Playing against the best team in a particular competition is a very different prospect to playing against the 3rd best team. It’s simple logic that a team ranked two positions higher would be present a greater challenge and be inevitably more difficult to defeat. Heading into the NRL season of 2014 however, the team with the hardest set of fixtures is faced with the prospect of playing teams which finished an average of almost two places higher on the 2013 NRL ladder when compared to the team with the easiest fixtures. Whilst this discrepancy would be fair if the more accomplished teams from last season were faced with the more difficult draws, it is in fact the opposite that has eventuated, with the three worst teams from 2013 facing the three most difficult schedules in 2014.
The NRL prides itself on being one of the most evenly contested professional sporting competitions in the world. The presence of a stringent salary cap, significant ramifications for its breach and incentives to remaining within the domestic structure like State of Origin eligibility, the administrators of the game have largely succeeded.
Upon the release of the draw for the 2014 NRL season however, one giant inconsistency emerged between this overall aspiration for an unpredictable, dynamic competition and the manner in which a team’s fixtures are determined.
Teams in the NBA have a set, 82-game schedule each and every year which sees them play most opposition in their own conference four times and teams in the other conference twice. The physical nature of Australian football codes precludes the possibility for such a regimented system with any suggestion of increasing the home and away season to 30 matches preposterous and a reduction to 15 games financially invalid. As such, both the AFL and NRL find themselves in situations whereby individual teams will face some sides once and others twice across the duration of a particular campaign.
The manner in which they determine which teams play more often and which will play just the once annually is vastly different. To put it simply, the AFL impose a logical, equitable and competition-enhancing system, whilst the NRL in attempting to maintain traditional clashes find themselves advantaging some teams and disadvantaging others for reasons with no legitimate foundation.
The Quest for Equality
In order for a draw that sees some clubs face-off once and others twice, legitimacy is found in the method through which such an eventuation is determined. Within the AFL, clubs who fared poorer in the previous season are given more fixtures against fellow clubs that struggled, leaving flagship teams to face-off in inevitably higher-rating and more greatly attended fixtures. This of course is subject to the several games like Essendon vs. Collingwood which inevitably command record crowds, however these exceptions are in the vast majority.
Not only logical from a financial and marketing perspective, such a process facilitates the resurgence of clubs who endured hardship in the previous season and ensures to a moderate extent that fan-bases whose team missed the Finals series in one year have a greater possibility of reaching them the next. This, all in the name of fostering and maintaining a competitive league.
The NRL however feels no need to impose such a process and despite citing their history of equality, unpredictability and an absence of dynasties as a testament to effective administration of the competition, their failure to impose the mechanism implemented by the AFL is a substantial omission. Upon our commencement of the analysis for the draw of the 2014 season, we anticipated that the Parramatta Eels, wooden-spoon winners for both 2012 and 2013 would boast the easiest set of fixtures heading into next year’s campaign. It turns out we were wrong. In fact, not even the Wests Tigers who placed 15th or the St George Illawarra Dragons who ran 14th last year find themselves heavily favoured. To the great discredit of the NRL, these three sides, having endured horrendous fortune and even poorer results in 2013 are faced with the three mod difficult schedules heading into 2014.
That’s Just Cruel
Having finished 15th in the 2013 NRL season and lost their star player in Benji Marshall amongst several other emerging representative players, the Wests Tigers face ‘Top 4’ clubs in the Sydney Roosters, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Melbourne Storm and Manly Sea Eagles a combined seven times throughout the season. In fact, the only respite from what would be the hardest possible draw is that they avoid a clash with the Storm at AAMI Park. The Dragons meanwhile, fresh off their worst season since merging to become St George Illawarra in 1999 are faced with an identical prospect of seven clashes against the elite clubs from last season, with Melbourne once again missing out on the mouth-watering prospect of hosting one of the competition’s least impressive.
Despite all of this, it is the Eels we’re most concerned about. Having endured several difficult seasons and having had the promise of a Ricky Stuart led recovery dashed by the coach’s decision to walk out on the club, Parramatta are faced with a schedule in which their opposition averaged a ladder position of 7.667 a year ago. Despite a reformed squad which now includes potential superstar Corey Norman and returning sensation Will Hopoate, the prospect of a third consecutive wooden spoon for the Eels looms large given their immediate disadvantage.
|NRL Draw 2014 – The ‘Unlucky’ Teams|
|Team||Average 2013 Ladder Position of Opposition|
|St George Illawarra Dragons||7.916|
|Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles||8.333|
In a 16-team league, a flawless system would have each team’s schedule averaging 8.50, however there is no possible draw in which such an ideal eventuates. In 2014 for example, only the Bulldogs and Raiders are faced with the proposition of a completely neutral draw. For the teams arguably at the greatest disadvantage to begin the season in terms of confidence, coaching and squad quality to have their misfortune entrenched however goes against the core principle of equality the NRL prides itself on. In the absence of a draft which favours teams with poorer results, the absence of a progressive draw ensures that the NRL offers no mechanism through which poor performance can be offset the following year.
