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The Obstruction Rule‘s True Ladder™
The Obstruction Rule’s True Ladder™ is our take on the popular “Power Rankings” found on other sites. Unlike the arbitrary rankings of those however, our True Ladder™ ranks the teams by their expected performance against a league average opponent. It’s calculated by deducting the projected tries conceded against a league average opponent from the projected tries scored. So yes, the selection of the ranking system is equally as arbitrary. But ours uses maths!
1) Melbourne Storm (15-4)
2) St George Illawarra Dragons (10-9)
3) Manly Sea Eagles (11-8)
4) Canberra Raiders (8-11)
5) Cronulla Sharks (13-6)
6) Sydney Roosters (14-5)
7) Brisbane Broncos (12-7)
8) Parramatta Eels (12-7)
9) Penrith Panthers (10-9)
10) New Zealand Warriors (7-12)
11) Canterbury Bulldogs (7-12)
12) North Queensland Cowboys (12-7)
13) South Sydney Rabbitohs (6-13)
14) Wests Tigers (5-14)
15) Newcastle Knights (3-16)
16) Gold Coast Titans (7-12)
The road to the finals goes through Pepper Stadium
Rather than our usual “trending up/trending down” format, we’re mixing it up this month by looking at the six teams in the hunt for the bottom four spots in the finals: the Broncos, Cowboys, Sea Eagles, Dragons, Panthers and Raiders (for our purposes, we’ve gone right ahead and assumed that the Eels are home. They’re now on 30 points, and have an absurdly soft run into the playoffs, in which they meet three bottom eight teams – the Knights, Titans and Rabbitohs – as well as the Broncos. However bad you might think they are, they’ll almost certainly scratch up at least a win, and they mightn’t need it anyway). Incidentally, all the teams listed besides Brisbane (who’ve already beaten Penrith this year) have a date with the Panthers between now and the finals. The Panthers mightn’t be very good, but they just became the gatekeepers to the 2017 playoffs.
Brisbane Broncos (28 points) Titans(A), Sharks(H), Dragons(H), Eels(H), Cowboys(A): Taking it from the top, the Broncos are the best placed team of the group, and you’d fancy they’re a virtual certainty to still be around in September. That said we’re not particularly enamored with the Broncos’ form through the month of July.
While their offense goes from strength to strength, their defense has been trending down since mid-June, before it (hopefully) bottomed out against the Eels last weekend, as they conceded 4 tries, 9 line breaks, and an obscene 1642 run metres (those were the second best line break and run metre totals of the year for Parramatta, as well as being just the 4th time this year that the Eels have notched over 30 tackle breaks in a match). The Broncos’ defense is concerning (they’ve now dropped to 11th in Defense VOA), and although their offense has been in superb touch, they’ve now lost hooker Andrew McCullough for the remainder of the year, so there’s no certainty that it will continue to bail them out going forward.
That being said, for the Broncos to miss out they’d need to lose at least two more games than the Dragons, and possibly three more than the Panthers (given their 47 point for-and-against advantage; though if they’re losing that many games, that could easily correct itself), and it’s difficult to see that happening. If they beat the Dragons in Round 24 they’ll go a long toward securing their spot, since both the Panthers and Dragons would then have to make up three wins from the remaining four rounds, and if they’ve already won the Titans game, they should be home. A loss to the Titans this weekend would put them under enormous pressure, but if they navigate that game, we’re backing them in.
North Queensland Cowboys (28 points) Storm(H), Panthers(A), Sharks(H), Tigers(A), Broncos(H): The Cows are in a similar spot to the Broncos, but with an inferior for-and-against, and an infinitely more difficult draw. The Cowboys had a fantastic July, winning 3 from 4 with their gritty, disciplined style of football; and that’s put them in the box seat for the finals, but still with work to do.
The secret to the Cowboys’ success has been their uncanny ability to win the lion’s share of possession. Before their loss to the Roosters on the weekend, they’d had an equal share or better of possession for their last 9 matches in a row, the longest such streak in the league (for comparison’s sake, the longest current streak is just 4 games, held jointly by the Sharks and Eels). It’s no secret how they’ve done it – good old fashioned discipline. They’ve made double-digit errors just once in their last 8 games, and their weekend loss to the Roosters was the first time they’d conceded more than 7 penalties in a match since Round 10. However, discipline will only get you so far.
