbitohs (A), Raiders (A), Broncos (H), Eels (A)

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $5.50; Grand finalist $2.75; Top 4 $1.80

Injuries: Bernard Lewis, ACL, season; Ryan Matterson, wrist, round 17; Boyd Cordner, concussion, round 17

Six games against sides in the bottom half of the table plus this weekend's bye means the Roosters are primed to make a surge up the ladder. Sides like the Raiders, Titans and Sea Eagles could prove a thorn in their run home.

Predicted finish: 36 points

 

Cronulla could yet surprise people. (Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)
Cronulla could yet surprise people. (Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

 

SHARKS

7th 20pts +30PD

Bye, Panthers (A), Raiders (H), Broncos (A), Sea Eagles (H), Storm (A), Cowboys (H), Knights (A), Bulldogs (A)

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $11; Grand finalist $5; Top 4 $2.80

Injuries: Josh Dugan, leg, round 18; Jack Williams, pectoral tear, season; Luke Lewis, calf tear, round 20; Wade Graham, cheekbone, round 19

Should go into the run home with their best 17 available and only play three top-eight teams. If their key men can stay fit, which they have struggled to do a top-four spot isn't out of the question but their points differential could prove to be their Achilles heel.

Predicted finish: 36 points

 

Can Wayne Bennett spin another Brisbane fairytale? (AAP Image/Albert Perez)
Can Wayne Bennett spin another Brisbane fairytale? (AAP Image/Albert Perez)

 

BRONCOS

8th 20pts -40PD

Titans (A), Warriors (H), Panthers (H), Sharks (H), Bulldogs (A), Cowboys (A), Rabbitohs (H), Roosters (A), Sea Eagles (H),

LADBROKES ODDS

Premiership $17; Grand finalist $8; Top 4 $5

Injuries: Andre Savelio, ACL, season; Matt Gillett, neck, round 17-18; Payne Haas, shoulder, season; Korbin Sims, jaw, round 16-18; Jack Bird, sternum, indefinite

The next month will go a long way in determining their top-four fate. They could easily walk away with only one win from their next four games, all but putting a line through their chances.

Predicted finish: 28 points

 

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