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The NRL semi finals: The statistical truth

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Expert
19th September, 2019
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The four sides going into this weekend’s semi-finals enter them into totally different moods.

The Sea Eagles are defiant. They’ve stared down all of us who wrote them off and won through to week two. And they’ll be re-joined by super star prop Martin Taupau for this weekend’s hostilities.

The Rabbitohs are licking their wounds and regrouping after being hosed by the Roosters. To add to that, Big Sam Burgess has got himself into a righteous stoush with NRL HQ.

The Storm are in the worst mood a team has ever been in.

They are filthy. They are filthy on the officials from last week.

They are filthy on the Raiders.

But most of all they are filthy on themselves. There would have been some very frank internal assessments going on down at AAMI Park this week.

Craig Bellamy will have stripped paint from walls and stripped skin from bones. They’ll be determined that they will make amends for that loss and all their opponents should now be on notice that the Storm are out for blood.

Frank Ponissi

(Photo by Scott Barbour/Getty Images)

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The Eels are bubbling with optimism after shellacking the Broncos in a record breaking finals win. They are surely going to play like there is no tomorrow. However, this looks like Apollo Creed up against Ivan Drago and I fear that the result could be – metaphorically – the same.

The horrible truth: In the last 20 years 80 per cent of the time (64/80) the sides that finished in the top four also featured in the preliminary finals.

That means the Eels and Sea Eagles only have a 20 per cent chance – one in five – of winning this weekend and winning through to the Penultimate week.

Year Number of top four sides featuring in preliminary finals
2018 Four
2017 Three (4th placed Eels missed out)
2016 Four
2015 Four
2014 Three (2nd placed Sea Eagles missed out)
2013 Four
2012 Four
2011 Three (4th placed Wests Tigers missed out)
2010 Three (3rd placed Wests Tigers missed out)
2009 Two (1st placed Dragons and 3rd placed Titans missed out)
2008 Three (3rd placed Sharks missed out)
2007 Three (4th placed Warriors missed out)
2006 Three (4th placed Knights missed out)
2005 Three (3rd placed Broncos missed out)
2004 Three (3rd placed Broncos missed out)
2003 Three (3rd placed Raiders missed out)
2002 Three (2nd placed Knights missed out)
2001 Three (2nd placed Bulldogs missed out)
2000 Three (4th placed Raiders missed out)
1999 Three (4th placed Roosters missed out)

Since the McIntyre finals system ended 26 of 28 (93 per cent) of the sides contesting the preliminary finals finished in the top four.

Boding very well for the Storm is that only once – the Dragons in 2009 – has the minor Premier not made the preliminary finals.

Worryingly for the Rabbitohs, of the 16 sides top four sides who have missed the preliminary finals in the last two decades, five of them (31 per cent) have been the third placed side.

Playing at your home ground also has had a great advantage over the last 20 seasons too.

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Year Finalists winning at home in the finals
2018 7/8
2017 4/8
2016 7/8
2015 6/8
2014 3/8
2013 5/8
2012 8/8
2011 6/8
2010 4/8
2009 5/8
2008 4/8
2007 7/8
2006 6/8
2005 4/8
2004 6/8
2003 6/8
2002 7/8
2001 7/8
2000 7/8
1999 6/8
Total 115/160
(71.9%)

Now of course, not all of those finals were actually played at a side’s home ground, a number were at neutral venues. However, it can be extrapolated that the higher qualifying side has won 72 per cent of the time. (Yes, I know. The McIntrye system screwed all that around a bit too – but it’s a general trend you pedants!).

In the current system only 16 of 56 sides (28.5 per cent) have won away from home in the finals. We’ve already had one away winner, so statistically we can expect one more before the grand final.

So from this we can see that, in general, the Rabbitohs and the Storm have the box seat in this weekend’s matches if history is a guide.

Which it is.

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Rabbitohs versus Sea Eagles
This will be the 159th time that these two sides have met each other.

It stands at 81-76 in Manly’s favour, with a draw thrown in. In finals matches it stands at 8-4 in the Rabbitohs favour. However, only three of those were in the last 35 years.

The winner gets to go take on the Raiders in Canberra. Both these sides were last start winners at GIO Stadium.

Of the last nine games between the two sides the Rabbitohs have won five, but neither side has posted back-to-back wins over the other. If the pattern is followed then the Sea Eagles are due a win.

Tom Trbojevic and Daly Cherry-Evans celebrate.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

The Rabbitohs have won the last three games between the sides at ANZ Stadium.

There is not one attacking team statistic that the Rabbitohs are superior to the Sea Eagles in. Not one.

There is only one defensive statistic where the Sea Eagles are better than South Sydney: missed tackles. The Brookvale boys are second only to the Storm in that area.

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Individually, Cody Walker and Damien Cook hold the key for South Sydney, with 18 and 19 try assists respectively. Walker played his best game for ages last week in a well beaten side. This week he gets Sam Burgess and Dane Gagai back to help out and that could make a big difference.

Damien Cook may find he has a bit more room too. Of course Sam Burgess brings his alpha wolf – or should I say Kangaroo – X-Factor back to the Cardinal and Myrtle. He makes a big difference too.

Daly Cherry-Evans boasts 24 try assists and 21 line break assists for the Sea Eagles. He is their major hope in attack. However, Martin Taupau is back with his 137 metres a match, which pairs nicely with Addin Fonua-Blakes 152.

