Old title rules still apply in record year

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Rugby league hasn't seen a season like it in 86 years.

Not since Dave Brown was breaking try-scoring records for Eastern Suburbs have the record books copped such a beating.

From Reuben Garrick breaking the 300-points-in-a-season barrier to Manly's back three all posting 20 tries in a year, attack has become king in the set-restart era.

Josh Addo-Carr became the first man in 71 years to score six in a game, while Melbourne and South Sydney's seasons both rank in the top five of all-time for most points scored.

The Storm also equalled Eastern Suburbs' all-time 19-game winning streak from 1975 and scored 40 or more 10 times while finishing with the greatest for-and-against record in history.

Souths, meanwhile, scored 30 in eight straight games, while Brisbane conceded the most points in their history, Manly claimed their biggest win and Gold Coast their biggest total.

Margins also blew out to 18.3 points, the largest since the last time the record books were rewritten with such reckless abandon in 1935 when the average difference in games was 19.7.

"That was a ridiculous year as well for records," renowned rugby league historian and statistician David Middleton told AAP.

"Dave Brown scoring 38 tries. A score of 87-7 and St George won 91-6 against Canterbury who didn't even come last.

"All those records were broken that year, so there are similarities with this season."

Call it rugby league's version of the super suit era or just the reality of rugby league in the set-restart era.

But in 2021, hardly any club's record books have been left untouched.

"People say, 'do these years deserve an asterisk?'," Middleton said.

"Well it's just how it was. That was the rule change.

"It's not their fault, it's not Reuben Garrick's fault he scored 300 points. No-one else did.

"Individual player records, records of teams against other teams. David Fifita breaking the Titans' try-scoring records, that's pretty ridiculous."

Which begs the question: with the game having changed so much, will past trends mean anything in the finals?

In the 113-year history of rugby league, no team has ever won the premiership after conceding 50 points or more in a match.

That would rule South Sydney, the Sydney Roosters, Parramatta and Gold Coast out of the hunt.

"I don't think (that changes)," Middleton said.

"The best defensive teams are still going to be the best ones."

True to Middleton's point, even in 1935 the best defensive side still lifted the trophy.

And given no team has triumphed from outside the top four during the NRL era, those long-standing premiership rules leave only three eligible contenders.

The competition's two best defensive sides by far in Penrith and Melbourne, as well as the wildcards in Manly.

Because through all the madness of 2021, the Panthers and Storm have still only leaked 11.9 and 13.2 points per game.

"I still think defence winning premierships holds true to an extent," Penrith captain Isaah Yeo said.

"The scorelines are changing but if you're turning up for one and other in defence it helps you get here.

"And in those big games it's even more important."

Other captains agree, insisting defence will still matter most in the finals and it's why both Penrith and Melbourne are the deserved front-runners.

"If you look at the two teams that finished on top, they've got the best defensive records and they're not leaking many points," Rabbitohs skipper Adam Reynolds said.

"When you're playing big games you don't want to be leaking too many points. They're pretty hard to score yourself."

Manly counterpart Daly Cherry-Evans added: "You're going to have to defend well during the finals because the sides here can attack.

"That's why the Storm and Panthers deserve to be favourites."

It leaves five sides attempting to fulfil the NRL's motto for 2021; that is, trying to "defy impossible".

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