by Ed Burton
It has been a strange year in the NRL so far.
The first section of the NRL Pre-season is finished, and there have been some surprises, some disappointments, and some shockers, but ultimately nobody has yet truly stood out. All the teams have had their first crack at what they thought their team would look like for the year and (hopefully) made adjustments when their best laid plans fell flat. The next phase of pre-season is where the teams prepare themselves for the possibility of their star players getting injured – by being forced to play games without the State of Origin (Glorified All Star) players.
I don’t think anyone expected the Dragons to be particularly competitive this season (including Dragons fans) but here we are. After winning the NRL, the 9’s tournament, the Club World Challenge and then destroying Brisbane in round one, I don’t think I was the only one wondering if Souths could go back to back. That now seems like a lifetime ago and an almost impossibility. More than a few people thought the Storm might be over the hill. A lot didn’t think Bennett could turn the Broncos around so quickly. Many may have predicted Manly’s downfall, but this far? I doubt it.
But the traditional thinking is that it is too early to panic - and especially too early to get excited.
There are plenty of old sayings that cover this. You don’t win a competition in May - but you can lose it. Pre-season means nothing. The competition doesn’t start until after Origin*. But maybe these are old sayings (rather than new ones) because they are rubbish. Maybe we just believe them because we’ve heard them so many times. I have decided to look back at the historical data to see what it tells us about who might end up playing the big games in September and October.
Here is a stat for you. In the 18 seasons that the league has had an 8 team finals system (since it first began in 1995**), the team leading the competition at “the time the State of Origin teams were named for game 1” have never missed the finals. The teams in the first 3 spots made the finals 50 of a possible 54 occasions. That is a 93% success rate. Maybe you can take something from Pre-season.
Delving a little deeper there are some interesting little historical trends to look at. The team in fourth place at that same time of each season has won 4 grand finals – the equal most for any position along with first – and lost 3 of them, yet the team in 5th has never even made the grand final once.
No team below 10th has ever made the top 4, and no team in 15th or 16th has ever made the finals.
There are plenty of little statistical anomalies, that can give us guidance going forward.
So what does this mean for this season? It means that statistically, the most likely Grand Final will be between the Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys. At Stadium Australia in Sydney. The NRL just shat itself and the Cowboys odds of being dudde by a ref in the finals again just increased. It means that the Roosters unequivocally will NOT make the Grand Final. It means that there will be no miraculous comeback from Parramatta or Manly. But some of those were already pretty obvious, even without the statistics.
But here are some other little things that it means – statistically anyway.
The Knights are more likely to be Minor Premiers come season’s end than the Roosters (though to be fair they are both almost no chance)
Souths are more likely to be Minor Premiers than Brisbane – however, if Brisbane manage to make the Grand Final, they are a lock to win it.
The best that the Bulldogs can do from here is finish 7th, however that is where they finished last year and went on to make the Grand Final anyway, so nothing to stress about Dogs fans!
In spite of looking like they may have turned their form around a little of late, Manly will not finish above 12th.
The Sharks are slightly more likely to make the finals than the Warriors.
Don’t hold your breath for the Dragons to be going away any time soon. They are an 89% chance to be in the finals and a 67% chance of making the top 4.
And probably the hardest to believe of them all, the Raiders are a 67% chance to make the top 8 and a 33% chance to make the top 4. Ricky Stuart may actually coach a successful team again!
But having said all of that, there is a huge caveat that needs to be added... If I had done this exact same thing last year, I would have been completely and utterly wrong on many counts.
For example, when Souths won the competition from 9th (at this point) last season it had never been done before. The Roosters won the minor premiership after being in 10th at this point. Another first. And when the Bulldogs dropped from 1st now to 7th by season’s end, it was the first time that someone in that position had finished below 5th. So you can probably take everything I have just written with a grain of salt***.
So maybe I was premature in writing off those old sayings, maybe I wasn't, but if I was a betting man looking for an edge, you can’t go past history for some help.
*That one may have been just me
**So, not including 1998 when there was a ridiculous 10 teams in the finals or 1997 when the ARL had a 7 team finals (and a diluted talent pool) or The Super League, which never happened. I ignored it and it went away. Good advice mum!
***But I will still claim any predictions that come true as a personal achievement obviously!