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Just how important is ladder position, anyway?

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Expert
30th August, 2019
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1137 Reads

Sports fans all around the world will often fall back on the competition ladder to determine who a better side is, or maybe even use it as a tie-breaker when trying to predict the winner of a close contest. But is it reliable?

To some extent it is, given that first, second and third-placed sides on the ladder have a win rate of at least 60 per cent. However, it’s the third-placed sides who have the best success rate at 62.04 per cent of all games played from 1992 until the end of Round 21, 2019. The next best is first place at 61.54, followed by second place at 60.19.

There are only four more ladder positions that have won better than half of their games over this same period: fourth and fifth at 58.71 per cent, sixth at 54.92, fifth at 52.92 and eighth at 52.30.

This means that being in seventh place isn’t exactly conducive to success, as these sides have won 47.70 per cent of their games, which is also lower than ninth place, which has a 49.07 clip.

At the other end of the scale, it’s not surprising that 15th and 16th place have the lowest winning percentages. They are the only ladder positions to win less than four of every ten games in the 16-team structure. The few competitions that included more than 16 sides have ladder positions 17th to 20th all with win percentages under 27.

The interesting thing about these positional stats is the head-to-head figures. For example, first-placed sides have losing records against teams placed second and third. In fact, second place has beaten first place 61.22 per cent of the time since 1992.

As the above graph shows, success lands prominently with the teams in the top four. This would mean that sides who frequently appear in the top four on the ladder are the greatest chance of winning games.

It will come as no surprise that, since 2007, the Melbourne Storm dominate every other side for the total number of weeks spent, and winning percentage, inside the top four.

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Brisbane appear in the second quarter of the table most (from places fifth to eighth). The Warriors, closely followed by the Raiders, are most prominently placed in the third quarter (from ninth to 12th place), while Parramatta have spent the most weeks in the bottom four places of the premiership ladder.

Using a ladder can be somewhat helpful to help predict who might win a game, but sometimes, it does depend on the club. Some sides perform at their best when they’re at the top of the ladder, like Melbourne, Manly and the Roosters, while others struggle, such as Parramatta, Newcastle, the Warriors and the Wests Tigers.

Teams like Newcastle, Wests Tigers and Penrith have a rather consistent record of loitering around the middle of the table. The Wests Tigers have their most success in this area, while in comparison, it is the Panthers’ least successful area.

So when it comes to trying to predict winners of a game, you can look at factors such as ladder position for both sides, success in those positions and the success rate of all teams in that position. With such an even competition, a lot of these figures are somewhat pronounced enough to be reasonably reliable.

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How does this though translate to finals football, though? It will come as no surprise that the team who ends the season in first place has the best success rate in finals footy, winning 66.53 per cent of all games since 1908 and an even better 70.49 per cent in the NRL era (since 1998) – that’s if you discount the anomaly of the 1998 season, the only time a finals series consisted of more than eight sides.

1998 had ten teams make the finals and the ninth-placed Bulldogs made it all the way to the grand final, which means ninth place has the best win rate at 80 per cent.

Interestingly enough, the next most successful ladder position in the finals is sixth, at 50per cent since 1908. However, during the NRL era, it’s second (55.56%), third (52.54%) and fourth (50%) that are next best.

Fifth place has won just over a third of their games, the lowest of the top six and second-lowest of the top eight, bettering only eighth place, which has won 27.59 per cent.

If we were to apply the positional head-to-head stats from the NRL era to the current top eight (as at the end of Round 23) – we would have the following finals results:

Week 1
Sydney def Canberra
Souths def Brisbane
Melbourne def Manly
Cronulla def Parramatta

Week 2
Manly def Souths
Canberra def Cronulla

Week 3
Manly def Sydney (Both sides are even with four wins apiece in NRL era, however since 1908, fourth has won 26 games versus second’s 20)
Melbourne def Canberra

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Grand final
Melbourne def Manly