The 2017 NRL season is heading into the final third, with just a handful of rounds left to play before we find out who will be competing in the qualifiers later in the year. It has been an entertaining campaign and as the run-in begins, it gives punters a fantastic opportunity to reassess where they have placed their money and who they are backing for silverware, the top eight and the wooden spoon at the end of the season.
Melbourne Storm are currently setting the pace at the top of the NRL ladder, but there are a number of teams looking to catch Craig Bellamy’s side, including last season’s champions, the Cronulla Sharks.
Whilst there is a fight going on at the top of the table, there is also a fight going on outside the top eight, as a number of clubs look to catch St George Illawarra Dragons, who are desperately trying to secure a place in the qualifiers later this season.
Pride is also at stake for some of the NRL’s bottom clubs, with the Newcastle Knights aiming to avoid a hat-trick of wooden spoons by defying the odds and climbing off the foot of the table between now and the end of the season.
With so much still to play for between now and the end of the 2017 campaign, here is a look at some of the best selections and value heading into the run-in.
Bellamy’s side are currently top of the NRL ladder, and will be confident of avenging last season’s 14-12 Grand Final defeat to the Cronulla Sharks, by picking up their first Premiership since 2012. Melbourne Storm are currently the 2.78 favourites to finish the regular season top of the pile and pick up a minor premiership for the second successive year, despite a recent slump in form.
That recent slump of form, which saw Bellamy’s side lose two fixtures in Round 16 (25-24 against the Sydney Roosters) and Round 18 (22-6 against the Parramatta Eels), will have given the rest of the league the confidence that 2017 is not destined to be Melbourne’s year.
The Sharks and the Roosters are currently the two clubs trying to keep up with Melbourne, whilst a host of other clubs try to narrow the gap on the league leaders. Shane Flanagan’s Sharks will be confident they have the edge over Melbourne, particularly after causing an upset last year and winning their first Premiership crown in 50 years.
Cronulla are a team in form and their recent 26-12 victory over the New Zealand Warriors in Auckland will have given them the confidence that they can become the first team since Brisbane Broncos (1997 and 1998) to successfully defend their NRL title.
However, the Roosters will also have put a seed of doubt in the minds of those in Melbourne with that impressive 25-24 victory during Round 16, despite Bellamy’s side been significantly under strength.
Melbourne entered that contest without international trio, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater, but still managed to race into a 24-12 lead, before the Roosters pegged them back and stole a victory in Golden Point to keep Bellamy’s side within touching distance on the NRL ladder.
The Roosters have done remarkably well to turn things around after 2016’s disappointing performance, and Trent Robinson’s side are now in contention and are a good price at 12.5 to pick up their first NRL title since 2013.
Ninth-placed Penrith Panthers are piling the pressure on St George Illawarra Dragons, with the rivals currently in close competition for the final place in the end-of-season top eight. Of course, the Manly Sea Eagles and even the Parramatta Eels can be dragged into a dogfight, but as the ladder sits now, it is between the Dragons and the Panthers.
Penrith piled further pressure on the Dragons in Round 21 by picking up a 16-8 victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs at the Pepper Stadium in the weekend’s early fixture, leaving Paul McGregor’s Dragons with something to think about during the run-in.
The Dragons succumbed to that pressure and dropped two points against the NRL's bottom side, Newcastle, later in Round 21, when Nathan Brown's wooden spoon favourites picked up a surprise 21-14 victory to dent St George's hopes of a top-eight finish.
However, McGregor will have every faith in his side strengthening their grip on their place in the playoffs, particularly with the form that their captain and stand-off, Gareth Widdop, is currently in. The Englishman is perhaps the NRL’s most dangerous player at the minute, scoring and creating tries, whilst his kicking game remains inch perfect.
Widdop’s performance in the Dragons’ 52-22 victory over Manly in Round 20 was one of the best individual displays seen in the 2017 competition, with the five-eighth putting in a comprehensive kicking display and running the game from the halves. The 28-year-old Yorkshireman kicked eight goals that particular evening, as well as scoring a try and grabbing two assists as he steered his side to victory over their top-eight rivals.
St George also have fire power within their backline, with Widdop linking up beautifully with Jason Nightingale in recent weeks and helping the New Zealander to numerous tries.
Things could change drastically in the coming weeks, but with Widdop showing the sort of form that England supporters will love, heading into the World Cup, the Dragons are looking a safe bet at 1.45 to hang on to their top-eight place and challenge the division’s elite for silverware towards the end of 2017.
Similarly to the race for the top eight, anything can happen between now and the end of the season, but the Newcastle Knights seem destined for the wooden spoon for the third time in three years, a hat-trick that truly is unwanted.
Nathan Brown’s side have picked up just three victories all season, with their only other points on the NRL ladder coming from bye rounds. The Knights are two points adrift of the West Tigers and it is almost a certainty that at the end of the season they will be picking up yet another wooden spoon.
There are always teams in the NRL that drastically improve from one year to the next, with the Sydney Roosters proving, with their transition from a 15th-placed team in 2016, to contenders in 2017, nothing more than remarkable.
However, the chances of Newcastle doing that have been dealt a significant blow with Dane Gagai set to leave the club at the end of 2017.
The season is finely poised heading into the final rounds, with plenty to play for all across the ladder. All eyes will be on the battle for the Grand Final, and whether Craig Bellamy can lead his Melbourne side back to the top of the game, after the disappointment of last season’s final defeat to Cronulla.
It will also be worth keeping an eye on the battle between the Panthers and the Dragons, with Penrith currently the team trying to claw their way into the top-eight and displace St George, who are being superbly led by Gareth Widdop.
There is always less interest at the foot of the table, but with Newcastle looking destined to finish the season bottom of the ladder, their form between now and the end of the campaign could dictate how they perform in the 2018 competition.