Author Archives: pythagonrl

The Dally Ms are a wank, let’s use…something else

Wait, haven’t we done this before? Absolutely, in a post that hasn’t aged super-well, I replaced the Dally Ms with the old player rating system to assess the best player in each season. That system has been improved upon with TPR and WARG, so the conclusions drawn there can be safely discarded.

Today, I specifically do not want to replace voting with a statistical rating. I cannot stress enough just how little I want to do that. Of the two half decent, publicly avilable player rating systems, TPR and the League Eye Test’s Net Points Responsible For, neither account for everything that happens on the field and attempting to quantify all aspects of sport dehumanises the experience of watching and enjoying rugby league.

Awards should be given partly on emotion because it’s stupid to assume there’s a purely rational way to hand them out. Rationally, we should only care who the best teams are, seeing as that’s the point of the sport, and who the best players are is a sideshow that should only concern hacks padding out column inches. Indeed, I believe the flaws in any system are ultimately good because that creates fuel for the content machine and keeps the sport in the news, particularly as the higlighting of flaws comes toward the end of the season when there are fewer games to talk about (this is my pet theory as to why college football doesn’t do away with its ridiculous system for anoiting a national champion). Moreover, these flaws reflect our own flaws as humans and that’s one of the things that makes life interesting. Irrational emotions are part of us and part of the sport.

The Dally Ms are back in the news cycle with a proposed change of voting system courtesy of a Buzz Rothfield shit-stirring Sunday column. Under the current system, the judge has to be at the ground to vote the best player on field three points, the second best two and the third best one. The player with the most votes at the end of the season wins. The current system typically favours good players on average teams who are able to sweep up the points on a regular basis, albeit the award has generally been given to the right player, or close enough to, at the end of the year.

Under the proposed system, each player gets a rating out of ten in every game. The flaws in this are obvious. Even the keenest observer would struggle to give every single player in a match an objective and justifiable rating out of ten. I definitely couldn’t do it without making up at least a few. People naturally, when presented with this kind of problem, tend towards an average of seven, and not five, because people are generally kind of nice. Your five and my five are not likely to be the same and there seems to be no way to calibrate for this, other than intensive training, something that is not an issue under the current system because while we might disagree who is the best, we both understand what the best generally means. What is average is another kettle of fish.

There’s also a scaling problem, which affects both systems, wherein a player who absolutely plays everyone off the park is given the max score but the score rarely reflects how far ahead the player is compared to the rest. If Taumalolo runs for 300 metres, scores three tries and pots a field goal, he will get either a three under the old system or a ten under the proposed. The next best player gets a two for his efforts, implying that Taumalolo’s performance was only 50% more valuable, even though he probably would have earned that three points after the first try and 200 metres. Similarly, if he’s awarded a ten, is everyone else a six at best by comparison? Meanwhile, in the next game, the best player scores one try and assists another but gets an equal three points or ten rating.

Bearing all of that in mind, here’s the top ten from the five most recent Dally M votes.

As a point of comparison, here’s the TPR and WARG champions for each of those seasons.

What I want to do is compare how different voting systems impact on the final results. We’re going to look at four different voting systems –

  • System A: after round 9, 18 and the end of the season, the top ten players are awarded votes from 10 for the best player through that part of the season, down to one for the tenth best. Votes are tallied at season’s end and the player with the most votes wins.
  • System B: is the same as system A but players are assessed after every round based on their performance in that round.
  • System C: the current Dally M voting system, as a control.
  • System D: the proposed system.

Rather than go back and watch every game for the last five years, close to 1,900 hours of entertainment, I’m using my player ratings as a proxy for a (non-existent) rational voter. Systems A, B and C are assessed on WARG while system D is assessed on TPR. I think this difference is justifiable based on how I think people would approach the different voting systems. When when assessing players individually on a 0-10 scale, I’d expect judges would compare them to players at the same position and account for time on field, as TPR does, while WARG does a better job of assessing who has done the best by minimising those factors in favour of raw production.

To translate TPR into a 0-10 rating, I tried to put ratings into buckets that more or less reflects a normal distribution, as follows.

One would expect voters to award their ratings in a likewise fashion but will probably skew it based on their personality and what they’re expected to judge.

Here are the new Dally M results for each system.

If we just compare the results from the different systems, system A generates three or four defensible winners out of five, system B only a single one in 2019, system C three or four and system D two to three. In my subjective opinion, the current Dally M system seems to perform the best, even if sex pest Blake Ferguson was to be awarded the title of “the best” in 2018.

You can review the top tens but I watched most of these seasons and I couldn’t possibly remember who was seventh best in 2017. The point is less about who is in what position but rather how the different voting systems affect the outcome. In none of the five years, despite having the same information, did the systems uniamously appoint a winner.

All systems are going to have pluses and minuses. The validity of the result comes from two things. The first is a widespread understanding what the purpose of the award is. Is it for the best and fairest or the most valuable or something else? Each of those mean different things and the system to award the winner needs to reflect its purpose.

The second is capability of the voters. The average NRL twitter user (and/or person reading this) is going to assume that the judges are idiots, because they produce largely terrible commentary, and because they are susceptible to the same groupthink, biases and laziness as the rest of us. That, too, is very human, as is hubristicly assuming you would do a better job over the long run. When I see two people on the timeline have the complete opposite understanding of what just occured in a replay, I know that the individual punters will not do a better job and that the utopia of a perfect player award system is as far away as ever.

Big brain essay #5: Do these guys actually know what they’re doing?

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

I occassionally get the urge to write a grand unifying theory of rugby league. Indeed, that’s where many of these essays started. I usually get stuck somewhere between the scale of it and the intractable psychology and never finish it. Sometimes, some good comes of it, like Super League 2.0 is not coming, but this is probably not one of those times.

In principle, this theory would establish some of the ideas that give the game its legitimacy and purpose as a cultural institution but also ideas that we could use to make decisions in a meaningful and ideologically consistent way and offer future directions that the sport might take. Religions have a mythology that explain things. Even heartless corporations have policy documents that no one reads but boardrooms use to make decisions. Rugby league desperately needs a plan to survive.

What’s more is that ideas are free. People get paid to think of them as part of their job description. We haven’t gotten to a point where we need to worry about where the money to implement the plans is going to come from, because there’s no plan in the first instance.

My fundamental view is that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. In the globalised, hyper competitive world in which we live, if rugby league is not aggressively seeking new audiences, then other, better funded and more well known sporting organisations will come and eat rugby league’s lunch.

Almost all of the space that can be occupied by sport is already occupied in the industrialised world. Rugby league can only expand by displacing existing sports – something that hasn’t really happened since WWII – or to grow the overall pie and take a small slice at the edge – as the Wolfpack had hoped to do in Toronto. That the Wolfpack was a Big Deal for rugby league, $30 million pissed down the toilet, is indicative of the dire straits in which we find ourselves. The Blue Jays spent more on Tanner Roark and Hyun Jin Ryu in 2020.

Without this masterplan for the sport, the sport is ruderless. I think this explains a large part of why “rugby league never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Rugby league people don’t really understand their own sport, certainly not in terms they could articulate, and don’t spend a lot of time considering purpose and meaning. Things just are. When opportunity arrives, the powers that be literally don’t know what to do*. They can’t even work out whether rugby league should be a vehicle for redemption or not.

If you need a historical example of this, consider that state of origin selection rules had been proposed as early as 1964 to imbue the interstate series with meaning and competitiveness. It was only in 1980 that it was first trialled and then broadly accepted by 1982 and really only became a big enough deal for Sydneysiders to attend in decent numbers circa 1985. This is because rugby league administrators didn’t understand what they had and could not see where it could go. State of Origin, the most commercially successful exponent of the game, was an accident.

No doubt there’s a cavalcade of people who reject the very notion that rugby league should be anything other than it is now. That’s because there’s lots of people who will complain about any change and trace their intellectual lineage back to Socrates, who had a whinge about people writing things down to remember and communicate them.

People will take issue with my suggestions, for the reasons I’ve covered and for their own, a lot of which will be reasonable. Some will simply hate the lack of symmetry and the messiness of it all. Far be it for me to tell you this is how it has to be. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because none of it will come to pass. These essays will not suddenly overturn 125 years of non-thinking.

Rugby league seemingly has nothing to offer other than to perpetuate its own existence. At least rugby union believes it is inherently superior. Give them another twenty years of selective pressure from broadcast negotiations and professionalism and they’ll probably be playing something that looks a lot like league.

I’ve ventured to suggest that rugby league’s philosophy includes elements of inclusiveness, meritocracy, identity and mass entertainment (which are hardly original insights, thanks to Tony Collins) but very few fans would even acknowledge that a philosophy exists, let alone agree what it is. Almost all fans exist because of some combination of they were born into it, the sport is fun to watch and rugby league happens to be the medium by which the local pissing contest takes place.

If horse racing is the sport of kings and soccer is the beautiful game, then by the laws of cliche, rugby league is the working man’s game. Except this working man has no sense of class solidarity, no idea of how to build anything and no means by which to do it.

And this working man isn’t really a working man anyway because that working man is a relic that died at least forty years ago.

And we’d probably be better off targetting the working woman. Should rugby league be a girl’s game? Who can say.

Rugby league will continue hand-to-mouth, financially and spiritually, until we finally reach the blessed relief of surrendering to our union counterparts, unable to distinguish ourselves from our former masters in a world that does not value our history or potential because we simply cannot be bothered.

*That is, perhaps except to fall back on tradition, which has embedded a long running culture of reactive conservatism: a borderline psychotic will to maintain the status quo until it is untenable to do so, then making the most minimal changes possible to resolve the crisis at hand. It’s worth noting that this is not a uniquely rugby league problem and many sports have this in common.

Big brain essay #4: The World’s Games

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

If I know my audience, you are likely Australian and likely have an interest in at least one, if not several, of European soccer and major North American sports leagues. While this is true for an increasing number of Australians, the interest does not flow back the other way. Europeans and Americans aren’t tuning in large, or even small, numbers to watch the AFL or NRL. Fuelled by huge broadcast deals and a pre-eminent position in G20 economies, these behemoths have the commercial and cultural power to cross borders and span the globe. Moreover, they have resources and, most importantly, the patience to do the work required to take over the world.

In the near future, European soccer is going to follow the US sports model. There is simply too much money to be made to do otherwise. The irony is that while many will complain about the Americanisation of their sport, as if the Football League wasn’t soccer’s answer to baseball’s National League, they will still tune in. The only questions that remain are when, which clubs add value and how much destruction will be done to existing institutions along the way. All this to feed the ever rising player salaries, and corresponding debt loads, of a sport that won’t accept regulations that American sports have long considered essential.

The NFL will take a huge leap in the near future, either by relocation or by creating new franchises, to expand into places like Mexico City and London, where the NFL has been laying the groundwork for decades. The NFL’s biggest obstacle in London is not logistics, which they absolutely have the power and money to overcome, or getting people to turn out for games but rather that many UK-based fans already have an allegiance to a franchise and the NFL is not sure if they’ll all come together to support a new London team. While the NFL has lost money on its trips to London, its earned some, if not all, of it back in improved broadcast deals.

The others in the US’s Big 4 may or may not follow. NHL already has a significant presence in both the US and Canada and has a counterpart league that spans from Riga to Beijing. Basketball is, depending on who you ask, either already the second or third most popular sport in the world and the NBA is its centrepiece.

Still, if the money is there, these leagues will find it, facilitated by an economic and political environment that demands that they do. The world seems to be structured to allow the economic winner to take all. Given there are only so many sports consumers in the world with a finite supply of money and interest, that spells disaster for the losers.

***

Cricket is riding a huge rising wave. The proliferation of T20 leagues across the world has been driven by the growth of the Indian Premier League from nothing to one of the most valuable sports commodities in the world in just twelve years. An influx of private investment to replicate that success has followed, raising existential questions: How much cricket is too much? How does cricket balance internationals, domestic and franchise commitments? What gives cricket its meaning?

The T20 explosion was predicated on the assumption that, if nothing else, Indian people will indiscriminately watch cricket and if enough stars can be incentivised to turn up, the rest will take care of itself. The subsequent failure of many these startup leagues puts paid to that lie but these are likely just teething issues as we see the emergence of a new order. It’s not too difficult to imagine a world where the primary actors in T20 are a dozen or more IPL franchises who simply operate year-round in different countries, under identical branding and shuffle their expensive talent to suit, taking the cream of broadcast deals to cover costs and then some, throwing a stipend to each of the national cricket boards.