It’s not inconceivable that the Cowboys could potentially win as few as one game the rest of the way, meaning that the Dragons and Panthers would require just three wins each in order to leapfrog them (and in that scenario, Penrith would presumably already have one of the three wins required). That makes it a realistic possibility that the Boys could miss the finals, though the Cowboys have in their favour that the Dragons and Panthers still have to play each other – a game that will necessarily result in a loss for one of the two.
The most critical game from a Cowboys perspective is their Round 23 clash with the Panthers – if they win that, they’re almost certainly home. However, if they lose, then they may well find themselves in a three-way tie on 28 points, and potentially lumbered with the worst for-and-against.
You’d have to think the Cowboys should be good from here as well, given their resilient success of the past month. The next two weeks will tell the story though, and if they don’t go well, it’ll start getting a bit tense up in Townsville.
Manly Sea Eagles (26 points) Roosters(H), Tigers(A), Bulldogs(A), Warriors(A), Panthers(H): Now it starts to get interesting.
The Eagles had a dreadful July, losing 3 out of 5 matches, and having to fight back from 16-0 down to beat the Warriors (incidentally, that win might end up being the difference between them making it or missing out, but we’ll get to that).
The issue for the Sea Eagles is depth, or more specifically, a lack of it. Through Rounds 8-16, a period in which they won 6 of 7 matches, they were fortunate enough to be able to roll out an identical forward pack, and almost identical bench (with only minor, voluntary tinkering of the final bench spot). Then through July, they variously lost Curtis Sironen, Jake Trbojevic, Brenton Lawrence, Api Korisau and Lloyd Perrett (and have now lost Addin Fonua-Blake for the Roosters clash), and without them, they’ve self-destructed. Through the opening 15 rounds, the Sea Eagles were outgained in just 5 clashes; however, since then, they’ve lost the run metres in 3 of their last 4 (all losses). And without them, their defense has been annihilated, conceding an appalling 18 tries and 16 line breaks in those 3 losses.
So, where do they go from here? For a start, some continuity would be nice. With the exception of Sironen, the Sea Eagles pack should finally return to full-strength after this weekend, just in time for a run of winnable matches. Their for-and-against is worse than both the Dragons and Panthers, so they likely need to win as many games as both those sides in order to remain above them. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that the Eagles could go undefeated the rest of the way; but in reality, they more than likely win 3 of their next 4, and will know before kickoff against the Panthers if a win is actually required or not. Should they lose to the Roosters, a loss to the Panthers would see them jumped if the Dragons win 4 of 5 (they face four bottom eight teams the rest of the way), and if the Panthers win 3 of their remaining 4 (they face two teams they’ve already beaten, and both their other matches are at home). However, as above, the Panthers and Dragons face each other, so if both sides have already dropped a game before they meet in Round 25, the Sea Eagles would already be safe.
If the Sea Eagles were to drop a game between Rounds 23-25 (in addition to losing to the Roosters), then Round 26 becomes very interesting; but in all likelihood, Manly will already be locked in by then. Given their draw, they’re probably the safest bet.
St George Illawarra Dragons (24 points) Rabbitohs(H), Titans(H), Broncos(A), Panthers(A), Bulldogs(H): We don’t know where to start with the Dragons’ July, during which they lost 2 out of 3 matches, including inexplicably dropping one to the Knights. In between their losses, they also played the most bizarre game of football this year, during which the Dragons and Sea Eagles combined to score 74 points in 80 minutes. Like the Sea Eagles, the Dragons’ issues have stemmed from their defense – through their last six weeks, the Dragons are averaging 22.17 points conceded per game (compared to just 16.23 points in their opening 13 matches), putting enormous pressure on their surprisingly strong offense to keep racking up points.
If you were to pinpoint the exact time at which the Dragons began unraveling, you’d go back to ANZAC Day. In that loss to the Roosters, Gareth Widdop tore his MCL, the Dragons lost a tight match 13-12, and from that moment on, their defense seemed to fall of a cliff. The loss of Euan Aitken was costly, with his replacement Kurt Mann being repeatedly exposed in his absence, in particular in the Dragons’ disappointing Round 14 loss to the Bulldogs. Unsurprisingly, Dragons coach Paul McGregor opted for a different replacement this time around, preferring Josh Dugan for the clash with the Knight (with disappointingly familiar results). Their Defense VOA was ranked an impressive 3rd (-36.73%) back in April, but has since collapsed to be 7th, at -12.29% (and still dropping). The Knights match is just the latest in a long run of disappointment.
