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There are only two undefeated sides remaining in the NRL leading into round five of the NRL Telstra Premiership and it is quite possible, even probable that neither will remain that way after this weekend.
(1) Canberra: The surprise packet of the 2003 season and still remain undefeated after four rounds. Two tough matches in the next three weeks should give us a clear indication of exactly where the Raiders stand. Canberra play Parramatta away then the Bulldogs at home in round seven after their week six bye. On current form, the Raiders are capable of winning both matches and if they do, a top four position is not out of the question. They, along with the Rosoters have the fastest backline in the NRL.
(2) Bulldogs: The Dogs are firing on all cylinders at the moment but have a tough run in the next month with matches against Newcastle (away), St George (home) and Canberra (away) but the Dogs will start favourite in every match and are still waiting on the return of Steve Reardon and Braith Anasta. They won't win 17 in a row but they are the front runners for the minor premiership at this stageand deservedly so.
(3) Brisbane: The Broncos are still undefeated but have not been convincing in three of their first four victories with close wins against Penrith, Souths and North Qld but they still won. They have the Warriors this week, a team who have proven to be a bogey side for the Broncos in the last two seasons and this clash should be a beauty. Brisbane are specials for the top four but there is still a big question mark over their halves.
(4) Warriors: The New Zealand Warriors are the real deal. Everyone thought they would crumble after losing the grand final and two experienced campaigners in Ivan Cleary and Kevin Campion but they have stood tall and won three of their first four with their only loss an opening round heartbreaker to the Knights which is nothing to be ashamed of. They are gettig better by the week and Lance Hohaia is one of the games hottest prospects in years. Goalkicking will be their achilles heel.
(5) Roosters: The Premiers started like they finished last year, on fire but in the last two weeks lost in the upset of the year to the Panthers and then put the Sharks away but conceded 20 points in the process. They don't look as dominant as they did late in season 02' but it's only early days and they do have the cattle to win back to back titles. The question is, have the competition caught up? A tough win over a depleted Knights in round two is not enough to confirm this but the Roosters round nine clash against the Dogs should be a mouth watering prospect for fans of either side.
(6) Melbourne: Another team that has surprised but were brought back to earth last weekend with an almighty thud against the Knights but they did show enough ticker to come back and put 28 points on the Knights in even time. Craig Bellamy has done an excelelnt job so far considering injuries have decimated the Storm and a win over the Sharks this weekend will give them a great deal of confidence once they get all their players back.
(7) Cowboys: The Cowboys have had a positive start to the season, beating Souths and Manly while losing to the Raiders and Broncos. Townsville is fast becoming a nightmare away trip and a few big scalps, starting with the Roosters this week, would go a long way towards the Cowboys earning a maiden semi final berth and repay the huge debt they own the people of Townsville after eight seasons of terribe results and financial mismanagement. Graham Murray will want a win over his old club more than anything and he may just get it.
(8) Knights: Indifferent start to the year but they have probably had the hardest run inthe early stages with away matches against New Zealand and Parramatta and a tough homecoming against the Roosters. Things don't get any easier this week with a blockbuster against the Dogs in a rematch of the best match of the 2002 season. A match where Hazem El Masri slotted the winning goal from the touchline after the siren had sounded after trailing 19-0 in he first half. Newcastle still sport the emotional scars from this battle and will have to overcome their demons if they are to escape with a win on Friday night. Andrew Johns attitude has also been under the spotlight after a loss to the Eels and he is going to be pushed to the very limit this Friday night so he may well explode once again. Johns is nowhere near fit and unless he drops some weight, the Kinghts will be sitting ducks at the back end of games as was evidenced against Melbourne last week.
(9) Tigers: Only one bad performance to date has the Tigers on the cusp of the top eight and a win over Souths will see them elevated into the eight. Tim Sheens has installed a new, tough mental culture into the club from the grass roots right up to the senior coaching staff and it is slowly paying dividends with better results than under the lawless Terry Lamb regime. Sheens had a terrible tenure at North Qld but he has won three titles with the Raiders and he is passing on his immense knowledge to the Tigers who should be biting at the heels of the top eight come round 26.
(10) Dragons: Injuries have decimated the Dragons start to the season and only now are they starting to get some of their high profile players back on the paddock. Barrett and Timmins are back on deck this week and their return should see the Dragons dispose of Manly and get their nightmare start back on track. After Manly, the Dragons face the Bulldogs and Roosters in successive weeks so a win this weekend is vital for their chances this season as a loss would see them go into the big games with only one win to their name. The jury is still out on the Dragons. Still yet to shake the inconsistent tag.
(11) Panthers: Lost their second heartbreaker this season and have the bye this week which gives them an extra week to stew over the loss to the Raiders. The Panthers were up by 16 early int he second half but were run down by the Raiders, who scored 28 unanswered points against a tiring Panthers outfit. Martin Lang is yet to play this season and with Girdler out for an extended period, the Panthers season will hinge on how they perform in the next six weeks. The biggest question surrounding the Panthers is the size of their ticker.
(12) Parramatta: Big problems out west with the Eels only winning one of their first four games after promising so much in the trials. Nathan Hindmarsh is missing and so is any cohesion between Paul Green and Adam Dykes. Both players are playing with very little confidence with Green especially down on his game. Green had a shocker against the Bulldogs last week and he looks lost trying to lead the side around the park He missed a kick for touch and at crucial stage of the match and made far too many elementary errors. His position is under threat with Steve Witt waiting in the wings and a loss to the Raiders could spell the end of Green's career at the Eels. Coach Brian Smith is under even more pressure after allowing so many players to leave the club in the last two seasons and it is really starting to bite with their lack of depth glaringly obvious.
(13) Sharks: Hard to split the bottom three. After all, they are all winless after four rounds but the Sharks have the talent to turn it around so it's just a matter of confidence and adaptation and once that comes, the Sharks are as good as any team in the NRL. Brett Kimmorley has struggled so far this year so one can assume the captaincy is taking it's toll on his game with Noddy not even selected in the preliminary NSW Origin squad on Monday and Phil Gould was quick to point out he is now third in the pecking order behind Johns and Sherwin. Cronulla started in a similar fashion last year and were late bloomers but they cannot afford the same luxury this year with so many sides evenly matched. Time is fast running out and a win over melbourne this week at Olympic Park should be enough to get the fire in the belly out Woolooware way once more.
(14) Manly: Only just pipped Souths for this ranking as they haven't had the major off field dramas (yet) but the results have been the same. No wins and a team that is going to struggle all year on many fronts, least of all the caochgin front. Peter Sharp has brought very little to the club in his time there and has proved to lack imagination, creativity and a solid game plan. The Eagles off- season signings were all in the wrong area. The club failed to address its needs in the front row and halves and this lack of grunt up front has seen Manly struggle from the word go, even against the bye. The only positive for Manly, is they somehow managed a TV game on channel nine against Souths in round seven while the Raiders v Bulldogs clash has been consigned to Fox but this gripe is for another article. Manly stink.
(15) Souths: Well, what can you say about Souths that hasn't already been said. Since their return last year, they have been an embarassment to the league with infighting, sackings, back stabbing and financial mismanagement. Souths are destined for another wooden spoon and only the diabolical form of Manly can save them from this dubious honour. Nick Pappas has now taken the reigns of the football club and Paul Langmack has the coaching role to himself. Who else would want the job? It's hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel for Souths long suffering fans and I certainly can't see one from where I sit. Souths will win the odd match here and there but they will be lucky to scrape together more than half a dozen wins for the entire season and I expect a few ore sackings before the season is out.