The advent of mandatory grand finals in 1954 loosened the traditional stranglehold of minor premiers taking out the title, while the shift to five-team, and later eight-team, finals series further exacerbated the likelihood of the season’s most consistent team failing to hold up the trophy on grand final day. Between the first season of the Sydney premiership in 1908 and 1953, the last year before the introduction of mandatory grand finals, just eight minor premiers failed to take out the title (note: seasons 1912-21 and 1925 operated under a ‘first-past-the-post’ system of the minor premiers being declared champions).
The fledgling mandatory grand final system immediately brought the minor premiers undone. Newtown won consecutive minor premierships in 1954-55, but went down to South Sydney in the grand final in each year. Despite topping the ladder in 1967, St. George’s record run of 11 consecutive premierships came to end after losing both finals matches to Souths and Canterbury – thus becoming the first minor premiers to fail to qualify for the grand final.
The introduction of a five-team finals series in 1973 provided even bigger hurdles for the minor premiers. Between 1977 and 2010, just 15 of 35 minor premiers have gone on to win the grand final. Easts finished the regular season in top spot in 1980-81 but faltered in their premiership bid in both seasons and missed the grand final in the latter year. Consecutive minor premiers Cronulla (1988) and Souths (1989) also bowed out of the title race with successive finals defeats. The Bulldogs suffered a straight-sets finals exit in 1993 and were thrashed by Canberra in the 1994 grand final after winning the minor premiership each year, while three-time minor premiers Manly (1995-97) garnered just one grand final win for their regular season dominance.
It got worse for minor premiers during the NRL era following the introduction of the controversial McIntryre finals system. Since 1998, just five minor premiers have progressed to a grand final victory lap. Cronulla (1999) and Parrmatta (2005) suffered preliminary final defeats after wrapping up minor premierships, while St. George Illawarra acquired an unwanted piece of history in 2009, losing consecutive finals matches to become the first minor premiers to be eliminated before the preliminary final stage. Melbourne, who won three minor premierships (2006-08) that were later stripped due to the club’s well-documented salary cap breaches, collected just one grand final win during those seasons – mirroring Manly’s dominant side of a decade earlier – before crashing out at the preliminary final stage after claiming the minor premiership in 2011. Incredibly, the Broncos have won the grand final in each of the seasons they have claimed a minor premiership – 1992, 1997 (Super League), 1998 and 2000 – accounting for four of the eight times the minor premiers have won the ensuing grand final since 1992.