NRL finals: Will your team make the top eight?
When Nathan Brown took charge at Newcastle, he said it would take three years to build
consistency. Well, it is time for the Knights to deliver on that promise.
Brown is coming towards the end of his fourth season with a record of 23 wins from 89 games at Newcastle.
There is no question he has done a terrific job rebuilding this roster.
Not many teams have current State of Origin players at fullback (Kalyn Ponga) and halfback
(Mitchell Pearce), as well as three middle forwards (David Klemmer, Daniel Saifiti and Tim Glasby).
Across the park they don't really have a weakness, except perhaps in their heads.
Which is the fear.
For that reason, I see Newcastle's showdown with Wests Tigers at McDonald Jones Stadium on Friday night as their most important match since Wayne Bennett departed at the end of 2014.
Newcastle's last finals appearance was in 2013 when they made the preliminary final.
While a win on Friday night won't guarantee a finals spot, a loss will be incredibly tough to fight back from, especially given the Knights only have two more games at home this year.
Similarly, this is also shaping up as arguably the most important game in the Tigers' recent history because they haven't played finals football since 2011, the longest absence of any club.
With seven rounds of the regular season remaining, 14 teams remain in finals contention. But it is not as open as that may seem.
I believe eight of those are fighting for just three spots, and eighth-placed Newcastle are in most danger of crashing out given their recent run of three straight losses.
The only teams out of the running going into round 19 are St George Illawarra, Canterbury and Gold Coast.
Mathematically the Dragons (on 14 competition points) can still make it but it would require them winning every remaining game if the cut off is 28 points, or they could drop one game if the mark is 26 points.
What we do know is that runaway leaders Melbourne (32 points) will win the minor premiership, while it is hard to see South Sydney (26 points), the Sydney Roosters and Canberra (24 points) falling out of the top four.
Manly (22 points) are still a hope to finish in the top four, although the Sea Eagles play Melbourne twice and also Canberra.
But if 26 points is the top-eight cut this year, Manly only have to win two more games
to secure their finals spot, or at worst three.
That also makes them a finals certainty.
That leaves eight teams - Parramatta, Penrith, Newcastle, New Zealand, Brisbane, Cronulla, Wests Tigers and North Queensland - in the battle for places six to eight.
6th (20 points, +11 points differential)
Run home: Rd 19 v Warriors (H), Rd 20 v Dragons (A), Rd 21 v Knights (H), Rd 22 v Titans (A), Rd 23 v Bulldogs (H), Rd 24 v Broncos (A), Rd 25 v Sea Eagles (H)
Analysis: Can look like world-beaters one week and a rabble the next. But let's put it in context. Last year's wooden spooners have no games remaining against any current top-four teams, while they play the bottom three sides in the Dragons, Titans and Bulldogs.
Manly are the only team above them on the ladder and they still have to play in the final round at Bankwest, one of four remaining games at home. Parramatta fans have a right to be feeling confident.
7th (20 points, -49)
Run home: Rd 19 v Raiders (H), Rd 20 v Bulldogs (A), Rd 21 v Sharks (H), Rd 22 v Broncos (A), Rd 23 v Cowboys (A), Rd 24 v Roosters (A), Rd 25 v Knights (H)
Analysis: It's been a stunning turnaround for Ivan Cleary's men, who only won two of their opening 10 games. If they knock off Canberra at home this Sunday it will make it eight straight, the first time the Panthers have achieved that since they last won the comp in 2003. It would also give them an outside chance of finishing in the top four.
Of their seven remaining games, only two - against the Raiders and Roosters - are against teams currently above them on the ladder. Lock them in.
8th (18 points + 11)
Run home: Rd 19 v Wests Tigers (H), Rd 20 v Sea Eagles (A), Rd 21 v Eels (A), Rd 22 v Cowboys (H), Rd 23 v Wests Tigers (A), Rd 24 v Titans (H), Rd 25 v Panthers (A)
Analysis: Given many rated the Knights as potential top-four contenders this year, it would be totally underwhelming if they didn't make the playoffs from here.
Still need to win four, possibly five, of their remaining games - and four of those are away, against the Sea Eagles, Eels, Tigers and Panthers. I don't think anyone at Newcastle will be underestimating just how important tomorrow's game is in the context of their season.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
9th (17 points, -34)
Run home: Rd 19 v Eels (H), Rd 20 v Raiders (H), Rd 21 v Sea Eagles (H), Rd 22 v Roosters (A), Rd 23 v Sharks (A), Rd 24 v Rabbitohs (H), Rd 25 v Raiders (A)
Analysis: I can't see the Warriors making the finals because of an incredibly tough run home. Six of their remaining seven games are against teams currently above them on the ladder, including two against Canberra, and one each against the Roosters and Rabbitohs.
10th (17 points, -42)
Run home: Rd 19 v Titans (A), Rd 20 v Storm (H), Rd 21 v Cowboys (H), Rd 22 v Panthers (H), Rd 23 v Rabbitohs (H), Rd 24 v Eels (H), Rd 25 v Bulldogs (A)
Analysis: While 26 points might be enough to scrape into the eight, 25 won't. That means the Broncos must win at least five, possibly six, of their seven remaining games.
Although four games are at Suncorp, those are all against teams above them on the ladder - the Storm, Rabbitohs, Eels and Panthers.
11th (16 points, -9)
Run home: Rd 19 v Cowboys (H), Rd 20 v Rabbitohs (H), Rd 21 v Panthers (A), Rd 22 v Dragons (H), Rd 23 v Warriors (H), Rd 24 v Raiders (H), Rd 25 v Wests Tigers (A)
Analysis: You never count the Sharks out but what can't be ignored is that they have lost their past five games and are playing with little resemblance to the Cronulla of recent seasons.
They have only themselves to blame given Paul Gallen's stunning admission this week about the friction that exists between certain players.
LISTEN! Matty's back with Kenty and Finchy and they run the rule over the Raiders premiership chances, try to understand what's happening at the Sharks and look back at the '89 grand final and ask what would have happened in if the Tigers won.
12th (16 points, -68)
Run home: Rd 19 v Knights (A), Rd 20 v Cowboys (H), Rd 21 v Bulldogs (A), Rd 22 v Sea Eagles (A), Rd 23 v Knights (H), Rd 24 v Dragons (A), Rd 25 v Sharks (H)
Analysis: While there is no such thing as an easy draw, the Tigers probably have the easiest of any in this bracket. They do not play a top-four team and have the Bulldogs and Dragons to come. If they beat the Knights in Robbie Farah's 300th NRL milestone game, I reckon they are a massive chance. It could come down to Farah's last game at Leichhardt against the Sharks in the final round.
NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS
13th (16 points, -69)
Run home: Rd 19 v Sharks (A), Rd 20 v Wests Tigers (A), Rd 21 v Broncos (H), Rd 22 v Knights (A), Rd 23 v Panthers (H), Rd 24 v Bulldogs (H), Rd 25 v Storm (A)
Analysis: The 2017 grand finalists are not done with yet. They beat the Roosters two rounds back and only a late fightback from the Rabbitohs denied them last week. Given Michael Morgan missed both games, that's not bad form.