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It should be an NRL September to remember... But why does it all seem so familiar?

Roar Guru
6th September, 2023
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Roar Guru
6th September, 2023
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Ah, September. The sun is shining and blossoms are blooming as we emerge blinking into the spring sunshine from our (thankfully) brief winter hibernation.

The air is redolent with the smell of cut grass. But more importantly for us rugby league tragics, September smells like semi final football.

The competition resets and restarts as the chaff is finally separated. Spring promises rebirth and the dawning of a new season. The thrill of the unexpected.

Except I look at the ladder and think… haven’t we seen all this before?

Obviously we have Ivan Cleary’s mighty Panthers team seeking an historic three-peat. But it actually goes a bit deeper than that.

The Panthers, Storm and Roosters have won the last six premierships. That’s 19% of teams combining for 100% of titles. But it goes deeper than that.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 02: The Panthers celebrate with the NRL Premiership Trophy after victory in the 2022 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at Accor Stadium on October 02, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Penrith celebrate in 2022. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Those three great clubs have won the minor premiership for the past ten years. Ten! To put into perspective how long it’s been, the last ‘other’ team to raise the JJ Giltinan shield was… the Bulldogs. 10 years is a long, long time in rugby league.

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Over the past six years this trio has dominated, they’ve also accounted for eight of the 12 grand final spots. That hasn’t left much for the rest of us with the Eels, Rabbitohs, Raiders and Cowboys nabbing a losing grand final spot each on behalf of the rest of the competition for that six year window.

The next layer down is the preliminary finals. In the past six years there have been 24 prelim spots available. The big three – plus Souths – have accounted for 17 of them. That’s 70% for just 25% of the competition.

It’s a similar story for the all important top four ladder positions. There have been 28 of them available (including this season). The Panthers, Storm, Roosters and Rabbitohs have claimed the vital ‘second chance’ 17 times – or 60%.

“Yeah, but that’s just the top end of town. Look at this year, three teams from last year’s semis didn’t make it. That happens most years. There’s a good rotation of teams.”

Most years we have three ‘new’ teams playing in September. However again, when you look at the numbers a bit more closely, it’s not the re-generation it appears to be.

Cameron Smith of the Storm lifts the Premiership Trophy

Melbourne celebrate in 2020. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In the last seven years, the Storm and Roosters have made the semi finals seven times. The Panthers and Sharks six and the Rabbitohs and Eels five times. That’s 37% of teams claiming 64% of semi final positions over seven years.

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So while we see 2-3 new teams each September, it’s pretty much the other ten teams (11 this year) cycling through the same 2-3 spots.

To be clear, I’m looking forward to seeing whether the Panthers can be the first triple crown winners since the 81-83 Eels. It’ll be a massive achievement. I can’t wait to see if the attacking styles of the Broncos and Knights can upset the apple cart. Can the old warriors of the Storm and Roosters find a way to lift for battle once more when the bugle sounds? Maybe the Sharks, Warriors or Raiders can nab an unexpected title. Any of these outcomes will be a wonderful narrative.

Maybe there’s an element of sour grapes to this because my club isn’t one of those top teams. However, it doesn’t seem that long ago that clubs had a premiership window of 2-3 years before they had to have a ‘rebuild’ of their roster.

Now it seems that window is extending to 6-7 years – possibly more. Same for the rebuilds, Maybe it’s always been this way. Most of my footy fandom has seen the Bulldogs in the top eight, top four and vying for premierships, so I never noticed. It’s tough looking from the bottom up. I don’t think we even bother looking down from the top of the castle.

Sydney Roosters

The Roosters celebrate in 2019. (Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Is it a case of ‘bad clubs be better’? Probably. Is it that simple? Probably not.

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I think it’s great having dominant teams to set the standards and for the rest of the competition to strive to match. The big clubs I’ve mentioned deserve every single ounce of their success. They’ve each got there in slightly different ways, which is a great sign for the chasing clubs. They can all be held up as model organisations with exceptional leadership and business acumen.

But, do we want to see an English Premier League style competition where it’s pretty much the same sides in the top six season on season? Do we want a couple of clubs dominating titles for a decade at a time?

At the start of the NRL era the premier list read Broncos, Storm, Broncos, Knights, Roosters, Panthers, Bulldogs, Tigers. Their grand final opponents were Bulldogs, Dragons, Roosters, Eels, Warriors, Roosters, Roosters, Cowboys. That’s a pretty reasonable representation. Maybe it’s that era that was the fluke.

Has something changed significantly or am I just jealous and jumping at shadows?

Roll on, September.

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