The NRL Finals, to be played through September ahead of the NRL grand final on the first Sunday in October, will see the Penrith Panthers go in as the heavy favourites to defend the Provan-Summons Trophy that they won for the first time since 2003 last year.
Played in a four-week format, the Panthers have been the NRL’s benchmark all year long, wrapping up the minor premiership with time to spare. The men from the foot of the mountains would ultimately wind up with 20 wins from their 24 games, winning the mior premiership by four points ahead of the Cronulla Sharks.
The Panthers and Sharks will ultimately take the advantage into the finals, with home qualifying finals which could book them a week off, and leave them just 80 minutes away from a grand final appearance.
They will take on the North Queensland Cowboys and Parramatta Eels respectively in those qualifying finals, with the losers then having to back up and play three knockout games to win the competition, meaning those Week 1 wins in qualifying finals are imperative.
In the bottom half of the top eight, the always dangerous Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters will host first up elimination finals against sides they have often struggled with.
The Canberra Raiders will make the trip to the Victorian capital in the first week of action to play the Storm, looking to win yet another game at AAMI Park, while the South Sydney Rabbitohs clash with Trent Robinson’s Roosters in what is the NRL’s oldest rivalry.
The Panthers, as mentioned, are the benchmark. Ivan Cleary’s side had eight players in the New South Wales Blues State of Origin side this year and have barely faltered as they defended last year’s premiership.
While they didn’t have the Dally M Medal winner, they would have had three players - Nathan Cleary, Isaah Yeo and Dylan Edwards - in the top ten, had Cleary’s suspension not ruled him ineligible to win the award.
Coming into the 2022 NRL season, the Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters looked to be the biggest adversaries, however, they have both been reduced to elimination final status in the opening week.
Both teams are still dangerous though - of that there can be no mistake. Craig Bellamy and Trent Robinson are two of the best coaches the NRL has to offer, and the players that will represent both sides - the likes of Jahrome Hughes, Cameron Munster and Harry Grant for the Storm, as well as James Tedesco, Luke Keary and Angus Crichton for the Roosters - ensure that they can be dangerous from any part of the top eight.
Last year’s grand finalists the South Sydney Rabbitohs too aren’t without a fight throughout September given their immense talent featuring the likes of Cameron Murray, Damien Cook, Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell.
All three sides will have the stats against them given the way in which teams from outside the top four have struggled to make the grand final in the last decade, however, this may be the strongest group of teams the competition has had in those positions in some time.
The Raiders too have plenty of talent, but really have only snuck into the finals thanks to the blowup of the Brisbane Broncos, and could be hard-pressed to challenge the Storm during the opening week of the finals, let along go any further than that.
While those three teams mentioned look potentially the most likely to challenge the Panthers, the historical stats suggest it will be those teams in the top bunch which are more likely to, and of those, the Parramatta Eels have the most pedigree to do so.
Despite the men in blue and gold’s well-noted issues with consistency - something that coach Brad Arthur simply hasn’t been able to bring under control no matter how hard he has worked at it - the Eels have a hit out against the Panthers in Week 1.
Even losing that game, they would then have a home game in Week 2, and a clash against the Sharks or Cowboys in Week 3. Mitchell Moses is having arguably his best season in the NRL, and the side are collective in their attempt to win a competition before a player exodus occurs over the coming off-season.
Taking away from the Eels though, it’s the two dark horses of this 2022 NRL season who could cause the most issues.
The Cronulla Sharks, on the back of Nicho Hynes, and the North Queensland Cowboys, on the back of some incredible football from the likes of Scott Drinkwater and Thomas Dearden, could go the journey.
The Sharks’ biggest issue will be the supporting case for Hynes, while the Cowboys will be asked plenty of questions about whether they truly have enough flash and style to complement the substance provided by a strong crop of forwards and the guidance of Chad Townsend.
The winner of their Week 1 game will be just 80 minutes from a grand final, and yet, there is still no guarantee of a grand final appearance given they will face either the Eels, Panthers or likely Storm in a Week 3 preliminary final.
Still, anyone taking the challenge for the Panthers seems a long shot, and they will enter the month of September as almost unbackable favourites to claim a second straight premiership.