Injuries to key players have dramatically reshaped the NRL premiership race three weeks out from the start of the finals series, with Sydney Roosters and North Queensland hit hardest.
Premiership favourites the Roosters have lost prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for the season due to an ACL injury suffered in Saturday night’s win over Brisbane.
The foundation club’s halfback Mitchell Pearce won’t be back until the finals after suffering a partial hamstring tear in the same game.
North Queensland have similar problems in their search for their first NRL title.
Prop James Tamou might not play again in 2015 due to a neck injury suffered in Saturday’s win over the Warriors in Auckland.
The year could also be over for Cowboys playmaker Michael Morgan who hurt his ankle at Mt Smart Stadium.
Four-time Parramatta premiership winner Peter Sterling believes the Cowboys’ premiership chances will be no more if the Queensland State of Origin utility can’t get back on the field this season.
“In my opinion North Queensland cannot win the competition without Michael Morgan,” Sterling said on Channel Nine’s Sunday Footy Show.
“The season that Johnathan Thurston has had in so many ways is attributed to that man there. What he does on the right hand side with his speed to get outside of players takes so much pressure off the left hand side of Thurston and (Gavin) Cooper.”
South Sydney captain Greg Inglis is in doubt for the premiers’ crucial clash with the Broncos on Thursday.
The superstar fullback went down with a knee injury in Souths’ loss to Canterbury on Friday night.
However the Rabbitohs will welcome back Issac Luke and Luke Keary from suspension for the round 25 match.
The Warriors won’t qualify for the finals but prop Jacob Lillyman is another big-name player to be injured in round 24.
He won’t play again this season due to a cheekbone problem.
The Queensland representative is booked in for surgery on Wednesday and joins Shaun Johnson (ankle) and Manu Vatuvei (shoulder) on the sidelines for the New Zealand-based side.
Gold Coast’s Greg Bird (quadricep) is another big casualty from the weekend. His forgettable season is over too.
The Roosters, Broncos and Cowboys all sit on 36 points atop the NRL ladder, with the Tricolours ahead on a superior for-and-against record.
Melbourne, who might have lost forward Dale Finucane for the year with a wrist injury, can leapfrog Souths into fourth spot with a win over Newcastle at AAMI Park on Monday night.
Souths host the Broncos in the opening match of round 25 on Thursday. The Roosters travel to Brookvale to meet Manly on Friday.
Sam Moa could make an early return from a wrist injury for the Tricolours while Jackson Hastings will fill Pearce’s No.7 jersey.
Manly hooker Matt Ballin is unlikely to play again this year due to a knee injury.