Author Archives: pythagonrl

The gimmicks will continue until flow improves

In their infinite wisdom, the NRL introduced rule changes over the second off-season. The two major changes were to reduce from two referees to one and the six again set reset introduced for ruck infringements. In the froth over the six again, going back to one referee has almost been an afterthought but has likely had a similar scale of impact.

It’s difficult to keep track of the purported benefits – pace, flow, fatigue, consistency and bringing back the little man – thanks to their vagueness. Anything that’s changed in the last few weeks has been ascribed to the rule changes, whether it made sense to do so or not.

With three rounds complete, it’s time to take an early look at how these changes have altered the way the game is played.

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The stats

We can use stats to cut through what we see on the screen and delve into some of what’s happening.

Points

The perception that the rule changes have led to more blowouts or points is wrong. The average margin for the rounds played are higher than average but not unusually so (last three rounds in red):

Average round margin

Even the rolling average margin over three rounds played is higher than average, but still not unusual.

Average margin over three rounds

If the current average margin of rounds 3 to 5 is somehow maintained for the whole season, then it would be on par with the 2002 season but this seems very unlikely.

Average season margin

If the pace that points have been scored over the last three rounds is maintained at 38.3 per game, that will put the balance of this season on par with 2011, the lowest scoring year in the NRL era. The current rate is two points per game below the average of the last decade and ten points below the record of 48.9 per game set in 2001.

Average points per game

The points appear to have gone missing in penalty goals.

Penalty goals

To me, the results we’ve seen are well explained by good teams beating the shit out of bad ones. If anything is at play, the season suspension has created a disparity in physical fitness across the comp, which in tandem with the new rules reducing penalty goals, might explain the mildly strange combination of higher than average margins with relatively low scoring.

Time will tell, but as the fitness disparity closes, it will be replaced by a disparity in effort as teams are gradually ruled out of contention.

Running metres

Running metres have totally blown out.

All running metres

Note that I use the stats on NRL.com, which indicate that the total running metres of rounds 3-5 has increased by roughly 9% compared to rounds 1-2. Fox League’s stats also show an increase, on the order of 10%.

There seems to be some thinking that this phenomenon is because teams don’t get a lift down field from the kick for touch that they used to get. Kicking metres, however, if anything have gone up. Perhaps stuck in their own end and without a penalty to assist, teams are kicking for distance more frequently at the end of sets.

Kicking metres

Some of these increases might be explainable through chance, as well as evolving measurement methods but, in general, more stuff is happening, as counted by the stats, in the same game time.

[Note carlos uses Fox League’s stats]

Penalties

The main change is that the NRL has increased the amount of field covered by the players in exchange for a reduction in the number of penalties.

Penalties

But if you include the number of six again calls, then the refs are as involved as ever.

Penalties + six agains

Funnily enough, teams that were giving away calculated penalties in order to gain a defensive advantage are still doing so, it’s just being swept under the rug of a rebrand. I, for one, am shocked that savvy coaches and smart players who are famous for gaming the system would work out how to game the system.

It is clearly preferable to give away a new set on the first or second tackle and set the defensive line than to attempt to keep up with the pace, especially as referees are not giving attacking teams the usual leg up to get out of their own half that they have come to expect. Refs seem to have caught on to this strategy in round 5, issuing 50% more six agains more evenly spread across the tackle count, than in rounds 3 and 4.

Six agains

The six again is an intentional compromise between stopping the game for penalties and policing ruck infringements that slow the game down. It succeeds in removing penalties but it does not effectively help police the ruck, due to reasons that will be elaborated later.

Playmaker contributions

“The little man is back” is the most mystifying response to the rule changes. Trying to untangle what this actually means is an intellectual exercise on par with understanding quantum chromodynamics.

Using Taylors, the proportion of production generated by playmakers, defined as those wearing 6, 7 and 9, compared to the rest of the starters is the same now as it has been for the last few seasons.

Production by position

The little man is back, in the sense that he never went away. If anything, he came back a year early somehow.

Play the ball speed

I’m not a huge fan of the play the ball speed metric because it doesn’t seem to reliably mean anything about winning games of football but it can be at least help us identify a narrative.