However, no Curtis Sironen and Joel Thompson sees them with Jack Gosiewski and Corey Waddell in the back row. The Sea Eagles replacements did brilliantly last week against all expectations. Can they do it again?

This match sees two of the greatest coaching masterminds face off against each other for the 28th time. Des has won 11, Wayne 16. Bennett has won both finals between the two.

Sea Eagles Finals games Rabbitohs Finals games
Elliot 1 Doueihi 1
Taufua 9 Johnston 6
Parker 1 Roberts 6
Suli 1 Graham 4
Garrick 1 Gagai 6
Walker 8 Walker 4
Cherry-Evans 14 Reynolds 13
Trbojevic 2 Murray 4
Waddell 1 Sutton 13
Gosiewski 1 S. Burgess 11
Tapau 1 Knight 1
Koroisau 3 Cook 6
Fonua-Blake 2 Tatola 2
Fainu 1 Lowe 11
Olakau’atu 1 G. Burgess 9
Keppie 1 T. Burgess 7
Perrett 2 Nicholls 3
Total 50 Total 107

Here is the key stat for this game. It isn’t just that the Rabbitohs have 57 more finals games experience under their belt, it’s that the Sea Eagles have ten players for whom last week was their first ever taste of finals footy.

It was at Brookvale and they were revelling as underdogs. This week they’ll have to cross the harbour and play at a modern stadium, devoid of asbestos and siege mentality.
While DCE, Taupau and Trbojevic ate all superstars, the cattle around them is too raw.

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Rabbitohs 1-12

Storm versus Eels
This will be the 36th time these two sides have met and Melbourne lead 22-13. The winner earns the right to take on the Roosters for a place in the preliminary final.

At this venue the Storm have won five of seven. The Storm have never lost a final to the Eels from five encounters.

They aren’t going to be beaten by the Eels this Saturday night either.

The Eels are riding high after their 58-0 drubbing of the Broncos. Sure, Mitch Moses was superb. Sure, the Eels backline looked flash in their first finals win in a decade. However, the Broncos were a rabble. The Storm are not and have never been a rabble.

The Storm have won eight of their 13 games against the other top eight sides this year. The Eels have split theirs six and six.

In Round 9 the Storm routed the Eels 64-10 in Brisbane, exposing the defensive frailties of Brad Arthur’s charges.

There is a very good chance they could do it again.

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With that in mind I sourced the four greatest score turn arounds from Andrew Ferguson.

Points turnaround Who What
128 Cronulla – 2003 Lost 74-4 v Parramatta R24, Won 54-34 v Souths R25
126 Penrith – 2008 Lost 74-12 v Canberra R22, Won 52-16 v Canterbury R23
124 Parramatta – 2003 Lost 50-12 v Melbourne R23, Won 74-4 v Cronulla R24
120 Manly – 2004 Lost 72-12 v Penrith R22, Won 48-10 v Newcastle R23

And here’s the same table, but specifically for finals matches.

Points turnaround Who What
81 Souths – 1956 Won 45-7 v Wests in F1, Lost 36-33 v Balmain in F3
78 Canterbury – 2003 Lost 48-22 v Warriors in F1, Won 30-0 v Melbourne in F2
77 Souths – 1951* Lost 35-8 v St George in F1, Won 42-14 v Manly in GF
77 North Qld – 2007 Won 49-12 v Warriors in F2, Lost 28-6 v Manly in F3

To get onto the first list the Eels would have to lose by 62 points. I don’t believe that’s likely. However, I do believe the Storm will win and win well.

Back to back losses for the Storm at their home ground are as rare as hen’s teeth. It has happened this season, in 2015 and in 2013. Usually their home losses are one offs.

Not only do the Storm lead the Eels in every defensive team stat, they lead them by a long way. The Storm’s worst score conceded this season is 22. The Eels is 64. The Eels have conceded 30+ points in a game four times this season, all to top eight opponents.

Then there is finals experience.

Storm Finals games Eels Finals games
Papenhuyzen 1 Gutherson 1
Vunivalu 10 Sivo 1
Chambers 19 Jennings 14
Olam 1 Blake 4
Addo-Carr 7 Ferguson 11
Munster 12 Brown 1
Hughes 1 Moses 3
Finucane 20 Brown 3
Kaufusi 7 Lane 3
K. Bromwich 14 Ma’u 3
Asofa-Solomona 9 Paulo 4
Smith 37 Mahoney 1
J. Bromwich 20 Evans 5
B. Smith 4 Takairangi 3
Kamikamica 1 Alvaro 3
King 1 Moeroa 2
Stimson 4 Niukore 1
Total 168 Total 63

There is 103 fewer finals matches in the Eels team. Only journeymen Michael Jennings and Blake Ferguson boast double figures. Young Reed Mahoney has played 34 NRL games. Cam Smith has played 37 NRL finals matches.

The Eels have a punchers chance in that if they land some punches early they might just surprise the Storm. However, the Storm will be incredibly focused and brutal. We are likely to see Craig Bellamy’s Purple Horde at their most vicious and metronomic in this game.

Their pack is highly unlikely to give the Eels forwards any quarter, which will see the Parramatta backs with far less room to move.

Only severe misfortune can stop the Storm taking this game out comfortably.

Storm 13+