That’s just one model but its main benefit is that it would be sustainable, not just financially but also in terms of fan interest. The end result would be less T20 (and the extinction of other very short forms of cricket) but it would be broadly centrally controlled so that it can be balanced with other more meaningful, but perhaps less commercially lucrative, formats and the institution of cricket would now be stronger for it. The tumult we see now is almost irrelevant – indeed, it is necessary to weed out solutions which don’t work – as cricket powers edge their way to the arrangements that will take their sport through the 21st century.

***

The grandest irony is that the Super League ethic, which created rifts in rugby league that still aren’t fully healed twenty-five years later, has been best reflected in the fortunes of the rival Super Rugby competition. Super Rugby created new professional franchises in an international competition and undertook a heavy programme of expansion to establish or further entrench union in markets outside of the traditional hubs of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Union’s commitment to its traditions, specifically by ring fencing Test level talent in their home nations (creating gross competitive imbalances) and by organising the sport according to hemisphere rather than time zones (making teams difficult to follow regularly and ensuring that a substantial portion of the broadcast content is effectively worthless), has undermined and temporarily halted this enterprising attitude as union is forced to reconsider its approach. It seems unlikely that something equally stupid wouldn’t have undermined a similarly progressive Super League, had that ever existed.

At the very least, union has shown an understanding of how the world around them operates, in contrast to their pre-professional ethos. Their reward will be to maintain their position as the King of Rugbies, a position Australian league fans tacitly acknowledge by referring to, and insisting others do likewise, union as “rugby” and league as “league”.

Australian Rules, Irish football and Canadian football make a direct connection to their respective national identities by giving people “their” game, which has had varying results. This puts an obvious limitation on the potential growth of these sports that is nigh-on impossible to break through without an historically important empire backing it. Baseball expanded from a local phenomenom in New York state in the early-to-mid-19th century to a professional sport in several east Asian nations that coincidentally house large numbers of US troops by the end of the 20th century (rugby league’s expansion to Papua New Guinea came about for similar reasons). Contrast this to the CFL’s spectacular failure to expand into the US in the mid-90s because it offered nothing that the NFL or college football didn’t already.

***

It was in vogue in the mid-to-late 2000s for road cycling to think it needed to model itself on Formula 1. Presumably, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, had engaged a marketing firm that basically told them this. In short, the season is too confusing, with too many events and too many different teams. There’s no narrative and star riders don’t turn up to every race. Further, cycling needed to globalise, which was code for running events outside of western Europe paid for by governments looking for a dusting of magic from being in proximity to road cycling, one of the world’s most corrupt sports where riders will openly negotiate on the road to exchange the right to win for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Never mind the doping.

To address this, the UCI deleted the long standing World Cup, which united a dozen or so one day races under a season-long banner, and created the ProTour, which was going to include all of the biggest events, including one day races, week long stage races and the three Grand Tours with the biggest teams entering every race. The race organisers hated it, preferring to invite teams at their discretion. Some of the teams hated it, with their sponsors having no use for marketing their consumer debt products or flooring or mild sheet steel to China or Australia or California and so had very little interest in travelling halfway around the world for a new race with no prestige.

The UCI wanted to introduce a ProTour leaders jersey. The major race organisers refused to allow it to be worn. It was, in short, a disaster. It reached its peak when the UCI ran two simultaneous ranking systems: one for the ProTour and a separate ranking that included that and then other races because the ProTour was so hamstrung that it wasn’t won by the best rider in the world, even though that was kind of the point.

Even up to this year, the UCI has more World Tour (what they ended up calling the merger of the ProTour and world ranking systems) licences than World Tour teams. The sport is fundamentally different to motorsport in a way that is obvious to everyone with a cursory knowledge of either. It then made little sense to borrow F1’s solutions, thinking they will fix cycling’s alleged problems, like the structure of the season, while ignoring cycling’s actual problems, like corruption and doping. The UCI and other powerbrokers should have come up with their own ideas.

***

I think there’s a lot to be learned from looking at other sports, particularly if you had an interest in a suburban cottage industry sport that consistently fails to capitalise on opportunities or understand its place in the world. Indeed, these vignettes superficially teach us about lots of things – culture, history, tradition, politics, economics and all the other strands that makes up being human – at an angle that allows us to perceive insights that might otherwise be obscured by a more direct, and de-humanised, approach.

While I’m no marketing expert, I would think that trying to sell an identical product to a pre-existing and much better known one is an exercise in futility. My wife doesn’t know why there’s a difference between rugby league and rugby union, so I don’t know why we would expect Americans or anyone else to be across it. Without being cheaper or obviously better to the untrained eye (Americans aren’t comparing league and union, they’re comparing rugby to the NFL) and lacking a superior (or any) market position, how exactly is rugby league meant to differentiate itself from rugby union?

Can we at least talk about changing the name? Is an effete English private school a sensible place to derive the name of a sport which is barred from similar institutions around the English speaking world and has traditionally sought an audience in the working class?

You might argue that league is fundamentally more entertaining than union and that should be enough. I would then respond by gesturing vaguely at rugby league’s 125 year history of that marketing strategy, which has brought us to this point. Indeed, if you consider the world’s biggest sporting events – the Super Bowl, the F1 World Championship, the Tour de France, the World Series and all of soccer – being boring might actually be a pre-requisite to success and on field action is antithetical to a sport’s growth.

So if you were running a sport that considers itself separate to its very similar looking relative but has almost no presence outside of a handful of scattered locations and is in a life-or-death struggle with every other professional sport in the world to find a way to sustainably exist, how would you ensure its survival? Would business as usual suffice?

Big brain essay #3: Internationalism

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

Once again, the international game remains an after thought of the sport, even in a World Cup year and even on this personal rugby league web log. My World Cup sims are no different to when I ran them at the start of 2020 and I fully expect the Kangaroos to take home the trophy while Greece and Jamaica will be grist for the mill. There may be a few other bilaterals and Tests played in the run up to the World Cup but, while entertaining, they are of little importance in the grand scheme of things.

New Zealand will probably beat Tonga mid-year, especially if the six again is introduced by the IRL, and England should play France (or better yet, a combined Great Britain versus a combined European Union team) but will instead stuff around with the Exiles format that no one really wanted last time it was played. There will be a slew of smaller and newer nations trying the game out against other small and new nations. Possibly the biggest benefit of the recent pandemic has been the slashing of player payments for representative games which should make it cheaper to put on Kangaroos matches.

As it probably does every other year, the international game remains at an interesting crossroads. On one hand, rugby league is now played in more places than ever before. On the other, so is pretty much every other sport and they all have better management and more money and better cultural cachet.

On one hand, the international game is the simplest way to market the game because everyone has heard of countries, has a right to at least one passport and understands the basic principles of international sport. On the other, rugby league really excels at organising representative games below the international level (see State of Origin, NRL All Stars) that are considerably and demonstrably more valuable than internationals, in a way that other sports either won’t or can’t.

On one hand, 9s is an excellent format for driving the growth of the game, both in that developing countries can have smaller, less technically gifted squads and still be competitive, and because the festival-like nature of individual events is an easier sell to potential promoters and more in line with how (non-hardcore-sports) younger people like to spend their time and money. On the other hand, there seems to be little interest in 9s outside of the hardcore fans and its current pinnacle is playing in front of a half-interested crowd of 15,000 in Sydney, which itself may prove to be a one-off. The alternative is playing 7s, where there’s a living to be made and Olympic gold medals to be won.

Rugby league’s main advantage – other than the fact that it has nothing to offer philosophically other than its own self-propagation, so doesn’t get too caught up in tradition* – is that it has very few participants at the highest level, which allows the likes of Papua New Guinea and Tonga a stage that they would otherwise not be able to access. Of course, if rugby league really is successful in growing, then other larger and richer nations will come through and elbow those minnows off the stage. Indeed, a truly global rugby league probably has the same participants at its World Cup as the soccer and union ones do, at which point the sport loses its point of differentiation. If rugby league stays put, then we really only have a few nations to provide the bulk of revenue and the death spiral continues.

These tensions need to be resolved as part of a masterplanning exercise to give rugby league a higher sense of purpose than simply existing. This purpose will be the basis of league’s survival, a point of differentiation from other sports and cultural institutions on which to market and grow the game. The risk is that we may well conclude that we have nothing to offer, surrender to union/soccer and move on with our lives (union will simply evolve into league, perhaps faster without league saying “I told you so” on the side, so don’t worry about that).

The other quandry is what does rugby league intend to do with all of these new players. While it is extremely heartening to see the dangers players in Cameroon will overcome just play for their country or see clips on social media of league being played and commentated on in countries that have no right to have heard of league in the first place, what is the end goal of the seeds being scattered by the IRL, RLEF and APRLC across the world?

If you were an athletically talented African, would you take up rugby league, which is a big question mark but a very shallow pool, rugby union, already entrenched in South Africa, Madagascar and Namibia, or soccer, where FIFA is proposing a new continental African club competition, or basketball, where the NBA and FIBA is investing in an African basketball league. These new leagues might fail but soccer and basketball will probably get two or three goes at creating professional leagues in Africa to get at least one to stick – money be damned – before rugby league can shoot its first and probably only shot. I’d wager an IPL Africa T20 competition is more likely to gain a foothold than rugby league.

Is it enough to invest the limited resources the sport has so that people simply play rugby league for the joy of it and go no further? Will the talented be carted off to pit towns in the north of England or the suburbs of Sydney and put to work, allowed to return home for internationals? Will it be the reverse, with semi-pros heading from Australia and England to Africa to make a living, as they currently do in France? Are we really proposing that the sport can turn all of these new prospects – or even a tenth of the prospects that might suceed long term – into professional players and leagues? Given the sport’s history, that seems ludicrous but without that end goal, these new nations will struggle for World Cup qualification, let alone being able to position themselves to compete with the established powers.

Rugby league doesn’t seem to know what its doing or why it does it. It has no sense of its own history, beyond the few monomaniacs reading this, nor any real understanding of the potential value of its story. In lieu, league seems to be apeing the movements of other sports, hoping that it is this cosmetic change (unlike all of the previous ones) that will finally open the floodgates.

My view is that if you’re on the same strategy as everyone else and travelling at the same speed or slower, you cannot hope to overtake them. You need a different strategy (and some luck) to close the gap. At best, most people seem to think that league can make a living at the margins (see the ever popular “if only we could get 0.5% of the US sporting market” tweet), which is no living at all because the powerful will simply wipe league out and probably accidentally and unthinkingly. So do we keep doing what we’re doing now, watching other sports disappear into the distance, or try something new?

Rugby league already has a fairly blase attitude to the idea of nationality, a tradition that dates back to Dally Messenger, who played for Australia, New Zealand and Australasia. Players now regularly play for two countries because the international game is so shallow, there was no other way forward. You’d be hard pressed to find people who think this change is for the worse, as if Australia, New Zealand and England dominating minnows into perpetuity is a good way to get the general public in those countries to care about internationals again, although they do exist.

I’d suggest muddying the waters further and discarding countries altogether and focussing on people. Peoples and countries can have a lot of overlap but aren’t necessarily the same. The Tongan team that electrified the 2017 World Cup were nominally representing the Kingdom of Tonga but the players were really representing their heritage, that of the Tongan people, which includes their parents and grandparents. That engagement can be more meaningful than the arbitrarily drawn lines on a map.

If Tonga was conquered by, say, Tanzania tomorrow, the Kingdom would cease to exist but the Tongan people would continue. Should Tonga then be scrubbed from international rugby league? Would the Tongan players be roped into representing Tanzania? Would they then prefer to revert to their tier 1 countries? Would an exception from the rules, which only recognises UN-recognised countries and sub-nationalities that those countries have devolved a responsibility for sport, be made?

Who knows but the purpose of a thought experiment is to not think literally about the scenario in question but consider what the response might tell you about the deeper beliefs involved. Rugby league would be poorer for not having a Tongan team but presumably, in this instance, the Tongan Rugby League would subsumed into the Tanzania Rugby League because those are the rules and the players would then prefer to play for Australia or New Zealand. Only countries can play other countries.

