Storm feeders, Capras, Magpies and the race to the 2022 Queensland Cup

What the hell happened to the Storm?

One of the Storm’s strengths during its golden era has been its next-man-up conveyor belt of talent. Somehow, they always have someone ready to step up to capably fill gaps. Need a fullback to replace Billy Slater? You got a choice of Scott Drinkwater, Nicho Hynes or Ryan Papenhuyzen. Brodie Croft not working out as the long term halfback? Give the job to Jahrome Hughes. Greatest player of all time retiring? No worries, here’s Harry Grant. All of these players developed in the Storm’s Queensland Cup feeder teams, which are currently the Sunshine Coast Falcons and the Eastern Suburbs (“Brisbane”, I guess now) Tigers.

Drinkwater’s Tigers made the 2018 grand final when he set a single season wins above reserve grade record. The Hynes, Papenhuyzen and Grant connection (along with Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Justin Olam) formed at the Sunshine Coast and had one of the greatest Queensland Cup campaigns of all time, losing one regular season game and drawing another in 2019, before tripping over their own laces in the finals after their stars were called up to The Show. This echoes the pathway of the big four – Smith, Slater, Cronk and Inglis – who all played for Norths in the early 2000s.

The broader point being that either the Tigers or the Falcons or both have been generally pretty good. The quality being both a reflection of the playing talent in the system but the system also providing polish to the playing talent. From 2016 through 2019, at least one of the feeders made the preliminary final and both finished in the top six. After 2020’s aborted season, it all came crashing down in 2021. The Falcons finished eighth in a fourteen team competition and were immediately bounced from the finals in the first week. The Tigers could only manage four wins.

In 2022, it suddenly looked like the Storm’s conveyor belt had come to a grinding halt. Whereas obvious future superstars would walk into the lineup to replace injured or otherwise expired regular first graders, this year the Storm has scraped the bottom of the barrel with the likes of Grant Anderson, Dean Ieremia, Marion Seve and Young Tonumaipea in the backline, with similar depth issues on the bench. The Storm borrowed David Nofoaluma from the Tigers and he instantly became their best option in the 2-5 jerseys. How did they find themselves in this position?

For some perspective, back in 2019, Papenhuyzen played four Cup games, putting up a TPR of .144 and accumulating 0.3 wins above reserve grade (here’s how it all works), after compiling a decent 2018 season. Justin Olam played ten, hitting .178 TPR and 1.1 WARG, his third season of such numbers after transfering in from the PNG Hunters in 2017. Nicho Hynes played nearly the full season with a TPR of .134 and 1.6 WARG. These are statistical benchmarks and while clearing these production numbers does not guarantee anything, even in isolation, it should at least be enough to raise an eyebrow.

Here’s every player for the Tigers and Falcons in 2021 with at least five games, including at least one at winger, centre or fullback. The guys who had a shot in the NRL with the Storm that year are highlighted in gold.

And this is this year’s crop through round 16:

Ignoring Marion Seve, who must have something incriminating on Storm management, it looks like potential first graders need to be showing at least .130 in Cup to be considered. While Lumelume, Anderson and Ieremia are probably going to wash out, their numbers are not that different to Hynes, Olam and Papenhuyzen at this level.

Obviously, there are caveats and complications – contracts, signing windows, cap space, eye tests to pass, injuries in Cup – but it seems it isn’t actually the conveyor belt grinding to a halt. Will Warbrick is injured, otherwise you’d think he was a lock to make his NRL debut in 2022. Solomona Faataape has been putting in the hard yards with the Tigers, building on last year’s above average performance in a below average team and at 22, he should be looked at for at least a train and trial deal, if not at the Storm, then with someone else. Tony Pellow debuted and is currently third by WARG among all Cup fullbacks, albeit with about half the WARG of leader, Taine Tuaupiki of Burleigh. In fourth on that same list, Luke Polselli has been capable since arriving at the Sunshine Coast at the start of last year. At 25 going on 26, Pellow’s window might have closed but Polselli might also be worth a look if the previous choices turn out to be no good.

I’m fairly confident that if we ran the same analysis on the forwards, we’d see that, glossing over some of the details, there are options for the Storm and that they just haven’t taken advantage of them. Even if they had, they might still all wash out. That’s the nature of the beast.

The Storm were blessed with a series of generational talents in Slater, Smith, Cronk and Inglis coming through their system simultaneously. Then they were blessed again fifteen years later with Hynes, Grant, Papenhuyzen, Drinkwater and Hughes coming through together. It was so much that the Storm couldn’t hold on to all of them. Not every cohort in the Storm system is going to burst forth with such abundant talent. Some cohorts will be more Guys than Dudes, and sometimes the club is going to bet on Guys and miss the Dudes. You can only talent ID what’s out there and this is just what it looks like when a collection of generational talents aren’t available.

