By the time you read this, it should be April, which means the NRL is on the cusp of handing out the April Premiership, the third most important, and the least existent, trophy of the season.
The term “April premiers” seems to have a few variations in meaning. Typically, it’s a team that starts particularly well and is either on top of the table sometime in April. The premiership can be awarded either at the start or end of the month, depending on the individual. The title also connotes fading badly on the run home. Its awarding can either come out of a semi-humourous hope of rivals that the club will eventually come back to the pack or out of past experience.
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With the first Maori versus Indigenous All-stars game and another edition of the World Club Challenge in the history books, our attention turns to the NRL season ahead.
As with last year, I’m going to do a SWOP – Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Prospect – analysis for each team. My general philosophy for judging a team’s prospects is that where a team finishes on the ladder the previous year is a more or less accurate reflection of their level, give or take a win or two. If no changes are made, we should see a similar performance if the season was repeated. There are exceptions, e.g. the Raiders pathological inability to close out a game should be relatively easy to fix and the Knights’ managed maybe two convincing wins in 2018 but still finished eleventh, but broadly, if a team finishes with seven wins and they hope to improve to thirteen and make the finals, then we should look at what significant changes have been made in order to make that leap up the table.
Last year’s Rugby League World Cup introduced the sport to a lot of new potential fans around the world. If anyone in rugby league administration could see past their nose, they’d be trying to win over these new converts to the game’s top competition: the National Rugby League.
The 2018 season starts this week and if you’re new to the sport, trying to navigate the franchises and understanding why nine teams are based in Sydney can be an arduous task, doubly so if you’re American. I’m here to help by giving you a small overview of each team, just like you guys did for us.
If you need a wider perspective, check out the Complete History of the NRL and the Complete History of the NRL (nerd edition).
The only thing more reliable than March bringing rugby league back is the slew of season previews that each and every media outlet feels the need to produce. I’m no different in this regard and here is what is likely to be the longest post I’ve ever compiled.
This year’s season preview takes a look at each team and is a mix of my usual statistics, a bit of SWOT analysis and some good old fashioned taking a wild punt and hoping it’ll make you look wise come October.
(A SWOT analysis is where you look at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. There’s only one threat in the NRL, and that’s the other fifteen teams, so it’s more of a SWO analysis)
Parramatta of the ’80s and Parramatta of the ’00s were powerhouses of top flight rugby league. The ’80s vintage managed to win their first, second, third and fourth premierships. The ’00s vintage, on the other hand, was less successful. In 2001, Parra won all but four games of the regular season, taking the minor premiership, and secured a grand finals berth. The opportunity to claim their first title in fifteen years went begging as Newcastle took honours that year. A less dominating, but still minor premiership winning, performance in 2005 took them deep into the finals only to be eliminated at the preliminary final by the Cowboys.
Depending on your perspective, the Eels were robbed of a premiership in 2009. Despite finishing in eighth position that year, Parra made the grand final against the Melbourne Storm. The Storm won the game but were later stripped of the title due to salary cap breaches. It would be the last time the Eels played finals football, declining from there to pick up back-to-back wooden spoons in 2012 and 2013. Last year, Parramatta joined the illustrious club of serious salary cap breachers themselves. This cost them their first shot at finals football since 2009. With that behind them, the Eels are well on track this year to break their drought.
The Gold Coast Titans have only been in the NRL since 2007. The Titans franchise are the most recent iteration of top-level rugby league’s attempts to crack the Gold Coast market, following in the footsteps of the Giants (1988-89), Seagulls (1990-95) and Chargers (1996-98).
Gold Coast peaked in 2009 and 2010, managing top four finishes. Since then, results have been thinner on the ground and the club collected a wooden spoon in 2011. The Titans finished outside of the finals spots every year until last season when the Eels were docked enough points for them to sneak in, only to be eliminated in the first round against the Broncos.
St George Illawarra were the first club to form from a merger of the 1980s expansion team Illawarra Steelers and the second most successful NSWRL premiership side of the St George Dragons. The team met early success in their first year, reaching the 1999 grand final and going down to the then newly minted Melbourne Storm.
Through the 2000s, the Dragons were always a threat, regularly making finals appearances. This period of strength reached its peak at the end of the decade with back-to-back minor premierships under Wayne Bennett with Darius Boyd, Jamie Soward and Brett Morris and winning the big one in 2010. Leaner years have followed recently, with the Dragons appearing in only one finals series since 2012. Nonetheless, the Dragons stormed off to flying start this year and remain in contention for a final appearance.