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Bunker Review – Round 27

The final round of the 2023 regular season was light on close games, but the results had major implications for the minor premiership and Top 8 ahead of what shapes as a fascinating 2023 NRL finals series. 

Souths headline season disappointments

There was no shortage of underwhelming teams in the 2023 NRL premiership.

Canterbury Bulldogs, St George Illawarra Dragons and Wests Tigers all had designs on climbing the ladder but finished as the most dismal batch of bottom-three outfits in recent memory – and in varying states of off-field disarray. The Bulldogs (34-30 to the Titans), Dragons (32-12 to the Knights) and Tigers (54 -12 to the Sea Eagles) closed out their campaigns with disappointing losses.

North Queensland Cowboys, who had their brittle chances extinguished by a 42-12 loss at Penrith, and Parramatta Eels plummetted from top-four heights in 2022 to miss the playoffs. Bowing out before their final-round bye, the Eels became just the second grand finalist in the past 12 years to fail to make the Top 8 the following season.

But it’s hard to recall a team rated a genuine premiership threat so deep into the season dipping out of finals contention than South Sydney Rabbitohs, whose 26-12 loss to archrivals Sydney Roosters sent them packing in dramatic style.

Souths were first on the ladder at the end of Round 11 and sat on the second line of premiership betting behind Penrith for months but crumbled to lose nine of their last 13 games. The Rabbitohs’ conceded 13.6 points per game over the first 11 rounds but a whopping 30.1 per game in their remaining 13 outings.

As it did last year on their late-season charge to make the finals and storm into a prelim, Souths’ fortunes swung on talisman Latrell Mitchell. Their slump coincided with an injury to the megastar fullback, but he struggled to regain top form upon his return and a brain explosion in the dying seconds of the Round 25 loss in Newcastle derailed their build-up to the must-win clash last Friday.

The explosive exit of assistant coach and club legend and Sam Burgess, criticism of young halfback Lachlan Ilias, speculation Wayne Bennett could return at Jason Demetriou’s expense when his Dolphins contract ends, and talk of a positional switch for Mitchell paint a picture of a club in a disturbing state of flux.

NRL finalists power rankings

It’s all about timing your run – so how are the eight teams left in the premiership race shaping up as the finals get underway?

1 Panthers: Grabbed the minor premiership again with 14 wins from their last 16 games and haven’t lost to a fellow Top 8 team since Round 1. Clearly the team to beat as the chase the first threepeat in 40 years. VALUE BET: Premiership winner @ $2.40

2 Broncos: Fabulous campaign to date with a seven-match winning run only coming undone after resting a pile of stars in the last round, but it’s a whole new ball game as the perennial heavyweights head into their first finals series since 2019. Playoffs experience is lacking in key areas and confront a hoodoo match-up in week one. VALUE BET: Stage of Elimination – Preliminary Final @ $3.60

3 Knights: Arguably the form team in the competition after winning eight straight games (including defeats of three Top 8 rivals) with their back five on fire, an unheralded spine doing a superb job and an underrated pack standing tall. Their chances of going deep hinge on Kalyn Ponga’s health but their momentum is a huge plus and the Knights look certain to advance past week one for the first time in a decade. VALUE BET: Finals Top Pointscorer – Kalyn Ponga @ $9.00

4 Storm: The sleeper in the Top 8 pack, winning their last four matches to earn a historically favourable week one match-up against the Broncos. It’s been a patchy campaign – and two heavy losses to Penrith during the second half of the season don’t bode well – but the Storm always seemingly have another gear to go to in the playoffs. VALUE BET: To Make Grand Final @ $3.00

5 Warriors: Won seven straight before a depleted side went down to the Dolphins in Round 27, but realistically the fairytale team of 2023 haven’t shown their best since mid-July – limping past a succession of also-rans. Certainly capable of going deep and even making the grand final, but a week one trip to Penrith makes them vulnerable to a straight-sets exit with the Knights likely looming in a semi-final. VALUE BET: Stage of Elimination – Semi Final @ $3.00

6 Roosters: Turned things around spectacularly – particularly with their faltering attack – to squeak into the finals with five straight wins. A star-studded line-up with vast finals experience suggest they can make a run from the bottom half of the eight, but they only have one win against a fellow finalist (versus the Knights in Round 16) since April. VALUE BET: Win v Sharks @ $1.93

7 Sharks: Rallied from a July slump to book a home elimination final with four wins from their last five matches, but have not shaken their flat-track bully rep. The Sharks’ final-round win over the Raiders was their first against a fellow finalist since Round 12 – losing five by an average margin of 27.6 points in the interim. VALUE BET: 11 to 20 total points v Roosters @ $2.45

8 Raiders: Hovered around the top four for much of the season by closing out a string of tight wins, but two wins from their last seven games and an eventual points differential of -137 tells the story of a rocky season. A two-point defeat of the Roosters in Round 17 was their only victory over a fellow finalist since early-April. Don’t expect a repeat of their stirring week one upset after finishing eighth in 2022. VALUE BET: +11.5 v Knights @ $2.00

Statement game of NRL Round 27

Sydney Roosters’ 26-12 defeat of South Sydney ranks among the greatest clutch final-round wins to snare a Top 8 spot of all time – and they did it under plenty of duress.

On top of the strain of walking the tightrope for several weeks, the Roosters went into Friday’s blockbuster minus suspended enforcer Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and injured game-breakers Joey Manu and Daniel Tupou.

Getting pegged back to 16-12 in the 55th minute and with the Rabbitohs turning the momentum of a gripping contest, it could have easily imploded. But the Roosters showed impressive resolve to ride out the rough spots and clinch a famous victory with two late tries.

Maligned stars James Tedesco, Brandon Smith, Victor Radley and Joseph Suaalii were superb, Junior Pauga was brilliant filling in on the wing and the likes of Billy Smith epitomise the Roosters’ rediscovered intensity and spirit.

The upshot is the Roosters leapfrogged the Rabbitohs and returned to the Top 8 for the first time since Round 10, qualifying for the finals for the 10th time in Trent Robinson’s 11-season tenure.

Panthers hold steady as title favourites

Little movement among the top five contenders, but the Roosters’ price halved after sealing their place in the finals, while the Raiders drifted further despite belatedly having their Top 8 berth confirmed.

NRL PREMIERSHIP ODDS

TEAMCURRENT PRICELAST WEEK’S PRICE
Penrith Panthers$2.40$2.50
Brisbane Broncos$3.00$3.60
Melbourne Storm$6.50$6.50
New Zealand Warriors$12$11
Newcastle Knights$17$15
Sydney Roosters$23$46
Cronulla Sharks$26$26
Canberra Raiders$151$101
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