Only two sides have won the premiership after finishing outside the top four: Brisbane from fifth in 1993, and Canterbury from sixth in 1995. But that hasn’t stopped a succession of lower-ranked sides from going deep into the finals. Incredibly, since eight-team finals series were introduced in ’95, the top four sides have all reached the preliminary final weekend just once – in 2012. Meanwhile, nine clubs have reached the grand final from fifth or lower over the past 20 years, with eight of those making a charge to the decider from sixth, seventh, eighth or – in the case of the ’98 Bulldogs in a 10-team finals series – ninth.
September specialists Canterbury are well-placed to make yet another trademark finals charge, taking on struggling St George Illawarra in a sudden-death qualifying final before setting their sights on bigger prey. Injuries have threatened to derail the Bulldogs’ title quest, but the club appears to have all bases well covered at present. The blue-and-whites are coming into the playoffs on the back of five straight wins; in fact, they are one of just three top-eight sides to emerge victorious in both of the last two rounds.
Strengths: Landing outside the top four won’t worry the Bulldogs – they stormed to the grand final from seventh last year after a lacklustre end to the regular season, and long finals charges are in the club’s DNA, having won the competition from sixth in ’95 and reaching the grand final from ninth in ’98. They boast a huge helping of big-game experience, with eight of this Saturday’s line-up featuring in both of Canterbury’s 2012 and ’14 grand final appearances and another five playing in one of those deciders. The presence of recruits Brett Morris and Curtis Rona, along with Damien Cook, Moses Mbye and Sam Kasiano, also makes this side a far more formidable offensive proposition than the outfit that grinded their way through last year’s playoffs. The wily Des Hasler has taken his teams to five of the last eight grand finals.
Weaknesses: The Bulldogs’ narrow 26-22 win over the embattled Warriors showed how difficult their task will be without the steadying influence of halfback Trent Hodkinson. Besides a high-quality defeat of Souths in Round 24, Hasler’s charges have barely put a decent 80-minute performance together all season, and are still a rung or two below the likes of the Roosters.
Squad health: More problems to contend with than most other finalists, with Hodkinson, Michael Lichaa and Tony Williams all out for the season. Aiden Tolman is also short of a gallop after returning from injury in the final round.
Key player: Mybe has been a revelation this year, but the club’s anointed linchpin – following Hodkinson’s 2016 move to Newcastle – must make the step up to chief playmaker now. His dazzling form has tapered off somewhat in recent weeks, but the Bulldogs’ desperately need his spark and direction at their zenith.
X-factor: Sam Kasiano has been at the forefront of the Bulldogs’ late-season run, racking up big metres and using the ball more than ever before. His combination of colossal size and exquisite skill can unlock any defence.
Needs to lift: Josh Reynolds is regarded as a valuable, heart-on-his-sleeve style player, but he is also one of the NRL’s most erratic halves. Without the reliable Hodkinson on board, the former NSW Origin pivot must give Mbye dependable support.
Cronulla let a first top-four finish for the first time since 2008 slip through its fingers courtesy of a final-round loss to out-of-contention Manly. It’s sudden-death from here on out for the premiership-less club, but there’s more than enough game-breakers and match-winners lining up in sky-blue, black and white to suggest the Sharks can make a big impression over the next four weekends.
Strengths: An excellent balance of big-game veterans (Gallen, Ennis, Robson, Lewis) and dazzling youngsters (Bird, Holmes, Feki) has turned the Sharks into a dangerous outfit on both sides of the ball, rather than the usual gritty defensive outfit of recent years. Though the club hasn’t appeared in a decider since the 1997 Super League season, the Sharks boast six players with grand final experience, plus three more who have played Test footy for Australia or New Zealand. An excellent record against their fellow top-eight sides – including two wins over the Roosters – also bodes well for the Sharks.
Weaknesses: Forty-eight years of history is weighing down on Cronulla, much in the same manner as it did on Souths until they broke their four-decade title drought; like it or not, Sharks teams are conditioned for failure, and it will take a special team to break the pattern. Finishing sixth instead of seventh means nothing for the Sharks in terms of home-ground advantage – their showdown with Souths has been scheduled for Allianz Stadium instead of the far more daunting Remondis Stadium. Ben Barba has been included on the bench, but the former Dally M medallist’s presence may do more harm than good – where does he fit into Shane Flanagan’s game-plan?
Squad health: Interchange selections Ben Barba (four weeks – injury) and Andrew Fifita (seven weeks – suspension) have not played for some time. The Sharks are otherwise at full-strength.
