Manly’s charge toward the NRL finals becomes even more impressive when analysis shows they’ve had arguably the toughest path.
Just six weeks ago the proud Sea Eagles were sitting in last spot, looking certain to miss the finals for the first time in a decade and a real chance for a first-ever wooden spoon.
In fact, they were locked into the bottom quarter of the ladder for all but four weeks of the year.
But Manly are on the cusp of entering the top eight for the first time this year if they can topple sliding Canberra on Sunday for a sixth victory in seven weeks.
It would be a monumental achievement for sacked coach Geoff Toovey, considering ninth-placed Manly and St George Illawarra have played more games against current top eight teams than anyone else.
Along with the seventh-placed Dragons, the Sea Eagles have played 12 games against teams in the top half of the ladder – and still have clashes with Sydney Roosters and Cronulla to come.
While Manly have only won five of those 12 matches, three have come over the past five weeks, suggesting the perennial contenders still have what it takes against the competition’s elite.
Perhaps that’s why some bookmakers have promoted them to be equal seventh favourites with Melbourne to lift the trophy at season’s end.
After a season marred for many weeks by injuries and high-profile contract dramas, Manly prop Jake Trbojevic said the mood around training has been considerably lighter recently.
“We’ve had a few pretty good wins over the last few weeks, everyone’s happy,” he said on Wednesday.
“Hopefully we can keep it going, get to the finals and keep that form going.”
Meanwhile, Cronulla have shown why many consider skipper Paul Gallen’s side this year’s dark horses by winning seven of their 10 matches against the current top eight – easily the best percentage in the league.
Others continue to doubt South Sydney’s ability to defend their premiership crown, and part of that is because of an accommodating run that’s included just eight games against the top eight so far.
Along with Gold Coast, it’s the easiest schedule so far.
But with blockbuster matches against North Queensland, Canterbury, Brisbane and the Sydney Roosters to close out the year, their premiership credentials will be seriously put to the test.
Not surprisingly, last-placed Newcastle have been the worst performers against teams in the top half of the ladder, winning just one of their ten matches.
AGAINST THE CURRENT TOP EIGHT TEAMS (UP TO ROUND 23)
* Manly and St George-Illawarra have played the most games against teams currently in the top eight with 12.
* South Sydney and Gold Coast have played the least with eight.
* Cronulla have the most wins against current top-eight sides with seven from 10.
* Newcastle have the least with one from 10.