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Stats Insider: Last teams standing

Stats Insider, NRL.com Thu, Mar 28, 2013 - 3:45 PM

If Melbourne are the last team to taste defeat in 2013, perhaps their fans should start thinking about Grand Final day. Copyright: NRL Photos

We are just three rounds into the season and only two teams, Melbourne and South Sydney, remain undefeated. It shows not only the quality of the two clubs and their rosters but also their ability to hit the ground running; plus it reinforces the value of the Craig Bellamy and Michael Maguire style of coaching. Interesting they worked together for some time huh… Should we be thinking about the two teams meeting at the end of the year for all the marbles?

All fans want their team to keep winning. We’d obviously take an undefeated season with a premiership any year if we could get it. But that hasn’t happened since the St George Dragons won 17 and drew one regular season game in 1959 before taking out the premiership with a finals win and a 20-0 shut-out of Manly in the big one. 

This week I found myself reminiscing about one of the most tumultuous years in rugby league history. I had left my stats brain behind and was just contemplating how far the game has come since 1995 when Super League made its public appearance (or not so public given the clandestine attempts to sign clubs and players) and changed the sport forever. But as is often the case with me, my mind quickly drifted back to numbers and trends and I remembered how Manly started that season with 15 straight wins, even amongst the drama. What an amazing effort. 

Then I dwelt on why it was that the Sea Eagles, such an awesome team in 1995, ’96 and ’97, only won one premiership in the period. So I thought… how have the last undefeated teams in each season fared? 

And so we return to the 2013 Storm and Rabbitohs. Can either, or both, journey through this year without a loss? More importantly, which will suffer their first defeat later than the other? Why? Because over the past 25 seasons the final undefeated team in a year has gone on to win the premiership six times – or almost a quarter of the time. 

(There is a small argument to say seven times, given Melbourne in 2010 were the last team standing undefeated before losing their points and the ability to play for more. If you dismiss them, then St George Illawarra, the eventual premiers, were part of the undefeated crew sans Melbourne.) 

There have also been eight minor premierships awarded to the last-standing undefeated team in a season.

Before you say – doesn’t that mean about 75 per cent of these teams haven’t won a comp and therefore we should lose first, remember: this is essentially pitting one team (the longest undefeated) against the rest which was anywhere between 13 and 19 other teams depending on the season. So a 25 per cent return is pretty healthy!

The great news for South Sydney and Melbourne is that only eight teams over the past 25 years have been the last undefeated side and then missed the finals – and four of those happened between 1988-1992 meaning just four teams have missed the finals in the past 20 years after a red-hot start. 

Also, 59 of the 106 winners in the history of the game (includes the 1997 Super League season and the two premierships won and then taken away from Melbourne) were undefeated after Round 3. That’s more than 55 per cent of rugby league champions here in this country. 

One of the four teams in the past 20 years to freefall was the aforementioned 2010 Storm team, so odds are heavily in the Bunnies and Storm fans’ favour to start buying finals tickets!
Last season Melbourne won nine games before tasting defeat, finished second on the ladder, and then fired in the finals to take the premiership. 

Other teams to win were the 2007 Storm side (yes I am aware it has since been stripped) who opened with seven wins; the 2000 Broncos (seven wins, one draw); 1998 Broncos (five wins); 1997 Super League Broncos (seven wins); and the 1991 Panthers (six wins, one draw). 

All but last year’s Melbourne side were also minor premiers in those seasons. 

The 2004 Roosters (three wins), 1999 Sharks (six wins), 1997 ARL Sea Eagles (seven wins) and the 1995 Sea Eagles (15 wins) won minor premierships but failed to win the big one. 

Obviously that scandalised Melbourne team was the worst-hit in terms of freefalls after a hot start; but outside of them, the worst slide goes to the 2005 Canberra Raiders who opened with five straight wins, only to plummet to 14th that year, or second last, with just nine wins – or four from their last 19. 

Manly’s streak of 15 wins in 1995 is the hottest start in the past 25 seasons, followed by the 1996 Roosters who opened with 10 wins and the 2012 Storm’s nine wins. 
Four times in the last nine years the best undefeated mark was just three wins… is that reason enough to get on the Bulldogs and Broncos to knock over Souths and Melbourne this week?

And just to balance this column… Dragons and Warriors fans, if you weren’t already thinking this year is a goner, here’s some bad news: Only two teams in the history of this game in Australia have come back from a 0-3 start to win a premiership. The first was the 1933 Newtown team and the last was in 1953 when South Sydney came back from an early slump to take all the marbles. 

