Brisbane became the last team to qualify for the NRL finals on Sunday night, after Parramatta and the Warriors dropped the ball in the lead up to next week’s playoffs.
Brisbane fell into eighth spot after both the Eels and Warriors suffered last round defeats, with impressive victories to Sydney Roosters and North Queensland marking them as the teams to beat.
The premiers’ 22-18 win over South Sydney on Thursday at Allianz Stadium handed them the minor premiership after ladder leaders Manly fell 30-16 to the Cowboys in Townsville two nights later.
The win was the Roosters’ sixth on the trot ahead of Saturday evening’s first qualifying final against Penrith at Allianz Stadium.
The Cowboys, who have won seven of their last eight, including victories over top four finishers South Sydney and Manly, face Brisbane in Townsville on Saturday night in the first elimination final.
Penrith’s 22-6 win over the lacklustre Warriors on Sunday night in the final game of the regular season gave the Panthers a top four spot, with the result opening the door for the Broncos to sneak into the finals on percentages.
The Panthers’ reward is a match against the world club champions.
Penrith emerged as unlikely top four aspirants mid-season and coach Ivan Cleary, in his third year with the Panthers, said he was proud of his side heading into the finals.
“I didn’t really have any expectations (this year) apart from trying to improve,” he said.
“Eighteen months ago we were everyone’s favourites to finish last and we scratched our way up to tenth spot last year.
“The obvious one this year was to try and get in the eight and we’ve done that and I am very proud of the whole club.
“I think it is a pretty big achievement being in the top four with Souths, Roosters and Manly.”
Injury-hit Manly host Souths in the second qualifying final on Friday night at Allianz Stadium to open the finals series.
Canterbury, who limped into the finals alongside Brisbane after their 19-18 capitulation to the Titans on the Gold Coast on Sunday after leading 18-0, travel to Melbourne to play the Storm in the second elimination final on Sunday afternoon.
Brisbane’s finals fate was taken out of their own hands when they were disposed of by a clinical Melbourne outfit 22-12 at AAMI Park on Friday night.
After losing to Newcastle last week, a win over Canberra in the nation’s capital would have lifted the improved Eels to eighth spot, but the Raiders proved too good in a 33-20 win to finish their season with three straight victories.
Wests Tigers snapped a six game losing streak in defeating wooden spooners Cronulla, their first since 1969, 26-10 at Leichhardt Oval on Saturday.
In the other match with no bearing on the finals, the Knights smashed St George Illawarra 40-10 at Hunter Stadium on Sunday to round out both sides’ disappointing seasons in coach Wayne Bennett’s last game in charge of Newcastle.