A deep dive in to the 2020 NRL premiership
This is my third season preview and I have got some things laughably wrong in the previous attempts (see 2018 and 2019). This year’s will be a slightly different format to previous years but undertaken in the same spirit of considering each team’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, as well as assessing the changes made since last year and their potentially positive or negative impact on performance.
However, I plan to have fewer laughably wrong predictions in 2020 simply by making fewer predictions. After all, if you want to see laughably wrong rugby league analysis, you can just pick up a copy of the paper.
Last season in a nutshell
2019 was a weird season and completely different to its equally weird predecessor. In 2018, eight teams finished within a win of each other and then were systematically dismantled by the Roosters and Storm in the finals. In 2019, we had three teams that could clearly play football, another couple that were adequate and a bunch of losers that didn’t want to make the finals. The round 17 golden point field goal shoot-out between the Broncos and Warriors, leading to a draw after multiple botched attempts, encapsulated the lose-at-all-costs mentality that defined positions seven through fifteen on the ladder. In the end, the Roosters emerged victorious in a manner that still infuriates me, with the Raiders running out of points and the Storm running out of steam when it counted.
A relatively quiet off-season – dominated by Latrell Mitchell’s signature, the Tigers’ warchest, Melbourne pollinating the landscape with overpriced talent and what the second Brisbane team should be named – has seen most teams turn up to 2020 in roughly the same shape as they approached 2019. It makes it very difficult to get a grasp on how this year might pan out, without just repeating pretty much what happened in 2019. And, no, neither the Nines nor pre-season trials will provide any insight.
How it all works
I appreciate that it’s difficult to keep up with the Pythago NRL Expanded Universe™ of metrics and ratings. Not only are they generally more complicated than standard stats, I tweak them almost every year based on what I learned during the previous season. I created a short reference guide to what it all means.
2020 team projections are based on round 1 lineups, taken as a mix from NRL.com and League Unlimited. 2020 roster composition is based on the listed signings on League Unlimited (as of 28 February) but 2019 roster information is based only on players who played at least one game.
- Brisbane Broncos
- Canberra Raiders
- Canterbury Bulldogs
- Cronulla Sharks
- Gold Coast Titans
- Manly Sea Eagles
- Melbourne Storm
- Newcastle Knights
- New Zealand Warriors
- North Queensland Cowboys
- Parramatta Eels
- Penrith Panthers
- South Sydney Rabbitohs
- St George Illawarra Dragons
- Sydney Roosters
- Wests Tigers
Brisbane deserved to finish ninth or tenth last season. The Broncos were the second most heavily biased to their forwards, behind the Cowboys and the immutable Taumalolo. The strong and young forward pack means that the Broncos are projected to have the third most production in 2020 but there’s diminishing returns in having powerful forwards if the other parts of the team continue to struggle to execute. The reality is that Brisbane needs less stupidity out of the forwards, more offence out of the backs and an all round improvement in defence.
I assume we will see more of the same from last year because nothing has changed significantly enough to suggest otherwise. Giving the captaincy to Glenn over Boyd doesn’t change the fact that neither should be on the field. If Boyd plays anywhere, that side of the field will shut down in attack and one or two players will have to cover his defensive workload. None of the talk out of the club has really addressed this or any of the many other problems, so I don’t see how they could have fixed them.
As to what question Brodie Croft answers, I don’t know but it isn’t halfback production. Ironically, I think the team would perform better if Milford’s TPR was lower and he didn’t have to waste time carrying so much dead weight, both undercooked rookies and overcooked veterans.
Possibly more than any other team, the Raiders have lost the most talent in the off-season. Taylor is down on their prospects but expects Canberra to still perform above average. Elo and Poseidon, carrying through from 2019, expect them to return to premiership contention. The Raiders’ defence wasn’t quite enough to win them the premiership (as a rule of thumb, the Poseidon defence rating should be at least +50) and it would be unlikely to not see some reversion towards mean this year. With luck, it won’t be as disastrous as 2017 and 2018 following 2016.
While Canberra’s defence was good, the attack completely dissipated in the finals. Bringing in an English half is a risk, but so was bringing in English forwards, and it paid handsome dividends. By all accounts, George Williams is the goods and might be the missing piece of the puzzle. Leilua, Rapana and Sezer have all left in the off-season, to be replaced by Curtis Scott, who celebrated by punching some cops. After being mired mid-to-lower-table for so long under the decade-long dual dominance of Sydney and Melbourne, it would be genuinely surprising to see a team turn a corner and transform into perennial challengers.
The Bulldogs are behind, way behind.