Average play the ball speeds

Or perhaps not. It’s possible that the speed increase caused by six agains is offset by eliminating the second referee yelling at players in the ruck, so we kind of end up back where we were anyway.

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When commentators talk about the “pace” of the game, I think they mean more stuff is happening in the same amount of time. When commentators talk about the “flow” of the game, I think they mean play the ball speed and minimising interruptions caused by awarding penalties. Insofar as these very generous interpretations hold up – the little man angle remains hard to fathom – and players are inarguably more fatigued, it’s questionable whether this is better.

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The feels

No one can tell you what your aesthetic preferences are, how rugby league looks and feels to watch and enjoy, or offer a certain judgement as to what is better. Aesthetics are pure subjectivity.

I can offer my opinion and justify it for what it’s worth to you, which is that the style of gameplay is not sufficiently different to justify the enormous volume of plaudits that were thrown around when the season resumed. Where the gameplay is different, this hasn’t actually improved my enjoyment of the game.

The immediate response to the rule changes was for players to do everything more, which created the illusion of filling air time with action. Round 3 reminded me of the frenetic period in the late 60s following the adoption of limited tackles. Players hadn’t optimised their tactics so responded, disoriented and panicky, by running the ball.

We’re seeing this settle relatively quickly. I expect that the amount of stuff done per game will find a new level, higher than we were used to previously. In the long run, we will get used to this but I’m yet to be convinced that more is better. If nothing else, more running metres per game cheapens the value of each metre made.

The irony is that the subtleties of the game’s structure were already happened so quickly that they were easily lost in the motion on screen. This has created a stereotype that the game is solely one-up hit-ups when nothing could be further from the truth for a well-drilled team. Speeding up has made it more difficult still to see the underlying shape of the game.

Conversely, it is entirely possible that this distortion is created by a newfound decreased emphasis on structure. Why execute complex plays when you can simply wait for your opposition to tire out and then run over the top of them? It might be easier, possibly even funnier, but I don’t believe this is more entertaining.

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The gimmicks will continue until flow improves

Discussing the effectiveness of the rule changes merits a discussion of the context in which they came about. Glossing over the fact that the chairman has to date grossly overreached his job description and acknowledging the lack of transparency in the broadcast negotiations, the next biggest issue V’Landys’ leadership has introduced is making reactive changes in response to “problems” – largely the invention of a few nostalgic boomer hacks – and then using weak justifications after the fact.

For example, most people don’t care if there’s one referee or two on the field but for some reason, it grinds the gears of a particular subset of the NRL audience that we had two refs. So be it, but if the argument is the ruck will be policed better by one referee who’s also setting the line than two referees, one at the line and one at the ruck, then that is obviously bogus. Justifying it by cost savings that evaporated as soon as they came under any scrutiny and then by reference to a Daily Telegraph fan poll does not pass the smell test. So what was the point of the change? If we can’t publicly acknowledge who or what is driving these changes, why do they get accommodated?

The application of the six again in two games shows why this administrative approach is flawed. While Parramatta were defending a last minute Penrith attack on Friday, players were still lying about in the ruck to waste time and stymie the offence. Yes, the Eels’ Dylan Brown was sent off but why not just do that in the first place? Why introduce a new rule that prevents the refs from cutting to the chase and more effectively refereeing the game? Penrith lost the game.

Arguing that refs can still penalise ruck infringements if they so choose ignores the obviously political environment in which the referees operate. We know penalties are not acceptable to management because that’s what the referees used in an attempt to clean up ruck infringements in 2018.

The refs were castigated for it because the childishly cranky part of the NRL audience that the decision-makers listen to had a whinge that they were getting bored with the stoppages. Whether the stoppages would have the desired impact in the long-term never got a run because in the short term, tantrums were being thrown about blown whistles ruining the flow and, in a supreme act of psychological projection, referees trying to make themselves the centre of attention.

In an ideal world, perhaps the commercial and judicial arms of the sport would be separate but they aren’t in rugby league. Greenberg told the refs to lay off and they did. Players and coaches were not incentivised to change and the so-called wrestle continues.

In fact, referees now have more responsibility and potential impact on the game, having to use their discretion as to whether a ruck infringement justifies no penalty, a six again or an actual penalty. Teams who find themselves in situations where they would prefer a penalty than a set restart are not given an option, as demonstrated in Thursday’s Manly-Brisbane game where two set resets were given within twenty seconds of the last five minutes of the game, in lieu of a game-tieing shot at goal. The Broncos lost.

