It’s official! The 2022 State of Origin series is over and now the serious business begins.
The Panthers are six points clear and front-runners for the minor premiership, while two separate clusters of teams fight for a home final and a top eight spot respectively.
But just below that, with their seasons virtually over, are five more clubs about to begin a different race, where the loser gets the wooden spoon and the winners get little else other than the satisfaction of avoiding it.
Can any of them make the finals? Possibly, by some miracle.
Would they deserve to be there after their efforts this season? That’s up for debate.
Here's our look at the race for the dishonour of the 2022 NRL Wooden Spoon.
Record: 3 wins, 13 losses, -196 points differential
Run Home: Panthers (H), Cowboys (A), Broncos (A), Knights (H), Sharks (H), Roosters (H), Dragons (H), Raiders (H)
On the off-chance you've spent this week under a rock, the Tigers are in disarray – and that’s before you look at their effort on the field.
With no practical solution to the halves problem, incoming arrivals baulking at contracts, constant reports of players leaving and so much uncertainty, things aren’t going well.
Taking on a depleted Panthers side after a week of turmoil could earn a redoubled unit a surprise win, but it would be just that – a surprise. Facing three of the top four teams is an ominous sign, and though they’ve won their last three games against Brisbane, the Broncos are a very different team since the two sides last met 12 months ago.
Even the Knights and Roosters, who have struggled for consistency this year, will be difficult for the Tigers to topple on current form.
With four wins from their past five meetings the Dragons game offers a psychological edge, but it remains to be seen what impact the raft of possible upcoming changes will have on the line-up and psyche of the club.
Though they get six of their last eight games at home, the advantage is minimal with just two wins in front of their fans this year.
A best-case scenario might see them secure two or three wins and finish on 14 points, but the way things are going, the worst-case scenario of not winning any more games this year is a very real possibility. Red-hot spoon favourites.
Prediction: 16th (12 pts)
Gold Coast Titans
Record: 3 wins, 13 losses, -172 points differential
Run Home: Broncos (H), Bulldogs (A), Raiders (H), Storm (A), Manly (H), Dragons (A), Knights (H), Warriors (A)
A week is a long time in rugby league. While the Tigers are feeling the pressure now it was less than seven days ago that the Titans were labelled the competition’s worst team and Justin Holbrook’s dismissal was guaranteed.
But Holbrook has stayed (for now) and importantly for the coach, David Fifita is ready to return to the starting side after an injury-affected campaign that’s seen him make just 10 appearances in 2022.
Much will depend on how well Fifita can bounce back and whether or not Tino Fa’asuamaleaui can continue his impressive run of form post-Origin.
The only top-four side they have to face is Melbourne, while the Bulldogs game is a must-win given how close the teams are on the table – though the Titans have won four of their last five against the Belmore side.
Importantly, the Titans are without an away win in 2022 and they’ll need at least one to assure they can avoid last place.
Players and fans should accept that finals football isn’t an option, but these last few weeks will provide the Titans with an opportunity to redeem themselves. If they can’t muster three or four wins from their final stretch, we might as well appoint Mal Meninga as interim coach now.
Prediction: 14th (16 pts)
Record: 4 wins, 12 losses, -119 points differential
Run Home: Rabbitohs (H), Titans (A), Knights (A), Cowboys (H), Warriors (A), Eels (A), Sharks (A), Manly (H)
How can anyone reasonably predict how the Bulldogs’ season will finish?
Before COVID hit, the club was known for being rooted to the bottom for most of the year, before mystifyingly discovering some form, pulling off a couple of surprise wins and finishing the season on a high.
Between 2017 and 2019 the Bulldogs consistently won at least 50% of their final six games of the season, shattering the hopes of finals aspirants and paving over the gaping cracks in their own setup.
After a bad start they’ve found some form a little earlier this year, but they’re still capable of wild inconsistency.
They also haven’t been helped by one of the most packed injury wards in the NRL, which includes key players like Luke Thompson and Tevita Pangai Jnr.
