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Who has toughest schedule for rest of NRL season after Round 20

There’s little more than a month left in the regular season, five weeks which will determine more than just who misses the playoffs.

Careers are on the line for players, coaches and administrators as the 16 NRL teams jockey for position over the closing weeks of the schedule.

Premiers Penrith are now not so certain to finish first after Nathan Cleary was sent off and banned for the rest of the regular season after his spear tackle on Dylan Brown in the loss to the Eels on Friday night.

The Cowboys are now just six points adrift of the Panthers with Jarome Luai (knee) also set to not return until week one of the finals.

Cronulla’s golden-point win over Souths was enormous in the context of the finals race – the Sharks reclaiming third spot and the Bunnies slipping to seventh while Brisbane’s upset loss to the Tigers allowed Melbourne to regain fourth place.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 31: Scott Drinkwater of the Cowboys beats the defence to score a try during the round 20 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the North Queensland Cowboys at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, on July 31, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Scott Drinkwater. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

For-and-against records are likely to come into play in deciding final rankings – the Roosters hold a 100-plus advantage on Canberra on that front in the race for eighth.

The Sharks have the easiest run home with Souths facing the toughest schedule.

In working out the strength of schedule for each team in the closing rounds, it is calculated by a tally of the remaining opposition’s current competition points on the ladder. 

South Sydney have the highest cumulative total from their final five opponents with 126 compared to Cronulla’s 76, therefore they have the hardest strength of schedule. 

The best/worst case scenario for each team is based on the best possible mathematical outcome – basically if they won all their remaining games and the other results go that team’s way to the optimal degree. It is calculated by a standard winning margin in each match of 12 points (there could be much bigger swings in the for and against but then we’re getting into true trainspotter territory, not the cool Begbie kind).

Team Strength of schedule
Sharks 76 (easiest)
Titans 90 (2nd easiest)
Knights 92 (3rd)
Dragons 96 (4th)
Raiders 98 (5th)
Sea Eagles 98 (6th)
Tigers 104 (7th)
Broncos 106 (8th)
Cowboys 106 (9th)
Eels 112 (10th)
Warriors 112 (11th)
Panthers 114 (12th)
Roosters 116 (12th)
Bulldogs 116 (14th)
Storm 118 (15th)
Rabbitohs 128 (16th)

The run home for each team

1. Penrith (1st, 36 points, +294 differential) 

Run home: Rd 21 Raiders (A), Rd 22 Storm (H), Rd 23 Rabbitohs (A), Rd 24 Warriors (H), Rd 25 Cowboys (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 1st, could slide as low as fourth.

Strength of schedule: 114 (12th easiest)

Predicted finish: 1st. Even with no Cleary or Luai, the Panthers should be able to hold off the Cowboys in the closing rounds.

2. North Queensland (30pts, +208)

Run home: Rd 21 Bulldogs (A), Rd 22 Roosters (A), Rd 23 Warriors (H), Rd 24 Rabbitohs (A), Rd 25 Panthers (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 1-8. The Cowboys are guaranteed a finals berth now.

Strength of schedule: 106 (9th easiest)

Predicted finish: 2nd. They are only three wins adrift of Penrith and the minor premiership would be handy but their main focus needs to be keeping Cronulla from second spot.

3. Cronulla (28pts, +107)

Run home: Rd 21 Dragons (H), Rd 22 Tigers (A), Rd 23 Sea Eagles (A), Rd 24 Bulldogs (H), Rd 25 Knights (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 1-10

Strength of schedule: 76 (Easiest) 

Predicted finish: 3rd. Top-four destiny is in their own hands after the win over Souths on Saturday night. Despite having the softest schedule, they need the Cowboys to slip up to sneak into the top two.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 29: Nelson Asofa-Solomona of the Storm runs is tackled by Josh Curran of the Warriors during the round 20 NRL match between the New Zealand Warriors and the Melbourne Storm at Mt Smart Stadium, on July 29, 2022, in Auckland, New Zealand. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

Nelson Asofa-Solomona. (Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

4. Melbourne (26pts, +177)

Run home: Rd 21 Titans (H), Rd 22 Panthers (A), Rd 23 Broncos (A), Rd 24 Roosters (H), Rd 25 Eels (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 1-11.

Strength of schedule: 118 (15th easiest)

Predicted finish: 6th. They have lost six of their past 10 so they’re no longer sure things to make the top four, particularly with Ryan Papenhuyzen out for the year. Even missing the top two would be their lowest regular-season placing since 2015 – that’s how successful the Storm machine has been in recent years.

5. Brisbane (26pts, +69)

Run home: Rd 21 Roosters (A), Rd 22 Knights (H), Rd 23 Storm (H), Rd 24 Eels (H), Rd 25 Dragons (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 2-11. 

Strength of schedule: 106 (8th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 4th. A dream draw to finish the season means a top-four spot is a strong possibility after collecting the wooden spoon two years ago and placing 14th last year. The Round 20 loss to the Tigers could have ramifications in the race for fourth spot.

6. Parramatta (26pts, +38)

Run home: Rd 21 Sea Eagles (A), Rd 22 Rabbitohs (H), Rd 23 Bulldogs (H), Rd 24 Broncos (A), Rd 25 Storm (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 2-11

Strength of schedule: 112 (10th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 5th. Beating Penrith twice in the season is great but they still face the prospect of doing it the hard way in the finals from the bottom half of the bracket.

Dylan Brown of the Eels is tackled dangerously by Nathan Cleary. (Photo by Joshua Davis/Getty Images)

7. South Sydney (24pts, +70)

Run home: Rd 21 Warriors (A), Rd 22 Eels (A), Rd 23 Panthers (H), Rd 24 Cowboys (H), Rd 25 Roosters (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 2-11.

