It seemed like an eternity while the NRL season was shut down due to COVID, but since it restarted on 28 May it has flown by and the final round is now upon us.
Eight teams’ seasons end this weekend with some sides such as the Broncos and Cowboys desperate for a holiday, while the Titans would love a few more rounds to storm into the finals. There will also be plenty of emotion over the weekend with some champions of the game saying farewell such as Benji Marshall, Darius Boyd, Chris Lawrence and Gavin Cooper
For the eight teams that will continue, some are using this last round as a tune up for finals, with the Storm and Raiders taking the opportunity to rest some stars after a tough season.
The mass resting from those two teams has created a debate around the responsibility clubs have to play their best talent for the broadcasters, but surely their biggest responsibility is to their supporters and doing what they believe will help their team win a premiership.
Brisbane Broncos (16th) vs North Queensland Cowboys (14th) Thursday 24 September 7.50pm @Suncorp Stadium
The Broncos need to win and hope the Bulldogs lose to avoid picking up their first wooden spoon in club history.
Brisbane’s halves have been decimated by injury, meaning star centre Kotoni Staggs will fill in at five-eighth alongside Tom Dearden.
Payne Haas returns to the side to bolster their front row, while in the back row Jordan Riki replaces David Fifita, who has played his last game for the club.
It is also the final NRL game in the stellar career of Darius Boyd. Despite copping plenty of criticism over the final two years of his career, Boyd has been a superb player for club, state and country and deserves to be sent off in style.
The Cowboys would love to finish the season with a win and condemn their rivals to the wooden spoon.
Josh McGuire returns to the front row after serving a suspension and adds some toughness to their side.
This also marks the final game at the Cowboys for club legend Gavin Cooper. Cooper was part of the 2015 premiership side and formed a strong partnership with Jonathan Thurston. Much like the Broncos with Boyd, the Cowboys will want to send Cooper out on a high.
Gold Coast Titans (9th) vs Newcastle Knights (6th) Friday 25 September 6pm @Cbus Super Stadium
The Titans will be aiming to make it five straight wins and head into the off season on a high with a victory over the Knights.
Despite showing plenty of improvement this season, the Titans are still yet to defeat any of the top-eight teams, so this would be their biggest scalp of the season.
While they missed the finals this season, the Titans have some big-name signings next year and a place in the top eight will be their goal.
The Knights can lock in a home final with a victory here and will be using this as a good test before finals.
Kurt Mann returns to the side after serving a one-week suspension and Mason Lino keeps his spot at five-eighth after a solid outing last week.
The Knights have had an inconsistent month but will need to back up their performance from last week if they are to topple the high-flying Titans and secure a home final against the Rabbitohs.
South Sydney Rabbitohs (7th) vs Sydney Roosters (3rd) Friday 25 September 7.55pm @ANZ Stadium
The oldest rivalry in the game will be renewed once more with the Roosters looking to lock in third spot on the ladder and a showdown against the Storm in a qualifying final.
The Roosters have had yet another stellar season and are getting their best team on the park right as the finals begin.
While other teams are resting some big-name players, the Roosters have gone the other way with James Tedesco, Jake Friend and Boyd Cordner all named to play.
Cordner is the risky one after picking up another head knock two weeks ago, but they are confident that he is right to go and could probably do with another run before finals.
The Rabbitohs shot themselves in the foot with a loss against the lowly Bulldogs last week and are now likely to have to travel to Newcastle to play the Knights in week one of the finals.
They looked to be charging towards finals after belting the Eels 38-0 in round 16 but have struggled since without Latrell Mitchell.
The Rabbitohs would at least need to challenge the Roosters here to show they’re any chance of going deep into the finals.
Canterbury Bulldogs (15th) vs Penrith Panthers (1st) Saturday 26 September 3pm @ANZ Stadium
The Bulldogs pulled off a big upset last week against the Rabbitohs to remove themselves from the bottom of the ladder, but the Panthers are a much bigger challenge.
The Bulldogs have been competitive in most games they’ve played this season and were finally rewarded with that win last week.
They got off to a flying start to lead 20-0 early and showed plenty of heart to hold off a Rabbitohs charge.
