NRL's elite teams in a league of their own

·3-min read

The NRL's mantra that any team can win on any given day is no more with favourites now successful in almost 75 per cent of matches since the start of the 2020 season.

And it all adds up to making the 2021 competition one of the most lopsided in memory, with the top five already forming a clear breakaway as the only sides with positive for-and-against records.

Of the 36 matches played between top-five teams and the rest of the NRL this season, St George Illawarra's round-five win over Parramatta is the only victory by a side over one of the elite group.

But it is the winning data that shows how much more predictable the competition has become.

According to figures from the TAB, there have been just 21 upsets in 80 NRL games this year.

Favourites have won 73.75 per cent of games, after also being successful 74.26 per cent of the time in 2020.

That is well up on a strike-rate of 61.69 per cent from 2018.

Worryingly for the NRL, the AFL is now the far more unpredictable of the two codes.

Underdogs are winning more often with the AFL favourites' striking at 69.44 per cent, well down on 77.54 at the introduction of an 18th team in 2012.

What's causing the NRL's predictability is another issue.

Rightfully, league bosses are quick to point out that roster management is at the core of it.

But it can't be ignored that the significant shift in favourites winning and blowout margins has coincided with the introduction of set restarts and a quicker game.

"There's no doubt that the way the rules changed the game last year it stopped sides from squeezing and slowing the game up," Warriors coach Nathan Brown said.

"We all agree it's for the better of the game. It allows all these smaller players who are rugby league players to get an opportunity.

"But you can certainly see the gap when things get out of control."

The average winning margin this season is the highest in the NRL-era at 17.96, while 59 per cent of games are decided by 13 or more points.

With momentum so hard to turn games, Brown believes the changes have made defence more important and the benefits of long-term roster huge.

"Those sides defend well and to help get momentum back you need to be able to stop tries," Brown said.

"They've got pretty settled rosters, pretty settled coaching staff."

What it inadvertently caused is two separate competitions, with both Gold Coast and Cronulla suggesting games against teams outside the top five have become even more important in the past week.

PERCENTAGE OF NRL FAVOURITES WINNING

2021: 73.75

2020: 74.26

2019: 66.42

2018: 61.69

2017: 66.17

2016: 70.15

2015: 60.95

2014: 62.69

2013: 68.16

2012: 64.93

PERCENTAGE OF AFL FAVOURITES WINNING

2021: 69.44

2020: 71.60

2019: 66.67

2018: 70.77

2017: 65.94

2016: 71.01

2015: 70.87

2014: 71.26

2013: 74.15

2012: 77.54

Source: TAB

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