The NRL season has been filled with unusual outcomes and unpredictability. Teams that started off strong are now struggling, while those that faced early defeats are finding success. The Rabbitohs, for example, had a much-needed 28-6 win over the Warriors, following a series of disappointing performances. This win served as redemption for the Rabbitohs, who had only managed one victory in their previous five games. It’s worth noting that the Rabbitohs had previously won six consecutive matches, overtaking the Dolphins as potential grand finalists. However, the Dolphins have since lost four games in a row.
In contrast, the Eels and Raiders had a rocky start to the season, losing three of their first four matches. But they have since turned things around and embarked on impressive winning streaks. The Cowboys also turned their season around after losing five of their first seven games. The Eels have won their last five matches, the Cowboys their last four, and the Raiders have emerged victorious in nine of their last 11 games. These turnarounds have added another layer of excitement to the competition.
Interestingly, teams seem to be adopting similar playing styles, with a focus on moving the ball sideways and pushing their wingers towards the corner post. This strategy has resulted in more tries and increased entertainment for fans. The combination of high-scoring matches and the unpredictability of outcomes has led to a boost in TV ratings and crowd figures.
However, beneath the excitement lies a concerning trend: a lack of depth in the player talent pool. Some players who are included in a club’s top 30 roster may not have made it in the top 40 a decade ago. This issue can be attributed, in part, to the entry of the Dolphins as the NRL‘s 17th team. Their inclusion meant that 30 players were drawn from an already stagnant pool of players. This has exposed a weakness in the overall talent available in the league.
Additionally, the game has been impacted by the long-lasting effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. The suspension of second-tier State Cup competitions during the epidemic has hindered the development of up-and-coming players. The lack of coordination and collaboration between the ARLC and the NSWRL and QRL has further contributed to the stagnation of player development.
Officials of the State Cup competitions have noted a decline in player quality in terms of skill and depth compared to five years ago. As a result, when teams face injuries or suspensions, they often struggle to find suitable replacements due to the limited talent available. This lack of depth has led to lopsided results, with teams that lack commitment receiving heavy defeats.
Another factor adding complexity to the competition is the introduction of three byes per club. Previously, teams received two byes scheduled during the State of Origin period. However, with the addition of the 17th team, the byes are now distributed throughout the season. This change in scheduling has disrupted the rhythm of some teams, and their performance has suffered as a result. On the other hand, the bye can provide much-needed rest for teams, allowing them to enter the finals series in better condition.
The increasing number of sin bins has also had a significant impact on the flow and outcomes of games. A sin binning can quickly change the momentum and direction of a match, making it even more challenging for teams to maintain consistency.
Furthermore, the delayed start to the 2023 season due to the Rugby League World Cup has affected some teams. Players involved in the World Cup did not have a full pre-season training, which may explain the slow start for teams like the Cowboys. The Cowboys, who had four players in the Australian squad and three representing other countries, may have also struggled with complacency after reaching the final four in the previous season.
With all these factors in mind, it’s difficult to predict how the NRL competition will ultimately unfold. However, the Penrith Panthers, with their exceptional depth of talent, appear to be the favorites. Their comprehensive victory over the Storm showcased their capabilities and cemented their status as strong contenders. In this topsy-turvy season, a team’s chances won’t solely depend on their ladder position but also on the availability of key players and their overall condition.
Given the shallow talent pool, the complexities of scheduling, the impact of sin bins, and the high injury toll, any team within the top six has a realistic shot at making it to the 2023 Grand Final. The race for the premiership remains open, adding to the excitement and unpredictability of this intriguing NRL season.