It’s been a disappointing season for the Bulldogs and there is plenty of change expected for next season under new coach Trent Barrett.
The Panthers secured the minor premiership last week, but surprisingly have chosen to rest only a few players.
Dylan Edwards, Stephen Crichton and Viliame Kikau are the only three named to be rested so far with plenty of big guns still in the side.
The Panthers may still decide to rest a few more in a game that means very little to a side looking to win their first premiership since 2003.
Cronulla Sharks (8th) vs Canberra Raiders (5th) Saturday 26 September 5.30pm @Netstrata Jubilee Stadium
These two sides will most likely meet in week one of the finals, but you could hardly call this a preview given the Raiders’ decision to rest a host of stars.
Despite still being a chance to finish fourth with a win – and the Eels losing – the Raiders have rested nine of their usual starting 13 to freshen them up before finals.
With so many out, it opens the door for plenty of guys who haven’t been able to play much footy this season, most notably the halves Matt Frawley and Sam Williams.
Frawley is a local junior who will play his first game for the Raiders, while Williams has been named to captain the side for the first time.
It’s great to see so many players get a chance and it would go down as a famous win if they could upset the Sharks.
The Sharks are still yet to beat a team in the top eight but get their chance against a depleted Raiders side.
They are also missing some key players with Shaun Johnson the most notable casualty after rupturing his Achilles last week.
With Johnson out and Chad Townsend still suspended, it means that Wade Graham returns to the side at five-eighth alongside Connor Tracey.
The Sharks are highly unlikely to move from eighth on the ladder, but they would like to take care of this young Raiders side to be any chance against their full side next week.
Wests Tigers (10th) vs Parramatta Eels (4th) Saturday 26 September 7.35pm @Bankwest Stadium
The Tigers farewell a club legend on Saturday night with Benji Marshall playing his last game for the club he famously won the 2005 premiership at.
Club stalwart Chris Lawrence will also play his final game for the club and no doubt their teammates will do everything in their power to send these two champions out as winners.
The Tigers have played some decent football in patches this season and if they can put close to a full 80 minutes together, they can beat a slumping Eels side.
The Eels’ form has dropped off considerably since their hot start to the season and are just holding onto a top-four spot from the Raiders.
Luckily for the Eels, they will know whether or not they have fourth spot on the ladder secured before kickoff, but either way, they will want to use this as a way to get some form back before finals.
New Zealand Warriors (12th) vs Manly Sea Eagles (11th) Sunday 27 September 2pm @Central Coast Stadium
The Warriors are probably looking forward to the end of the season more than anybody after a tough few months away from home.
They have been gutsy all season and put in a strong first-half effort against the Raiders last week before being outclassed in the second half.
They will be without their inspirational skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck for their last game, but Peta Hika is a more than capable replacement at fullback.
They deserve to finish the season with a win and there will be plenty of people hoping to see them topple Manly.
Manly played an underdone Tom Trbojevic last week which backfired spectacularly as he made several mistakes and ended up injuring his shoulder in their big loss to the Titans.
It shapes as a big off season for Manly as they have already lost their star front rower Addin Fonua-Blake, so need to find a replacement for him and a halves partner for Daly Cherry-Evans.
St George Illawarra Dragons (13th) vs Melbourne Storm (2nd) Sunday 27 September 4.05pm @ Netstrata Jubilee Stadium
The Dragons’ season has been dreadful and they have a big off season ahead of them to get back into finals.
The positives for them have been the form of Matt Dufty and Zac Lomax, but they need some new halves and some more grunt in their forward pack.
Some players are probably playing for their spot on the Dragons list for next year, so will want to impress in their final outing.
The Storm are the other side to rest players with 12 players missing from their side last week.
One player who isn’t resting though is Ryan Papenhuyzen, who is returning from injury and looking to get some game time.
Papenhuyzen has been named captain of the side, which caps off a remarkable turnaround for a player who nobody wanted only 18 months ago.
The Strom have earnt the right to rest their stars after another brilliant season finishing in the top two and are in a great position to launch an assault on the finals.