The Parramatta Eels and Cronulla Sharks are on the rise as the NRL heads into round four, while the Sea Eagles remain unconvincing despite getting off the mark with their first win of 2022.
Note: Throughout the year, ESPN will rank all 16 teams, from top to bottom, taking into account which teams are playing the best footy, injuries, each team's recent opponents, and which teams are looking most like premiership contenders.
Last week: 1
Three games, three wins, and the premiers remain the frontrunners at the end of March. They faced a tough test against an in-form Newcastle on Saturday but hit the lead after the Knights were reduced to 12 men. They never looked back thereafter, with young winger Taylan May scoring a hat-trick while his centre partner Izack Tago bagged a double plus two try assists. Plus they've still got Nathan Cleary to return this week. Things are looking good.
Round four opponent: Rabbitohs
Last week: 2
Craig Bellamy's side were beaten in a golden point thriller by the Eels after being hit hard by COVID-19, but they remain one of the most impressive teams in the league through three rounds. This weekend they have superstar quartet Harry Grant, Brandon Smith, Cameron Munster and Ryan Papenhuyzen all available for the first time in 2022.
Round four opponent: Bulldogs
Last week: 8
Parramatta bounced back in style and continued an impressive recent streak against the Melbourne Storm with the most thrilling win of the weekend, a golden-point stunner featuring Ray Stone pulling off one of the most unlikely match-winning plays in what was unfortunately his last on-field moment of the season. It catapults them back into the power rankings top four, and they are a strong chance of putting together a winning run from here.
Round four opponent: Dragons
Last week: 6
"Hynes is a smart player and will adapt in a new role at a new club" we wrote two weeks ago after a mixed debut performance for the Sharks halfback. We didn't expect it to happen immediately. After kicking his team to victory over the Eels he was in everything against the Dragons, with a try, a try assist, a line break, three tackle breaks, two offloads, 24 tackles, 102 run metres and 552 kick metres. Hynes is already well in the running for "buy of the year," and Cronulla look every bit a top-eight side so far this season.
Round four opponent: Knights
Last week: 4
Newcastle would've been forgiven for telling Mitch Barnett to walk home from Bathurst after a mind-boggling off-the-ball elbow to the head of Chris Smith resulted in Barnett being sent off while his team led 6-4 against the Panthers late in the first half. Any chance of a shock win over the premiers pretty much disappeared at that point, although they did stay in the contest with three second-half tries. Barnett's six-week suspension will hurt, but the Knights showed plenty of fight and are still looking very solid at this stage.
Round four opponent: Sharks
6. Sea Eagles
Last week: 5
A win's a win, especially after two first-up losses, but it's hard to get too excited about a one-point victory at home against last year's wooden spooners. Daly Cherry-Evans' field goal and a strong game from Kieran Foran were enough to get Manly past the Bulldogs on Sunday, but they're still not playing like genuine contenders just yet. That could change on Saturday afternoon against an erratic Canberra outfit.
Round four opponent: Raiders
Last week: 3
The Tricolours ran into a winless Souths team in Friday night's local derby and came off second best, trailing 12-0 after 20 minutes and never really recovering. It means one the Roosters, one of the preseason favourites, have battled to just one win after three rounds. James Tedesco hasn't quite been his usual self but it's way too early to write off a player -- or a team -- with this much talent.
Round four opponent: Cowboys
Last week: 10
That's more like it. Latrell Mitchell scored a try and kicked four goals in a 28-16 win over old rivals the Roosters but the real star of the show was captain Cameron Murray, who had a try, two line breaks, two try assists, 152 metres and 42 tackles in a monster performance at lock. With Souths' halves not quite firing yet, Murray has stepped up his involvement this year and it paid off in a big way in his team's first win of 2022.
Round four opponent: Panthers
Last week: 11
Canberra's win over the Titans on Saturday night was incredible, but it's hard to know what to take out of it. Have they fixed their reputation as second-half faders? Fighting back from 22-0 to win shows that this Raiders team is always in with a chance -- at least against other inconsistent teams like the Titans. But they also, well, conceded the first 22 points of the game to the Titans. They're in the post-Josh-Hodgson era now and it could lead to more inconsistent results, but at least there are some very promising signs from fill-in halfback Brad Schneider who helped orchestrate the comeback with a couple of try assists.
Round four opponent: Sea Eagles
Last week: 9
At half-time on Saturday it felt like the new-look Titans had arrived. One of the youngest playmaking spines in the league had put the Raiders to the sword -- in Canberra, no less -- with four first-half tries. By fulltime they had blown their huge lead and lost 24-22. It's their third close game in as many weeks, after narrowly beating the Warriors and narrowly losing to the Eels, so Gold Coast fans will be particularly keen for their team to really run up a score against the struggling Tigers on Thursday night.
Round four opponent: Wests Tigers
Last week: 14
After a run of poor seasons and some seemingly uninspired recruiting, we pencilled in the Cowboys to be battling to avoid the wooden spoon at the start of the year. Instead, they now sit in second on the NRL ladder, with their only loss having somewhat bizarrely come against the struggling Bulldogs. Last week's 20-point rout of the Raiders was followed by a 26-point thumping of old rivals Brisbane, and suddenly everything seems to be clicking for Todd Payten's side. Tom Dearden leads the league in try assists, Chad Townsend leads the league in kicks in play, Valentine Holmes ranks second for points scored, and the Cowboys might just be a top-eight contender.
Round four opponent: Roosters
Last week: 7
After starting the season with back-to-back wins Brisbane were brought back to earth with a thud by North Queensland, with a 38-12 loss seemingly taking them back to square one. Only the Bulldogs, Sea Eagles and winless Tigers have scored fewer points than the Broncos at this stage, and while Adam Reynolds is a terrific organising halfback he won't be able to single-handedly turn them into a good attacking side. Kotoni Staggs has been oddly off his game so far, with nine errors, 13 missed tackles and no tries or assists through three rounds, but he and the Broncos have a great chance to turn things around on Saturday afternoon.
Round four opponent: Warriors
Last week: 12
A humbling 36-12 home loss to old rivals Cronulla would have really hurt St George Illawarra, who started the season brightly with a win over the Warriors and then a close loss to Penrith. Young guns Tyrell Sloan and Talatau Amone have looked great at times but struggled to make much impact against the Sharks, while Ben Hunt laid on both his team's tries.
Round four opponent: Eels
Last week: 13
The Warriors got their first win of the season with an uninspiring 16-12 result over Wests Tigers, and still look clunky with Shaun Johnson stuck on the sidelines. He could return as early as this week, in what looks a very winnable game at home to Brisbane. The Warriors rank second-worst for errors and third-worst for missed tackles in the NRL after three games, and will need to cut down on the mistakes on both sides of the ball if they are to return to finals footy.
Round four opponent: Broncos
Last week: 15
It was a frustrating 13-12 loss to Manly on Sunday but there are a couple of bright signs for Canterbury -- their defence looks very solid so far, and Brandon Wakeham impressed at halfback and could be the right fit as Matt Burton's halves partner.
Round four opponent: Storm
16. Wests Tigers
Last week: 16
The Tigers came off second best in a rough game against the Warriors, and lost star prop Stefano Utoikamanu to injury in the process. At least they get their chance to make amends quickly with a Thursday night clash against the Gold Coast.
Round four opponent: Titans