The finals countdown is on

By TODD BALYM

IT'S often said that finals football is completely different to the regular season, but that doesn't mean pre-September action isn't a good form guide for the future. The NRL finals are just one week away and already the contenders are separating themselves from the pretenders. Minor premiers Melbourne are yet again the team to beat, the Storm carrying solid form over the past month and also performing strongly against their finals opponents throughout the season. Red-hot South Sydney, who can still miss the finals but also guarantee a berth with victory this weekend, are the equal hottest team in the NRL at the moment with four wins from their past five games. Souths have bypassed veteran fullback David Peachey, who looks set to end his 14-year career in premier league.

Coach Jason Taylor instead chose to switch young winger Fetuli Talanoa to No.1 and %promote former Test winger Shannon Hegarty.

Third-placed North Queensland join the Storm and Bunnies with a 4-1 record over the past month, but it should be noted the Cowboys have only beaten the bottom four sides in the competition. Last year Brisbane snapped a five-game losing streak with a three-game winning run prior to the finals and ultimately walked away with the trophy. Parramatta are the NRL side under the most pressure, dropping their past three games to not only drop out of the top four but also face the prospect of missing the finals.

Sitting comfortably in third throughout most of the year, the Eels need to beat reigning premier Brisbane on Sunday to assure their finals spot and perhaps earn a home semi-final. And second-placed Manly have dropped successive games to put their title credentials under question. The Sea Eagles haven't won a finals game since 1997, but should break the drought with a home semi-final next Saturday night against whoever finishes seventh. Wests Tigers, who remain the %only side capable of disrupting the current top eight, could be that team but are more likely to claim eighth if they make the finals. The Tigers need to beat Newcastle and have the Eels trump Brisbane to sneak into the finals. Meanwhile, Titans co-captain Luke Bailey has been ruled out of Sunday night's clash with the Storm after breaking his hand during last weekend's Sharks' clash.



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