NRL 2021 Predictions: Simulating Every Club's Premiership Chances
With only seven more sleeps until Round 1 kicks off, the Stats Insider Futures Model has simulated the NRL season 20,000 times to provide our projections.
Four teams have planted themselves firmly in the premiership discussion, with a fifth not far behind. Given what we know about teams rotating in and out of the Top-8 every year, the model has circled seven teams fighting for three spots in finals footy. Three need a lot to go their way.
And while nobody likes to hear their club mentioned in the wooden spoon conversation, four clubs couldn't avoid it with the percentages the model produced.
No competition is more unpredictable than the NRL. Still, we're going to take a look at how the 2021 season might play out.
The Big Four
The Stats Insider Futures Model tipped the Melbourne Storm as premiers at this time in 2020, so the Penrith Panthers faithful will be looking upon their NRL-high 17.7% to win the grand final fondly. While they have lost a handful of experienced players, the young core remains and will be better for the Finals experience last season.
However, only 1% separates the first four lines of the model's futures projections.
A scan of predicted Top 8's suggests the Sydney Roosters are flying below the premiership radar. Not here, though. The Stats Insider Model puts the tri-colours neck-and-neck with their arch-rivals, South Sydney Rabbitohs, at 17.2%to win the flag. While the Roosters fell out of the finals in straight sets, they were equal with the Storm as the best-attacking team in the NRL. Much of the same cast returns rested and ready following three gruelling seasons with a target on their back. Meanwhile, the Rabbitohs have bowed out in the preliminary finals in each of the last three seasons. They have the squad on paper and the right man in the coaches box. This looks like the year Souths will go one better and feature in the Grand Final if not win the whole thing.
You'd think a team losing the greatest player of all time would drop down a few pegs. Not the Melbourne Storm. With Harry Grant and Brandon Smith replacing Cameron Smith behind the ruck, the Storm aren't far behind the three favourites at 16.7%. Grant, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Ryan Papenhuyzen make up Melbourne's new 'big four'. Three return after winning the 2020 premiership, while the new face, Grant, is already in the conversation as the best hooker in the game. The Storm dynasty lives on.
All four teams rate an 86%+ chance of making the Top-8, meaning we can all but lock them already where finals footy is concerned.
On An Island
The Canberra Raiders are on an island by themselves as the fifth contender for the 2021 premiership.
Not quite up there with the Panthers, Roosters, Rabbitohs and Storm, the Raiders' 70% to make the Top-8 is significantly higher than the other teams below the four favourites.
Canberra's run to the preliminary final in 2020 came as more of a surprise than their 2019 Grand Final appearance given the injuries coach Ricky Stuart needed to deal with. Josh Hodgson missed half of the season, while players rotated through the forward pack due to injury and suspension. Stuart did, however, unearth Tom Starling while Hudson Young and Joseph Tapine, in particular, took big leaps in their development.
Being forced to use an NRL-high 32 players last season (the same as a Warriors team decimated by injury and homesickness) now gives Stuart a long list of players he can rely on.
The Raiders are at 7.7% to win the premiership and 7.4% to win the minor premiership, but their depth, cohesion and new-found consistency lends itself to thinking a top of the table finish at the end of Round 25 isn't out of the question.
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Getting Four Into Three
Penrith, Sydney, South Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra are probable Top-8 teams. Let's assume they perform as expected and occupy five of the finals spots. That leaves three places in the Top-8 for the rest of the competition. According to the Stats Insider Futures Model, four middling teams are the best chance at filling out the September draw.
The Parramatta Eels have been there or thereabouts for three of the last four seasons. However, a 58-0 thrashing of the Broncos is their only win in six finals matches. Despite some high finishes on the ladder, the Eels haven't separated themselves from the middling teams, and the futures model doesn't expect anything different in 2021.
Favourites for the wooden spoon last season, and just a 14.4% chance of making the Top-8, the Gold Coast Titans are fan favourites to play finals footy, while the futures model also fancies their chances at 47.2%. Even without signing David Fifita and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, Justin Holbrookhas the Titans on the up after winning five straight to finish 2020. That sort of ascension is unlikely to continue trending quite so high in 2021, but there's no doubt the Titans are a finals smokey.