With Kieran Foran missing most, if not all, of the 2020 season, the Bulldogs either need significant development out of their relatively young squad or to land some signatures. Neither seem likely, especially as the club is likely to still be paying freight on players from the Castle-Hasler era and the current squad do not have the track record to suggest any superstars are emerging (perhaps Renouf To’omaga excepted). The players signed to development contracts do not have particularly impressive stats from the NSW Cup. With last year’s significant outperformance of the fundamentals, reversion to mean would likely mean a wooden spoon.
However, we’re now into our second full season of rebuild at Belmore and the signs have been promising. Late surges of form in 2018 and 2019 when other teams start to switch off towards the end of the season have often been timely, snagging wins that Canterbury have no right to and desperately need. This defiance indicates that Dean Pay can coach (“Dogs of war”, etc, etc) and jag the seven or eight wins required to avoid the spoon. I’m comparatively bullish on the Bulldogs but they need to resolve their cap issues to get some talent on board if they want to really progress.
With their home games moved to Kogarah, we may finally get an answer to the age-old question: what do the Cronulla Sharks actually do to justify their place in the NRL?
The Sharks’ 12-12 record and seventh place belied how well they played last season. Let down significantly by their goal kicking, the Sharks lost a record five games despite scoring more tries. While that’s a NSWRL/NRL record, I doubt that’s ever happened at any other time in football. The odds of it are simply astronomical. Tack on a couple of extra wins to last year’s total to appropriately set your expectations.
Cronulla should have the talent to comfortably make the finals in 2020. We probably won’t see anything much more interesting than that out of them unless a couple of the top clubs stumble.
With Paul Gallen retired, the team will have to adjust their production bias away from the forwards. I still have question marks on Bronson Xerri but his production last year was impressive and Braden Hamlin-Uele should probably be starting.
Gold Coast Titans
Perhaps the most significant thing to happen to the Titans last season was being surpassed by Newcastle, to be left at the bottom of the league in class Elo ratings. It might be recalled that the Knights were the worst NRL team of all time in 2016 and since then, the Knights have gotten better and the Titans so much worse.
Last season, you would have only taken a handful of players from the Titans to your own club given the opportunity: Arrow, Fotuaika, Brimson (who has a surprisingly low TPR) and maybe Tyrone Roberts if you were feeling generous. The Titans managed to hang on to them, except Arrow who will be departing for Souths next year. The rest of the roster under Garth Brennan was a joke, hence the 4-20 record, so hopes are pinned on the incoming Justin Holbrook, having left the best Super League team for the worst NRL team. Indeed, last season the Titans were ranked lower than half of the Super League.
With the number of experienced veterans and the talent pool on their door step, the Titans really should be better than they are. They are not and the sims reflect it. Fans will hope the new coach can get more out of the squad. Appointing Kevin Proctor captain is not the most auspicious start to turning around the club’s culture. Sick 9s jersey though.
Manly Sea Eagles
The Taylors bear out how low expectations were for Manly in 2019, only for those expectations to be obliterated. The Sea Eagles were one of the few teams outside the big two that could win regularly. I went out on a limb pre-season and suggested Manly would make the finals. While that was pure luck on my part, they managed to do it. It turns out Des Hasler can still coach, even after taking some shine off his reputation while at the Bulldogs.
Backing up without the element of surprise and the reversion to mean will be challenging. Reversion to mean is a harsh mistress and often a huge outperformance is punished with an equally severe reaction in the opposite direction in the following season. The law of averages demands its tribute. For now at least, Manly’s prospects for 2020 appear to be good and based on sound fundamentals.
It hasn’t been discussed nearly enough how costly Manase Fainu missing some (most? all?) of the upcoming season will be. He was one of the big unknowns that stepped up last year and with Api Koroisau now at Penrith, Manly are bereft of options at hooker. It is too early to discuss Cade Cust as a long-term successor to Daly Cherry-Evans but he had an impressive debut season.
The Storm and Craig Bellamy, as they often are, were the biggest outperformers of their projections in the league. Melbourne finished the season with a 20-4 record, a record only bettered* by the Storm’s 21-3 2007 season. Unlike 2017, where it seemed inevitable that the Storm would win the premiership after winning 20 games, they never seemed to get much credit for what was still a very impressive season in 2019.
Melbourne just have the knack of taking extremely talented young men, putting them on the football field and winning games. Positions don’t seem important, neither do the names. It will likely continue forever because there is plenty of talent pushing through in reserve grade. Even the departure of several reasonable quality players doesn’t seem to have made a dent in their prospects.
So yeah, they’re pretty good. If I’m lucky, I may live long enough to see the next Broncos win over the Storm, an event about as frequent as Halley’s Comet.
The Knights will be glad to see the back of the 2010s, where they were the worst team in the NRL and nearly went broke. The good news is that the Knights might legitimately make the finals this year.
