Please, I’m begging you, stop saying Brodie Croft is good (and other 2022 Super League stuff)

Please, I’m begging you, stop saying Brodie Croft is good

For a shining moment in 2017, Brodie Croft was the wunderkind heir apparent to Cooper Cronk at the Melbourne Storm. By 2019, the club had given him every oppourtunity, decided he wasn’t up to it and he was punted for Jahrome Hughes. Hughes, then a fullback, is now starting halfback for the Kiwis. The Storm haven’t looked back since.

Croft landed at the Broncos for 2020, timing his arrival at Red Hill with the club’s absolute nadir, in which he and coach Anthony Seibold played a substantial role. I’ll lay my cards on the table and tell you he was my personal Broncos punching bag, serving a term in that illustrious position between Darius Boyd and Tesi Niu. During this, I memed his departure from Brisbane for Salford into existence, albeit a year early.

He was mercifully dropped from the Broncos, who finished fourteenth, last season after Kevin Walters and the good people of Brisbane had finally had enough. The Broncos signed Adam Reynolds and will finish this season with a winning record for the first time since Wayne Bennett’s departure in 2018.

Croft was shipped to Salford for 2022, serving as a spiritual but not immediate successor to Jackson Hastings. Now, every other weekend when I scroll through the overnight news, I have to wake up to stuff like this.

Good lord. And they have the gall for criticising NRL clubs for not watching Super League!

While on-field performance has context and can be based in confidence, Croft was given not one, but two, opportunities to succeed at both the best and then the biggest clubs in the sport over the course of five seasons, and failed both times. He is not good enough at rugby league to play in the NRL and at age 24, he is unlikely to substantially improve and his ceiling is certainly never going to be good enough to make a NRL club look at him again. He is forever branded Not Good.

Croft’s Super League experience has been a microcosm of the replacement level Australian footballer – Croft generated exactly 0.01 wins above reserve grade in 2021 and finished 341st in the NRL by TPR of players with at least five games – plying their trade in Europe. But even by that standard, he’s not exactly killing it.

That’s Croft down there in 19th. Rismans are a unit of measurement of production, that is the accumulation of counting stats that correlate with winning (e.g. tries, assists, breaks, metres, etc), and while this is not a perfect stat (there is no such thing) and some positions are more adept at being productive than others using this definition, at some point, as a half, you should be generating a lot of production if you are to be considered one of the top five in the competition.

Breaking down his 23 games further, he’s had eight below league average performances (<20 Rs/gm) and seven games where his production would put him in the top 5% of performances (>65 Rs/gm). Two of the latter came against Toulouse and another against Wakefield, but also had strong showings against Wigan, (late season) Leeds and Huddersfield. He’s in a similar position to where he was in Queensland Cup. He was good enough and deserved a look from the Storm, but was far from completely braining the competition in the way that Scott Drinkwater did in 2018’s Queensland Cup or Bevan French is in the Super League right now.

It doesn’t bode well for the state of English football if a guy that was definitively not good enough for the NRL and was only somewhat above average in the tier below, is being painted as a superstar of their game.

It’s also not clear what happens when his Broncos money dries up. Croft was signed for 2022, reportedly to the tune of $500,000, or £300,000 at today’s exchange rate. Is any club going to shell out 15% of their salary cap for Brodie Croft? Comparably productive halves in the NRL, as problematic as that comparison is, are absorbing around 5% to 10% of their club cap. Cameron Munster might be able to extract 15% of the cap out of the Dolphins, as Queensland’s best player going to Queensland’s brand new team, but that’s the only exceptional case where that might happen in the NRL. It is a lot of pounds to spend, especially when you can watch any match in a Queensland statewide competition more easily (enjoy) than you can watch every game of Super League, and find someone similarly capable who might come over for a third of Croft’s Broncos salary (someone give Cory Paix or Sam Scarlett or Trai Fuller a call, please).

Croft is not the only subject of this exuberance.

