If either Canterbury or Melbourne had not been rewarded with a week’s break during the September play-offs, that team could not win Sunday’s grand final.
The chilling outcome of the NRL finals format adopted this year is that all teams in the bottom four, together with a top-four team that loses in the first weekend of the NRL finals, is almost certainly destined to be runner-up on grand final day.
Minor premiers, the Bulldogs and No.2 team, the Storm, who will fight it out an ANZ Stadium for this year’s premiership, have both enjoyed a week’s break, mirroring the AFL grand finalists, Hawthorn and Sydney.
Roy Masters says a week off during the finals is increasingly important.
The AFL have used the NRL’s new finals system since 2000, during which 23 of the 26 teams enjoying a week’s break before the preliminary final have made the grand final.
Today’s footballers are so simultaneously brilliant and brutal, it’s difficult to see any team, under a draw where the top-ranked teams meet each other in the first weekend of the play-offs, surviving a month of mentally and physically draining play.
The relentless attack and remorseless defence where team one meets team four and team two plays team three means the winners need 13-14 days to prepare for the victors from the second finals weekend.
Asked after last week’s relatively easy win over Manly whether any future team could win a premiership playing four finals matches, most people in the Storm dressing room said, ‘‘No, it’s too hard.’’
Only Melbourne coach, Craig Bellamy, had any reservations.
‘‘I can see a team which has had a lot of players coming back from injury about two-thirds the way through the season finishing outside the top two and making a successful run for the premiership,’’ he said.
‘‘They would have to get their stars back and build form and find some momentum to do it.’’
Bellamy could well be talking about his own team, which lost fullback Billy Slater and centre Will Chambers during the Origin period, suffered five defeats and slowly found form while they won another five games, including a 20-18 win over Cronulla at home in round 25.
Had the Storm not scored 10 points in the last couple of minutes against the Sharks, they could have been relegated to positions three or four, forcing them to win in Sydney in the first weekend.
Finishing first or second on the premiership ladder is therefore a colossal advantage under the new finals system.
Bellamy is sometimes accused of ‘‘pot hunting’’ minor premierships.
I suspect it’s not the trophy that motivates him but the benefits it brings: playing at home twice and enjoying a weekend off.
Coaches today have a better understanding of how to prepare players in the week’s break, a problem that confounded coaches in the part-time era of a five-team semi-finals series, when the minor premier won a week’s break after the regular season, then, assuming it won the major semi-final, was given a further week off.
Now, in the NRL, we have the top two teams at the end of the home-and-away season equal as they enter the grand final.
So, what could be the difference maker? Composure on the big stage.
The Storm played in every NRL grand final between 2006 and 2009 with a total of 18 appearances from the current squad. Canterbury have not been in the finals since 2009 and their players have minimal grand final experience.
This points to an old statistic: no team can win a premiership unless it plays in a grand final in one of the preceding four years.
In other words, teams have to lose one, to win one.
Brisbane were the first to buck the system with a grand final victory in their first attempt, 1992. However, many of the Broncos players were experienced on the big stage of Origin football.
There have been exceptions since, with Newcastle in 1997, Melbourne in 1999, Penrith in 2003, Wests Tigers in 2005 and St George Illawarra in 2010.
However, many of these were upsets associated with a split competition, the favourites imploding, or a dominant team expelled because of salary cap violations.
The AFL grand final offers a clue to Sunday’s outcome. It’s six years since the Swans last played in the grand final, while the Hawks won in 2008 and were unlucky to lose last year’s preliminary final.
Melbourne, with half the team having played in the 2009 grand final, should be more composed.