Brisbane will play St George Illawarra in the first week of the NRL finals after locking up sixth spot with a 48-16 win over Manly on Sunday.
In a thrilling finish to the tightest competition on record, the Broncos finished equal with Penrith on 32 points and a +56 differential.
But the Panthers grabbed fifth due to a superior defensive record, meaning they’ll play the eighth-placed Warriors in the first elimination final on Saturday afternoon at ANZ Stadium.
Above them on the ladder, history was made with the top four teams – the Roosters, Storm, Rabbitohs and Sharks – all finishing on 34 points, making it the tightest finish to a season in NRL history.
Despite missing out on sneaking into fifth, the Broncos were still good enough to secure a home final and will host the Dragons at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
A record-equalling four tries from winger Corey Oates helped set up Brisbane’s 48-16 NRL win over Manly at Suncorp Stadium.
It what loomed as Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett’s final game, Brisbane showed no mercy as Oates became the seventh Bronco – joining Steve Renouf, Wendell Sailor, Karmichael Hunt, Justin Hodges, Denan Kemp and Israel Folau – to cross for four tries.
Oates thought he had a fifth try in the 79th minute, but it was disallowed for offside.
Cronulla, which on Sunday defeated Canterbury 30-18 to lock in fourth, will take on minor premiers Sydney Roosters in the first qualifying final at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
Valentine Holmes will enter the finals as arguably the hottest player in the NRL after scoring a try and setting up three others in a performance that had Bulldogs coach Dean Pay comparing him to Billy Slater.
“Billy’s retiring and someone’s got to take that mantle. These sort of players, for what he has done, he’s up there with the top players in the competition,” Pay said.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan admitted he needed his star fullback to continue his purple patch in the finals.
“He’s definitely in form in our team. Not quite sure about the whole competition … there’s some good players going around at the moment,” Flanagan said.
“[But] we need him in form. You need players like that if you’re going to go along in the semi-finals to rely on to score those tries, make a break, do something special.”
Elsewhere, Sydney Roosters locked up the minor premiership with a 44-10 smash up of Parramatta on Saturday night to claim the JJ Giltinan Shield.
“It’s not an easy thing to win. It’s 24 rounds. It’s a tough competition, one of the toughest, physical sports in the world,” coach Trent Robinson said.
“To finish on top after 24 rounds is a quality moment for the club.
“It’s pretty clear that we’ve worked hard to get into this position with this group of guys. It has caused some pain.
“There’s just a trust and a belief that they have and a calmness that they have in knowing each other really well. Now it’s time to prove and it starts next week.”
St George Illawarra trio Gareth Widdop (shoulder), Jason Nightingale (elbow) and Euan Aitken (hamstring) could all be back to take on the Broncos after the Dragons’ unconvincing 10-point win over Newcastle on Saturday.
Coach Paul McGregor said he had seen enough improvement in the Dragons’ defence against the Knights to signal the end of their late-season slump.
His side had lost six of its past eight matches but defended 50 plays inside their 20-metre zone.
“You saw some of it today with our ‘D’. We wanted to really get back to being a strong defensive side, which we were for 16 rounds,” McGregor said.
“We’ve got to be better, there’s no doubt about that. But next week is a different competition. She’s knockout footy, so both teams are level.
“We’ve also beaten all the teams that are in there, so why not?”
New Zealand Warriors veterans Simon Mannering and Shaun Johnson want their teammates to retain faith in what has worked this year when they hit the road for the NRL finals.
“The finals are different but for us, you don’t want to see that as a daunting thing,” Mannering said.
“In the finals you embrace what’s coming. The crowd’s there, the noise, the intensity, the speed. It’s about sticking to what you’ve been doing all year but just doing it better.”
First and foremost, the 32-year-old hopes to play a part, having been forced off midway through the Warriors’ 20-16 win over Canberra.
Johnson, whose two late penalty goals sunk Canberra, says the Warriors took plenty from a patchy win.
“By no means are we kidding ourselves by saying it was a complete performance,” Johnson said.
“We ended up holding on, which we may need to do in this run.”
Melbourne slipped out of first spot after its Friday night defeat to the Panthers, but will host a resurgent South Sydney in the qualifying final at AAMI Park on Friday night.