For all that, the Tigers may miss out on finals and are currently scrapping with Tweed, Pride and Blackhawks for the last two places. The Falcons are in the second tier of contenders, behind the Bears, sitting with the Capras and Wynnum, that look good to get a couple of weeks into the finals. It may not be like the late 2010s, but it looks like the Storm feeders are back where they should be.

How did the Capras get good?

This is the best season Central Queensland have had since starting 10-1 in 2009. That year, they ultimately finished third with a 13-9 record and +9 points difference. Since then, the Comets (and later Capras) have finished in the bottom three in every single season. Suffice to say, for a club that has made the finals only twice since the competition’s inception in 1996 (2009 and 1997), to be sitting third, 10-5-1, with the league’s sixth best offence and fifth best defence (they are marginally outperforming their Pythagorean expectation), is a pretty big deal. That this is happening in the same calendar year as the women won the first trophy (minor premiership) for Central Queensland since the Rockhampton Rustlers won the state league in 1995, is something of a rugby league miracle. They do exist.

Let’s break down where the Capras have improved.

Through 2016 to 2021, the premiership winner has averaged a +7% offensive efficiency and +13% on defence as measured as a ratio between SCWP and actual points scored or conceded, with some noticeable variation from team to team and depending on the side of the ball you’re looking at (both the ’21 Devils and ’17 Hunters were a little less efficient than league average with the ball in hand, which is not the end of the world if you’re scoring 25 or more points per game).

The Capras are not quite there yet, but they’re at least playing the same sport as the top teams now. That tells us that not only are they finding it easier to get down the field and create opportunities, they’re doing a better job of converting those opportunities into actual scoreboard points than in the past.

It shows. The Capras, on average, lead their games from start to finish in 2022. The average game has a weaker period immediately after half time where the game hangs in the balance but the Capras manage to rally and put the game to bed. From 2016 through 2019, they would start poor and get worse. Last year, the Capras were competitive through the first half before utimately falling away, which was the prospects of a better future. Part of the foundations of this year’s success would have been laid in staunch defensive efforts last year, especially their 30-22 victory over the Tigers in Gladstone, won down a man for 32 minutes of the game.

The forward pack that’s stepped up in a way that hasn’t happened for some time. Nixon Putt is having a career season. The QCup journeyman, formerly of the Devils and Hunters, is joined in the second row by former Tweed Seagull, Ethan O’Neill, and between them, they’ve created almost a quarter of the team’s wins above reserve grade. Both are in the top fifteen players in the league by TPR.

Radean Robinson at five-eighth has also been a revelation. This is the twenty-three year old’s second proper season and while he was above average last season, his production numbers this year are in the same rarefied air as O’Neill and Putt. Perhaps as importantly, Robinson is a local, born in Rockhampton. He wouldn’t be the first talent to emerge from Central Queensland and is one to keep a tab on.

Here’s all the Capras that have played at least five games so far in 2022, with Capras returning from 2021 highlighted in gold:

That’s not that many players, a lot of whom are 15 for 15 on games played as of round 16. That’s a sign of minimal turnover, partly thanks to having no NRL affiliation, allowing for the kind of personnel stability that allows on-field cohesion to flourish. When used right, the lack of affiliation is less of a hindrance and more a luxury few of their competitors are afforded.

Of the eighteen players listed, ten played for the Capras last year (eleven regulars if you include Jamie Hill, who missed 2021). Curtis Dansey-Smaller, Ethan O’Neill and Jonus Pearson have all been low profile recruits that have helped shore up the roster. It doesn’t have to be big names to win titles, as Norths did in 2021, if you can simply get your men pulling in the right direction.

Overall, it is very much the same team as last year but they’re playing like they’re not. It has All Clicked Into Place. It’d certainly be exciting to see the program in such good shape the year before an affiliation agreement was due to kick in if you were a fan of the NRL club in question.

Some of the clicking credit has to go to the new coach. Lionel Harbin has been around the Central setup for sometime, as a player in the early 2000s, then as an assistant coach in the early 2010s under John Harbin. The latter, his father, was trainer for the Capras during the 80s and 90s, working up to coach for the 1997 season and, if Wikipedia is to be believed, some time manager of the Dreamtime Lodge motel in Rockhampton. Harbin the Younger has been given the reins for this season and it already looks extremely promising.

We often discuss the playing pathway that comes through the Queensland Cup, but the coaching pathway is considered far less frequently. Last year, we saw the culmination Rohan Smith’s tenure at Norths, taking a middling club and turning them into premiers. This year, he landed the top gig at Leeds. The Rhinos started the season 3-7-1 and staring down the barrel of a relegation scrap. Smith has started to turn that around with a noticeably improved 7-4 record since his arrival and an outside shot at the finals. Others that have honed their craft in Cup include Jason Demetriou, Kristian Woolf and Anthony Seibold (just like the players, they’re not all winners).

