The next month-and-a-half should provide some upsets, but more importantly, give teams like Parramatta and South Sydney the chance to close the gap at the top of the table and throw some intrigue into an increasingly predictable NRL season.
State of Origin proved on Wednesday night that it’s not immune to the trend of hugely lopsided results, but maybe its arrival will help iron out some of the disparity in the NRL this year.
The last round was shortened to just four games in the lead-up to State of Origin I, but coincidentally, two of the teams most heavily affected by Origin absences still had to suit up.
Last year’s grand finalists, Penrith and Melbourne, are clearly the best teams in the competition once again this year and have looked almost untouchable for most of the season.
The Panthers won their first 12 games, while the Storm only dropped games in round two and three, before going on an unbeaten run of their own.
To start the season, Penrith has an average points differential of 25.5, while Melbourne sits at just a tick under 22.
But last week, both teams looked positively fallible. Almost human.
Without Nathan Cleary, Jarome Luai, Brian To’o, Isaah Yeo, Kurt Capewell, Liam Martin and Apisai Koroisau, Penrith dropped their first regular-season game in just under 12 months, to the Tigers of all teams.
Meanwhile, the Storm with no Cameron Munster, Harry Grant, Christian Welch, Josh Addo-Carr or Felise Kaufusi held on to beat the Gold Coast Titans 20-14 but were just one bad pass away from heading to golden point.
Huge discrepancy between NRL teams
If there’s one thing that has been noticeably different about the NRL this year it is how superior the top of the ladder are to the very bottom, and it’s due to a combination of reasons.
Heading into this weekend’s games, NSW hat-trick hero Tom Trbojevic won’t play for Manly, bench Blue Liam Martin is the only Panther backing up for Saturday’s game, and Souths will be without Queensland reps Dane Gagai and Jai Arrow.
Considering how Manly has risen and fallen with Trbojevic, North Queensland could easily take down the Sea Eagles tonight; Cronulla would fancy its chances against Penrith after the table-toppers’ 20-point loss to Wests last week; and Newcastle will be watching the late mail closely to see if Blues stars Latrell Mitchell and Cameron Murray really start the game on Saturday.
In fact, everyone should prepare for more late scratchings when the final 17s are announced an hour before kick-off, with Melbourne a particularly strong candidate to be without a few guns again for their clash with the Warriors game, despite naming all five to play on Sunday.
While the lower-ranked teams might be able to spring some morale-boosting upsets as the Tigers did last week, this Origin period could do wonders for the parity near the top of the table.
Despite sitting just one win below Melbourne on the ladder and even beating them in the second round, third-ranked Parramatta has looked in a completely different weight class to the two teams above them on the table for most of the year, as evidenced by a 120-point gap in for and against.
The Eels proved their class with a win over Melbourne in round two.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts
They also got bodied by the fourth-placed Rabbitohs two weeks ago in a 38-20 result that only looked even vaguely respectable thanks to two garbage-time tries from Parramatta.
But the Eels only have one Origin rep as it currently stands, Junior Paulo, and made the most of it in dismantling Newcastle 40-4 last week.
Even if hooker Reed Mahoney is called up at some point in the Origin series, Parramatta will be aided by a pudding-soft schedule, with home games against the Tigers (11th) and Bulldogs (last) over the next two weeks.
They do have to travel to Penrith the following Friday, after Origin II on the Sunday, but then they have a bye and follow it up with a game on the Gold Coast against a Titans side that’s likely to have four players coming off Game III.
The fourth-placed Rabbitohs, meanwhile, have a similarly blessed run despite their six or so Origin reps.
Coming off a bye last week, South Sydney only faces one team currently inside the top 10 for the next five weeks, that being a home game against North Queensland when both teams will be without stars leading into Origin III.
The Rabbitohs thumped the Eels 38-20 two weeks ago.(AAP: Joel Carrett
That should be at least 10 points for both clubs in those six weeks, with anything else a failure for two teams that came into the season with dreams of premiership contention.
With Melbourne and Penrith both carrying tired or absent stars during that period, Parramatta or Souths could turn the current ‘top two and the rest’ make-up of the league into a genuine top four statistically at least.
While you could rightly point out that it won’t matter because the best teams will simply win come finals time, the order of the top four could make a major difference.
If Melbourne drops a game or two and the Eels and/or Rabbitohs leapfrog them, they could get a home final against the premiers. Or we could even be in a situation where the Storm could slide to fourth, putting them on a collision course with the Panthers in the first week of the finals and forcing one of them to win an extra game during the playoffs.
It may be a long shot, but the Eels and Rabbitohs need to see the next month-and-a-half as a wonderful opportunity to make up some ground on the real contenders and nudge their way into that echelon.
And for the fans, all we can do is hope for some more surprise results and close games in the home-and-away season, because it doesn’t look like the Origin series is going to provide them.