Is the new finals format too difficult for a late season bolter?
The NRL finals series has been notorious for producing an underdog who has surged into the grand final. But with a new finals format we may see none, or we may see two.
Recently, it has been the Parramatta Eels in 2009, Sydney Roosters in 2010 and the New Zealand Warriors in 2011.
These three sides have been the grand finalists in previous years but they all have another thing in common: They qualified from the bottom half of the eight.
The three underdogs upset their opposition in week one of the finals to become that year’s Cinderella story.
But, in the end, the fairy-tale did not come true with all three sides falling at the final hurdle.
But did the previous NRL finals system have a role to play?
The McIntyre system had teams: 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6, 4 v 5.
The ‘strongest’ team would play the ‘weakest’ team, with the top-four sides fancied to qualify for the next round.
Sides that managed to cause an upset in week one were provided the home ground advantage in week two.
In 2010, the seventh placed Raiders defeated the second placed Panthers in week one and played their week two fixture against the then third placed Tigers at Canberra stadium.
But this year the NRL has re-vamped its finals system to mirror that of the AFL, with teams: 1 v 4, 2 v 3, 5 v 8, 6 v 7.
The change has made it harder for the four sides in the bottom half of the top eight. Now, the top four teams are guaranteed entry to the second week of the finals.
Also, two of the bottom four teams are guaranteed to be eliminated in week one. And the lowest ranked teams to win in week one will not play at home in week two.
These three stipulations paint a stark picture for the bottom four sides wanting glory on the last day in September.
How have the AFL’s bottom four sides faired under this system?
No team outside the top four has won the flag since the AFL adopted this format back in 2000.
All the signs point to the premiership being decided by the NRL’s top four sides.
But, rugby league is unpredictable. The NRL competition, over the past few years, has been much closer than the AFL.
Like most of the regular season, the outcome of matches will not be decided on paper.
When the finals begin, the ladder doesn’t matter. Win and you are through, lose and you could be eliminated.
The bottom four sides: North Queensland Cowboys, Cronulla Sharks, Canberra Raiders and Brisbane Broncos have been more than capable against the top four sides.
The Canberra Raiders have defeated the top-two sides by more than 20 points this season.
The Cronulla Sharks have defeated three of the top four teams this season.
North Queensland has arguably the best momentum in the NRL at the moment, and the Broncos – while only scraping into the finals – can produce on their day.
Injuries will prove crucial in a side’s progression through the finals and can ultimately decide a team’s fate.
The NRL finals series is very open. The top four is very strong but can be upset by a team in the bottom half.
The last three years have seen a bolter ride a wave of momentum and surge into the final.
Will the trend continue? Or will the new finals format see the top four decide the premiership?
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