Analysis – A deep dive into the 2017 NRL Finals

It’s finals time!

They may be all smiles now but come October, seven of these men will have failed in the quest to win the 2017 NRL premiership, joining the eight that have already been eliminated over the last few months. Let’s have a look at who they might be.

What history tells us

1995 was the first season with a top eight finals structure. Prior to that, it was top five and in 1998 only, it was top ten. Here’s where on the ladder every premiership winner from 1995 to 2016 came from:

gf positions

Of twenty-three premierships, the minor premier was in the grand final of three-quarters of them. Second place made the grand final 43% of the time and third place 26%. It’s a heavy bias with 80% grand finalists finishing in the top four. Once there, the grand final itself is more of a coin toss, as attested to by the minor premier’s record, but the cream definitely rises to the top.

Fun facts: the 1995 Bulldogs were the only team from outside the top four to win the premiership, having finished sixth on the ladder. The 1998 Bulldogs were the only team from outside the top eight to play a grand final. As a kicker, the 2017 Bulldogs are the first Canterbury side to miss finals footy since 2011.

Elo Scenarios

Let’s work through the logic of the finals structure to see who gets eliminated when. I use Elo rating systems to determine the relative quality of NRL teams. Using these ratings, I can judge the likely outcomes of each finals match and use this to inform match predictions.

Nothing is certain in this universe; I think the odds of the Titans beating the Storm (round 10), the Sharks (twice) and nearly beating the Broncos (round 7) and Roosters (round 26) would be close to zero but it still happened. The Stocky takes care of this to an extent by telling us by re-running the universe over and over again to tell us what’s more likely but there are no inevitabilities ahead.

Elimination/Qualifying Finals

  • Winners – Melbourne, Manly, Cronulla
  • Losers – Parramatta, Penrith, North Queensland
  • Close – Sydney v Brisbane

The elimination finals appear fairly straightforward. Cronulla beat North Queensland in round 24 and Manly beat Penrith last Saturday. I’m assuming the same results will carry this weekend.

Even though Parramatta got the better of Melbourne in round 18, I think even Parra fans would agree that was because the Eels had their first string line-up while the Storm were playing minus half a dozen Origin stars. The result was not a true reflection of the yawning chasm in talent, and rating points, between the two sides. Like most, I expect the Storm will win this.

The Sydney-Brisbane fixture is about 50/50 at the moment. Sydney has a lower rating than Brisbane but will benefit from home field advantage. Let’s put a pin in those two.


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Semi Finals

  • Winners – Parramatta, Brisbane/Manly
  • LosersCronulla, Manly/Sydney

I think Parramatta have Cronulla’s measure, so will eliminate them in the first semi final. It would take an absolute flogging from the Storm for the ratings to change significantly enough to overturn the likely outcome. Cronulla did win their only match in the regular season but that was back in round 4.

The second semi is a little more complex. If Brisbane lose the qualifier, then I expect them to beat Manly as Brisbane’s rating is much better than Manly’s. If Sydney lose the qualifier, then I expect Manly to win as Sydney’s rating is already not great and will not benefit from a loss. Therefore, we have a quantum result where the winner is both Brisbane and Manly and we won’t know which it is until the game is played.


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Preliminary Finals

  • Winners – Melbourne
  • LosersBrisbane/Manly
  • Close – Winner of Brisbane/Sydney v Parramatta

Melbourne will account for the quantum entanglement of Brisbane/Manly. Neither the Broncos nor the Sea Eagles can realistically stand a chance against the Storm, especially having played an extra game and both having had 40+ points put past them in previous fixtures against the Storm.

Going back to our pinned Brisbane/Sydney game, the winner will be very likely to face off against Parramatta. I don’t have an opinion on which way this game will go, it’s too hard to call based on results alone and the inconsistent performance of the three clubs, but the winner will be in the grand final.