West Papuans, the Basque** and Palestinians are peoples but not countries. The main reason for this is because some time ago, some powerful, generally white, men said it was so. The same kind of men made a distinction between Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland, even though none of them were sovereign nations at the time professional sport emerged in the late 19th century, largely because they were racist assholes who didn’t want to play anyone further away than Edinburgh or Dublin, and those divisions were more real to them than they are in other places***. That’s why the Welsh have a rugby league team that can win the World Cup but the Maori don’t.

If you want to point out that the Maori don’t have a country, then you might need to think a little harder about that proposition, perhaps in the context of the history of colonialism.

So who gets a team and who doesn’t? Who cares is the better question (I have my limits; a Confederate States of America team might be too far). If the entirety of twentieth century history couldn’t resolve at what point a people become significant enough to justify sovereignty, I doubt rugby league has the intellectual ammunition to do so. Indeed, the International Rugby League has outsourced the problem to the United Nations.

Steve Mascord will tell you that rugby league needs to tow the line of the status quo to secure government funding. Putting aside the fact that sub-national governments exist with their own funding bodies and that some companies lean heavily on a sub-national identity as part of their marketing and that some national governments put extremely difficult to overcome barriers in the way just for bureaucracy’s sake, what is the funding actually going to achieve? It seems hard to believe that any government would invest enough in league to turn it into a professional sport. If we want more than participation, I can’t be the only one who’s wondering how rugby league intends to nail the conversion from nothing to a sustained something. A plan of one step isn’t a plan at all.

Are the national teams just a show to get enough people into the game to start clubs which might become professional? Surely it would be cheaper to scrap the international game altogether and invest the money directly into starting clubs. The $200,000 paid to the Kangaroos for a Test match would go a lot further in funding teams in Lagos or Accra.

Is it so rugby league get some international recognition? If so, so what? League is never going to be added to the Olympics, after being beaten to the punch by union. The NFL has shown you can be a big swinging dick in world sport, especially in English speaking countries, without any international participation and the Olympics needs soccer a lot more than soccer needs the Olympics.

It’s obvious to me that international sport is the way it is because of its simplicity. A cursory listen to the Chasing Kangaroos podcast will give you plenty of stories of people who got involved in rugby league because its new and they can represent their country. Might more people become passionate about rugby league if it allows them to express an identity that they can’t elsewhere? Will it be more than sticking to the way it is now?

I don’t know but I do think that the idea of countries (nation-states specifically) is going to decline over the coming decades, especially as what are countries now get swept up into ever larger and ever more tightly bound market-states. Are we wasting our time investing in different European nations if the European Union ends up sending a unified team as a political statement to the 2052 Olympics? We could have a relatively competitive EURL team made up of Irish and French players right now. Would the 2053 Rugby League World Cup follow suit or persist with Ireland, France, Italy and Greece?

Don’t think I’m here to revolutionise international rugby league by putting New South Wales, Queensland, Yorkshire and co in the World Cup, even though some of those teams are demonstrably more valuable properties than any international side and I’d be as likely to watch the Maroons or Kangaroos compete at that level. But a World Cup featuring the Indigenous, Maori and whoever else can form a team could feel more rugby league, or at least more in line with what passes for league’s philosophy, than trying to replicate the World Cup of union, a monument to British imperialism, or of soccer, dominated by the world’s largest economies. Elevating the small and lowly into the spotlight is largely what the sport has to hang its hat on but should we make it an organising principle?

Perhaps the international game will finally live up to its potential and the league World Cup will simply become the Aldi World Cup to soccer’s and union’s Coles and Woolworths. If that’s the case, then let’s be clear about it and acknowledge that we’re not about the small or lowly and we’re in fact about the big and powerful.

*Thereotically at least, this should mean that the sport is not mired in tradition and can be adapated on the fly to suit new and evolving political, economic and cultural situations. The reality, especially in this time of boomer-led cultural ossification, is quite different.

**To drive this point home, the Spanish constitution recognises the Basque and another half dozen groups as nationalities within Spain. In theory under the IRL’s current rules, if the Spanish government devolved governance of sport to these autonomous communities, they could enter international rugby league competitions with their own teams. But because the Spanish government hasn’t, they can’t. It seems strange to me that this could be decided by something as arbitrary as where the bureaucracy assigns responsibility and/or that RL has adopted this rule in the first place, instead of something that could be more consistenly applied globally. The Basque currently are not represented as its own nation in any “official” international sporting event to my knowledge, but they have applied to UEFA to be granted membership along the lines of Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands. This is of course entirely hypothetical, because the Basque have a rugby union but no rugby league (So who cares? See above about thought experiments).

Compare this to Queensland, which has a rugby league (QRL) and a national governing body (ARLC), and ministers for sport at state and federal levels but no one who matters recognises Queensland as a nationality. Also consider Scotland and Wales, which are recognised as nationalities, have devolved responsibility for sport but have two competing governing bodies: Wales/Scotland Rugby League and the RFL, which is nominally responsible for rugby league throughout the UK. I doubt this strictly qualifies Wales or Scotland for an international team under the IRL’s rules because the governning body responsible for the team (Wales/Scotland RL) is meant to have exclusive control of the sport in that geographical area, which is obviously not the case if the RFL exists in an overarching role. As usual, people will probably just not worry about it because they can field a team, and we don’t want to ask awkward questions about why the rules are the way they are, otherwise we might have to do something about it and then who knows what’ll happen. Chaos, probably.

***Yes, history is more complex than this. You’ll have to forgive me for not turning this into a 30,000 word thesis on colonialism and the nature of nationalism that I am grossly under-qualified to write, to cover every nuance of this issue.

Big brain essay #2: Growing trees or growing grass

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

When talking about how they’d like the sport to look, rugby league nerds, including yours truly, like to put pins in the map. The thinking is that if you put enough teams in big cities then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, most of those teams would fail. There’s few or no fans in those places, there’s barely any strategic considerations given, other than the need to be a player in big media markets, nor any meaningful thoughts as to how the new team will engage with the local population on a sustainable and lasting basis. The best case scenario is that each new team would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, as the Melbourne Storm did and the Toronto Wolfpack tried to do. It should go without saying that rugby league does not have that kind of cash to effectively buy new fans.

What’s interesting is how infrequently we discuss the structure of the club game – everyone has their preferred format for international tournaments between World Cups – and usually people just vary who is in Super League or the NRL with little thought put into how the different rugby leagues relate to each other or how their structure reflects an understanding of what these competitions, and rugby league, are for.

If you were to start FIFA (the video game, not the governing body) right now and create a customised competition, you’d have a choice of league, group stage then knockout, or straight knockout. Almost all sports use these frameworks to structure their competitions and there’s obviously only so many ways you can arrange head to head matches for a group of teams contesting a title.

At a higher level, you have the ultra-Darwinist domestic European soccer competitions, which are either round robin leagues with promotion and relegation or knockout formats and the two don’t mix. In contrast are the socialist American big four sports leagues, which have a league phase, usually with an unbalanced schedule and some sort of regionalisation, followed by a post season knockout. Pretty much every other team sport takes their cues from these two. I will concede that after a century and a half of experimentation, we’ve probably landed on the optimal outcome but I’m still interested in exploring this a little.

I find it somewhat puzzling that after so long, we can only imagine a couple of different ways for teams to play each other. This kind of thinking has even leaked into multi-competitor-sports, like NASCAR’s Playoffs, where it makes little sense but presumably someone thought it was a good idea for a late-season ratings boost. The recently retooled European soccer competitions – the Champion’s League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, as well as the UEFA Nations League – offer some alternatives, with complex qualification arrangements being employed to serve higher purposes. These competitions don’t just decide the best clubs in Europe but are purposely designed to give all participants some meaningful chance of winning a trophy and prize money.

***

Promotion and relegation has always sounded great in theory but relegation (and, indeed, sometimes promotion) can create existential crises that are otherwise not necessary. Sport’s rules don’t arise from some sense of natural law. Almost all aspects of sport have been arbitrarily decided in the past but we forget this with the convenient fog of time and tradition. Indeed, most traditions now are used as weapons to maintain the status quo in lieu of pursuing change and growth. So why persist?

What keeps the idea afloat in soccer is that even if relegation kills a club or two, there’s dozens ready to step up and take their place. In fact, in a twist of Victorian victim blaming, it’s the club’s fault for not being better prepared, which is ameliorated by parachute payments and leaves clubs on the bubble of leagues to bouncing back and forth. Moreover, pro-rel propagates the myth that any club can rise to the top if they just work hard enough, even though any talk of the long term prospects for a club is almost always couched in how much money can be invested. There is no realistic way to start a new club and use hard work alone to find a way to the top, especially through the last couple of leagues, and certainly not in a human lifespan. While the club works their way through levels nine and ten, the wealth of the top echelon of the top league grows faster still.

Given that, what is the point of promotion and relegation if it’s solely a function of how much money some lunatic is willing to put in? That hardly seems to be about sporting fairness. This kind of cognitive dissonance will eventually result in its elimination, which will very likely be in the favour of capital and closed leagues.

Pro-rel can work in international competitions, because the team exists because the country exists and countries generally don’t fold because of a sporting result, and in amateur competitions, where there’s no need to pay players and so revenue streams are substantially less critical to the existence of the club. Where the competitors are businesses, the change in revenue is often disastrous and the risks make planning and investment more difficult than they would otherwise need to be. The only benefit – which does not accrue to the relegated teams but instead the league they are being ejected from – is if there’s a ratings boost for potential relegation battles at the season’s end which would otherwise be ignored.

For rugby league, there are not the vast resources available to be allowed to waste on promotion and relegation. In the UK, there are 36 “professional” clubs. The loss of any one would be devastating – the money and effort and time invested becomes worthless – and risks dragging down the survivors. Further, the idea that pro-rel is some entrenched tradition is laughable. The RFL only introduced it in the early 70s. Prior to that, every club sat in the same, unwieldy 30-odd club league. There are people alive today who would remember a pre-pro-rel rugby league.

***

As I’ve suggested, Super League is at a crossroads. Crisis looms at every corner and it is crisis that is when the hard questions get asked and answered. The results of the Super League experiment since 1996 have been dismal, with only the switch from winter to summer being potentially worth salvaging to keep in sync with the sport’s other major league, and no other real, permanent gains to speak of. London, Crusaders, Paris, Sheffield and Toronto have failed to retain their place in the top flight for varying reasons. The separation of Super League from the RFL has only served to create a fiefdom of equally incompetent administrators and a duplication of infrastructure with no discernible purpose that looks almost certain to be undone after just two years. Crowds and the TV deal have seemingly peaked.

Now would seem like an opportune time to consider the competition’s place in rugby league, its place in British culture and how it might structure itself to reflect these and its own values. To do so, it would be worthwhile to consider how rugby league might move out of the shadow of soccer and union and whether it makes sense to try to replicate what they do or try something different.

I would like to make two suggestions, which will require some relatively radical departures from the norm.

Growing trees

The overall goal of expansion, growth and the rest of the lefty rugby league agenda seems to be to grow trees. That is, large and imposing clubs that can stand tall by themselves as markers of the existence of rugby league. Naturally, the most fertile ground for new life is big media markets, where a small sliver of attention from a large group of people can nourish a Wolfpack or a Storm.

However, there is a substantial disconnect between this vision of the future and the existing trees, who are afraid that the sun will be blotted out and aggressively fight new growth. To address this, we need to acknowledge the separate natures of the existing heritage clubs and modern expansion clubs. To that end, I suggest creating two separate streams for rugby league football clubs, a modernist Super League and a heritage Northern Union.

Super League would effectively become the championship of Europe. Run by the RFL, thanks to its marginally more progressive outlook than the clubs that currently run the professional game in England, the focus would be on teams in large markets to be the building blocks of a wide audience that would attract huge ratings or a committed subscriber base, coupled with vision, planning and the capability to implement it. Super League would aim to reach parity with the NRL, in terms of calendar, reach, wealth, structure, regulations and playing ability, so that the sport can have two legitimate major leagues.