We all have bad takes (I wrote several thousand words of bad takes pre-season), and I’m not even going to make fun of them, but if my English readers will allow me to patronise them further, the coronation of Croft as one of Super League’s top players, as well as the other praise cited here, raises some concerns.

There’s a World Cup at the end of the year and England is, in fact, hosting it. It has been a long time since we’ve seen England go head-to-head with their southern hemisphere rivals. The heroes of the 2017 World Cup have aged out of representative football, if not retired. The 2019 Lions tour, was about as big a disaster as possible without someone actually dying: a clean sweep at the hands of the Kiwis, Mate Ma’a and the Kumuls. There were plenty of fingers pointed in the aftermath and I wait with bated breath to see whether the changes made since will actually improve performance on the pitch.

Two of Croft’s greatest weaknesses in the NRL was his inability to run to contact and his inability to make a timely decision. He definitely did not slice through the line with the consummate ease he has over the last month or two in England and his kicking game is woeful, a third and unbelievably frustrating weakness that I had forgotten about until writing this sentence and now I’m mad again.

It was too easy for defences to deal with what he would throw at them. With the slower line speed in England, Croft has a split second more time to decide what to do and with the relatively poorer quality defence and fitness of his opposition, Croft can make things happen in Super League that would simply not be allowed to happen on a NRL pitch.

Last year, I talked about the impact the introduction of the six again has had on the NRL and noted:

However, like breaking the four minute mile, the ceiling of what’s possible in rugby league has been raised and, even if the old rule set was reinstated, elements of the new style of play would remain. Unless the game is slowed down, it may well remain a game of possession. While I’m normally in favour of pushing the barriers of what’s humanly possible, we can only speculate as to where this might lead the sport over the coming years.

I think that’s important to consider. Even though the NRL has wound back the use of the six again to offset the entirely foreseeable impacts of its introduction, and the speed of play has dissipated somewhat, the game is still faster in 2022 than it was in 2019. Line speed is the key, as principally demonstrated by the success of the Penrith Panthers, whose seemingly limitless energy and enthusiasm has pinned the entire league down and refused to relent. Since the start of the 2020 season, the Panthers have lost just seven regular season games. In that time, they’ve won 58 and drawn one. Super League never went so overboard in their implementation of the six again, so missed that evolution of the game (and it wasn’t exactly at parity to begin with).

Drawing these observations together, Croft couldn’t cope with the line speed in Australia but he can with what England throws at him. In fact, it looks easy enough for him that it generates endless effusive praise. The English national team is likely to be drawn largely from Super League – acknowledging that Farnworth, Radley and maybe Whitehead might get a call up from the NRL and Bateman and Williams played in the pre-6 again NRL – where not only is the game slower, there’s no time between the end of the season to get faster or fitter to cope with what will be thrown at them by the southern hemisphere nations, nor will there be much energy left in the tank after 27 rounds plus finals plus Challenge Cup duties.

Given that Samoa might have eight or more Panthers in its line up, among other NRL-hardened players (albeit with possibly one of the least useful national coaches in the game), I guess I’m suggesting that expectations should be tempered for the opening game in Newcastle and again in the quarter finals against Tonga.

If you think that sounds ominous, wait until you have to face down the Jillaroos.

How bad are Warrington?

Sparked by a Challenge Cup win in 2009 – the first of four for the club in the following decade – Warrington have been perennially competitive in Super League since 2010. In 2011, they were ranked number 2 in the world on the GRLFC rankings. This season, Wire stink.

For the first time, their second order win percentage is below .500. Their Pythagorean expectation and actual win percentage has followed suit. This means we can safely rule out the random chaos of rugby league’s binary results; this is a real stench.

