The author at this morning’s editorial meeting (Image: Tina Tiller)
The author at this morning’s editorial meeting (Image: Tina Tiller)

SportsSeptember 18, 2023

How do the NRL finals work? And what do the Warriors need to do to win?

The author at this morning’s editorial meeting (Image: Tina Tiller)
The author at this morning’s editorial meeting (Image: Tina Tiller)

The Warriors have won their first finals match since 2011, forcing some casual fans to grapple with the NRL finals system for the very first time. Here’s how it all works.

Who is this explainer for?

Despite being told “it’s actually very simple”, “you can just Google it” and “here, read this Wikipedia entry”, several of my colleagues remain completely mystified by the NRL finals system. This explainer is for them and all others who find themselves in the same boat.

How do the NRL finals work then?

There are currently 17 teams in the NRL. At the end of the regular season, the top eight teams qualify for the finals. 

The finals series takes place over four weeks. In week one, the top four teams play qualifying finals (1 vs 4, 2 vs 3) and the bottom four play elimination finals (5 vs 8, 6 vs 7). 

The teams that win the two qualification finals advance straight to the preliminary finals in week three. The teams they beat play the winners of the elimination finals in the semi-finals in week two. And the losers of the elimination finals are – you guessed it – eliminated.

Where do the Warriors fit into all this?

The Warriors finished the 2023 regular season in fourth, so they played a qualifying final against the number-one-ranked Panthers. They lost that game 32-6. That meant in week two, they played a semi-final against the Knights, who finished the regular season fifth and beat the eighth-placed Raiders in their elimination final. They won that game 40-10. Up the Wahs.

Up the Wahs (Photo: Fiona Goodall/Getty Images)

Up the Wahs. What now?

The Warriors now play a preliminary final against the Broncos – who beat the Storm in their qualifying final in week one – in Brisbane on Saturday night. If they win this game then they progress to week four: the grand final.

But didn’t they already win the semi-final?

I’ll admit the naming of the various finals stages is a little bit confusing.

There should be some kind of chart that shows all this…

I actually think visualising this data might be what’s putting people wrong, because every chart features criss-crossing lines that make it look more complicated than it is. But here’s one the NRL prepared in paid partnership with KFC Australia.

Wouldn’t it be easier to just have good old-fashioned quarters, semis and final?

There are two main arguments for the current NRL finals system. The first is that it rewards teams for finishing in the top four by giving them a double chance. The other and probably more compelling argument is that it makes the finals series longer (nine games instead of seven, four weeks instead of three) which equals more tickets and TV ads sold, which equals more money for the NRL etc. 

Has it always been like this?

More or less. This finals system has been in place since 2012 – the last time the Warriors made it beyond the first week of the finals was in 2011, which might explain why it all seems so unfamiliar. But the Warriors’ two grand final appearances to date (2002 and 2011) were under the even more convoluted McIntyre System.

What time does the Warriors vs Broncos NRL preliminary final kick off?

The NZ Warriors vs Brisbane Broncos NRL preliminary final is scheduled to kick off at 9.50pm NZT on Saturday September 23.

Where can I watch the Warriors vs Broncos NRL preliminary final?

It’s live on Sky Sport and will be shown at pretty much every pub in New Zealand. The free-to-air Sky Open (the channel formerly known as Prime) has delayed coverage of the match starting at 11pm.

Who will the Warriors face in the grand final if they win?

The other preliminary final is on Friday night between the Panthers and the Storm, but please. Remember when the Australian media spent the week before the Matildas’ World Cup semi-final loss fixating on whether or not to have a public holiday if they won the final? There is no surer way to curse a team than by talking about the final before you’ve even played the semi, or in this case, preliminary final.

Keep going!