The NRL finalists were confirmed last weekend, leaving eight teams with two rounds left and little to play for.
So here are a few reasons for the bottom eight to do more than make up the numbers as the season comes to a close.
As of Friday morning, there are three teams with a mathematical chance of finishing last — the Broncos, Bulldogs and Cowboys. Their fates are all tied in together, so we can’t separate them.
Unfortunately for the trio, all three play top four sides in the last two weeks of the season.
North Queensland faces first-placed Penrith this evening, the Broncos take on the fourth-placed Eels after that, and the Bulldogs close out the regular season against the Panthers.
Basically, each team is almost guaranteed one more loss before the season is done, although the Cowboys are realistically safe from the spoon.
For North Queensland to finish last, the Broncos would have to win both of their final two games, the Cowboys would have to lose both, and the Dogs would have to beat Penrith handily in round 20. Not much of that is likely to happen.
With Thursday’s win over South Sydney, the Bulldogs climbed above 16th for the first time since round six and have a chance to stay off the bottom once the season is done.
The Broncos are plonked in last place and have shown little inclination of beating a team like Parramatta. But Brisbane finishes its season against fellow strugglers North Queensland.
The match that was billed as the highlight of “a bumper final round” when the season resumed, has become pivotal only in the sense that it will probably decide the wooden spoon.
Brisbane’s -326 points differential is the worst in the league by about 150, making it impossible for them to finish above anyone if they’re tied on competition points.
Assuming both Queensland teams lose this week as expected, the Broncos will have to beat the Cowboys in round 20 to climb off last place and then hope the Panthers, likely minor premiers, beat the Bulldogs.
While getting tagged with the wooden spoon is no-one’s idea of a successful season, it would be a disaster for the Broncos, who have never finished last — a sting in the tail of an abysmal season for the NRL’s biggest team.
St George Illawarra Dragons (13th)
The Dragons have been the embodiment of “meh” in the decade after breaking their premiership drought in 2010.
Most of those years came under Paul McGregor, whose watch ended earlier this year, and they have a new coach coming in.
A new coach means a new game plan and Anthony Griffin may want to make changes to this middling side, meaning almost everyone is playing for their spot.
Everyone in the red and white should be playing their backsides off to guarantee a spot in the team next season.
Gold Coast Titans (12th)
This year’s Titans team has been the most competent we’ve seen in years, with coach Justin Holbrook giving them an identity in his first year in the NRL.
This is a team on the rise, led by Ash Taylor and previously unheralded names like AJ Brimson, Jamal Fogarty and Moeaki Fotuiaka. They’ll be joined by two monsters in David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui in 2021.
They’re sitting in 12th, one win ahead of the Dragons, heading into the penultimate round of the season, tied with three teams above them on 14 points.
The team has the third-worst for-and-against record in the league, so they have to get wins to move up that list, and finishing ninth has a very different ring to finishing 13th.
Just play the Raiders and Manly, try not to get hurt and get home. That’s all we want for you, Warriors.
Thanks so much for setting up camp in Tamworth and allowing the season to happen, but go spend some time with your families.
Next year will (hopefully) be better.
Manly Sea Eagles (10th)
Manly has been impossible to get a bead on this year.
During one four-week stretch, the Sea Eagles pushed a red-hot Paramatta to the brink, then were almost beaten by the Broncos, then took down the Raiders, then had 40 put on them by Cronulla.
They beat the Roosters and Eels this year, but injuries slowed them down.
Getting Tom Trbojevic back in the number one jersey next season will be an enormous boost, but losing star prop Addin Fonua-Blake is a disaster for the forward pack.
Daly Cherry-Evans is still a top half in the league, but this year has felt like a waste of his talents, with the team never really shaping as a top side nor sinking to the depths.
They’re just in a holding pattern until Trbojevic returns, and while there has been speculation he could return in the next two weeks from an easily reaggravated hamstring injury, it would seem like an unnecessary risk with no finals to play for.
Perhaps he just wants some game time before the post-season State Of Origin series.
Wests Tigers (9th)
One spot from the finals again? Really?
In some ways it would be better for the Tigers to drop out of the runners-up spot to avoid the ignominy of it happening for the fourth time in five years.
And with the Storm and the Eels still to come, it’s very likely that will happen.