Make-or-break period arrives early for Panthers, Sharks and Broncos

This article was first written and published for NRL.com

The 24-game grind that is the NRL season shouldn’t lull anyone into thinking their team can afford a slow first half of the season and then storm home and make the finals.

Sure, there have been examples of teams climbing out of early-season holes and going on September charges – think Parramatta in 2009 – but for most teams, a strong first half of the year is a necessity if they are to feature in the finals.

It’s already round six and for three teams their season hangs in the balance. The next month for them is crucial as when that period ends we will already have 10 weeks in the books.

Brisbane Broncos

Next four weeks: Raiders (away), Sharks (home), Rabbitohs (away), Sea Eagles (Magic Round).

Before the season started, many placed the Broncos in their top four. The top four is a far cry from 13th spot. That’s where they are now.

What’s difficult to fathom about this team is that there is some serious talent on the field, particularly with their young forward pack.

Unfortunately, Kodi Nikorima and Anthony Milford are not working as a halves pairing (largely due to the fact that I think they are similar players), Andrew McCullough’s service from dummy half has been ordinary and Darius Boyd may still be recovering from injury as he is struggling to make one-on-one tackles in the last line of defence.

Additionally, over the last couple of years, the Broncos have lost some key leaders. That leadership gap hasn’t been filled.

I expect them to click eventually under new coach Anthony Seibold, but I wonder if by the time they do it will be too late.

They need to win at least two out of their next four games and given their opposition, that’s a tough ask.

Penrith Panthers

Next four weeks: Sharks (away), Rabbitohs (home), Raiders (away), Wests Tigers (Magic Round).

If they had not registered a win against the Wests Tigers two weeks ago, I would have already put a line through them already.

The Panthers took a big gamble signing Ivan Cleary as coach for five years. I understand the connection and desire that Cleary had to coach his son, but the Panthers have aligned themselves with a coach that has the worst win/loss record of someone to have coached more than 300 games (47 per cent).

He and Ricky Stuart are the only two coaches who have coached more than 300 games and have a negative record.

Panthers second-rower Viliame Kikau.
Panthers second-rower Viliame Kikau.©Jason O’Brien/NRL Photos

After watching Penrith in the opening rounds, their attack does not fill me with confidence. It doesn’t help that Dylan Edwards and Josh Mansour are experiencing form slumps.

The Panthers have only scored 63 points this season so far. That’s less than the Bulldogs, the side many predict will win the wooden spoon.

For me, the Panthers need to win at least two of their next four games or their hopes of playing in September will be close to zero, especially when you consider the impact State of Origin is likely to have on this team.

Cronulla Sharks

Next four weeks: Panthers (home), Broncos (away), Storm (home), Titans (Magic Round).

You have to feel for the Cronulla Sharks.

The entire competition seems to have been hit hard by injury, but when you consider the calibre of player that the Sharks are missing at the moment, it’s little wonder they are finding it tough going.

Shaun Johnson and Josh Dugan are playing despite being hampered by injury. That’s on top of also being without rep stars Paul Gallen, Wade Graham, Matt Moylan and Aaron Woods in recent weeks.

They are key players in key positions. Any team missing this number of quality players would struggle.

The key for the Sharks over the next month is staying within close range of the top eight.

The Sharks sit just outside the eight (on four points) which should be encouraging given their injury concerns and the tough opposition they have faced.

The good news for the Sharks is I think it will get easier. Graham is expected back midway through the season and over the next month, other key players should start to return.

While I’ve called out these teams specifically, we all know anything is possible.

Let’s see what the next four weeks have in store before State of Origin disruptions are thrown into the mix.