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Should NRL finals format be changed, number of teams reduced or expanded?

The NRL finals format is always questioned at this time of year but with the competition moving to 17 teams next year, is it time to tweak the system?

For the first time since 1994, there will be more teams missing the playoffs than qualifying.

This means the NRL is not rewarding mediocrity with a side unlikley to be sneaking into eighth spot with a losing record.

In the 2022 season, the Broncos missed the cut despite having a 13-11 record while St George Illawarra’s three late wins meant they went 12-12 but finished 10th.

The NRL has considered the possibility of a 10-team finals system where the top six teams automatically qualify and the teams ranked 7-10 playoff for the last two spots.

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There has also been plenty of conjecture about stadium hosting rights in the finals following the controversial decision to allow Penrith and Cronulla to host week-one matches at their suburban stadiums instead of larger venues in Sydney.

The Roar experts have their say and if you’d like to do likewise, fire away in the comments section below.

Experts Roar – Finals format

Michael Hagan (premiership-winning player and coach)

I would leave the current top-eight system as it is apart from one small alteration.

The current set-up rewards teams enough if they finish in the top four with a home-ground advantage and then a week off for the two highest-placed winners.

What I would consider would be rewarding the winning teams from the first round with hosting rights in the second week so Raiders vs Parramatta would be at Canberra and Rabbitohs vs Sharks would be at Accor Stadium.

Canberra Raiders (Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

Paul Suttor (Roar expert)

When the NRL expands to 18 teams, hopefully by 2026 or ’27 at the latest, the NRL should revive the wildcard weekend idea. Give the top six teams the week off to freshen up the best talent for the playoffs and let the next four teams battle it out for the last two finals berths.

The naysayers will say nay, as they do, because it rewards mediocrity but that’s missing the point – those four teams would have little to no chance of going all the way to the Grand Final by winning five straight matches, particularly if they’re facing rested opponents in an Elimination Final.

It would also create more interest in the final month of the season for the teams in the middle to lower end of the table, boosting crowds and TV ratings, which in theory should make the NRL a more valuable product, if administered professionally.

Mike Meehall Wood (Roar expert)

The top eight system is pretty decent in that it’s designed to create a month’s worth of fixtures and does that well. The old system didn’t really make any regard between finishing 1st and 4th, so that wasn’t great, and this one affords the double chance.

My major gripe would be that it rewards mediocrity: this top eight is the first one in a long time where all teams have actually been good, and usually someone with a losing or even record makes it.

The top six system in place in Super League would be a greater reflection of who is actually elite, because in my mind, at least one good team should miss out for it to be a proper finals set-up. 

That said, I can totally see why the three-week system in SL wouldn’t work, and why increasing the number of teams with nothing to play for in the late regular season would also not work, so happy with it as it is.

Danielle Smith (Roar expert)

This is one topic I’m very torn over. On one hand, I’m happy with the system. I like the top eight, and I like the two chances and sudden-death split. On the other hand I don’t like how two teams that finish in the top four miss out on a home final in the first week yet two teams that finish in the bottom four do get a home game.

And the only way to fix that would be to go back to the old McIntyre System with 1 v 8, 2 v 7, 3 v 6 and 4 v 5 … and I don’t know if I like that idea either.

Stuart Thomas (Roar expert)

There is little doubt the NRL finals always produce in terms of quality and excitement for fans, yet the determination of the participants themselves remains based on the most compromised of methods that fundamentally violates the notion of fairness.

With a 17th team about to enter the fray, it is time for the home and away season to become 16 weeks long, with standalone representative weekends and a finals series that features a play-off for eighth spot between the teams that finish eighth and ninth on the ladder and two-legged play-off matches to decide who advances.

Should the powers at be want to involve those teams outside the top eight in some sort of plate or trophy competition where money or salary cap benefits are on the line, so be it. Yet the current format continues to be broken and 16 weeks of parity where teams play each other once on a home and away basis is the only real solution. 

Mary Konstantopoulos (Ladies Who League)

I am comfortable both with the format and number of teams involved in the finals.  What I would like to see is a week off included either prior to finals kicking off or prior to the Grand Final to give teams the opportunity to refresh.

Ryan O’Connell (Roar expert)

I think the current finals system works as is. I don’t really see a need to play with it. When it comes to making changes or coming up with new ideas, my first question is always ‘What problem are you trying to solve?’, and I don’t think the NRL has an issue.

The only small wrinkle I could possibly come up with is that the minor premier gets to choose who they play out of the top four. So, say you finish first, but you don’t really like the match-up with the fourth-placed team for some reason (ie: they’re your bogey side, they’re red hot, etc), then you can decide to play someone else in the top four. It’s another reward for finishing on top of the ladder, and it will certainly create some discussion.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Latrell Mitchell of the Rabbitohs is tackled during the NRL Elimination Final match between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs at Allianz Stadium on September 11, 2022 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Joe Frost (Roar expert)

The eight is fine as it is. You really can’t have more than half the comp make the finals, so adding is off the table. As for subtracting, we just saw team eight beat five, team seven beat six, and team three beat two.

The comp starts again in September and the underdog is very much in play. Plus fewer teams means fewer games, at a time of the year when the footy is (mostly) of an excellent standard. I asked it last year and I’ll ask it again of those who want fewer teams in the finals: who hurt you?

Tim Gore (Roar expert)

The current format works. The top four playing off for the week off in the first weekend works well, as do the 5V8, 6V7 elimination games.

The top eight is the perfect size for a comp with 16-18 sides too. Anymore and we are handing out participation awards.

The major change I’d make is – taking a leaf out of the AFL book – is to have a bye weekend that allows all teams to freshen up and so that teams aren’t penalised with short turn arounds while others get a long break between games.

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