Strength of schedule: 128 (Toughest) 

Predicted finish: 7th. Saturday’s loss to the Sharks has put them back on the borderline – they have a tough draw to overcome to ensure their playoff spot.

8. Sydney (22pts, +89)

Run home: Rd 21 Broncos (H), Rd 22 Cowboys (H), Rd 23 Tigers (H), Rd 24 Storm (A), Rd 25 Rabbitohs (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 3-12

Strength of schedule: 116 (13th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 9th. Three straight wins have enhanced the Roosters’ chances of sneaking into the eight. Four of their last five games are at home. It still could come down to the final round against the Rabbitohs at the new Allianz Stadium opening match to decide their playoff destiny.

Team Best-worst finish
1. Penrith 1-4
2. North Qld 1-8
3. Cronulla 1-10
4. Melbourne 1-11
5. Brisbane 2-11
6. Parramatta 2-11
7. South Sydney 2-11
8. Sydney 3-12
9. Canberra 3-12
10. Manly 3-14
11. St George Illawarra 5-14
12. Canterbury 8-16
13. New Zealand 10-16
14. Newcastle 10-16
15. Wests 11-16
16. Gold Coast 12-16

9. Canberra (20pts, -13)

Run home: Rd 21 Panthers (H), Rd 22 Dragons (H), Rd 23 Knights (A), Rd 24 Sea Eagles (H), Rd 25 Tigers (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 3-12

Strength of schedule: 98 (5th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 8th. The odds are shortening for the Green Machine returning to the finals after three wins on the trot. They don’t have a lot of higher-ranked teams on their schedule but the question remains if they can be relied upon to string enough wins together to make the eight.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

10. Manly (20pts, +8)

Run home: Rd 21 Eels (H), Rd 22 Titans (A), Rd 23 Sharks (H), Rd 24 Raiders (A), Rd 25 Bulldogs (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 3-14

Strength of schedule: 98 (6th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 10th. Back-to-back losses could prove to be the difference between the finals or the final round being the end of their season.

11. St George Illawarra (20pts, -124)

Run home: Rd 21 Sharks (A), Rd 22 Raiders (A), Rd 23 Titans (H), Rd 24 Tigers (A), Rd 25 Broncos (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 5-14

Strength of schedule: 96 (4th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 11th. With a relatively soft draw to finish the season, the Dragons should be challenging for a playoff spot but don’t bet on this inconsistent team rising any higher. Their woeful for-and-against is also a huge factor to overcome.

NEWCASTLE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 31: Jacob Kiraz of the Bulldogs scores a try during the round 20 NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the Canterbury Bulldogs at McDonald Jones Stadium, on July 31, 2022, in Newcastle, Australia. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

Jacob Kiraz scores. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

12. Canterbury (14pts, -103)

Run home: Rd 21 Cowboys (H), Rd 22 Warriors (A), Rd 23 Eels (A), Rd 24 Sharks (A), Rd 25 Sea Eagles (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 8-16

Strength of schedule: 116 (14th easiest)

Predicted finish: 12th. Deservedly rose into outright 12th after Sunday’s triumph over the Knights and their recent form under interim coach Mick Potter has been a breath of fresh air.

13. New Zealand (12pts, -199)

Run home: Rd 21 Rabbitohs (A), Rd 22 Bulldogs (H), Rd 23 Cowboys (A), Rd 24 Panthers (A), Rd 25 Titans (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 10-16

Strength of schedule: 112 (11th easiest)

Predicted finish: 13th. Let’s Gone Warriors? This season is long gone and poor old Stacey Jones has not only inherited a basket case, he’s been passed over for the opportunity to turn them around next year despite being a club legend who’s done the hard yards as an assistant coach. At least their home games are now in Auckland but the not so dizzying heights of 13th or 14th are their likely finishing spot.

14. Newcastle (12pts, -238)

Run home: Rd 21 Tigers (A), Rd 22 Broncos (A), Rd 23 Raiders (H), Rd 24 Titans (A), Rd 25 Sharks (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 10-16

Strength of schedule: 92 (3rd easiest) 

Predicted finish: 15th. The remaining schedule is not too tough but neither are the Knights these days. They have not beaten any of the top-eight sides all year and are unlikely to rise any higher than their current predicament.

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 30: Daine Laurie of the Tigers attempts to break away from the defence during the round 20 NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Wests Tigers at Suncorp Stadium, on July 30, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Daine Laurie. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

15. Wests (10pts, -185)

Run home: Rd 21 Knights (H), Rd 22 Sharks (H), Rd 23 Roosters (A), Rd 24 Dragons (H), Rd 25 Raiders (H).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 11-16

Strength of schedule: 104 (7th easiest) 

Predicted finish: 14th. Caretaker coach Brett Kimmorley and his team thoroughly deserved the win over Brisbane and should account for the inept Knights this weekend to ensure the wooden spoon won’t be housed at Concord after Round 25. 

16. Gold Coast (8pts, -186)

Run home: Rd 21 Storm (A), Rd 22 Sea Eagles (H), Rd 23 Dragons (A), Rd 24 Knights (H), Rd 25 Warriors (A).

Best-worst mathematical case scenario: 12-16.

Strength of schedule: 90 (2nd easiest) 

Predicted finish: 16th. Avoiding the spoon and the sack will be the two main missions for Justin Holbrook. If they beat Newcastle and the Warriors, they could dodge the spoon but it may not be enough to save the coach’s skin.

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