Vodafone Warriors fans can draw confidence heading into the 2015 season that their team has what could on paper be the kindest draw in the competition, while the new eras at Brisbane and Parramatta won't get off to an easy start.
Analysis of the 2015 NRL draw shows that the Broncos, Eels and Dragons may have the toughest fixture lists of all teams next season, while the Vodafone Warriors and Knights are on the lighter end of the scale.
What makes a 'tough' draw?
With 16 clubs, 26 rounds with two byes per side, each team plays every other team once, plus a second game against nine of the 15 possible opposition clubs. It's those repeat games that can make the difference between a comparatively 'easy' or 'tough' draw.
NRL.com has given each opponent a rating out of 16, depending on where it finished during the regular season in 2014 – minor premiers the Roosters were awarded 16 points, wooden-spooners Cronulla got one. We then tallied up the numbers for each club's 2015 draw to give each fixture list a 'difficulty ranking'.
However, off-season moves have significantly changed the fortunes of several clubs, meaning some are likely to be far tougher in 2015 – the Broncos and Sharks look stronger next season, for example. With this in mind, we've also determined the difficulty ranking for each team's draw based on 2015 NRL premiership odds from Sportsbet.com.au.
Leaving aside factors such as travel, the Origin schedule and quick turnarounds between matches – which can all have an influence on a team's fortunes week-by-week – our overall snapshot of the draw suggests the Vodafone Warriors can expect to rise up the ladder if they make best use of their fortunate schedule.
Does getting a relatively easy draw matter? Ask the Panthers, who struggled with a heavy injury toll last season but were still a surprise inclusion in the NRL top four come finals time. They had the easiest draw of all teams based on the 2013 final ladder placings, having only nine matches against top-eight teams (fewer than any other club) and just three against other top-four sides (by comparison, the Bulldogs played eight).
The Bulldogs themselves had the toughest draw of all teams and finished seventh on the ladder, before proving their strength with a run to the grand final. The Sharks, who had their fair share of injuries and off-field issues, had the second-toughest draw of all teams and finished last.
So who are the winners and losers of the draw – in terms of opponents – in 2015? The Warriors may have to fly across the Tasman every couple of weeks but they face the strongest teams less often than every other club, with only 11 of their 24 matches coming against last year's season's finalists. The Roosters are the only team to have made the top four in 2014 that the Warriors play twice in 2015.
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The Knights have the next easiest draw with the Panthers, Cowboys and Broncos the only 2014 finalists they play twice.
At the other end of the scale is Parramatta, which plays 14 games against 2014's top-eight sides, including repeat games against Manly, Canterbury, Melbourne, Penrith and North Queensland (although the Eels' second game against Melbourne will see that side missing its Origin stars). Brisbane – which made the eight last year – plays 13 games against other recent finalists including two matches against the Rabbitohs, Cowboys, Roosters, Sea Eagles, Storm and Bulldogs.
The Dragons' draw looks particularly difficult considering the 2015 premiership betting, with home and away matches against each of the four top competition favourites – Souths, the Roosters, the Bulldogs and Brisbane – plus finals regulars Melbourne. On the other hand Cronulla's 2015 task looks far easier when based on the 2015 odds, given it avoids repeat matches against the now heavily-fancied Bulldogs and Broncos.
So how has your club fared this season? Our rankings are below, ordered from the hardest draw to the easiest. For more details on where and when your team plays, and the make-or-break sections of the draw for you club, check out our complete snapshot of all 16 club's fixture lists.
2015 draw difficulty (hardest to easiest, based on 2014 regular-season placings)
8 Wests Tigers
11 Sea Eagles
15= Vodafone Warriors
2015 draw difficulty (based on 2015 premiership odds)
11 Wests Tigers
16 Vodafone Warriors
This article first appeared on NRL.com