How difficult is it to predict the NRL Premiership winner?
Some would suggest that it’s quite simple. They theorise that you can shortlist teams boasting a high number of representative level players and that history supports such a theory.
A study of recent NRL premiers makes for interesting analysis.
In 2018, the Roosters boasted a grand final squad that defied the impact that the salary cap has on most clubs. Nine of the starting team had Origin or International honours on their resume. Of those that didn’t, Keary and Manu went on to play test football after the season was completed.
Even the Roosters bench contained three players with a representative background. Of the three players still without higher honours, Radley is arguably a future certainty, Matterson has played for City and Aubusson is one of the true quality utility players in the NRL.
The success of the Bondi outfit supports the importance of assembling a squad of high quality players. For that to be close to all of your Top 17 is quite a feat to achieve.
To add weight to this method of achieving success, the previous two Premiership winning teams have been similarly gifted.
The 2017 Storm team trotted out an eerily similar number of representative players in their winning grand final team. Nine of their starting 13 went into the match with Origin or International experience, with another two sitting on the bench.
Like the Roosters, another two starters – Addo Carr and McLean – would go on to higher honours. Impressively, the other two bench players – Asofa-Solomona and Griffin – later represented New Zealand.
The numbers become impossible to deny when you examine the 2016 premiers, the Sharks. Wait for it … their starting grand final team also boasted nine players with Origin or International experience. How many later achieved that honour? Yes, it was two with Holmes and Prior getting a rep call up.
And their bench? Try all four. As for the Sharks who haven’t gone on to play representative football, it’s only Ben Barba and Chad Townsend, pretty fair players in their own right.
Even going back to the 2015 Cowboys team reveals similar numbers. Their starting side included seven internationals plus two who had played for Scotland. Ben Hannant sat on their bench.
Is it possible to find a recent premiership team that defied such trends? The most obvious unexpected Premiers in the NRL era were the 2005 Wests Tigers.
Consider this – only four of their top 13 had any representative experience. Brett Hodgson had played for NSW, Paul Whatuira was a Kiwi rep, Benji Marshall had debuted for New Zealand that season and Scott Prince had become a Maroon.
Just four others would later earn higher honours – Farah, Laffranchi, Heighington and Richards (Ireland). This was no team of “champions” but rather a championship winning team.
The Tigers squad didn’t go on to feature regularly in finals football. Does this support the need to maintain a strong core of representative players to achieve sustained success?
Conversely, was this evidence of success being possible if the combinations in a team hit a purple patch at the right time of year? The Eels run in 2009 should arguably have provided another example were it not for the cap cheating Storm team.
What about our premiership winning Eels teams? Given that Premiership success came with a burst in the 1980s, the most prudent examination is of the 1981 team.
That 1981 Eels team boasted seven players with representative experience. Seems reasonable. A breakdown reveals a more interesting picture. Of those seven, both Grothe and Sterling had one Origin to their name, Edge had a single appearance for NSW and the Bear had not played rep footy since 1974.
Truthfully, going into the Grand Final, the only representative mainstays were Cronin and Price.
Of course, the success was to come in the future for others. Grothe and Sterling became superstars and were joined in Australian teams by Ella, Kenny and Muggleton. Throw in the injured Peter Wynn to that team and that representative core was formed.
So for the 1981 team, that first success was probably the prelude for a club that would in future field a representative backline unlike any other of their era. Indeed, for that 1981 team, success was hardly built on the back of experience but rather emerging talent with a small dose of essential old campaigners to guide them.
It seems incredible in today’s game that a premiership could be won with such inexperience. That starting team for the Eels only totalled 1115 games of premiership football, including the grand final itself. The two bench players, Sharp and Taylor, had accrued just 35 games combined.
Consider the experience of these players: McKenzie 23 games, Atkins 63, Ella 22, Grothe 28, Kenny 33, Sterling 49 and Muggleton 15. Even one of the noted “hard heads” of the team, Stumpy Stevens, had only racked up 79 games. Before the season started those numbers read McKenzie 0, Atkins 41, Ella 4, Grothe 16, Kenny 8, Sterling 24, Muggleton 7, and Stevens 60.
To put this in perspective, at the start of that season, the Sterling, Kenny, Ella, Grothe combination had a grand total of 52 first grames between them.
So, is overall NRL experience another important factor? How do recent Premiers stack up with regard to premiership experience?
It reads like this:
Roosters – 1994 games for the starting 13 plus 394 on the bench
Storm – 1907 games for the starting 13 plus 263 on the bench
Sharks – 2031 games for the starting 13 plus a whopping 718 on the bench
These recent figures suggest that a premiership winning side will field at least 2100 games of experience across their 17 players.
But what of our anomaly – the 2005 Tigers team? They could only post 1414 games for their starting 13 with just 269 games for the bench. Incredibly, the Tigers top 17 won their title with over 400 fewer games than recent premiers. Can it be done again?
And the burning question for Eels fans. How do we stand? To be clear, there are no wild claims of a premiership here, but do the Eels measure up statistically to match it with the top teams? Are the Eels top 17 close to that 2100 NRL games mark? Are there enough representative quality players?
A potential Round 1 Eels team could look like this:
Gutherson – 66 games
Ferguson – 192 – NSW, Australia
Jennings, M – 259 – NSW, Australia, Tonga
Salmon – 5
Jennings, G – 25
Brown – 0
Moses – 105 – Lebanon
Paulo – 108 – Samoa
Mahoney – 9
Alvaro – 68 – Italy
Lane – 48
Moeroa – 90
Brown – 69 – Italy
That’s 1044 NRL games. If you add approximately 260 games for the season (a conservative average of 20 games per player) you get a potential total of 1304 games for the starting 13.
Mannah – 223 – NSW, Lebanon
Niukore – 14 – Cook Islands
Ma’u – 95 – Tonga, New Zealand
Kaufusi – 2
That’s a total 334 games for the bench plus an additional 80 for the season to give a season ending tally of 414 games. The potential team tally being 1638 games, well shy of the 2100 mark.
There are six players with representative experience in the starting 13, but that includes Italy and Lebanon jerseys. Three bench players have higher honours, including Niukore with a Cook Islands appearance.
Such figures align more with the Tigers 2005 team than recent premiers. Including inexperienced players such as Salmon (five games), Brown (0 games), Mahoney (9 games), Niukore (14 games) and Kaufusi (2 games) would be a bold selection move. It would be both an indicator of a youth policy and an investment in the future, rather than a goal of immediate success.
Waiting in the wings are other debutants. If they play this year, that experience level across the squad drops further.
These numbers might provide a reminder that we should temper our expectations for 2019.
Alternately, the statistics read eerily similar to a 1981 Eels team light in experience but heavy in talent. There’s no suggestion that the current batch of young Eels will be able to be compared to the youngsters of 1981, simply that we have a group of players at the beginning of their careers.
Of course other factors such as injuries, and well-timed form will have their say in deciding the Premiership. The successful teams always use significantly fewer players than the teams anchored near the bottom of the table.
But, with history supporting those who subscribe to the theory that boasting rep players and over 2100 games of experience is the path to NRL success, maybe you should start doing your numbers.
Picking this year’s winner could simply involve investigating a couple of statistics.
Credit to TCT reader, “10 year Member” for suggesting this topic.
Thanks to The Sydney Morning Herald, NRL and Parramatta Eels for the images used.