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Do the Sharks even deserve a spot in the finals after their cushy draw?




Come semi-final time each season, it has become a habit of mine to sit down and explore the ramifications of the always compromised NRL draw.

Essentially, teams who struggled one year are assumed to be doing the same in the season following and thus begins the guesswork that leads directly to the rather flawed and unjust competition that favours some and hurts others.

2021 battlers Canberra, Brisbane and North Queensland were thought by the draw makers to be something similar this season and the Knights, Titans and Sea Eagles were predicted to be grappling for spots in the finals.

Instead, the latter three plummeted and late in the season, it appeared the Raiders, Cowboys and Broncos were all destined for finals play.

Sadly for the Broncs, they collapsed, yet their season surpassed what the number crunchers at the NRL had predicted and along with the other five very off the mark expectations, it created one of the most compromised and lopsided NRL draws we’ve seen for some time.

In a 24-round competition, a perfect world would present the scenario where each team played roughly half their matches against top-eight opposition and half against teams lower on the table. However, with 16 teams involved, the numerical impossibility that presents forces the NRL to instead match each club up against the other 15 on one occasion, as well as slating a secondary fixture against nine of those 15.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

And that is precisely where the guesswork and flawed use of crystal balls lets us all down as a rugby league community. Which teams a club draws in those effectively randomly generated nine fixtures can be crucial in defining a season; potentially determining whether a team makes the finals, or more importantly, earns a spot in the top four heading into them.

In 2022, the Panthers did it tough, yet to their credit, still finished top of the pops. Penrith faced the Cowboys, Bunnies, Storm, Raiders, Eels and Roosters on two occasions, and 13 times met top-eight opposition across their 24 matches.

The Mountain Men faced six of the other seven clubs to qualify for finals twice; more than any other team. In fact, only one other side faced five of the eventual semi-finalists on two occasions across the course of the year.

Melbourne mixed it with the Rabbitohs, Eels, Sharks, Panthers and Roosters twice and also met top-eight competition 13 times.

It seems Penrith and Melbourne were given the toughest assignments this season, with the premiers navigating their way through the challenge and the Storm succumbing to it for one of the rare times in their history.

The Roosters, Rabbitohs, Raiders and Eels played a duo of matches against four fellow finalists throughout the regular season, with the former playing 12 matches against teams destined for the finals and the other three playing 11.

Whilst there does appear to be some parity evident across those four teams, the draw also provided a significant leg up to two teams who took full advantage.

North Queensland entered the season as unlikely contenders, yet proved briskly that things had changed under Todd Payten. The draw perpetuated the good work he has done in recruitment and tactical awareness.

The Cowboys faced just three of the top eight on two occasions; Penrith, Canberra and the Roosters, whilst avoiding double-ups against three of the top five finishes on the ladder. Of their 24 NRL home-and-away fixtures in 2022, just 10 were against top-eight opposition.

If that raised an eyebrow, just wait, there is more.

As impressive as the Cronulla run has been and the coming of age of Nicho Hynes something to admire for all NRL fans, the Sharks have been blessed with the softest of draws and taken maximum benefit from it.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

In comparison to the Panthers having to tackle almost the entire top eight on two separate occasions throughout the course of the season, Craig Fitzgibbon’s men did so only against the Storm and Raiders; teams that finished fifth and eighth on the final premiership ladder.

In total, Cronulla muscled up just nine times against finals bound teams, played the other members of the top four just once and enjoyed 15 games against the teams destined to finish as also-rans in 2022.

All credit to the Sharks and their ability to put away the teams they undoubtedly should have across the season proper. Yet anyone who dares suggest that their points tally come season’s end is of the same merit of some of the other top eight contenders is simply kidding themselves.

As is annually the case, the NRL’s compromised draw accidentally favours teams based on flawed assumptions drawn from the season prior.

This year, the Cowboys and the Sharks won NRL lotto and could potentially win a premiership off the back of it.

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