A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Newcastle Knights

The Newcastle Knights finished the 2021 season in seventh place with a perfectly respectable and completely uninteresting 12-12 record and a slightly more bizarre -143 points difference.

Gone are the days we can heap scorn on this franchise. That’s two consecutive seventh places, after two consecutive eleventh places after three consecutive spoons. They’ve entered the rugby league middle class and are here to stay. To that end, they made week one of the finals before giving Parramatta a run for their money for an hour but ultimately capitulating.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Anyway, Adam O’Brien. For reasons I can’t quite articulate – perhaps it’s that Newcastle has become the sole Isaac Moses FC and hired Anthony Seibold as an assistant coach – I’m not 100% sold on him. It could simply be a lack of sample size. O’Brien is clearly a better coach than Nathan Brown and has taken the Knights from the arrière into the peloton. My question is then can he take them to the front of the race?

The roster actually looks good. Like Canberra and the Gold Coast, Newcastle have assembled a talented cast for their starting line up…

The pieces are there. There’s a good squad, a promising coach and a stable club. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Knights do well this year but their late season fade-outs of the last couple years, and some other things I can’t quite put my finger on (I could be conflating an injury toll last year with actual performance if we’re being honest), mean that putting them in the second group is a safer bet, with an acknowledgement that they have the ingredients, if not the demonstrated proof, that they could be – perhaps should be – in the first.

Second group it was but also, after battling a noticeable injury toll again.

What happened

Let’s go back to that slightly more bizarre points difference of -143. The Knights’ attack was unusually bad. It was second worst in the league, well clear of the Bulldogs’ paltry 340 but 18 behind the Broncos’ total. Typically, the team that finishes seventh does not have an awful attack. This doesn’t seem to have been noticed in a very weird year of NRL, with record breaking events left, right and centre.

This chart plots each team’s actual winning percentage (0th), its expected winning percentage as calculated by Pythagorean expectation (1st) and its expected winning percentage as calculated by SCWP (2nd). We’re yet to really establish the usefulness of second order wins and SCWP but generally it tends towards a mean regression for teams and a mildly predictive outlook for the next season. It’s built on repeatable actions (running metres and line breaks), rather than the mildly less predictable scoring of points and still less predictable activity of actually winning games of football.

The interesting thing for me is that, noting the earlier comment about mean regression, is that Newcastle is the only team whose 2nd order winning percentage, sits between their 0th and 1st order percentages. Every other team’s 2nd order winning percentage sits between their team’s other points and .500.

The traditional way of analysing that chart would be to note the differences between actual winning and Pythagorean expectation. The teams that greatly outperform (to the left in the above chart) are typically assigned the status of being ‘lucky’, while the teams that grossly underperform (to the right) are considered ‘unlucky’. The Knights sits at the far left hand side of the chart, their 12-12 record concealing a season we might have expected to yield only eight or nine wins.

Newcastle sit at the other end of this chart, which shows the gap between 1st and 2nd order wins. Teams at the extremes of this chart typically had outlier results (e.g. the Panthers and Storm winning 21 games, the Bulldogs losing 21 games). The Knights are down with the Broncos, Tigers and Cowboys. While Newcastle’s second order wins were suggestive of a ten or eleven win season, their efficiency in turning their running metres and linebreaks into actual points was as bad as that of their adjacent colleagues.

This doesn’t seem to have mattered, as they found a way to win anyway. It’ll be interesting to see which one of these future indicators win out. A massive outperformance of Pythagorean expectation is usually followed by a reversion in the opposite direction in the next season. That would be enough to push Newcastle out of the finals. However, second order wins are a better predictor of actual win percentage next year than first order, which I guess a record of 10-14 or 11-13 also suggests Newcastle will be just outside the finals.

Hmmm. Perhaps it’s better to convince oneself that, due to excessive injuries, these numbers are not reflective of the Knights’ true capability. Best not to worry about it.

There’s always next year

I find Adam O’Brien’s performance to date perplexing. He came in with big wraps after 2020, finally getting the team into the finals for the first time since 2013, taking the step up that Nathan Brown couldn’t or wouldn’t. I had my doubts and this season he seems to have tread water. Now, again, we could cite injury tolls but O’Brien finished with a +5 coach factor in 2020, which was equally injury affected, and gets a big fat 0 (even slightly negative) in 2021. That means, unlike last year, he didn’t get more than expected out of the players that did play this year.

2022 then shapes as a make or break year for O’Brien. Newcastle’s bad luck with injuries has to end soon and it may as well be in the next few months. Mitchell Pearce might be soon making his way for the door but the key will be who the Knights sign to replace him. Jake Clifford averaged .109 TPR in a blue and red jumper, substantially better than his .069 as a Cowboy this year, but hardly blowing the doors off the competition. Of course, this could change without Pearce hogging production duties (averaged .145 since joining Newcastle and .123 this year). Adam Clune joins the Knights from next year as first drop half, which is not a bad pickup, and Dane Gagai will offer a bit of starch to a backline that’s low on experience.

With a squad that’s more or less the same as the last two year’s – that is, should be good enough – and a couple of signings to strengthen the deck, there’s nothing stopping O’Brien from grabbing the future with both hands. The pass mark surely has to be making a preliminary final. Otherwise, what was the point?