With seven weeks of the marathon run, the line between contenders and pretenders is becoming much more opaque.
Although each of the competition's 16 teams have now put a win on the board, the gap between first and last as still chasmic.
As we enter the final week of the season's second month, the question marks surrounding every side - whether they are leading the league or languishing - are still aplenty.
With Round 8 kicking off this Thursday night, we have cast our eye across the weekend's eight fixtures, and have sought to answer the key queries arising from each.
Does a loss on Thursday mean curtains for Canberra?
After a trio of upsets between Rounds 5 and 7, a points differential of -47 across the same period and their place in the eight appearing precarious at best, the Raiders' heels are currently hanging from a crumbling precipice.
Although the old adage states that it is always darkest just prior to dawn, the rusty Green Machine is likely to be cast in the murk for at least another week, with the rampaging Rabbitohs fixtured to fly to the nation’s capital this Thursday.
— Canberra Raiders (@RaidersCanberra) April 27, 2021
Even if some sunlight creeps in through the curtains throughout their clashes against Newcastle and Canterbury in weeks nine and 10 respectively, the winter solstice has come early in Canberra, as fixtures against the Storm and Roosters loom grimly on the horizon.
Despite the fact that there is currently a thick blanket of gloom – and quite possibly a smattering of doom – set in over Bruce Stadium, it would be ludicrous to pull the curtains completely closed on Canberra's season just yet.
They are still in the eight after all.
Here’s the ladder after the opening seven rounds!
— ZeroTackle.com (@zerotackle) April 25, 2021
From Round 13 until the end of the regular season, the Raiders are fixtured to face just six sides that currently hold an invitation to September across their remaining 12 games.
Regardless of whether Ricky Stuart can get his side back on track after the humiliation of last weekend or whether or not Canberra should still be classed as a premiership fancy, Round 8 is still too early to write off a team that has played finals in three of the past five seasons and still holds a better than one in six chance to repeat this past form.
Are Melbourne flying under the radar?
Geographically removed from the hustle and bustle of the harbour city, the Melbourne Storm – almost certainly to their delight – often escape the spotlight of the Sydney media.
That is until September starts.
Having played off in four of the past five Grand Finals, for a record of 2-2, Craig Bellamy’s side have proven the masters of peaking at the right time of the year.
With this aforementioned reputation firmly entrenched in the minds of league fans everywhere, any queries about the Storm’s bolts going unnoticed are likely to be scoffed at.
However, with a place in the top four, have their peaks been covered by scribes sufficiently enough this season?
The Michael Moore Trophy stays in Melbourne 💜 pic.twitter.com/1uzJLFlHzK
— Melbourne Storm 🏆 (@storm) April 25, 2021
After dropping close games to the Panthers and Eels in back-to-back weeks, the sentiment seemed to be that Bellamy’s undermanned side were slightly off the boil, and that the focus should be placed on the victors rather than the vanquished.
Although this attitude is understandable, little has been made of the Storm’s four consecutive victories since, with pundits choosing to focus on the ills of the Broncos and Bulldogs respectively, as well as the performances of opposition wunderkinds Sam Walker and Reece Walsh instead.
The only time the Storm seem to receive any recognition from their nearest northern neighbour is when their talking heads are discussing where exactly Ryan Papenhuyzen should be lining up for their Origin side.
Ryan Papenhuyzen won’t be replacing James Tedesco as NSW’s starting full-back but his coach Brad Fittler says the Melbourne Storm star could be “impossible to stop” if used properly off the bench.https://t.co/exEhsHQGUd
— The Age Sport (@theagesport) April 28, 2021
Perhaps this current lack of discourse is due to the fact that there is little left to laud the competition’s benchmark side on.
However, if it is coming from a place of complacency or amnesia, recent history suggests that these same savants can expect a rude awakening in the post any day now.
What is riding on Friday night’s second game?
As sides at the opposite end of the success spectrum, the Gold Coast Titans and Brisbane Broncos will almost certainly have different key performance indicators heading into their clash on Friday night.
However, if either is to truly achieve them, the two competition points must be sought and claimed.
