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Qualifying finals: The real contenders (and the real pretenders)

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Expert
11th September, 2019
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I don’t want to burst the bubbles of the Eels, Sea Eagles, Broncos and Sharks fans, but the stats clearly show that you are just making up the numbers.

You’ve battled all season just to make the finals and now that you’ve made it is hard to hear that you are one of the beauty pageant contestants who is going to have to fake smile, clap and – god forbid – hug those being called to the podium, and have to stand there while they take the adulation.

However, that’s the reality of your situation.

Here are some very harsh and clear statistics from the last 20 seasons of the NRL. Of the 80 preliminary final spots since 1999, only 16 (20 per cent) have been taken by sides who finished the season in fifth to eighth spot on the ladder.

Of the 40 grand final spots since 1999, only six (15 per cent) have been taken by the sides in the bottom half of the top eight. And of course, of the 20 premiers, none have come from the fifth, sixth, seventh or eighth spot.

Boyd Cordner

The Roosters lift the trophy in 2018. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

However, I know – like myself – lots of you will still be clinging to some vague hope that maybe your boys will be the ones to break the duck.

If one is to do it, he odds are best that it will be either the Eels or Manly as in nine of the 14 occasions (64.3 per cent) since the McIntyre Finals system was scrapped, the sides in fifth and sixth spot have won at home in the elimination finals.

Boding very poorly for the Sea Eagles is that in four of the five occasions that the side with the home advantage has been eliminated, it has been the sixth placed side. With Tom Trbojevic, Martin Taupau and Joel Thompson out, that result is again looking likely this weekend.

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While fifth has only lost to eighth once since 2012, I reckon Sunday’s elimination final at Bankwest Stadium is anyone’s match.

But it is all really just like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic really as the most damning statistic is that no side in the NRL era has won the premiership from outside the top four.

In fact, only three teams – the Raiders in 1989, the Broncos in 1993 and the Bulldogs in 1995 – have won the premiership from the sudden death placings.

Here is how each position on the ladder after the home-and-away season has fared in the finals over the past 20 seasons:

Ladder position Number of times in Grand Final Number of times Premier
1st 16 7
2nd 8 4
3rd 6 6
4th 4 3
5th 1 0
6th 3 0
7th 0 0
8th 2 0

From this the odds are incredibly good that the minor premier, the Storm, will feature in this year’s decider. Further, if the Rabbitohs make the big dance, the odds are superb that they’ll prevail as a third-placed side is yet to be beaten in a grand final in the NRL era.

While I genuinely believe that the Sharks are the only side in the bottom half of the eight that can genuinely challenge for the premiership, no side has yet made the decider from seventh spot, let alone won it.

For the trainspotters among you, here are the ladder combinations that have played off in the last 20 deciders:

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Combination Number of occasions occurred
1st vs 2nd 7
1st vs 3rd 4
1st vs 4th 2
1st vs 6th 2
1st vs 8th 1
2nd v 3rd 1
3rd v 6th 1
4th v 5th 1
4th v 8th 1

It is interesting to note that the grand final has never featured second versus fourth or third versus fourth combinations.

Now to the serious business: do any of you really see anyone beating either the Storm or the Roosters?

Let’s be clear: after the Tricolours and the Purple Horde, comes daylight.

Sure, the Rabbitohs and the Raiders have a decent statistical chance of winning the premiership as nine of the 20 premiers have been claimed from spots three and four, but to do it they’ll really need to win this weekend.

Why? Because the statistics say so, that’s why.

Only eight (20 per cent) of the last forty grand finalists have lost in Week 1 of the finals. Of those eight, four (again, 20 per cent) have won the premiership: Storm 1999, Bulldogs 2004, Broncos 2006 and Cowboys 2015. The latter is the only team to do so post the McIntyre finals system.

However, there is an 80 per cent likelihood that the sides playing in this weekend’s qualifying finals will also feature in the preliminary finals. In total, 26 of the 28 preliminary final spots (92.85 per cent) that have been claimed since the McIntyre system was abandoned have been taken by the sides that finished in the top four.

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So the qualifying finals are clearly where the action is at this weekend.

Roosters versus Rabbitohs

7:50pm Friday 13 September
Sydney Cricket Ground

Why the Roosters are going to win
Two words: James Tedesco. He’s the best player in the game right now.

He doesn’t just have X-Factor. He’s Automatic. He’s systematic. He’s hydromatic. He’s greased lighting.

