Diving into State of Origin 2021

It feels weird doing another Origin analysis so recently after the last one, a scant seven months ago, but here we are for another round of player analysis using statistical techniques, now including a significant amount of historical data, and Penrith bashing.

Before that, I want to take a victory lap on this prediction from last year:

Further, I expect that the ratings dip we saw through the finals will continue through the Origin series and we’ll be back to mid-week games by next winter. To keep broadcasters happy and make up for this year’s underperformance, any talk of standalone weekends will be quashed. It’ll be just like in the 80s, so that will keep the Daily Telegraph readers and ARLC chairman happy until they realise the futility of nostalgia, which will probably only happen on their deathbeds, if at all. It’s not like anyone wants to see New Zealand versus Tonga anyway.

I was off by one year but right about everything else. This is the last year for a standalone Sunday Origin. I could deal with this if the plan was to free up a weekend for internationals after Origin featuring some combination of the Kangaroos, Kiwis, Toa Samoa, Mate Ma’a Tonga, Kumuls, Bati and a third tier nation like England, perhaps playing the opening round of a meaningful international trophy but let’s face it, it’s a pipe dream. All must be sacrificed on the altar of Origin and NRL ratings.

Game 1 Lineups

Normally, I have little to offer in terms of constructive criticism for these lineups because the selection committees usually get it right, or thereabouts, and I hate trying to trace eligibility of players. This year though, with no Clint Gutherson in the centres, we must comment on the inexclipability of the following selections: Tariq Sims, Jaydn Su’A and Jake Trbojevic.

Statistically, Sims and Trbojevic have little to offer and surely New South Wales has substantially better options in these positions. David Klemmer hasn’t been at his best under the new rules but his TPR of .112 greatly exceeds that of Trbojevic at prop. Josh Schuster is sitting on an average TPR of .117 in the second row, a full 20 pips clear of Tariq Sims (a player who I didn’t realise was still in first grade), albeit Schuster is listed as a five-eighth on Manly’s website which might speak to his ball playing capability. Who can say if that would come in handy.

Stats aren’t everything and TPR doesn’t represent the full gamut of the game but really.

Queensland have fewer options at second row but surely it would have been better to shift Kurt Capewell to his club position and find another centre. Perhaps there’s one in Queensland Cup? Delouise Hoeter currently leads QCup by WARG at centre and would probably be Maroon eligible, as an alumnus of Keebra Park High. Tesi Niu has a Cup TPR of .110, predominantly at fullback. Maybe Daejarn Asi? Look, there’s a lot of low cards in the Queensland NRL deck – I briefly considered Tom Opacic (.102 in NRL this year) – but I’m sure someone can be found to do a job that doesn’t require giving a jersey to Jaydn Su’A, the Queenslander with the lowest TPR since Moses M’Bye’s ill-fated selections in 2019.

Series outlook

That the Maroons have such a substantial edge in the forwards’ production, mostly from the expected efforts of David Fifita and to a lesser extent Arrow and Welch, rather suggests that the Maroons should have the upper hand in this contest. As the old adage goes, forwards decide the result and the backs decide by how much. While Queensland’s back five is noticeably weaker than New South Wales, the Maroons should have a sufficient platform to let Munster run riot. The Blues will have to work hard to get Cleary in the game who rarely seems to have an impact in a game at rep level unless his pack is rolling.

While I’m tipping Queensland in the first meeting, it sits on a knife’s edge. Elo currently favours NSW as the superior state but only just, 1517 to 1483, a gap that overcome by home ground advantage. Indeed, Elo gives Queensland a 55% chance of winning this. The Maroons playing at Suncorp is worth +7.7 points and I would expect a similar advantage at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville to help offset any weaknesses in the lineup.

Even if the Maroons do come out victorious, the second game should snap back to reality, especially as the Blues will have some players available for the second game that they would have preferred to play in the first. The third will then be in the lap of the gods but, as it is played at ANZ and assuming a full strength NSW side, you’d think that would be enough to get the Blues home for a series win.

Brad Fittler will make it look harder than it needs to be and if he loses this series, surely he can’t be there in 2022. Paul Green may be even sufficiently useless to fail to get the boys fired up in Townsville and Queensland will be back to giving Wayne Bennett another crack next year while they wait for one of the golden generation to put their hand up.

Historical record

The NRL has now put stats up for all men’s Origins dating back to 2004. To take the data and turn it into something useful, I’ve taken the average of the various variables used in the NRL player rating calculations from 2013 to 2021 as a basis for some Origin-equivalent player rating calculations.

Normally, to get TPR we would factor in the time played but as we do not have this data for before 2014, I can’t do this. Consequently, instances like Cameron Munster’s two minutes in game two last year look bad, which is why it’s important to both know this context and understand that most or least production isn’t the same as the best or worst players. If you feel like you want to re-litigate the merits and shortfalls of the Taylor Player Rating system, you can read about it and make your own decisions.

We can calculate total Taylors, which accrues to the players with the most games in particular positions. To account for that, we also have average Taylors generated per game and I’ve divided each player’s Taylors by their positional average to generate a positional value over average number (VOA) and averaged that over their career.

This does mean we can finally answer the question whether Andrew Johns is a stat padding fraud or merely a fraud.

Pathetic.

Bearing the burden

As there is every year, there’s been a lot of chat about the burden of Origin unfairly impacting teams. Instead of the usual suspects, this year the Penrith Panthers’ fanbase has decided to pipe up after their regular season winning streak (*) has come to an end at the hands of an entirely beatable Wests Tigers team, allegedly because they were down seven players due to Origin commitments.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece that theorised that Origin tends to have a randomising impact on the competition. I dusted off the dataset and updated it to include the full history of Origin from 1980 through to this season, to see which clubs have borne the heaviest load of Origin selections.

These numbers should be roughly correct but I caveat it by pointing out that I scraped this from Wikipedia, which often has obscure rugby league trivia wrong and has coded the data in a difficult to parse manner, I have excluded the split 1997 season and that, like everyone, I do make mistakes

Penrith sit eleventh out of the current sixteen NRL clubs, with this year’s selections pushing them past Cronulla and sitting well clear of two clubs that didn’t exist for at least the first two decades of Origin and the one based in New Zealand that largely signs players ineligible for Origin. The other team is South Sydney.

The Panthers have less than a third of the Origin selections of the Brisbane Broncos and, coincidentally, exactly the same amount as the eight original BRL clubs, who haven’t had an Origin cap since 1987, two of which folded and a third left the Queensland Cup after an 0-23 season.

We can break it down further to see that it took the Panthers until 1995, well after they’d won their first premiership, to just catch up to the Wynnum Manly Seagulls.

If all six Panthers that are currently listed as starting play all three games, that would be the equal nineteenth biggest imposition on a single club in Origin history. This would be on par with the 90 and 04 Broncos, 03 Roosters, 83 Sea Eagles, 07 Storm and potentially, 21 Rabbitohs, who also have six players in the teams. The eighteen greater examples are the 08 Storm, 95 Bears, 90 Raiders, 83 Eels, 11 Dragons and thirteen Broncos teams. The top five are 03, 01, 02, 94 and 98 Broncos with 32, 31, 31, 30 and 29 total selections respectively.

Some might say it’s about time that Penrith started pulling their weight in Origin contributions. Others might simply point out that Panthers fans don’t seem to be able cope with the rarified air that comes with being at the top of the pile. Either way, they need to get over it.