With just nine weeks of the 2017 National Rugby League regular season remaining, the focus has started to shift towards the play-offs and the road to the Grand Final.
As of 4th July, Craig Bellamy’s Melbourne Storm side are four points clear of the chasing pack which includes defending champions Cronulla Sharks, and fans are sure to be in for an exciting finish to the campaign.
Melbourne have the strongest attacking unit in the sport while the Sharks, who actually held the Storm to just two points back in Week 6, boast the best defensive record in the business. At the end of the day, something will have to give – but is it a two-horse race?
You could argue no – the Sydney Roosters and Manly Sea Eagles are right in the mix and ready to shake things up at the top of the table.
These four are by far and away the most competent and consistent teams in the NRL and it is hard to envision anyone other than these sides competing in the Grand Final. With that in mind, it may prove prudent to look at Australia’s four elite teams ahead of what could be a scintillating postseason.
We previewed each side and considered whether they have what it takes to go and win the NRL title on rugby league’s biggest stage.
Storm will take some stopping
You heard it here first – Melbourne are the team to beat this year. It sounds strange to label the Storm as the main contenders, especially when they were so soundly beaten by Cronulla in last year’s Grand Final.
But you cannot ignore Melbourne’s talented roster – the Storm are blessed with quality in key areas and experienced stars Cooper Cronk, captain Cameron Smith and Aussie legend Billy Slater will give Bellamy’s men an edge in the post-season.
They slipped up last season, but that defeat will only make Melbourne hungrier to emerge victorious this time around. With four home fixtures in the last six weeks of the campaign, the Storm have the perfect opportunity to build momentum ahead of the play-offs.
It would take a brave man to back against Melbourne on current form, especially when you consider their attacking prowess – and that includes those players available off the bench.
Unsurprisingly, Melbourne have scored more points than all 15 of their NRL rivals – a solid achievement. The Storm pride themselves on their ability to play exciting, out-of-the-hands rugby but that could be their downfall in the postseason.
Going through the motions and completing sets is vital to success in the play-offs and Melbourne may have to tweak the tactical side of their game slightly to keep their rivals at bay.
— Melbourne Storm (@storm) June 30, 2017
Cronulla are very difficult to break down
At the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Sharks. Whilst the defending champions are ranked as low as ninth in terms of offensive points, Cronulla boast the best defensive record, and they will be stubborn as ever in the play-offs.
Although they trail Storm by four points at the moment, the Sharks won’t be panicking just yet – they tend to find their best form when it matters most of all.
Away from home, Cronulla have been outstanding this year; winning all seven of their road games. However, their home form needs some work. With five defeats in nine fixtures, the Sharks must improve in order to compete against the best in the league.
Consistency at home is key to success in almost every sport and Shane Flanagan will be urging his side to improve at Southern Cross Group Stadium before it is too late.
Last year, Cronulla won the NRL title for the first time in their history and a second crown in as many seasons could be on the cards.
The Sharks, valued at a best price of 6/1 via multiple bookmakers on Oddschecker, will be there or thereabouts at the business end of the campaign and with a concerted effort on improving their performances at home, Flanagan’s men could head into the Grand Final knowing that a solid defensive approach may be enough to secure another championship.
Beware, the Roosters may be crowing
Don’t forget about Sydney Roosters. Less than two weeks ago, the Roosters – 13-time NRL champions themselves – produced one of the performances of the season to fend off Melbourne, eventually winning by the Golden Point rule.
Sydney last tasted championship success back in 2013, but Trent Robinson’s men have shown glimpses of title-winning form this year and the Roosters could build momentum ahead of the play-offs.
With Michael Gordon playing at an exceptionally high level, the Roosters will fancy their chances against anybody. The veteran is currently sitting pretty as the NRL’s top points scorer this campaign with 128 – two more than Penrith Panthers star Nathan Cleary.
If he can maintain his current form throughout the remainder of the season, Gordon could fire the Roosters back to the top of the National Rugby League ladder.
Winning the regular season is no longer a viable option but a Grand Final success is. On any given day, this Sydney side are capable of beating the best teams in the world and it may prove prudent to keep a close eye on the Roosters in the coming weeks.
Robinson’s men are fairly consistent on both sides of the ball and neutrals will be hoping that this once great rugby team can regain their place in the Grand Final. From there, it’s anybody’s game.
Manly are very much in the mix
Last but not least, we have the Manly Sea Eagles. With six wins in their last seven outings, Manly are in fine form and momentum could make all the difference in the play-offs.
We all know just how confident and talented this Sea Eagles side can be and their NRL rivals will be looking to slow them down ahead of what could be a memorable postseason. Yes, they are the weakest of these four sides but there really isn’t much between them.
Incredibly, the Sea Eagles have scored 30 points or more in five of their 16 league games so far this season – not even Melbourne have managed to eclipse that figure.
Without a doubt, Manly have the talent to challenge the NRL’s top clubs but there are real questions over their longevity and consistency. Last year, the Sea Eagles nearly finished with their worst attacking record since 1992 and a similar collapse could prove catastrophic.
Nothing is a given in sport and Manly could upset the party if they continue in this vein. The NRL title is still very much up for grabs despite Melbourne’s regular season dominance and a massive effort from Cronulla, Sydney or Manly could spell heartbreak for the Storm once again.
Write the Sea Eagles off at your peril – they are this year’s dark horses and a trip to the Grand Final could be on the cards.