As we prepare for State of Origin Game 3 and enter an abridged Round 17, the Cronulla Sharks and Melbourne Storm clash on Thursday night would most surely have caught the eye had people looked ahead in the season draw.

With Melbourne certain to be a threat in 2022 and the Sharks hopeful of improvement after making key off-season signings that have subsequently proven to be exactly the tonic they needed, the likelihood of this fixture being played out between two top-eight sides was high.

However, it is the most unexpected of Round 17 match-ups that could potentially grab a greater share of the headlines.

The South Sydney Rabbitohs should towel up the Newcastle Knights on Friday night with a rejuvenated and finally unrestricted Latrell Mitchell likely to light up the competition across the next three months, whilst the Parramatta Eels are at short odds to put the Wests Tigers to the sword, despite their own shaky and unconvincing form.

Yet it is Sunday afternoon’s clash between the Brisbane Broncos and St George Illawarra Dragons that holds must personal interest for me and plenty for fans of two teams who probably questioned whether they would be in the cut and thrust of the premiership race at this stage of the season.

Brisbane won just seven matches in 2021, the Dragons eight, with finishing positions of 14th and 11th on the NRL ladder respectively.

Collectively, they lost 33 matches, despite beating up on a few of the other also-rans at different stages of the season.

NRL Rd 19 - Dragons v Titans
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - JULY 25: Jayden Sullivan of the Dragons runs the ball during the round 19 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Gold Coast Titans at Cbus Super Stadium, on July 25, 2021, in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Frankly, neither club appeared to be a probable top eight contender in 2022 and only a brave soul would have tossed them into the pre-season guess work that surrounds anticipating those likely to compete for September play.

I did.

Sure, I copped a social media flogging for doing so, despite a ball not yet having been kicked at that point, yet both the Broncos and Red V have since proven the doubters wrong and barring a draw on Sunday afternoon, one of them will take yet another significant step on the way to semi-final play in 2022.

Despite a worrying injury list and the always demanding stresses of significant Origin representation, Brisbane have held things together and sit fifth of the ladder; banking early wins that have prevented recent losses to the Cowboys and Storm from derailing their season.

Adam Reynolds has proven as decisive as many believed you would be, Te Maire Martin must be the comeback story of the season and Payne Haas, Kotoni Staggs and Selwyn Cobbo have all enhanced their reputations this season.

NRL Rd 10 - Sea Eagles v Broncos
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 13: Adam Reynolds of the Broncos runs with the ball during the round 10 NRL match between the Manly Sea Eagles and the Brisbane Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, on May 13, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Entering the match-up with the Dragons, the bookies will have them as slight favourites and should a win move Brisbane to 22 competition points, coach Kevin Walters will have the taste of finals on his lips with eight rounds still remaining for his team to secure their birth.

St-George-Illawarra will be looking to move level with the Broncos on 20 points with a win this weekend and things do appear to be swinging in their favour after four wins from their last five and all the luck in the world going their way against the Raiders last week.

Ben Hunt is amidst his best season for some time, Moses Suli is beginning to scare the life out of defences more frequently, whilst what is an unfashionable pack is proving a difficult one for opposition teams to dominate.

It all adds up to a Sunday afternoon fixture with plenty on the line and played between two teams that few though would be in this position late in the season. The most admirable thing for both clubs is the fact that a loss would not death-knell their seasons, with still another 16 competition points up for grabs and 28 likely to be required to qualify for the finals.

That target is well within the grasp of both, despite the fact many had them missing the eight in March when the arm chair experts failed to read the tea leaves. Despite little footy being played this weekend, the gravity of this fixture should not be unstated.

Repeat after me.

The Broncos and Dragons could both make the top eight in 2022!