The 1933 Newtown team actually lost their opening four games but were able to storm home with a wet sail after the Kangaroos headed to England by boat five rounds into the year. This stripped the better sides of their best talent, giving the Bluebags a nice leg-up. 

In 2013, both the Dragons and Warriors can at least point to recent history as something to bring hope. The Warriors went 0-3 in 2011 and made a run all the way to the grand final. And St George Illawarra’s 2005 side showed real fight after starting poorly. 

Only six sides since the NRL formed in 1998 have managed to resurrect their year to be in the finals after starting with three losses. If that isn’t scary enough, four of those six teams were bundled out of the playoffs in the first week. 

The Dragons managed to finish tied on top of the table but second on percentages in 2005 but even they failed when they were bundled out of the competition a week before the grand final by the underdog Wests Tigers.

Manly in 2009 (finished fifth but were knocked out in Week One); Brisbane in 2007 (finished eighth and were hammered in Week One); Melbourne in 2000 (finished sixth but knocked out Week One); and Brisbane again in 1999 (finished eighth but were knocked out Week One) are the only other sides to have ever turned things around from an awful opening to the year since 1998.

Perhaps the gilded lily can be found in the fact the ’99 Broncos, ’00 Storm, ’05 Dragons and ’09 Sea Eagles actually started 0-4… so maybe another week of sub-standard performance is okay?

By the way – those teams with just one win aren’t looking so great for the premiership either. Only nine teams have won the premiership from 1-2 records (1944 Balmain, 1947 Balmain, 1955 Rabbitohs, 1975 Roosters, 1989 Raiders, 1993 Broncos, 2002 Roosters, 2003 Panthers, 2008 Sea Eagles); two have won from 1-1 and a bye (1985 Bulldogs, 2005 Wests Tigers); and three have gone on to win with a 1-1-1 record (1966 Dragons, 1973 Sea Eagles, 2001 Knights). 

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Last undefeated teams in a season
2012: Melbourne (9 wins). Regular Season: 2nd. After Finals: Premiers
2011: Canterbury (3 wins). Regular Season: 9th 
2010: Melbourne* (4 wins). Regular Season: 16th. 
2009: Brisbane (3 wins). Regular Season: 6th. After Finals: 4th.
2008: Brisbane (3 wins). Regular Season: 5th. After Finals: 5th. 
2007: Melbourne** (7 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: Premiers.
2006: North Queensland (6 wins). Regular Season: 9th.
2005: Canberra (5 wins). Regular Season: 14th. 
2004: Roosters (3 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premiers. After Finals: 2nd. 
2003: Canberra (8 wins). Regular Season: 4th. After Finals: 5th. 
2002: Brisbane (8 wins, 1 draw). Regular Season: 3rd. After Finals: 3rd.
2001: Canterbury (4 wins, 1 draw). Regular Season: 2nd. After Finals: 5th. 
2000: Brisbane (7 wins, 1 draw). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: Premiers.
1999: Cronulla (6 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: 3rd. 
1998: Brisbane (5 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: Premiers; Newcastle (5 wins). Regular Season: 2nd. After Finals: 5th. 
1997 ARL: Manly (7 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: 2nd. 
1997 SL: Brisbane (7 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: Premiers.
1996: Roosters (10 wins). Regular Season: 4th. After Finals: 6th. 
1995: Manly (15 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: 2nd. 
1994: North Sydney (7 wins). Regular Season: 2nd. After Finals: 3rd.
1993: St George (6 wins). Regular Season: 2nd. After Finals: 2nd; North Sydney (5 wins, 1 draw). Regular Season: =5th. After Finals: 6th. 
1992: Roosters (5 wins). Regular Season: 6th; Newcastle (4 wins, 1 draw). Regular Season: 4th. After Finals: 4th. 
1991: Penrith (6 wins, 1 draw). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: Premiers.
1990: Cronulla (4 wins). Regular Season: 10th. 
1989: Parramatta (4 wins). Regular Season: 8th. 
1988: Brisbane (6 wins). Regular Season: 7th. 

* Points stripped for salary cap breaches. St George Illawarra (3 wins). Regular Season: Minor Premier. After Finals: Premier. Gold Coast (3 wins). Regular Season: 4th. After Finals: 4th. 

** 2007 Premiership was later stripped for salary cap breaches.