The NRL draw is inherently unfair, with not all teams meeting one another on a home-and-away basis.
The fact that those teams facing one another twice each year is primarily determined by commercial profitability worsens the issue. Those factors cannot be entirely eliminated, but fairer solutions are available.
Currently, 16 teams play 24 games each in the regular season, meaning each team plays nine of their opponents twice, and six of their opponents once. Between 1988 and 1994, those double-up fixtures were determined purely by ladder position from previous seasons, with teams split into two groups (and playing two fewer rounds). First and second, third and fourth, fifth and sixth, etc, were separated.
That approach was the fairest possible but meant that fixtures with great appeal such as first versus second from the previous season would be seen only once. In the current era, there is no way that the demand for such a clash would be ignored.
The NRL could compromise by allowing clubs to nominate three of their repeat fixture opponents (with a fourth back-up choice), and then allocating the remaining fixtures based on average ladder position.
For example, Parramatta may want to ensure that they play twice against Canterbury, Penrith and Wests. All three of those clubs would most likely pick the Eels among their double-ups, so those matches would be approved. Let’s say Manly also wanted to nominate the Eels among their trio. That should also be approved.
Parramatta finished third last season and only one of those four opponents made the finals. The remaining double-ups would need to address this.
15 opponents mean an average ladder position of eighth, so the total ranking against nine teams should be as close as possible to 72. Penrith were minor premiers, meaning they would be considered as having a ranking of 1. Removing Parramatta from the ladder means the Tigers, Sea Eagles, and Bulldogs would be ranked 10, 12, and 14 respectively.
To reach that figure of 72 for an average strength draw, their remaining opponents, among a myriad of potential combinations, could be Melbourne (2), South Sydney (5), Cronulla (7), Gold Coast (8) and North Queensland (13).
However, allocating those additional opponents is less straightforward than that example because it would depend on all clubs first making their selections, and then seeing who is still available.
South Sydney, for example, draw good crowds both home-and-away and would potentially be nominated by the Roosters, Dragons, Bulldogs, Tigers, Sea Eagles, Sharks, Knights, Storm and possibly the Broncos. Given that they may want to nominate the Cowboys due to their annual game in Cairns, one side has to miss out. Similar situations may occur for the likes of the Dragons, Broncos, Eels and Bulldogs.
In the Rabbitohs’ example, even if the last-placed Broncos were to be the club to miss out, Souths would still have a weaker than average draw. Subsequently, they may get disadvantaged at the next stages of completing the draw, while Brisbane, having to go with a back-up choice, would get an advantage at the same point.
These advantages and disadvantages apply to such areas as the home-and-away breakdown for the single-game opponents, and scheduling preferences, including avoiding short turnarounds between games. Overhauling the scheduling will be discussed in Part 2.
It would be interesting to see how clubs prioritise their selection of opponents. Some may approach primarily from a commercial perspective by trying to secure fixtures more likely to be shown on free-to-air TV or guaranteeing commercial deals to relocate home games. Other clubs may look at trying to secure an easier draw by selecting clubs that they expect to drop down the ladder, or by selecting clubs that they have a good record against.
Manly, for example, would have to consider their remarkable winning streak at home against Cronulla, their exposure of playing Brisbane on Friday night during Magic Weekend and who their supporters are most interested in seeing them face.
Part 2 will address improving the scheduling.