Over the past two months they’ve shown their ability to step up for big games – but of more concern will be their ability to beat the teams around them.
Even if they manage an upset against more-fancied opposition, losses against the Titans, Knights and Warriors will still put them closer to 16th than 10th. If they can nab some wins before those final games, they’ll be in a good spot mentally. But if they can’t, the pressure is only going to mount.
A lot of their hopes will rest on how Matt Burton recovers from his Origin 3 misadventures – but if they’re without him for an extended period, the odds will be stacked significantly higher.
Prediction: 13th (16 pts)
New Zealand Warriors
Record: 5 wins, 11 losses, -165 points differential
Run Home: Eels (A), Raiders (A), Storm (H), Rabbitohs (A), Bulldogs (H), Cowboys (A), Panthers (A), Titans (H)
The fact that the Warriors will play their remaining home games at home will have a huge impact on the clashes that take place at Mt Smart – provided the current COVID situation at the club doesn’t worsen.
Unfortunately for the Warriors, they’ve got arguably the hardest draw of any of the teams fighting to avoid last place (except for the Tigers) – three top four teams and two more sitting in the top half who’ll be ready for a fight as they try to secure home advantage for Week 1.
There’s a small possibility that they may play these teams at a time they decide to rest players, but as Penrith and the Cowboys have already shown, the omission of those key players doesn’t really weaken the squad against disjointed opposition.
If the Warriors want to keep themselves out of trouble the home games against the Bulldogs and Titans are a must-win.
It’s also worth noting the team’s form as the season has dragged on. Winning three of their first five games had fans optimistic, but they were on a seven-game losing streak before their homecoming against the worst team in the competition. In fact, wins over Wests Tigers account for 40% of the club’s total victories this year. That form is a genuine concern.
Points differential also isn’t helping. The team has eked out two one-point victories and another by four, but they’ve been destroyed by the Storm 70-10 and have had similar results against other top four teams. Given a single point currently separates the Warriors and Newcastle on for-and-against, this could be a crucial factor in determining their finishing spot.
Prediction: 15th (14 pts)
Record: 5 wins, 11 losses, -165 points differential
Run Home: Manly (A), Roosters (H), Bulldogs (H), Wests Tigers (A), Broncos (A), Raiders (H), Titans (A), Sharks (H)
Given the strength of their roster, it’s fair to say the Knights have failed to deliver this year. But it’s not too late for them to finish strong and create the impression that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all.
While the Warriors and Tigers have genuine struggles ahead, the Knights’ fate is far more in their own hands, especially with a comparatively small number of absences through injury.
With hopes that an excellent Origin series can boost Kalyn Ponga’s confidence at club level, a win against Manly this weekend would restore some faith in the Hunter region that the season isn’t entirely lost.
Though their last three wins have come against fellow spoon contenders (Titans, Warriors and Bulldogs – teams they play again in the run home) and they clearly have the edge over their low-ranked counterparts, the gap between the Knights and the top teams is still a yawning crevasse with recent heavy defeats against the Rabbitohs, Panthers and Broncos demonstrating why they’re so far off the pace.
The incredible return to form of Edrick Lee (10 tries in his past six games) is something the Knights will need to capitalise on in these final weeks before he heads to Redcliffe.
While a finals appearance is still the slightest of possibilities, time is rapidly running out. If Newcastle can secure wins against Manly and the Roosters over the next fortnight, they’ll head into those final weeks with a huge momentum boost. If they lose both games, the confidence they rely on may desert them entirely.
Prediction: 12th (20 pts)
So who will claim the wooden spoon in 2022?
The Tigers and Warriors are in for more misery over the home stretch. While the other teams should be confident they can avoid a last-place finish, only the Knights should consider themselves the most outside of finals chances – and that’s only if they can beat the Sea Eagles this weekend.
12. Newcastle (20 pts)
13. Canterbury (16 pts)
14. Gold Coast (16 pts)
15. Warriors (14 pts)
16. Wests Tigers (12 pts)