IN DOUBT: Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston could miss his side's clash with the Storm.
IN DOUBT: Cowboys captain Johnathan Thurston could miss his side's clash with the Storm. MICHAEL CHAMBERS

Top eight and minor title in the balance

THE NRL's top eight could have a vastly new look after round 21 with games this weekend between North Queensland and Melbourne and the Gold Coast and Cronulla having a huge bearing on ladder positions.

Six games out from the finals and the minor premiership, and top eight spots are up for grabs with the 12th-placed Manly still a rough chance of playing September football if it can win five of those six games.

Cronulla will be gunning for an amazing 16th-straight win against a building Gold Coast, which is starting to turn heads and given a good chance of stopping the Sharks on Monday at home.

If the Titans, who have moved slickly into the top eight, end Cronulla's streak, it opens the door for Melbourne, which has slipped under the radar a little with 11 wins from its past 12 games, to join the Sharks on top of the ladder.

Melbourne hosts Cronulla in the final round next month, which could decide the minor premiership.

The Storm beat the Cowboys 15-14 at home in round 10 and this time it strikes them at home without their gun player, Johnathan Thurston, who is battling a hamstring injury.

A victory would almost certainly lock up a top-two spot for Craig Bellamy's men and put the heat right on Cronulla (36 points), which is on target for the club's first premiership title in its 50th year in the competition.

It's an intriguing round with teams climbing or slipping on the ladder depending on each game outcome.

A Titans win could push Brisbane, which plays the Roosters, to the brink of the top eight while consolidating their position in the finals race for another week.

Brisbane's poor defence during and since the State of Origin series, including last weekend against Penrith, has to improve in coming weeks against St George, Parramatta, Canterbury, Melbourne and the Roosters in the final round.

If 28 points is the final-eight cut, then the Broncos need to win at least two more games, but if they hope to finish in the top four, which most judges believe is the only way to win the premiership, they probably need four or five more wins.

WAYNE HEMING


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