The past weekend marked the end of the line for half of the NRL’s teams, leaving eight contenders to vie for the championship. While there will be ample opportunity to analyze what went wrong, especially for Souths, North Queensland, and Parramatta, for now, the focus shifts to the remaining teams.
Penrith, much like the last two years, stands as the runaway favorite. Can anyone halt their momentum? Perhaps, but the first step is determining who will get the chance.
Now is the perfect time for Brisbane to break their losing streak against Melbourne. The Storm’s dominance in this fixture is impressive, having won all 14 clashes since 2017. However, the current Broncos team is arguably the strongest Melbourne has faced during this period.
Last week’s matchup was a spectacle for neutrals but resembled the last day of school, with understrength teams taking the field. For Brisbane, it was about giving their starters some much-needed rest, while the Storm aimed to get more game time into Ryan Papenhuyzen’s legs ahead of a crucial month.
The Storm has quietly operated under the radar this season, and despite what their fans might consider an “average” year, they now hold a double chance and a strong possibility of hosting a preliminary final.
Yet, this outcome is far from predetermined. The Broncos are a supremely confident and talented team that not only wins but does so with style. Even neutrals, who might typically oppose the idea of the Broncos being dominant in the NRL as they were in the 1990s, are getting behind them in the finals. Payne Haas is unquestionably the best forward in the game at the moment, and fullback Reece Walsh is a game-changing talent.
It will be intriguing to see how the Storm reintegrate Papenhuyzen into the lineup, given his fitness level and the excellent form of Nick Meaney. However, Papenhuyzen might be the key for the Storm if the game remains close on Friday night, especially considering Brisbane’s tendency to pull away from fatigued opponents in the late stages.
Last week’s game doesn’t offer much insight into this upcoming match, but earlier this year, the Storm came out on top when these two teams clashed in a chaotic post-Magic Round encounter in Melbourne. However, that was a sloppy and undisciplined performance by the Broncos, particularly after Patrick Carrigan was sin-binned in the second half.
If the Broncos stay focused on the task at hand and avoid getting dragged into a physical battle, they possess the talent to come out on top.
The Warriors have enjoyed a remarkable campaign, emerging from obscurity to reach the top four for the first time since 2007 and securing a finals berth for just the second time in the past decade. Coach Andrew Webster is a strong candidate for Coach of the Year, having transformed the once-dull and average Warriors squad into an entertaining, high-scoring team.
However, their next challenge is their toughest yet – a trip to Penrith to face the reigning Premiers. The Warriors haven’t faced a top-eight side since July and a top-four side since May, losing all three encounters against Melbourne, Brisbane, and Penrith.
There are similarities to last year’s Cronulla squad, which relied heavily on key forwards, had a standout halfback, and boasted firepower in the backline. While this formula can lead to success, Saturday’s match will reveal just how far the Warriors have come.
Prediction: Penrith to win by 16 points
Much of the discussion leading up to Saturday night’s elimination final has centered on the venue rather than the teams involved. The Roosters’ fans may be disappointed by the limited seating at the tiny venue, but Cronulla earned the right to host the game, giving them a competitive advantage at Shark Park.
In terms of football, the Sharks have more at stake than the Roosters. The Roosters have exceeded expectations with their late-season surge to secure a top-eight spot.
Cronulla faced criticism earlier in the year regarding their schedule, but they rebounded with crucial wins against Souths and North Queensland to secure a finals berth, followed by a dominant performance against the Raiders.
Both Connor Tracey and Will Kennedy are named in the squad for Cronulla, solidifying their spine. However, the availability of Kayal Iro and Matt Moylan remains uncertain.
The Roosters, despite scraping into the finals, are a formidable opponent with their first-choice spine of James Tedesco, Luke Keary, Sam Walker, and Brandon Smith all in top form. The likely return of Joey Manu adds to their strength.
Cronulla’s path to victory typically involves a strong performance in the middle and exploiting opportunities on the edges. If they can keep the contest tight for the first hour, they might pull away for their first finals win since 2018.
Prediction: Cronulla to win by 2 points
Finals football returns to the Hunter after a long absence, and the atmosphere is electric. The game is sold out, and fans expect their team, the Knights, to put on a show against Canberra.
On paper, the Knights seem poised for victory, bolstered by a passionate home crowd and their recent stellar form. However, the 2023 Canberra Raiders defy logic and conventional wisdom, relying on unpredictability
Only a few times in the NRL era has a team reached the finals with a points differential as poor as Canberra’s. With Seb Kris suspended and ruled out for this match, their preparation hasn’t been ideal.
Despite their recent struggles, the Raiders have the potential to compete with the top sides if everything clicks, as they demonstrated against Brisbane a few weeks ago.
Prediction: Newcastle to win by 20 points
Penrith, while not as dominant as in previous years, finished first in the standings and are well-positioned to secure a three-peat, a historic achievement in the NRL era.
The winner of Saturday’s game at Shark Park will head interstate regardless of the outcome on Friday. Both the Storm and Broncos are strong contenders for the second week of the finals, with many favoring Melbourne.
Newcastle has an opportunity to make a significant playoff run. If they advance, they could face a Warriors team they’ve beaten before. While the Warriors have been a great story, Newcastle boasts the firepower to potentially eliminate them.
The Broncos, even during their recent struggles, have historically played Penrith closely, providing a stern test. While it’s a long road ahead, the likely scenario points to a grand final between the Panthers and the Broncos.
Prediction: Panthers to win the grand final.