Have you already written off your club’s prospects of playing finals footy this year? Hold that thought – many teams have used the midway point of the season to perform incredible U-turns that have resulted in top-eight finishes. WILL EVANS recounts the most remarkable mid-season revivals of the past two decades.
The 2017 NRL premiership has reached the halfway mark and the finals ship already appears to have sailed for a handful of teams.
Sitting on 10 competition points and horribly out of form, the Warriors, South Sydney and Canterbury are hanging by a thread in the post-season race, while Wests Tigers (8 points) and Newcastle (8 points) will almost certainly have all of September free.
But the NRL’s parity, the unpredictable Origin period, and the difficulty in maintaining consistent form across an entire season means where there’s a mathematical chance, there’s genuine hope. In the modern era many teams have come from seemingly hopeless positions to grab a spot in the eight.
1996 – St George Dragons
The Super League upheaval saw St George in disarray as the ’96 season approached, with David Waite coming in late as a coaching replacement for Rod Reddy, who signed with the rebel outfit. The Dragons’ results in the first half of the year reflected their difficult build up, struggling in 13th after 12 rounds with only four wins in their keeping. But the Saints suffered just one loss in the last 10 weeks of the regular season on the back of a favourable draw to snare seventh spot. A thrilling two-point win over Canberra in week one of the finals was followed by emphatic upsets of top-four sides Sydney City and Norths to claim an unlikely Grand Final berth. Manly halted St George’s run in the decider, however, inflicting just the Dragons’ second loss in over three months.
1999 – Brisbane Broncos
The Broncos endured a catastrophic start to their NRL title defence in ’99, winning just one of their first 10 games to languish in last place. Meanwhile, captain Allan Langer made a shock retirement announcement, and the squad was further decimated by a raft of injury problems. But a new-look line-up turned the Broncos’ season around dramatically as the premiers went on a spectacular 11-match winning streak. After stumbling momentarily in the latter rounds, Brisbane scored a gripping 14-12 win over heavyweights Canterbury in Round 26 to sneak into the top eight. Cronulla emphatically ended their season at the qualifying final stage, but the revival holds a cherished place in the Broncos’ glittering history.
2005 – Wests Tigers
Boasting plenty of attacking flair, but few representative-class players and a small pack of forwards, Wests Tigers were not expected to challenge seriously for the NRL title in 2005. Despite stirring early-season wins over ’04 grand finalists the Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters, Tim Sheens’ Tigers sat in 12th with 10 weeks remaining after mustering just three wins in their previous 10 games. Then something clicked within the unfancied squad. Riding the brilliance of Benji Marshall, Scott Prince and Brett Hodgson, the Tigers won eight consecutive games to qualify for their maiden finals series in fourth spot. After routing North Queensland (50-6) and Brisbane (34-6), the Tigers upset title favourites St George Illawarra 20-12 in the preliminary final, and secured the unlikeliest premiership triumph of the modern era with a memorable 30-16 defeat of the Cowboys in the grand final.
2008 – New Zealand Warriors
The Warriors built a reputation as a team which takes a while to get going before coming home strong to reach the finals. In 2007, they stormed from 13th at the halfway point of the competition to finish in the top four before a straight-sets finals exit. But the Auckland-based club arguably trumped that effort the following season, recovering from 14th on the ladder after 14 rounds. The Warriors walked the tightrope, winning eight of their last 10 matches – including upsets of heavyweights Melbourne, Brisbane and Cronulla – to scrape into eighth spot. They kept the dream run alive by becoming the first eighth-placed club to defeat the minor premiers under the McIntyre finals system courtesy of an incredible last-gasp win over the Storm, and thumped the Sydney Roosters 30-13 to reach the preliminary final, where they were halted 32-6 by Manly.
2009 – Parramatta Eels
Daniel Anderson’s tenure as Parramatta coach began turbulently – halfback Brett Finch left after just four weeks of the NRL season, his experiment with Jarryd Hayne at five-eighth failed, and the Eels found themselves in 14th with just five wins in the bank after 18 rounds. But on the back of Hayne’s blistering Dally M Medal-winning form at fullback, Fuifui Moimoi’s muscle, and an unheralded halves combination in Jeff Robson and rookie Daniel Mortimer, the Eels won seven straight to grab eighth spot. The blue-and-golds recovered from a last-round thrashing at the hands of St George Illawarra to roll the minor premier Dragons in the qualifying final, before knocking off Gold Coast and the Bulldogs on their way to the grand final. The 23-16 decider loss to Melbourne could not detract from Parramatta’s extraordinary charge.
2012 – Canberra Raiders
The Raiders, renowned for starting the year slow and making a late charge for the finals, were sitting second-last at the halfway point of the 2012 season following a 40-0 drubbing at the hands of the Wests Tigers – their eighth loss in 12 matches. But with young stars Josh Dugan, Blake Ferguson, Josh McCrone, Reece Robinson, Josh Papalii and Shaun Fensom on fire, the Green Machine won nine of their remaining 12 games – including their last five straight – to land in sixth spot. Canberra’s run was highlighted by big wins over fellow top-eight sides Melbourne, Canterbury, Cronulla and Brisbane. The Raiders thumped the Sharks 34-16 at the qualifying final stage, before crashing to a 22-point semi-final loss to Souths.
2013 – North Queensland Cowboys
At the halfway mark of the 2013 season the Cowboys were in equal-last with only four wins on the board. They rallied to win their next two games, but the northerners looked done and dusted when they lost another three straight. But with Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in imperious form – and their fellow finals hopefuls stumbling around them – the Cowboys won six straight games to scrape into eighth spot. The season ended in heart-breaking fashion in week one of the finals, though, going down 2018 to Cronulla in the wake of the Sharks’ seven-tackle try and a last-ditch John Morris tackle that denied the Cowboys a match-winning try on the final play of the game.