Awesome Foursome: What Makes The NRL's Top-4 So Damn Strong?

The Stats Insider Futures Model has updated the numbers and seemingly shut the gate on the NRL's Top-4 after only 10 rounds of the season.

The Penrith Panthers, Melbourne Storm, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Parramatta Eels currently occupy the top four spots on the ladder. That is unlikely to change between now and the end of Round 25, only the positioning.

These four teams are already in the planning stages for finals football. They're finding what works, what doesn't, and who will be in the first-choice 17 come September. 

So, let's take a look at what each team has done best through nine rounds and what they might look to improve on over the next four months.

RELATED: Check out all of Stats Insider's full season NRL projections 

Penrith Panthers

Ladder Position: 1st
9W - 0L
28.9ppg (=2nd)
6.7pcpg (1st)

First and foremost, defence wins premierships

Of the last 15 NRL seasons, the premiership-winning club has landed inside the top-3 in defence that season 14 times. 

The Penrith Panthers are the best defensive team in the competition conceding just 6.7 points per game which would go down as the best defence in the NRL since at least 2010. Assuming they concede a few points at some stage this season, they're still a chance at finishing with a better defence than the 2010 St. George-Illawarra Dragons (11.8 points conceded per game).

With the ball, the Panthers are second scoring 28.9 points per game. They have a menu of attacking options in the 17 and Nathan Cleary is one of the best players in the game at putting those options into try-scoring positions. He achieves that by building pressure.

The Panthers are alongside the Storm at the top of the possession standings with 55% possession per game.

They strangle teams into submission. Penrith's 2.7 forced dropouts per game is the most in the NRL while Cleary and Jarome Luai have both rolled in nine repeat sets each - joint for the most in the NRL and three ahead of Chad Townsend at third. The Panthers aren't the most efficient scoring team in good ball. Their 0.91 points per tackle inside the opposition 20-metre line ranks 6th. However, they don't need to worry about turning every possession into points when they know another set of six attacking the opposition line is just around the corner.

With strike weapons across the field and regular opportunities to fire a shot, Penrith's patience is something opposition teams haven't been able to disrupt so far this season.

And that highlights what the Panthers need to work on most. 

They need to be put under some pressure and forced into actioning Plan B. We haven't seen that yet. We've seen the Panthers improve Plan A as they develop new trick-shots to throw at a tiring defence, but outside of a somewhat challenging Round 6 clash against the Broncos of all teams, they've rarely been tested.

Round 16 and 25 against the Eels, Round 20 against the Storm and Round 23 against the Rabbitohs are their best chance at seeing what else might work against the elite teams in the competition.

RELATED: Stats Insider's NRL Team Of The Month through April

Melbourne Storm

Ladder Position: 3rd
7W - 2L
32.4ppg (1st)
12pcpg (2nd)

It's still remarkable to think that the Melbourne Storm can lose a player of Cameron Smith's calibre and still be among the premiership contenders in the following season.

What's more remarkable is that they're leading the NRL in scoring at 32.4 points per game without their first-choice spine - Ryan Papenhuyzen, Cameron Munster, Jahrome Hughes and Harry Grant - starting a single game together. They've only just ticked over 100 minutes on the field together across two games.

Melbourne's 1,778 running metres per game ranks 3rd in the competition and is getting them up the field for 25.8 tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line per game. While that 25.8 tackles per game is way down at 8th on the list, for the Storm, it's more to do with them averaging an NRL-best 1.25 points per tackle inside the opposition 20.

They can score in any which way and pile up points in a hurry. Defensively, the Storm sit only behind the Panthers at 12 points scored per game - another remarkable number given the turnover in players they have had to deal with. Cohesion is an integral part to good team defence and the Storm have managed to hold teams out with different faces filling different positions every other week.

It's limiting those different faces and developing cohesion that Craig Bellamy will want to achieve before the finals kick off. Just as a few niggles start to heal and players spend time on the field, another injury strikes. Grant and Dale Finucane are two key players that missed time early, Papenhuyzen has spent time on the sideline, and now Munster is out until at least Round 12. State of Origin will then become a big factor on Team List Tuesday.