The Knights massively outperformed in 2018, which then led to many talking heads predicting serious success in 2019. Success wasn’t forthcoming because the fundamentals weren’t there. Instead, we had a heady mix of nostalgia, over-excitement and Blue bias that completely crippled the predominantly Sydney-based media’s capacity to objectively analyse (I have the same problem in the opposite direction but at least I’m aware of it).
Mitchell Pearce had a career season in 2019, at least until I wrote about it, but otherwise the team struggled to meet expectations. I’m more of a numbers guy than a culture guy, but even I could see that the team was often not trying. Results from round 16 through 21 last year bear that out. Their thrashing at the hands of the Titans in round 5 was more typical of the season than the six wins that followed.
The finishing touches to the “rebuild” have now been applied, not least Adam O’Brien replacing Nathan Brown as head coach, to bring the Knights back in contention for finals places. Newcastle are still a way off challenging for the premiership.
New Zealand Warriors
People think the Warriors are bad. They haven’t been. New Zealand’s club embodies average-ness with every fibre and loves to squander an opportunity. The thing about the median is that it’s not last place, so I’m always wary of any prediction that gives the spoon to the Warriors.
The loss of Shaun Johnson was not well compensated and the team is now overly reliant on Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the back line to generate production. The forward pack has not been impressive as a whole. The lack of star power – currently projected to be zero players – is concerning, although not damning. Kodi Nikorima is, at best, a below average halfback and Chanel Harris-Tavita is apparently too young to start but he’s far better bet (.098 in 2019 compared to the .085-ish range Nikorima has played in the last three years). The Warriors will chase eighth place with the Broncos, Tigers and Knights until they get tired and slump down the ladder.
More worryingly, the Warriors are on the precipice of falling full-time into the ‘bad’ category and once that happens, I don’t know how the club will pull itself out. The Auckland Rugby League should be a conveyor belt of talent and the Warriors should be at least Broncos-calibre, if not the Storm. Until that gets worked out, New Zealand will probably bounce along the bottom of the ladder.
North Queensland Cowboys
A good showing at the 9s tournament in Perth has clouded judgement about what the Cowboys are capable of. Consider their stacked halves options of Michael Morgan, Jake Clifford and Scott Drinkwater. Drinkwater is only a thought there because Valentine Holmes is obviously the fullback. The ever-reliable Vaa’i Taumalolo will put the team on his back and Kyle Feldt will finish in the corner.
It sounds good in principle but most of these pieces have been available for the last three years and, other than limping to the grand final in 2017 and avoiding the spoon in 2018 and 2019, those three years have had little to celebrate. After all, we’re projecting a team with some well-known players to only be twelfth best. Without Taumalolo, a certified freak and statistical anomaly, that number would be a lot closer to the bottom.
Paul Green seems intent on stifling the creativity of his playmakers and/or was overly reliant on Johnathan Thurston to make plays. Either way, he has to adjust to the new Thurston-less world where scoring six to twelve points is not going to be enough. Despite delivering the premiership in 2015, a bad 2020 might be the end of the road for Green.
I think this is it for the Eels. They are due for their once-a-decade (give or take) tilt at the premiership.
The Taylors are not too crash hot on the Eels. There are holes in key TPR ratings: Reed Mahoney at hooker, Dylan Brown nominally at five-eighth and, to a lesser extent, Clint Gutherson at fullback. The forward pack is slightly above average but none are exceptional. Reagan Campbell-Gillard might be one of those high-TPR, low-impact players, like Aaron Woods. On the other hand, Parramatta are capable of outperforming their projections which, for their top players at least, seem conservative. Last season’s hiccups only came when meeting the Storm, a hurdle that has felled better teams in the past.
The Eels are one of the better set up football clubs in Sydney. They have a good new stadium in the heart of their community, not too far from their leagues club. They’ve had a reasonable amount of on-field success the last few years if we ignore the total and inexplicable collapse that was 2018 (which might explain the conservative projections). It will be worth keeping an eye out to see if the club an build on this and win two premierships this season to complete their five year plan.
If not, 2021 will probably be a tear down, followed by a firesale clearance, and then a rebuild.
The numbers suggest a tough year ahead for the Panthers, with not much to look forward to. The projected team is only two Taylors per game better than the Bulldogs. TPR lists only four guys worth a damn, roughly the same as the Titans. The sims have ten wins and eleventh place on the ladder picked out for Penrith, a re-run of 2019.
My gut says Penrith could do a lot this year. The grand final might be a step too far but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them scrapping for a second week final nor would it surprise me if we wrote them off as finals contenders shortly after Origin. The risk is there is plenty of potential but not a lot of proven execution, as last year’s rookies become this year’s sophomores and the pack that was bulldozing the league a few years ago slowly being whittled away.