These consequences would have been obvious if they were thought about before implementation. Famously, the incredibly named Project Apollo’s innovation committee only had one hour to consider the changes. Once the novelty has worn off, questions will be asked, not just by unimportant nobodies with a WordPress account, but also by people who are actually listened to as the fallout become impossible to ignore. The Peanut King has already fired a shot across the bows, although I refuse to read what what he’s actually said.

In the rush to be seen doing something, V’Landys risks either looking foolish in rolling back the changes or worse and more likely, he will double down. For example, the suggestion that next season the scoring team will kick-off to prevent teams from getting a roll on is a dire sign but we’ll see what actually comes to pass. The slippery slope argument is that if he chooses to double down, V’Landys will apply band-aid gimmick after band-aid gimmick until the sport is barely recognisable or enjoyable to watch, satisfying no one and leaving everyone wondering how we got here.

While rugby league has a tradition of innovation to attract the mass spectator, it is also extremely questionable whether the ends will justify these means. The alternative – to take some time to consider changes, think through the second-order impacts, trial at lower levels, implement between seasons and transparently state the justification – is there to be utilised.

After a huge surge driven by a palpable sense of relief at the return of the footy, TV ratings are back to where they were pre-coronavirus. Nonetheless, the rule changes are likely here to stay.

The Warrior Dolphins

Just before kick-off of the Bulldogs-Dragons spoon bowl on Monday, the Warriors dropped a big press release. Contained within is an important story with a lot of implications for rugby league, so let’s go through them.

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For the Broncos

It wasn’t that long ago that the Broncos had six feeder clubs in the Queensland Cup. It was probably too many, even if we ignore the fact that the Capras’ remoteness makes them relatively useless. I guess Brisbane felt a responsibility to give all of the clubs something, even if it wasn’t necessarily in the optimal interest of everyone.

Over the first off-season, the Jets aligned themselves with the Newcastle Knights. Seemingly this is because the Broncos and Jets organisations had differing philosophies and the new partnership makes “very good sense as Newcastle is really Ipswich by the sea”.

Even though NRL-contracted Knights players will still drop down into the Knights’ Canterbury Cup squad rather than the Jets’ Intrust Super Cup team, Ipswich now forms part of the Newcastle pathway. Presumably this means the Knights will get some sort of droit du seigneur on Ipswich kids, provided that they aren’t snapped up by other clubs beforehand (if you think geographical boundaries mean anything, you can go count the talented alumni of Gold Coast high schools at the Brisbane Broncos).

Then, not long after the conclusion of the second off-season, the Dolphins suddenly announced that they too were leaving the stable. They first joined in 2006, leaving the Roosters to fend for themselves. The Toowoomba Clydesdales, the Broncos’ other feeder at the time, folded not long after, were replaced by Aspley for one season in the Queensland Cup and then the focus shifted to the Dolphins form 2008 onwards.

The Dolphins had been given imperial preference by the Broncos. The best of the rest played at Redcliffe and the club formed something of a finishing school for future Broncos. The Dolphins played Matt Lodge for a season in 2018 as the Broncos waited out the PR penalty for that signing and got Lodge back into shape. In short, the clubs were tight and now they are not.

In the space of six months, Brisbane has gone from six to four feeders. It’s something of a high performance sporting break-up. No one knows (yet, exactly) why. Given the current state of the team’s first grade side and both front and back offices, eyebrows are necessarily raised.

For the Warriors

A New Zealand Warriors-branded team replaced the Auckland Vulcans in the New South Wales state cup in 2014. Since then, the reserve Warriors have bobbed around average but hardly blown the doors off the competition. Their best season was 2017, finishing in second place with a 13-5-4 record, before exiting in the prelims.

The re-purchase of the Warriors by a combination of the Auckland Rugby League via the Carlaw Heritage Trust and Autex Industries, a long time supporter of New Zealand rugby league, in April 2018 led to a hint that the Warriors reserves would run through the Auckland rugby league premiership, with the aim of raising that competition’s standard. That never happened and Autex ended up buying out the rest of the Warriors after a break down of “over a difference in philosophies and personality clashes”.