At the other end of the fortune scales, the New Zealand Warriors are faced with the easiest run in 2014, facing ‘Top 4’ clubs on just four occasions, the absolute minimum possible under the current system. Arguably the greatest injustice is reserved for the Rabbitohs however, who despite boasting arguably the most impressive squad in the competition, are gifted the second-easiest draw. Fellow finalists from 2013 in the North Queensland Cowboys and Cronulla Sharks join the Bunnies among the most fortunate clubs for this coming season.
|NRL Draw 2014 – The ‘Lucky’ Teams|
|Team||Average 2013 Ladder Position of Opposition|
|New Zealand Warriors||9.041|
|South Sydney Rabbitohs||9.000|
|Gold Coast Titans||8.958|
|North Queensland Cowboys||8.791|
The Possible Justifications
There are three potential justifications which could excuse this process of omission, however even if accepted, they are mutually exclusive to the type of competition the NRL is purported to be.
Firstly, the notion that poor performance shouldn’t be rewarded is undermined by the presence of a salary cap. If the NRL was to argue that performance should be concurrent with reward, the Melbourne Storm would have never had to allow Greg Inglis to leave the club due to salary cap limitations. The salary cap is inherently a measure implemented to ensure that continued success cannot become entrenched, and that performance and reward are inverted as to benefit teams that for one reason or another haven’t been able to have their fair share of success in recent times. The contention that the draw, constructed with its current deficiencies in any way enhances that objective is baseless and absurd.
Secondly, and more legitimately, it could be argued that the NRL is such a flexible competition and administrative procedures are so successful that any attempt to guide the draw in a particular direction has the potential of backfiring. Whilst the Sydney Roosters provide a perfect example as to how a team may go from amongst the worst in the league one season to Premiership contenders the next, very teams can claim to have experienced such drastic turn arounds.
The equality of the NRL was investigated earlier this year when we discussed the diversity of finals contenders over the past decade and the unpredictability of the competition at large. For this to be relied upon is but an excuse, a justification for sacrificing competition integrity in the name of loyalty to established fixtures of note without (1) giving NRL fans the credit they deserve and generating a draw that facilitates the competition being the best possible version of itself and (2) acknowledging that rivalries transform inter-generationally and scheduling the same ‘heritage’ clashes every season undermines the potential for new iconic clashes to be developed.
The final potential excuse for the draw exhibiting such a blatant disregard for equality is that the NRL considers the welfare of competition to be more intrinsically linked to the matches scheduled than league integrity. Do the Tigers and Roosters have a rich history? Of course they do. Easts v Wests, Balmain vs. Bondi, there is an obvious romance to this match-up, one that exceeds the alternatives of Sydney vs. New Zealand or North Queensland. Is it really fair that teams are placed at a disadvantage just because their established rivals are experiencing a relatively successful era?
The Panthers, Titans, Warriors and Broncos, teams all on the cusp of a finals appearance in 2013 have the privilege of playing their reigning Premiers just once this season. This fortune isn’t based on anything except for the fact that the NRL, for one reason or another, feels these fixtures aren’t worthy of a second showing. On merit alone, the youth of Penrith deserve a chance to prove themselves against the competition’s benchmark. The prospect of Roger Tuivasa-Sheck trying to catch fellow speedster James Roberts to prevent a breakaway try alone is mouthwatering. Premiership half James Maloney against his old club the Warriors? How about Shaun Johnson against Mitchell Pearce? Sonny-Bill against his international team-mates? No. We’d rather watch a slaughter at Parramatta Stadium in the name of ‘heritage’ and ‘tradition’. The NRL feels fans would rather a replay of a fixtures that ended 50-0 in 2013. In fact, of the six teams the Sydney Roosters lost to last season, only 50% will be given two chances to repeat the dose in 2014.
There is no perfect solution. We aren’t contending that there is. However the ability for the AFL to formulate a sensible, simplistic and easily implemented policy which doesn’t undermine crucial rivalries like Sydney v GWS, Port Adelaide v Adelaide or Richmond v Carlton means that an alternative is available and should be pursued. Wilful blindness in the hope that fans of sides disadvantaged by the current process are too naive to see past the traditional rivalries the draw facilitates not only demonstrates poor administration of the game, but insults what are a passionate and well-informed fan base. It may be too late for the 2014 season, but for a competition that prides itself on equality, the NRL are remiss in their failure to implement mechanisms to ensure something as integral to a competition as a draw is compliant with their core ambition of an unpredictable and open league.