The Northern Union then embraces the traditions of the game. The Northern Union can base its marketing around being the northern game, with its teams drawn from a very small geographical range, and in the extremely unlikely event that the northern half of England secedes, rugby league will have a purpose made professional sport for the new country before anyone else. The Northern Union could be run as Super League is now, for and by its member clubs, and they can set regulations and a fixture schedule that best suits their commercial outlook (e.g. 29 round season, primarily attracting away fans, other stereotypes, etc) and initially, with their own broadcast deal. Being a lower tier, its unlikely that an overly long season will compromise major representative teams. The Union would also have no need for expansion, that path being via Super League 2, suiting the more inward looking nature of many clubs and fans.

Based on the clubs currently in play, a realistic starting point might be to award a dual Super League/Northern Union licence to the relatively big market and/or well established clubs, such as Leeds, Warrington, St Helens, Wigan, Hull, Salford and Bradford (taking into account the various intangibles involved, which is still mostly sticking pins in a map, although Salford may not be suitable to be the Manchester team and my impressions of Bradford could be 10 years behind reality). This would allow these teams to run a first team in SL1 and an affiliated second team, either a reserves or juniors team or a revived alternative marque, in the Northern Union (e.g. Wigan could resurrect Wigan Highfield/Liverpool Stanley as a second team or the Devils would run as Manchester in SL1 and Salford in NU). There would be a further four Super League-only licences awarded to London, Catalans, Toulouse and York. The Super League licence gives the team immunity from relegation and for the dual licencees, prevents the second team from being promoted.

With eleven teams, the best Northern Union club would be promoted to take the league to twelve. Said club would be relegated for the champion of the Northern Union if they should finish in the bottom two or three places. Despite my personal distaste for pro-rel, it’d be politically difficult to remove and there are just not enough big clubs in Europe to sustain a reasonable sized Super League without it.

Underneath Super League is Super League 2, separate to the Northern Union. The purpose of Super League 2 is not to entertain or represent or anything but to create a space in which new clubs can get themselves set up. The make up of the league would be constantly changing, as clubs either graduate to SL1 or fail quietly in a place no one cares about. Clubs would be required to submit plans so that the institution of rugby league as a whole can help development of the clubs in a way that aligns with their vision and the SL/RFL can provide feedback, based on previous experience or their own masterplan, and the parties can work together for mutual benefit.

Not every team that enters Super League 2 will graduate or fail. Coventry or West Wales, for example, might choose to remain mainstays, preferring to focus on creating grassroots in their community, develop local talent and passing the talented up the chain to an affiliated SL1 club. Toronto, on the other hand, might have come in with a plan to be promoted to SL1 in two years, outlining the steps and targets they see as being necessary to get ready for the big time.

There would be far fewer regulations in order to facilitate the rapid growth of clubs as needed, perhaps just the same as those as govern the upper end of SL1, which will probably result in significant disparity across what is likely to be a small league (in the event there aren’t enough teams, the league should switch the SL/NU second teams across to pad out SL2). This is just the price we pay for this structure, unless there is a surprising uptake of new clubs in SL2. The initial SL2 clubs would be North Wales, West Wales, Coventry, London Skolars, Newcastle, Sheffield and Ottawa (if they ever make it on to the field), leaving seventeen clubs plus up to seven second teams (possibly one or two would be required in SL2) to contest the Northern Union.

The short term focus of SL1 would be maintaining some sort of commercial and sporting parity between the clubs, preferably by taking from the rich and investing in the poor. There are myriad vehicles for doing this. The key will be maintaining a ceiling (possibly the same ceiling for all professional clubs) but also having a relatively close floor to maintain standards. If a club cannot stand on the floor, it has no business being in the room and a salary cap is useless as a mechanism for parity without a salary floor. Some clubs are not currently configured for this but have the potential to be, with some work.

The medium term focus – over the next decade or so – would be to focus on preparing Sheffield and Newcastle to join SL1 from SL2 and investing now, laying the ground work with the locals, to give them a place in the top flight in the future. The long term focus – over the next twenty or more years – would be identifying the next candidates to follow them. Twenty years should be enough time to build up a London Skolars or North Wales Crusaders to be ready for the big time or even creating teams from scratch in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France (perhaps another tilt at Paris) or elsewhere in Europe in a shorter timeframe. Private investment will be required and the SL/RFL needs to have development officers for rich people to funnel the money into the correct places. The growing footprint of the game should result in a greater audience, improving sponsorship prospects and broadcast deals (or, more likely, an increase in subscribers).

If we must keep the knockout competitions, the Challenge Cup would become the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It would only be open to the professional SL1, SL2 and NU clubs. The 1895 Cup would then be open only to Northern Union and amateur clubs. The purpose of both is clear: the Challenge Cup is inevitably dominated by the top flight professional clubs, so the biggest knockout competition is only open to the biggest clubs (the draw could also be engineered to ensure a NU or SL2 team makes the semis), which would have the dual benefit of reducing the number of rounds required. The 1895 Cup, recently introduced by the RFL to make the Challenge Cup final into a double header, can build its brand around being the competition open only to the “real” rugby league clubs, even though the final is likely to be still dominated by the top end of the Northern Union, at least the amateur clubs have a cost effective avenue for participation. You could swap the names on the competitions, it wouldn’t really matter.

The very long term plan would be ensuring new teams get added to Super League on a regular basis. As the future of rugby league is secured by its presence in big sporting markets, the number of Northern Union places in Super League could be increased to give greater heritage representation but one would hope that the gap between the Super League and Northern Union would grow to be so great over time, those clubs would simply not be able to compete and pro/rel would necessarily have to be eliminated. This should be considered a desirable outcome.

If NU clubs have the investment behind them, the demand is there and there is value to be added, then promoting a team can be decided in the board room, although I would expect it to be pretty rare that a NU could display that kind of value. The sport does not and is unlikely to ever have the resources required to support the flippancy of pro/rel. Super League simply cannot risk losing a big market team because they had a bad year, particularly considering the sunk investment and the total lack of value for big market teams in the second division, nor can it find the resources to ensure the gap between the first and second divisions remains bridgeable. It is already too great between Super League and the Championship and any actual growth is likely to exercebate it, rather than close it.

The barriers to this proposal are numerous. Clubs and fans aren’t going to want to be cut off from the top tier. Super League 2 is going to be expensive to run and very unlikely to attract a broadcast deal or much viewership. The Northern Union might actually be more popular than Super League, having more clubs in places where fans already exist, in which case, I don’t know if we can declare SL1 to be the top tier, especially if NU clubs can capitalise on this and out-spend the SL1 clubs. The Northern Union has been buried for a very long time and bringing back that brand now is extremely dubious. It’s not clear how squads can be managed shifting from a very low level SL2 to an elite SL1 without total disruption.

Still, the three leagues each would have a purpose and the framework would exist to offer Super League the opportunity to build itself into a position to compete as the complementary major league in Europe to the Asia-Pacific’s NRL.

Growing grass

The Football Bowl Subdivison is the top 130 or so college football teams in the US. Despite being the perfect candidate for a promotion and relegation setup, all the competing schools sit on ostensibly the same level. Almost all are divided into eleven conferences of differing sizes, which are broadly geographical and reflective of the status of the member schools, with some having regional divisions underneath. Notionally at least, all schools have a shot at the National Championship, although in reality, because of the somewhat subjective selection process for the final four teams, there is a limited subset of schools that are actually in the running, even before a game is played. For mine, the tension between the ridiculous structure of the sport, the ranking systems, the selection for the National Championship and the insane commitments to tradition and amateurism, makes college football interesting, even if the product is lacking.

One of rugby league’s strengths is its hyper-localisation. It elevates small places, that would otherwise have no right to be there, to the national stage in a way other sports can’t or won’t. While I am extremely dubious about this being a long term survival strategy, there’s no doubting this unique aspect of rugby league culture has value. Maintaining a local feel to the sport, compared to having well paid athletes flying all over the place, at least reduces the sport’s carbon footprint.

A hyper-local rugby leauge would look something like the college football landscape. Clubs would be divided into loosely defined conferences, with the winners qualifying to a round of play-offs to determine the champion. All 36 current RFL and SL clubs would be on the same level, spread across four conferences, each with a winner (or a winner and runner-up) qualifying for the post-season. There might even be some scope for clubs to set some of their own non-conference fixtures.

Players would be paid but to maintain some parity and prevent big places from having an advantage over small places, the commercial ceiling for clubs would have to be set very low, possibly so low that a floor is not needed. Rugby league will lose its talents to better paid opportunities elsewhere but that’s the price we would have to pay to maintain locality, especially if places like Palau and Featherstone are expected to be able to maintain competitive professional sports teams. If individual clubs’ cups run over, then they would be encouraged to set up distinct teams in other places. The alternative, to deregulate entirely, is a great way to ensure there are only half a dozen clubs are left standing.

The big advantage is then that it doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new rugby league team and there is a known ceiling on how much can be spent or lost. This should appeal to wealthy people who want to own a sports team but cannot afford a soccer, union or whatever franchise. There are numerous villages, suburbs and towns that could host a new team and with low costs, there’s plenty of time to build up a fanbase and take a long term view. It also offers the opportunity for alternative ownership models – especially fan and community owned – as the barrier to entry is much lower. Crucially, the new team enters at the top (only) level with an almost immediate shot at the title.

The other advantage is that its easy to facilitate expansion and easy to add leagues whole cloth. If, as perhaps should be the case, Elite One and Two were folded into the RFL system, we’d have fifty-four clubs that could be divied into five or six conferences. Think something along the lines of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, South England, Elite East and Elite West (or adopting the equivalent American-style names, e.g. “The Big Yorkie”) conferences. The winner of each would progress to the post-season, probably with an additional round for the runners-up to fight it out for the remaining slots.

New teams would have to provide very little evidence that they are sustainable, so would be able to go through a basic tick box exericse and find a conference to join. If it seems unimpressive now, this system could be expanded indefinitely, provided enough owners can be found, perhaps with two or three hundred clubs across Europe divided into twenty or thirty conferences and creating a monster round-of-32 post-season bracket. Big cities would simply house lots of clubs, as Sydney and London do now, and diffuse themselves across different conferences.

It’s difficult to see how that wouldn’t attract a mass audience eventually, albeit none of the individual clubs would have large followings and indeed, probably very small followings but with similarly small revenues, costs and debts. Soccer fans complain about money ruining the game and the divorce between the clubs and their communities. This structure is purpose-built to keep clubs small and close to their communities, while engaging with a larger geographical area because rugby league doesn’t have to choose to be bound by national borders, as soccer has chosen to do.

Under this regime, if kept, the Challenge Cup serves a new purpose to put teams in competition with teams they would not normally play against and perhaps this would be utilised in lieu of clubs setting their own fixture list. The 1895 Cup would serve no purpose, just as it does now, so can be put in the bin.

The champions of the European Rugby League conferences wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete with the champions of the NRL (assuming it maintains its current format), being far smaller and far less wealthy, but the competition as a whole might be able to generate interest just through its sheer scale.

***

The English game needs to make a decision about what it wants to be. Is it licencing or pro-rel? Alternating between the two suits no one but because there’s such a disparity between the top end of town and the rest, the system not in use looks more appealling than the one in use. This time it’ll be different. It’s this change that’ll resolve the unaddressed problems somehow but I don’t know how that can be if no one confronts what the problem is in the first place. My suggestions are that the dead weight is carved off into its competition to (mostly) let the rest of rugby league get on with it or that all clubs are cut to the same size and spec.

People will hate these suggestions and not just because its change but because they fundamentally disagree that this is how the sport should be configured. That’s fine, although if you cite tradition, I’ll just point out that is the peer pressure of dead people and I don’t care what they think. But the current system doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why not try something new*?

*I also accept that there’s nothing really new under the sun. As reported by Rugby League Digest, pretty much every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I found it was considered and discarded during the Super League war. I don’t think this reflects the merits of a given idea, given that no side seemed really interested in compromise, and the status quo looks great simply because we’ve doing it for a while.

Big brain essay #1: The content pipeline

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

Sometime last year, I watched all of 30 Rock, the sitcom about making a sketch show at NBC. In there was a joke about how the new network head knew broadcast television was dead and his job was to squeeze every last dollar out of the inevitable decline. That joke premiered around 2011. It occurs to me, here in 2021, that when news of a particularly odious decision is handed down about the NRL’s broadcast arrangements, fans (at least, the fans who are interested in that sort of thing) are quick to jump the gun and start labelling TV execs stupid. The execs know, just as well as you do, what’s going on but they would never vocalise that they work in a dying industry. If you were in their position, I doubt you’d do anything different.

