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Is the race for the NRL premiership really so open?

So you’ve just shaken off the glitter from the 'Origin period' before you’re wondering how your injury-ravaged, controversy-damaged, mentally-fatigued team can navigate the final third of the season and maybe even make the grand final.

The short answer is: if you’re not in the top four now, you’re dreaming. Not that dreams don’t come true. It’s just that BHP is a better investment than Lunar Helium 3 Mines Inc.
By this time any thoughts that the Broncos would fade have, well, faded. The best barometer is their coach and that laconic smile says it all. One huge test came against Canterbury a couple of weeks ago. It was a home game for the Bulldogs, one they needed to win, while Brisbane could afford to lose and be no worse than second.

Both teams had five players on State of Origin duty just three days earlier, with four backing up. You might have thought the Bulldogs’ Blues had a point to prove while the still-high Maroons of Brisbane would struggle to keep the intensity, but Brisbane controlled the game, never in doubt.

They do have a hard road to the playoffs: the Titans, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs again, Dragons, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Storm. They’ll be tough enough to crack macadamias between their toes by then.

North Queensland took until round four to grab a one-point win over the Storm but since then their only loss was to the Cronulla 'Shocks' in round 16. More on them later.
These Cowboys are diamond, not rhinestone. Like the Broncos they can win ugly, but have so much scoring potential for the shootouts. They also have a bit more depth of finals experience and, above all, motivation reaching State of Origin proportion. Wronged so often, only emotion could beat them as they charge through the Eels, Raiders, Sharks, Rabbitohs, Warriors, Storm and Titans towards the finals.

Brisbane and North Queensland have already played each other twice for a win each. Will their next meeting decide the premiership?
Natural enemy of a Cane Toad Grand Final is a perennially tough Rooster on a calculated preparation. The club rocked by one bizarre headline after another has now won eight from nine and the loss was by six points to the Shocks. They look a bit scary.
They play the Tigers, Bulldogs, Knights, Eels, Broncos, Sea Eagles and tah dah – the Rabbitohs.

Yes, what a game to set up the playoffs. The defending premiers are different this year and have struggled to balance injury and representative duties with that carefully planned finals peak hour. A blazing start has been followed by a long period of inconsistency, including a loss to the Shocks. Adam Reynolds’ repeated injuries, for example, were not planned for. Now they play the Knights, Panthers, Sea Eagles, Cowboys, Bulldogs, Broncos and Roosters but, see below.
The top four teams are very well coached, experienced in big matches, have tough but mobile forward packs, creative control in the four key positions, outstanding kicking games, are capable of defending for long periods on their line and just as capable of capitalising on opportunities near their opponent’s line.
From fifth place down it’s not so convincing. The Bulldogs, like last year, can defy logic but have not beaten the top four teams and will play three of them again. Their pack is like the Blue Mountains but, after 20 minutes, just as mobile. This team hinges on halves leadership and that’s puzzling.
Injuries, suspension and Origin had chosen for them but now Hodkinson, Mbye and Reynolds are available no-one seems to know the best combination. Steve Mortimer thinks they should use next year’s pairing, which would mean dumping the NSW halfback for a sophomore and the Energiser Grubby – a combination that may one day rule the NRL, but not now.

Melbourne with Billy Slater out and a bunch of promising players injected still looks like a team in transition from one era to the next. Craig Bellamy is clearly managing that brilliantly but not well enough to win this title.

The Warriors are a team we love to watch and may well be the one we cheer for if ours drops out but they haven’t beaten the big four yet and it’s hard to see them doing so when it really matters.

Cronulla, however, have a great record against the top four – unbeaten against all but Brisbane and even that was close. In the playoffs though? Really?

St George Illawarra has been stumbling but with key players back could make the most of a pretty good run home. They too might just lack big game steel against teams that will lift.
So that’s the run home. A few injuries here and there and the pack will be shuffled again but at this stage, the top four are trumps.

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