Tackle Count: The make-or-break game of the 2020 NRL season

IN FOCUS: Dragons winger Jordan Pereira dives over to score a try against the Rabbitohs at Jubilee Stadium last year. Picture: Grant Trouville/NRL Imagery
IN FOCUS: Dragons winger Jordan Pereira dives over to score a try against the Rabbitohs at Jubilee Stadium last year. Picture: Grant Trouville/NRL Imagery

Are there 11 contenders for eight spots?

Only nine regular rounds remain this season so it's time to ponder a critical question: which NRL teams will be there come finals time?

The top five sides - Panthers, Storm, Eels, Roosters and Raiders - are all firmly entrenched in the top eight and appear unlikely to slip. Newcastle sits pretty safely in sixth spot, while the Sharks and Sea Eagles are one competition point behind them.

Then, there's the bottom eight teams. Firstly, it's pretty safe for the Cowboys, Warriors, Titans, Broncos and Bulldogs to start planning for the 2021 season.

That leaves us with three other finals contenders. The Tigers, Rabbitohs and Dragons.

Two of those sides will meet tonight in a crucial battle to kick off round 12. It's a make or break game for both St George Illawarra and Souths at Jubilee Stadium.

It's all-but curtains for the Red V if they can't get over the line, with games against the Roosters and Eels looming on the horizon. All eyes, as always, will be on Ben Hunt as he returns to the Dragons' no.7 jersey after rookie Adam Clune was ruled out due to concussion.

Coach Paul McGregor didn't hesitate to make the move once Clune was ruled out of tonight's clash.

"I think whatever Ben does no one's ever going to be happy with," he said. "He seems to be a player people really go after consistently but he's a very good footballer, he's experienced and he'll do a good job."

Elsewhere, the name Sonny Bill Williams has been on everybody's lips this week.

Williams is preparing for a controversial stint at the Roosters, after his Canadian club Toronto pulled out of the Super League due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

He hasn't played in the NRL since 2014, and is set to enjoy a family holiday before his much-awaited return.

"Everyone knows it's no secret that I'm pretty close with the lads at the Roosters, Nick [chairman Politis] and Trent [coach Robinson] and I stay in contact with them now and then," Williams told the Nine Network.

"Trent just gave me a call and inquired about what was happening over here and Nick hit me up and asked if I had a couple of months in me to come back.

"To be honest, I hadn't trained for a bit and I'd been in holiday mode."

A number of subplots will feature this week. Will the Knights bounce back against the Storm? Can the reinforcements of George Jennings and Daniel Alvaro inspire the Warriors to victory? And how will John Bateman fare on his Raiders return against the Cowboys?

Canberra co-captain Jarrod Croker backs Bateman to make an impression: "He'll be fine, he'll be excited. I'm sure he'll be calling to get the ball as much as possible to get amongst it."

The round kicks off tonight with that crucial clash between the Dragons and Rabbitohs. Buckle up for another interesting start to the round.

* This edition of Tackle Count was written by Joshua Bartlett.

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This story The make-or-break game of the 2020 NRL season first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.