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Premier Club

Poor old Glebe – they never seemed to be in the right place at the right time.

1949gfIn 1911 Glebe finished the club rounds on top (minor premiers), but the NSWRL ordered semi-finals be played. Glebe lost to the second-placed Easts team.

Between 1912 and 1925 the NSWRL automatically gave the title to the minor premiers – there were no semi-finals.

During those 14 seasons Glebe, never quite first, finished in the top four 10 times. Despite their consistency, there was no means to challenge the minor premiers.

No wonder by the end of the 1920s the once mighty Glebe seemed to have lost all its energy and fight. The club was closed down by the NSWRL at the end of 1929 without ever having won a premiership.

The method used to determine the premier club for each season has constantly changed over the history of the NSWRL/NRL competition. Some clubs have found changes to be opportune, others have seen a season of domination end in tatters and dispair.

1908-11 – NSWRL ‘Final’ system

In the first four seasons (1908-1911), the NSWRL premiership concluded with a Final. Apart from when two teams finished the regular season in equal first place (as in 1908), the minor premiers entered the Final with the advantage of knowing that a draw (as in 1910) would secure the title, while a loss would result in a second Final and chance for redemption. In 1911, Easts defeated minor premiers Glebe in two Finals to earn the premiership.

1912-25 – NSWRL ‘First Past the Post’ system

From 1912 to 1925 the premiership was won on a ‘first past the post’ basis. The playing of a Final only occurred when the two top teams finished the club rounds on equal points (three clubs never finished on the same points during this era).

For Glebe, the club who brought about the changed system, it was a frustrating period. They could not clinch first place in any of those seasons – the closest they came was in 1922. In that season North Sydney and Glebe were equal first – however Glebe produced a terrible performance in the Final, losing to Norths 35-3.

During the first-past-the-post era the NSWRL satisifed the public’s need for ‘elimination’ or ‘knock-out’ matches by holding a separate City Cup competition at the end of the season.

The 1925 season saw an unbeaten South Sydney team a massive 10 points ahead after just thirteen club rounds. That was enough for most clubs, players and supporters to lose all interest in the competition. The NSWRL suspended the remaining rounds, awarding Souths the premiership and allowed the City Cup to start early.

1926-53 – NSWRL Top 4 play-offs

Not ever wanting a repeat of the 1925 situation, the NSWRL introduced a top four semi-finals system. The first placed team (unless jointly first) were given a ‘right of challenge’ – meaning if they were beaten in a semi or Final, a Grand Final would be required.

However, during this era a number of variations did occur. In 1937 no semi-finals were played as the season was shortened to allow the departure of the Kangaroos to New Zealand and England.

The first big surprise came in 1928 when Saints and Easts finished equal at the top – the NSWRL decided there was no ‘minor premier’ and neither team therefore had the ‘right of challenge’. This opened the door for the third placed Souths (8 points behind the other two clubs). The Rabbitohs beat Saints in the semi and Easts in the Final to walk away with the premiership.

Seemingly as a consequence of Souths win in 1928, the NSWRL changed the system in the early 1930s, declaring that if two teams jointly finished in first place, they would need to play each other before the semi-finals commenced, to decide which team were the ‘minor premiers’ and thus could claim the ‘right of challenge’ – in effect it was a “Minor Premiers Play-off” match, with the NSWRL and the two clubs (and thus the players as well) benefitting from the extra gate-takings.

In 1934 Easts and Wests finished in equal first – the Tricolours had the better for/against, but it counted for nothing. The NSWRL pushed the semi-finals back a week, a crowd of well over 20,000 were on hand to watch the Magpies defeat Easts in the “Minor Premiers Play-off” match, and claim the ‘right of challenge’. As it turned out Wests went on to win the Final, and didn’t need the ‘right of challenge’.

The most remarkable situation happened in 1941 when three teams finished equal in first place. On for/against they were in order: Easts, Balmain, Canterbury. As a result, the NSWRL announced that no one would have the ‘right of challenge’. In a four team semi-finals series that was probably fair enough. It was ironic when the 4th placed Dragons won the Final – with none of the three first placed teams having the ‘right of challenge’ Saints took the premiership without having to face a Grand Final.

