The race for the NRL title is now on – as players recover from the emotional drain of Origin and focus on their team’s aspirations to finish the year on top.
The competition is wide open in my view and very little separates the top six teams.
Most coaches break the season into three thirds (Rd 1-8, Rd 9 – 16 and Rd 17 – 24) and they are now concentrating on trying to force their way into the all-important top four.
NRL history suggests the winner has always come from the top four (and often from the top two) which gives teams two bites at the cherry.
A quick review after eight rounds – had the Dragons, Panthers, Warriors and Storm in the top four.
After Rd 18 (when every team had played 16 games) the top four was the much improved Rabbitohs, the Dragons, the Storm and the Panthers.
Sitting closely behind them were the Roosters (5th) and the Sharks (6th).
The worst performed teams in the middle stages of the competition have been the Tigers who were in 6th position (now 10th)) and the Knights (who were 6th) in 12th position.
There are two key indicators in the run home: one is their defensive capability – with the Roosters conceding only 14 points per game, the Panthers (15.5), the Storm (15.5), the Rabbits (16.5), the Sharks (17.5) and the Dragons (18).
The other is the quality of their spine and which must have some Origin or International level players in the key positions to their team across the line when it counts.
The Rabbitohs have Damian Cook and Adam Reynolds, the Dragons have Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt, the Storm have Cameron Smith, Billy Slater and Cameron Munster, the Panthers have James Maloney and Nathan Cleary and the Roosters have Cooper Cronk, Jake Friend and James Tedesco.
The Broncos and the Warriors have some quality in the key positions but must improve their defence significantly to challenge for the title.
The other factor at play are the emotional reasons that drives a team to the ultimate achievement in the game.
It could be the retirement of a key, long serving player such as Simon Mannering at the Warriors, Luke Lewis at the Sharks, Sam Thaiday at the Broncos or possibly Billy Slater at the Storm.
Or will the Storm be the first team to go back to back for the first time since the Broncos in 92/93 and 97/98 – led by their inspirational captain Cameron Smith.
The Dragons have the emotional James Graham in their team who is yet to win a title in the UK or Australian (having played in six unsuccessful grand final teams – including two at the Bulldogs).
The Rabbitohs have a 300 game player in John Sutton who has the support of his high profile teammates including Sam Burgess and Greg Inglis as they attempt to win their 2nd title in four years.
The Panthers have the x factor in James Maloney who has the Midas touch when it comes to winning titles and he has done it before at the Roosters, the Sharks (after 50 years) and it could be Penrith’s for the first time since 2003.
Will Cooper Cronk say farewell to the NRL in 2018 and could this inspire the Roosters to premiership glory for the first time since 2013?
And finally – the most successful team will need some luck with injuries and a healthy roster when the next stage of the competition kicks in from the first week in September.
Two teams that sit outside the top eight by four points – the Raiders (9th) and the Tigers (10th) will be hoping the “wheels fall off” a couple of teams that sit above them – as they look like the only teams that can challenge for a place in the top eight with seven rounds remaining.
Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Sharks, Dragons, Panthers, Knights, Storm, Roosters