Shaun Johnson was pivotal for one of the biggest upsets when the Warriors beat Melbourne in 2011. Image by Alan Lee/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

History suggests preliminary finals aren’t predictable

September 22, 2023

If ever proof was needed the NRL’s most unpredictable season may not have a predictable ending one need only look at the Warriors’ last finals run.

This NRL season has been the best in years with margins back down, upsets on the rise and three of last year’s preliminary finalists falling out of the top eight altogether.

But for all that, the past fortnight has felt like the league has been creeping towards the inevitable.

Penrith and Brisbane finished four points clear of every other team on the ladder and cruised through the first week of the finals with 26-point victories.

There is yet to be an upset in this year’s finals series and almost every neutral has Penrith and Brisbane facing off on October 1.

So one-sided are this weekend’s games, Melbourne are the longest price in their history for a finals match with the TAB at $4.25 against Penrith.

The Warriors are also not far behind, considered rank outsiders against Brisbane on Saturday night.

But history suggests it is never so simple.

The last time a preliminary-finals weekend looked anything like this it was 2017, when Brisbane and North Queensland were both considered heavy underdogs.

Melbourne eliminated the Broncos 30-0 as expected, but the Cowboys stunned the Sydney Roosters to reach that year’s decider from eighth spot.

Prior to that, 2011 looked even more straight forward.

When Manly and Melbourne clashed in the famous Battle of Brookvale, it was considered a forgone conclusion they would meet again in that year’s decider.

Instead, Manly faced the Warriors after a baby-faced Shaun Johnson led the Auckland-based club to a shock 20-12 win over Melbourne.

According to the TAB, in six of the past 10 years there has been one upset in preliminary-finals week.

One of those came two years ago when Penrith were on that occasion the outsiders but out-muscled Melbourne 10-6 in the 2021 preliminary final.

Melbourne were minor premiers while the Panthers, on that occasion, had to do it the hard way after losing in week one of the finals and surviving a tense contest in week two.

“Obviously it hurt at the time. It was a little bit like last week’s game, either side could have won it,” Storm coach Craig Bellamy said. 

“But for them, they won and went on to win the premiership. 

“I wouldn’t say it still burns. If you keep hanging on to something like that for two or three years that’s going to take a lot of energy out of you. 

“So you try to get rid of that feeling straight away in the off-season, it is hard, but when you start next season it’s usually gone.”