Well, 26 rounds have passed, whittling the contenders down to eight teams that will fight for premiership glory.
This is the line-up for the first weekend. After this two winners get a bye and skip through to a “preliminary final” (which in most sports would be considered a semi-final). The teams they defeated get a second chance next week against the winners of the matches between the teams that placed fifth to eighth on the ladder.
No need for confusion. The Newsroom explains the process and previews this weekend’s action:
Brisbane Broncos v Gold Coast Titans
The Broncos and the Titans kick-off the finals series in a tantalising elimination final tonight at Suncorp Stadium (kick-off is at 7:55pm). The Broncos are travelling well, having won five consecutive matches; the Titans are coming off some narrow losses and are only in the eight courtesy of the Wests Tigers giving Canberra two points last week. Suncorp expects a sell-out for the Queensland derby with big names like Jarryd Hayne, Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker mixing it with young guns of the standard of Anthony Milford and Ash Taylor. Hayne, though no stranger to the big stage, came to the Titans late in the season and will need to lift his performance. The Broncos’ veteran coach Wayne Bennett knows how to win premierships, but his team have work to do to get there. The loser of this match is out of the competition.
Canberra Raiders v Cronulla Sharks
The two form sides of the competition do battle in a qualifying final at GIO Stadium on Saturday at 5:35pm. The Raiders are red-hot now having won 10 consecutive matches to finish in second place and earn a finals berth for the first time since 2012. Coach Ricky Stuart has turned the team around dramatically, with the team looking like the green -machine that captured the imagination in the early nineties. Stuart is now hot favourite to take the coach of the year gong at this year’s Dally M Awards. The Raiders are without Blake Austin (hand injury) but Jack Wighton was let off a shoulder charge this week and will play alongside Jordan Rapana, Jarrod Croker and Paul Vaughan. The Sharks have won just one of their last six games, but they know how fickle form can be, having won 16 consecutive matches before that. Players like Ben Barba, James Maloney, Valentine Holmes, Paul Gallen and Michael Ennis can all rise to the occasion. The winner earns a bye next week before playing a preliminary final in the penultimate weekend of competition. The loser gets another chance next week against the winner of the second elimination final – the Panthers or the Bulldogs.
Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys
The new minor premiers, the Melbourne Storm will take on the defending premiers North Queensland in the other qualifying final at AAMI park on Saturday at 7:55pm. They met a year ago in a preliminary final, with the Cowboys getting through. The Storm are a different side this season, clinically efficient. The combination of Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Blake Green has been instrumental and Cameron Munster has been a worthy stand-in for the star fullback Billy Slater, who has missed the entire season. The Storm also have their find of the season, the young Fijian winger Sunasi Vunivalu, who has scored 22 tries so far. The Cowboys have been good but seem to lack the burning desire they showed in the 2015 premiership campaign. Matt Scott’s return will boost the forward pack while Johnathan Thurston remains the player most likely to change the course of the game in a blink of an eye. The winner earns a bye next week before playing a preliminary final in the penultimate weekend of competition. The loser faces the Broncos or the Titans – whoever won that elimination final – to win a place in a preliminary final.
Penrith Panthers v Canterbury Bulldogs
The other elimination final is a West5ern Sydney derby kicking off at Allianz Stadium on Sunday at 4:10pm. Ther Panthers will have revenge on their minds: in 2014 they finished fourth on the ladder and had the grand final in the sights until the Bulldogs knocked them out. This year should be different. Penrith started poorly but under coach Anthony Griffin and the leadership of new captain Matt Moylan they’re now firing on all cylinders. The Bulldogs have been out of form and didn’t look as if they deserved to be in the finals when they lost to Souths last week. Will Hopoate and Sam Perrett are not available (on religious grounds) so Tyrone Phillips, an NSW Cup player will get a shot at the big time. – Jesse Mullens
Photo of the eight captains with the NRL Premiership trophy from the NRL’s Twitter feed.