25 rounds, 192 games, #Origin on a Sunday, and a September Grand Final.
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The State Of Origin series represents the last turn into the home stretch. We're now heading into the straight with our sights set firmly on the finals. Teams who have been decimated by the representative period will start to get some balance and consistency back into their performances. On the other hand, there are teams that have gone unscathed through Origin and will be buoyed by any momentum that they have gained over their rivals during the last few months.
It's hard to believe that there are now only nine rounds left. That's a possible 18 competition points on offer. Even the lowest team on the ladder can scrape into the finals on the back of a miraculous undefeated sprint home. Considering the tough and even nature of the NRL, that's highly unlikely, but it won't stop teams from throwing caution to the wind in the hope that the ball will bounce in their favour.
Teams like the Storm, Sea Eagles, Dragons, Cowboys and Broncos just need to hold their nerve and composure over the last nine rounds to get into the finals (although with Johnathan Thurston's knee injury picked up in Origin III, the Cowboys are going to have to fight to keep their position in the top four more than the others).
But for the four teams in Friday night's games, time is running out to not only prolong their season into the finals, but prove that they deserve to be there come September. All of them have lost more games than they've won. The fact that two of them sit seventh and ninth on the table illustrates just how close this season has become in the middle of the pack. Teams are jockeying for position in that congested place; now it's time to sit back and see who will break out and who will pull up lame.
NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS
VS GOLD COAST TITANS
The Warriors looked like they were going to be the team that flew under the radar this season, but over the past month or so they've been well and truly blown out of the water. Four losses on the trot have them placed only six points clear of the cellar-dwelling Titans, and there are light years between these two teams' performances this year.
Mat Rogers' return from retirement will be a bigger boost for the Titans' structure than most will think. He's not playing in this game, but perhaps he will provide the mental boost that the Titans need.
It's going to be a cold, miserable night in Auckland, and this should be a night for the forwards. The Warriors need to win this game to stay in the eight; the Titans are playing for pride.
On the back of the Titans' recent form, this is a game that the Warriors should wrap up easily. But just like every week since round 1, Gold Coast gives you the vibe that they're just about to click into gear. Are they going to disappoint again?
PARRAMATTA EELS VS
There are whispers that Benji Marshall might take part in this game, and no team needs the influence of their star player more than the Tigers do at the moment. Two weeks ago against the Bulldogs, the Tigers looked absolutely toothless in attack.
They travel to Parramatta to take on a side that came up short yet again against the Broncos last week. It capped off a frustrating month of June of almost-but-not-quite results for the Eels, who somehow still only sit five points outside the eight.
Neither side's attack is coming together at the moment, and if the story remains the same tonight, this game will be won on defence.
In late 2009 these two sides were involved in one of the most exciting games of the season. Then, as now, they were two teams fighting tooth and nail for a spot in the finals. The only difference is that when these two sides met in 2009 they were both in a run of top form. Neither the Eels nor the Tigers are setting the world ablaze, but if they want to keep the fire burning in their season, now is the time to light the spark.