The current finals system is quite simply designed to keep as many fans still invested in consuming right up until the last few days of the year. It makes good marketing sense, clearly.
But is it at the expense of the competition?
In the early days of the game, there was no set system for finals. Different variations of finals were used to determine the premiers. Sometimes, finals weren't even played.
It wasn't until 1938 that a dedicated finals system became mandatory, the mechanics of the system was altered a few times.
From 1938 til 1972 the top 4 teams made it to the finals. In 1973, an extra team was added to the finals system. The top 5 remained in place until 1994.
With the competition having expanded from 12 clubs in 1967 to 20 in 1995 due to expansion in 1982 (2 extra teams), 1988 (3 extra teams) and 1995 (4 extra teams).
In 1995, the game moved to a top 8 system, which remained in place the following season. When the game split in 1997, the ARL had a top 7 in a 12 team competition while the Superleague had a top 5 in a 10 team competition.
When the NRL took over it employed a top 10 system in 1998, before permanently moving to a top 8 system in 1999.
From 1908 til 1972 (4 team finals period) there were just 16 times where a team made the finals having won less than 55% of their regular season matches (over 64 seasons)
Comparatively, the NRL has had 44 occurrences where a team has made the finals with a regular season success rate under 55% (over 17 years)
Furthermore, never has a team won a Premiership with a win % in the regular season less than 57%
In fact, the teams who have won a title with a pre-finals win% of less than 60% are:
St George (1941) - Won 8 of their 14 games to finish 4th
Wests Tigers (2005) - Won 14 of their 24 games to finish 4th
Brisbane (2006) - Won 14 of their 24 games to finish 4th
Melbourne (2009) - Won 14 of their 24 games to finish 4th
There have also been 13 occasions where a team has participated in a finals campaign having won less than 50% of their regular season games. What is concerning is that this occurred 6 times prior to 1998 and 7 times during the NRL era.
Given that no team has ever won a title from 7th or lower on the ladder, it would appear that to ensure a better finals campaign, the NRL should reduce the number of finalists from 8 to 6 at the very least.
A simple finals system could look like this:
Game A - 3 vs 4
Game B - 5 vs 6 - loser eliminated
Game C - 1 v 2
Game D - Loser A v Winner B - loser eliminated
Game E - Loser C v Winner D - loser eliminated
Week 4 - Grand Final
Game F - Winner C v Winner E
If the NRL wants to keep teams and fans interested, then a simple idea could be to bring back the City Cup competition.
From 1921 til 1923, the City Cup had a very intelligent and unique format. All of the return games played by clubs would also count as the City Cup fixtures, adding extra meaning to those games for the clubs who were out of the Premiership contention. Under the NRL draw, there are some teams who only play each other once in a year, so under those circumstances, that one result would be the City Cup game as well.
At season's end, a City Cup final series of just 4 sides could be played. It would essentially give the NRL two Grand Finals every year. It would mean an entire competition could be played but only 3 extra games are played to determine the winner.
A - 1 v 4
B - 2 v 3
C - Winner A v Winner B
These two ideas could see a stronger competition and a more closely fought premiership race that rewards the very best teams without giving out token finals appearances to a few sides.