It might not matter if this year is a write-off for the Panthers if they can channel the experience into development, making this squad better in future campaigns. Ivan Cleary and a Gould-less Panthers will have to take better care of the next generation than they have done in the past.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
I have a quiet confidence in Souths’ premiership aspirations but questions remain unanswered.
Souths’ spine is projected to be a full five Taylors per game better than Melbourne’s, which is next best, so it is little surprise that the Rabbitohs are the mostly heavily biased to their playmakers. Damien Cook is the keystone of the spine and has been the league’s most productive player by TPR two years running. The .200 barrier hasn’t been broken since Robbie Farah did it back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, years that the Tigers won a combined seventeen games. After two years of wrecking the league, have coaches finally watched enough tape of Damien Cook to put a lid on him? More pressingly, will Damien Cook turn up this postseason?
Latrell Mitchell’s mooted move to fullback returns him to a position he hasn’t officially played since his 2016 season for the Roosters. He put up an average TPR of .087 then. Mitchell is projected to carry through his (famously quite lazy) productivity at centre and bring .120 of production to fullback. I am loathe to make individual manual tweaks to my systems, so that seems like a bad assumption that is worth adjusting for. 30 pips of production at fullback is worth about 10 Taylors, enough to move Souths from fourth best squad to outside the top eight. Questions: will Latrell at fullback work? Will Latrell put his full back into working?
If they fail, it is not clear if the rest of the team will be able to pick up enough slack to keep the Bunnies in the premiership hunt. Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker form a potent pair. Cameron Murray looks ready to go up another level. But is the forward pack good enough without numerous Burgii? Edene Gebbie looked a little lost at the 9s, so who else is waiting in the wings if needed?
Is Wayne cooked?
St George Illawarra Dragons
I didn’t want to make any specific predictions but wooden spoon, anyone?
It would be the first for Illawarra since 1989 and the first for St George since 1938. The reality is that Paul McGregor’s head is already on the chopping block. Since taking the reins, the Dragon’s class rating has dropped nearly 100 points, an untenable position and one no major league coach of the last two decades has been able to drag their team out before their time was up. No improvements to the roster, no improvements to coaching… wait, didn’t the Dragons sign Shane Flanagan as an “assistant”? That will be an interesting play and may well push the Dragons up the ladder.
The squad itself isn’t magic but should be better than last place. New signing Isaac Luke has always been a productive player but he will presumably be second fiddle to Cameron McInnes when he returns from injury, reducing the potential volume of work Luke could be doing. Indeed, St George Illawarra are extremely reliant on their spine to perform. While Hunt, Norman and McInnes have been productive, I don’t think they’ve been especially effective. The Dragons are also still searching for a fullback. Lomax may or may not be it.
If Flanagan really is the de facto, if not de jure, head coach, then he should be able to coax that performance out of the roster. If McGregor is still in charge, then a 5-0 start will turn into a 7-17 season and the cycle will begin anew.
I’m quite comfortable assuming that the Roosters won’t go three in a row. They’re still good though, probably even still good enough for a minor premiership. A projected 15+ wins and the second best squad on paper is not going to have trouble reaching a preliminary final. The Storm are the only team superior on paper and they share the equal best class Elo rating.
When we talk about the trinity of rugby league – hungah, pashun and desiyah – do the Roosters still espouse these values? Cooper Cronk’s retirement and nominal replacement with near-rookie Kyle Flanagan is the kind of loss of edge that turns premiership winners into runners-up, as the Storm have amply demonstrated.
After all, it’s not just about production. Yelling at other players to get them organised is a rare and extremely valuable commodity. Luke Keary may have it but it will be the first time in his career that the 28 year old will be the elder of the halves pairing. But to put this supposed weakness into context, the Roosters will absolutely be a top four team come September.
The Tigers continue to defy my predictions of a wooden spoon to instead finish ninth. Last year, they really should have been eighth and the 12-12 record the year before should have seen them in the top eight. Basically, bad luck has kept them from breaking the NRL’s longest finals drought.
Still, you make your own luck. The Tigers were the biggest movers in the off-season and showed unusual astuteness in their acquisitions: Leilua times two, Adam Doueihi, Walters and maybe Harry Grant (.266 TPR in 2019’s QCup) will land.
The projections and the sims lock in a knife-edge battle for the Tigers to take that final step from ninth to eighth. Exactly 50% chance of making the finals, exactly 12.0 wins projected and an average finishing position of 8.6. I’m not ready to make them a lock but this is the best chance Wests have had in a long time.
All they had to do was spend their money wisely. Now they just need to lock down a home ground.