Nine, to just pick a random example out of the air, knows that the free-to-air gravy train is gone and they are now in a doom loop. They cut the cost of production to match ad revenue, which leads to lower quality programming, fewer viewers, less ad revenue and another drop in the cost of production to match. This will continue until free-to-air bottoms out with all the commercial stations going bankrupt or a miracle occurs that allows commercial FTA to eke out a radio-like existence. Perhaps a religious sect will come to power and ban the internet in Australia or terrorists will slice through the undersea cables that connect Australia to the rest of the world. Then we’ll all come crawling back.

Until then, Australian rugby league has to deal with terrestrial broadcasters. As an important sporting and cultural institution, rugby league finds itself on the anti-siphoning list. This means that the NRL grand final, State of Origin, Kangaroos Test matches and Kangaroos World Cup matches played locally are offered to free-to-air broadcasters first before they can be sold to pay TV providers. It’s a piece of legislation that was brought in in 1994 to prevent the then-new pay TV providers from paywalling “events deemed culturally important are freely available to all Australians. Though technically any event could be added to the anti-siphoning list, it has historically been used exclusively for sport.” As Business Insider has noted, the legislation is due to expire shortly and there has been no discussion to date about what happens next.

Theoretically, in the unlikely circumstances that it is not renewed, then the NRL could go full paywall, sacrificing mass audience for maximum income. F1 has already done it, with free-to-air TV deals to broadcast live racing a thing of the past and likely long term to be replaced by F1’s own over-the-top streaming platform and production, as the sport moves to maximise its profitability among a smaller audience. Cycling is moving that way, with GCN+ and Eurosport hoovering up most of the broadcast rights to second and third tier events and streaming internationally to audiences too small even for pay TV to look after. The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, among others, all have their own streaming platforms, albeit generally relying on traditional broadcasters to produce the games.

A smart move, rather than reinvent the wheel, would be for the NRL to create a long term deal with Kayo (or whatever other provider), possibly with a lower price tag in exchange for equity in the platform itself. If the NRL did then purchase a stake (or, more likely, bail out) in Super League later, they would then be able to effectively roll all pro rugby league content on to one platform that could service the global audience. Unlike other leagues, the sport wouldn’t own the platform outright but would also be spared the technical headaches of owning and operating such a system, offering better value for money because rugby league would come bundled with other content, which in turns gives the platform a stable foundation on which to build a subscriber base and bid for future broadcast rights. The season would then be re-designed to keep subscribers engaged all year around, instead of pausing their subscription after the grand final and unpausing for the All Stars. Of course, at some point, someone would need to be contracted to produce the games.

Coupled with a move away from traditional broadcast arrangments to a more self-reliant future, one of rugby league’s medium term goals should be aiming to create a 24 hour content pipeline. That is, I should be able to sit down at about 5pm on a Friday evening and watch consecutive games of pro or semi-pro, men’s and women’s rugby league kick off every two hours until about 3pm on the following Monday, Australian eastern time.

Rugby league is already roughly aligning itself along time zones, rather than continents like soccer and hemispheres like union, with the emergence of an Americas confederation to join the RLEF in Europe and the APRLC in the Asia-Pacific region. Late at night on the east coast of Australia is around lunchtime in the UK, late at night in Europe is evening on the east coast of the Americas and late night on the west coast is around lunchtime in Australia. The baton could be passed around the globe every weekend, if only we had the teams and infrastructure, and while the sun may set frequently on the rugby league empire, its only because we play under lights.

As much as that sounds like an overdose, it’s 36 timeslots and so would only require 72 pro/semi-pro teams or a minimum of twelve clubs per zone capable of furnishing a men’s and women’s programme. The men’s game could already cover this, if its participants were a little more spread out.

Ideally, the pipeline facilitates a cross-pollination of fans across leagues. The most obvious example is the occassional English game that kicks off at Saturday midday local time and gets broadcast on Fox League at 10pm, following the Saturday night game in Australia. If there’s a main audience in one zone and two marginal audiences in the other zones, to me that’s got to be better than just having the main audience.

Quite how rugby league becomes a year-round venture, I don’t know. Every sport needs an off-season but league’s season could be extended with a decent rep programme after the club season has finished and better leveraging warm-ups and pre-season trials. There’s probably space for a short form of the game too. Consider a calendar of pre-season 9s (or 7s) tournaments and 13s trial matches in February, an 18 round club season with a couple of rep breaks starting in March and finishing July, finals through August, an extended men’s and women’s World Club Challenge in September and internationals and other rep games in October and November with a little breathing space in December and January. Its not too far off what we have now but the top players would have somewhere between 25 and 33 first class matches each year, which is a manageable load (if it turns out that’s not a manageable load from a brain injury perspective, then the sport will need to be re-designed).

Most of that is less pipeline and more pipe dream. The reality is that the anti-siphoning legislation will likely be renewed, as politicians are usually reluctant to make a point of pissing off the legacy media over something most Australians either don’t care about or take for granted. The boldest tweak I can realistically imagine would be to include the FTA streaming platforms (9Now, 10Play, etc, etc, as well as the new Kayo Freebies) and adding the Super Netball grand final. We are also light years from having a serious semi-pro competition in the United States that’s worth broadcasting, as if this will ever happen. I very much doubt whether the current RL management in Australia would even want to attempt any of this, probably thinking that the internet is a flash in the pan and Nine is a safe enough bet. Alternatively, they may look forward to a future of bidding between Telstra, Optus, Stan and Kayo. Super League can’t even be bothered to schedule its games to leverage a potential Australian audience, which is why the Australian rights are worth a pittance to Super League despite it being rugby league’s largest market.

Most people will tell you that you need to be on free-to-air to reach a mass audience. That may be true now but I don’t know how much longer that will remain the case. With no mass reach, free-to-air has little to offer professional sport. The paywall beckons. It may be that Youtube will take the place of FTA broadcasters, as an ad-supported service that everyone knows about. The trick will be getting their attention and then converting them into subscribers.

BNE2.1: The game done changed

“It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid”

Last year was an illuminating time for those who closely follow the working man’s game. If, like me, you’ve only been a keen trainspotter for a few years, we might not remember older train wrecks, like Crusaders. Conveniently, the Toronto Wolfpack experience, which saw $30 million pissed down the toilet for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, brought some truths about the sport into very clear focus.

At a certain point, possibly while mulling things over for too long without live sport or being able to socialise, it clicked in my mind that it didn’t matter how well thought out an expansionist’s plan might be, it will never be implemented. There is no perfect post that will change anyone’s mind. This may be obvious to you but sometimes I can be very dense.

My silver lining on the new Brisbane NRL team is then dubiously reasoned, if not downright naive, in retrospect. While a Brisbane team could be leveraged commercially to take the game west (again), it will not be. Instead, it will be used to shore up Nine’s failing ratings in Queensland, as the three extant clubs flail about hopelessly. That’s just who the people running the game are, especially Peter V’landys and especially Phil Gould. Two shitty suburban culture warriors in the pocket of a free-to-air broadcaster are the Pacific game’s leading lights and that’s why we have two point field goals now.

It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid. You won’t find a more Darwinian sporting observer than yours truly but even with my complete and utter lack of regard for tradition, introducing a team solely for the benefit of a legacy media organisation in 2023 is too far for me. For the sport as a whole to make money, by all means, do what you got to do. Even the Super League schism had some benefits for rugby league by forcing it to modernise somewhat. Who really gives a fuck if the only benefit is that Channel Nine survives a bit longer?

The thing of it is that there’s barely any risk for the NRL. You personally are not going to lose your team if the new Brisbane team fails, because you are not a fan of that team. No one is because it doesn’t exist. The NRL isn’t investing any money or taking any equity as far as I know, so there’s no financial risk. If the team fails, at worst the resulting quagmire might take out a storied Queensland Cup club (and, as recent events have clearly indicated, no one in Sydney cares about them) and the NRL suffers a bit of reputational blowback. If it works, ratings go up on Nine, the next TV deal is better and the NRL can profit. That money will be recycled on to the existing clubs in the form of higher club grants because Phil Gould believes the NRL is make-believe and the clubs are the only reality, which explains why North Sydney fans didn’t mind their club exiting first class football and we’ve never heard about it since.

The money will be wasted, as usual with Queensland clubs subsidising Sydney no-hopers, instead of being invested in making the sport better because that’s just what happens.

The candidates

Now that nasty cynicism is out of the way, here’s some more. After the Bombers and Western Corridor bids merged, there are now three candidates: Dolphins, Firehawks and Jets, representing Redcliffe, Eastern Suburbs Brisbane and Ipswich, respectively.

You shouldn’t rate the Queensland Cup’s popularity on how much I talk about it but rather based on the fact that it won’t be on TV this year. The idea that each club has community links is not unreasonable but those links represent very few people in the grand scheme of things and a lot of them are going to be conflicted about leaving the Broncos for a new venture. For mine, the three bids are now pretty much the same, so it’ll probably come down to who knows the ARLC best and/or who has the most money.

The recent merger has meant that the Western Corridor bid has dropped the Western Corridor aspect of their bid to become “Brisbane”, which makes much more commercial sense but is questionable if you purportedly represented the hitherto-culturally-non-existent Logan-Ipswich-Toowoomba conglomeration. The Indigenous angle they were taking is gone too. Presumably, the Jets team noticed the stance Peter V’Landys took prior to last year’s All Stars game regarding the anthem and read between the lines on his feelings about black people.

Similarly, the Bombers have dropped their name and replaced it with another imperialist death machine but at least one that has some rugby league history (stolen, like so many things, from the NFL), so kudos. As a result, the Jets have joined forces with an organisation that stands for nothing other than their own gain to give it a light patina of community respectability. In many ways, it is the perfect bid because there is so little to it, it can be moulded into whatever the powers that be want it to be. This will almost certainly be worse than what people could come up with organically (see above re: two point field goals), starting with an incredibly omnious 9/11 themed logo (which obviously may not be real).

Whichever bid is successful, people and specifically, people on Twitter who aren’t fans and will never be fans of the new club, will hate everything about it – logo, name, colours. I note the hypocrisy but I at least know that it won’t matter. Twitter’s usefulness as a barometer on rugby league matters is only as a contraindicator and we wait with bated breath for the exit polls from Facebook and the Daily Telegraph to see which way Peter V’Landys is going to go.

In any case, Brisbane is so starved of NRL, it’ll probably work, especially after a sold out all-Queensland double header at Suncorp results in the destruction of a large part of the city.

The TV deal

The most frequent question asked in relation to BNE2 is “how does adding a 17th team result in higher ratings?” It’s a good one because there obviously isn’t going to be a ninth match each weekend and instead one team will sit on the sidelines with a bye. Here’s the theory that I think Nine, V’Landys and co are working with:

  1. Even if BNE2 is half as successful as the Broncos, it’ll still rate better than most of the league. That means, most weeks will remove ratings anchors like the Knights, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Raiders and replace them with an above average team, which will improve the overall ratings across the season, even without adding a game.
  2. The current FTA arrangement has a hard cap on the number of times a team can appear on free-to-air (I believe it is currently 16 for the Broncos and 12 for everyone else) and another cap on how many return fixtures are allowed per club (Nine might show both legs of Broncos-Cowboys, Broncos-Eels and Broncos-Rabbitohs but then wouldn’t be able to show both legs of, e.g., Broncos-Titans). By adding a second Brisbane team, this allows Nine to have more Broncos-equivalent games, with a Brisbane team on FTA every weekend. This also explains the inexplicable increase in Dragons FTA appearances for 2021 because they’d run out of good teams to show.
  3. Nine sells all of its content to regional networks at what amounts to a fixed rate and so doesn’t care how well football rates in the sticks. Its revenue is driven by the five city metro ratings. From Nine’s point of view, the Gold Coast Titans are a regional football team and they probably don’t see them as moving ratings in the Brisbane market. That the Titans are just “down the road” doesn’t factor in.
  4. A second Brisbane team then is likely to uplift Brisbane’s ratings more, and more often, when compared to how a Perth team would lift ratings in Perth.
  5. The recent broadcast renegotiations allowed for the deal to be improved if a new team is added.

