The current format of the NRL doesn’t allow for each team to play each other twice. Doing that would mean extending the season by another six weeks and, even if they players were up for that (which they are not), as an armchair analyst, I don’t think I could cope.
This means that not every team’s schedule is the same. For twenty-four games, each teams plays each other once and plays a second game against nine other teams. The NRL has no particular interest in trying to provide the mythical “balanced schedule” that would be fair for all teams and prefers to use the opportunity to use a doubling up of rivalry games to generate commercial returns.
This might seem grossly unfair, especially if your team has to play the premiers twice, but it is what it is. What I’m interested in looking at this week is how slanted the schedules are and who will have an easier time of the 2019 NRL season and who will have to do it the hard way.
I use an Elo rating system called Eratosthenes to track the “class”, or long term performance, of NRL clubs. The league average is 1500 but most teams will be within 50 rating points of that average, with exceptional teams more than 100 above or below. Better teams have higher ratings than worse teams.
Other writers prefer to use Pythagorean wins to assess draw strength but a) the difference between top and bottom exaggerates the actual difference in draw difficulty and b) it would rely too heavily on last year’s performance as a guide for this year. If there’s one thing you should take away from my analysis in 2019, it’s that 2018 was an extremely strange year and does not provide much clear information for looking at the season ahead. I also prefer to take a slightly longer view in assessing team strength.
With that in mind, here’s the class rating for each time prior to the 2019 NRL season kick-off.
If you can’t parse that many similar looking numbers, it might be helpful to think of them on a letter basis. So there’s
- two A-class teams: Melbourne and Sydney
- two B-class teams: Cronulla and Brisbane
- three D-class teams: Wests, Manly and Parramatta
- and two E-class teams: Gold Coast and Newcastle
Everyone else falls into the average C-class that straddles the mean rating of 1500. If you looked at the last couple of years of results, that’s pretty close to how you’d bracket each of the teams based on their winning performance.
I use this class rating to assess the draw difficulty each team has. By taking the average class rating of the opposition, we can see which teams are hard up against it in 2019.
The Gold Coast’s schedule is the most difficult of this season, and that’s before we account for the travel load, but it’s roughly on par with last year’s, where they had the third toughest. That said, the 2018 Warriors’ 1515 and the Knights’ 1511 didn’t stop them from finishing above the Titans on the ladder. The Gold Coast will have to twice face down six of last year’s top eight, getting a reprieve by not facing Sydney and Souths twice.
At the other end, we see Penrith only having to play four top eight teams from last year twice – Sharks, Warriors, Roosters and Bunnies – and get to dodge return legs against the Broncos, Storm and Dragons.
But this metric by itself is a little deceptive. It appears that the Gold Coast have one of the toughest draws while Melbourne get a relatively easy run. Bear in mind that the Storm, who have the highest rating, can’t play the Storm. So while the league average of sixteen teams is 1500, the league average if you exclude the Storm is 1489. Their average opposition draw strength of 1495 is actually noticeably more difficult than what a “balanced” draw could offer.
I did a similar exercise last season and pointed out that there isn’t much of a correlation between the difficulty of the draw and winning percentage. As I said at the time,
That tells me that the supposed difficulty of the draw has little bearing on the actual outcome of the season. The NRL is so evenly matched – particularly over the long run – that the draw is a swing and/or roundabout. The 2015 Broncos had the third hardest draw and were one dropped bomb away from a premiership. The 2005 Tigers were seventh and went one better. Meanwhile, to find a wooden spooner, we have to go to the 2004 Rabbitohs in seventeenth but there are three in the bottom twenty.
The way I see it, day to day things, like injuries and weather, as well as larger considerations, like money, coaching competence and downright luck, have a far larger impact on whether a team wins. In the long run, it all evens out.
Then the Roosters, who had by far the softest draw in 2018 and one of the easiest schedules since 2000, went and won the premiership. In a season where eight teams finished within two points of each other, that tiny edge could have been the difference.