As a dedicated stats man, I love a good trend. And at the beginning of a new season it is always fun to dig out some numbers, play around with them a bit, and try to come up with indicators for the season ahead.
Now tipping finalists and winners this far out in this business is akin to trying to bring down Greg Inglis at full speed… near impossible! But there are certainly trends to be aware of.
One of the beautiful things about the NRL in recent times has been the movement of sides from one year to the next. In the past four seasons just the one club – the Manly Sea Eagles – has qualified for finals football each year.
In fact, every single club has played in the finals over the past four years, so all fans (barring those aged under four) have been around to at least witness their crew have a crack at the business end of proceedings.
But who should we expect to be there this season?
Well, the numbers suggest half of the top eight sides will be different from last year.
Over the past five seasons, at least four teams that played in September or October have failed to qualify the following season, giving all fans plenty of hope before a ball is kicked.
That’s right. Half of the 2012 top eight can be expected to return in 2013 – and half can expect a year of sadness. (In fact, in 2010, it was a whopping five teams that failed to back up, leaving the average over the past five years just a tad over four sides.)
Last year’s top eight sides were Melbourne, Manly, Brisbane, Canterbury, Cronulla, Canberra, North Queensland and South Sydney. As a fan of one of these sides, are you confident they will stay, or will they be one of the four (or more) likely to drop out of the running?
Manly coach Geoff Toovey claims the statistics prove just how even the competition is and points to club culture as the reason the Sea Eagles have been the only club to achieve ongoing success in recent years.
Toovey says the Sea Eagles have been lucky to have plenty of players prepared to lead by example over the past five years, setting in place a standard that has seen the 2008 and 2011 NRL trophies locked in their cabinet.
“The main component is having the right environment and I think we have that here at Manly,” Toovey tells NRL.com. “That culture that we have at the club is very contagious. You may lose a player or two every year but that culture stays here and when you maintain a few senior players the culture is inbred into them and passed on to the other players. Good culture breeds successful teams.”
Former Manly coach Des Hasler has obviously instilled a great culture at Belmore just one year into his tenure – but despite his being at the helm, Bulldogs fans must be nervous, particularly given the uncertainty surrounding Ben Barba’s immediate playing future.
Worryingly for the blue-and-white faithful, the last two times the Bulldogs qualified for the finals, they went into inexplicable freefall the following season. In 2007, they were finalists but were wooden spooners in 2008. They bounced back to finish second in the regular season of 2009, only to fall to 13th in 2010.
Considering Barba scored 22 tries for the Bulldogs last year and made 23 try assists, 27 line-breaks and 22 line-break assists, his absence has the potential to trigger another slide.
Of the Bulldogs' 110 tries scored last season, Barba either dotted down or directly created 45 of them – that’s a staggering 40.9 per cent of all their scoring plays!
Barba also made, or directly created, 49 of the Bulldogs’ 138 line-breaks.
The Raiders are another side that traditionally fail to back up one good year with another: finals football in 2008 was followed by a 13th-place finish in 2009. And a playoffs appearance in 2010 was followed by 15th in 2011. So where will they end up after playing finals football in 2012?
South Sydney made the finals in 2007 but couldn’t back it up in 2008. Cronulla made the finals in 2008 but not in 2009. Will they each continue the trend, or buck it?
Stats Insider thinks the Dogs will be fine – providing Barba isn’t missing for too long.
If four sides were to drop out this season, surely the teams most under pressure are the Broncos and Raiders... and perhaps it is Manly’s time for a spell, if for no other reason than they are the only team not to have had one in recent times!
But obviously Toovey disagrees. He is adamant their deep culture will help see the boys from Brookvale back amongst it.
“We have the roster to do it again. We have a great group of guys... the culture is still strong, so there is no reason why we can’t be there at the end of September,” Toovey says.
“In general it’s a very tight competition, and the salary cap system seems to work in that regard, but we are fortunate at Manly we have the systems in place to stay consistent – and I won’t be complaining when we beat the odds of these stats again!”
And what of the eight sides that weren’t in the playoff run last year? Which four appear most likely to jump up?
You have to like the look of the Sydney Roosters following their impressive recruitment drive. Adding Sonny Bill Williams, Michael Jennings, James Maloney and Luke O’Donnell to a side certainly can’t hurt finals prospects.
The Newcastle Knights have had a full year under Wayne Bennett now. Remember, it was year two at the Dragons when Bennett took the Red V all the way to the trophy.
The Wests Tigers and Warriors each have new coaches and a new direction and attitude to how they do business. Will this be the catalysts to their resurgence?
The Gold Coast Titans lost veteran skipper Scott Prince but they welcome colossus Dave Taylor into the mix.
The Dragons… well, they’ve lost some stalwarts and have a coach under pressure but if Jamie Soward gets hot and they can find some attacking football spark to go with defensive steel, then the finals are not beyond the realms of possibility.
And the western Sydney boys from Penrith and Parramatta have started a rebuilding campaign that could bear early fruit, given the plethora of junior talent and passion now injected into their clubs.
Bring it on!
NRL finalists who failed to back up
2007-08: 4 teams (Rabbitohs, Bulldogs, Eels, Cowboys)
2008-09: 4 teams (Warriors, Raiders, Roosters, Sharks)
2009-10: 5 teams (Bulldogs, Storm, Broncos, Knights, Eels)
2010-11: 4 teams (Panthers, Titans, Roosters, Raiders)
2011-12: 4 teams (Wests Tigers, Dragons, Warriors, Knights)