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SEVEN into four just doesn?t go, it?s as simple as that. As the NRL Telstra Premiership 2004 season embarks on its final month of regular season fixtures, to see who will secure those precious finals berths in the bottom half of the eight.
A mere 2 points separate the 5th placed St.George-Illawarra Dragons (24 Pts +187) from the 11th placed Cronulla Sharks (22 Pts -71). The final four rounds of the regular season are promising to be very exciting for not only the teams jostling for finals positions but also for the fans who could witness history being made.
After 22 rounds the 7th placed North Queensland Cowboys (23 Pts +20) and the 8th placed Wests Tigers (22 Pts +1) are in the unfamiliar position of being a finals contender. Both clubs are aiming to qualify for the finals for the first time and have draws which provide optimism for their long suffering loyal supporters.
THE TOP 8 CONTENDERS - THE RUN HOME
5. St.George-Illawarra Dragons (24 Pts +187)
New Zealand Warriors (Home)- WIN Newcastle Knights (Away)- WIN Manly Sea Eagles (Home)- WIN BYE
VERDICT: 32 Pts- The Dragons are not renowned for their consistency but if they are ever to go on a winning streak, it should be in the next few weeks. I predict a narrow win against the Knights in Newcastle as the Dragons get serious about living up to their potential.
6. Melbourne Storm (24 Pts +133)
Canberra Raiders (Away)- WIN Bulldogs (Home)- LOSS Cronulla Sharks (Away)- LOSS Manly Sea Eagles (Away)- WIN
VERDICT: 28 Pts- A tough run home and they now have strike weapon Billy Slater hampered by a groin injury. I think they can overcome the Raiders down in Canberra despite their poor away form in 2004. Their very healthy ?for and against? could be what guarantees them a top eight finish.
7. North Queensland Cowboys (23 Pts +20)
South Sydney Rabbitohs (Home)- WIN Penrith Panthers (Away)- LOSS Wests Tigers (Away)-LOSS Cronulla Sharks (Home)- WIN
VERDICT: 27 PTS- Graham Murray?s men have the chance to create history by being the first North Queensland team to make the finals. The games against the Tigers and the Sharks are vital and it is difficult to predict the outcome.
8. Wests Tigers (22 Pts +1)
VERDICT: 26 Pts- The Wests Tigers have been one of the big improvers in 2004 and with a little bit of luck could have been in a better position than what they currently are. The Tigers have three tough games remaining and I predict that they?ll narrowly miss the cut after losing to Brisbane and Newcastle Away.
9. Newcastle Knights (22 Pts -25)
VERDICT: 26 Pts- I predict that they?ll miss out on the 8 for the first time since 1996. They have struggled in 2004 with no Johns, Simpson and Kennedy for extended periods.
10. Canberra Raiders (22 Pts -65)
Melbourne Storm (Home)- LOSS Sydney Roosters (Home)- LOSS BYE South Sydney Rabbitohs ? WIN
VERDICT: 26 Pts- A popular tip for the eight because they have 3 home games remaining, but they?ll need more than home ground advantage to overcome bogey team Melbourne and the Roosters. Their form is less than convincing and I must admit I expected a lot more from them after their top four finish in 2003.
11. Cronulla Sharks (22 Pts -71)
Parramatta Eels (Home)- WIN BYE Melbourne Storm (Home)- WIN North Queensland Cowboys (Away)- LOSS
VERDICT: 28 Pts- Have been quiet achievers in 2004 under new coach Stuart Raper. Little credit has been given to them but they have done well to be in this position without Brett Kimmorley. Based on their impressive win against an out of sorts Roosters I think they will be good enough to win 2 out of their last 3 and sneak into the eight.
I am expecting the top four teams to remain in the same order as they stand at the end of round 22. The Bulldogs deserve premiership favouritism after 9 straight wins, but premierships aren?t won in August and there?s no doubt the Roosters and the Broncos will be determined to hit top gear as the finals draw near. The Panthers can?t be written off either and must be in confident mood after their record breaking 72-12 smashing of Manly. They have a tough run home but with Gower spearheading them around the park and other key players returning from injury they are now looking up to the challenge. I am going to make a risky prediction and tip them to win all their remaining games, even against the Roosters and Broncos.
Critics of the top eight point out its potential to reward mediocrity, like in 2002 when 3 teams (Parramatta, St.George-Illawarra and Canberra) qualified for the finals with more losses than wins. I find this argument too dismissive of the positives that a top eight brings to the game. If we had a top five for this season?s competition then several of the current top eight contenders would stand little chance of making the finals and we may as well call off the last four rounds. Try telling the North Queensland Cowboys that simply making the top eight doesn?t mean much. They are already one of the best supported clubs in the game in terms of crowd numbers, so imagine what a top eight finish would do for the game in North Queensland. A strong North Queensland team capable of challenging the Broncos dominance in Queensland could only be a good thing for Rugby League.
TOP 8 PREDICTION
1st week of Finals according to my predictions
4 v 5 ? Panthers v Dragons at Penrith Stadium 3 v 6 ? Broncos v Storm at Suncorp Stadium 2 v 7 ? Roosters v Sharks at Aussie Stadium 1 v 8 ? Bulldogs v Cowboys at Telstra Stadium