So it seems that the idea is on the backburner and the Warriors have seized a great opportunity. 

The main benefit will be leveraging the Dolphins’ extensive experience in developing players. This doesn’t seem to have been to be the Warriors’ major issue. Having access to the best talent that New Zealand rugby union overlooked or discarded means having access to so many kids with potential that it’s hard to fail to develop at least a few stars. Nonetheless, the finishing school might be the one or two percent polish on development players that’s separating the Warriors from that elusive premiership.

Shuttling reserve grade players from Auckland to Brisbane is probably no more difficult than shuttling them between Auckland and Sydney. The state cup travel load in Queensland is greater than in New South Wales but it won’t be anything that Redcliffe, or the Warriors for that matter, won’t already be used to. It might be worth it if the deal comes with some Knights-style droit du seigneur on unscouted talent in the Moreton Bay region.

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For the Dolphins

With the Dolphins bidding to become the NRL’s second Brisbane franchise and if they are successful, the relationship with the Broncos would inevitably have to be severed. This might be the first, albeit somewhat premature, step.

The basic math is that if NRL squads have thirty signatories and only seventeen can play on game day and minus a few injuries, there’s roughly six to ten pros who need something to do each weekend. Typically, they play in reserve grade competitions, as accommodated by the NRL’s farm teams. In New South Wales, those surplus to first grade’s requirements are sent to play at one club but in Queensland, players are assigned to a varying number of clubs. The fringe first graders are generally better quality than the other state cup-level footballers, so getting as many into your lineup is critical to success in the second tier. 

When the Broncos’ cup ran over, the Dolphins were the primary beneficiary. The benefit for Redcliffe now is that instead of sharing nine or ten fringe first graders with Souths Logan, Norths and Wynnum-Manly, they can get a NRL club’s set of players to themselves. In terms of the 2019 Warriors, think Chanel Harris-Tavita, Tom Ale and a handful of forwards that have played at NRL level, like Bunty Afoa, Ligi Sao and Sam Lisone, and instead of getting two or three of them, the Dolphins will now have all five.

For the Queensland Cup

In the most recent editions of the Queensland Cup, there’s generally been four clubs in the mix: Redcliffe (Broncos), Burleigh (Titans), Townsville (Cowboys) and whichever of Easts and Sunshine Coast the Storm happen to favour that season. There’s the occasional incursion from your Hunters and Seagulls types but generally that’s been four of the top six.

Introducing a fifth NRL club will presumably add a fifth power. Considering Redcliffe is already one of those powers, it will be from the Broncos reassigning their talent elsewhere. They have only three metro clubs to choose from: Wynnum-Manly, Souths Logan and Norths. We could baselessly speculate that the Magpies, already home to Cory Paix, Tom Dearden and Tesi Niu in 2020, will become New Redcliffe but perhaps the Broncos would prefer to build on the stronger base at Kougari, as Wynnum-Manly finished runners-up in three grades in 2019.

Even if the Broncos split the difference, one of the clubs will likely luck out and rise up, so the establishment of a new feeder relationship resets the balance in a way not seen since NSWRL clubs were allowed to feed into the competition.

Still unknown is the fate of the under 20s and under 18s Warriors’ and Dolphins’ sides. The Warriors did not participate in Jersey Flegg in 2020 as is, after going 9-9-2 in 2019, but the SG Ball side sat in third when the competition was suspended. While the Storm uses Queensland feeders, their junior sides play in the NSW competitions as of last year. Perhaps we will see junior Dolphins continue in the Queensland competitions and junior Warriors playing in Auckland. Further unknown is if Redcliffe get the nod to go up to the NRL, whether the Warriors will return to NSW or partner with a different Queensland club.

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For the NSW Cup

Now we ask ourselves, what actually is the point of the New South Wales Cup?

The Canterbury Cup is stuck between two ideas: that the second tier competition should be a reserve grade for the Sydney NRL clubs and that there should be a high level competition across the state of New South Wales. The recent merger of the Country Rugby League into the NSWRL makes the question more pertinent.

Where is the representation of regional NSW in the state competition? Other than Newcastle, the cup is limited to a triangle between Woollongong, Penrith and Gosford. Roughly three million people, enough to be the fourth largest state in the country in its own right, live in the ACT and New South Wales outside of Sydney.

