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Strugglers stagnate as smart sides get stronger

The NRL used to trumpet in advertising campaigns the effectiveness of the salary cap.

How the team that won the premiership kept on changing. New champions every year, any club can lift the trophy, that sort of thing.

And for a decent stretch of time, that was the case. 

If you take out the 2007 and ‘09 titles that were stripped from the Storm for rorting said salary cap, there were 12 clubs from 17 untainted seasons who got their hands on the ultimate prize. 

Compare that with other professional sports around the globe and that’s the kind of diversity that even Ron Burgundy could comprehend.

But over the past six seasons, there has been a sameness about the title contenders. The Storm and Roosters won two titles apiece from 2017-20, Penrith were last year’s premiers and look on track to do so again.

At $2.10 with the bookmakers, the Panthers are the shortest-priced title favourites seven weeks out from the end of the regular season in a long, long time.

If you isolate the competition table to the top six spots, only 10 of the 16 clubs have finished the season in this upper echelon or are currently in this group.

Six clubs are forming a perennial underclass in the NRL – the Dragons, Knights, Tigers, Titans and Warriors and Bulldogs have finished no higher than seventh in this timeframe. 

It is no coincidence that those same six teams fill out the bottom of the ladder after 18 rounds and barring a remarkable and unlikely late-season revival, will again be watching the playoffs from afar.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 03: Zac Lomax of the Dragons and his team look dejected after a try during the round four NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the St George Illawarra Dragons at CommBank Stadium, on April 03, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

For the Tigers, their playoff drought stretches back to 2011, which is the same year the Warriors last had a victory in the post-season in their run to the Grand Final – they’ve finished outside the eight every other year apart from a first-round exit four years ago.

The Knights have not won a finals game since 2013 while St George Illawarra have enjoyed just one playoff victory in the past decade.

Gold Coast have a solitary victory over the Warriors in 2010 as their only playoff success since coming into the NRL three years earlier while the Bulldogs at least had five straight years of finals appearances before the Des Hasler era of back-ended contracts came back to bite them from 2017 onwards.

The top six in the past six years

2017 2018 2019 2020 2021 2022
Storm Roosters Storm Panthers Storm Panthers
Roosters Storm Roosters Storm Panthers Cowboys
Broncos Rabbitohs Rabbitohs Eels Rabbitohs Sharks
Eels Sharks Raiders Roosters Sea Eagles Storm
Sharks Broncos Eels Raiders Roosters Broncos
Sea Eagles Panthers Sea Eagles Rabbitohs Eels Eels

The strugglers keep floundering while the leading clubs keep getting stronger.

With the Dolphins entering the NRL next year with no leg up in terms of salary cap allowances and what looks like being a middling roster, they will probably end up among the strugglers for at least their first year or two, perhaps longer.

Melbourne have been in the top six each year since 2017, the Eels have also only missed out once while the Roosters are out of the top group this season for only the second time in a decade. 

Penrith and the Rabbitohs (four each) have done consistently well in the past six years along with the Sharks and Sea Eagles (three times apiece). Canberra (twice) and Brisbane (now up to three) were the only other teams to feature in the top six over a five-year stretch before the Cowboys shot up the standings this season.

The rise of the Sharks, Broncos and North Queensland in 2022 has given the top-eight scenario a much-needed breath of fresh air although these three teams are still yet to prove they are legitimate title contenders.

Cam Munster against the Panthers

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Salary cap theory vs reality

In theory, a salary cap will equalise playing talent across the rosters.

It works in the NRL fantasy leagues but not in reality.

The NRL is a perfect example of why success in professional sport is about much more than who you select to fill out your roster with the allotted money allocated to each club.

In essence, successful clubs have stability and professionalism from top to bottom and most points in between.

These other teams do not, have not, and probably will not for the next few years at least.

Wests Tigers is a disjointed venture

The Tigers have cycled through more coaches than Sid Foggs on the trip from Newcastle to a Grand Final.

Their roster management has been abysmal in recent years with a succession of high-priced recruits failing to live up to expectations. 

They at least now seem to have a workable policy of investing in what should be an advantage to them in their massive junior nursery in Campbelltown with the old/young firm of Tim Sheens and Benji Marshall to build a succession plan for the head coach’s role but can anyone see them realistically making the finals in the next couple of years? 

