NRL 2013 Still Wide Open

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You think this NRL 2013 season is a three-horse race? Think again.

The Rabbitohs, Storm and Roosters have been head and shoulders above the rest of the National Rugby League this season. Even Manly, who currently reside in 4th place and come off the back of a resounding 50-10 win over Parramatta, are yet to defeat any of the top 3 sides and sit what is essentially 6 points adrift.

But only a fool would deny what has evolved as one of the most even and unpredictable leagues in the world, the opportunity to run its full course before claiming anything to be a certainty.

Despite being often classed as the most polarizing or even detrimental facet of our game, the NRL owes a great debt to the salary cap. The past 10 Premiership trophies have been awarded to 9 different teams. Only 4 teams over that period of time in Cronulla, Canberra, Gold Coast and South Sydney haven’t plied their trade on Grand Final day. They have however, all finished in the top 4 in one year or another.

The Roosters in 2010 went from wooden-spooners to Premiership runners-up, the Melbourne Storm and Bulldogs both overcame prolific salary-cap breaches against expectation to continue their dynasties, and 3 times in the past 4 years has a team finishing outside the top 4 made their way through to the Grand Final.

You can criticize the finals system for not rewarding ladder position as successfully as the AFL, complain that the home and away season is all essentially a waste of time because at the end of the day, come September, the NRL is the greatest competition there is.

Is 2013 to be an exception though? Are the ‘good’ teams just too good?

It is hard to go past the three aforementioned teams when trying to pick this year’s Grand Finalists. Valued between $3.50 and $4.00 for the Premiership, their closest rivals in Manly are out to $7.50 followed by the resurgent Bulldogs at $15. As we keep saying though, if history tells us anything, dominance can count for nothing.

Round 18, 2005. The Broncos have a stranglehold on the competition before losing 6 of their 8 remaining games and crashing out of the finals with successive defeats.

Round 13, 2006. The Broncos are about to lose just 9 of their remaining 15 games, including the 1st round of the finals, before stringing together 3 consecutive wins by a combined 68 points to win the Grand Final against a Storm team that had lost 1 game since Round 11.

Round 18, 2009. Parramatta will go on a 7-game wining streak to sneak into the finals. There, they’ll knock-out the Minor Premiers in St. George and reach the Grand Final. In the same year, the three teams placed first, second and third leading on the NRL ladder since Round 13 wouldn’t make the Preliminary Finals.

Over the past 5 AFL seasons, the Grand Final has seen 2 of the top 3 teams on the ladder face off on every occasion. Over the same period, the NRL has witnessed such an occurrence just twice. Regardless of whether you consider it a detriment or an endearment, the facts are the facts and it is our job to determine if they’ll play out again this season.

There are two fairly obvious ways in which history can repeat itself, with one of the three dominant teams miss out on the chance to play for the Premiership Trophy on October 6. Injury or a decline in form undermines one of the three dominant squads (‘The Choker’), or, a team peripheral for the majority of the season experiences a revival come the finals (‘The Surprise Packet’).

‘The Choker’

History tells us that at least one of the teams that sit atop the NRL ladder will find themselves in the offseason earlier that they’d like. But which team is poised to fall from grace?

What the Rabbitohs lack in finals experience, they make up with sheer size and raw talent.  With their second bye upcoming, the Bunnies will find themselves on 32 competition points after 18 rounds. Remarkably, this feat has been achieved by only two teams since 2001. The 2002 Bulldogs – who sat on 33 points before subsequently losing them all due to salary cap breaches – and the 2007 Melbourne Storm who matched Souths with 32 points. Their well-documented salary cap breaches and subsequent voided Premiership means that the 2013 Rabbitohs are the only team to have experienced this success legitimately.

Of teams that came close to this dominance, the 2005 Broncos and Storm squads of 2006 and 2011 were all on 30 points after 18 Rounds. But what did the future have in store for these 5 sides of yesteryear?

The Bulldogs were stripped of their points mid-season, meaning that we don’t know what their finals run would have looked like. The 2007 Melbourne Storm finished the season with a +350 point differential and smashed Manly 34-8 in the Grand Final. The 2006 Storm lost in the Grand Final whilst their 2011 squad bowed out in the Preliminary Final. The Broncos of 2005 crashed out in the semi-finals after a late season form slump which also saw them relinquish the Minor Premiership.

Aside from the 2005 Broncos, every other team went on (or would have gone on except for point penalties) to win the Minor Premiership. Holding a 4 point lead atop the ladder with a bye in hand, we’d expect the Rabbitohs to do the same, however with matches against the Roosters, Storm, Bulldogs, Manly and the in-form Tigers still to come, nothing is certain.

The Melbourne Storm on the other hand are the team most heavily-impacted by State of Origin. Between Rounds 8 and 16 this season, they lost 4 and drew 1 match. But is this cause for panic? After all, in their journey to Premiership glory in 2012, Melbourne lost 6 of 7 games between rounds 14 and 21 before ending the season with 5 straight wins.

Looking back to the Broncos of 2005, mid-season form counts for little, especially when you’re heavily impacted by Origin. What counts, particularly for an experienced team like Melbourne, is your run into the finals. Of the past 11 Premiers, 4 of them went 4/5 at the back end of the home and away season whilst a further 4 were 5/5. The three remaining were 3/5 and interestingly, none were Minor Premiers.