I think its extremely likely that ratings will go up in the short term (or, more accurately, go down less quickly) after BNE2 comes in, even just for novelty purposes. Even if it doesn’t last or the broadast deal doesn’t go up by enough to cover the club grant, I’m sure the ARLC will just boot the Warriors or Storm to compensate.

The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020

Over the off-season, I created a ranking system for every-ish rugby league club in the world and updating the rankings for the 2020 season would be an opportune time to reflect on the year that’s been. However, it seems like that this act of statistical hubris has angered the gods so much they gave us a global pandemic that ruined everything. While we’ll have to live with the impact of the pandemic for many years to come, one of the most immediate is that there will not be a GRLFC ranking for 2020.

While we wait for normality to return, 2020 may have been a season for the coronavirus-loving anti-expansionists, plenty still happened in rugby league football and we’re going to through as much of it as we can.*

*Even with a global pandemic, I wasn’t able to include absolutely every competition and match that occurred becuase a lot of rugby league was still played. Where possible, I’ve talked about the senior men’s club competitions, because that’s usually the easiest to get information for, but this didn’t mean that women or juniors or 9s or local competitions didn’t also go ahead. A lot of the coverage in less traditional countries comes via the IRL, RLEF and APRLC, who have all really stepped up their social media game over the last twelve to eighteen months and should be congratulated for doing so.

NRL

The year began relatively promisingly. The 9s in Perth attracted a decent crowd – despite the garbage spewed by the east coast media – and a lack of a video ref cost Phil Gould $1000. And as a side note, the North Queensland Cowboys won something.

The Indigenous and Maori sides gave us the first All-Stars matches both sides actually cared about for the first time in a decade.

As we would later discover, it’s unfortunate that the sport is run by a mouth-breathing culture warrior that thinks its important to placate the very loudly racist part of the fanbase in New South Wales and Queensland instead of, you know, everyone else.

However, that was still ahead of us. Despite the pandemic introducing a little break between rounds two and three, the NRL came back very early relative to other sports. The break gave the sport time to reflect, the results of which were:

  • The NRL found itself in breach of contract with its broadcast partners
  • CEO Todd Greenberg was turfed, nominally for daring to speak to anyone but Channel 9 about the free-to-air rights
  • Chairman Peter V’Landys renegotiated the deals, taking a reported 20% haircut and then throwing a huge chunk of the sport’s infrastructure into the cost-cutting shredder
  • V’Landys then introduced a slew of poorly thought out rule changes, presumably to make the game more exciting and improve TV ratings (it worked for almost two weeks and then ratings finished down on the year)
  • The media coverage that followed was capital-c Cringe

This is your irregular reminder that Peter V’Landys is the chairman of the ARLC and not the CEO. No one seems to care and Super League 2.0 is not coming.

The result was one of the most dismal NRL seasons of recent years, with only a couple of teams finding a way to entertain the masses (round 8’s Roosters-Storm clash was the year’s on-field highlight). A large number of clubs completely failed to develop any competitive spirit while stuck in isolation from their friends and family and the product on field reflected it. A noticeable gap formed between the top eight and bottom eight. Mission accomplished, I guess.

Then, seven sick finals games followed (Canberra’s preliminary final exit excluded), because rugby league is alright if everyone actually tries, and we limped home with a bizarre grand final that was over at half time and then wasn’t because refs.

You can read the individual team season reviews here:

The ripple effect of the cost cutting measures will likely start to be felt next year. Without knowing exactly what’s being cut and by how much, it remains impossible to know what’s coming next. Phil Gould outlined his brain fart of a master plan in a column for the Daily Telegraph in June which, given he has the ear of the Greek god V’Landys, is probably where we’re going. It’s a framework for the sport which purports to save money but is actually more expensive and really just transfers power from head office to the NRL clubs because none of these idiots actually know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

At least, scheduling and attendances will start to return to normal next year, as the virus comes under some semblance of control in Australia and New Zealand. Brisbane still looks likely to gain a second team in 2022 or 2023, although at the time of writing we do not know which one it is. I hope someone has at least done the numbers to make sure the NRL comes out ahead.

NRLW

My biggest fear was that the cost cutting measures would eliminate women’s football. For once, my worst fears were not confirmed and the NRLW went ahead as it has the last two years. While the lack of expansion was disappointing, we should be glad we got a competition at all.

The pandemic still affected the competition. All the players were forced into the bubble, unable to mix with family and friends and, for the Broncos and Warriors, unable to play home games. Quite why the NRL didn’t go to bat for the women’s competition with state governments, as they did for the men’s, is known only to them.

I assume this was the rationale for the scheduling of the competition, with games kicking off at 12.30 and 4.00 before the men’s finals’ kickoff at 7.50. This all occured at the same stadium, leading to the ridiculous arrangement in round 1 of Brisbane, Sydney, New Zealand and St George Illawarra playing in Canberra, a place that doesn’t have a NRLW team, and the first game having zero attendance because it would mean spectators would have to be at the stadium for eight hours to see all three games. It didn’t suit fans or broadcasters (ratings were down on last year), both of who would have benefited from later kick offs and/or alternative venues for the women’s games.

Brisbane were the undisputed champions for the third year running. Ali Brigginshaw somehow seems to be getting better with age and the Broncos have managed to continue to unearth talents (the media still seems to be getting to grips with Tamika Upton, despite already being a two-time premiership winner), even as the other clubs siphon off players to pad out their own rosters. The Broncos’ regular season record is 8-1 with 3-0 in grand finals. If the season weren’t so short and the opposition so few, we’d hail this as one of the greatest rugby league sides of all time. I may still do that anyway.

At the other end of the scale, the Dragons were hopeless. I blame the coach for their logic-defying ability to underwhelm and not win a single 13s game in 2020.

It’s even more baffling when you remember the Dragons won the 9s at the start of the year.

The Roosters roster seemed relatively low on star factor compared to their cross-town rivals, barring the obvious exception of 7s convert Charlotte Caslick. By the end of the season, we were more familiar with Zahara Temara, Hannah Southwell and Corban McGregor, despite all three being veterans of the game. The Roosters demonstrated that cohesion on the field is far more important than lining up brand name Jillaroos to play like shit.

The Warriors struggled to pull together a proper roster, which is hardly surprising as players would have been forced to be away from home in the bubble for what is at best a part time job for a few weeks. Nonetheless, like their male counterparts, the Warriors can hold their heads high knowing they did their best under trying circumstances. Another 7s convert, Elia Green, caught the eye with her running, strength and aggression.

This year’s competition was as close as it has been so far. There’s little doubt in my mind that the 2021 edition will be more closely fought still. The Broncos might not even win it. Indeed, the talent pool is now large enough that the NRL should be expanding the competition, preferably from four to six teams and from three to ten rounds. Melbourne and Canberra would be my choices (and possibly flicking the hopeless Dragons for a western Sydney or Queensland team), especially if the NRLW is to continue to follow its preference for bigger market teams. The ARLC will probably opt for Souths and Cronulla, thereby ensuring that the NRLW follows the NRL into Sydney’s stupid quagmire, but they are at least looking at increasing the number of games.

The NRL will also want to consider how the NRLW will work commercially moving forward. At one time or another, the Dragons, Roosters and Warriors have complained about the (relatively minimal) cost of running a women’s program. If extra central funding came with a NRLW licence, we’d probably see more interest from reticent western Sydney clubs. Given that the NRLW matches rated around 100,000 each (down on last year but still ahead of most non-AFL/NRL domestic football content), de-bundling the NRLW rights from the NRL rights might be a good way to begin channelling funds into the women’s game, with the aim of establishing independence from, but parity with, the men’s game.

Super League / Challenge Cup

The Challenge Cup made it through the first five rounds by mid-March, with Super League clubs due to join the fray in round 6. By the time round 6 was actually played, in August and September, most of the lower league clubs had been mothballed for half the year. Consequently, the Cup was only really contested by eleven teams, of which Leeds were the winners, 17-16 over Salford.

Putting aside the fact that it was extremely unlikely that any lower tier club would make the final, by not having them participate at all and playing the final at an empty Wembley makes something of a mockery of the supposed point of this competition. Without modernisation from the RFL, the Cup is going to be a liability, and not an asset, moving forward.

Like the NRL, Super League had managed to play a few rounds before the rona became a Thing. At one point, Super League looked like ignoring it entirely and continuing on before being forced to stop by government decree. The same government offered ยฃ16 million in bailout loans to mitigate the financial fallout, which were met with a mixed response from stakeholders. Loans, after all, have to be repaid. If we consider Workington Man’s assistance (middle-aged, suburban Little Britain male adults – men is a stretch – that seemingly make up the bulk of Super League’s audience with no awareness of the cognitive dissonance involved in being a rugby league fan and a Tory voter) in getting the government elected, this was a terrible effort at pork barrelling.

Upon resumption, Super League had intended to complete twenty-two rounds. When it appeared that they weren’t even going to get all teams to play the same number of games, they switched from the traditional means of sorting the ladder by competition points to winning percentage. What was going to be a top four finals became a top six finals. Then, when it became clear that some clubs weren’t even going to complete their reduced fixtures, being more profitable to simply stop playing and go onto government furlough, Super League made the snap decision to end the season and go into the finals.

Salford used this opportunity to welch on their debts from years ago, taking a penalty of being deducted three wins which mattered naught this year.

Hull surprisingly dispatched Warrington and Catalans sent Leeds home in the first week, before both were coolly eliminated by Wigan and St Helens 29-2 and 48-2 respectively in the second week. The grand final, played in an empty KCOM Stadium in Hull, was a high quality, entertaining example of modern rugby league, although it was undoubtedly being written up as a dour cliche of the northern game. And then, magic:

There’s still life in the old girl yet.

With another Wigan-St Helens grand final in the books, if I have to read how the salary cup doesn’t work, I may murder someone. The salary cap doesn’t work because it’s not paired with a salary floor. SL can’t implement a salary floor because it would send half of their competition broke. And it is this, that there is a huge gap between the commercially strongest and weakest clubs in Super League, that is the actual problem. Even with the salary cap, the chasm between the big four (or six, if you want to be generous and include recent Challenge Cup winners) and the rest of the competition, never mind the lower levels, and is simply unbridgeable. There are myriad reasons for this but rugby league needs not only significant reform and new ideas but also a shitload of pounds injected if it is to be viable into the future. Scrapping the competition’s primary mechanism for parity is not it.

I touched on this and other parts of Super League, RFL and the Toronto Wolfpack saga on NRL Boom Rookies.

Queensland

The three men’s competitions were able to complete just one round being before shut down by coronavirus fears and shortly after, cancelled altogether. With PNG and Tweed in the Queensland Cup, traversing borders to complete the season would have been nearly impossible, never mind the strain on the league’s predominantly semi-pro player base. The right decision was made but it was a shame that a smaller competition could not be organised later in the year to give the players some game time.

Some district comps cancelled, while others went ahead, including the BRL.

Disappointingly, the new women’s BHP Premiership also played a single round before being cancelled. This deprived the players of an opportunity to build up their skills and strength ahead of the original State of Origin date and then leading into the NRLW season. Hopefully, it will return next year with at least the same clubs involved. It was replaced by the Holcim Cup in south-east Queensland, won by Burleigh over Souths Logan.

As is a recurring theme looking back on 2020 and forward to 2021, there are a number of consequences of the pandemic which are yet to be addressed. In renegotiating the TV deal, V’Landys has hung both state cups out to dry by releasing Nine from their requirement to broadcast one game a week in each state. As of yet, there’s no obvious replacement. While all games are filmed for data collection and some clubs have set up their own streaming, there is no league wide platform and, unlike NSW, Fox does not provide coverage of a second game. Taking the Queensland Cup off free-to-air would be a huge step backwards for all the hard work that’s been done to build the competition up. While some may boldly hope for an over-the-top streaming platform or for the QRL to sell its own broadcast package in competition with the NRL, I’d settle for what we had.

