Friday Night Lights

A couple of weeks I wrote in this column that the top eight was already set and secure. Today, I look back and wonder if I jumped the gun. A few teams have faltered, another has fired, and all of a sudden things aren't looking as certain as they once did.

This sudden turn of events gives the final three rounds the sort of drama and excitement that they deserve: the Dragons' fall from grace and South Sydney's march up the ladder has given us a thorough precursor to the finals.

Both of these teams feature in must-win matches tonight. They'll be playing teams in the top four whose own positions in the finals make-up will be cemented by victories themselves. These are not games that a team can afford to approach conservatively; there is just too much at stake for all involved.

MELBOURNE STORM VS ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS

The Storm's halfback Cooper Cronk will miss this game with an ankle injury. If he were playing for any other team the loss of a key playmaker such as Cronk would mean an uphill battle to win the match, but not so for the Storm. They're so well drilled and regimental that Cronk's replacement will come in, play a simple role that fits in with the team's game plan and let the players around him do the rest.

The only other team in the NRL that comes close to the Storm's discipline and adherence to their game plan is the Dragons - but not the Dragons of the last four weeks. They can either play the game two ways: try and beat Melbourne by seeing which team can bore and frustrate their opponents into making errors and capitalise on them the best; or play expansive, throw a little caution to the wind and offer a free-wheeling counter to the Storm's regimental attention to detail. The Dragons aren't playing with confidence though, so there won't be much chance of the latter happening.

Instead, they should focus on winning the game through a dominant performance by their forward pack, winning the wrestle in the ruck and creating a nice platform to work off. It sounds simple, but against the Storm, nothing ever is.

Winning without Cronk is going to be a huge boost for the Storm's confidence in the lead-up to the finals, while a loss here to the Dragons may prove to be too demoralising a situation to turn around.

SOUTH SYDNEY RABBITOHS VS NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

The Rabbitohs are a team on a mission and after cutting down three opponents in three weeks off the back of some breath-taking attacking flare will look to claim their fourth scalp when they take on the Cowboys at ANZ Stadium. In contrast, the Cowboys will be looking to correct a two-game losing streak that has seen them slip behind the third-placed Broncos by four points.

For the Rabbitohs, this is their chance to knock over another finals-bound team. They started their winning streak with a come-from-behind victory against the Dragons, but their two ensuing scalps - the Eels and the Raiders - are teams that have been down on confidence and form. All of a sudden, Souths are looking like world-beaters. If they knock off a team led by one of the best (but currently rusty) players in Johnathan Thurston, the theatrical finish to the season will take on yet another twist.
Suddenly there will be a position in the top four, and a home semi final, up for grabs for teams like the Warriors and the Tigers.

The Cowboys were not in the contest last week against the Broncos, but with JT getting some game time under his belt after returning from injury, expect to see a more fluid and purposeful side. Stopping Souths' surge will be tough, but whether they win, lose or draw, the Cowboys are going to be getting some valuable battle experience in preparation for what's in store come September.

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