he 2020 NRL top eight was locked in a few weeks ago but following the weekend’s regular-season ending round, the final positions of those clubs who still harbour aspirations of premiership glory have been confirmed.
It has been a somewhat predictable regular season but as the old cliche goes, anything can happen come September (or October, thanks to Covid-19). With injuries mounting and finals experience coming into play, four front-runners lead the pack with a few teams making up the numbers.
The minor premiers are on an incredible 15-game winning streak after a thorough dismantling of the cellar-dwelling Bulldogs in the final round. They have worked with machine-like precision over most of the season, managing to chalk up wins even when they have not been at their best. They have also finished the regular season with the best defensive record in the competition. Though Nathan Cleary has emerged as the No 1 man, he has been well-balanced by Jarome Luai in the halves and the emergence of guns like Liam Martin and recruit Api Koroisau’s role at hooker. The only negative for the team at the foot of the mountains is they have had a fairly soft draw leading into the finals, so will have to lift to another level as they face a Roosters team that was thoroughly spanked in the final round.
Every year commentators wonder if it is the beginning of the end for the Storm, and every year they are dead wrong. Despite injuries to key players Cameron Smith, Cameron Munster, Brandon Smith and Ryan Papenhuyzen throughout the season, they keep turning up and keep annihilating opposition teams. Craig Bellamy’s tactic of accepting a loss by resting a large contingent of players in the final round will no doubt freshen them up leading into a big game against the Eels, who they had a shock defeat to in round 15. And if there is one thing we know about the Storm, it is that they rarely go down to the same team twice. They should go deep into the finals, if not make their fourth appearance in a grand final in the past 10 years.
Excitement in Sydney’s west heightened as the Eels played an excellent opening month to the season. After they beat local rivals Penrith in round five, back pages were already printed that gave the Eels’ faithful a chance to dream. But by mid-July the wheels started to wobble, and in August they lost to the Storm and the Dragons before a 38-0 annihilation at the hands of the Rabbitohs. Playmaker Mitch Moses suffered a calf injury against the Raiders in round seven and though he returned quickly, he has not had the same impact as previously. Five-eighth Dylan Brown has been missing for weeks thanks to an ankle injury, which has also shaken their attack. The Eels have always suffered mentally despite their actual football talent, and it is the key roadblock to finals fortune. Wins against the Broncos and Wests Tigers have been good, but not exactly earth-shattering, though their coach Brad Arthur thinks the way they performed in the final period against the Tigers proves they are ready for the fight. “I reckon the last 15 minutes probably showed that [we are better], we wouldn’t have been able to pull that back last year,” he said. They will need huge resolve to overcome the Storm in week one.
Before the Roosters played arch-rivals South Sydney last weekend, there was perhaps a very different idea of how a finals preview would look. But a 60-8 loss cannot be ignored. They went from shell-shocked to plain inept during the game, a result that was not expected from a team many pundits had tipped for a premiership three-peat in 2020. “We’ve just got to take our medicine and it really hurt,” said coach Trent Robsinson. “It’s not about looking elsewhere. I’ve got to make sure we sit in it for a while, we deal with it and… when we wake up we get that belief and we get back to playing footy. They didn’t become poor footy players overnight, we got huge lessons there.” It probably will just be a blip on the radar. When they are on, they still have some of the best attack in the competition. Robinson will no doubt spend every waking minute trying to work out what went wrong, and that is a scary prospect for the Panthers.
The modern Raiders have struggled to put two good seasons together, but after a stellar 2019, they have been able to maintain their standing as a team to beat. Watching their inspirational hooker and co-captain Josh Hodgson succumb to a season-ending knee injury early in the piece was tough. Thankfully for their supporters, it did not affect them too much, winning nine of their past 11 since Hodgson was ruled out. Last week against the Sharks (who they will face again in the first week of the finals), they won without Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, George Williams, Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker, Elliott Whitehead, John Bateman and Jordan Rapana – who comprise hundreds of games of NRL experience. The Raiders have dropped games to the Roosters, Panthers and Storm but are also one of the few teams that have beaten the Roosters and Storm (they have only played one game against Penrith this season). Of the teams in the bottom half of the eight, they are a strong chance for at least a preliminary final.
Watching the Rabbitohs so thoroughly account for the defending premiers in round 20 was truly one of the shocks of the season. It is not that they are not capable of greatness – more that they have had trouble finishing off higher-ranked teams in 2020. Before their attacking masterclass, they lost once before to the Roosters, twice to the Storm and once to Panthers (but only played them once) and the biggest scalp they had claimed was the Eels, who they trounced 38-0 a few weeks ago. But after a 60-8 win they have soared into premiership contention and saved themselves a trip to Newcastle in Week 1. Cody Walker is having one of the best seasons of his career, backed up by his halves partner Adam Reynolds. We know what coach Wayne Bennett is capable of and he is even more confident in what his team can do. “I know how capable they are. I’ve just got to get them into that frame of mind every week for the next month. No one has to ask the question anymore ‘can we beat sides in the top four?’ Because we can, but our challenge is to be that team every week for the next month.”
New coach Adam O’Brien came into the 2020 season promising a new defensive attitude for long-suffering Knights fans. As a result, they are making their first finals tilt since 2013. But the ghosts of old still haunt the team, and they are capable of either blowing their opposition off the park or simply being absolutely terrible, as witnessed by their loss to the Titans last weekend. They have been dominant at home in the past couple of months but their fate was taken out of their hands with that final defeat, so instead of hosting they will have to go to Sydney to beat a Rabbitohs team full of confidence. Their great hope is Kalyn Ponga but if he is starved of ball, there is not much else doing. They will be hoping for a miracle in the Hunter.
What a funny old year it has been for the Sharks. They have barely rated a mention this season, but have managed to scrape into eighth with 10 wins. Their defence is by far the worst in the top eight and they hold the ignominious record of being one of the rare teams to qualify for finals without beating any other top eight teams. The loss of playmaker Shaun Johnson to an ACL injury two week before the finals was enough for most people to put a line through them. They also have to travel to Canberra to face the Raiders, who they lost to last Saturday night despite Ricky Stuart resting what felt like 100 of his big stars. Still, their coach John Morris is positive. “We weren’t going to change where we were on the ladder and even if we had a really good win people would say we weren’t playing against a full-strength Raiders side. I felt that we could rest a couple and give a few younger players a run. That was the positive. We’ll get our healthy bodies back… and fight for our lives.”