As part of immediate cost cutting measures, the Broncos severed their ties with their feeder clubs. Redcliffe immediately jumped ship to join the Warriors system. Rumour has it that the Broncos will re-establish with just one club, leaving three of Wynnum Manly, Norths, Souths Logan and Central Queensland needing to find new NRL partners. If the NSWRL unbunches its undies about cross-border feeder arrangements, then it will likely resolve itself, possibly for the benefit of all.

How the pandemic has affected the prospects for the competition’s future expansion remains unknown. Pacific Treize, a new Queensland Cup bid launched in May (what feels like a million years ago) primarily focuses on nations that were relatively untouched by the virus but may find corporate support extremely hard to come by in the post-pandemic world.

We do know that juniors competitions will be modified (presumably for this year only) to give kids that missed out this year a chance in 2021.

New South Wales

A lot of what I wrote about the Queensland Cup can be repeated for the NSW Cup but with some notable differences. Unlike the QCup, NSW Cup gets two games broadcast a week, one on Fox (having already set up for the NRL game, it costs practically nothing to broadcast the curtain raiser as well) and a second on Nine. With the Warriors having gone north and the Raiders declaring that they will go it alone in 2021, the Canterbury Cup will only be contested by ten teams, most a facsimile of their parent club.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the NSWRL needs to decide what the Canterbury Cup actually is. Is it a NRL reserve grade comp or is it a state-wide competition like the Queensland Cup? It can’t be both. Having it as a reserve grade comp buries the second tier of talent in jerseys no one cares about. Consider the difference between watching North Sydney versus Newtown and watching the Roosters reserves against the Cronulla reserves. The former offers something different to the NRL, while the latter suggests the NRL but shittier. You can make all the pathway arguments you want but you’d have to find a mountain of evidence to contradict the success that the Storm have had with Easts and Sunshine Coast in producing a pipeline of rep-quality players to replace their future Immortals. To me, the concept of reserve grade as it’s imagined in the past is dead and should be buried, with the superior alternative made clear in Queensland, but it would require Sydney NRL clubs giving up space to others and that never happens.

Unlike Queensland, NSW has the Ron Massey Cup, which sits slightly above the other district competitions, and they were able to combine clubs from this and the NSW Cup to hold a one-off President’s Cup, won by Maitland over Glebe Burwood, demonstrating that under extreme circumstances that a compact local competition has its advantages.

Papua New Guinea

With the Queensland Cup cancelled, I threw the energy I would normally reserve for that comp into Papua New Guinea’s Digicel Cup. The Cup wasn’t scheduled to start until after the pandemic had thrown the world into chaos but it did result in a much shortened season of just eleven rounds (each team played the others once). The first few rounds were played entirely at the John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby but as the situation in PNG relaxed, particularly after the split round five, teams gradually returned to their own home grounds.

The Lae Tigers were the dominant team for most of the season, although they were pipped at the end for the minor premiership by the Rabaul Gurias (9-1-1) and Hela Wigmen (9-2-1), as the Tigers slowed down in the last two weeks (9-2). The Port Moresby Vipers (8-2-2), Mendi Muruks (8-3-1) and Enga Mioks (3-5-4) made up the rest of the finalists. It’s no coincidence that the teams with the most Hunters players, most of whom returned to the Digicel Cup for the season, did the best.

The Mioks and Muruks were early cannon foodder, both eliminated in the first round of finals as expected. Lae’s comprehensive rout of Rabaul in the second week, 30-10, put the Tigers into the grand final as firm favourites. In the other final, the Wigmen dispensed with the Vipers, who continue to disappoint after not winning the competition since 2013. Hela snatched an upset in the preliminary final, downing Rabaul 11-10 with a late field goal to Solomon Pokari to seal the win and set up a rematch of the 2019 grand final. The Wigmen’s form continued into the grand final, narrowly beating out the Tigers 16-14 and winning their first premiership since 2014.

I haven’t followed the Digicel Cup that closely previously but the coverage of the competition this year, taking everything into consideration, was superb. High definition highlights are on Youtube for all the regular season games that were played in Port Moresby. It remains a baffling mystery as to why Hunters home games (the broadcast rights to which belong to the PNG RFL and not the QRL) and the Digicel Cup games cannot be broadcast in Australia but one hopes that in time Fox League will come to their senses and broadcast some content that is actual football and not total garbage from opinionated morons.

Hopefully, with the Hunters basing themselves in Queensland for their 2021 Queensland Cup campaign (and further noises suggesting the Port Moresby Vipers might be angling for a licence in future), that will restore some of the competitive balance to the competition and the likes of Gulf and Mount Hagen can close the gap to the rest of the league. On the other hand, new teams might offer a buffer.

Championship / League 1

At the time of the suspension of competition, Toulouse Olympique led the Championship, Great Britain’s second division, 5-0, followed by Leigh and Featherstone (4-0) and London (4-1). In League 1 (third division), only two rounds were played with Hunslet, Barrow and Newcastle all on 2-0. At the bottom of the table, West Wales Raiders had somehow already given up 100 points.

Only a handful of clubs took up the RFL’s offer to compete in an autumn mini-competition among the non-Super League clubs. This is hardly surprising because if there’s no matchday attendance, paltry prize money (a total pot of ยฃ250,000 was offered) and no broadcast dollars to top up the tank, there’s no revenue and therefore no football. So that was it for the bottom two tiers of allegedly professional football in the United Kingdom.

Things took a brief turn for the comical towards the end of the season, as Championship clubs jockeyed for position to get into Super League, replace Toronto and lose money even faster than they currently do (Leigh offered to forgo central funding for 2021 altogether). Irrespective of who is promoted, and it seems it will almost certainly be Bradford, Super League has already decided they will be given a much lesser share of central funding because they have not had the bear the costs of operating in 2020. This is somewhat baffling logic but hardly surprising given that half a dozen clubs are currently tendering for a licence without knowing what weighting is being applied to the judgement criteria by the “independent” committee – three from the RFL, three from Super League, led by a Tory lord – formed to award the licence that will see them almost certainly relegated at the end of 2021.

A much less competitive bidding process seems to be underway in League 1 to gain the empty Championship slot, which Rochdale are campaigning for. If successful, there would only be ten teams left in League 1. It would perhaps make more sense to take this opportunity to restructure to three leagues of twelve each.

For 2021, dual reigstration has already been canned, as have academy leagues. If crowds are not allowed to return, will the Championship and League 1 both get canned again in 2021? If so, when will they return?

Without football, is there really a football club?

New Zealand

New Zealand suspended all sport in March. Rugby league returned in June, with the Fox Memorial Premiership kicking off June 22. That came to a halt when play was suspended in Auckland in mid-August and finally cancelled on September 4.

In October, the provincial representative premiership and championships were played, with four teams in each of the men’s and women’s premierships. The grand finals in both were the same but results were inverted.

If you watched the men’s final, have read this far into this post and/or consider the IRL has New Zealand ranked as the number one men’s nation in the world, you can probably fill in the blanks on what would be coming next, which can be briefly summarised as “Why isn’t this better and where’s the money to make it better and seriously, how is it not a priority to get top-level domestic New Zealand rugby league on at least the same level as state cup?”

The women in New Zealand are well ahead of the game.

France

In March, the FFR declared a “saison blanc” because of the pandemic. At that time, Limousin were surprisingly leading the competition (8-4), five points clear of St Esteve-Catalan and Albi. In Elite 2, Villefranche were ahead on a 12-2 record, seven points clear of Pia (9-4) and Carpentras (10-3).

Elite 1 recommenced on 31 October but the situation is as bad, if not worse, now than when the 2019-20 season was cancelled. The second wave claimed two matches on the opening weekend (one since made-up, Palau and Villeneuve currently have a game in hand) but the following two rounds were completed without issue. Carcassonne currently leads the Elite 1 with a 3-0 record.

We wait with bated breath to see if the French Magic Weekend goes ahead.

Visitez treizemondial.fr pour plus d’informations.

Ireland

Bhuaigh Baile รtha Cliath an sraithe rugbaรญ a trรญ dรฉag na-hEireann. Ruaigeadh an Longhorns an Tribesmen na Gaillimhe, 24-10, i Claddagh.

Fiji

The Vodafone Cup went ahead, delayed and shortened by the threat of coronavirus. Split into eastern (8 teams) and western zones (10 teams), teams played each other once with the top four of each zone proceeding to the knock-outs. The Ravoravo Rabbitoh topped the west (8-0-1), while the Namuaniwaqa Sea Eagles won the east (6-1). Both teams were knocked out in the quarter finals. The grand final will was contested by the Police Sharks (2nd in the east, 5-1-1) against the Coastline Roos (4th in the western zone, 7-2), with the Sharks running out victors 18-16.

Game 3 of Fiji’s Origin series will be on December 5, as Maroon sides go for a clean sweep of Origin series.

Samoa

Samoa’s club premiership kicked off in late August with eight senior teams and four under 20s. The Apia Barracudas beat the Letava Bulldogs 24 – 8 in the senior grand final, with the Vaitele Wests Tigers coming in third, 22 – 18 over the Matniuel Lions. The Under 20s Final was won by the Matniuel Lions over Vaitele Wests Tigers, 22 – 16.

The Tumua Maroons won the Island of Origin series 22-22, 36-38 and then 24-14 over the Pule Blues.

Asia-Pacific

In Melanesia:

In Western Australia:

In Cook Islands:

In Vanuatu:

In Japan and Phillipines:

In Thailand:

In Brazil:

In the United States, the USARL was cancelled. Who knows if it’ll be back?

Europe

In Serbia:

Apparently, the Balkan Super League is still going ahead. We’ll see how that pans out, given last year’s edition ran out of steam and that was without a global pandemic.

In Ukraine:

In Albania:

In Lebanon:

In Russia, the season was suspended.

Africa

In South Africa:

Nigeria and Ghana have affiliate status with the IRL, while Burundi and Cameroon are playing rugby league.

International

Remember the 2017 World Cup and how good international football was looking for a brief fleeting second? Also remember when the Lions did a southern hemisphere tour and lost all four games and didn’t even play Australia? That was as hilarious as it was completely pointless.

Then coronavirus said no and took it all away. At the time of writing, a single international men’s rugby league match has been completed in 2020 with the Netherlands defeating Germany 20-18 in the Griffin Cup. New Zealand hosted two women’s matches, with the Kiwi Ferns defeating Fetu Samoa 28-8 (an improvement on last year’s fixture) and Tonga defeating Niue 66-8.

The problem is that there’s another World Cup in 2021 and it will be one that many participants will come into not having played since the end of 2019. Here’s what’s scheduled for 2021 so far.

The lack of attention paid to the world arena would only happen in this sport, with its fetish for suburbs and pit towns.

The UK government has shown no signs of being able to get on top of the pandemic, so it may well be that the World Cup is delayed a year or moved down under. We just don’t know, which is crazy considering this is meant to be the sport’s centrepiece.

In the interim, someone is going to have to develop a feasible commercial model for international football and other representative fixtures that aren’t the senior men’s and women’s State of Origin games. Even though internationals usually do pretty good numbers on TV in Australia, having to pay match payments of $30,000 to Kangaroos for no extra broadcast revenue irrespective of the number of games played, is not it. Until then, half assing it will be the way forward.

State of Origin

New South Wales won the men’s series 3-0.

Hahaha fuck you.

Diving into State of Origin 2020

We’re unusually late in the year to be talking Origin but to understate it completely, 2020 has been an unusual year.

I’ve tried analysing Origin using my slate of analytical tools in previous years (2018 and 2019) with mixed success. Taking those lessons on board, I’ve reworked some of the tools and we’ll look at this year’s series through these lenses:

  • Elo ratings
  • Venue records
  • Taylors

If you just want to cut to the chase, my tips are the Blues for the men’s and Maroons for the women’s. 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.

Form guide

I always said it would be stupid to do an Elo rating system for a three game per year series with only two teams contesting it but here we are.

New South Wales’ current rating is 1516 and Queensland’s 1483. On neutral ground, as in Adelaide, the Blues have a 55% probability of winning (equivalent to a one point margin). In Sydney for game 2, the Blues’ chances improve to 64% (3 points) and in Brisbane for game 3, the Maroons’ would be 54% favourites (1 point). Obviously, this will change as the games are played and ratings updated.

