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In another indication of the salary cap evening out success, at least three new sides will contest the 2011 finals series if recent history is anything to go by.

Since the inception of the NRL in 1998 an average of three of the teams who played in September or October have failed to re-qualify the following season for the push to the title, giving all fans plenty of hope before a ball is kicked.

Unlike some of the other sports leagues around the world such as English soccer or Major League Baseball in the USA, every club can come into the new scheduled year with legitimate optimism.

Just last year the giant-killing Roosters went from the wooden spoon to just one win away from ultimate glory.

Who will be this year’s fairytale?

Of course, the above-mentioned stat also means five of last year’s finalists should end up fighting for the premiership once more.

During the past 12 seasons there has always been at least three sides backing up a finals appearance with another – and in one particular season seven of eight returned to the finals. (In fact in that season, 2002, it would have been all eight sides had the Bulldogs not been caught rorting the salary cap.)

Last season was the ‘worst’ on record since the NRL formed for top-eight teams backing up; only St George Illawarra, the Gold Coast and Manly managed to turn a decent 2009 into another finals appearance.

Last year’s top eight sides were St George Illawarra, Penrith, Wests Tigers, Gold Coast, Warriors, Roosters, Canberra and Manly. As a fan of one of these sides, are you confident they will stay or will they be one of the three (or more) likely to drop back out of the running?

The Dragons, Roosters and Wests Tigers have plenty of admirers amongst the experts already… is the noose tightening on some of the other five?

This leaves South Sydney, Brisbane, Newcastle, Parramatta, Canterbury, North Queensland, Cronulla and Melbourne vying for the three ‘open’ spots.

Let’s dissect the history and see if we can’t come up with a crystal ball prediction or two…

The Storm, who finished last in 2010, should obviously remain very upbeat about their chances to play in the finals. Since 1998, five wooden spoon sides have bounced back to play in the finals the following season. The Bulldogs finished last in 2002 before playing in the 2003 finals, Newcastle went from last in 2005 to the 2006 semis, South Sydney bounced back from a horror 2006 to play finals in 2007, the Bulldogs went from last in 2008 to the final four of 2009, and of course the Roosters last year went all the way to the grand final despite being dead last in 2009. Despite having lost a lot of talent through the salary cap scandal, don’t be surprised to see another big run from the team holding the spoon.

The Cowboys, having finished second last in 2010, can also take a little heart from the recent past – but not as much as the Storm can. Two sides – the Warriors from 2000-2001 and Canberra 2005-2006 – each turned a second last-place finish into a finals appearance 12 months later. With a fully fit Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen, plus some added steel from Dallas Johnson, there is some quiet confidence up north.

The Sharks, who were third last in 2010, can also look to three other teams for inspiration. In 2004 Manly were third last and made the finals in 2005, the 2007 Raiders claimed third last before playing finals football in 2008 and last season the Warriors backed up a third-last finish in 2009 with a finals appearance. Cronulla have recruited young Wade Graham in the halves and grand final winner Jeremy Smith to the pack, while coach Shane Flanagan has had his first off-season. Don’t write them off yet.

Canterbury, who finished fourth last in 2010, is in what we are prepared to declare the ‘golden’ spot and WILL make the finals this season. Eight times in the past 12 seasons the team finishing fourth last one season have made the finals the year after, with Penrith even winning a competition and Parramatta and Penrith claiming a minor premiership. The Bulldogs (2000-2001) Canberra (2001-2002), Penrith (2002-2003), Parramatta (2004-2005), Bulldogs (2005-2006), St George Illawarra (2007-2008), Gold Coast (2008-2009) and Canberra (2009-2010) have all made lemonade out of the lemons. With new signings Frank Pritchard, Greg Eastwood and Trent Hodkinson joining the kennel this season the Bulldogs have ‘bounce back’ written all over them.

Parramatta, who finished fifth from last in 2010, can only draw precedent from two sides – the Cowboys from 2003-2004, and Cronulla who made the move in 2005 after a poor 2004. But despite this, Eels fans are expecting a new, hard-nosed attitude delivered courtesy of incoming coach Stephen Kearney. But will it be enough for them to beat the odds and move up into the top echelon again?

Newcastle, sixth last in 2010, will seek to emulate St George Illawarra (2000-2001 and 2003-2004), Melbourne (2002-2003), Warriors (2006-2007), Cronulla (2007-2008), Parramatta (2008-2009) and Penrith (2009-2010). Considering Parramatta went all the way to the grand final in 2009 and the Panthers finished second on the table before injuries cruelled their run last year, the Knights have every reason to be optimistic. This is a prolific position in terms of success rate, so the Novocastrians can’t be discounted.

Brisbane and South Sydney were both just a win (and some differential) away from a finals berth in 2010 and they can take heart knowing that 12 of 19 teams since 1998 who missed the finals by a win or less turned the following season into a successful one. The Broncos have had some upheaval in the coaching ranks but seem to be a little more settled now it’s over and the Rabbitohs, with Greg Inglis on board, really should be up amongst the contenders at season’s end.

(For the record your Stats Insider thinks the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs, Storm and/or Cowboys will come in and the Warriors, Raiders, Panthers and/or Sea Eagles will fall out.)

Teams Who Failed To Back-Up A Finals Appearance:
1998-99: 3 teams (Manly, Canberra, Norths)
1999-00: 2 teams (St George Illawarra, Canterbury)
2000-01: 3 teams (Melbourne, Penrith, Canberra)
2001-02: 1 team (Bulldogs)
2002-03: 3 teams (St George Illawarra, Parramatta, Cronulla)
2003-04: 2 teams (Newcastle, Warriors)
2004-05: 4 teams (Canberra, Penrith, Bulldogs, Roosters)
2005-06: 3 teams (Wests Tigers, North Queensland, Cronulla)
2006-07: 3 teams (Canberra, St George Illawarra, Newcastle)
2007-08: 4 teams (Souths, Bulldogs, Parramatta, North Queensland)
2008-09: 4 teams (Warriors, Canberra, Roosters, Cronulla)
2009-10: 5 teams (Bulldogs, Melbourne, Brisbane, Newcastle, Parramatta)