This is getting embarrassing

Previously in our “Peter V’landys sucks” series:

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At 10.25am on Thursday, 20 May 2021, the NRL issued a press release.

The National Rugby League (NRL) today releases the below data of key football and fatigue related indicators in the game and corrects some misconceptions about the changes in the game over the last two years.

Season to date statistics, NRL.com, 20 May 2021

Unlike most of the NRL nerds who were choking on their own spittled rage, I was at the dentist when this came to my attention. Rather than to fire off a missive from the waiting room, I used my time while my teeth were being scraped and drilled to think about this press release and I came to the following conclusion.

Peter V’Landys is a loser.

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Justice Wigney said the overall impression of the program was not that Mr V’landys knew the “wholesale slaughter” of horses was occurring, but that regulators didn’t know what was going on and their data was inaccurate and unreliable. 

He said a viewer would also have also been left with the impression that rules and regulations to prevent wastage were “ineffective and inadequately enforced”.

“That may have conveyed that the regulators, including Mr V’landys, were somewhat incompetent or ineffective,” Justice Wigney said in his judgment.

Racing NSW boss Peter V’landys loses defamation case over ABC animal cruelty story, ABC, 14 May 2021

V’Landys is a loser in the literal sense that he lost a court case last week, in which he was descibred as “incompetent”, and also in the figurative sense.

This press release is not the action of a man who feels comfortable in his position. While I understand it was likely dreamt up by the cnidarian Graham Annesley, this undoubtedly represents V’Landys’ position.

Let’s review it in detail. I’m going to start with the data and then go back to the conclusions presented at the beginning.

Average errors per game

The average number of errors has remained flat before and after the implementation of new rules. Fatigued players are more likely to make errors, but we observe no material change.

2021: 22

2020: 22

2019: 21

The lack of significant figures is doing some heavy lifting here. The real numbers are:

2021: 21.6

2020: 21.7

2019: 20.7

You might argue that it’s still just one extra error per game. Over a full 201 game schedule, that’s an additional 200 errors per year. Literally the worst part of football has increased 4.3%.

Moreover, if errors and fatigue directly correlate, as asserted by the NRL, then that’s a 4.3% increase in fatigue. Considering players were more or less at their limits in pre-Vlandoball, it’s unclear why they have decided that this is not a material increase.

Average Ball In Play                 

The amount of ball in play is an indicator of live game time. It has risen 30 seconds per game since 2019 but reduced by 54 seconds from 2020.

2021: 55min 18secs

2020: 56min 12secs

2019: 54min 48secs

Remember this because it will be important.

Average time the ball is in play before stoppage

The average live time the ball is in play is 5 seconds longer before a stoppage from 2019 but there has been no change from 2020 to 2021.

2021: 62 seconds

2020: 62 seconds

2019: 57 seconds

Devoid of context, these numbers are meaningless. How many stoppages are there? What are the stoppages for? Doesn’t this suggest players are putting in longer efforts between breaks? Would this, in turn, cause fatigue? Who amongst us can say? The NRL can’t.

Average tries per game

There’s one additional try per game in 2021 compared to 2019 which leads to an additional stoppage per game.

2021: 7.7

2020: 7.3

2019: 6.6

A deeper dive into the data, or simply looking at the free work provided by the NRL analytics community, would show you what’s going on, instead of counting tries. One might wonder, for instance, why tries have gone up this year or, indeed, if that’s a good thing.

Play the Balls

The number of Play the Balls is down slightly from 2020 to 2021. This implies slightly less tackle count year on year.

2021: 284

2020: 288

2019: 270

Considering the NRL tracks the number of tackles made, it’s not clear why they used play the balls as a proxy for tackle counts. Let me do that:

2021: 19.4 tackles per player per game

2020: 20.7

2019: 19.7

Is that not simpler? Moreover, this obviously correlates with time of ball in play.

Average Total Distance per player

Players are running less distance per game in 2021 than they were under previous rules in 2019.

2021: 6600m

2020: 7180m

2019: 6626m

It’s not clear why this metric is important. It correlates with time of ball in play, rising in 2020 and then falling again in 2021.

Average player metres covered at more than 20km

The average number of player metres covered at high speed (more than 20km/h) has increased by 22 metres in 2021 compared to 2020. Players are running less metres per game, but slightly more metres at higher speeds.

2021: 299

2020: 277

2019: 255

It’s not explained why the threshhold of 20km/h is significant. Nonetheless, the metres covered at speed has increased 8.6% from 2019 to 2020 and then 7.9% again from 2020 to 2021, for a total increase of 17.3%. Players are running further, faster – how does this not cause fatigue?