With the Canterbury Cup now down to eleven contestants, it’s time for the NSWRL to consider what its purpose is. Dare I suggest expansion to engage a wider base? There are six regions in the CRL that could provide the basis of new teams. Combine that with the Sydney has-beens (North Sydney, Newtown, Western Suburbs) and the never-weres (Mounties, Wenty, Blacktown) and a few outside teams, like the Kaiviti Silktails or new teams established in the southern states, and you’d have yourself a pretty decent league with a totally different flavour to the NRL.

We could also dispense with the idea that taking Sydney club games to regional areas is good because they would have teams to call their own, forcing the Sydney clubs to pull their fingers out and find some fans.

Of course such an approach would undermine the direct influence that the Sydney NRL clubs have, so it will never fly. They may point to earlier, half-hearted efforts made in areas outside of Sydney and their presumed failure as a reason to consolidate the competition into a vanilla reserve grade offering. “We tried that, it didn’t work.”

Insofar as there’s any measure of the respective popularity of the second tier comps, the Queensland grand final seems to attract greater attendances than its New South Wales counterpart. My theory is that while the quality is generally stronger in New South Wales (fewer clubs with more fringe first graders) it has less appeal because its main selling point is to have the same clubs as the NRL but with worse rosters. Its difficult to see such a competition achieving any degree of popularity, outside of the anoraks who have read this far and people watching the lead-in to the Sunday arvo game.

The thing about different clubs is that they represent different areas, have different colours and different histories. These clubs have different meanings and that’s what gets people to care. Fans having multiple clubs to support across different competitions would be a net benefit for rugby league, keeping people more engaged and for longer.

Maybe think about it, New South Wales.

Super League 2.0 is not coming

Take half an hour and watch this.

The interesting thing about the debate is what’s missing. There’s no discussion about the purpose or meaning of Super League. There’s a large pile of cash on the table. The bigger clubs and RFL have plainly decided to accept this because they need the money more than anything else, and the deal supposedly comes with a ticking clock. That the RFL were reportedly prepared to accept the first offer without negotiating is extremely telling of the desperation involved.

On the other side, there’s the smaller clubs who feel owed something but are likely to be left in the cold or forced into shotgun marriages. Keighley had secured promotion and looked to be denied it by the creation of the Super League. Their insistence that their new grounds – capacity 10,000 – would set them up as a big club would be laughably small-minded if most Super League clubs didn’t operate along the same lines twenty-five years later. Featherstone Rovers, we are told, are the heart of a community ruined by industrial closures. Quite how such an economically disadvantaged community of 15,000 is meant to sustain a professional sports team in to the twenty-first century is not clear.

Instead, the RFL should have insisted that they needed more time to get stakeholders on board, develop a feasible structure for the sport and decide how to best invest the money. Off the cuff, all Maurice Lindsay can offer for the money’s ultimate destination is grassroots, developing the game and stadium upgrades with the influx of TV money – basically, following the Premier League’s lead a few years earlier – and it’s easy to see that being an enormous waste of money. Surely there isn’t a significant number of people who could be converted to rugby league, if only it were played in nicer stadiums.

Lindsay, however, was right that thirty-five does not go into fourteen. That there was ever an idea that that many fully professional clubs could be supported over such a small area is mystifying in retrospect. The intention, to merge existing clubs into new entities that would have a significant enough geographical and commercial reach to support a fully professional franchise, was sound in principle, as long as you didn’t look too much at details, like history, meaning and the defensive-borderline-paranoid psyche of the northern English.

The idea that a number of small English clubs with a hundred years of rivalry and basically nothing to show for it, would come together on an even footing to run a professional sports team is the kind of coked-up thinking that only the Super League war could throw up.

The mergers were dropped, Super League went ahead, the RFL got the money and not much else has changed for the English game in the next twenty years. The arrival of Canadian teams in 2017 and 2021 and a French club winning the Challenge Cup in 2018, signals the dawn of a new era – unplanned, unanticipated and somewhat unwelcome – that may well have been curtailed by the pandemic.

