In the final weeks of the NRL regular season our attention really starts to focus on the make up of the final eight and it’s hard not to think about which teams will make it to the grand final.
At the top end, it’s exciting for players and fans, but what about the impact and mentality being experienced by those clubs with zero chance of competing in September?
Having been in this position a few times, I can tell you that one rather strong word sums up the feeling – with an exclamation mark!
There are five clubs that find themselves in this situation and all will be assessing their season, their roster and their future.
Gold Coast Titans sit six points clear on the bottom of the table after only four wins this year.
Going into this season with Garth Brennan in charge, the talent across their roster would have had them feeling confident about playing in the finals.
Lack of connection in attack and defence has been an evident problem that must be fixed.
While obvious deficiencies are exposed occasionally during games, what has become clear is the resolve to win consistently in the NRL has left the building some time ago.
Talent is not the challenge but establishing a winning culture certainly is and this Titans group looks as though it can’t wait for the season to end. This has to be addressed.
The Bulldogs present us with a different story, as their roster is in a developmental phase.
Under Dean Pay we can see that while this team may not have the potency of others they rarely beat themselves.
They can build on this, and indeed already are, with the win over Souths on the weekend proving they can match it with teams who have finals aspirations.
They are a danger and have the ability to move forward next season.
The Dragons are a team packed with representative talent and will be undoubtedly disappointed with their result this year.
Coming into the finals rounds this group looks tired and predictable in execution of play.
This could be due to the toll of representative footy and the off-field challenges they have had this year, but it must be noted that it is a familiar trend over a couple of years.
Paul McGregor needs to shake up his approach if things are to be any better going forward.
The bottom teams will be looking to disrupt stronger outfits in the run to the finals. But as talk turns to the end-of-season trip or who needs to be recruited next year there is also another discussion some clubs will need to have – conditioning and injuries.
North Queensland Cowboys have had massive injury problems, particularly on their outside back.
Couple this with the fact that they have players who have been amazing servants, but are about to retire and you have a team playing on tired legs.
In the off season they will need to address the form and the contribution of Michael Morgan, Coen Hess and Jake Granville.
These individuals have demonstrated they are outstanding players but have not been right in 2019.
Are they carrying injury or do they need an injection of enthusiasm?
Whatever it is, for Cowboys fans to enjoy more wins, these guys need to get their bodies right and stand up in 2020.
Newcastle Knights are another close, but no cigar story. They went on a seven-game winning streak during the season, only to be bought back down to earth over the past couple of months.
For me the catalyst for the winning streak was the form and leadership shown by Mitch Pearce.
His key contribution in helping New South Wales win a State of Origin series seemed to turn into a letdown once back at his club.
If this is the reason for the team’s inconsistent effort at the end of the season, they have a major problem. The reliance on one individual in the NRL is a dangerous formula and Origin will be there again next year.
In reality, Nathan Brown’s rebuilding of the club was never going to see finals success until 2020 so the Knights are still on target if they can get more consistent performances from Brown and the men around him.
As the season winds down we will also learn a bit about the club support structures among the cellar dwellers.
Having to play a month of footy in one of the most physical arenas on the planet with no chance of playing finals is extremely tough on the mind and body.
But from that trial the seeds of next season’s success could still be planted.
Former St George player, Matthew Elliott has coached NRL teams Canberra, Penrith and New Zealand Warriors