However, I take particular exception to “slightly more metres at higher speeds”. At the elite level of sport, single percentage point gains are huge. The 2020 Tour de France was won by Tadej Pogacar in a time of 87 hours and 20 minutes. The last placed finisher, Roger Kluge, complete the race in 93 hours and 27 minutes. If he’d found a 17% improvement in his speed, Kluge would have won the race by over seven hours. In Formula 1, if a qualifying time is more than 107% of the pole sitter’s, the driver is not allowed to start the race, deemed a safety hazard. In the 2020 London Marathon, if the men’s winner, Shura Kitata, had been 17.3% slower on his winning time, he would have been good enough for the top ten… of the women’s race.

In simpler terms, try running a kilometre as fast as you can go. You should be dry heaving at the finish. Then do it again but hold the same pace for 1173 metres. It’s not a slight increase.

To return to the beginning.

That data highlights the following matters:

While there’s a perception the players have never been more fatigued, the data simply does not support that assertion.

Players who are fatigued are more likely to make errors – yet the error rate over the last three years has remained flat. The error rate today is almost the same as the error rate before the new rule changes.

Personally, I’d first demonstrate that there is a connection between fatigue and errors. Logically, it follows that there is but if you are serious about creating a data-driven argument, this assertion is not enough. Moreover, as demonstrated above, players are making more errors.

Players are running about 500m less per game this season than last season and consistent with the number of metres run in 2019.

There’s now 7.7 tries per game compared to just over 6.6 in 2019. That means the players are getting more stoppages for tries this year than previous years. The increase in tries coincides with players running faster from tackle breaks and in open play.

I’ve addressed most of this but it’s worth noting that the NRL collects line break and tackle break data but has not included it in this release.

2021: 9.1 LB and 57.8 TB per game

2020: 8.1 LB and 56.4 TB per game

2019: 7.4 LB and 61.5 TB per game

Would the increase in line breaks not be something to celebrate? Potentially, this is a result of more tries being scored but this is a much sounder and easier argument to make. Unless, of course, we think slightly hard about why more line breaks are occuring.

Fatigue does not appear to be impacting on field performances or decision making. Players aren’t making more errors, they are not running more metres and they are getting more breaks because there are more tries. 

There is no data provided to suggest anything about decision making. Players are making more 4.3% errors. Players are scoring more tries, getting more breaks in play and reducing time in play, which is reducing the other statistics cited. Around and around we go with this circular argument.

The release makes no real argument and the statistics provided do not address any of the root causes of this issue or even provide meaningful context. Where increases have been noted, these have been noted as “slight” or negligible when they are in fact significant.

This is the press release of a, to borrow a Trumpism, loser. It’s not only stupid, the argument presented argues against the NRL’s own lines from a few months ago. The goal post shifting would impress the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney, the architects of the Iraq War, if it were carried out competently but it hasn’t and they’d likely be disgusted with the ineptitude.

A winner wouldn’t need to issue this release and they certainly wouldn’t use numbers to justify their point.

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At it’s most basic level, it’s insulting that the NRL thought this would placate anyone. The kind of people swayed by statistics are generally not swayed by bad statistics and have keen enough noses to smell dumb shit a mile off. The kind of people who aren’t swayed by statistics, people I would generously call V’Landys’ base, aren’t going to care. Who is this for and what point is it really trying to make?

We will continue to meticulously monitor the data and if there is a negative trend we will address it. Player welfare is our absolute priority and if there were any signs that fatigue was having a negative impact, we would act immediately.

If the intention was to placate the players, by suggesting that the ARLC has their best interests at heart and are closely monitoring the situation, it didn’t work.

I suppose there is an argument to be made regarding the recent crackdown on high shots to the head. If the players are making mistakes in their tackling technique due to fatigue, then that would mean the rule changes implemented by the V’Landys administration should be rolled back on player safety grounds, causing V’Landys to lose face. However, if you can demonstrate that there is no fatigue factor, then the players are making mistakes in their tackling technique because they are lazy and therefore do not deserve to be listened to.

Of course, one might wonder about the point of the rule changes, which was to bring more fatigue back into the game as a means to improve the entertainment value of the product.

“Look, the objective is to have a free-flowing game of rugby league that is not all about defence,” V’landys said. “We are in the entertainment business and the very loud message I got from the broadcasters is that we are not as entertaining as we once were.

“And that is because of the wrestle, the slowing down of the ruck and not as much fatigue.

“So basically we have to look at all that. We need to make our game attractive to the fans.

Peter V’landys targets interchange to boost NRL entertainment factor, Daily Telegraph, 18 May 2020

By July, this success was trumpeted to all who cared to hear.

This was exactly what V’landys and his fellow commissioners envisaged when they brought in rule changes designed to speed up the game and remove the wrestle.

“I promised the broadcasters we would make it more entertaining,” V’landys said. “That was a great game – one of the best games I have ever seen. We wanted to make the game more free flowing and get rid of the wrestle. And we will keep making changes.

“I think it is better. There is more fatigue. It is more entertaining. You can’t say it is not more entertaining.”