I’ve watched up close this season as Jack Wighton has regularly targeted and smashed attacking threats in his opposing teams. In the fourth minute of the Raiders Round 21 match against the Roosters I watched Wighton call that he had Tedesco.

James Tedesco

Can the Roosters go back-to-back? (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

And he did. He totally had the bearded lad from Camden covered. But then Tedesco – like Wez in Mad Max 2 – turned on the nitrous and left Wighton grasping at thin air. Moments later Cam Murray touched down for a try. In the same game Tedesco put on a beautiful play that sent Daniel Tupou over untouched.

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In previous seasons you could have written those actions off as nothing too special as the Raiders defence was poor. Not this year though. This year the Raiders defence has been superb, averaging just 15.6 points conceded a game.

Tedesco is just superb-er. He leads the NRL in average running metres, as well as tackle breaks.

He is the shining star in a brilliant Roosters backline. It is all killer, no filler. While the Storm forward pack is the competition benchmark, the Tricolours backs are the stand out of the NRL.

And while we are on the subject, that Cooper Cronk bloke is pretty damn good too.

While the Roosters lost to the Bunnies just last week, the Rabbitohs had Sam Burgess and Dane Gagai on the field – which won’t be the case this Friday – and the Roosters didn’t have Luke Keary, Brett Morris, Siosiua Taukeiaho or Mitch Aubusson.

The only attacking statistic the Rabbitohs better the Roosters in is completion rates. Bizarrely the Roosters are the worst completers in the NRL this year. Who’da thunk it?

In defence the Rabbitohs actually get awarded more penalties and concede fewer than the Tricolours. Apart from that though, the Roosters best the Rabbitohs in all other defensive stats too.

This will be the 244th game between these two foundation sides that started their fierce rivalry on May 16th, 1908.

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The last time the Roosters lost three in a row to the Rabbitohs was way back in 1988.

Head to head
Roosters Rabbitohs
111 126

To date there have also been six drawn matches.

Venue head to head
Roosters Rabbitohs
23 22

Before their Round 1 clash at the SCG this year, the last time these two sides met at the SCG was in 1993. So this stat has little relevance…

Finals head to head
Roosters Rabbitohs
5 6

Would you believe that this is only the 12th final between these two sides in 111 years? I find that amazing. The record stands at one a piece in this decade.

Season home record Vs Season away record
Roosters Rabbitohs
9-3 8-4
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The Roosters have the barest of advantages in this regard. Further, doesn’t the SCG precinct border on Redfern? It’s not exactly a massive home ground advantage…

Finals experience can have a big impact on the outcome of these games. The Roosters have over double the experience of the Bunnies. Further, the Cardinal and Myrtle have four finals debutants to the Roosters two:

Roosters Finals games Rabbitohs Finals games
Tedesco 3 Doueihi 0
Tupou 14 Johnston 7
Mitchell 4 Roberts 5
Manu 3 Graham 3
Morris 13 Allan 0
Keary 9 Walker 3
Cronk 35 Reynolds 12
Radley 3 Murray 3
Cordner 12 Sutton 12
Aubusson 19 Su’A 0
Liu 12 Knight 0
Verills 0 Cook 5
Warea-Hargreaves 14 Tatola 1
Crichton 3 Lowe 10
Tetevano 4 Britt 2
Butcher 0 T. Burgess 7
Taukeiaho 8 Nicholls 2
Total 156 Total 72

Why the Rabbitohs can win
There are a couple of stats in the Bunnies favour.

Home vs top four versus away vs top four
Roosters Rabbitohs
1-2 2-0

The Rabbitohs beat the Roosters and the Raiders away from home. The Roosters lost to the Rabbitohs and the Storm but beat the Raiders (although that home game was at Suncorp Stadium…)

Home for and against vs away for and against
Roosters Rabbitohs
376-145 254-210
31.3 – 12.1 (home avg score) 21.2 – 17.5 (away avg score)
26.1 – 15.1 (season avg score) 21.7 – 17.4 (season avg score)
18.5 – 19.6 (average score Vs top four) 18.5 – 16 (average score Vs top four)

If the Rabbitohs have a chance it is shown in both sides average scores against top four sides. If those average scores play out the Rabbitohs will win by two points.

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However, if the average home-and-away scores play out – as I suspect they will in the absence of Sam Burgess and Dane Gagai – the Roosters will take the game 33–16.