In 1943 the “Minor Premiers Play-off” match was called into play again when Newtown and Balmain finished together at the top of the table. It proved to be a bonanza for the NSWRL, the club and the players when a crowd of more than 47,000 flocked to the SCG – only the Grand Final attendance topped it that season. The Bluebags won a gripping contest over the Tigers 11-10. Both sides lost the following week, but while that meant Balmain’s season was over, the ‘right of challenge’ gave Newtown another chance via a Grand Final place, where they blitzed North Sydney 34-7.

The minor premiers were only forced into a Grand Final to exercise their right of challenge in 12 seasons – all proved victorious except in 1931 (Easts lost to 2nd placed Souths), 1944 (Newtown lost to 2nd placed Balmain), 1946 (St George lost to 3rd placed Balmain), 1947 (Canterbury lost to 2nd placed Balmain), and 1949 (Souths lost to 3rd placed St George).

1954-72 – NSWRL Top 4 play-offs

For the 1954 season, and thereafter, the season has ended with semi-finals culminating in a Grand Final. No longer would a club enter the play-offs with a ‘right of challenge’ advantage. The NSWRL adopted a four team semi-final system which was played on a 1v2 (winner to Grand Final) and 3v4 system for Week 1. The system had been in use in the VFL since 1931, and was devised by Melbourne lawyer Ken McIntyre (it is currently used by Australian soccer’s A-League).

One of the more interesting happenings under this Top 4 system came in 1960 when four teams finished in equal second behind St George. The teams were forced into play-offs based on their for/against position to decide the top four: Wests (2nd) v Balmain (4th), Easts (3rd) v Canterbury (5th). The two winners (Wests and Easts) then played-off for 2nd and 3rd places in the semi-finals, while Balmain and Canterbury met for 4th place. Wests took 2nd place by beating Easts, the Tigers lost again and their season was over (Canterbury taking 4th place). The top four play-offs were then played as usual. The Roosters finally won through to the Grand Final, but had little energy left to confront St George and lost 31-6.

For the most part of this era the Grand Final was fought out by the teams that finished the home-and-away season in 1st and 2nd place. The only minor premiers to fail to reach the Grand Final were St George in 1967 and Manly in 1971.

Six 3rd-placed teams reached the Grand Final and were beaten: Manly 1959, Easts 1960, Wests 1962, Balmain 1964, Canterbury 1967 and St George 1971.

Fourth placed Souths reached the Grand Final in 1955 and 1965 – the 1955 Rabbitohs were the only team from outside the Top 2 to win a Grand Final (defeating Newtown 12-11) under this Top 4 play-offs system.

1973-94 – NSWRL Top 5 play-offs

In 1973 the NSWRL expanded the play-offs into a top five system (again devised by Ken McIntyre, and used by the VFL in 1972). This awarded the minor premiers a week off and effectively gave them two chances to reach the Grand Final. It also seemed improbable for many seasons that a 4th or 5th placed team could reach – let alone win – the Grand Final.

The first was Canterbury in 1979, however they were beaten by St George. In 1989 Canberra finally proved it could be achieved, when they came from 4th place to win the premiership. The Brisbane Broncos in 1993 won four consecutive elimination matches to win from 5th place.

The 1975 season was unique – Balmain, Wests and Parramatta all finished on equal points for fifth place. With it apparently impossible to delay the semi-finals by a week, the NSWRL drew Wests and Parramatta ‘out of a hat’ for a Tuesday play-off, with the winner to play Balmain on the Thursday. Parramatta won both matches, then defeated the 4th placed Canterbury on the Sunday. After leading Manly early in the next semi, the Eels ran out of steam and their dramatic finals charge was over.

The top five system was hugely popular and served rugby league well until it was replaced in the 1995 season following the expansion of the competition to 20 clubs, and control transferring from the NSWRL to the ARL.

1995-96 – ARL Top 8 play-offs

The 1995 and ’96 seasons saw the ARL use a top eight system (which was also adopted by the AFL in 2000) which used quarter-finals.

The ARL also decided that, for the first time, points for/against would be used to exclude equal-placed teams from participating in the semi-finals, instead of using play-offs to decide the final positions. In 1995, North Sydney (+211), Sydney City (+60) and Auckland (+50) all finished in equal eighth, with the latter two being excluded from progressing further.

