Three teams are looking good for the NRL premiership, but don’t rule out a dark horse


The NRL’s top eight is locked in, which means we can already start to look forward to a finals series that’s going to be packed with some really big games of football.Looking at the eight, there are probably three or maybe four teams that can really stake their claims for winning the competition, with another two an outside chance.Penrith, the Roosters and Melbourne are the three main teams in the box seat, with both the Panthers and the Roosters both possibly benefiting from not having to travel too much, which will have an impact, but not as much as getting a week off by winning their first semi-final.Getting that week’s rest will go a long way in your favour of winning the competition this year, simply because nobody has had a break at all this year.LoadingWe know the semi-finals will be super high intensity because of the crazy speeds and intense play we’ve seen week-in, week-out so far this season.The semi-finals are going to be very fast and if you can win the first week and get that week off, that’ll give you every chance the following week.If you have to play every final all the way through, I think you’ll be too burnt out by the time the grand final comes around.At the moment, Canberra are the only team outside the current top four that can really be in the discussion, with the possible addition of South Sydney.LoadingThe way Souths have been playing, especially their attack, they can certainly trouble any team in the competition if they get it right — and they’re getting it more right than wrong in the past few weeks.They’ve probably been able to afford switching off here and there — like they did against the Tigers on Thursday — but they won’t be able to do that from here on out. They’ve got the DNA in that squad to really trouble teams.In fact, at the moment I’d probably put both Souths and Canberra ahead of Parramatta, who are slowly declining and going backwards.I don’t know if they’ve got the belief to get back and play the type of football they were playing earlier in the year — but while they’re still in the top four, they’re a chance.Coaches tread fine line in managing players Fatigue is going to play a major role in the finals, and the top three teams have managed that in different ways.Craig Bellamy is doing a pretty good job of rotating his Storm players, who have been able to sit games out with some niggling injuries.LoadingHe gave Ryan Papenhuyzen a bit of a break on the weekend, and Cameron Munster and Cameron Smith had a couple of days off during the week so they’ll stay fresh. Dale Finucane has been out for a couple of weeks too.Bellamy has had that luxury of having a few players pick up minor injuries just bad enough for them to need a rest but, at the same time, his team has kept winning games. The Roosters are the same, while Parramatta have looked fatigued in playing their stars week-in, week-out.Canberra are different again. They have a bunch of tough, resilient blokes and are playing some good footy.They’ve also had a couple of injuries, and those players are close to coming back, but there is a risk that those players will have been out for too long and will be lacking match fitness. It’s a tough balance to strike. The Canberra side is playing tough, solid footy — but the Raiders will face important selection decisions soon.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)The Panthers are in a bit of a different situation to some of the other teams though.Their players are saying they don’t want to have a rest — and Ivan Cleary’s been letting them play.They’re super energised, enthusiastic and, most importantly, winning.As a player, when you’re in a team that’s winning every week like the Panthers, you don’t want to sit out. First, you don’t know if you’ll get your position back. Second, you don’t want to miss out on the work that you’ve put in as a team to be in that position.The Sharks were very similar back in 2016 when we won the competition. Nobody wanted to take a weekend off and Shane Flanagan didn’t rest any of us, he just let us play.Most sides will be feeling OK heading into the semi-finals, but if they can win that game, get a week off and have a really good rest, it will certainly go a huge way to helping them win the competition.Sonny Bill a powerful addition, but absent Rooster could prove vitalIt was a really good decision for Boyd Cordner to sit the rest of the Roosters-Knights game out after being taken off for all sorts of reasons, despite him passing his HIA. The Roosters made the right call to give Boyd Cordner an early mark against the Knights after a tough week.(AAP: Dean Lewins)Cordner had an incredibly emotional week and although he got out there for long enough to blow out a few cobwebs, it was a good call from an emotional point of view as much as a physical one.He’s a big-game player. He’ll be right to go next week and for the semi-finals as well.It also gave a couple of returning players, such as Sonny Bill Williams and Mitchell Aubusson, a bit more game time.Williams, in particular, benefited from the extra time on the field and, the way he’s going, he’ll be a major threat come finals.He’s gone from playing 12 minutes one week, to 37 minutes the following week.Williams admitted when he spoke to ABC Grandstand after the match that last week had been a bit of a “punch in the face” because he didn’t understand how fast the game had got in his absence, but he didn’t miss a beat on Saturday.He was very involved and got off a good pass that led to a try for James Tedesco just before half-time. He had a couple of nice carries, a couple of half-breaks, some nice offloads, and he got involved in his tackling. He’d have had some fatigue in his legs, but with two more games before semi-finals, he’ll be fine.Having Williams come in is definitely a plus for the Roosters, just in the number of big games he’s played in and what he can offer. They’re coming in as favourites because of that, but I still think they’re going to miss Victor Radley.I think he’s a massive part of that side. With the way that he can attack with his defence and the ball movement that he gets through the middle for that team, he’ll be massively missed.Write off Penrith at your perilMatthew Elliott has been winding me up on ABC Grandstand by saying Penrith are not favourites for the competition.But sometimes when people keep writing you off, it gives you the motivation to keep proving everyone wrong.Table-topping Panthers even better than 2003The 2003 Penrith Panthers were one of the most exciting NRL premiers ever, but one of that team’s biggest stars, Luke Lewis, says this year’s team is even better.Read moreI was lucky enough to live through that same thing in 2003, when we had a really good year but nobody gave us a chance.We won the minor premiership but there was always talk that our defence wasn’t good enough to win the competition.We beat the Broncos in the first semi at Penrith, but apparently we didn’t start well enough so that meant we couldn’t win the next game.So we went and beat the Warriors and then the talk turned to the fact that we’d had a great year but now we’ll get pumped by the Roosters.So we got out in the Roosters game, played our best defensive game of the season, won the match 18-6 and, with it, the Premiership.Everyone kept writing us off but that gave us the hunger, drive and the motivation to keep playing with a smile on our face.The more you compare that team to the Panthers at the moment, the more it looks similar. No-one is giving them a chance but they keep proving them wrong. You can’t argue with success, and the Panthers are doing everything right at the moment.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)Penrith are playing the best footy at the moment.They’ve just got to realise that they’re doing everything right, but they’ve got to be able to do it for a longer period of time and at a higher intensity when it comes to the semi-final.They’ve got the players there to do that, they’ve got the skill to do that, and they’ve got the defensive patterns there to do that.Everything is already there, they’ve just got to be able to go that extra 10 per cent harder and that 5 or 10 per cent longer than what they’ve been doing normally, because that’s what it will take to win a premiership.Luke Lewis was speaking to ABC News Digital’s Simon Smale.

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