There is no reason to panic yet, but Bellamy will want to start getting his best 17 out onto the field shortly after the Origin series wraps up.

RELATED: NRL True Kicker- Who are the league's sharpies and sloppiest shots for goal? 

South Sydney Rabbitohs

Ladder Position: 4th
7W - 2L
26.1ppg (5th)
19.3pcpg (6th)

The South Sydney Rabbitohs left edge is once again the premier attacking edge in the NRL with 24 of their 38 tries so far coming down that side of the field. Despite Latrell Mitchell and Adam Reynolds missing time while Cody Walker plays out of position, the Rabbitohs attack has barely missed a beat. That is ignoring the injury-affected 50-0 thrashing at the hands of the Storm in Round 9, of course. 

No team gets on the same roll with the ball as the Rabbitohs. They scored 30 points in the second half against the Titans in Round 7 to win 40-30. A week later they overcame a 16-0 deficit to score 34 unanswered points and beat the Raiders. 

Once the Rabbitohs start firing, they don't stop until the final siren.

It shows in the penalty stats too. Teams are 'trying' to slow the Rabbitohs down by giving away penalties and set restarts. Per Rugby League Eye Test, Souths are +20 in penalties and +11 in set restarts awarded through nine rounds. All they're really doing is helping the Rabbitohs up the field and into good ball areas where they score 1.1 points per tackle inside the opposition 20-metre line (3rd-best in the NRL).

The Rabbitohs can score points as well as any team in the competition. It's in defence that they are lagging behind the rest. As already mentioned with the Panthers, defence wins premierships and the team that lifts the Provan-Summons Trophy typically do so with a top-three defence. 

The right edge stands out as a minor issue for the Rabbitohs, but much of that comes through conceding six tries to Josh Addo-Carr in Round 9. Cambell Graham's work in defence had been underrated until seeing what the edge looks like without him.

Souths won't have any issues finding points all season. It's cleaning up the defence and avoiding instances where their attack is under pressure to produce that needs to be the focus through to September.

Parramatta Eels

Ladder Position: 2nd
8W - 1L
28.9ppg (=2nd)
13.8pcpg (3rd)

The regular season Parramatta Eels are back in 2021

At 8-1 after Round 9 - just as they were last season before finishing 15-5 - Brad Arthur has started another season particularly well.

Parramatta are where they need to be in both attack and defence. Mitchell Moses and Clint Gutherson are playing out career-best seasons so far and that has translated into a 2nd-ranked 28.9points per game. The duo has the benefit of playing behind a tough pack that is charging up the field and behind only the Panthers in yardage with 1,853 running metres per game. Similar to last season, the left edge attack is doing most of the damage. They have scored 21 of their 46 tries through the left channel. This time, Parramatta is behind only South Sydney in tries down the left edge.

Arthur will be particularly pleased with how his side is defending to be 3rd conceding only 13.8 points per game. Although, we need to see a little bit more before putting all of our trust in their defence for September. Outside of the Panthers in Round 2 and one of 'those' games against the Dragons in Round 6, the Eels have defended against teams ranked 15th, 13th, 14th, 10th, 15th, 16th and 4th in points scored per game. The 4th being a banged-up Roosters outfit that only saw 8 tackles inside the Parramatta 20-metre line all match.

It's 'those' games that Parramatta will be working toward wiping from their form guide heading towards finals time. 'Those' games are the ones where they try to go around a team before doing the hard work through the middle. They'll search wide for points too early and fail to lay what they know is a winning platform through the middle.

It happened in Round 1 against the Broncos and again in Round 5 against the Dragons. There was more of the same in Round 9 before they finally iced the game in the 75th minute behind 64% possession and 63 tackles inside the Roosters 20-metre line.

Parramatta have the toughest remaining draw of all 16 teams, so they're going to have plenty of opportunities to rub 'those' games out and develop some consistency in the build-up to finals footy.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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