Most seasons see few changes from the top eight from round five to the end of the year but there is good news for the North Queensland Cowboys, who make a habit of starting slow and finishing strong.
With the Telstra Premiership ladder looking almost nothing like most predicted after five rounds, NRL.com Stats takes a look at just how many changes a round five ladder usually experiences compared to which eight teams make the finals at the end of the year.
The numbers show that in four of the past five seasons, six of eight teams inside the top eight after five rounds remain there come finals time. In 2014 there was a whopping 50% changeover, with four of the top eight teams (the Titans, Tigers, Dragons and Eels) after five weeks being replaced through the season (with the Roosters, Rabbitohs, Panthers and Cowboys coming in).
In 2016 it would have been seven of eight that remained the same but a salary cap penalty against the Eels – who won enough games to make the finals – allowed the Titans to sneak into the finals zone.
This year, heavily fancied pre-season tips Melbourne, Cronulla, Brisbane, North Queensland and Parramatta all currently sit outside the eight. History suggests no more than two of those are likely to feature in September although Melbourne, Cronulla and Brisbane are all level with eighth-placed Manly on ladder points, trailing only on differential.
At the other end of the scale, surprise packets like the Warriors, Wests Tigers, Titans and Knights have all exceeded popular expectations to date. The unbeaten Warriors and Dragons can almost certainly guarantee themselves a finals berth with just eight more wins in their final 19 matches.
For the Panthers and Tigers – each a win behind – that number is just nine from 19 – very much an achievable task for all four clubs based on form so far.
This estimate is based on the fact that no team has got to 30 competition points and missed the finals in a 16-team competition. With only one bye per club and 25 rounds in 2018, this number effectively drops two points to 28. The Warriors and Dragons, with a bye in hand, are effectively on 12 points, leaving them requiring just eight wins from 19 games to get to the magical 28 number, although seven wins and 26 points may prove sufficient.
Looking back over the past five years, the Dragons have twice dropped out of the eight from round five onwards – in 2017 and 2014. They've only made the finals once in that time – when they clung to eighth for most of the 2015 season. The other fast starters, Gold Coast, dropped out of the eight after round five in both 2013 and 2014.
The news is all good for North Queensland fans, however. They came from the bottom half of the ladder at the five-week mark to play finals in three straight seasons from 2013-15, including their premiership year, and stayed in the finals zone in 2016 and 2017. You'd be brave to tip against them finding their mojo in a similar style this season.
The only other team to have come from outside the eight more than once in this period is Penrith, who finished strong in 2014 and 2016. They actually also finished strong in 2017; although they were inside the eight after five rounds, they dropped out in round six and didn't get back in until round 22.