Get ready for the Macca's Local Derby with the Titans this Friday night! pic.twitter.com/iY1rznl0bG
— Brisbane Broncos (@brisbanebroncos) April 26, 2021
For the Titans, a win against their nearest geographical rival will not only provide them with breathing space inside the top eight, but also the perfect opportunity to improve on their points differential of -1.
With Justin Holbrook’s side set to face the Panthers, Storm and Roosters within the next two months, if they can tick both of the boxes before them on Friday night, then their chances of playing September football for the first time since 2016 are almost certain to rise above their current percentage.
"We'll know they'll come out guns blazing"
— Gold Coast Titans (@GCTitans) April 28, 2021
For the state’s most prosperous franchise, a win in this weekend’s clash at Suncorp Stadium is important for a pair of reasons.
Firstly, it allows Kevin Walters' recently stifled stampede a chance to snap a three-game losing streak against their increasingly noisy neighbours.
Secondly, two-points on Friday would also allow for the former powerhouse club to simultaneously create some breathing room between them and the Bulldogs at the bottom, as well as strengthen their chances of avoiding just their second wooden spoon.
As a first-year coach, adding to the club’s once bare utensil draw is something that Walters will doubtlessly be keen to prevent.
That is unless he has dreams of starting a commercial kitchen at their Red Hill training base.
Can Manly replicate their form of the past fortnight?
After Tom Trbojevic pulled up lame following his silver medal winning run in a two-horse race down the Corso, Manly were forced to play their first five games of the season without their star fullback.
Across the local junior’s period of absence, the Sea Eagles amassed a 1-4 record and a horrendous points differential of -121.
Following ‘Tommy Turbo’s’ resurrection and reinstatement at the back, the Brookvale boys remain undefeated, with an average of 38-points for and only three against per week.
— NRL (@NRL) April 25, 2021
Now, we know it is easy to lay all of the praise at the feet of the Mona-Vale speedster, but even if the 24-year-old has been the sole catalyst for the Silvertails’ upturn in form, will it be enough to challenge the competition’s best teams?
Across their seven-game sample size this season, Manly have played three of the current top five teams in the competition – Sydney, South Sydney and Penrith.
In these three hit outs, the men in maroon and white have scored just 22-points in 240-minutes, but have conceded a mammoth total of 104. It is this glaring statistic that shows just how far off the pace they truly were with Dylan Walker at the back.
Sure, three wins on the bounce against the Warriors, Titans and Tigers looks fantastic on paper, but when only one of these sides currently sits inside the eight, it is probably too early to start planning the removal of champagne corks and victory laps up Pittwater Road.
With Des Hasler’s side set to face the Panthers again this week, punters and pundits everywhere are going to see just how close – or alternatively, how far – the Sea Eagles are from the competition’s benchmark.
Even though a loss against Ivan Cleary’s undefeated side is not intolerable, the 40-point margin between the two teams recorded just last month must be bridged if the northern beaches club is to be taken seriously in the back half of the year.
As the Sea Eagles are fixtured to face teams currently within the top eight at least seven more times this season, it is little wonder why their Premiership chances are rated at around a one in a hundred chance.
However, if Trbojevic can keep breaking lines, and his side’s last fortnight becomes the norm rather than a happy outlier, then the path from Church Point to Manly may need barricading in late September after all.
Could Canterbury actually go back-to-back?
Raise the notion of going back-to-back to any Bulldog’s fan above the age of 40, and they are likely to cast their minds back to the happier days filled with ubiquitous KB cans, champagne and the competition wins of the mid-eighties.
Ask anyone born after Jason Donovan’s pop career peaked, and they are likely to be content with consecutive regular season wins.
After breaking their duck with a six-point win over the sub-par Sharks last Saturday, the Bulldogs may be on the board in 2021, but they are still rusted to the ladders bottom rung.
Proving unable to score for the better part of a month will do that to you.
With a clash against old rivals Parramatta this weekend, the smart money would be on the Belmore boys getting bested for the seventh time this year. Nonetheless, Rugby League – even in its contemporary guise – is still as unpredictable as the weather in Bangladesh.