Roosters by 13+

George Burgess of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the NRL Preliminary Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Sydney, Australia.

(Photo: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Storm versus Raiders

5:45pm, Saturday 14 September
AAMI Park, Melbourne

Why the Storm are going to win
There is some history between these sides. Mostly it is a history of the Storm beating the Raiders.

This Saturday evening’s fixture at AAMI Park looks like more of the same. The bookies currently have the Storm at $1.40 to beat the Raiders. The shortest odds for a margin is for the Storm to win by 13+.

The Raiders were unlikely victors at this venue four weeks ago, handing the Storm just their fourth loss of the year, as well as their biggest, beating them by a paltry four points.

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Josh Papalii runs the ball.

The Raiders head to Melbourne to take on the Storm in finals action. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

The Storm’s four losses have been by a combined total of just eight points. The Roosters, Sharks, Sea Eagles and Raiders have all managed to grind out wins, but not one was convincing.

The Storm are no one’s bitch. And they aren’t going to be.

Their points conceded of just 300 all up for the season equates to just 12.5 points conceded per game. That is the equal fifth best points conceded for the home-and-away season in the NRL era.

Team Year Points conceded Premier?
Storm 2007 277 Yes
Storm 2008 282 No
Eels 1999 294 No
Dragons 2010 299 Yes
Roosters 2015 300 No
Storm 2019 300 ?
Storm 2016 302 No
Storm 2011 308 No
Broncos 1998 310 Yes

However, as you can see, that stat doesn’t necessarily equate to grand final glory. Five of those sides didn’t win the premiership, three of them didn’t even make the grand final.

As well, the Storm’s paltry four losses for the home-and-away season is the equal second-best season record in the NRL era.

Team Year Losses Premier?
Storm 2007 3 Yes*
Storm 2019 4 ?
Storm 2017 4 Yes
Storm 2006 4 No
Eels 2001 4 (2 draws as well) No
Storm 2016 5 No
Storm 2011 5 No
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*Premiership stripped from Storm for breaching the salary cap

Again, a great record in the home-and-away season hasn’t always translated into premierships.

However, in the last two decades winning the minor premiership is a distinct advantage for making the grand final.

Of the 40 positions that have been available in the grand finals, 16 of them have been taken by the sides that finished first at the end of the home-and-away season. Only four times since 1999 has the minor premier not played in the decider: 1999, 2005, 2009 and 2015.

Further, only once during that time has the minor premier failed to play in the preliminary finals: The Dragons in 2009.

So things are pretty well set up for the Storm. To further bolster their case they are playing a side that has pretty much been under Melbourne Storm’s thumb since Raiders’ old boy and 1990 premiership player Craig Bellamy took the helm of the Purple Horde in 2003.

Josh Hodgson

Canberra have had a great start to 2019. (AAP Image/Rohan Thompson)

Coming fourth, as the Raiders have, is the least credentialled of the top-four spots. Four times the fourth-placed side has made the decider and three times they have won it: the Roosters in 2002, Wests Tigers in 2005 and the Storm in 2009.

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While 80 per cent of the time the sides that have finished in the top four also contested the preliminary finals, of the 16 times they haven’t, the fourth placed side has missed out six of them. The first placed side has only missed the preliminary finals once: the Dragons in 2009.

The records are virtually all in Melbourne’s favour:

Head to head
Melbourne Raiders
32 12

Unsurprisingly the Storm have won 72.7 per cent of the matches between the two sides. That’s actually better than Cam Smith’s overall win ratio with the Storm of 71.57 per cent.

Head to head: Bellamy era
Melbourne Raiders
26 7

That record gets even better if you just look at the Bellamy era. The win ratio goes to 78.8 per cent.

Venue head to head
Melbourne Raiders
5 4

However, at this venue the Raiders have had some success with four wins from their nine visits. The Storm have won four of the last five at AAMI Park though.

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Finals head to head
Melbourne Raiders
3 0

These sides have met in three finals – in 1998, 2003 and 2016 – and the Storm have won all three.

Home for and against vs Away for and against
Melbourne Raiders
311-170 300-174
26-14.1 (home avg score) 25-14.5 (away avg score)
26.3-12.5 (season avg score) 21.8-15.6 (season avg score)
20 – 16.2 (average score Vs top four) 17.2 – 22.6 (average score Vs top four)

The Storm’s home for and against is practically identical to the Raiders away for and against for the season, with the Storm having a slight edge. The figures point to a Storm win by two points or so.