Didn’t think so. Which means Marshall will be inheriting a team on the rise but one that hasn’t sniffed the playoffs since he was in his prime in 2011.

Tohu Harris dives over to score a try at Mt Smart Stadium. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Perpetually gone Warriors

The Warriors are following a similar path. 

They’re bringing in an untested coach straight away in Andrew Webster but with Reece Walsh and Euan Aitken following Matt Lodge and Kodi Nikorima in turning their back on a return to Auckland, as well as Chanel Harris-Tavita taking a sabbatical, it’s gonna be tough sledding despite being back on home soil after three long years as nomads.

The club’s only hope of getting back in playoff range is to develop their nation’s youth before the Australian teams come calling with lucrative offers.

Golden era still yet to arrive on Coast

Gold Coast have some hope for the future after prioritising the likes of AJ Brimson, Jayden Campbell, Toby Sexton and Beau Fermor to build a youthful nucleus behind captain Tino Fa’asuamaleaui.

However, they have two main issues to resolve – the uncertainty around coach Justin Holbrook’s position and whether they can add any further quality recruits with David Fifita’s annual seven-figure salary not delivering bang for the megabucks.

The Titans wanted to make a splash by poaching one of the best young prospects in the game from Brisbane but even though Fifita has not been as bad as many people have made out, there’s a reason why clubs don’t splash out that kind of money for edge back-rowers and they’ve learned the lesson the hard way.

David Fifita

David Fifita (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Dark days for Knights

Newcastle were in a state of severe disrepair after the Nathan Tinkler debacle but they can only blame that reign of terror for so long.

The wealthy Wests Leagues Club taking ownership of the Knights five years ago was meant to ensure the league heartland would have the dollars to compete with the elite.

But the team hit a plateau with Nathan Brown as coach and it looks to have done so at seventh spot for two straight years under Adam O’Brien before falling well off the pace again this season.

Anyone who doubts Kalyn Ponga’s place as one of the NRL’s top talents did not watch the State of Origin series but unless the Knights can attract a top playmaker to bolster their spine, his game-changing ability will go to waste.

Dragons dragging the chain

St George Illawarra’s decade of mediocrity has not gone unnoticed by their fan base but has not been scrutinised as heavily as others. 

Similar to the Knights, they achieved much greater financial stability four years ago when WIN TV mogul Bruce Gordon bought the Steelers’ side of the joint venture.

But they have continued to underachieve and the decision to appoint Anthony Griffin as a coach two years ago was short-sighted at the time and has only been made worse since. 

Like their fellow strugglers, it’s going to be a slow rebuild in Wollongong with the club’s young talent surrounded by a lot of players who peaked years ago.

Case in point – Griffin said in a recent press conference that he thought veteran forward Josh McGuire could keep playing for another “three, four or five years”. The correct answer should have been McGuire has barely been NRL standard for the past “three, four or five years”. At least when he’s been on the field and not suspended.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 15: Paul Vaughan of the Bulldogs and team mates look dejected during the round six NRL match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Canterbury Bulldogs at Stadium Australia, on April 15, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Deja vu dogs Canterbury

Of the six perennial strugglers in recent years, Canterbury have the highest immediate upside due to the fact they have Viliame Kikau and Reed Mahoney coming on board in 2023.

However, Bulldogs fans will be forgiven for thinking they have heard it all before. A bigger bunch of new recruits headed by Josh Addo-Carr and Matt Burton was supposed to deliver the turnaround this season.

The club’s two glaring issues are finding a coach and a halfback. Kyle Flanagan has copped plenty of harsh criticism in the past couple of years, much of it over the top. 

But on the body of evidence that’s been put forward thus far, he’s yet to prove he can be a top-shelf playmaker and the combination with Burton is simply not working.

Canterbury have continually been linked with Cameron Ciraldo as the coach to dig them out of the mire and they’ve got the resources and roster to potentially pry him away from Penrith.

But the Bulldogs fans are again chowing down on deja vu – the club poached a highly regarded Panthers assistant a couple of years ago in Trent Barrett and are still waiting for their side to record its first winning record since 2016.

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