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The ones that got away: NRL teams that just missed the finals

It’s that time of the year. Origin is all over bar the gloating. NRL clubs are assessing their injuries, banking the bye and forlornly calculating lost gate takings. And now the run to finals begins in earnest.

Eight special and not so special teams will achieve the holy grail of One More Week.

Another four or five are already shopping for coaches, working out how to offload that recruitment fail from two years ago, hiring security to protect the public from Mad Monday and preparing their 2023 press release outlining how “The boys have never been fitter”.

And then there is that special class. I call them the Maxwell Smarts, as in “Missed it by that much” (if you are under 50 ask your parents).

These are the ones who miss the finals by just one win or even just due to for and against. Back in the day there were even mid-week play offs for fifth place leaving the loser that much closer to their unreachable goal.

In 2022 you would think after Round 17 the following teams are safe: Penrith, North Queensland, Cronulla and the Storm (unless their current slide becomes terminal).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - JULY 07: Brandon Smith of the Storm warms up during the round 17 NRL match between the Cronulla Sharks and the Melbourne Storm at PointsBet Stadium, on July 07, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Brandon Smith. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

That leaves four spots for seven clubs: Brisbane, Parramatta, South Sydney, St George, Manly, the Roosters and Canberra.

A very lazy run through the ladder predictor tells that 26 points might be required this year and that the Dragons, Roosters and Raiders might just fall short.

I’m sure this will be wildly inaccurate come 4th September.

I have each of these three missing out by the barest of margins: either just a single win, or even worse, on for and against.

The Wests Tigers a few years back made a culture out of finishing 9th. On the one hand this leads to blame and recrimination, but on the other it can also allow fans to dream of a deep run through the finals if we had just jagged that one more win in April.

In some ways that is a lot more satisfying than staggering into the finals and having 40 put on you by the Storm.

It should be noted that in the 27 years since we’ve have a top eight (or the heady days of 1998 with a top 10 no less), the team just scraping into the finals has made it past the first week just five times (including Super League).

There have been a couple of notable exceptions, such as North Queensland in 2017 and Parramatta in 2009, but generally scraping in just gives patrons at the local nightclubs an extra week to prepare before the lads are let off their collective leashes.

Since 1980, the team with the most finishes just one place out of finals is … (drum roll) … The Wests Tigers! This surprises no one.

The Tigers (and their Wests and Balmain predecessors) have fallen one place short a whopping 8 times over the past 42 years. So the perception is solidly based in fact. Wests are chokers. That record is double the next ‘best’ being St George-Illawarra and the Roosters on four times each.

Robbie Farah

The Tigers just love finishing ninth. (Photo by Mark Nolan/Getty Images)

Wests also hold the record for the most times getting within two points of reaching finals. They have managed that 10 times.

The competition here is a little closer. St George-Illawarra have done it eight times and although Penrith only finished one spot out of finals on a single occasion, they’ve come within two points of finals a rather dispiriting six times. They are making up for it now though.

Plenty of teams have finished with enough competition points to make finals, but have missed out due to for and against or a lost play-off, but only three teams have suffered that fate twice: Canberra, the Warriors and the Roosters.

On six occasions since 1980 the team just missing finals has ended up more than 2 points adrift with the finals well decided (including Super League 1997).

There are no hard luck stories here. The biggest gap between finals and best of the rest was in 2018 when the Tigers came ninth (of course) but were six points adrift of the action.

In 2014 the New Zealand Warriors established the record for coming nearest to a finals spot without getting over the line, missing out by just 13 on for and against.

They only had themselves to blame, given in round 5 that year they gave up a 37 to 6 shellacking to eventual wooden spooners, Cronulla.

In 1988 the Brisbane Broncos, fielding a “virtual origin team” took the competition by storm initially but ran out of steam to lose their finals spot in the very last round, failing to overcome a very good Balmain side.

They would have at least made a play off if they hadn’t been ambushed by the Gold Coast Giants in their first ever derby earlier in the season, losing 25 to 22. The Gold Coast only won three other games all season.

2007 was possibly the worst choke in the history of the competition. Wests were cruising into the finals before somehow conspiring to lose 26 to 24 to the 15th-placed and frankly terrible Newcastle Knights to drop out of the finals as close to the last minute as you can get.

Having said that the Tigers haven’t been the only ones to put in a last round performance to crash themselves out of the finals and their fans out of their collective minds.