Player finals experience plays a big factor in big matches and the Storm have far more of it.

Storm Finals games Raiders Finals games
Papenhuyzen 0 Nicoll-Klokstad 0
Vunivalu 9 Cotric 0
Chambers 18 Croker 6
Olam 0 Leilua 9
Addo-Carr 6 Rapana 3
Munster 11 Wighton 4
Hughes 0 Sezer 3
Finucane 19 Tapine 3
Kaufusi 6 Bateman 0
K. Bromwich 13 Whitehead 3
Asofa-Solomona 8 Soliola 5
Smith 36 Hodgson 3
J. Bromwich 19 Papalii 5
B. Smith 3 Simonsson 0
Kamikamica 0 Lui 2
King 0 Horsburgh 0
Stimson 3 Sutton 0
Total 151 Total 46

The Storm have five of their 17 for whom this is their finals debut. That includes their fullback and half back. The Raiders have six of their squad for whom this will be their first taste of NRL finals. Of those debutants, two have played in a Challenge Cup final at Wembley and one has played Origin.

However, anyway you look at it, the Storm have three times the finals experience.

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Where the Storm are going to win this game statistically?

There isn’t a team attacking statistic that the Raiders are better at than the Storm. That’s not to say the Raiders attacking stats are bad. They aren’t. The Storm’s attacking stats are just better.

In regards to defence, the Raiders are awarded more penalties and concede fewer offloads than the Purple Horde. Apart from that, the Storm are better in every single defensive team statistic. The Raiders defence is very good but the Storm’s is awesome.

While the Raiders’ pack has been excellent this season, the Storm’s pack is the competition benchmark. While the loss of Christian Welch was quite a blow, the “sharkbait” exponents know how to rip and grind better than anyone.

Josh Papalii scores as the Raiders celebrate.

Josh Papalii scores a try, but it was the Raiders defence which summed up their Round 19 effort. (Photo by Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Why the Raiders can win
Why not? At very worst they have Bradbury’s chance of winning: they are in the race and still on their feet. As well, unlike previous seasons, this Raiders side has real grit. Josh Papalii, John Bateman, Josh Hodgson and Elliott Whitehead are not scared or intimidated by anyone in purple. They’ll give as good as they get.

Further, while the Storm have only lost four games this season, three of them have been at home. Their home record is identical to the Raiders’ away record, almost to the points scored and conceded.

Season home record vs Season away record
Melbourne Raiders
9-3 9-3
311-170 300-174
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Further, the Storm’s 2019 record at home against top four sides is surprisingly bad, while the Raiders away record to top four sides is OK.

Home vs top four vs Away vs top four
Melbourne Raiders
0-2 1-1

The Storm have played two games against the other top four sides at AAMI Park – against the Roosters and the Raiders – and they lost them both with a cumulative for and against 28-33.

The Raiders have played two away games against the Storm and the Roosters for a win and a loss – notably the Raiders for and against from those encounters is 46-48.

It is interesting to note that the Raiders worst score conceded this season is 30 points. The last season in which the Raiders boasted that record was in 1994.

Where the Raiders going to win this game statistically?

If the Raiders are to win this game it will be on the back of creating something special in attack. For a side that was known for flashy attack for years, the Green Machine have certainly put that cue in the rack this season.

Cameron Smith Melbourne Storm NRL Finals Rugby League 2016

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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They have specialised in gritty, grinding, street fights. However, just like when Mickey called for Rocky to switch back to southpaw against Apollo Creed, maybe the Raiders have the ability to turn the razzle dazzle on again?

The Storm don’t like unpredictability. It doesn’t align with the programming of the Borg. Just like the Master Builders in the Lego Movie unnerving President Business, random play upsets the Storms metronome.

While Joey Leilua has a few brain explosions in him, he is also the sort of unpredictable player – as are John Bateman, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad and Jordan Rapana – that can upset the Storm’s apple cart.

However, coach Stuart will know all too well that the Storm feed on your errors and that flashy play can lead to errors. So the likelihood is that this will be a grinding match, and while the Raiders have shown they can grind really well this year, nobody grinds like the Storm.

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Put simply, the Storm is going to win this game on the back of their stingy, dedicated and fanatically ordered defence.

Storm by 2.