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Who has the edge as the Broncos face the Cowboys in the 2015 NRL Grand Final?

Can the Cowboys player Johnathan Thurston shake the Dally M curse to beat the Broncos on Sunday? AAP Image/Dave Hunt

Who has the edge as the Broncos face the Cowboys in the 2015 NRL Grand Final?

Will it be the Brisbane Broncos or the North Queensland Cowboys who are crowned as 2015 National Rugby League (NRL) Premiers after Sunday evening’s Grand Final?

Whatever the result, this will be a historic Grand Final as it’s the first ever contested between two teams from Queensland.

The match-up underlines an era of dominance from the Sunshine State, coming at a time when Queensland has defeated New South Wales in nine of the last ten State of Origin series.

That’s not a bad effort considering only three of the NRL’s 16 clubs hail from Queensland, compared to the ten from New South Wales.

State of familiarity

The Broncos and the Cowboys have much in common. Between them, they provide around a third of the first choice Australian Kangaroos squad and nine of the first choice 17 players for this year’s victorious Queensland State of Origin side.

Cowboys halfback Johnathan Thurston was the top point scorer this State of Origin series. Broncos lock Corey Parker was named Player of the Series.

The Grand Final won’t even be the first time these sides have met in this year’s finals series, with Brisbane squeezing out a narrow 16-12 victory over the Cowboys in Week One last month.

Can anything be read into the result of that earlier game and the subsequent paths that the two teams have had to navigate to qualify for Sunday’s decider?

In to the finals

In the NRL finals system, teams finishing in the top four places in the regular season play in Week One of the finals for the right to earn a bye-week straight through to a Week Three Preliminary Final.

The losing sides from Week One have a second chance of qualifying for a Preliminary Final by playing off in Week Two against one of the sides who finished between fifth and eighth in the regular season, and who won in Week One (see diagram, below).

Diagram of NRL finals system and 2015 results. Unbroken arrows show the progression of winning teams. Dashed arrows show the progression of the two losing sides not immediately eliminated. Numbers in parentheses indicate teams’ final ladder positions. Stephen Woodcock, Author provided

Some believe that earning a bye-week is a huge advantage to a team’s chances of success – aching bodies can heal and additional time is available for preparing for the Preliminary Final.

Others argue that momentum is key at the business end of the season and that a two week gap without playing can be detrimental to a team’s Premiership aspirations.

Is a game as good as a rest?

But what does recent history suggest about the possible benefits of a team earning a week’s rest?

Each year, both of the Preliminary Finals are played between one side coming off a bye-week and one side that has played in both previous weeks of the finals. Looking at the results from the last few years it is difficult, at least at first glance, to believe that there is any major benefit of earning the bye-week.

Of the 24 Preliminary Finals played since 2004, 13 have been won by the side coming off a bye-week and 11 have been won by the side coming off back-to-back finals games. From this, it seems reasonable to argue that no major advantage is won or lost by qualifying directly to the Preliminary Final from Week One.

However, digging a little deeper into the NRL dataset reveals that every single NRL Grand Final since 2007 has been won by a side that earned the right to sit out Week Two of the finals. During that period, only twice have both finalists come off a bye-week. In other words, the last six sides to reach the Grand Final without a bye-week have come away empty handed.

The reasons for this are unclear. It could simply be a statistical quirk arising in such a small dataset or perhaps a sign that teams are more likely to be carrying injuries or fatigue into the Grand Final after three straight weeks of finals action.

Whatever the reason, recent history certainly does not bode well for the Cowboys’ chances this weekend.

The Dally M Medal ‘curse’

The further bad news for Cowboys is the success of their superstar halfback Johnathan Thurston at this year’s Dally M Medal awards. Will he now fall foul of the Dally M curse, again?

Since 2004, six players have collected the game’s highest individual honour a few days before appearing in the Grand Final. Of these, only one – Manly’s Matt Orford in 2008 – has gone on to add a Premiership ring.

One of the five unlucky medallists was Thurston himself back in 2005. A few days after collecting the first of his record four Dally Ms, his North Queensland side were comfortably beaten by the Wests Tigers in that year’s decider.

Recent history doesn’t provide much encouragement for the supporters of teams that have already played three finals games before the Grand Final.

Perhaps this is the year for historical trends to be broken given it’s the first all-Queensland affair. A few days ago, no player had won four Dally M Medals so Johnathan Thurston rewrote recent history in that regard.

I’m sure many people in and around Townsville will be hoping that recent history can again be rewritten for a maiden North Queensland Cowboys NRL Premiership.

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