Harbin has plenty of work to do before he can think of moving up the ranks, assuming he even wants to. If so, he’d want a deep finals run this year and a serious tilt at the premiership next. After that, he could be one of the answers to “Well, who else is out there?” If not – and that’s fine – he can probably secure himself a job for life by being at the helm of what is already one of the best Capras teams of all time.

Why are the Magpies so bad?

The short answer is injuries. To take an example, last year’s team finished sixth and put up a pretty good account of themselves in week two of the finals. The 2021 Magpies started the year with Albert Kelly and Tom Dearden in the halves and due to call ups to the majors, finished the regular season with Ezra Mam and Joshua James. In 2022, they started with the same pairing and due to call ups to the majors and injuries, now have Cole Waaka (?) and Bradley Frith (???) steering the team.

Here is every player that’s started at halfback or five-eighth for the Magpies in 2021 and 2022 with their TPR:

That’s FOURTEEN different halves in THIRTY-TWO regular season games. It’s entirely too many for a team to function. In 2021, Souths Logan at least had the benefit of the emergence of Ezra Mam and a career season from Lachlan Cooper to drive the team to the finals, as well as capable hand-me-downs from the Broncos at various points, including Albert Kelly and Anthony Milford. In 2022, the Magpies have had no such luck. Mam has been elevated to his rightful place in the NRL, where the Broncos have had their own halves injury crises, preventing any hand-me-downs coming the other way. That leaves the Magpies scraping the barrel of juniors (e.g. Harradyn Wilson, the Queensland U19s five-eighth that got pasted in June) and other fringe guys, like Frith.

And that lack of stability and barrel scraping in key playmaking positions is causing a lack of production, which definitely hurts:

The Magpies are now odds on to get the spoon but they’re not the worst team in the Queensland Cup. That honour belongs to the Ipswich Jets. The Jets have only 4.4 WARG and a points difference of -316 after round 16. Souths look twice as good on both metrics, at 8.4 and -196 respectively. Yet, the Jets managed to win three from four against the Magpies, Hunters and Cutters with only a heavy loss to the Bears the other way, ending an eleven game losing streak to start the season and overtaking the hapless Magpies on the ladder. The Magpies only have a win over Wynnum in round 5 and a draw against the Tigers in round 2. A 72-0 drubbing aside, they’ve generally been competitive in their matches but can’t close a game out to save their lives.

Here’s the average margin of every game the Magpies have either drawn or lost by less than 20 points, of which there are 11 (plus one win and three 20+ point blowouts):

The average final margin is just a little over 6 points. Sometimes, rugby league isn’t fair or, at least, unduly punishes teams.

The premiership race

The minor premiership is pretty much Burleigh’s to lose. The Bears are six points clear with three games to play with twice the points difference of the next best team.

The finals places are not quite decided but are close. The Magpies, Jets and Hunters are done for the year. It’s tough sledding for the Tigers, Blackhawks and Cutters. That leaves eight team going into eight places. The Devils, currently sixth, have a negative points difference and the Blackhawks, currently tenth, have a positive one. The Tigers and Pride are close to zero. It’s an unusual situation.

The race to the premiership is dominated by Burleigh, with the Sunshine Coast, Wynnum-Manly, Redcliffe and Central Queensland in a second tier of contenders. Redcliffe are on a hot streak and haven’t lost a game since their bye in round 7 back in April. I’m annoiting them my preferred premiership outsider, with the Falcons and Capras making up the preliminary final losers.

The coaching carousel into 2023

There’s been a bit of churn in the coaching ranks in the last few months. Steve Bretherton has moved up to CEO at Souths Logan, replacing long term incumbent Jim McClelland. That has freed up a place for Karmichael Hunt to move up from coaching juniors to coaching the senior team he played for last year. Dave Elliott has left Mackay for Norths to fill Rohan Smith’s vacancy. No word as yet as to who the Cutters will replace him with. Jon Buchanan is retiring from the Tigers, with no indication of his replacement either, and Adam Brideson is doing likewise at Wynnum with Mathew Head coming in.

For the coaching tracker below, I’ve assumed that unless known otherwise, the incumbents will continue on next year. If so, that would mean only three clubs (Blackhawks, Pride and Tweed) still have the same coach from pre-pandemic times (not including round 1 of 2020).

This level of activity is unusual but other than Elliott’s move, doesn’t seem coordinated. It is how the pathways are meant to operate, with new opportunities arising frequently for potentially new talents to show us what they have with some longer term benchmarks – like Stone, Payne and Woolf – to assess them against. It’s worth keeping in the back of the mind because there’s always an answer for “Well, who else is out there?”

Michael Purcell

The Kangaroo Catcher passed away on the weekend. As a relative newcomer to this part of the sport, Purcell was one of the first stars I learned the name of. He was an extremely entertaining and talented player and seemed on the verge of taking the next step in his career last year, with a transfer from the Jets to the Tigers in 2020 and interest from the Storm in 2021. I’m not normally particularly sentimental about players but this is an absolute tragedy. My condolences to all who knew him.