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Opinion

NRL hopefuls have three weeks to impress, finals spots are locked after Round 13

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Expert
18th May, 2022
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While the NRL ladder may lead a host of teams on the outside looking in to believe there is still hope, those aiming to force their way into the top eight come finals time have history against them, with only a 14 per cent chance of that taking place.

Despite fans of the Raiders, Warriors, Dragons, Titans and Knights hoping that a win or two outside the current top eight is a position from which they can rebound, very few teams have done so across the last decade once the competition has reached its nominal halfway point at Round 13.

The data suggests that despite certain media organisations insisting that each and every season features an immensely close race for the finals, the top-eight positions are all-but set by the midway point.

2022 appears likely to play out in a similar manner, with Manly looming as the only genuine threat to those hanging on to places on the lower rungs entering Round 11.

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Since 2012, just 11 teams have come from outside the top eight after 13 rounds of play to then feature in the showpiece matches. Thus, those teams currently on the fringes and looking to make something of a season that has begun inconsistently have a mere three weeks to make hay.

Otherwise, the historical data will have them at long odds to qualify for a finals series that many will suggest they do not deserve to feature in, after shooting themselves in the foot across the opening three months of the season.

In 2012, the Canberra Raiders were the only side post-Round 13 to squeeze their way into the eight, then were eliminated in the second week of finals play.

The following year, both Newcastle and North Queensland managed the same, with the Cows eliminated briskly and the gutsy Knights producing a decent run before being belted by the Roosters in the preliminary final.

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Jarrod Mullen of the Knights

Jarrod Mullen of the Knights (Photo by Tony Feder/Getty Images)

2014 saw North Queensland and Melbourne force their way in after solid play late in the season, yet neither continued beyond the second week of finals, while the Cronulla Sharks of 2015 and Penrith sides of 2016 and 2017 all achieved the same result.

In 2018, the top eight was set after 13 weeks and the COVID-affected 2020 actually featured a locked-in top eight after just 12 rounds. 2019 was a similar story, with the Broncos the lone side to force their way into the finals after Round 13, with only for and against keeping them out at that stage of the campaign.

Most recently, the Knights and Titans managed great runs home in 2021 to move into the eight late in the year, yet both were beaten on the opening weekend.

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Of the 11 teams that have managed to buck the trend and infiltrate the finals post the 13th round of play, five have been sent packing in the opening week, five others have exited the week following, and only the 2013 Knights managed to advance to a preliminary final.

What does that mean for 2022? Well if recent history tells us anything, it is that there is perhaps a single change to the top eight after Round 13, yet also a strong possibility that the teams destined to play finals are already jostling for position with the other contenders.

In a few short weeks’ time, the door will most likely shut on any pretender.

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It also means the teams occupying ninth to 14th on the ladder had best get moving over the next three weeks, with a run of wins potentially setting them up inside the eight and thus becoming one of those teams likely to be difficult to shunt during the run home.

Essentially, Rounds 11 to 13 will determine the bottom half of the eight, with any change after that point unlikely.

Ideally, we might prefer something a little more engrossing across the final three months of the season and parity across the NRL remains a subject worth discussion, especially with expansion now upon us.

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Who knows, perhaps 2022 will throw up something a little different. However, considering the pattern of play and the chasm in class often apparent, I will not be holding my breath.

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