The Newcastle Knights are without Kalyn Ponga to start the season while Mitchell Pearce's scratchy form could also continue until he finds a consistent partner in the halves. However, they do have the easiest schedule in the NRL this season. The futures model doesn't rate any of their opponents throughout the first six rounds as more than a 47.7% chance (Newcastle's current mark) of making the Top-8. The Knights picking up early wins is key to their finals aspirations.
Just behind the Knights, Tom Trbojevic's health will determine the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles attack. With him, their 46.5% to make the Top-8 looks about right. Without him, they'd be trending a lot closer to the wooden spoon conversation below.
"They've scored 22.6 points per-80 minutes with Trbojevic on the field over the last two seasons. Without him, they've scored just 18.7 points per-80 minutes." - Left, Right or Centre: Where Will The NRL Teams Focus Their Attacks In 2021?
At least one team, usually two, jump from the bottom-eight into the Top-8 every season. There is always a surprise packet that makes a run into finals football.
We had the Penrith Panthers at the top of this list last season, and they went onto win the Minor Premiership and feature in the Grand Final.
So, with that being said, book your flights and hope for an open border Warriors fans. You're going to the Grand Final!
On second thought.... maybe not. With the uncertainty around the Kiwi club's home games, a new coach at the helm and the covid-related issues the model simply can't factor in, the Warriors may end up closer to 16th than they do 8th.
They became the people's team in 2020 and exceeded expectations. While fans around the game will still cheer for them as a 'second team', the Warriors face an even longer stint away from friends and family this time around. To assume an improvement on their 2020 performance is dangerous territory.
Conveniently, the North Queensland Cowboys and the man that inspired those excellent Warriors performances last season, Todd Payten, are the more likely of the two to sneak into the finals. Payten has already proven himself to be a first-grade quality coach. Plenty have him pencilled in as a future top-tier coach in the NRL. With a strong roster headlined by Jason Taumalolo, Michael Morgan and Valentine Holmes, the Cowboys have the pieces to return to the finals for the first time since their Cinderella run to the 2017 Grand Final.
"We could be putting a line through the Sharks as a Top-8 team after 10 rounds if they don't start the year well." - Who has the Easiest/Hardest Start to the Season?
The 32.4% awarded to the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks to make the Top-8 could look a lot different after ten rounds. Shaun Johnson isn't expected to be back until Round 5 at the earliest. From there, the Sharks play the Roosters, Storm, Panthers and Rabbitohs in the space of six weeks.
The Wooden Spoon Conversation
No footy fan ever 'thinks' their team will finish a season holding the wooden spoon. It might be a chance, but the glasses tinted with club-colours always find an argument for no worse than 15th. Unfortunately, somebody must finish last.
The Wests Tigers are an intriguing team heading into 2021. They have enough good and developing talent to make a run at the Top-8 (25.8%) if all things go well. However, they don't have enough elite talent to say, "they will definitely fend away the wooden spoon if they're towards the bottom of the ladder late in the season."
We saw two versions of the Tigers either side of Round 10 last season. Whichever turns up, and for how long, will determine their finals hopes in 2021.
Ask the footy public who is winning the wooden spoon, and the St George Illawarra Dragons are mentioned more than most. A new coach who is a questionable fit with how the game is trending tactically, and a terribly inconsistent attacking spine could well have the Dragons finishing 16th. Although, they land on the 14th line of the Model's Premiership and Top-8 chances.
Nobody saw the wooden spoon coming for the Brisbane Broncos ahead of Round 1 of the 2020 season. For all of the discussion around "the best young pack in the NRL", they failed to perform. The coach didn't last the full season, and the best young individual player in that pack moved on after Round 20. "Broncos" and "rebuild" should never be in the same sentence, but here we are. Brisbane's 14.3% to make the Top 8 is the lowest of all 16 clubs.
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs only avoided the wooden spoon on points differential last season. It took until Round 11 for the doggies to register their second win with only one more to come from there. Trent Barrett takes over a better roster, but the real game-changers don't arrive until 2022. The Stats Insider Futures Model is signalling one more rough year for the Bulldogs faithful before the result of their signing spree kicks into gear.
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