In 2012, the NRL made a minor alteration to its finals system to give the top four teams a greater reward for finishing in the upper echelon of the ladder. The NRL finals system has remained the same ever since and there is no prospect of it changing any time soon, so now is as good a time as any to brush up on exactly how it all works.
How many teams qualify?
Eight. This means that half of the 16 teams in the league get a chance to compete in the finals. The standings at the end of the home and away season, of course, are determined by total wins, but obviously there are occasions in which multiple teams win the same number of games. In such cases, percentage separates these teams — this is calculated by simply dividing points for by points against over the course of the entire season, and multiplying that number by 100 to reach a total percentage.
Is the NRL finals a knockout tournament?
Not entirely. Prior to 2012, it was — first place played eighth place, second played seventh and so on, and the winning teams advanced until there was just one side remaining. There was always discussion about whether that system gave a significant enough advantage to the top teams, however, and when the Warriors (who finished eighth) beat the Storm (who finished first) in 2011, that discussion reached boiling point.
As a result, the league made a change to the system which gave the top four sides a little cushion. How many teams are left in the finals in each week has remained the same, but now, in the first week, first plays fourth and second plays third. The winners of these games advance through to the third week, while the losers get a second chance and advance through to the second week.
As for fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth, they too play against one another, but unlike the top four, the losers don’t get a second chance. The winners of these two games advance through to the second week, while the losers are sent packing. After that, the system functions as it did previously, with each winning side advancing through to the next week and each losing team being eliminated from the finals.
How long do the NRL Finals last?
The NRL Finals run over the course of four weeks. The first, as mentioned, has two types of finals: the qualifying finals, which are played among the top four; and the elimination finals, which are contested by teams finishing fifth through to eighth. The following week is the semi-finals, in which two matches are played, while the third week is the preliminary finals, which again consists of two matches. The last week of the NRL finals is, of course, Grand Final week, in which just one game is played and the NRL Premiership winner is decided.
The NRL finals system is identical to that which is used by the AFL, and is generally regarded as being a fair way to reward teams finishing high on the ladder – at least more so than the old system. Incidentally, in all nine seasons since the format was altered a team from the top four has won the Premiership. Clearly, it pays to finish up the top.
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