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Make top four or make up the numbers: Near impossible to win title from sudden-death section of playoffs

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Expert
4th August, 2022
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If the Eels are any hope of ending their 36-year title drought, Friday night’s clash with Manly is virtually a must-win game.

A loss at Brookvale will put Parramatta behind the eight ball in the hunt for the top four and history tells us it’s all but impossible to win the premiership from the bottom half of the playoffs.

In the NRL era, no team has won the title after finishing fifth or lower. 

Taking it back further, only the 1995 Bulldogs (who upset Manly in the decider after finishing sixth) and the ‘93 Broncos (who defended their title from fifth spot) in premiership history have lifted the trophy from outside the top four.

Parramatta are in a three-way tie for fourth spot with Melbourne and Brisbane on 26 points with five rounds remaining. Cronulla are a win ahead and the Cowboys another two points higher on 30.

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(Photo by Steven Markham/Speed Media/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Cowboys and Sharks have relatively easy draws so it looks like a three-horse race for that all-important second chance in the playoffs that comes with a top-four finish.

How important? 

It breaks down like this – of the 24 teams that have won the minor premiership in the NRL era, 23 made the preliminary finals, 16 progressed to the grand final but only eight lifted the trophy.

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For teams that placed 2-4 on the ladder, 52 of those 72 sides made the prelims with only 24 of them progressing to the GF.

And for those ranked fifth or lower, a fraction over 20% of them survive until the penultimate week of the finals and of the 21 that have done so, 13 of them went no further.

Position Prelim Finalists Grand Finalists Premiers
Minor premiers 23/24 (96%) 16/24 (67%) 8/24 (33%)
Teams ranked 2-4 52/72 (72%) 24/48 (50%) 16/24 (67%)
Rank 5 or lower 21/98 (21%) 8/48 (16%) 0/24 (0%)

In the past decade since the demise of the McIntyre finals system, only two teams have made the grand final from outside the top four – the Cowboys in 2017 and Bulldogs in 2014 – with neither team winning the title.

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The anomaly that was the Wests Tigers of 2005, the Roosters three years beforehand and the now-deleted title run of Melbourne in 2009 are the only occasions where the team which finished fourth has lifted the NRL trophy (before in the Storm’s case, having to hand it back for salary cap rorts).

Every other premiership winner over the past quarter of a century has come from the top three at the end of the regular season.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MAY 20: Reed Mahoney of the Eels is tackled by Jake Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles during the round 11 NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the Manly Sea Eagles at CommBank Stadium, on May 20, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Of the 48 teams who’ve contested grand finals since ‘98, all but eight of them finished in the top four – the aforementioned 2017 Cowboys and ‘14 Dogs, as well as the 2011 Warriors and 2010 Roosters from sixth, the ‘09 Eels from eighth, the fifth-placed North Queensland team in 2005, St George Illawarra’s foundation squad of 1999 and Canterbury the previous year when they made an improbable run from ninth before being trounced by Brisbane.

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All eight ran out of steam by the time they reached the GF with the ‘99 Dragons the only one that went close.

In the past decade in the 1 v 4, 2 v 3, 5 v 8 and 6 v 7 system, on five occasions the top four teams have all progressed to the preliminary finals with three of the four making it in the other years.

Under the McIntyre system which was used from 1999 up until 2011, there was no season where all four progressed to the prelim stage.

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Three of the top four made the prelims every other year apart from 2009 when the Dragons and Titans bombed out in straight sets and the inaugural NRL season of ‘98 when there was a 10-team finals set-up due to the inflated 20-team competition. Newcastle and Melbourne went out the back door after finishing in the top four.

Only eight of the 98 teams in the NRL era who have finished fifth or lower have even qualified for the GF and the number who have become premiers is a much rounder number.

So, no pressure, Parramatta.

Of course, they can potentially lose this match and still recover to leapfrog Brisbane and Melbourne over the final month of the regular season. They face the Broncos and Storm in the closing fortnight so they can keep destiny in their own hands.

The Eels will be without star halfback Mitchell Moses for at least the next three weeks with a broken finger.

Jake Arthur has been brought into the team and coach Brad Arthur said his son had not been affected by the recent backlash from fans about his selection in the top grade.

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Jake Arthur of the Eels catches a pass during the warm-up before the round eight NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the North Queensland Cowboys at TIO Stadium, on April 30, 2022, in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Trolls have inundated the club’s official account about his selection while the young playmaker was booed by a vocal minority of Eels fans when his name was read out as a bench utility during the pre-match team announcement a fortnight ago.

“He’s done a good job, he deserves his opportunity. We’re excited for him. He’s just got to see it as a good opportunity to keep learning his craft in a really good team,” the coach said at his midweek media conference.

And if they can win the race for fourth spot they will likely face premiers Penrith in the first round of the playoffs. The Panthers have only lost twice all year but the Eels were the team that conquered them on each occasion so they would be far from fearful against their western Sydney derby rivals.

For the Sea Eagles, they slumped to 10th after last Thursday’s home loss when seven of their players refused to play due to the club’s inclusivity jersey.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Their chances of making the finals are still alive but they have as much chance of finishing in the top four as they have of finding gold at the end of a rainbow, jersey or otherwise.

Veteran coach Des Hasler tried to put a positive spin on the dramas on Thursday morning by saying the team had cleared the air in a meeting on the weekend.

Five of the seven players who sat out the costly defeat to the Roosters are listed to return in the 17-man line-up with second-rower Josh Schuster on the extended bench and prop Josh Aloiai sidelined with a knee problem.

“It’s the old expression that you can’t control the noise outside. The players have resolved to just get on with it,” Hasler said.

He’s hoping the five players returning to the field after standing down due to religious and cultural reasons were not jeered by the crowd but added “everybody has individual thoughts about it and it’s always going to be one of those ones that is speculated and talked about”. 

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