The closest start to a premiership season in almost 50 years and a shake-up of ladder positions highlights the effectiveness of the salary cap system, according to NRL head of football Graham Annesley.
The average margin in matches across the opening three rounds of the Telstra Premiership was just 8.8 points – the lowest since 1975 – while 12 of the 24 games so far have been decided by six points or less.
Overall, 18 matches (75 per cent) have been decided by 12 points or less – the most in NRL history after the first three rounds of a season.
In addition, the top four comprises of the Broncos, Dolphins, Sea Eagles and Warriors, while the Titans and Bulldogs are also in the top eight – none of whom featured in last year’s finals series.
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By comparison, the top eight after three rounds last year was made up of the Panthers, Cowboys, Sharks, Knights, Storm, Eels, Raiders and Broncos.
Only the Knights and Broncos failed to qualify for the play-offs, with the Rabbitohs and Roosters claiming their spots.
While Annesley said the introduction of the NRL Pre-Season Challenge and teams adapting better to rule changes of recent seasons were other factors, the movement of talent from the top teams was having a significant impact.
The top 10 plays from Round 3, 2023
“That is clearly one of the objectives of the salary cap,” Annesley said. It is the only real talent equalisation mechanism that we have open to us. We don’t have a draft and the salary cap stops clubs from hoarding all of the good players.
“There are plenty of opportunities for clubs to retain the players they want to retain but it also provides opportunities for those players who clubs may have been happy to keep, but possibly weren’t going to put too much pressure on first grade.
“They can go to another club and get an opportunity and we have seen some of those players jump out of the pack and be regular first graders with other teams.”
The Dolphins had just 15 months to assemble an entire roster from players off contract at the end of last season, and have won their opening three matches with a halves pairing of Sean O’Sullivan, who played 11 NRL matches for Penrith last season, and Panthers rookie Isaiya Katoa.
Captain Jesse Bromwich, his brother Kenny and fellow Test forward Felise Kaufusi were recruited from Melbourne, while Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Tom Gilbert and Connelly Lemeulu joined the NRL’s 17th team from North Queensland.
The Warriors and Bulldogs were among the other big movers in the player transfer market, along with Wests Tigers, with back-to-back premiers Penrith also losing Viliame Kikau (Bulldogs), Api Koroisau and Charlie Staines (both Tigers).
2022 grand finalists Parramatta lost hooker Reed Mahoney (Bulldogs) and forwards Isaiah Papali’i (Tigers), Marata Niukore (Warriors) and Oregon Kaufusi (Sharks).
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“Being able to move talent around is an important part of our talent equalisation,” Annesley said. “The cap is an important part of that and has been for a long time.
“I don’t think that it is any coincidence that we are seeing a lot of teams, who last year were in the bottom half of the ladder, that at the moment have moved up into the top half of the ladder
“Whether they stay there or not – and they may, or it may even out again across the course of the season - we have got a lot of teams who were expected to be in the top eight – and may well be in the eight by the time we get to the finals – who at the moment are not in the eight.
“Clearly the Dolphins have assembled a good roster, they have got one of the game’s most experienced coaches who has had results pretty much everywhere he has coached and putting a team together isn’t just about the 18 individuals who run out every week.”
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The average margin of 8.8 points per match so far this season is down from 16.17 points last season and 18.11 points in 2021.
Annesley said a range of factors that had contributed to the reduction.
“We started the season with two weekends of organised pre-season competition whereas normally in the first couple of rounds of the competition teams are still trying to find their rhythm and their timing can be a little bit off,” he said.
“It was played at a much higher level than I think you would normally see in trials so by the time we got to Round 1 you might even say that we were almost at Round 3.
“We also said when the new rules were introduced a couple of years ago that it would take some teams longer to adjust than others.
“I think it is a good sign, it is great for fans and certainly for those teams who have tried really hard in the off-season to lift their performance, that they are starting to see some results.”