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Grand Final

  • Winner – Melbourne
  • LoserWinner of Brisbane/Sydney v Parramatta

I guess what we’re saying is that there’s a really good chance any of second place through fourth losing the grand final to Melbourne. It’s hard to see the finals unfolding any other way but as I said earlier in the week, it would take a level of choke unprecedented in the NRL for the Storm not to win the premiership from here.


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Path to glory

That might be a bit depressing. Instead, let’s take a team by team look at the potential pathways to the premiership, unlikely though they may be.

Your team isn’t playing? Pick a bandwagon!

north qld-sm North Queensland Cowboys – Record 13-11 | Premiership 1%

After only just scraping into the top eight, North Queensland have to beat a team that beat them only three weeks ago. And also in round 11. While the scoreline recently was within two converted tries, it didn’t reflect the action on the field. Cronulla had the game stitched up by half time and cruised to the finish. The Sharks probably let in more points than they should have but they were barely out of second gear. Without a top class playmaker, the Cowboys’ attack has gone nowhere.

A win over Cronulla gets the Cowboys into the ring with the Eels, a team they’ve gone 1-1 against this year. On Parramatta’s side, they have good playmakers and a functional attack. There’s holes in the defence but they’re not massive and probably not big enough for the Cowboys’ offence to exploit.

Should North Queensland fluke a second win, then they will play either Brisbane (yet another Queensland final) or Sydney City. The Broncos beat the Cowboys last Thursday and the Roosters did likewise six weeks ago. In the unlikely event that the Cowboys make it to the preliminary final, they will almost certainly hit a brick wall. If they make it to the grand final, then anything is possible.

penrith-sm Penrith Panthers – Record 13-11 | Premiership 2%

Penrith have had such a soft draw, it’s perhaps not surprising that they went on a seven game winning streak, leading to premiership contention talk. That came to a grinding halt against the Dragons, a result only reinforced by their loss to the Sea Eagles. Penrith will line up against Manly again, in a re-run of last week’s game. I don’t expect a different result.

If they manage to get through, they’ll face either Brisbane or Sydney, both of whom will be angry at being in the semi final in the first place. The Panthers weren’t able to beat either side earlier in the season but it’s later and there’s still a small chance that they’ll get to a preliminary final, almost overwhelmingly likely to be against Melbourne.

The Panthers may have had a soft draw but they’ve got the hardest route through the finals. If they knock off the Storm, it blows the premiership wide open for a team that will have eliminated Manly, Brisbane/Sydney and Melbourne.

manly-sm Manly Sea Eagles – Record 14-10 | Premiership 3%

Manly’s season came from nowhere and then almost as quickly, their form fell off a cliff. Not to the extent that the Dragons’ did of course, but the Sea Eagles are facing cross-town rivals, the Panthers, in a week one elimination final. Given that they’ve already won this game a week earlier, let’s assume Penrith are done.

A win pits them against the loser of the Broncos-Roosters final. Brisbane defeated Manly at their Brisbane home game in their one and only rendezvous. Manly actually beat Easts twice this year, in round 5 and round 22, bookending their form run. Do they still have it in them? It’s a good question without an answer until week 2.

They win that, they will face Melbourne in the preliminary final, recreating the 2007 and 2008 grand finals. There is still some feeling about those grand finals, especially as the Sea Eagles lost in 2007 to a team massively in breach of the salary cap. Like Penrith, a miracle win here would blow the grand final wide open for the team lucky enough to be on the other side of the bracket.

cronulla-sm Cronulla Sharks – Record 15-9 | Premiership 4%

Out of the bottom four teams, the Sharks are the most likely to break open the top four’s near monopoly on grand final appearances. The defending premiers will need to overcome a North Queensland side looking for its feet in a potentially post-Thurston world. The Cowboys haven’t looked strong and the Sharks aren’t too bad, so they should progress to the semis.

There they will almost certainly face Parramatta. I think Parramatta will beat them but it’s a lot closer than I’ve made out through this post. The Sharks are a good chance, maybe not favourites, of getting through to a preliminary final which would take them into a game against either the Roosters or the Broncos.