The golden opportunity provided by the virus to wipe the slate clean and begin anew has been wasted by the powers that be in both hemispheres. In all likelihood, the public bail-outs in England will only send more good money after bad and further entrench the status quo, not remove and replace it with something better. Defects in the game’s structure, writ large with the millions of dollars at stake and the attention of millions more, will remain, unaddressed.

In short, a Super League 2.0 is not coming.

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Ironically, the renegotiation of the broadcast deal in Australia has only served to highlight how badly Super League 2.0 is needed. The executives at Nine can read the writing on the wall as well as the rest of us. The virus should have created a large socially isolated captive audience for television. Instead, it is accelerating the trends that were in place beforehand. People prefer to watch what’s available online, which is orders of magnitude better than free-to-air and the good stuff on pay TV can be pirated or streamed or VPNed for far less than Foxtel are asking. The economic uncertainty is resulting in slashed marketing budgets, meaning that even if anyone was watching TV, advertisers can’t afford the ad time anyway.

The acquisition of the Fairfax stable of newspapers in 2018 has only made the pressure worse. It remains to be seen if there’s a long term future for traditional mastheads in a digital age. Repeated slashing of quality and staff in the face of repeated poor corporate performance is eroding what’s left of the major dailies’ brands.

In either case, newspapers and free-to-air television are relics of an ecosystem that has been irreparably altered by the Chicxulub impactor that is the internet. The traditional media is on life support and, at the right price, rugby league is one of the machines that go ‘ping’.

* * * *

I’ve long been suspicious of Peter V’Landys.

It wasn’t so much what V’Landys stood for because we didn’t know what that was in 2018. An unnamed someone decided to get the Andrew Webster to write and the Sydney Morning Herald to publish a puff piece and that rang alarm bells. The article was a hybrid of soft interview juxtaposed with “concerns”, which were unfounded and unattributed. It smacked of the same treatment lifelong deadshit politicians get before they challenge for the party leadership and become Prime Minister.

Journalists are meant to be smart, worldly and experienced but prove through their work that they do not deserve this reputation. You could argue that there is a higher game at play, and you’d be right, and that journalists are expected to walk a tight rope between speaking truth to power and maintaining access to the same power to do their jobs. But it seems here on the sidelines that the criticism of the powerful only ever comes when it serves the purpose of another power and almost never in the public interest.

Some have given up pretences entirely. Most would be better off re-positioning themselves as public relations officers for Newscorp or Nine and their interests and be done with it. It would at least be more honest and earn less public scorn.

It never ceases to amaze me how the media can whip up a frenzy apropos of nothing and, simply by whipping up the frenzy, make otherwise powerful and smart people do things that they’d rather not. It’s a damning indictment on the spinelessness of our leadership class that in the age of social media, the powerful aren’t able to completely bypass the traditional media, whose public trust is roughly on par with used car salesmen and real estate agents.

So it was, first with Peter Beattie and then later with Todd Greenberg. Beattie had stated that he hadn’t planned to be chairman of the ARLC for a long time but he obviously came in with a plan to shake things up quickly and decisively. He and Greenberg managed to get the international calendar to take some shape, had governments building new stadiums in Sydney to keep the grand final, had other governments paying for events like State of Origin and Magic Round, kicked off a profitable digital strategy and clubs and players were benefiting from a generous centralised grant and increased salary cap instituted by Beattie’s predecessor.

In short, they managed to make the NRL more reliant on itself and less reliant on the anonymous and not-so-anonymous bottom-feeders that have stifled the game’s progress for the last forty years lest it threaten their suburban fiefdom.

Then, in 2019, the drums started beating and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Beattie had resigned and V’Landys ascended to the throne. Whether Beattie did not have the will to stave off the media’s inanity for another six months or simply had run out of political capital is not clear but it does seem like his work is unfinished. That Beattie’s legacy hasn’t been hugely tarnished by the same media suggests that he went quickly and willingly.

Once the chosen one had been crowned, he deigned to let us know what he stood for during his acceptance speech:

  • Suburban stadium redevelopments in Sydney
  • Tribalism, bringing it back
  • Getting referees in line, maybe going back to one
  • A nod to families
  • Getting more out of gambling companies
  • No mention of the international game or expansion

I’m not sure V’Landys even bothered to do a token reference to grassroots or bush footy. When pressed, we discovered that Brisbane still needed to be secured for rugby league, even though it has been played here since 1909, and that Western Australia was already a lost cause, a rusted-on AFL state. Much like the Melbourne Storm in Victoria, I guess.

