It’s an annual September debate in the NRL – is the week off beneficial, or are there more positives to be drawn from playing every week of the finals and maintaining match-fitness and momentum?
This weekend provides another litmus test, with Sydney Roosters and North Queensland starting as narrow favourites in their respective preliminary final showdowns with Brisbane and Melbourne, who progressed straight through to week three of the playoffs with high-quality, hard-fought qualifying final victories.
The Broncos ousted the Cowboys 16-12 in week one, 24 hours after the Storm rolled into Sydney and upset the Roosters 20-18 – yet both of those vanquished teams have the slight edge with the bookies this weekend.
The myriad championship qualities of the Roosters and Cowboys obviously play their part, but the momentum built up from their resounding sudden-death semi-final victories – the Roosters thumped Canterbury 38-12, while the Cowboys were near-perfect in a 39-0 shutout of Cronulla – could be the factor that gets them over the line against their imposing prelim opponents.
Let’s take a look at what recent history tells us about the pros and con of the week off.
Tellingly, the last eight NRL premiers have all sat out week two of the finals – but five of the last six grand final runners-up have done it the hard way, utilising the impetus and confidence of a do-or-die semi win to power through the preliminary final stage.
The stats indicate that at least one of the Broncos or Storm should progress through to the decider. In the eight-team finals series era – encompassing 18 seasons – only twice have both teams that skipped week two been bundled out in the preliminary finals.
In 1999, second-placed Parramatta was run down by Melbourne and minor premiers Cronulla were shocked by St George Illawarra, with the week off apparently backfiring on the Eels and Sharks. Wests Tigers outlasted the premiership-favourite Dragons and the Cowboys whipped the minor premier Eels in the 2005 preliminary finals in an almost identical double-boilover.
But if the last two decades can be used as a guide, it’s just as unlikely that one of the Broncos or Storm will be knocked out this weekend. The sides that received the reward of an automatic preliminary final spot have both qualified for the grand final on only four occasions – in 2001 (Parramatta and Newcastle), 2003 (Penrith and Sydney Roosters), 2007 (Melbourne and Manly) and 2012 (Canterbury and Melbourne).
All told, 16 teams that have earned passage straight through to the preliminary final have failed to get to the grand final.
Going back further to the five-team finals series era, three of six minor premiers between 1989 and ’94 were beaten after being granted the first week of the finals off, while an astonishing four of the six teams in that period who snared the first grand final berth and sat out week three were eventually defeated in the decider.
Whether teams have bounced back from an early finals defeat or have embarked on a sudden-death run from week one of the playoffs, what these patterns tell us is that there is significant merit in playing every week at this time of the year. No team would ever prefer to have to play in that do-or-die week two semi, while there are other obvious benefits, such as resting bodies weary from a long season.
There are also other elements that will influence this weekend’s twin blockbusters, not least of which is the home-ground advantage – which will be magnified by the fact that the hosting Broncos and Storm hail from one-team towns. The Storm have hosted four preliminary finals in Melbourne, winning three. Meanwhile, this will be the Broncos’ maiden preliminary final at Suncorp Stadium, which should be a heaving sell-out of fans baying for Rooster blood.
Brisbane and Melbourne can strike a blow for the positives of the oft-debated week off, but they will need to overcome the ghosts of high-ranking preliminary final losers past and the disruption of a fortnight’s break – not to mention two outstanding opponents – to capitalise on their supposed advantage.