Ben Francis: What the NZ Warriors must do to play NRL playoffs in 2020

OPINION: Fifteen rounds down and five more until the most challenging campaign in NZ Warriors history is over.

Sunday's come-from-behind 20-14 win over Canterbury Bulldogs was their sixth win of the season and leaves them just four points outside the NRL's top eight, with a maximum of 10 points on offer in the final rounds. 

So playoffs footy is still the proverbial mathematical chance.

Considering they were wooden-spoon favourites at the start of the season - when are they not? - it's a remarkable achievement... and that was before COVID could be used as an excuse. 

But the Warriors still face a monumental task if they want to sneak inside the eight. As well as results galore going their way, they will need to do something - more than once - that they haven't managed all year - beat teams inside the top eight. 

All six of their wins have come against teams outside the playoff cut, while they're 0-8 against sides on track for the finals.

Their other defeat was to 14th-placed Gold Coast Titans.

Four of their five remaining games are against teams they've played already this season - Newcastle Knights, Cronulla Sharks, Canberra Raiders (all inside the eight) and Manly Sea Eagles, whom the Warriors beat earlier this month. 

Their fifth is against Parramatta Eels, who the Warriors haven't faced since last year's controversial defeat at Bakwest Stadium, which saw four referees demoted for making "series errors". 

The Eels are currently third on the ladder, with 12 wins and just three losses.

The Warriors face an uphill battle, but the way they have played under interim Todd Payten over the last five weeks, it's certainly out of the question. 

The team has gone from strength to strength since Payten labelled their loss to the Sharks as "their worst of the season" on July 19. 

Considering how they've played in recent weeks, compared to the 20-point defeats to the Knights and Raiders before the coronavirus shutdown, you'd think they're different teams. 

Todd Payten has been influentional in the Warriors' resurgence.
Todd Payten has been influentional in the Warriors' resurgence. Photo credit: Photosport

Since Payten's outburst after the Sharks game, they've had three wins, and two competitive losses against two-time defending champion Sydney Roosters and top-of-the-table Penrith Panthers, who are now on a 10-game tear that doesn't look like ending. 

The Warriors showed true fight against the Roosters, leading at the break, while their six-point loss was the closest anyone has come during Penrith's club-record streak. 

As Payten said after the Roosters loss, they can't be happy with pushing the defending premiers and that mindset will need to continue in the later rounds. 

While the Warriors will have to beat some of these teams during their run home, they will also need the teams around them to slip up. 

Realistically, the Warriors will need to win four, if not all five of their remaining games.

The Warriors are one of four teams on 12 points, alongside Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra Dragons and Manly. 

The Sharks are four points ahead, with South Sydney Rabbitohs a further two points clear and the Knights one more.

The five teams above them - Raiders, Roosters, Eels, Melbourne Storm and Panthers - are safe, although wins for the Knights and Rabbitohs next week would all-but secure their safety.

That essentially leaves the Warriors in a five-horse race for that last spot, but their tough finish will make things challenging.

The injury-plagued Sea Eagles probably have the easiest run home with just one game against a top-eight side, although consistency and injuries are their biggest issues.

The Sharks and Dragons have three, while the Tigers have four, alongside the Warriors.

Combining the win-loss records of the teams these fives sides have left to face, the Warriors' schedule is by far the toughest with 45-1-29.

Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck.
Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. Photo credit: Photosport

The Sharks and Dragons are next with 38-1-36, while the Tigers (31-1-43) and Sea Eagles (30-45) have the easiest runs. 

The highest the Warriors could finish is fifth, while the wooden spoon remains a chance, although equally unlikely. 

The way the Warriors are playing, you have to give them a playoff chance, although if you'd asked that question five weeks ago, they would have had no chance. They haven't lost a game when they've scored more than 18 points, so that would help. 

With the finish-line in sight, Payten will demand that his players don't start thinking about returning home, as that could hamper their form. 

Even if the Warriors do miss out, all things considered, their season must still be regarded as a success, but a playoff run would certainly qualify as a fairytale.

Let's just hope that Titans loss doesn't come back to haunt them... 

Remaining schedules:

Sharks v Cowboys, Knights, Warriors, Roosters, Raiders  - Best/worst case finish: second to 13th 
Tigers v Panthers, Sea Eagles, Rabbitohs, Storm, Eels - fifth to 16th
Dragons v Titans, Cowboys, Raiders, Knights, Storm - fifth to 16th
Sea Eagles v Storm, Tigers, Bulldogs, Titans, Warriors - fifth to 16th
Warriors v Knights, Eels, Sharks, Raiders, Sea Eagles - fifth to 16th

Ben Francis is a Newshub online sports producer. Join us at 5pm Saturday for live updates of the Warriors v Knights NRL clash