Through 2017 to 2021, Wolves would win the yardage battle by an average of nearly 120 metres each game. This year, they’re coughing up half that the other way. Warrington could rely on an extra 1.3 clean breaks per game, which is now a deficit of 0.2 to the opposition in 2022. Only Hull, Toulouse and Trinity have a worse defence. The attack, a little better, is only sixth worse in the competition as of round 24 but still the club’s worst point scoring rate since 1997. The 2022 side’s attack is actually eclipsed by the 1952/53 Warrington side, featuring Brian Bevan and Harry Bath, when tries were worth only three points.

It seems unlikely that the off-season transfer of Jake Mamo (35 Rs/gm while at Warrington) is completely to explain for this collapse, much as the arrival of Thomas Mikaele (18 Rs/gm) or Matt Dufty (64 Rs/gm, or 50% more than Croft, after only two games) seem unlikely to single handedly fix it.

Coach Daryl Powell faced a straight sets exit from round 6 of the Challenge Cup against Wakefield and has done little to improve prospects since. He’s freefell straight past the 50 class Elo rating points lost to signal an imminent firing and his tenure looks more like Steve Anderson than Steve Price. I have no way of grinding enough Wire tape to find out what he needs to do to fix this but I can tell you Josh McGuire ain’t it.

Toulouse Olympique are practically done

Despite the travails at Halliwell Jones, things are much worse at Stade Ernest-Wallon in the south of France. This should not be a surprise and even I was able to identify that in my otherwise useless season preview. Here’s how Toulouse’s relegation battle against Wakefield has unfolded (St Helens shown as a benchmark for a good team) in Elo ratings:

Toulouse were actually in better shape than Wakefield for about half a dozen weeks, after back-to-back wins over Hull KR and then Trinity themselves. Wakefield endured a few close losses to top teams before winning two of the last three, and kicking clear of the bottom of the table.

With three games left, Olympique are six points, and about 100 points difference, behind. They’re alive mathematically but otherwise cooked. If Thursday night’s French derby doesn’t consign them to relegation, Sunday afternoon’s visit to Hull almost certainly will. The sims (see below) only give Toulouse a one-in-a-thousand chance of avoiding relegation at this stage, so yes, I guess there’s technically a chance.

Corey Norman’s arrival for round 13 did help and sparked Toulouse’s mini-charge but ultimately he and the team regressed to mean. Both he and Gigot have been prone to some awfully unproductive performances.

In fact, most of the club’s production has come from recurring fringe dude Matty Russell, surely in line to pick up a contract with whichever of Fev or Leigh get promoted, and Olly Ashall-Bott, who at 24 has locked down his first full season in Super League and could potentially do a job in the right system.

Wigan are good again

Of course, we only get to live one season out of the 50,000 simulations using form Elo ratings, so it’s extremely unlikely that any specific sim will be right, but taken together, they can paint a picture.

The sims have been definitely and unnecessarily generous to Wigan. Wigan needs to win out and St Helens need to lose out, with a small gap in points difference to close, for the Warriors to snatch the League Leader’s Shield. It helps that they play each other in the closing rounds but I’d make it more like 3% than 22%, off the back of the envelope. Due to my honesty, I simply refuse to alter my novelty-purpose-only Monte Carlo simulations any further to push them into a more realistic direction. They’re the top two and that’s all that really matters and I’ll just have to look stupid.

Moving swiftly on, perhaps more interesting is the battle for the finals places. The Dragons have come right off the boil in the run to the finish, seemingly handing the Giants third place, and dragging themselves down into a shitfight with a resurgent Leeds, a firing Salford and, at a real outsiders’ chance, Castleford. The form ratings in Super League can turn on a dime but there’s very little time left for some of these teams to show some fight going into the post-season.

It’s hard to imagine St Helens simply not marching their way through the finals but their form, right at this minute, is on par with that of Leeds and Wigan. Salford is actually looking the hottest of the bunch after their thumping of Catalans, which is funny given the opening 1500 words of this post, but have comparatively more ground to make up. The race could be more open than it appears, or Saints could put that to bed by smashing Wigan in the double header weekend.