NRL 2021: Inside The Brutal Fight For A Finals Spot

While the 2021 NRL season is more predictable than ever, the Stats Insider Futures Model has crunched the numbers to provide a few clubs with hope of playing finals football. However, it appears as though just three spots inside the Top 8 remain up for grabs despite only being ten rounds into the season. 

We looked at the awesome foursome last week:

"The Penrith Panthers, Melbourne Storm, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Parramatta Eels currently occupy the top four spots on the ladder. That is unlikely to change between now and the end of Round 25, only the positioning."

That leaves four spots to play for in the Top 8. Although, another Sydney Roosters win in Round 10 has all but locked them into finals football at 98.2% to make the Top 8.

And then there were three...

RELATED: Awesome Foursome: What Makes The NRL's Top-4 So Damn Strong?

Sea Eagles & Raiders ahead of the pack

Currently at 7th and 8th on the NRL ladder, the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles (66.3%) and Canberra Raiders (57.9%) are the most likely teams to fill two of the three remaining places in the Top 8.

It's incredible to think that the Sea Eagles played out the four worst opening rounds in the club's history to start the season.

Their attack scored 8.5 points per game while Manly leaked 39 points the other way to be winless and 16th on the ladder with a -122 points differential after Round 4. Since then, the Sea Eagles have scored 32.1 points per game, conceded 14 points per game, and are now 7th on the ladder and expected to play finals football.

Tom Trbojevic is the obvious difference. He missed the first five rounds of the season and has looked like the best player in the world while scoring 7 tries and handing out 10 try assists in his five games in 2021. 

Tom's return has coincided with a return to form for his brother, Jake. Daly Cherry-Evans has also benefited from having a fullback that's always in the right place at the right time after struggling through the first month with Dylan Walker at the back.

Josh Aloiai started to play well in the middle before his injury. However, Marty Taupau, Sean Keppie, Taniela Paseka, Toafofoa Sipley and Haumole Olakau'atu have more than made up for Aloiai's absence in the yardage game.

Manly all of a sudden have a strong pack that can surge up the field, skills in the middle that can move the ball wide in a hurry, and a spine that can pile up points on any defence. 

Provided Tom Trbojevic stays healthy, the Sea Eagles are playing finals footy in 2021.

There isn't quite the same confidence around the Raiders and their 57.9% to make the Top 8, though.

They've just snapped a four-game losing streak but hardly made a statement in their 20-18 win over the Bulldogs. 

Jack Wighton and George Williams haven't been able to link up as they did throughout 2020. Plenty attributed that to the return of Josh Hodgson at hooker, but little changed while he sat on the sideline in recent weeks. Canberra's pack consistently performed in 2020 and installed a gritty culture at the club, but as injury, suspension and poor form cause a rotation of faces through the middle, they're down to 13th in the competition in yardage at 1,589 running metres per game. 

Canberra's depth appealed before Round 1. They looked best prepared to deal with the inevitable injuries and suspensions that would pop up throughout the season. However, their list of players stuck on the sidelines is a horror show:

- Jack Wighton: Suspension, Round 12
- Josh Hodgson: Suspension, Round 12
- Josh Papalii: Suspension, Round 14
- Jarrod Croker: Shoulder, Indefinite
- Jordan Rapana: Hamstring, Round 11-12
- Joseph Tapine: Knee, Round 12-13
- Ryan Sutton: Elbow, Round 12-13
- Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad: Neck, Round 15-16

The Raiders are battling through poor form and there is no guarantee that having their full complement of players will provide an instant fix. They also need to navigate the second-hardest remaining schedulein the NRL. 

Ricky Stuart hasn't always dealt with these rough patches particularly well and the last month is further proof of that. While they're treading water and remain inside the Top 8 for now, another poor three or four week stretch further down the track could be the death knell for Canberra's finals hopes. 

Four clubs fighting

The Stats Insider Futures Model has circled the St. George-Illawarra Dragons, Gold Coast Titans, New Zealand Warriors and Newcastle Knights as the four teams fighting for the last spot in the Top 8.

While they're currently 6th on the ladder, the Dragons have a lot of work to do if they're to maintain their place inside the Top 8. They've been the beneficiaries of a friendly draw, some luck on the field and a few favourable results around them to be this high on the ladder this far into the season.

It came up last week when looking at the premiership chances of all 16 clubs:

"While their Round 5 win over the Eels impressed, the Dragons have otherwise beaten the Cowboys and Sea Eagles who were two of the worst teams in the competition at the time, a Knights side without Kalyn Ponga and, for the most part, Mitchell Pearce, as well as the wooden spoon favourite Bulldogs."

