Battle has begun for NRL's top spots
THE NRL title race has suddenly become a mystery box.
After a round that saw Manly burst Brisbane's bubble, defending premier South Sydney struggle to beat the injury-ravaged Penrith, Melbourne cop an 18-point flogging from last-placed Wests Tigers, and the Sharks down the Warriors in Auckland, anything seems possible in the run to September.
Back in March when the 2015 season kicked off, it was Newcastle and St George-Illawarra who flew out of the gates, with North Queensland staying in the stalls for the first three weeks.
Fast forward 20 rounds and the Knights have sacked coach Rick Stone and are struggling to avoid the wooden spoon.
Likewise the Dragons have crashed to be one of eight clubs battling to stay in the race for the top eight - now as wide open as Sydney Heads.
After being belted by Souths in round one, Brisbane has won eight of its last nine games to be on top of the ladder with the in-form Cowboys who have won 14 of their past 15.
Both clubs have tough runs home, Brisbane meeting the Bulldogs, Dragons, Roosters, South Sydney and finally Melbourne Storm. The Cowboys road home is not quite as difficult, with games against Cronulla, South Sydney, the Warriors, Storm and Titans.
Last year's minor premiers the Sydney Roosters are building momentum and have a far superior points differential to both teams above them, keeping them in the battle for top spot if they can win their remaining five games against Newcastle, Parramatta, Brisbane, Manly and South Sydney..
One thing is certain a month out from the finals, every point scored will count and ladder positions will change on a game-by-game basis.
The Bulldogs (9-10) have a flimsy grip on eighth place on 22 points ahead of the Warriors (22 points), Canberra (20 points) and a late-charging Manly (20 points), with Penrith and Parramatta on 18 points (prior to last night's game).
Any of them could make a run at the top eight in the coming month.
This weekend's draw tosses up some huge games, starting with Friday night's Suncorp Stadium showdown between Brisbane and the Bulldogs, who could slip from the top eight with a loss.
The Manly v South Sydney clash is big for both clubs, and so is the showdown between the fifth-placed Cronulla, who have won seven of their last eight games, and the Cowboys (equal top).
And it doesn't get much bigger than the St George-Illawarra v Warriors clash on Saturday with the Dragons (7th) putting their top eight spot on the line against the Warriors (9th).