In both ’95 and ’96 the top four clubs played each other (1v4, 2v3), as did teams 5 to 8 (5v8, 6v7) – the two lowest ranked losers were eliminated. Subsequent matches were all organised on a ranking basis, with losers eliminated. In the 1995 season Canterbury were able to win the Grand Final from sixth place.

1997 – Super League Top 5 play-offs

The 1997 Super League competition used the old top five method, with 1st-placed Brisbane defeating the 2nd-placed Cronulla in the Grand Final.

1997 – ARL Top 7 play-offs

The ARL changed to a top seven finals series. The minor premiers Manly were given a week off – in the other matches it was 2v3, 4v5 and 6v7 (with the loser of this last match eliminated).

Newcastle won the 2v3 match and advanced to play against Manly. Though the Sea Eagles won this game, it was an inconsequential contest as both sides automatically gained a place in a preliminary final (against an opponent emerging from the lower-ranked contests). Manly defeated Sydney Roosters in one final, with the Knights taking the other over North Sydney. Newcastle won the Grand Final.

1998 – Top 10 play-offs

The first NRL competition (1998) adopted a top ten system and excluded lower-placed teams on for/against if they finished on equal competition points.

The minor premiers and the second placed team were granted a week off. In the first week the matches were arranged as 3v6, 4v5, 7v10, 8v9 – the two lowest ranked losers were eliminated. The ninth-placed Canterbury were able to reach the Grand Final where they lost to Brisbane (minor premiers).

1999-present – Top 8 play-offs

From 1999 to the present the NRL has used a top eight system (again devised by Ken McIntyre) where the opening matches are 1v8, 2v7, 3v6 & 4v5 – lowest ranked losers progressively eliminated.

So far no team outside the Top 4 has been able to win the premiership under this system – though St George Illawarra (6th / 1999) and North Queensland (5th / 2005) have reached the Grand Final. In 2009 Parramatta became the first club to make it to the Grand Final from 8th place (losing to the Storm 23-16).

The Storm of 2009 are alongside the Sydney Roosters in 2002 and Wests Tigers in 2005 as the only fourth-placed teams to win the premiership decider.

Three seasons have seen both the top two teams fail to reach the Grand Final – in 1999 (Cronulla and Parramatta), in 2005 (Parramatta and St George-Illawarra), and in 2009 (St George-Illawarra and Canterbury).

No team finishing in 8th place had been able to win its semi-final against the minor premiers, until in 2008 when the New Zealand Warriors scored a late try to sink the Melbourne Storm 18-15 at Olympic Park. In 2009 the 8th-placed Eels defeated the 1st-placed Dragons at Kogarah Oval.

Under this Top 8 system, it is impossible for Team 1 or 2 to be eliminated after a Week 1 defeat. No 3rd or 4th placed team losing its opening semi has yet been eliminated. However, 5th-placed teams beaten by 4th-place have been eliminated in 2004 (Dragons lost to Penrith 31-30) and 2009 (Manly beaten by the Storm 40-12) after two lower-ranked teams won their matches.

Many teams to have lost in Week 1 have been “saved” by the ranking system. Sides that have been defeated in Week 1, but have still gone on to reach a Grand Final are Melbourne in 1999 (lost to the Dragons 34-10), Sydney Roosters in 2000 (lost to Parramatta 32-8), Canterbury in 2004 (lost to North Queensland 30-22), North Queensland in 2005 (lost to Wests Tigers 50-6), Brisbane in 2006 (lost to the Dragons 20-4), and Melbourne in 2008 (lost to the Warriors 18-15). Melbourne (1999), Canterbury (2004) and Brisbane (2006) each lost in Week 1 but still went on to win the Grand Final.

The True Test of a Champion Team

The quest for a perfect model will probably never end. Each system has its advantages and disadvantages – the most determining factor for success lies in being in form at the right end of the season. It is not always the most consistent team over the season that wins the premiership.

The true test of a champion team is twofold. It is proving to be consistent enough over the season to clinch a play-off spot, and then to be able to win the remaining three or four matches from there.

Arguably, the team that can do both of those, deserves to be the season’s premiers.

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