NRL Premiership Predictor: What actually wins you a premiership?

Defence wins premierships. Or so they say… Can a side win with a first-year halves combo? Do you actually need to be in good form to lift the trophy?

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Picture credit: Chris Hyde

There have been some remarkable rugby league grand finals over the past decade. Some have been dominant like the Dragons all-conquering 2010 campaign, while others have been by the narrowest of margins; Cowboys in 2015 anyone? There have been drought breakers for Cronulla and Souths, and fanciful final runs like the Eels in 2009. The question is – what do these sides all have in common?

With just one round remaining, we’ve analysed every premier and runner-up over the past decade to predict who is in with the best shot at the title in Season 2018. The answers, are not what you might think. 

Defence wins premierships. Or so they say

Plenty in the know will tell you that defence wins you a premiership, but how true is that statement?

In actual fact, the best defensive sides boast a less than impressive 50% success rate in grand finals over the past decade. Cronulla (2016), the Cowboys (2015), Storm (2009*) and Manly (2011 & 2008) have all won the premiership despite not having the most watertight defence that year. Remarkably, the Cowboys managed their breakthrough premiership in 2015 despite having the worst defensive record of the top four, suggesting that a stone wall mindset isn’t everything in rugby league.

Best defence in 2018: Melbourne Storm.

*Technically, nobody won the premiership in 2009 after the Storm were stripped of the title for salary cap breaches. 

Minor Premiership a poisoned chalice

You would think finishing the regular season on top of the premiership ladder would put you in good stead to take out the competition but history says otherwise. Not only do minor premiers rarely lift the Provan-Summons trophy, they actually make the grand final far less than you might assume. In the last decade, only three minor premiers have gone on to claim premiership rings – that was Melbourne in 2017, the Roosters in 2013 and the Dragons in 2010. On three other occasions, the regular season table-toppers have made the grand final (Melbourne in 2016 and 2008, and the Bulldogs in 2012) only to fall at the final hurdle. It all suggests that the top of the ladder is not where you want to finish come season’s end.

Minor Premier 2018: Failing an absolute miracle it looks like Melbourne will claim their 4th minor premiership on Friday night.

New halves? No problem

Pundits always proclaim that new combinations need time to gel and in theory that sounds a reasonable assumption. In reality, though, first-year half combinations have a remarkably good record in leading their side to a grand final appearance. Of the last ten grand finals, half of those games have featured a first-year halves pairing with some fair combinations amongst them; James Maloney and Mitchell Pearce led the Roosters to victory in 2013, Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry Evans managed the feat in 2011 while Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary did it most recently for Souths in 2014. 

First-year halves combinations in 2018: Melbourne (Cameron Munster – Brodie Croft), Roosters (Cooper Cronk – Luke Keary), Dragons (Gareth Widdop – Ben Hunt), Cronulla (Matt Moylan – Chad Townsend), Panthers (Nathan Cleary – James Maloney)

Form may be temporary but is class permanent?

Very few sides enter this year’s finals with a solid form line. Minor premiership contenders the Storm, Roosters and Souths have all faltered and lets not even start on the Dragon’s capitulation. The big question is does any of that really matter? The short answer is no. Over the past decade, only one side has finished the regular season with five-straight wins and lifted the premiership trophy. That was the Melbourne Storm in 2012, who then repeated the effort in 2017.

Since then, most premiers have finished the regular season with no more than three wins in their final five. Cronulla claimed the 2016 title having tasted victory only once in their final five matches. It proves that the good sides need not finish the season in good form. Once September rolls around, genuine contenders switch on and manufacture premiership runs even when their end-of-year form hasn’t been great. There isn’t a single team in 2018 who can finish the year with five-straight. The best any top eight team can achieve is four wins, and that’s if one of the Sharks or Warriors can claim victory in the final round of the season. 

Sides currently sitting on 3/5 wins: Cronulla and the Warriors

The Premiership verdict

It’s been one of the closest run top-eights in recent memory and with one round of the regular season remaining, just four points separate top of the ladder from eighth position.  Winning the competition outside of the top four is almost impossible and became more difficult when the NRL gave the top four sides a second-bite at the cherry in 2012. That leaves us with four genuine contenders – Melbourne, the Roosters, Souths and the Sharks. 

Of those sides, Melbourne has a black mark against their name having taken out the Minor Premiership (maybe the Roosters and Rabbitohs were avoiding top spot after reading this article!). Following extensive player movement over the pre-preseason, it would be a shock if a first-year halves combination didn’t lead their side to victory. As it stands, the Rabbitohs are the only top-four side to boast a halves combination more than a year old. Taking all of that into account, there are really only two sides that can give the title a genuine run based on historical trends:

The side already sitting on 3/5 wins; the Sharks, and the second-best defence in the competition; the Roosters. 

Out of those two, it’s anyone’s guess!

Which club has the best chance at the 2018 premiership in your eyes? Let us know in the poll and comments below.

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