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Renouf: Seven finals teams decided with eighth a three-way battle

After a quarter of the season, it has become clear that there are seven teams headed for the finals and the remaining battle is going to be for eighth position.

From what I have seen so far eighth spot will be fought out by Wests Tigers, South Sydney and the Broncos.

The cream is rising to the top already just with the quality of their play and intensity of performance. The order of the top four may change but there is not much between the teams from first to seventh right now.

This is the best defensive Parramatta side we have seen since the 1980s, conceding on average just eight points per game so far.

Wayne Bennett always based the premiership-winning teams at Brisbane around defence and that is the mould Brad Arthur has for Eels because they already had plenty of good attackers.

Fullbacks in the frontline dominant in Round 5

Ricky Stuart has the Raiders in a winning head space. Winning is something you learn and we saw last week against a much improved Tigers that Canberra are mastering that habit.

The Storm and their 37-year-old captain Cameron Smith have already adapted to the new ruck rules. The game has sped up but Smith has handled it with aplomb and seems to have taken it on as a new challenge.

Newcastle and Penrith are the big improvers from last year. Adam O'Brien has the Knights playing the full 80 minutes with a tough pack and Kalyn Ponga and Mitchell Pearce pulling the strings.

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The Panthers are fulfilling their potential and with Nathan Cleary back they will only improve. Both sides have lost once this year and their coaches will be happy with their grit and fight in their only defeats.

The Roosters remain the team to beat as back-to-back premiers. James Tedesco has already discovered that he is going to thrive even more as the game speeds up.

Trent Robinson finds a way to get improvement out of all his players and that is a scary prospect for opponents in the next 15 rounds. I expect the Roosters will hardly drop a game in the next three months.

Manly have injury worries again but they are a cut above the teams in the bottom eight. With the Trbojevic brothers, DCE and their two front-rowers they can beat anyone on their day, and they have Des Hasler as their mastermind.

That brings me to eighth position. The Cowboys are there now but I have seen enough worrying signs to suggest they won't stay there.

They were too loose against the Warriors last week in conceding 37 points. You throw in the injury to Michael Morgan and the fact that Paul Green is building the team with youthful players in the spine and it is going to be a tough season.

Broncos young gun will get opportunity

They also have a six-game stretch coming up against top eight sides which is going to test them.

One of three teams currently outside the eight will force their way in.

What I liked about Wests Tigers last week against the Raiders was their focus and intensity. They are competitive and their coach Michael Maguire has drawn a line in the sand that has given them all a wakeup call.

I still think he will try and bring Benji Marshall in there somewhere to improve their attack. They have got their defence and attitude right but Benji can give them the points they often struggle with.

I still think if Brisbane can hit their straps in the block of games coming up in the next five weeks that they can get on a roll. They are getting Tevita Pangai jnr and Alex Glenn back from injury and Ben Te'o should give them starch up front.

Centres are the centre of attention again

They need to be in the eight or close enough when  David Fifita returns to give them that extra attacking thrust. Pangai is a key for Brisbane. He is their enforcer and inspires his teammates. He also has the offloading ability that ignites a lot of points.

Don't discount the Rabbitohs going on a run. If Wayne can keep the team improving from here then they are going to be a force.

As Latrell Mitchell warms to his task at fullback you will see the side improve in attack and, as we saw last week, that can flow through the entire side. They have a great spine and the roll-the-sleeves-up style of pack to do the job.

The rest of the teams in the competition – Warriors, Sharks, Bulldogs, Dragons and Titans – will have their wins here and there but I just don’t believe they are going to get enough wins against the top seven teams to make any inroads on the table.

We saw that last week where the Bulldogs were really solid in a lot of areas against the Roosters but never looked like getting close.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.