Predictions about the NRL’s final round have been thrown out the window after a slew of stars were rested ahead of the finals.
The decision complicates the picture for first place, the top four and the eighth spot in the finals.
The last round of the regular season kicks off when Canberra takes on the Roosters on Thursday night, with the Raiders still hoping to sneak into the finals.
It ends with the meaningless contest when the disappointing Tigers take on the bottom-placed Bulldogs on Sunday afternoon.
If rested players mean the final round looks a bit different this year, so too will ‘mad Monday’.
NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo has warned players to avoid trouble as teams like the Tigers and Bulldogs, who won’t play again this year, celebrate the end of their season.
The minor premiership
- Friday 6:00pm: Storm vs Sharks, Robina
- Friday 8:05pm: Panthers vs Eels, Robina
Some believe the minor premiership is meaningless, but on Tuesday Panthers‘ five-eighth Jarome Luai revealed it remains a goal for his club, particularly after finishing first last season.
“But it would be a pretty crazy result if Melbourne was to lose again, we’re not crossing anything to make that happen, we’ll just play hard this weekend moving into the finals.”
As it happened, fortune couldn’t have been any more favourable for Luai’s team.
Later that day Melbourne named a weakened side for their match against the hungry Sharks, who are still chasing a finals berth, first up on Friday night.
Storm coach Craig Bellamy left out five-eighth Cameron Munster, middle Christian Welch, backrower Felise Kaufusi, Jesse and Kenneath Bromwich, winger Josh Addo-Carr and centre Reimis Smith.
The Eels, the Panthers’ opponents later in Friday’s double-header, rested captain and fullback Clint Gutherson, prop Junior Paulo, backrower Marata Niukore, half Mitchell Moses and centre Waqa Blake.
The combined effect is the Panthers may now just be favourites to end the season on top of the ladder and be ‘rewarded’ with a likely clash against Manly (but more on that later).
Mathematically, the Rabbitohs can still finish first but would need both the Panthers and Storm to lose and pick up 170 points on Melbourne.
- Thursday 7:50pm: Raiders vs Roosters, Mackay
- Friday 6:00pm: Sharks vs Storm, Robina
- Sunday 2:00pm: Titans vs Warriors, Robina
With a healthy points differential advantage on the Raiders, the Sharks can secure eighth place with a win on Friday night against the weakened Storm.
Cronulla has moved Matt Moylan into the starting side at five-eighth from the bench but otherwise boasts a stable line-up as it attempts to secure a seventh consecutive finals berth.
The Sharks’ prospects have improved after the Storm named a weakened line-up.
The Raiders open the final round with a match against the Roosters on Thursday night.
The Raiders have moved Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad back to the starting side as he continues his return from a neck injury and have brought in veteran Iosia Soliola at lock.
The Roosters welcome back prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves after a knee injury and centre Adam Keighran is back in the side after a week off following a head injury.
But coach Trent Robinson has also sprung a surprise, naming rookie half Sam Walker on the bench and Lachlan Lam at number seven.
If the Sharks and Raiders lose, then the Titans could sneak into the eight by beating the Warriors on Sunday afternoon, but they would need to make up 23 points difference on the Sharks over the weekend.
- Thursday 7:50pm: Roosters vs Raiders, Mackay
- Friday 8:05pm: Eels vs Panthers, Robina
- Saturday 5:30pm: Sea Eagles vs Cowboys, Townsville
The Sea Eagles can lock up fourth place and a second chance in the finals with a victory over the Cowboys in Townsville on Saturday night.
But by that stage, they will know whether or not they even need to win, with two losses for the Sea Eagles’ rivals a very real possibility.
The Roosters face a desperate Raiders side on Thursday night, while the Eels have rested key players for their match against the Panthers on Friday.
Note: all times are in AEST.