The agenda strikes me as the perfect enapsulation of the Sydney boomer nostalgia bubble. I assume this is driven by faceless men behind the scenes, pining for a time when the footy was “better” and standing on a suburban hill with 2,000 other men was the pinnacle of the rugby league experience. With the passage of time, those who ache for the past forget the drawbacks but I suppose the authentic experience is regularly recreated at Leichhardt Oval. We are offerred the inferior product we know in lieu of a brighter but uncharted future.

Then, it was Greenberg’s turn. The knives were out and the cliches were flogged mercilessly. It was financial mismanagement supposedly. A huge head office and a white elephant digital strategy. Or maybe it was the response to the pandemic. Being reactionary? “Concerns” within clubland, possibly about the successful and necessary no-fault stand down.

Buzz Rothfield tried his best to gotcha and got absolutely banged in response.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone stuck to their lines, which for the professional communicators among them were incredibly muddled. I was suffering from cognitive dissonance, that itchy feeling in your brain when you try to process contradictory information before you realise what’s wrong. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t even a shade of grey, it was clear cut. The game was profitable and growing. Everyone was getting paid. What the fuck was the actual problem? Am I really being gaslit by the rugby league media?

Even now, journalists, commentators and other people whose opinion we know only because they are paid to fill airtime and column inches, are unable to write or speak about Todd Greenberg’s legacy without referencing financial mismanagement. Traditionally, when one is accused of something like mismanagement, examples are proffered and yet, cursory glances at the facts reveal something completely different.

If something gets repeated often enough, it becomes true. The history books will record that head office costs were “bloated” and that he had to go.

We’re left to speculate what actually is going on because the people whose job it is to tell us won’t or can’t. Seemingly, the closest anyone came to the truth was that V’Landys doesn’t play nice, which is insanely childish.

Meanwhile, Peter V’Landys is treated with the same reverence as the second coming of Christ because apparently, the rugby league media’s main takeaway from watching world events of the last five years is that a strong man with a penchant for action, or at least being seen as imposing his will, and no respect for consultation is a good thing.

The current situation has placed existential pressure on the broadcasters. The NRL may be in breach of contract, even though suspending play is the right thing to do in the face of a deadly pandemic. This gives the broadcasters leverage to negotiate down a big expense in the form of NRL broadcast rights. The NRL doesn’t have enough ammunition to put up much of a fight and it seems that V’Landys isn’t interested in doing so. The broadcast deal has been (or maybe still is being?) extended for reduced value. It was then revealed that Nine, not so much as hating the digital strategy, actually coveted it.

V’Landys sits at the nexus of a major power play, from clubs and broadcasters threatened by a brave new world that might get by without them. I don’t claim a conspiracy because its laughable these people could have planned anything two years in advance. The irony is that if the clubs could be trusted to cooperate like this, they could form a cartel to protect themselves and we might actually be better for it.

Quite who did what and what the ends are still isn’t clear. I’d speculate that V’Landys is treated as the messiah because he will lead the game back in time to a golden age that only exists in the mind of some powerbrokers. It could be the much more likely and grubbier alternative that people who take big dollars out of the game want to continue to take big dollars out of the game. Or both.

The full picture will be drip fed through selected journalists over time and we will see it when it will be too late to do anything meaningful about it, if we could even do anything about it now.

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Rugby began as a means to turn schoolboys into men. Rugby and the Muscular Christian ideology mirrored each other in the mid-to-late 19th century. When the Northern Union went its own way in 1895 and the Rugby Football Union another, the RFU doubled down on its elitism, deliberately avoiding the mass spectacle and the associated rougher element, creating a game to instil the same moral education that a boy would receive at Eton.

The idea that the private schooling system can produce moral individuals is laughable. Take a quick glance at the leadership class’ performance, from Gallipoli to Brexit, and report back on the results. The rich are always happy to sacrifice the poor to protect the rich and hate them for reminding them that their wealth is often unjust.

If you needed further evidence of rugby-as-morality’s failings, the collaboration between rugby union and the Nazi-aligned Vichy government in France during World War II and tours to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s should seal the deal.

