Canterbury’s attacking renaissance under caretaker coach Mick Potter has already claimed the scalp of Parramatta, while the Bulldogs have emerged as easily the best of the out-of-contention teams with a host of high-scoring wins over also-ran rivals.
The Bulldogs can’t make the finals but are set to provide plenty of hassles for Top 4 and Top 8 hopefuls the Cowboys, Eels, Sharks and Sea Eagles over the last five rounds.
Meanwhile, after getting robbed of a king-sized upset in Townsville in Round 19 then spanking the Broncos in Brisbane a week later, Wests Tigers are shaping as a similar banana peel for the Sharks, Roosters, Dragons and Raiders in the last month of the regular season.
Teams with nothing to lose discovering some form down the stretch is nothing new. Relive the exploits of some of the most memorable ‘nuisance-value’ teams of the NRL era.
Auckland Warriors (1999)
Mark Graham’s first season in charge of the Warriors was marred by a shocking injury toll, a spate of suspensions to captain Matthew Ridge and off-field instability. But with summer arrival Jason Death and mid-season recruits Robert Mears and John Simon starring – along with the mercurial Stacey Jones – the Aucklanders found an August groove.
After putting a dagger in Souths’ finals hopes with a last-gasp victory at the SFS, the Warriors won their last four games – including Ericsson Stadium beatdowns of eventual grand finalists St George Illawarra and big gun Newcastle. The 42-0 thrashing of the Knights ultimately cost them a fifth-placed finish and they were bundled out in week of the finals.
Penrith Panthers (2002)
Wooden spooners in Royce Simmons’ last season as coach in 2001, the Panthers weren’t faring much better under John Lang in 2002. But after going 4-16 they won three of their last six games – and cost two teams a place in the finals.
Penrith smashed Melbourne 36-16 in Round 20 and Northern Eagles by a phenomenal 68-28 in the final round; if either result the Storm or Eagles would have squeaked into the playoffs. The Panthers surged to the minor premiership and a grand final triumph 12 months later.
Parramatta Eels (2003)
Parramatta missed the finals for the first time in seven years in 2003, rocked by Jamie Lyon’s shock walkout just one week into the season and going 2-9. But the blue-and-golds rallied during the second half of the season, winning eight of their last 11 games to end up in ninth.
The Eels’ victims included the finals-bound Warriors and Broncos, while the Dragons and Cowboys have their tenuous Top 8 hopes chopped down by Brian Smith’s rejuvenated outfit.
Newcastle Knights (2005)
Newcastle lost its first 13 matches of 2005 – the worst start to a year by any club in 38 years – with Andrew Johns spending more time on the sidelines than in the No.7 jersey.
But with ‘Joey’ in irrepressible touch, the wooden-spoon Knights finished the year as one of the NRL’s form teams and with a tally of eight wins (a record for a last-placed team, excluding salary-cap penalties) all achieved in the last 11 rounds.
The Knights beat eventual grand finalists North Queensland, minor premiers Parramatta, and Top 8 teams Melbourne, Manly and Cronulla, while also landing a hammer blow to the Bulldogs’ title defence as they faded to miss the playoffs. Johns finishing second in the Dally M Medal count despite playing just 16 games.
Melbourne Storm (2010)
After having two premiership stripped and being prevented from playing for points, the Storm battled on bravely throughout 2010. Craig Bellamy’s charges came home with a wet sail following a rep period slump, winning five of their last seven games.
Melbourne overwhelmed finalists Penrith and Canberra, as well as snuffing out Souths’ and Newcastle Top 8 dreams. Despite playing solely for pride, the Storm’s 14-10 record (along with the third-best for-and-against in the NRL) would have been enough to finish fifth.
Brisbane Broncos (2013)
At the time, the Broncos’ 2013 campaign was the worst in the club’s glittering history. They slumped to 12th with just 10 wins – both all-time lows for the perennial heavyweights – as they missed the finals for just the second time in 22 seasons.
But they gained some satisfaction during the latter rounds, upsetting the finals-bound Cowboys and defending champs the Bulldogs, and drawing with eventual preliminary finalists the Knights.
South Sydney Rabbitohs (2016)
Souths plummeted spectacularly just two years after their drought-breaking premiership triumph, fading out of the finals picture with nine straight losses.
But Michael Maguire’s side sprung into action to win their last four games, starting off with a 41-22 win in Auckland that knocked the Warriors’ compelling finals bid right off the rails. A week later the Rabbitohs stunned eventual premiers the Sharks, while they rounded out the campaign with a 28-10 win that saw the Bulldogs drop a place to seventh ahead of the playoffs.
Canterbury Bulldogs (2017-19)
Potter’s 2022 squad looks more than capable of channelling the Bulldog spirit of 2017-19 with some late-season upsets that may alter the make-up of the finals despite being well out of contention themselves.
In 2017, they beat finalists Manly and cost St George Illawarra a place in the Top 8 with a stunning Round 26 comeback in finishing a poor campaign on a three-match winning streak.
The following season – despite finishing 12th – the Bulldogs beat the Broncos, Dragons and Warriors during the last five rounds; those teams finished sixth, seventh and eighth, respectively, when the two points snatched by the Dogs potentially costing them a top-four berth.
Canterbury was at it again in 2019, doubling its season win tally with five wins from their last six matches. Penrith and Wests Tigers were knocked out of the Top 8 in consecutive weeks and failed to recover, while finalists Souths, Parramatta and Brisbane also felt the Bulldogs burn in the latter rounds.
North Queensland Cowboys (2018)
Johnathan Thurston’s farewell campaign was largely a tough one for the Cowboys, winning only four of their first 19 games to miss the playoffs for the first time in eight years – just 12 months after featuring in a grand final.
But the club send the legendary half out on a high with four wins over the last six rounds. The Knights had their finals bid extinguished and the Broncos’ push for the Top 4 was severely dented by a loss in Townsville, before the Cowboys spanked the Eels in ‘JT’s’ last home game and outlasted the Titans in his final match.
Gold Coast Titans and New Zealand Warriors (2020)
The Titans and Warriors finished initially torrid campaigns in the COVID-stricken 2020 season in ninth and 10th, respectively, after going on spirited late-season runs.
The Titans won their last five games, while the Warriors won five of their last nine and left the four teams that beat them – who all qualified for the finals – knowing they’d been in a fight. Both teams beat the Knights by identical 36-6 scorelines in the run home, sending the seventh-placed finishers strenuously questioning their own credentials.