The first round of the NRL finals is locked into place, with Cronulla’s loss to Manly on Sunday denying them fourth spot and the double chance.
Perhaps the best game will be the heavyweight Queensland derby on Saturday night between the Broncos and the Cowboys, while Canterbury should have too much firepower for the Dragons.
We run our eye over the fixtures and reckon we’ve found the winners.
Sydney Roosters (1) v Melbourne Storm (4) – 7.55pm (AEST), Friday, September 11 at Allianz Stadium
Results fell Melbourne’s way to catapult the perennial contenders into the all-important top four for the eighth time in 10 seasons – but the Storm’s reward is an ominous assignment against a Sydney Roosters juggernaut on a 12-match winning streak.
The minor premiers have not missed a beat since losing forward-pack leader Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and linchpin Mitchell Pearce to injury a fortnight ago, dismantling arch-rivals South Sydney 30-0 in the final round.
The Storm have adapted admirably since losing Billy Slater to injury, with young fullback Cameron Munster developing into one of the NRL’s hottest properties, and veteran superstars Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk ensuring they remain one of the most clinical outfits in the NRL.
But the Roosters’ relentless defence and heavy attacking artillery – headlined by Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, James Maloney, Michael Jennings and Blake Ferguson – will be difficult to combat.
PREDICTION: Roosters by 12
Canterbury Bulldogs (5) v St George Illawarra Dragons (8) – 5.50pm, Saturday, September 12 at ANZ Stadium
Canterbury head into the playoffs on the back of five straight victories, but scratchy wins over the lowly Knights and Warriors in the last two rounds emphasised how tough the task will be without injured NSW halfback Trent Hodkinson.
St George Illawarra has limped into the finals, however, and are destined to make a swift exit in this sudden-death encounter.
Dragons playmaker Gareth Widdop is a doubtful starter – and the Englishman’s absence would surely douse any chance of an upset, with Benji Marshall and Josh Dugan left to navigate a sinking ship.
The Bulldogs’ plethora of ball players should be able to unlock the Dragons’ rigid defence, allowing the likes of Tim Lafai, Curtis Rona and the Morris twins plenty of opportunities.
There just isn’t enough scoring potential in the Red V to trouble a blue-and-white unit that specialises in September situations.
PREDICTION: Bulldogs by 14
Brisbane Broncos (2) v North Queensland (3) – 7.55pm, Saturday, September 12 at Suncorp Stadium
Saturday night serves up a mouth-watering Queensland derby, pitting Wayne Bennett’s resurgent Brisbane Broncos against the Johnathan Thurston-inspired North Queensland Cowboys.
Both front-runners have got the wobbles over the latter rounds of the regular season, each winning just two of their last five to hand the minor premiership to the Roosters.
The Broncos should head into the match virtually at full-strength, while the Cowboys’ chances of an away upset could hinge on the fitness of gun five-eighth Michael Morgan, particularly as he and Thurston prepare to line up against the in-form combination of Ben Hunt and Anthony Milford.
The Cowboys’ Achilles heel has been starting slowly and letting even also-ran opponents get out to early leads – and quality sides are unlikely to allow them to perform their customary comeback heroics.
The Townsville-based club also has the demons of three straight controversial finals exits to conquer.
The Broncos’ lack of finals exposure in recent seasons could be a drawback, however: they have played just two post-season matches in the past three years – both sudden-death qualifying final losses to the Cowboys.
This will be the most hotly anticipated showdown of the opening weekend of the finals.
PREDICTION: Broncos by 4
Cronulla Sharks (6) v South Sydney Rabbitohs (7) – 4.10pm, Sunday, September 13 at Allianz Stadium
Cronulla had a top-four berth at its mercy, but a disappointing final-round defeat to out-of-contention Manly has pitched the perpetual bridesmaids into a sudden-death meeting with reigning champs South Sydney.
The gritty Sharks – with young livewires Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird sparking a long-dormant attack – play the sort of football that wins tense finals matches, while the squad boasts a stack of big-game experience despite the club’s general lack of success over the last decade.
The wheels have completely fallen off the Rabbitohs’ title defence, plummeting from a top-four spot to seventh after heavy defeats to the Bulldogs, Broncos and Roosters in the final three rounds.
To compound their woes, Issac Luke will be missing this week through suspension. But the smell of September and the return of skipper Greg Inglis from a knee injury may be enough to revive Souths’ campaign.
The Sharks have been something of a bogey team for the heavyweight Rabbitohs, winning four of the past seven matches between the sides.
This shapes as potentially the most intriguing clash of the weekend as the title-less Sharks face up to 48 years of history, while the star-studded premiers are searching for a major form reversal.
PREDICTION: Sharks by 2