The NRL’s top eight appears locked in with two rounds to play after Manly’s finals charge fell apart with an error-riddled effort against a gusty Parramatta at Brookvale Oval on Sunday.
Heading into round 24 on the back of six wins in their last seven games, the Sea Eagles were likely going to need three more to be a chance of qualifying for an 11th successive finals campaign.
But the 20-16 loss to the Eels leaves them very much up against it.
Parramatta winger Semi Radradra again scored a double to record his 21st try of the year, moving to the top of the season’s tryscorers list in the process.
It was a performance from Manly that captain Jamie Lyon found hard to believe, given what was on the line.
“We were just not real good across the park in anything. We were very average, it is very disappointing,” Lyon said.
“We had a good run there but tonight was our worst performance in a long time, probably the season. There were too many soft tries and we just kept dropping the ball.”
Manly, who sit on 24 points, will have to win their final matches and rely on seventh-placed Canterbury (28 points) or eighth-placed St George (26 points) falling over if they are to play finals football.
Both the Bulldogs and the Dragons have a relatively easy run home compared to Manly’s matches against premiership frontrunners Sydney Roosters and fifth-placed Cronulla.
The Dragons beat Penrith 19-12 in another dour encounter on Thursday night at Wollongong and face cellar dwellers Gold Coast (away) and Wests Tigers (home) over the final two rounds.
Canterbury, who beat South Sydney 32-18 on Friday, play last-placed Newcastle (away) and the 10th-placed Warriors.
However the fight for the minor premiership, and the crucial top two spots, remains on after the Roosters’ gritty 12-10 win over Brisbane on Saturday night.
The Roosters, Broncos and Cowboys, who smashed the Warriors 50-16 in Auckland on Saturday, all sit on 36 points. The Tricolours sit top on percentages, with Brisbane second.
All three teams will make the top four, but who host games in the first week of the finals may not be decided until after round 26.
The Roosters will be without Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for the remainder of 2015 because of a knee injury while captain Mitchell Pearce won’t play again until the finals due to a hamstring tear.
The Cowboys could be without James Tamou (neck) and Michael Morgan (ankle) for the rest of the year.
Brisbane play Souths in a crucial match at Allianz Stadium on Thursday. North Queensland travel to Melbourne to play the Storm on Saturday.
Cronulla bounced back from their thrashing at the hands of Melbourne to beat Wests Tigers 40-18 at Remondis Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Gold Coast lifted themselves off the bottom of the NRL ladder on the back of a man-of-the-match effort from youngster Kane Elgey in the 28-12 win over Canberra.
Melbourne can leapfrog Souths into fourth with a win over the Knights at AAMI Stadium on Monday night in the concluding match of round 24.