With two all-exciting rounds to play in the Intrust Super Premiership NSW competition, NSWRL.com.au looks at the top four hopes of each of the current top six outfits.
1. Penrith Panthers (35 pts, +138)
Round 23: v Newcastle Knights (Panthers Stadium)
Round 24: v Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles (Lottoland)
The stand-out team in 2018, the Penrith Panthers have consistently overcome the raft of challenges thrown their way throughout the season.
Emerging as the leading premiership contender on the back of eight-straight wins, Penrith sealed the minor premiership in Round 21 with an emphatic 38-10 win over top four contenders, the Western Suburbs Magpies.
But injuries and suspensions at the NRL level again look set to test the 2017 Premiers’ mettle.
James Maloney’s regular-season-ending injury casts some doubt over the Panthers’ Finals Week One prospects, with Tyrone May likely to fill the void left by the Origin-winning five-eighth.
Jarome Luai is also only a slim hope to play any further part in the Intrust Super Premiership Panthers’ title push, meaning new-look halves pairing Adam Keighran and Liam Coleman will lead the side into, and throughout, the finals series.
A top four berth assured, Penrith will play ‘wait and see’ in the weeks to come, with a host of teams still vying for a place in the all-important top four.
2. St. George Illawarra Dragons (28 pts, +54)
Round 23: v Blacktown Workers Sea Eagles (Campbelltown Stadium)
Round 24: Mounties RLFC (GIO Stadium)
Tipped by many to play a prominent role in the finals series, St. George Illawarra have rocketed up the ISP ladder of late having accrued eight competition points in the past five weeks.
Their charge lead by experienced half, 2017 Chairman’s Medallist Darren Nicholls, the Dragons meet Blacktown and Mounties in Rounds 23 and 24, respectively.
But Mat Head’s men will need to lift again – having fallen to both the Sea Eagles (Round 15) and Mounties (Round 1) already in 2018. The Dragons also have the second-worst point differential of sides currently first-to-sixth.
A shoulder injury to NRL five-eighth Gareth Widdop will have ramifications for the Intrust Super Premiership side, with Nicholls and Jai Field possible replacements for the club captain in the first-grade line-up.
In the Dragons’ favour though, a two-point buffer ahead of the third-placed Jets, who themselves will square-off with top four contenders in the remaining rounds.
3. Newtown Jets (26 pts, +91)
Round 23: v Warriors (Henson Park)
Round 24: v Western Suburbs Magpies (Henson Park)
On paper, consecutive matches at Henson Park to round out the regular season holds the Newtown Jets in good stead to finish inside the competition’s top four.
But maybe not so.
The Jets have won just three of eight matches played at the venue this season, including back-to-back, two point losses at the hands of the Panthers and Sea Eagles in rounds 20 and 21.
But boasting the best attack in the competition – scoring an average upwards of 26 points per game – the Jets have the strike power to turn recent form on its head.
Halfback Kyle Flanagan has been a consistent performer for Newtown this season, with he and No.9 Blayke Brailey instrumental in the side’s successes throughout 2018.
Should Newtown fail to beat the Warriors in Round 23 – a task they couldn’t manage when the sides last met in Round 8 – the Jets’ final game of the season versus the Western Suburbs Magpies could prove a top four shoot-out.
4. Mounties RLFC (26 pts, +91)
Round 23: v Wentworthville (Ringrose Park)
Round 24: v St. George Illawarra Dragons (GIO Stadium)
Currently fourth, Mounties have lost their past three matches – coinciding with Craig Garvey’s exit from the club.
Mounties’ No.9 had been, arguably, the competition’s most influential player, having guided Ryan Carr’s side to the top of the Intrust Super Premiership ladder for much of the 2018 season.
Mounties fell agonisingly short of a win in Round 22, and will be hoping to turn the tide when meeting Wentworthville at Ringrose Park this Sunday (19 August).
In a rematch of the 2017 Elimination Final, Mounties take on the Dragons in Round 24 – and much alike the Jets’ clash with Wests that weekend, the clash could go a long way in deciding the make-up of the top four teams.
A considerably favourable points differential may also play into Mounties’ hands, 24 rounds played.
5. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (26 pts, +63)
Round 23: v North Sydney Bears (ANZ Stadium)
Round 24: v Wentworthville Magpies (Ringrose Park)
With matches against the North Sydney Bears (10th) and Wentworthville Magpies (11th) to come, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs would rate their chances of a top four finish high.
The Bulldogs overcame a determined Sea Eagles outfit in Round 22, earning a vital two competition points in the process.
A one-point, 15-14 loss to the Dragons in Round 21 has the Bulldogs in fifth place – but in a sign of how close the Intrust Super Premiership NSW competition is, a reversed scoreline would have Steve Georgallis’ men in second place, and the Dragons in fifth.
6. Western Suburbs Magpies (26 pts, +23)
Round 23: v Wyong Roos (Morry Breen Oval)
Round 24: Newtown Jets (Henson Park)
A dramatic 31-30 win over Mounties in Round 22 kept the Western Suburbs Magpies’ hopes of a top four finish alive, and a win over the Wyong Roos this weekend would set up an enticing final round clash with the Jets at Henson Park.
But the Magpies have won just 6 of their past 13 matches, following the departure of regular-No.7 Josh Drinkwater to the Catalans Dragons.
Amongst Drinkwater’s exit, captain Luke Garner earned an NRL debut and looks unlikely to return to the Intrust Super Premiership NSW competition prior to the finals series.
Should they miss a top four finish, Brett Hodgson’s men will be left to rue three one-point losses suffered at the hands of the Roos, Bears and Jets respectively (rounds three, six and 12).