As their playing stocks have once again been improved, with the signing of Brent Naden, the Dogs are sure to maintain an upward trend one of these days.
If you believe that begins this Saturday evening, you could do a lot worse than to jump on seven to one odds on offer.
Stranger things have happened, I mean the Kiwis won a World Cup.
Does a loss on Saturday snuff out Newcastle’s September hopes?
At 10th on the competition table, with a points differential of -33 and a 1-4 record since late March, the season is slipping away from Adam O’Brien’s cavalry, with the familiar feeling of malaise setting in over the Hunter region again.
With Stats Insider currently rating the Novacastrians' prospects of finishing within the competition’s top eight at a less than four in ten chance, it appears that the possibility of a Knight’s charge towards the tables tip has already been discounted.
When one considers the fact that names like Hymel Hunt and Mitchell Pearce are still sidelined, as well as fixtures against the Roosters, Raiders, Sea Eagles, Eels and Bunnies still to take place over the next two-months, these slimming chances begin to make sense.
The Boss previews our HUGE clash with the Roosters ✊
— Newcastle Knights (@NRLKnights) April 27, 2021
Although this nightmarish run until mid-June is likely to sever any chance of claiming an elevated rung on the ladder, the ease at which the Knights' fixture finishes still allows optimists and dreamers to wear a smile on their dial.
From Round 15 until the end of the regular season, Newcastle are only scheduled to face three teams – Melbourne, Sydney, and Canberra – that currently occupy a place in the eight, but will also face bottom four sides Canterbury and Cronulla once each and the Broncos twice.
So, depending on how empty or full your schooner is, you may be willing to wait until the race is officially run before kicking the Knights to the curb.
However, I am quite happy to go the early crow and welly away, as I – like a majority of punters - am tipping the Chooks’ trip back down the M1 on Saturday night will be a joyful one.
Are finals a possibility if North Queensland can notch another win?
Despite their contemporary fortunes sitting at the opposite end of the scale to the Knights, the Cowboys are still at long odds to return to September action for the first time since 2017.
According to Stats Insider, even though Todd Payten’s Townsville based franchise has accrued a perfect record from Rounds 5 and 7, there is a still a greater than 75% chance that they once again end their season before the business end.
You love to see it! pic.twitter.com/mC056h15zH
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) April 24, 2021
Still, if the Cows can whip the Warriors and round up the Broncos over the next fortnight, how far are these aforesaid odds likely to fluctuate?
As someone that still requires bare feet to count backwards from 20, I don’t have an exact figure for you. However, if four competition points are claimed over the next two weeks, you can be certain that they will rise.
In addition to this, as Stats Insider also rate the far north franchise’s run home as the fifth easiest in the competition, further boosts could also be on the horizon.
Am I willing to tip the Cowboys this Sunday afternoon? Sure.
Jason Taumalolo is on track to return from a fractured hand on Sunday.#ridemcowboys
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) April 27, 2021
Did I have them in my eight throughout the pre-season, and do I see them finishing there? Absolutely not.
However, as regular readers of this column will be well aware, my foots second favourite place on lodging is my own mouth.
Who bounces back better – the Tigers or Dragons?
When we consider what we have been shown this season, the answer is obvious - it’s the Dragons every day of the week.
When we study the numbers and through in probability, the Red V still comes up trumps.
— St George Illawarra Dragons (@NRL_Dragons) April 28, 2021
Although Anthony Griffin’s weyr have lost their way over the last fortnight, they are nowhere near the Tigers’ – or should I say the Knopflers – level of being in Dire Straits.
Poor jokes aside, St. George Illawarra’s lodging inside the top eight, with a positive points differential, as opposed to Wests’ woeful 1-6 record, is almost certainly enough for punters to side with the elder of the merged teams.
Don’t believe me?
Just know that Michael Maguire’s ambush are rated at less than a 30% chance of victory this week, with bookies offering ‘Madge’s’ men a 10-point head start.
If you can smell an upset, don’t let me stop you doing your dough.
Just don’t expect me to join you.