It’s NRL Finals time so this week for ‘Your Edge’ we’re taking a look at how regular-season form against Top 8 counterparts translates into premiership success, whether or not underdogs are much of a chance, and how the games might play out under the new rules.
Defence & Top 8 success v premiership winners
How a team performs against Top 8 opposition throughout the season is always a major talking point around this time of the year. The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks failing to beat a single Top 8 team in 2020 is a major reason – among others – so many have written them off against the Canberra Raiders on Saturday. Defence is a year-long conversation, and for good reason. Only one of the last 14 premiership-winning teams has landed outside the top three in points conceded per game. Eight of the 14 finished first.
So, when putting both aspects together to find the average since 2008 (the red dot above), the Storm, Panthers and Eels are in the best position historically to challenge for the 2020 premiership. The Panthers and Storm have cleaned up against Top 8 teams while playing with the best and second-best defence in the competition this season. Meanwhile, the Eels have performed relatively well in both departments. They were the beneficiaries of playing Nathan Cleary in his first game back and an injury-ravaged Storm side, though.
While they may have been thumped by 52 points last week, the Roosters aren’t far behind and deserve the benefit of the doubt heading into the finals. Their 50% against Top 8 teams in 2020 is also a better mark than what they achieved in their 2018 premiership winning season.
The top and bottom four teams are split as expected. The Sharks are and outlier and in the bottom left quadrant along with the bottom eight teams in the competition. Meanwhile, the Knights, Rabbitohs and Raiders are close enough to the 2015 Cowboys to be hopeful of a fairy tale.
Can the underdogs bite back?
Whether you love or hate the new rules and how the game is being played right now, the blowouts and lack of interest in recent weeks has at times been difficult to watch. We’ve not seen too many big underdogs push top team to finish the season. Will that change now that the finals have arrived?
Underdogs have caused an upset in 33.8% of their games over the last seven seasons. They’ve covered the bookmaker’s line at 51.2% clip. However, those numbers both dip come finals time.
There is no risk of favoured teams coming in underdone or with the expectation that they simply need to turn up to take the chocolates. Good teams get it done more often with underdogs only winning 19 of the 63 finals games since 2013 (30.1%). Favourites tend to make sure of it with dogs only covering the spread in just under half of the 63 games (49.2%).
In a season that seems to throw up a spanner every week, it’s difficult to narrow down just what to expect in the 2020 Finals series. The game overall has changed to the point where numbers from previous seasons are difficult to compare. Per Rugby League Eye Test, the six-again rule introduced in Round 3 has brought with it a 6% increase in time in play. That has created an increase in ‘stuff’, some of which we covered last week. So, with that in mind, it’s difficult to get a clear idea of how elite teams playing against each other in the finals will be different from what we’ve seen in the regular season.
We can anticipate more stuff, but what stuff?
Running metres are one of the simplest numbers we can look at to begin judging a team. It’s no surprise to see six of the eight finals teams inside the top half in the competition in running metres per game. Nor is it a shock that the Panthers top the list. Only one premiership-winning team in the last six seasons has finished outside the top three in running metres per game.
But despite their importance and the fact the cream of the crop rises into finals football, there hasn’t been a significant change in the number to regular season football in past years. The average running metres per game in the regular season of 1,561 metres per game since 2014 rises to just 1,564 metres per game for the finals up to 2019. With numbers up across the board this season due to the introduction of the six-again rule, it will be interesting to see how the top teams continue to adjust and whether or not the overall trend of little difference between regular and postseasons continues.
Completion rates are similar, but not always a great measure of a side. For instance, the Roosters have finished in the bottom four in completion rate in each of the previous three seasons and remain there in 2020 (76.9%). The Bulldogs, meanwhile, completed at a better rate than any club in the competition throughout 2018 and 2019 to finish 12th in both seasons. What makes 2020 interesting is the Panthers sitting at the top of the pile by some distance by completing 82.1% of their sets.
Overall, there is only a minor increase in completion rates – largely explained away by bad teams not playing and more of a focus on building pressure – between regular (76.9%) and postseason (77.8%) footy.
The number of points scored in a game does dip, though. The arm-wrestle drags out for longer in the game. A focus on building pressure and limiting the number of opportunities given to the opposition translates into a more conservative style early. It’s not a minor dip either.
The average number of points scored per game is up to 41.7 points in 2020 following an average of 40.9 points per game from 2014-19. However, only 36.8 points have been scored in finals games in that time. That makes for a 10% decrease for points scored in finals matches to regular-season matches. Will that 10% decrease stick under the new rules?
Importance of possession
Last week we looked at how time in possession influences margins. While not unexpected, the results are clear. When going back five seasons to look at time in possession and margin in finals matches – albeit under different rules – the relationship isn’t nearly as strong.
Fewer points per game overall explain a portion of it. So too does largely top tier defences, as highlighted above, going head-to-head. Teams are more patient in attack and focused in defence leading to tighter low-scoring contests.
But again, will the importance of time in possession throughout the 2020 regular season continue through to the finals? Or will we see a stark difference in the relationship and need to reassess what finals footy looks like after this season should the six-again rule stick through to 2021?