Why the top eight has been decided earlier this season than in NRL history
We're still two months away from finals football but the race for the eight is as good as over.
For the first time in any round since the introduction of the top eight play-off system in 1995, a gap of six competition points separates the eighth-placed team and the team in ninth position.
While Canberra, Wests Tigers and Gold Coast, who are all on 14 points, are still mathematically capable of leapfrogging Brisbane, Cronulla or Sydney Roosters (20 points) on the Telstra Premiership ladder, history – as well as their records this season – tells us the top eight is decided.
All that needs to be resolved in the next nine weeks is the finishing order of the finals teams as St George Illawarra, South Sydney, Penrith, Melbourne, the Warriors, Roosters, Sharks and Broncos battle it out for top four berths.
In 24 seasons since the top eight was introduced as part of an expanded 20-team competition in 1995, the previous biggest margin between the eighth- and ninth-placed teams in any round has been four points.
This has occurred on seven occasions; the most recent being in Round 17 of last season's competition when Penrith began their run from ninth position on 16 points and eventually usurped the Dragons for a place in the finals.
However, there is further evidence that the gulf between the top eight and the remaining teams is greater this year, with the only other season in which the eighth-placed team was on 20 points after Round 16 being Parramatta in 1999.
Remarkably, the gap between the haves and have-nots on the premiership ladder belies the closeness of games, with 75 of the 124 matches played this season decided by 12 points or fewer.
In more than a third of matches, or 47 of 124, the two teams have been separated at full-time by six points or fewer, including five of last weekend's eight round 16 matches – two of which were decided by field goals.
Canberra have incurred five losses by four points or fewer, including last Saturday night's 26-22 defeat by Brisbane, when a win would have put them just two points behind the eighth-placed Broncos. The Raiders also lost 25-18 to competition leaders St George Illawarra in round 11.
Those close losses will prove the difference between playing finals football or preparing for next season for the Raiders and the significance of last weekend's matches was highlighted by Wests Tigers recruitment of Moses Mbye and Robbie Farah before the June 30 transfer deadline.
Other clubs, such as Canterbury, Manly and Parramatta have already begun to restructure their rosters for 2019 and expect to see more player movement ahead of next season in coming weeks by teams outside the top eight.
Usually State of Origin is considered a leveller of the competition, with the top teams supplying the bulk of the players to the NSW and Queensland teams, but this season it has had little impact.
The only team from outside the top eight to beat a top-eight team since the Origin period began, after Round 12, was Manly who defeated Penrith 18-10 last Saturday.
Since the teams for the opening Holden State of Origin match were selected, the Panthers have had a 23-22 win over Canberra and lost to the Roosters and Sea Eagles to boast the worst record of any top-eight team during the past month. A loss to the Warriors on Friday night will see Penrith slip out of the top four.
The Denver Test also had little impact, with New Zealand representatives Leeson Ah Mau (Dragons), Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (Roosters), Ken Maumalo (Warriors) and Raymond Faitala-Mariner (Bulldogs) the only players to miss round 16 games.
NSW second rowers Tyson Frizell (Dragons) and Boyd Cordner (Roosters), and Queensland's Felise Kaufusi (Storm) also did not play for their clubs last weekend.
While the top eight teams are all but decided, there is no clear premiership favourite at this stage.
St George Illawarra have been at the top of the ladder all season and can lay claim to being the most consistent team but they have also been fortunate with injuries and suspensions.
The Dragons, who are on 26 points, play Melbourne at AAMI Park on Thursday night but face only two other top-eight teams – the Roosters and Warriors – in their remaining eight matches.
Second-placed Souths (24 points) play the Storm, Roosters and Broncos in the run home, while the Roosters face St George Illawarra, South Sydney and Brisbane.
Penrith and the Warriors meet each other twice before the end of the season, while the Panthers also play Cronulla, Brisbane and Melbourne. The Warriors other opponents include the Broncos, Storm and Dragons.
Melbourne (22 points) play St George Illawarra, the Warriors, Roosters, Sharks and Panthers, while Brisbane's other top eight opponents are the Warriors, Panthers, Sharks, Roosters and Rabbitohs.
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