Others include:
– 2017 – St George-Illawarra losing the final round to the 11th placed Bulldogs, when a win would have knocked eventual runners up North Queensland out of the competition before the finals even began.
– 2014 – Parramatta were soundly beaten 33 to 20 by the 15th placed Bulldogs, allowing Brisbane into the finals
– In 2004 Wests were at it again, losing to 10th placed Newcastle when a win would have secured a spot over Canberra.
– In the ARL 1997 competition Wests were again showing their mastery of the final round implosion, losing 39 to 18 to the last placed and soon the be defunct South QLD Crushers to hand a maiden finals berth to the Gold Coast.
– In 1987 Canterbury lost to 10th placed St George to drop out in favour of Souths.
– In 1983 the Roosters went down to 8th placed Souths handing St George a finals spot.
– And finally all the way back in 1980 Manly just needed to beat 9th placed Cronulla to make the top 5 and went down 35 to 12.
Three times for Wests there … hmmm.
What might have been
Every team that just misses finals can point to one game (or many) where they dropped points to a lesser side for no apparent reason, the most famous being Wests in the final round of 2007 that I previously talked about.
It’s actually a very common tale.

In the 43 seasons since 1980 (with two in 1997 for the pendantics among you), there have only been 13 teams who just missed finals, and did not drop a game to any bottom four sides along the way.

The most unlucky was Newcastle in 1990 who never lost to a side that finished lower than 8th (in a 16 team competition), but still managed to miss the top fifth.

They obviously won all the games they should have, but also lost all the ones they should have – a model of consistency.

At the other end of the scale, here are some absolute shockers:
– In 2007 the Roosters finished 10th, just a single point out of the finals. Along the way they lost to each of the three bottom sides, including a Round 24 home loss to last placed Penrith.
– They were matched by Penrith in 2005 who, in finishing 10th, two points out of the 8, managed to crash to the bottom side Newcastle, plus twice to the second bottom team Canberra.
– Just to make sure there is a Wests story in here, in 2000 they managed to just miss finals by losing both home and away to last placed North Queensland.

But as I said, there is almost always a disaster somewhere in the home and away season. Even last year Cronulla missed the finals on for and against after falling 18-12 at home to eventual last placed Canterbury in Round 7.

In fact, since 1980 fifteen teams have dropped a game to the eventual wooden spoon recipients on their way to just missing the finals.

Siosifa Talakai.  (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Falling over the line
On the flip side of the hard luck stories are the teams that survived a clutch final round to snatch the last finals spot out of the grasp of their rivals.

Since 1980, 22 out of 43 teams have won their last regular season match to take that finals spot. Most of these were actually regulation wins against teams lower on the ladder, or on rare occasions up against their fellow finals aspirant.

It has been 23 years and counting since a side beat a team already firmly entrenched in the finals to snatch 8th place. In 1999 Brisbane snuck home 14 to 12 against fifth placed Canterbury to grab 8th spot.

Other more distant instances include:
– 1989 Cronulla beat 4th placed Canberra to get into a play off for 5th, which they went on to win
– 1986 Balmain beat 2nd placed Souths to book their play off spot, which they also duly won and then went on a run to the preliminary final.
– 1983 St George beat future premiers Parramatta by a whopping 32 to 2 to get themselves in a play off, which they also won.

Incidentally play-offs were the accepted way to split teams finishing on equal points up until 1989, when we moved to for and against as the tie break. In 1980s every single team that won their play off would also have reached the finals due to superior for and against, so it was all a bit of a waste really.

In 1984 South Sydney had no less than four contenders around them for the last spot heading into the final round. Canberra was two points clear, Penrith was one behind them and then Souths, Illawarra and Balmain were all level as they played their last matches.

The draw was incredibly kind to Souths who got to face 11th placed North Sydney, while each of the other four contenders played a side in the top four.

Canberra got smashed by the eventual premiers Canterbury 36 to nothing. Balmain copped second placed St George.

Penrith lost to reigning three time premiers Parramatta and Illawarra were beaten by two time runners up Manly.

Souths duly reached a play-off against the demoralised Raiders and made it all the way through to the 2nd week of finals.

The team that just missed finals has faced off against the team that just made it in the final round winner-takes-all showdown only four times since 1980.

The draw is seldom so dramatic. Here are the details of those winner takes all final round showdowns:
– In 2011 Newcastle flogged Souths 40 to 24 to grab 8th spot
– In 2002 Canberra overcame Melbourne 25 to 16 to send them out of the finals
– Back in 1988 it was Balmain finishing Brisbane’s first ever season agonisingly short of finals with a 20-10 last round win. This got the Tigers into a 5th placed play-off against Penrith. They won the mid-week match and proceeded to go on a barnstorming run through finals that was only stopped in the grand final by a Terry Lamb stiff arm on Ellery Hanley.
– In 1985 Manly and Penrith started the final round with Manly 2 points in front, but Penrith won 26 to 14 to force a play-off, which they also won 10 to 7 to send Manly packing.
So who will be the hard luck stories this year and what games will they look back on as the ones that got away?

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