The hot Dragons attack that triggered the surprise 4-1 start to the season has cooled off. After averaging 25.8 points per game across the first five rounds, the Red V has managed just 16.4 points per game in the five since. They're among the bottom teams in the competition in yardage and they've dropped off in defence.

Points Scored Per Game
Points Conceded Per Game
Net Yardage
Round 1-5
-434 Metres
Round 6-10
-940 Metres

The opening five rounds are looking more and more like a fluke every week but we're going to know more in the next month. If the Dragons can make the most of games against the Sharks (14th), Tigers (13th), Broncos (15th) and Bulldogs (16th), they might have given themselves enough of a head start ahead of a difficult draw from Round 17 onwards.

It's the Titans that most thought would be flirting with the top teams after ten rounds. Instead, an inconsistent start to the season has exposed a handful of flaws that need addressing. Primarily, their attack without David Fifita.

The Titans have offered little with the ball at times. Outside of passing it to Fifita and hoping he throws away defenders on his way to the line, we've not seen the Titans produce repeatable actions in attack often enough to have a lot of faith in their attack moving forward. 

Ash Taylor offered a few promising moments early but a dip in form and the hip injury that followed has stalled his career once again. Jamal Fogarty is a solid #7 that can lead a team around the park, but he needs a threatening five-eighth to really bring the Titans attack together.

Where there is hope for the Titans is in the yardage game. While concerns around their attack look some way to being settled, the 1,662 metres per game they're churning out (5th in the NRL) provides them with plenty of opportunities to improve over the second half of the season.

The improvements of the Warriors over the second half of last season haven't translated into the start of this one. Their defence, in particular, has let them down to concede 25 points per game throughout 2021. For all of the good things the likes of Reece Walsh, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kodi Nikorima and Chanel Harris-Tavita can do in attack, they're for nothing when the defence isn't holding up.

Addin Fonua-Blake's injury has taken a lot of punch out of the Warriors middle. He does more than eat metres and the Warriors haven't been able to replace the impact he has around the ball through the middle of the field. It has limited the impact Tohu Harris has been able to have and stalled the development of what, at one stage, looked as though it would be one of the better packs in the competition. 

Fonua-Blake isn't due to return until Round 19, if he returns at all. It may be too late for the Warriors at that point. As they struggle to lock down a first-choice 17 and fail to develop the cohesion so often evident in Top 8 teams, four or five games of Fonua-Blake may not be enough to extend their season into September.

One thing that is in their favour: The Warriors have the second-easiest remaining schedule.

It's difficult to imagine following their 36-18 defeat to the Wests Tigers in Round 10 and Adam O'Brien's admission of an ingrained losing culture at the club when talking in his post-game press conference, but the Stats Insider Futures Model still has 'some' faith in the Knights playing finals footy in 2021. 

Like the Raiders, the Knights have been forced to deal with injuries to key players and are yet to put their first-choice 17 on the field.

Mitchell Pearce is the leader of this side and they've looked aimless without him.

Kalyn Ponga is the spark that brings the attack together but he hasn't been able to stay on the field, and when he does, many of the weapons around him are sat on the sideline.

Jayden Brailey and the forward pack had the Knights moving up the field to start the season, but their NRL-high 371.8 tackles per game have caught up with them of late. Their one-dimensional approach to carting the ball up has made things easy for the opposition defence recently, too. Those struggles in the middle have contributed to Newcastle's 25.6 points conceded per game this season.

The Knights have the pieces: The pack can win the middle, the spine can find points, and they showed how well they can defend after only conceding 18.7 points per game last season. The Model, however, is giving them just a 33.3%chance of putting them all together well enough to play finals footy.

Crystal Ball

The Roosters are too well-coached and won't miss the finals - lock them in.

Tom Trbojevic is too influential and has turned the Sea Eagles into a Top 8 team - lock them in for as long as he is healthy.

The Raiders are still stacked with talent. While they've been poor to start the season, they have enough experience on and off the field to trust that they will put it all together sooner rather than later.

It's the Titans that I'm tipping to sneak into the eight by the end of the season. A couple of individuals have been enough to keep them close to the Top 8 at this point. If Justin Holbrook can iron out some of the kinks and use this time without Fifita to develop an attack that isn't so reliant on the edge backrower, they'll put some distance between themselves and the other teams vying for the eighth and final spot.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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