It won’t be lost on the Sydney Roosters that winning a premiership from outside the top four is about as likely as cracking a double-yolked egg. An exaggeration, perhaps, but the odds are not good. In the 113 years since 1908, 111 champions finished inside the four – Brisbane claimed the title from fifth in 1993 and the Bulldogs from sixth in 1995.
Still, there’s something brewing in Bondi. The Roosters, who finished sixth on the ladder, are on the longest winning streak of any team entering the finals. The last match they lost was to Penrith at the start of July. The combined scoreline of the eight games since is 298-118. Of course, nothing is guaranteed against a team like South Sydney, who outscored Trent Robinson’s side in the last three quarters of Friday night’s final regular-season round but lost 26-16 anyway after shipping 14 points in the first 20 minutes. Nothing like an elimination-final rematch between old enemies to sort it out.
And therein lies the beauty of finals football. The tail of the tape can only tell you so much when the prospect of sudden death arrives. It does not cater for Joey Manu’s calf tear, Daniel Tupou’s groin and Cameron Murray’s latest concussion. It does not carry provisions for razzle-dazzle and barbs and brain fades. It also does not consider the old adage that statistics are there to be broken and winning streaks halted. The Rabbitohs, too, have eyes on the prize from seventh, and by the time one emerges victorious from Allianz Stadium this Sunday they will already know which of Cronulla or North Queensland await in the semi-finals.
Either one will be tricky. The Sharks have shocked the competition this season under rookie coach Craig Fitzgibbon, who has steered the club to second – their best finish since 1999. Crucially, Sunday’s 38-16 defeat of Newcastle bumped the Cowboys down to third, meaning the Todd Payten-inspired renaissance in the far north will only continue if they get the job done away from home. More specifically, at PointsBet Stadium, where the Sharks have lost only a single game all year and where they will host a first final since 2008 in front of 12,000 – after much jockeying with the NRL over a potential shift to the larger Allianz.
Sharks chief executive, Dino Mezzatesta, said it was “a difficult decision to make”. “With our restricted capacity at PointsBet Stadium this year and an expected demand which will exceed the 12,000 we can accommodate, there was an argument to take the game to a larger venue,” Mezzatesta said.
“Weighing against this is the fact that should we finish second, the team will have earned the right to play at home and the advantage of playing such as important game on home turf, where a win would take us to a preliminary final, is too attractive to pass up.”
The home-final-over-big-crowds policy will remain in place for another of the year’s most highly anticipated games, with minor premiers Penrith to host their playoff against Parramatta at the 22,500-seat BlueBet Stadium instead of the 83,500-capacity Accor Stadium. “Sport is not always just about the bottom line, we have to take a bigger-picture view to this,” said NRL chief executive, Andrew Abdo.
For the Eels, the bigger picture is a chance to prove they are a different kind of consistent, having previously been consistent in their failure to win matches come September. This feels a little different, though. As it stands, Brad Arthur’s outfit are the only team not to have lost to the Panthers this season, having beaten them twice, and made light work of Melbourne last week. The western Sydney derby hangs on a few threads, the biggest being the return of Nathan Cleary after a month on the sidelines, the other being the always-controversial turnaround period.
Parramatta have been afforded eight days’ rest to Penrith’s six, with coach Ivan Cleary resting the majority of his starting side in Saturday’s 38-8 loss to the Cowboys. While he made his adjustments quietly, the same cannot be said for Canberra counterpart Ricky Stuart, who had a pop at the NRL over its scheduling ahead of his own six-day turnaround and trip to AAMI Park to play the Storm.
‘“I’m just happy to be in the semis,” Stuart said. “We are a club that’s very used to getting the short straw. I thought we would play on Sunday and then, when we had 24 hours less, I thought to myself I’d make a couple of changes.” Still, he cannot fault the Raiders’ run of recent form to squeak into eighth position, cemented on Sunday via a 56-10 triumph, even without rested captain Elliott Whitehead and five-eighth Jack Wighton.
The win doubled as the latest humiliation of Wests Tigers, who finished their season dead last with four wins, 10 points and 679 points conceded. Already guaranteed the wooden spoon, the Tigers trailed 42-0 at half-time at Leichhardt Oval, in an 11th loss in 12 games for caretaker coach Brett Kimmorley since he took the reins from the sacked Michael Maguire. It is also back to the drawing board for 11th-placed Manly, who lost a seventh straight to the Bulldogs to extend their post-Pride jersey losing run to seven games – the longest of Des Hasler’s career as player or coach.