The Renaissance of South Sydney
On their return to the competition in 2002, South Sydney sucked. A lot. The 2003 and 2006 Rabbitohs were among the worst all-time NRL sides, winning just three games a piece. In 2007, the tide turned with a moderately successful recruitment drive, lifting Souths to a .500 win percentage. Souths would be just on the cusp of finals places for the next few years before securing Michael Maguire as coach and turning into a powerhouse (powerhouse Maguire years marked in cardinal).
In 2012, the Rabbitohs played their first finals series since 2007, appearing in a run of three preliminary finals in a row before winning the grand final in 2014 and breaking a 43 year premiership drought. In 2015, the club was bundled out in the first week of the post-season. Two very average seasons followed.
Maguire was given the boot and Anthony Seibold was promoted to the top job. Suddenly, the Rabbitohs were back in contention in 2018, missing a grand final appearance by only eight points. Today, the team sits comfortably in the top four, on a 4-1 record and very likely to go to the finals again this year under new coach Wayne Bennett.
How did this happen?
Let’s look at Production. The definition of production is valuable worked done as measured by the accumulation of stats that correlate with winning. This includes things like running metres, hit ups, tries and assists. Errors and missed tackles count against. Production at a team level has a moderate-to-strong correlation with wins (Rsq = 0.52) and Pythagorean wins (Rsq = 0.58).
We can see above that Production follows the Rabbitohs’ performance. Note that the axes are a little misleading: a 13% increase in production from 2017 to 2018 resulted in a 77% uptick in actual wins. This is partly because the gap between floor and ceiling in production has a smaller range (it was 22% in 2018) than the top and bottom teams as measured in wins (167% in 2018). Nonetheless, it’s a clear demonstration that getting that extra bit of production has a meaningful impact on wins and points scored.
A popular narrative in 2018 was that Seibold got the Burgess brothers working again. To assess players, one tool we can use is PPG, or Production Per Game. The production of an individual is compared to the average player in that position and then averaged over the number of games played (with some corrections made for minutes played). In the NRL, players with at least five games in a season average around .090, while he very best are in the range of .150 to .200.
The Burgess boys were a key component of the 2014 Souths premiership, with the main trio putting up monstrous numbers to lay a platform for their team mates. Their decline in production from 2015 to 2017 was mirrored by a decline in the number of wins by the team. In 2018, we see a rebound in Souths’ wins but no commensurate rebound in the Burgess’ production.
To find out where the extra production came from in 2018, let’s change gears slightly. Instead of PPG, a per game average, let’s look at WARG, or Wins Above Reserve Grade. Functionally, it works in a similar fashion to Wins Above Replacement in baseball and at its core, it looks at Production and converts this to wins. Rather than being an average per game, WARG is a volume measure and no adjustments are made for minutes or games played. That means, a player with 24 games is likely to have a higher WARG than one with only five.
Notice that in the last two seasons, Souths has been a far more balanced team. A greater number of players have been making noticeable, positive contributions to the team’s overall production. In 2014, the Rabbitohs were relying on eight players. Remove one of them and Souths probably don’t win a premiership. In 2018, they could rely on up to thirteen to make a decent contribution.
With hindsight, the narrative could be that the roster that delivered the 2014 premiership had started to age, deteriorating productively to the point that they were no longer competitive by 2016. In 2017, changes to the South Sydney lineup were made in order to get the team competitive again, including the acquisitions of Damien Cook and Robbie Farah and the debut of Angus Crichton. I don’t know whether there were changes to the way that the Rabbitohs played, resulting in comparatively ineffective performances in a year spent adjusting to the new regime, or the absence of the likes of Greg Inglis for the season explains the lack of improvement in 2017.
Nonetheless, by 2018, the groundwork laid paid off. The emergence of Damien Cook is writ large in the massive expansion of hot pink in the 2018 column from 2017. The addition of Dane Gagai, granted his truly abysmal try scoring strike rate, provided meaningful production, especially as Inglis returned from injury. Crichton and Sam Burgess were steady and Tom Burgess was productive with his once-in-a-career try scoring form.
But perhaps strangest of all, is that the Renaissance of South Sydney is really the Renaissance of John Sutton. In the year that he notched up his 300th game, Sutton’s contribution was his biggest since the premiership year. His +0.3 WARG put the thirty-three year old into the same conversation as Crichton, Inglis, Jennings and Burgess. Out of the middle forwards present for the 2014 grand final run, Sutton is the only one to have recaptured that form.
This doesn’t cover everything that has happened at Redfern. Conceptually, production is poor at measuring defensive efforts and, as alluded to a few weeks ago, the improvement in Souths’ defensive capability was a contributor to their movement up the ladder. The Burgess brothers may not have been as productive in previous years but their ability to get down and fire off a quick play the ball, was helpful in pushing their opposition on to the back foot and providing space for Cook to punch holes. Robert Jennings has a huge contribution attributed to him but that’s because he scored tries that were set up by an incredibly functional left side attack, often creating enough space for Jennings to cross the line untouched.
It shouldn’t be surprising that Souths continue to be successful in 2019. The loss of Angus Crichton will be offset by the rise of twenty-one year old Cameron Murray. Cody Walker has already shown form in 2019 and Adam Reynolds is as consistent as they come. Braidon Burns and Campbell Graham are exciting young outside backs and they will likely have to space to grow now that Greg Inglis has announced his retirement.
The bigger question mark is whether the middle forwards can maintain the rage well into their thirties and carry the Rabbitohs to another premiership. We’ll have to wait and see.