Unquestionably the 2020 NRL season is unlike any other in the code’s history.
Almost all the teams have had to cope with the exceptional circumstances of conducting a professional sporting competition in the middle of a pandemic that has seen the season interrupted initially, then games played without attendances, then teams unable to host home games, while all the while team’s reserves have been unable to get match practice as they wait their call up.
That and the lack of a byes may have contributed to what seems to have been a bad year for serious injuries across the league.
And to top it all off, the league introduced new rules when the season resumed.
At the end of the regular season we have our final eight but it is, arguably, the top four from which our champion will emerge.
Penrith, the minor premiers, have seemingly coasted along and compiled a gaudy 18-1-1 record two and a half games ahead of the team in second place.
They have seemingly been getting better and better each week.
The Melbourne Storm have, as usual, been a consistent team again this season with a 16-4-0 record and, despite a couple of key injuries and the odd suspension, have been able to blood some rookies and are ready to contest the playoffs.
The defending premiers, the Sydney Roosters, have struggled a little in comparison to 2018 and 2019 but still sit in third place with a 14-6-0 record.
This weekend’s demolition by the South Sydney Rabbitohs may well have an impact of how they play in the finals but whether that will be a negative or positive effect is hard to know right now. The Sonny Bill Williams effect has not noticeably improved this team, yet.
Rounding out the Top Four are the Parramatta Eels with a 15-5-0 record but it’s fair to say they haven’t been convincing winners for quite some time and appear to be the weaker of the four teams.
But in a season that has seen the teams play four less games than in 2019 it is the five teams they each played twice that gives us a clearer picture of their relative merits.
This strength of schedule is another way to rank our top four.
All four teams played each of their 15 league opponents once and then each of them (and every other team for that matter, but I’m focussing on the Top Four) were, I assume, randomly scheduled to play a second match against five of their opponents.
When you calculate the Win-Loss record of the teams each of our Top Four played twice during the season a different picture emerges. We’ll call these ten games the Home and Away opponents.
Penrith’s Home and Away teams had a combined 45-55-0 win-loss record for a .450 win percentage.
Melbourne’s Home and Away teams had a combined 58-41-1 record for a .585 win percentage.
Sydney’s Home and Away teams had a combined 52-48-0 record for a .520 win percentage.
Parramatta’s Home and Away teams had a combined 38-61-1 record for a .385 win percentage.
I believe the comparatively weak strength of schedule that both Penrith and Parramatta have faced, along with the fact they have both played a majority of their games in Sydney, if not at their actual home grounds, has contributed to their place in the Top Four.
I accept that teams can only beat who is placed in front of them and that Penrith have done that more than anyone this season but I wonder whether they are ready for the step up in calibre of opponent they will face this week. The Roosters have been here before, the Panthers not so much.
Likewise are the Eels. Have they had too easy a run to ‘season’ them for the playoffs?
The Storm and the Roosters appear to have had tougher opponents throughout the season and, therefore, could be judged to be just right for the rigours of the playoffs.
I’m not a betting man, but if I were, I’d be thinking of backing a repeat of the 2018 grand final. Sorry Panthers, sorry Eels.