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As the 2011 NRL competition ladder splits into the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, and the Origin period gets towards its exciting climax, each club’s focus turns to the ‘magic number’.

Each week club statisticians trundle through truckloads of data, showing players and coaching staff important trends and figures they’ve discovered that will not only improve their team’s performance but also weaknesses in their opposition. The trainers are checking off numbers also – how much weight is Darren Lockyer lifting this week? How far did Brett Stewart run this week? The bundles of data are all very important – but they’re not the magic numbers.

At this time of year, as we get closer to the ‘glory bound’ rounds (from Round 21), all 16 clubs sit down and crunch the numbers to predict exactly how many points it will take to make the top eight. Will it be 26, 28, 29 or 30? Or will it be as low as 24? Or as high as 32? Whatever the answer, that’s the magic number!

Since the NRL formed in 1998, the last side in the finals has posted somewhere between those last two figures (24 and 32); and once again this range looks likely to contain the magic number.

Last season the Manly Sea Eagles were the last team into the finals on 28 points. They split their games 12 and 12 and with the two byes, 28 became the number.

But it is important to remember the Melbourne Storm were stripped of all their points. If they had kept them, they would have been in the finals and the cut-off mark would have been the Raiders, with a 13-11 record and 30 points.

Parramatta came into the finals in 2009 on 29 competition points but the year before the Warriors needed 30. But… back in 2007, the Broncos posted just 24 to get a shot at the premiership.

In the five seasons between 2002-2006 the competition had 15 teams and the cut-offs were 25, 28, 26, 28 and 28 points.

A good rule of thumb for clubs is to split their season’s wins and losses down the middle. With two byes, 12 wins and 12 losses, a side would finish the season on 28 competition points.

In the 13 NRL seasons to date, the last team in the finals has won more than they lost four times, they’ve broken even on six occasions, and limped in with a negative win-loss ratio on three occasions.

So, should the teams this season be once again looking at 28 as the number? With the big void from the current top five to the rest, it is possible 26 could get it done… but who wants to be relying on getting in with a losing record? No-one! So using 28 as the mark, who is going to get there?

Melbourne (24 points): With two points certain from a bye to come the Storm need to win just one more game from the final 10 to make the number.
Verdict: Obviously they will be in the finals. They have six matches against teams outside the top eight in the run home and are just about certainties for top-four honours. In with a big shot at the minor premiership, which could be decided in Rounds 24 and 25 when they play Dragons and then Manly.

Manly (24 points): Like the Storm the Sea Eagles have a bye to come so just one more win should be enough… two to be certain.
Verdict: Lock it up, they’re in! Even if they fall in the big grudge match against the Dragons on Monday night the Sea Eagles then get the bye. From there they have five matches against teams currently outside the eight. Between Rounds 21-25 they have four of five games at home. They’re a massive chance of clinching the minor premiership if they win this Monday night. Will be top four for sure.

St George Illawarra (23 points): The draw against the Eels has given the Dragons an odd number, which will probably take for-and-against out of their equation. They have a bye but will need two other wins from the remaining 10 games to be in with a shot of defending their title.
Verdict: Put your house on it. The Dragons might not have won since May but they will be in the thick of it come September. Starting Monday they have a run of three straight home games… in fact seven of 10 are at home. Half of the games are against teams outside the top eight. If they can beat Manly and Melbourne in the run home they may just grab a third straight minor premiership.

North Queensland (22 points): A bye in hand means two wins should be enough to get it done, although they have higher honours in mind after a few lean years.
Verdict: With six of their 10 games against teams outside the top eight the Cowboys should do it on their ear. In terms of their chances at top two or top four, the next few weeks are crucial. They have to take on a Panthers side with a new coach (teams usually lift in these situations) and after the bye they face the Knights and Wests Tigers, two fringe top-eight teams. If they negotiate these games they’ll be well on their way to hosting a semi-final in Queensland.

Brisbane (22 points): Just like the Cowboys they have a bye in hand, meaning just two wins is all that stands between them and a return to the finals.
Verdict: Think about the finals people! The Broncos are on their way back! But their draw is harder than the four teams ahead of them, which means a top-four finish might be a little tougher for them to muster; although they should be able to lock up fifth place without trouble. They play three of the four sides above them, meaning they could effectively make a charge higher. They also have match-ups with current top-eight sides the Warriors and Knights.

Wests Tigers (16 points): With a bye in hand next week the Wests Tigers need only aim at five wins from 10.
Verdict: The Tigers would have to be very disappointed if they don’t make it. They play the Eels twice, the Roosters, the Panthers, the Titans and the Sharks. If they can’t get five wins out of those games they don’t deserve to be fighting for the title.

Warriors (16 points): Again, thanks to a bye in hand the Warriors know winning half their remaining 10 games should see them with a chance to redeem last year’s early finals exit.
Verdict: Not an easy run but they should get it done. The next five games (around their bye) are critical for the Warriors. They have three home games in a row against Melbourne, the Titans and the Bulldogs before a trip to South Sydney and a return home against Canberra. If they can jag four of the five in this period they’ll be looking great. If they can’t, they’ll be under pressure – especially with the Dragons (away) and Cowboys (home) as their final two games.