NRL ready to use soaring ratings as launch pad for broadcast talks, The Australian, 3 July 2020

Now we are told there isn’t more fatigue. Of course, this begs several questions. If the rule changes didn’t promote fatigue, then what was the point? Why did increasing the usage of the six again – seemingly the main culprit of fatigue – in 2021 lead to less fatigue? If there is a direct connection between entertainment value and fatigue, wouldn’t the NRL putting out a press release saying there isn’t more fatigue imply there isn’t more entertainment? Should Peter V’Landys give more money back to Channel Nine for this broken promise? It would certainly explain the declining ratings.

Instead we get this.

“I’ve got to say, even with the blow-outs the games are entertaining,” V’landys told Phil Gould in a special sit-down interview on Nine’s 100% Footy.

“Before they were robotic, they were predictable. Now, they’re entertaining. Even the blowouts over the weekend were entertaining. For the viewer…

“So, don’t blame the rule changes. All they’ve done have made the game more entertaining. The six-again has made the game less predictable. The blow-outs aren’t all to do with the six-again, the blowouts are to do with the rosters of the teams.

Poor roster management, not faster game, to blame for growing number of blowouts: V’landys, WWOS, 17 May 2021

Ignoring the fact that the game is as predictable as it has been for at least twenty-five years, there’s a noticeable absence of using fatigue as an explanatory mechanism for the sudden increase in the NRL’s entertianment value.

We might also wonder if the reduction from two referees to one referee and the increased pace of the game that was celebrated up until a week or two ago, resulted in referees missing high shots in the rounds preceding the crackdown that would have otherwise been picked up under the two referee system. We might further wonder if this has triggered an overreaction and more or less ruined Magic Round with a record number of sin bins. This might allow us to take a longer view on this administration’s actions that they should have taken in the first instance.

There’s probably a line to be drawn between V’Landys’ role as the head of Racing NSW, where he oversaw the disposal of unneeded and unwanted living creatures like so much trash, and his administration’s cavalier disregard for player welfare or input, embodied in the form of this press release. From this, we might draw a conclusion about his capability as a leader or as a decent human being and juxtapose this against the most recent crackdown on high shots, perhaps in the context of the ARLC’s legal liabilities.

In a better world, he’d be forced to resign. In this one, we are forced to wait.

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The decline and fall of the V’landian empire is to some extent inevitable. All empires crumble. What’s stunning is the rapidity by which the decline has come about.

At the start of this year, V’Landys was in an unassailable position. A month ago, his detractors were very much in the minority. In the last week, his administration has issued a writ for a crackdown the day of the commencement of the game’s showpiece resulting in an unbearably poor round of football, he lost his defamation suit against the ABC and then this press release comes out.

Then there’s Racing NSW boss Peter V’Landys, who comes from a multi-billion-dollar industry and must shake his head in disbelief about how the country’s second biggest football code is being run.

Plummeting faith in the people who run rugby league, Andrew Webster, SMH, 28 June 2018

For a man who seemingly had all the credentials, it’s astonishing he did not have a single person around him to suggest he take the week off. Instead, he ran to a sympathetic journalist and had his face plastered on the back of the Daily Telegraph.

Considering the much discussed policy pipeline of Phil Gould’s prolapsed brain farts to Peter V’Landys’ mouth, it’s interesting a man who seemingly had such political nous never wondered why Phil Gould – a man with a long standing in the game, a national platform and presumably plenty of political capital – didn’t simply take the mantle for himself. Perhaps V’Landys convinced himself that Gould was unelectable but Gould’s ideas were fundamentally sound and V’Landys could use these to take control of the ARLC, adding another line to his resume, inching him closer to whatever his end goal is. In reality, his political insight has managed to get players and fans off side in the space of a fortnight.

Then again, his credentials were only ever boasted of by journalists, most of whom either refuse or are unable to handle the people who they are meant to hold to account, so perhaps we should take these endorsements with a grain of salt. It is entirely likely that they confused his predeliction for fighting a constant, running PR battle through the media, dropping a flash bang grenade a week as a distraction, with savvy.

Consequently, it’s entirely possible that he has, in fact, been a dumb loser this whole time.

Peter V’Landys is a sad embodiment of the Australian establishment. He has little to no understanding of the world in which he lives (did he not realise that his previous comments on fatigue were easily searchable?) and so has nothing to offer as leader. He is, however, capable of forming alliances with the right people and using them to advance himself within large organisations and, if necessary, putting the knife in the back himself. Putting a man like this in charge of a sport and letting him play with the levers like a drunk monkey was only ever going to have one result.

Nonetheless, I’m sure we’ll all be told how great he is right up until he’s not and how no one could have seen this coming and this is just the way it is at the top of such a rough and tumble sport. There will be other cliches that disengage the mind but we do have receipts.