Another NRL season is now over, and as the realisation dawns on many fans that they won’t get a chance to whinge about the refs for another six months, the only comfort I can offer is that it also means it’s time revisit my fearless predictions.
Yes, you read the first half of the headline correctly. The Brisbane Broncos do not deserve to be playing finals football in 2019.
I have no doubt that many of you, especially those north of the border, will wholeheartedly disagree. The Broncos finished in eighth position, one point clear of the ninth (Wests Tigers) and tenth (Penrith Panthers)-placed sides, so how can they possibly not be deserving of playing finals?
Simple. A top-eight finals system has the potential to reward mediocrity. To be blunt, the Broncos are the most undeserving team of a finals position in over a decade. They finished 2019 with 25 points and a points differential of -57.
This is the worst performance of a finals bound team since 2007, when the Broncos again scraped through with 24 points and a differential of +35, enough to consign the Wests Tigers to a ninth-placed finish. Wow, the more things change, right?
Breaking down the Broncos’ 2019 season further, they finished with eleven wins, twelve losses, and one surprising draw against the Warriors. Their record against other top eight teams was five wins and seven losses. Considering their usual standard of success and the proud history of the club, this season will not be looked back upon fondly by the Broncos.
I am not saying that the top eight system is always going to produce undeserving finalists. You only need to look at last season, where the difference between first and eighth place was a grand total of two points. It would have been unfair to exclude any of those teams, given how close the top eight became.
All four qualifying finalists finished on 34 points, while all four elimination finalists finished on 32 points; that’s six points clear of the ninth-placed Tigers, a position on the ladder they may well own through squatter’s rights at this point.
Several pundits have called for a reduction in the number of teams in the finals, however this would bring on a completely different set of problems.
These would include an increase in the amount of dead rubbers in the last few rounds of the regular season and the loss of revenue and crowds in the finals by reducing the amount of games played.
A top five or top six finals system is simply not realistic. Unfortunately, I found that out the hard way by coining an article back in 2015 that argued for a top six system. It was ill-timed, not well thought out and written poorly. It consequently received heavy criticism, and deservedly so.
That notwithstanding, there is also an interesting history of relative success for teams in eighth spot. Twice since 1999 has eighth made it all the way to the grand final, namely the Eels in 2009 and the Cowboys in 2017.
Both teams finished the season with more wins than losses and a positive points differential, both came into the finals with great momentum and both teams captivated the NRL with their style of play.
Unfortunately, neither team tasted success in the big dance, as both teams had their dreams crushed by a dominant Melbourne, fairly or otherwise.
So, while I am not saying that the team finishing eighth is always undeserving of their shot and there to just make up the numbers every year, I am most definitely saying that Brisbane should have enjoyed their Mad Monday four days ago. No team that finishes with less wins than losses should be playing at the business end of the year.
Now I hear you asking me why I care so much. Why do I care that the Broncos scraped through? What difference does it make? They finished high enough to play finals according to the rules of the competition, so why do I have such an issue with it?
Because there is a very real chance that the Brisbane Broncos will be playing the loser of Canberra and Melbourne next weekend.
The overwhelming majority of pundits seem to be predicting a Parramatta victory at Bankwest on Sunday afternoon and as desperately as this Parra fan wants to agree with them – and taste our first finals victory in ten years – there is a horribly apprehensive feeling in my gut.
The bottom line is Parramatta have overachieved this season. They were the beneficiaries of a very helpful draw and finished in fifth position with a five-five split of wins and losses against teams in the top eight, including a dreadful 10-64 loss against Melbourne in a Not Very Magic Round.
While they did salvage some momentum by leapfrogging Manly into fifth position thanks to a comfortable win at Bankwest in the last round, they could have easily finished fourth. The equation was simple: win the last three games and they finish in fourth spot.
What happened? They capitulated horribly against the Bulldogs, and then put in a rather dismal effort against the Broncos to quickly extinguish any hope of a double chance in 2019.
Adding to my apprehension is the fact that the Eels seem to handle pressure about as well as the Challenger Space Shuttle. In 2017 we finished in fourth position and had fans daring to dream about another blockbuster preliminary final and potentially even another shot at the big one. What happened? Bang, bang. We lost against the Storm and the Cowboys and that was us done in straight sets.
It appears the Eels can only truly succeed when there are no expectations for them to do so. Our 2009 fairytale was more enjoyable because nobody expected us to make it as far as we did. There was no pressure on us whatsoever. Contrast that to their performances when actually grappling with expectation.
In 1998 the Eels finished fourth and battled their way to a preliminary final against the ninth-placed Canterbury, in one of the more bizarre finals systems ever seen.
They were up 18-2 with 11 minutes to go and a grand final beckoned. All they had to do was hold on for the last 11 minutes against a Craig Polla-Mounter-led Bulldogs and they would face the Broncos in the decider, who they had defeated 15-10 the week before. The Bulldogs won 32-20 after extra time.
In 2001 they blew through the season and made the grand final that many tipped them to win. A 0-24 halftime score against Newcastle put paid to that. In 2005 they again smashed the regular season in a record-setting performance. All we had to do was brush aside the Cowboys and we would get another crack at premiership glory. 0-29 at fulltime and the Cowboys went on to lose to the Tigers.
All the pressure is on Parramatta on Sunday. The pressure is on Parramatta to finally break their finals victory drought, the pressure is on Mitchell Moses to prove that he is not the overrated half many thought he was, the pressure is on Brad Arthur to keep the board’s faith in him, and the pressure is on the entire squad to avoid another weak exit from the finals.
That is precisely why a large part of me is predicting the vast majority of the sell-out crowd on Sunday will be leaving disappointed. If that does indeed happen, it will sting all the more because we were eliminated from the premiership race by a team that did not even deserve to be there in the first place.