But the good news? Their run home is relatively soft, and with their superior for-and-against, they need only win as many games as Penrith (and possibly as many as three games less than the Raiders) to be safe (which, depending on results, could easily be as few as 28 points). Should they roll the Rabbitohs and Titans, they’ll put enormous pressure on the Panthers, who’ll need to keep winning in order to keep pace. If the Panthers drop one more game than St George prior to Round 25, the Dragons should be safe. The Panthers could draw level again by upsetting the Dragons; but would still need to beat the Sea Eagles in Round 26, and potentially have the Dragons lose to the Bulldogs the day after, since St George (currently) have the better for-and-against.
So given their relative runs, you’d have to fancy the Dragons to finish above the Panthers, though we acknowledge that they have to be at least some chance of dropping a game to the Rabbitohs or Titans. And should the Panthers beat the Tigers, Cowboys and Raiders, they may have a chance to put the final nail in the Dragons in Round 25.
Penrith Panthers (24 points) Tigers(H), Cowboys(H), Raiders(A), Dragons(H), Sea Eagles(A) : Despite starting July with a 42-14 hiding at the hands of the Rabbitohs, it was all rosy from there as the Panthers won their next four on the trot. They’ve achieved it with a conservative, boring style of football that we’ve discussed at length in our weekly previews, and as a result, they’re at least in with a shot (but still have an uphill climb ahead of them).
The Panthers are in a somewhat odd spot – they’re coming from out of the eight, and have one of the more difficult runs home, so for those reasons, they’re probably the most likely to miss out. However, if they do win enough games to make the finals, they’re every chance of securing a home final. The weird quirk comes from the fact that they’re playing all the teams immediately above them on the ladder. To be assured of a finals spot, the Panthers ideally need to get to 32 points, which means winning four of their remaining five games. However, if they get there by beating all of the Cowboys, Dragons and Sea Eagles, they almost certainly leapfrog all three into 6th (or possibly even higher).
They could still get there with 30 points, but they’d be relying on other results to help them out – for Manly and St George to only win two games, or for the Broncos and Cowboys to only win one.
It’s a tough run to navigate, and you’d have to think it’s more likely than not that they slip up somewhere. But their destiny is firmly in their own hands, and if they do somehow get there, they’ll be well placed (and with a ridiculous form line) to be a genuine premiership chance.
Canberra Raiders (20 points) Sharks(A), Warriors(A), Panthers(H), Knights(H), Storm(A): We include the Raiders, if only because it remains mathematically possible, if only for another week.
For the Raiders to make the finals, they’d need to win all of their remaining games, while hoping that the Panthers win no more than three matches, and the Dragons no more than two, given their superior points differential. They have two tough away trips to Cronulla and Melbourne on the calendar, as well as a home clash with the Panthers. We actually don’t think it’s beyond the realms of possibility that the Raiders could roll the Sharks this weekend (we tipped them in our Round 22 Preview), and from there, it’s certainly not hard to imagine them winning their way into Round 26, where they’ll have a trip to the graveyard in Melbourne with their season potentially still alive.
The Raiders’ future may well come down to the Panthers/Dragons game in Round 25 (assuming that Canberra have won all their games to that point). If the Dragons can beat Penrith, it’s hard to imagine them losing the two other matches required in order for the Raiders to jump them. If, however, the Panthers can beat the Dragons, and if the Broncos have beaten the Dragons in Round 24,the Raiders would draw level with a win over the Knights. Jumping the Panthers is less of an issue, since the Raiders need to have beaten them to be in with a shot in the first place. From there, Penrith need only drop one more game, and the Raiders would take likely take them on for-and-against.
Their other, less likely targets are the Sea Eagles, if Manly lose three matches (unlikely), and the Cowboys and Broncos, if they only win one (theoretically possible, but we wouldn’t count on it).
However, even if other results go their way, the Raiders would still need to beat the Storm in Melbourne. It would be a blockbuster match, and make for an exciting finish to the season – and we actually think it’s perfectly realistic – but let’s take it one step at a time, and see if they can beat the Sharks first.