Des Hasler has been a part of top-flight rugby league for over 30 years and the four-time premiership winner believes this season’s race is one of the tightest he’s been involved with.
Results over the last two NRL rounds have thrown title fight wide open with the hopes of Cronulla and North Queensland taking a battering while Canberra, Canterbury, Brisbane and Penrith have had theirs ressucitated.
There are 12 teams still in the finals hunt with three rounds to play and the final make-up of the top eight set to go down to the wire in round 26.
Hasler’s Bulldogs travel to Brisbane to face the Broncos in the opening match of round 24 on Thursday in a game that will have a significant bearing on the top eight.
The usual cut-off point for the final eight, 28 points, might not be enough to make the playoffs in 2016.
Wayne Bennett’s side can move onto 30 points and confirm a finals berth with a victory.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs need to win two of their last three games against last year’s grand finalists Brisbane, North Queensland and South Sydney to make the all-important top four.
“The top-four spot is always an advantage,” said Hasler, who won the 1987 and 1996 premierships as a player with Manly and coached the club to title wins in 2008 and 2011.
“As long as I can remember this had been one of the closest competitions.
“Teams are really coming into their own and there were an assortment of results last weekend (that showed that).
“And with semi-final football it goes to another level again.
“You need any advantage you can take in those last eight places and being in the top four seems to be one of those.”
Cowboys coach Paul Green said after Sunday’s loss to Sydney Roosters, the premiers’ third defeat in a row, that the competition can be won from outside the top four for the first time since 1995.
Fifth-placed North Queensland might have to do that. they sit four points adrift of the Dogs in fourth.
The Cowboys host the ninth-placed Warriors in Townsville on Saturday in another match that will have an important influence on finals positions.
A win for the hosts will seal a finals spot in the bottom half of the eight.
Melbourne can wrap up a top-two spot and a home final in week one of the playoffs against Manly at Brookvale on Saturday, after suffering defeat to Canberra for just the fourth time this season on Monday night.
The Raiders can seal a surprise top four berth against Parramatta in the nation’s capital on Sunday.
St George Illawarra’ slim finals chances will be killed off with a loss to the Roosters on Sunday.
Gold Coast should be able to hold onto eighth place when they travel to Newcastle to face the hapless Knights on Saturday.
Wests Tigers can join Penrith on 26 premiership points if they defeat the seventh-placed Panthers at Pepper Stadium on Friday.