The fateful eight to shape the finals
It's been an unpredictable year full of twists and turns, and as a result, the race for the top eight looks set to go down to the wire. Here are the fateful eight games that will determine whether your team plays in the post-season or spends September on vacation.
Cowboys v Sharks (Round 24)
Have the wheels fallen off for the 2015 and 2016 premiers? The Cowboys have battled bravely through a horror injury toll, but there's only so much that one team can take. They've lost three games in a row and are now just one win clear of the ninth-placed Dragons. This is a make-or-break game for the Sharks who sit in fourth and are only one game behind the second-placed Broncos but could drop to eighth if they lose to the Cowboys. The defending premiers have won three in a row against North Queensland but they've managed just one victory from their past five matches in Townsville.
Raiders v Panthers (Round 24)
They were written off by all and sundry a few weeks ago, but while their nearest rivals have faltered, the Raiders have rallied and are now just two wins outside the top eight and with momentum on their side. The equation is simple for the Green Machine – win their remaining matches and just hope the Panthers, Cowboys, Dragons and Sea Eagles stumble. You can expect them to lift a gear in front of their home fans against a Penrith side that stole an improbable win in Bathurst back in Round 14. It's not just Canberra with plenty to play for; Penrith are still in the hunt for a top four finish while a poor end to the season could see them miss the finals entirely.
Broncos v Eels (Round 25)
Was last week's loss to the Knights a blip on the radar or was it a sign of things to come for a Parramatta side set to play finals footy for the first time since 2009? If their Round 21 takedown of the Broncos is anything to go by then we can safely assume that they remain well and truly in top four calculations. The blue and golds are two points behind the Broncos and should things go to script this weekend then that'll remain the case heading into their Suncorp Stadium showdown. Brisbane have rejigged their spine since their last meeting and have outscored their opponents 86-10 in the past two weeks and have won three of their past four games at home against the Eels. Given their woeful points differential, the Eels must win this one if they want a top four finish.
Panthers v Dragons (Round 25)
The make-up of the top eight could well hinge on this spicy affair at Pepper Stadium. Most people have had this clash marked in their calendars for the past month as the battle for eighth spot, but in truth, it could mean a lot more than that. A win for the Dragons would set up a magical final round where as many as four teams would be battling it out for the two remaining spots in the post-season. It'll be a difficult task for the Red V who haven't won in Penrith since 2009 and must contend with a team that has won as many games at home in 2017 as any other side. This could also be a do-or-die game for the Panthers who will likely start as outsiders against the Raiders and Sea Eagles and therefore must win in Round 25 if they want some insurance heading into their trip to Manly.
Storm v Raiders (Round 26)
A lot of pieces need to fall in place for this to be a significant fixture, but the way things have gone in 2017, anything is possible. The Storm will likely have the minor premiership wrapped up by Round 26, but don't expect them to rest players against a Canberra side that pushed them all the way in last year's preliminary final. Currently four points outside the eight, the Raiders must win their next two matches and then beat the Storm in Melbourne – something they haven't done since 2013 – if they are to have any chance of sneaking into eighth spot. Just to add some more drama to the contest, Sia Soliola will be due back from suspension after his high shot on Billy Slater earlier in the year.
Dragons v Bulldogs (Round 26)
On paper this doesn't look all that important, but should the Rev V knock off the Broncos or the Panthers in the coming weeks then they'll have it all to play for on the final Sunday of the regular season. With the teams above them looking shaky, the ninth-placed Dragons are ready to pounce and could well secure a finals berth with a win over the blue and whites. The Bulldogs look like easy beats at the moment but you can expect them to lift in Round 26 as they farewell Josh Reynolds and Sam Kasiano against a side who they've lost to just once in 11 previous matches.
Sea Eagles v Panthers (Round 26)
Penrith's six-game winning streak was kick-started by a gritty victory over the Sea Eagles, and the Panthers might need to produce something similar if they want to secure a spot in the top eight. A lot depends on the next two weeks, but this Round 26 encounter looms as one of the key matches of the regular season with both sides locked on 28 competition points. Manly's second-half capitulation against the Tigers cost them a top four spot and now has them in a logjam battling for a place in the playoffs. The Panthers have won seven of the past eight clashes between the teams, including three from four at Lottoland.
Cowboys v Broncos (Round 26)
It's become the undisputed pinnacle in terms of rugby league rivalries, and this Round 26 blockbuster could have startling top eight implications. For the Broncos, victory would all but secure a top four finish, with a home final on the cards should results go their way. It's a different story for the battered Cowboys who could be playing for a spot in September if they fail to win one of their next two matches. Four of their past five meetings have been decided by one point, including the 2015 grand final. Don't be surprised to see a similar result, especially if the Cowboys need to win in front of what should be a capacity crowd in Townsville.
This article first appeared on nrl.com