The sixteen teams in the competition are ranked in order of their points, and when the points are equal, by points differential. Each team receives two points for a win, one point for a draw and zero points for a loss. Every team also receives two points for a bye (a week off), of which each team gets two each year, during the Stat of Origin period.
Points differential is a little more complicated. It is calculated by subtracting the number of points conceded by a team up until that point by the number of points they have scored. For example, if after 3 games played the Brisbane Broncos had scored 42 points but had conceded 50, they would have a points differential of -8. This is sometimes listed as ‘for and against’, showing the total points scored and conceded.
Points differential becomes a tiebreaker when two teams have the same number of points, with the team with the higher differential going above on the ladder. This is especially crucial in the battle for the top eight. All teams aspire to finish in the top eight positions once all twenty-six rounds have been played, as the top eight teams continue on to the finals series. There have been numerous occasions in the past where a team has missed out on the top eight because of a poor points differential.
The current four-week finals system sees teams 5 and 6 play teams 8 and 7 respectively in Elimination Finals, while teams 1 and 2 play teams 4 and 3 respectively in the Qualifying Finals, all in the first week of the final series. The higher ranked team in each game always plays their final at home, so it pays to finish higher up the ladder. The winners of the Elimination Finals play the losers of the Qualifying Finals in the Semi-finals of week two, before the winners of these Semi-finals play the winners of the Qualifying Finals in week three. These two games are called the Preliminary Finals, and the victors face off in the Grand Final in the fourth week of the finals.
This finals system replaced the McIntyre Final Eight System in 2012, which was originally created for the VFL by former Australian lawyer and historian Kenneth McIntyre. This system differed in that it allowed a greater number of Grand Final combinations, which was beneficial for teams ranked lower down the top eight. However, several criticisms, chiefly that teams that finished in the top four were not rewarded highly enough, led to this system being scrapped in the NRL after its use from 1999-2011.
What is certain is that no team wants to be anchored to the bottom of the ladder and pick up the much-maligned wooden spoon.