Key player: Veteran recruit Michael Ennis has been sensational throughout 2015, producing his best campaign attack-wise in many seasons and slotting seamlessly into the aggressive Sharks outfit. A true leader and first-class niggler, Ennis thrives at this time of the year.
X-factor: Valentine Holmes has emerged as a bona fide match-winner in the roving wing role, becoming the first player to notch a double-figure season try tally in seven years – crossing 16 times so far – and slotting three game-deciding field goals in an extraordinary breakout year.
Needs to lift: Despite his recent off-field woes and the fact he hasn’t played since late-July, Fifita is the player that can drive the Sharks’ finals campaign. Hopefully for his team’s cause, he’s not too out of condition.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The defending champs have been given a standing eight-count after limping into the finals, while two of their best will be sitting on the sidelines in the naughty chair for the start of the post-season campaign after various indiscretions. But can the return of GI and the smell of September revive the Rabbitohs’ slim chances of going back-to-back?
Strengths: The premiers have been written off and consequently go into this finals series with little to lose – and winning these big games is now ingrained in this squad; despite all of their injuries, suspensions and departures, 11 of last year’s grand final squad will line up on Sunday afternoon. Greg Inglis remains one of the world’s best, and if Reynolds, Keary, Walker and co. all fire in unison, anything is possible.
Weaknesses: Souths have endured too many disruptions, culminating in Issac Luke’s shoulder-charge ban and the ludicrous suspension dished out to George Burgess for throwing a water bottle; both will be sorely missed. The Rabbitohs’ pack is a shadow of the relentless 2014 unit without Sam and George Burgess, Ben Te’o and John Sutton on deck. No team has won the premiership after losing their last three regular season games – and the Rabbitohs went down in their last three to the Bulldogs, Broncos and Roosters badly.
Squad health: Inglis returns after missing the last two rounds with a knee complaint, while John Sutton is gone for the year in a huge blow compounded by the club’s suspension woes.
Key player: Adam Reynolds must be the player that takes ownership for lifting Souths’ flagging fortunes. One of the best shot-callers in the NRL, Reynolds’ best hasn’t been seen for some time in a year interrupted by injury.
X-factor: Aggressive, skilful utility Paul Carter is a genuine game-breaker, and needs to take it upon himself to spark the Rabbitohs with several stars out.
Needs to lift: Released just one year into a three-season deal after an underwhelming campaign since linking with the premiers, Glenn Stewart is a Clive Churchill Medal winner capable of spearheading a finals charge – but we’ve seen only glimpses of his best so far in 2015.
St George Illawarra Dragons
The Saints have broken a four-year finals drought – but that was as much to do with other teams faltering as their own ability to scrape together enough victories, finishing with a 50 percent win-loss record. Injuries have bitten at the wrong time, which makes any sort of progress through September highly unlikely for the Red V.
Strengths: Benji Marshall and Josh Dugan are two of the most dangerous attacking players around on their day, while hooker Mitch Rein has come of age in 2015, and Tyson Frizell and Trent Merrin are among the NRL’s most dynamic forwards. The Saints are also one of the competition’s most miserly defensive outfits. The under-the-radar factor will also help the Dragons – no one expects them to make it past their sudden-death qualifying final date…but there’s several good reasons for that.
Weaknesses: The absence of Gareth Widdop and Joel Thompson this weekend is a real body blow. The Dragons have not beaten any of the other top-eight sides since Round 12, slipping into the playoffs via a string of patchy wins over also-rans – while also suffering an inexplicable loss to the lowly Titans in the penultimate round. Their high defensive standards have also slipped in the back half of the year, conceding 22 points or more in seven of their last nine games. Scoring points against good defences remains an even more pertinent issue for the competition’s 15th-ranked attacking team.
Squad health: Widdop and Thompson have had vintage seasons, and their injuries will be keenly felt. Will Matthews, out for the year with a shoulder injury, is the only other genuine top-liner unavailable.
Key player: The Saints need Benji at his effervescent best to be any chance of advancing – but he also must play a responsible and controlled hand in the halves alongside first grade novice Drew Hutchison.
X-factor: Frizell was arguably the form forward of the first half of the NRL season, coming within a whisker of a NSW Origin debut. His tackle-busting ability will come in handy for a Dragons side short on firepower.
Needs to lift: St George Illawarra’s three-quarter line is one of the NRL’s least potent, so a season-best performance from Nightingale, Aitken, Mata’utia and Nabuli wouldn’t go astray.