The first three rounds of the 2014 NRL season have been an everyday tipper’s nightmare but an in-running trader’s dream with just the three “trains” (one team fav from start to finish) so far and the most recent was a pretty rickety one as Newcastle refused to lie down against the Storm on Monday night.
There have also been an extremely high proportion of games decided by close margins punctuated by a number of last-minute gubbings in round three with the Panthers, Roosters & Manly all dramatically stealing the result on the final play of the game.
In the first three rounds of this season more than 50% of all matches have been decided by six points or less, with a third decided by two points or less. That compares to 2013 figures of 32% and 16% respectively.
So far this season favs have won just 46% of games, which is in stark contrast to the 79% in the first three rounds of last season and the 68% for all of 2013. Incredibly if it wasn’t for those gubbings over the weekend the underdogs would’ve won two-thirds of games thus far.
So why has it all been so unpredictable?
One reason is the draw with the top four – those most likely and capable of meting out a thrashing – clashing three times already this season which has not only produced close margins in those particular matches but drained the heavyweights who the following week have generally either lost or only won marginally despite strong favouritism.
Another reason for the erratic results has been the unexpected performance of the Broncos, Dragons and Tigers. Despite being slated for the bottom-third of the table these sides have been the big surprise-packets of the first three rounds and have all been involved in upsets and close results.
Finally, while those sides may have been under-estimated, some teams who were pencilled in around the bottom-half of the eight such as the Cowboys, Knights and Warriors all appear to have been over-estimated with these sides involved in a total of five matches as losing favourites.
So what does this all tell us?
I believe this is an indication that while last year’s top four remain distinctly clear of the rest of the field (although I wouldn’t be rushing to get with Souths at the present moment), the gap has closed between the remaining 75% of teams in the NRL to the extent that the difference in quality between 5th and 16th is arguably smaller than between 4th and 5th.
Last season three sides – the Dragons, Tigers and Eels – were never really in contention for the finals but so far this season we’ve seen a big improvement from the first two and signs of encouragement from the third.
Of course there is a long way to go in the season and factors such as injuries will have their say but looking at this season’s competition from a week-to-week perspective the best thing we can learn from the first three rounds is that, aside from matches involving last year’s top four, at this stage no team deserves to go in shorter than $1.50 and anyone floating around the $1.30 mark should be laid with haste!