Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan says major injuries and suspensions to the competition heavyweights have kicked open the NRL premiership race for the rest of the top eight.
The fifth-placed Sharks can move into the all-important top four with a win over Parramatta on Saturday night, bringing them one step closer to that elusive maiden premiership.
And they have current ladder leaders Brisbane to thank after the Broncos crushed defending premiers South Sydney on Thursday night.
The Rabbitohs are suddenly in danger of falling as low as seventh spot by the end of the weekend, however Flanagan was quick to point out that they weren’t the only team eyeing out a second chance in the finals.
“I look at (the table) as well and the (seventh-placed) Bulldogs, typical Bulldogs, no one’s talking about them making the top four. They can still make the top four as well,” Flanagan said on Friday.
“Everyone’s talking about us, and South Sydney dropping out, but we’re looking over our shoulder at the Bulldogs. And the Storm (sixth) are still there.”
The grand final ambitions of the Sydney Roosters were thrown into doubt when key men Mitchell Pearce and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves went down injured last week.
Ditto for North Queensland, who have lost both Michael Morgan and James Tamou for most, if not all of, the finals.
Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs are now in crisis after John Sutton broke his leg against the Broncos and hooker Issac Luke was cited for a shoulder charge by the match review committee.
In contrast, the Sharks are just about at full strength, with suspended prop Andrew Fifita the only significant absence from this week’s clash against the Eels.
Fifita is due to return for the first week of the finals, while supersub Ben Barba comes back from an ankle injury next week.
Flanagan declared the trophy race now wasn’t limited to the league’s leading contenders.
“The competition is wide open,” he said.
“Obviously there’s a massive advantage if you get in that top four.
“But we’re not counting our chickens yet.
“We need to work really hard for another two weeks and we’ll see what comes of it.”