The return of rugby league is on the horizon. After broadcast deal dramas, quarantine dramas and finally vaccine dramas we are still somehow on track for a May 28 kick-off. The abbreviated 20 round regulation season is locked in and while the intricacies of the draw still need to be sorted out, the fact that we have that 20 round figure means we can start breaking down some important thresholds for the 2020 season.
* Denotes a threshold decided by point-differentials.
⁺ Denotes minor premiership that Dragons won on points-differential with 17 wins despite the Bulldogs finishing 2009 with 18 wins. Bulldogs were penalised for an interchange breach in Round 2 and were deducted the win.
ⁿ Denotes win total including two draws.
In the last decade of the NRL a win rate of 50% has proven to be good enough to make the finals 60% of the time. However, historically in the NRL era the success rate of that win percentage in regards to making the finals slips to 40.91%. Evidently a 50% win rate is no guarantee to earn an outright berth in the postseason and even less so when you consider that point-differentials have come into play twice in the 9 times a team has made the finals with 12 wins. In 2014 the Warriors and the Eels were victims of their inferior point-differentials despite winning 12 of 24 games each while in 2011 the Bulldogs suffered the same fate.
So while a 10 win campaign in the upcoming 20 round season will likely secure you a place in the finals, if you want to be almost certain of your spot we have to raise the bar higher. In the NRL era, there are only two recorded seasons – the very first in 1998 and 1999 – where 13 wins (54.17%) was not enough to claim an outright place in the Top 8.
In 1998 the 13 win Bulldogs (+78) and Sea-Eagles (+30) were damnably unlucky in that particular year as though they boasted superior points-differentials to the Dragons (-4), the Red-V set the entry to the Top 8 at a bar of a crazy height of 13.5 wins with a 15-15 draw in the final round of the regulation season against none other than the Eels. The following season in 1999 saw the Raiders miss out on the Top 8 with 13.5 wins to their name because the Broncos had 13 wins and 2 draws
It would take 20-years for those two brutal thresholds to be topped until the truly bizarre 2018 season where the entire Top 8 had a margin of a solitary win between them from 1st (Roosters, 16 wins) to 8th (Warriors, 15 wins).
Discounting 1998, 1999 and 2018 as outliers, we can set the bar for making the Top 8 pretty solidly at 13 wins or at a win rate of ~54.17%. Extrapolating that to a 20 round season pegs the golden number of wins to an unsurprising figure of 11 (55.00%).
With their 2-0 start banked before the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt, the Eels are now required to win just 9 of their remaining 18 games to hit that threshold.
Required win rate for the remainder of 2020 – 50.00%
Margin of error – 9 games
Random bit of trivia for you! The lowest win total to make the Top 8 in the NRL era occurred in 2002. The Canberra Raiders squeaked into the final spot of the Top 8 with 10 wins and a draw. Shockingly, they had more wins than the 7th placed Dragons who are the only team to ever make the Top 8 with single digit wins in a season. Their 9 wins and 3 draws (and 2 byes) saw them draw level with the Raiders on competition points (25pts) but their vastly superior point-differential (86 vs -170) ended up the difference between the two teams.
Things are pretty clear cut here. While the lowest entry point to the Top 4 was 13.5 wins in 2007, 16 wins (66.67%), regardless of point-differential, has always been enough to earn a place in the Top 4 in the NRL barring the ridiculous outlier year that was 1998. Dropping the bar down to 15 wins (62.50%) has seem teams earn a place in the Top 4 14-times in the 22 seasons of the NRL – 63.64% of the time. It should be noted that point-differential played a part in 2 of those 14 seasons.
Quick maths now. 13 wins in a 20 round season nets you a win rate of 65.00% while notching an extra victory to set the total to 14 bumps that percentage to 70.00%. While it is likely that 13 wins ends up enough to get the coveted second chance in the finals, let’s set the benchmark high for the Eels and aim for 14 wins at a minimum for the Top 4. As before, with 2 wins already to their name, Parramatta now require a further 12 wins from their final 18 games to reach this threshold.
Required win rate for the remainder of 2020 – 66.67%
Margin of error – 6 games
The path to the J.J Giltinan Shield is every bit as volatile as scraping into the Top 8. The Eels (2005) and the Roosters (2014) have both claimed the minor premiership with win totals as low at 16 (66.67%) while the Storm (2007) own the NRL record of 21 wins (87.50%) although that occurred during the period where their salary cap cheating occured. The 2001 Eels with 20 wins and 2 draws own the best legitimate win rate in light of that.
Pinning down the precise win rate required to claim the minor premiership is the most difficult exercise among these three categories. Point-differentials have decided the minor premiership 9 times in the history of the NRL. By comparison, point-differentials have come into play 5 times for the cut-off to the Top 4 and 3 times for the Top 8 in the same period. In general, at least 18 wins (75.00%) has been required to finish on top of the ladder in a given season. 15 of the 22 NRL minor premiers hit this benchmark and it seems like a good place to start for setting a similar goal in 2020.
In light of that 15 wins (75.00%) or 16 wins (80%) with a strong point-differnential should give any team a red-hot crack at the J.J. Giltinan Shield. As with the threshold for the Top 4, we will set the more difficult of the two as the goal meaning the Eels have to chalk up 14 wins from their remaining 18 games.
Required win rate for the remainder of 2020 – 77.78%
Margin of error – 4 games
So there you have it. More or less what is required from the Eels, or any team really, to make the Top 8, Top 4 or win the minor premiership in this singularly unique season. Of course, we could have a similarly crazy season to 1998 or 2018 which blows all these parameters out of the water but by and large these are the benchmarks that will need to be reached. The question now is just how high the Eels can go in pursuit of these goals.