If anything, that just goes to show how vulnerable South Sydney are to the might of Melbourne. Losing form at the back end of the season seems to play a greater role the higher you are up the table. Does that mean the final 5 weeks of the season will tell us who will win the 2013 Premiership?

The answer is… most probably. In the final 20% of the season, the Roosters and Storm have easier draws than the Rabbitohs but both have chances to measure themselves against the benchmark in the competition to date. Mark down Friday 9th August (Storm v Rabbitohs) and Friday 6th September (Roosters v Rabbitohs) as the two dates in which we’ll discover which of these three teams aren’t up to scratch.

At a guess, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the Roosters. In the 4 games they’ve lost in 2013, they’ve conceded at least 23 points at an average of 25.25 per defeat. In their 12 victories, they let in just 8 points per match. Having kept an opponent below 10 points just once in their last 6 games, don’t be surprised if Sonny-Bill and company go off the boil in the closing stages of the season. What is more startling is that they appear to be flat track bullies, adept at stopping teams with methodical attacks but inept when creative play enters the mix. Their 3 worst defensive performances of the year, excluding those against Souths and Melbourne, came against teams currently outside the top 8 that are renowned for play on the fringe, not necessarily force through the middle of the field.

Canberra, Parramatta and the Warriors have put on an average of 23.67 points against the Roosters since Round 5 and show exploiting the Chooks’ susceptibility out wide could prompt their downfall. To find out which team could trigger the demise of the promising Sydney outfit however, we need to look at which potential finals team could put together a run like Jarryd Hayne’s 2009 Eels come the finals.

‘The Surprise Packet’

What do the 2005 Tigers, 2009 Eels, the 2008 and 2011 Warriors and the 2010 Roosters all have in common? They all made prolific finals runs and they all possessed potent weapons in their back line.

Whoever said defense wins titles clearly doesn’t watch the NRL Finals. In every finals series since 2002, the eventual Grand Final winner has averaged at least 24 points, with 5 of the last 8 Premierships going to teams averaging over 30. Whilst defensive performances invariably lift come Grand Final day, potency is king on the journey getting there.

Year          

Premiers         Average PPG in Finals     

2002

Roosters 29.00

2003

Panthers

24.67

2004

Bulldogs 27.75
2005 Tigers

33.50

2006 Broncos

26.50

2007

Storm

33.33
2008 Manly

36.66

2009

Storm

34.33
2010 Dragons

24.33

2011 Manly

30.66

2012 Storm

26.00

Of the teams likely to make the top 8 in 2013, 3 have the potential to unsettle any of the top contenders this year. In the Warriors, Tigers and Bulldogs, the NRL has three teams currently residing outside the top 8 who could really make a push, should they make the cut for September.

Combined, they’ve won 10 of their last 15 games (66.67%) compared to 12 of 25 (48%) won by the teams sitting between 4th and 8th on the ladder. Together, they’ve beaten the Storm, Roosters and Manly twice and whilst only the Warriors and Bulldogs may harbour realistic hopes of extending their season into September, all provide plenty for the top teams think about.

Shaun Johnson, Benji Marshall and Ben Barba are all capable of playing the role Jarryd Hayne did in 2009, whilst any forward pack consisting of Tolman, Pritchard and Graham, Packer, Matulino and Mateo or Woods, Farah and Fulton has the potential to hold their own through the corridor.

Neither Manly, the Titans nor the Sharks will reach the Grand Final in 2013 simply because their football is too similar in style, yet vastly inferior in execution to the Rabbitohs, Storm and Roosters. Penrith are significantly lacking in the halves and rely too heavily on Tim Grant for momentum whilst the Knights are possibly the least predictable team of the past decade and lack the consistency required to succeed from the bottom tier of the finals.

The Prediction

So now we head back to the start. Is the NRL in 2013 a three horse race? I wouldn’t say so just yet.

By this stage in 2009, only 2 teams in the NRL had fewer competition points on the board than the eventual Runners-Up in the Eels. That is precisely the situation the Wests Tigers find themselves heading into Round 18 this season. That isn’t to mention that Preliminary Finalists Brisbane were also outside the top 8 in the same position as the Bulldogs.

At this exact moment in 2005, the eventual Premiers, the Tigers sat in 9th position, exactly where the Bulldogs reside in 2013. Skip forward to 2011 and the Grand Finalist Warriors also occupied that 9th position.

Since 2002, the top 4 teams on the ladder come the end of the home and away season have all been represented in the Preliminary Finals just once. That means that even if none of the big teams slip up, the odds are in favour of a late bolter making the cut and wrecking havoc at the back end of the season. Whether it is the Bulldogs, Warriors or even the Tigers, don’t expect this season to be as pedestrian as many are predicting.

In saying that, from a Roosters supporter, expect to hear ‘Glory, Glory’ echoing through the streets of Sydney come that first Sunday in October.

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On twitter @rombarbera. Australian sports by day, international sports by night. Co-founder of Blindside Sport. Fantasy sport addict.

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