There have been 15 games between Division 1 and Division 3 teams, and every single one has been won by the elite team. Most have been by enormous margins, some without the loser scoring a point. The only close contest was last week’s Panthers-Broncos fixture. The average difference is more than 24 points.
There have been eight games between Division 1 and Division 2 teams. Here is where we might hope for a disruption to the existing order, but alas, only two of the eight went against the grain – the Warriors beating Canberra in round three, and the Dragons beating the Eels in round five.
Between Division 2 and Division 3 teams, there have been nine games. Three have resulted in upsets: the Tigers pipping the Knights in round three, and Manly defeating the Warriors in round five and the Titans in round six. Otherwise the margins of victory of Division 2 over Division 3 teams have been convincing.
To summarise: of 32 contests between teams from different divisions, 27 have been won by the upper-division team from 2020. This suggests that the 2021 season will see minimal movement between divisions. It also means the competition draw will have a greater-than-usual impact on the final standings. The Sea Eagles, Tigers and Cowboys, for example, get seven games against fellow Division 3 strugglers. The Bulldogs get six. The poor old Broncos, cursed by their apparent television appeal, get only five winning opportunities against the battlers, and have to play the most games against Division 1 clubs, so they might yet achieve a wooden spoon repeat.
The disparities are widely blamed on the new six-again rule and other changes that have sped up the game. While stretching the distance between the haves and have-nots, these rules haven’t created it. The inequality has been achieved more by some clubs’ exploitation of a failed, poorly patrolled market-based salary cap system to unfairly hoard talent.
What is the NRL’s role in this? We used to think it was to modulate inequality. The league still mouths the platitudes of wanting to achieve “a fair and even competition”. But in truth, the present administration are utopian social engineers, determined to reward what they see as professionally run clubs and punish the rest until they catch up. “We won’t promote mediocrity,” says the Premier, letting the truth slip.
The model is evolving towards those European football leagues, with permanently strong and permanently weak clubs. Those competitions, unregulated by salary caps, have achieved a kind of sterile nirvana in which the high standard of football and extraordinary merchandise sales are meant to mitigate the dismal fact that trophies are rotated among an ever-smaller elite. The ESL was going to refine this even further, entrenching those elites without any threat to their income streams.
Is this what the NRL wants? I’m not sure how long fans can take it. The odds are loaded, we have a divisional rugby league structure, and the gulf is widening. The first six rounds have confirmed this.
Seen it before? It’s a reminder of a state of the game before another Super League dream. There will always be winners and losers, but the losers need at least some prospect of upward mobility. Nobody wants institutionalised inequality on the football field. We get enough of that in ordinary life. Unless, of course, your dream is for the best to play the best every week, and no more mediocrity. The only thing left for this brave new world is to work out a sporting competition in which everyone is happy and nobody ever loses. What a super league that would be.