Benji Marshall believes the Wests Tigers can defy the odds and win the NRL premiership from outside the top four.
The Tigers are chasing three straight wins when they take on ladder leaders Canterbury at ANZ Stadium on Friday and a victory would consolidate their place in the top eight.
With three rounds remaining, the joint venture sit eighth on the ladder with a two-point buffer over Newcastle and Canberra, but they are four points adrift of fourth-placed Manly and unlikely to squeeze into the top four.
With the NRL this year dropping the McIntyre finals system and reverting to the AFL-style top-eight method last used for rugby league in 1996, the top four teams are now at a distinct advantage.
The AFL has used the system since 2000 and, under it, no team has made the grand final from outside the top four and only one from fifth or lower has gone beyond the second week of the finals.
But the star halfback isn’t bothered with the stats and doesn’t believe teams outside the top four will be making up the numbers in the finals.
“I think anyone who makes the top eight can win the competition and, if we make it into the top eight, I’d give us a chance as well,” he said.
Marshall knows all about making late runs in a season after the Tigers won eight straight games going into the 2005 finals series before beating North Queensland to win the premiership from fourth spot.
The New Zealand international can feel the Tigers gathering momentum after wins over St George Illawarra and Parramatta.
“We’ve improved in the last couple of weeks but I think we are still 70 per cent where we could be,” he said.
“We had a tough game against St George which we thought we toughed out pretty well … this week, we really get a good look at where we are as a team.”
The Bulldogs are chasing 12 straight wins and are coming off a 22-14 triumph over Brisbane with fullback Ben Barba getting Canterbury out of jail with two second-half tries.
But Marshall believes the Bulldogs are anything but a one-man army.
“You’ve got to stop their whole team. Their forward pack has probably been the benchmark in the competition this year and that gets them the momentum and the go forward they need to let Benny Barba do what he does,” he said.
“If we can limit their opportunities in our half, it will go a long way towards us winning.”