For the nerds, this system is margin-based (like Form Elo, we set a line based on pregame ratings and after the game, ratings go up for the team that beats the line) but with a low K-value (50) to make the series relatively slow moving. To maximise tips would require setting K at 225, which turns the ratings into chaos. As is, Elo has tipped the correct winner 53% of the time in the Origin era, which rises to 60% if we crank the K value up to 225. You could just tip against the winner of the last game or flip a coin for a similar success rate. We’re being descriptive, rather than predictive.

Home ground advantage and margin prediction factor is based on the whole history of interstate games, which the home team (excluding games at neutral venues) won 59% of the time by an average of 4.5 points. I had intended to generate these values on a decade-by-decade basis but there are several points in history where the away team had the advantage, which ruins the whole system. I say keep it simple.

Home ground advantage

You could do pretty well tipping Origin by simply tipping the home team. That strategy would have returned a 58% success rate over the last ten series.

Suncorp has long been a fortress for Queensland. Since 2010, the home ground advantage has been worth over ten points to the Maroons. Equally, but with far fewer games, the neutral venues have been considerably more accommodating to the Blues. Go figure. The Blues have an advantage of less than two points at ANZ Stadium but as the memory of Queensland’s golden age fades from memory, I would expect it to return to its long term advantage of approximately four points.

The advantage should be with New South Wales for games 1 and 2 and with Queensland in game 3.

Historical Taylors

I want to preface this section by saying that this is not really what the Taylor system for player ratings was designed for and that rugby league isn’t a sport where you could plug and play players and get 2 + 2 = 4, especially when you take a surplus of fullbacks and drop them into other parts of the back line. I get it, I really do, but we have to use the tools we have at our disposal.

With that in mind, I went back a looked at how the lineups from 2014 onwards would have been rated by Taylors.

For these charts, I have calculated each player’s TPR to that point in the season that the game was played and estimated the number of Taylors (xTy) they would produce at their listed position. I have also included the actual Taylors (Ty) generated by the player during the game. If you’re not interested in the detail, here’s a table summarising these charts.

The most obvious issue is that this method almost always tips New South Wales. The last six series have been split 9-9, so this may not be a great means of guessing who will win. However, the average projected Taylors per game is 865 Taylors and the average actual Taylors produced is also 865. This shows there is at least some internal consistency but we may be suffering at the hands of rugby league chaos which does not allow for nice, neat mathematical projections.

In reality, what happens is that the best players are selected from their club teams and, as there is considerable overlap between talent and production, we end up with a lot of highly productive players in too small a space. The way rugby league is actually played means that only so much can be done in a game and some players will not be as productive as they would in a club situation. Similarly, many players will be out of position and adjusting on the fly, rather than playing at their best.

Having said that, Origin produced 116 Taylors more than the typical NRL game did over the same period (749 Taylors per game). Origin means more football.

Interestingly, the Maroons have typically outperformed their projection by 20 Taylors per game. Mal Meninga was able to coax an additional 39 Taylors per game over the projections in 2014 and 2015, while Kevin Walters has only managed 13 from 2016 to 2019. New South Wales underperformed by 59 Taylors during Laurie Daley’s reign (2014 to 2017) but have outperformed by an average of 54 Taylors under Brad Fittler’s tenure (2018 and 2019). Some of those differences will be squad composition, self-belief and motivation and some of it will be coaching, although I wouldn’t care to speculate on the precise mix.

This all provides context for when we look at this fairly damning chart for game 1 of this year’s series.

[Correction: The tip should have read “New South Wales by 66%” but didn’t due to a calculation error. Still a big gap though.]

Irrespective of the merits of the tips, we haven’t seen on paper advantage like this in recent times and you would very likely have to go back to 1995 to find a similar chasm between the two sides. Famously, Queensland won that series in a clean sweep, which just goes to show that anything is possible, especially if your opposition thinks they’ve already got it won.

The most productive game in NRL history by Taylors was Souths stomping on the Roosters at the end of the 2020 regular season, which generated 1042 Taylors. Only game 1 of 2019 in Origin has exceeded that with 1049 Taylors. We are projecting 1023 Taylors for game 1 of 2020, the highest aggregate projection. Even with Vlandoball, that doesn’t leave a lot of room to exceed expectations. If one were to clutch at straws, it would be that Queensland have a lot more room to outperform, even if this is the highest projected output of a Maroons side since game 3, 2014.

Queensland may well alter this line-up before game day. Personally, I would have preferred to see Harry Grant at hooker. His .174 TPR would have added an additional 13 Taylors and closed 14% of the gap between the two states. However, the Maroons appear to be in big trouble with the wingers and centres chosen. In a normal year, a functional Corey Oates would add another 6 Taylors over Xavier Coates but unfortunately, Corey is broken. Valentine Holmes’ addition on the other side would be a similar improvement. Nonetheless, these changes would close the gap a little but does not eliminate it.

For New South Wales, it’s hard to imagine a better squad. Brad Fittler will get a lot of credit for his coaching genius when, in reality, he has a sizeable talent advantage to work with. Clint Gutherson, one of the better fullbacks in the game, does not seem suited to his responsibilities at centre, which could be an avenue that Origin Gagai exploits. Some of the forward selections seem a bit doughy, especially Jake Trbojevic at lock after the season he has had, but their Queensland counterparts aren’t rated much better.

Tipping 2020

We’ve already established that the Taylors lean NSW and Elo, until recently, loved Queensland, so we’re really only left with home ground advantage to separate the teams. It’s hardly a good or useful or robust system but since someone will inevitably ask for it, here’s what an Origin jury would have tipped.

Despite this, I’m inclined to agree with the Jury’s recommendation of the Blues. In fact, I voted that the Blues would clean sweep the series in the end of season fan poll. It would take an exceptional turnaround, not beyond the realms of possibility but very close to a miracle, for it to be any other way. Truly, this would be a fitting end for 2020.

Women’s Game

At the risk of this being seen as a tack-on, the reality is that records of women’s interstate games is spotty and that 21 NRLW games over three years does not give us the kind of statistical sample size that suits the kind of analysis I want to do. We are, unfortunately, left with the eye test.

Idiots will tell you that women’s Origin should have been moved from North Sydney Oval to Bankwest for this year’s edition because, somehow in a series of only two teams, most commentators forgot about the second team. Fortunately, the NRL is not that silly and has forced the coward Blues to face a hostile crowd on the Sunshine Coast. That said, bigger idiots think the women’s game should be a curtain raiser to the men’s, ensuring the women never play in front of a decent crowd.

If Queensland win this, it would be their first official Origin win and first interstate win since 2014 (2015 was a draw, after winning fourteen in a row prior according to Wikipedia). The Maroons have closed the gap that existed in previous Origins. Ali Brigginshaw, rather than being slowed by age, has had her best season yet and with Tarryn Aitken serving in the halves and Tamika Upton at fullback, Queensland have a dynamic playmaking combination. Broncos trio Tallisha Harden, Annette Brander and shot putter Chelsea Lenarduzzi will run it up the middle to lay a platform. Letting go of the pre-NRLW stalwarts and focussing on the younger talent that has come through is going to help immensely. The key ingredients are there.

The Blues’ stars, particularly those at the Dragons, looked extremely lack lustre during the NRLW season. Maddie Studdon has been dropped, Sam Bremner has other commitments and Isabelle Kelly and Kezie Apps will carry injuries in to this game. As usual, keeping a lid on Jess Sergis will be key to getting the upper hand. Hannah Southwell and Millie Boyle are a strong pair to underpin the pack. Kylie Hilder didn’t play NRLW this year or last year and is 44 years old, so I’m not sure if her naming isn’t an error. In contrast, a stack of Roosters have been named and if they can retain their cohesion from the NRLW, they may well overcome any talent deficit.

If nothing else, the women’s game will be much closer than the men’s series and should be considerably more compelling. I’m tipping the Maroons.

Like the NRLW, women’s Origin is coming along in leaps and bounds. The end goal – however long it takes – will be to have a women’s competition and representative season that is equal to and independent of the men’s side of the game. That means not having women’s games as curtain raisers but as standalone events. It will take time for the audience to grow, and women’s standalone games will likely be at smaller venues in the immediate future, but the audience will come if the product remains entertaining and is given the nourishment it needs to grow.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Melbourne Storm

Finally, to the champions. From pre-season:

Melbourne finished the season with a 20-4 record, a record only bettered* by the Stormโ€™s 21-3 2007 season. Unlike 2017, where it seemed inevitable that the Storm would win the premiership after winning 20 games, they never seemed to get much credit for what was still a very impressive season in 2019.

Melbourne just have the knack of taking extremely talented young men, putting them on the football field and winning games. Positions donโ€™t seem important, neither do the names. It will likely continue forever because there is plenty of talent pushing through in reserve grade. Even the departure of several reasonable quality players doesnโ€™t seem to have made a dent in their prospects.

So yeah, theyโ€™re pretty good. If Iโ€™m lucky, I may live long enough to see the next Broncos win over the Storm, an event about as frequent as Halleyโ€™s Comet.

You picked the Storm to be good too? Well done.

Summary

What happened

The Melbourne Storm are good – they had the best defence by Poseidon, they had the best average form Elo rating through the season and future Immortal Cameron Smith was TPR champ – but after going through fifteen of these reviews, this one graph stuck out for me.

This graph shows the each club’s difference between their players’ pre-season TPR projection and their actual TPR. A higher score means the player outperformed their projection more, which is good, and vice versa.

What caught my eye was not just how embarrassingly poor the Broncos were but also the apparent mediocrity of the Storm. This graph is my proxy for coaching ability and specifically who gets the best out of their roster. How could the greatest coach of the NRL era be so middle of the road? Last season, Bellamy was top of the table.

I thought about it and I think it’s because, unlike the Panthers, the Storm were projected to be good, indeed the best in the NRL, and they had very little room to improve, even with the excess of production caused by Vlandoball. They did that because of the way the club goes about its core business of winning football matches.

One of the themes I’ve come back to in these reviews, especially looking at the top teams, is the concept of process. Rugby league is a harsh and chaotic master and the only way to weather it is to have good processes in place. Good processes are repeatable and lightning in a bottle results are not.

We tend to think of dominant teams as having endless runs of premierships, which the Storm do not have. What they have done is implement systems that allow a certain reliability of premierships. They may not win every year but the systems ensure they are always in the hunt and will inevitably capitalise every few seasons. Refer to the 2012, 2017 and 2020 seasons. This is the essence of their long term success.

This is not to say that these teams are all the same. The 2017 vintage Storm would have become extremely frustrated with their inability to force the Panthers to capitulate and this would have led to mistakes, possibly costing them the grand final (see their week 1 final where the Eels briefly stood up to them). The 2020 vintage were far more flexible, if less domineering, and that was what got them over the line. The ability to retool every couple of years is also critical to their long term success.

As a result, the Storm now are as good as when they cheated the cap, if not better.

What’s laughable is that, other than the Roosters and maybe the Raiders and the Rabbitohs, no other team has sought to create their own version of this approach. Sign players on a value-for-money basis, give them the best coaching to maximise their potential and implement pathways that are constantly generating cheap talent; it’s that simple.

If anything, clubs at the bottom of the league are getting left even further behind. These dunces wait for multiple generational talents to stumble into their clubs and hope they get it together at some point. They will continue to fail because they do not understand this.

(You can tell who these clubs are because their end of season reviews end in a state of existential crisis, whereas the good teams are talked about in terms of how well they will roll into next year)

What’s next

Cam Smith probably retires, Dave Donaghy might move to Brisbane and maybe brings Craig Bellamy with him.

Assuming these things come to pass over the next twelve to twenty-four months, will these be the personnel changes that finally bring the Storm dynasty (the current iteration has been in train since 2016) to an end? Are the ideas, systems, processes – the intangibles – so embedded into the very fabric of the club that they will never be dethroned? Much like how Papenhuyzen replaced Slater, Hughes replaced Cronk and Grant will likely replace Smith, is the next man up in the boardroom capable of living up to the club’s lofty standards?

Will the Storm be the club of the 2020s or will that torch be passed to another?

The wheel of history eventually lowers the powerful down into the dust but it took the Roman Empire 400 years to decline from its peak to its end (1500 if you include Byzantium). The reality is we may not live long enough to see the Storm’s empire come crashing down.

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