After a long and strange season that featured a two-month shutdown, we have finally reached the best time of year – finals footy.
While the top eight teams were settled weeks ago, the final matchups were only decided when the Parramatta Eels produced a comeback win over the Wests Tigers in the third last match of the season to seal third spot.
The Penrith Panthers come into the finals on a 15-game win streak and are the team to beat as they search for their first premiership since 2003, but you could mount a case for the top six teams being contenders, so it shapes as an exciting finals series ahead.
1st Qualifying Final – Penrith Panthers (1st) vs Sydney Roosters (4th) Friday 2 October 7.50pm @Penrith Stadium
The finals kick off with the most anticipated match of the round as the number one contender Panthers look to take down the defending champion Roosters.
The Panthers have played a superb brand of footy all season and the only question over them is their lack of finals experience and relatively soft draw during the season.
They can only beat who has been put in front of them, however, and they have done that with aplomb as they finished the season with the number one defence and number two attack.
Nathan Cleary is the red hot favourite to claim the Dally M Medal after a superb season, while his halves partner Jerome Luai has become a star himself.
The Panthers have this enthusiasm about them which makes it hard to not enjoy the way they’re playing as it just looks like they’re having fun out there. Although, it makes it easy to have fun when you win 15 matches in a row.
The Panthers have been blessed with a great run with injuries and head into these finals with a full list to choose from, which is a huge plus for a team looking to win the premiership.
Their only meeting with the Roosters was all the way back in round one, so you can’t take much away from their 20-14 victory except that there’s no way this Panthers side comes in with any fear against the back-to-back champions.
Everything was looking on target for a Roosters three-peat until their extraordinary 60-8 loss against the Rabbitohs in the final round of the season.
It was the sort of result that had you second guessing your own eyes and the Rabbitohs took apart this great Roosters side that was only missing a couple of their big guns.
It’s hard to know whether that result was a side that is looking tired on the verge of finals or not, but you would be a brave man to completely rule out this proud club off that one performance.
The Roosters would have been embarrassed by their effort last week so expect this team full of stars to bounce back to some degree at least.
They lose Jake Friend to concussion for this clash with Freddy Lussick named as his replacement, but they are boosted by the return of Brett Morris, Joey Manu, Lindsay Collins and Isaac Liu.
While the Roosters have all the finals experience, the Panthers have played the best footy this season and deserve to be the favourites.
1st Elimination Final – Canberra Raiders (5th) vs Cronulla Sharks (8th) Saturday 3 October 5.40pm @GIO Stadium
There are 16 changes in total between the sides from last week’s matchup, so it’s hard to take too much out of the Raiders’ 38-28 victory over the Sharks.
The Raiders were desperately close to finishing in the top four to secure a second chance but will now have to win four straight matches if they are to go one better than last year.
They rested nine of their starting 13 last week in preparation for finals, so they should be fresh and ready to go in front of a sold out 9,600 capacity crowd at GIO Stadium.
2nd Qualifying Final – Melbourne Storm (2nd) vs Parramatta Eels (3rd) Saturday 3 October 7.50pm @Suncorp Stadium
While both sides finished just two points apart on the ladder, the Storm have been the far superior side over the second half of the season.
Despite having to pick up and relocate to the Sunshine Coast mid-season, the Storm have done a phenomenal job to finish second.
They also decided to rest their stars last week, so the likes of Cameron Smith and Cameron Munster should be ready to rip into another finals series.
With the possibility that this could be Smith’s final season at the Storm, he, along with the rest of his teammates, would be desperate to send him out a winner.
He will go down as one of the greatest players to ever play the game, and if he does retire after this season, he deserves to go out with a premiership.
The Storm have weapons all over the park and with the Eels’ left edge defence looking shaky all season, expect Munster, Justin Olam and Josh Addo-Carr to cause them plenty of problems.
The Eels squeaked into the top four by the skin of their teeth after a comeback win over the Tigers in the last round to give themselves a double chance, but it’s hard to see them winning the comp based on their current form.
They were the form team in the first half of the season but their drop in form was highlighted by a 38-0 thrashing at the hands of the Rabbitohs in round 16.
They have received a massive boost ahead of this match though, with star five-eighth Dylan Brown named to play after overcoming an ankle injury.
Brown is a crucial member of the Eels attack and will help ease the attacking burden on Mitchell Moses and Clint Gutherson with his dangerous running game.
The Storm smashed the Eels 32-0 in the finals last year and it wouldn’t be a huge shock to see a similar result in this one.
2nd Elimination Final – South Sydney Rabbitohs (6th) vs Newcastle Knights (7th) Sunday 4 October 4.05pm
Good luck predicting what is going to happen in this match with both sides demonstrating some inconsistent form to say the least.
The Rabbitohs were embarrassed by the Bulldogs – who were in last place at the time – in round 19 before a stunning form reversal in round 20 as they annihilated their long-time rivals the Roosters 60-8.
The Rabbitohs have been capable of some stunning performances this season, but their issue has been replicating that level of performance consistently which makes it hard to see them winning four straight matches to win the premiership.
Cody Walker is without doubt the key to their success because when he is on, they are an incredibly dangerous side. He scored two tries and had three try assists last week and the Knights’ right edge defence will be on high alert.
While the Rabbitohs have been somewhat inconsistent lately, the Knights are at a whole other level as they enter their first finals campaign since 2013.
They’ve gone win, loss, win, loss, win, loss over their last six games with their regular season ending in a 36-6 belting at the hands of the Gold Coast Titans.
They were never in the contest against the Titans with their forward pack being dominated in a worrying sign heading into finals.
With guys like David Klemmer, the Saifiti brothers and Mitch Barnett in the forwards, there is no excuse for being outgunned like they were last week so expect them to come out fired up against the Rabbitohs.
Mitchell Pearce and Kalyn Ponga rely on having a strong platform to attack from and if the forwards can’t give them that, they have no shot in this one.
The Rabbitohs deserve to head into this must-win final as favourites, but nothing would surprise with these teams.