Newcastle (16 points): The seven top sides all had a bye in hand – but not so for the next eight. The Knights sit eighth now but they need to win six of their remaining 11 to give themselves a comfortable figure.
Verdict: They’ll be right on the edge. The Knights have to take advantage of seven of those 11 games being played at home. They need to win this week against the Roosters and are also fortunate to get the Dragons without Origin players. That game is the start of a brutal three-game run against the Dragons, Cowboys and Sea Eagles. If they only jag one win in the next month they will be forced to win five of seven down the stretch. Tough but doable.

Bulldogs (16 points): No byes left means this under-pressure unit need six from 11 wins to be in with a chance.
Verdict: They can do it but need to get over their current dramas quickly… Running the thumb over current form, they’re gone. They only have five games left against sides below them, so they have to win all of those and then give other contenders a beating also. This week against the Tigers could be the guiding light to which way they’ll go. A win and they could be on their way... a loss and?

Penrith (14 points): Can the Panthers shake off the hasty departure of Matt Elliott and win seven of their final 11 games? That’s what they’ll need.
Verdict: Will likely make an early dash but run out of steam. Steve Georgallis will look like a wonder coach if he can manufacture a win against the Cowboys this week and then take care of the Bulldogs, Roosters and Eels in successive weeks. This is a totally attainable goal and will bring their equation back to needing just three wins from seven games. Sadly, getting those last three would be hard as they hit the Sea Eagles (home), Cowboys (away), Storm (away), Tigers (home), Warriors (home), Raiders (away) and Dragons (away).

South Sydney (14 points): Like the Panthers, the Bunnies need to find a way to win seven of their last 11.
Verdict: They are the side most likely to make a run from outside the top eight. But it all starts this week against the Broncos in Perth. The Rabbitohs need to continue momentum from their defeat of the Titans and get going. Then, with a match against a Paul Gallen-less Sharks and games against the Roosters (home), Warriors (home), Eels (home), Raiders (away) all winnable (we have counted losses to Manly and Dragons away from home), the Bunnies could need just one win from their final three games. Shame those are tough outings against the Cowboys (home), Broncos (away) and Knights (away).

Parramatta (13 points): The odd point means eight from 11 will ensure a finals berth without for-and-against coming into play.
Verdict: Unbelievably Eels fans, your dream is not over! The Eels have a very favourable draw in the run home and could indeed make a miracle run similar to their streak in 2009. They play six games against teams outside the eight and get to take on the Broncos, Wests Tigers, Melbourne and Manly all at home. Have a sneaky look at their odds to make the eight… if you get value, maybe have a crack.

Cronulla (12 points): They need eight from 11 and some nice for-and-against shifts.
Verdict: Sorry Shire fans, you’re done. The draw for the Sharks isn’t actually super tough; their next three games are against teams outside the eight, and they have a further three in the run home. But they just don’t have the cattle to win them all and also jag others against the top teams.

Sydney Roosters (12 points): Another lacklustre side needing an improbable eight from 11 in the run home.
Verdict: What a distant memory 2010 must be! If the Roosters were in last year’s form you’d give them a hope, as six games are against teams outside the eight and they also play Newcastle and the Wests Tigers who are far from entrenched. There’s your eight games right there. But they haven’t shown even a glimpse of their 2010 form. Stick a fork in them – they’re done.

Canberra (10 points): A favourite early on in premiership discussions, the Raiders need to win nine from 11 games.
Verdict: You’re kidding, right? It’s a real shame they are this far back because eight of their final 11 games are against teams outside the top eight and they get to play the Storm and Dragons in Canberra. If they had Campese you might pray for a miracle. But they don’t, so it’s already time to think about 2012.

Gold Coast (10 points): They have a bye to come so need to win eight of their final 10 games.
Verdict: Tell ’em they’re dreaming! After this week’s home game against the Sharks they have the bye, but then have four away games from their next five outings and the home match is against the Cowboys. Forget it; no miracle here.

1998: 26 points – 13 wins, 11 losses.
1999: 32 points – 13 wins, 9 losses, 2 draws, 2 byes.
2000: 26 points – 13 wins, 13 losses.
2001: 26 points – 12 wins, 12 losses, 2 draws.
2002: 25 points – 10 wins, 13 losses, 1 draw, 2 byes.
2003: 28 points – 12 wins, 12 losses, 2 byes.
2004: 26 points – 11 wins, 13 losses, 2 byes.
2005: 28 points – 12 wins, 12 losses, 2 byes.
2006: 28 points – 12 wins, 12 losses, 2 byes.
2007: 24 points – 11 wins, 13 losses, 1 bye.
2008: 30 points – 13 wins, 11 losses, 2 byes.
2009: 29 points – 12 wins, 11 losses, 1 draw, 2 byes.
2010: 28 points – 12 wins, 12 losses, 2 byes.

Average: 27.4 points.