Cronulla touched up City in Gosford and lost the return game in the Shire. Brisbane took care of Cronulla twice, in round 1 and round 23. A Sharks outfit that took care of the Eels might be capable of repeating it against the Roosters and are less likely against the Broncos, based on their history this year.

Winning there would set up a repeat of last year’s grand final. Who knows how that might play out?

parramatta-sm Parramatta Eels – Record 16-8 | Premiership 8%

Eels fans should face it: they aren’t going to win the qualifying final against the Storm. Melbourne may as well be playing a different sport. With a loss almost certainly locked in, the Eels need to focus on the repechage rounds.

The bracket will see Parra face off against Cronulla or, less likely, North Queensland. The Eels on their day should have the measure of either side, so will play the winner of the Broncos/Roosters qualifying final. I can’t tell you how that qualifying final will play out and am even less certain about the makeup of the second preliminary final. Parra have beaten Brisbane twice already this year and if the Eels are on, they’re as good as the Roosters. It’ll depend on which team turns up.

The preliminary final will be hard, but Parramatta are as good a chance as any in the top four of being in the grand final.

brisbane-sm Brisbane Broncos – Record 16-8 | Premiership 8%

My gut feel is that Brisbane will account for Easts in the first qualifying final on Friday night but that comes more from the heart than the head. On paper, it’s close. A loss would see a semi final against the Panthers or, more likely, the Sea Eagles. Neither of those teams are likely to pose a serious threat (although we cannot discount it completely) but a win there would push Brisbane into a preliminary final against Melbourne. There’s every chance that the Broncos would fold under the pressure and their realistic chance at a premiership needs to be built mostly around hoping Melbourne are eliminated by someone else or, failing that, not meet them until the last possible moment.

A win would push the Donkeys through to the preliminary final opposite the Storm. Parramatta, or maybe Cronulla, or very unlikely the Cowboys, will be the likely opponents. The Broncos haven’t been able to beat the Eels this year but have a 2-0 record against the Sharks. On that basis, presumably Brisbane would prefer to face Cronulla to book a place in the grand final against Melbourne.

sydney city-sm Sydney City Roosters – Record 17-8 | Premiership 2%

First speed bump: Brisbane. Sydney and Brisbane played each other twice, with one win a piece. The Roosters haven’t been as hot as the Broncos (look at the point differential) but have the advantage of playing at Allianz. They get the win here, they stay alive but if not, I think they may well bow out against Manly in the subsequent semi final.

Second speed bump: Parramatta. The Eels were embarrassed by the Roosters in round 10 but you could argue a completely different Parramatta outfit will take the field in the preliminary final. Assuming a win over the Broncos and an Eels win over the Sharks/Cowboys, then this should make for an interesting preliminary final and I’m not sure who would get over the line.

Final speed bump: Melbourne. Optimistically, the Roosters beat the Storm in golden point earlier in the year and you could argue the grand final is a 50/50 chance, due to the pressure, accumulated fatigue and sample size of one game to decide it. Pessimistically for the Roosters, the 2017 Storm are one of the best NRL teams ever and the equivalent Roosters are not.

melbourne-sm Melbourne Storm – Record 20-4 | Premiership 73%

I doubt the Storm or their fans care how the other finals unfold. They are unbelievably dominant and only need three wins in a row to take the premiership, even if they lose the qualifying final.

Melbourne haven’t lost back-to-back games all year. Their only weakness is that they are control freaks. When things get out of hand, the Storm get spooked and errors creep in as the attacking play gets wilder. Billy Slater has the worst poker face in the NRL, so its easy to tell when this is happening. If you can knock Melbourne off balance, opportunities open up to steal a win but it’s pushing shit uphill.


In case you missed it, here’s the finals matrix, derived from the finals-adjusted Stocky, from this week’s projections. These are the premiership percentages given above. It tells a grim tale for everyone other than the Storm. Percentages are given for the likelihood of a team being eliminated at a given stage of the finals.


It’s a bit depressing for non-Storm fans whichever way you slice it.