After 1895, rugby league needed to appeal to the masses. Professional sport has to be entertaining to get people through the gate and, later, to turn on the TV. Its working class roots in the northern industrial towns of England and the suburbs and regional areas of New South Wales, Queensland and Auckland imbued a sense of meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are, just how well you can play.

As a result, rugby league clubs and leagues tend to be more inclusive and representative than the prevailing cultural mainstream. If you’re reading this, you will probably be able to rattle off a litanical list of milestones. That’s not to say league hasn’t had its moments. The reception of Olsen Filipaina and other Polynesians to Sydney rugby league and the naming of the Edwin Brown grandstand in Toowoomba strike me as two particularly gross examples. Still, it’s clear the culture of league is usually better than the culture around it.

Once the virus is over, fees for broadcast rights will remain critically important for both rugby codes. That union was a generally unappealing game did not matter for most of its history. If you don’t pay your players, then there’s no need to chase broadcast dollars by tidying up your product. Once professionalism was officially legalised in 1995, and it was clear that the world had moved beyond union’s notions of how society should operate, union became subject to the same market forces as league. The result is that union is following league’s evolutionary path to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, minimising scrums and technical penalties. It would not surprise me to discover that they are considering abolishing the lineout, dropping two players from each side and a means to limit possession.

As the two codes converge, already very similar to the uninitiated and now subject to the same selective pressures, we start to wonder what rugby league, the somewhat smaller and significantly less powerful of the two codes, will do to make its mark in the world. If people don’t know the whole story, then there is little hope for league’s long term survival. Moreover, in a globalised, kleptocratic, winner-takes-all economic system, we don’t know whether rugby will be able to find breathing room in the face of North America’s big four and European soccer becoming world-spanning sporting behemoths.

On rugby’s new frontiers, people will tell you both codes of rugby get along and there’s no code wars. The same people will contribute “why can’t we all just get along?” to the political discourse, seemingly unaware that some are campaigning for their very lives in the face of prejudice, inequality and fascism. It is the same attitude but, it should go without saying, the stakes are many orders of magnitude less significant in sports than politics.

Still, if there were no stakes, then the rugby codes would merge and we could get on with working out how to co-exist with other sports. That will never happen because there are stakes and wounds and history that have not been resolved. It is not an irrational take that union is the embodiment of late 19th century aristocracy, elitist and exploitative, cosy with fascism and league should never reconcile with that world view. The irrational take is that these things don’t matter, they’re in the past and you’re being childish by having feelings about them.

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You might wonder why I’ve bothered to tell you these stories and what brings together these disparate thoughts. Over the off-season, I wrote approximately this same piece but it was lengthier, unedited and all-around insane. It will remain unpublished.

But there’s a lot of Big Stuff happening right now. It helps to talk about it and helps fill the time until rugby league’s imminent return. It’s also interesting to me at least to consider how the past and the present might inform the future.

The Dynasties of Rugby League

The 1956-66 St George Dragons are often cited as the greatest rugby league dynasty of all time, especially if the author of the statement is of a particular age. Unlike most received wisdom in rugby league, this seems to be hold up pretty well from whichever angle you examine it. But what of other teams in other leagues? And of other dynasties? How do they compare?

For the purpose of this study, a dynasty is a club side that maintained a high level of success, if not outright dominance, for an extended period of time. We want to know this as a consideration in a larger argument about the greatest teams of all time. While this an argument that will not be resolved here, now or ever, it gives us something to talk about while we wait for the resumption of the football season.

We are aiming to use a relatively objective set of criteria to identify dynasties without having to use personal assessments, with all the baggage that brings. The results are what I think are reasonable, although you could and probably will argue the details. We also want to show a bit of flexibility, as the criteria used are arbitrary but most variations on this system will yield roughly the same answers.

This is not going to be the story of each dynasty, of which there are more than sixty across Sydney, Brisbane, England and Australia, and that would be better suited to a book, than a blog. However, I think there’s a lot to learn about the nature of football and how players or coaches or changes in the environment impact rugby league’s history.

dynasties fi

The accounting system

I’ve adapted Bill James’ system for identifying baseball dynasties for the equivalent achievements in rugby league. Under the tweaked system, each team has a rolling sum of achievements from the previous three seasons. Achievements are purposely designed to set a high standard to identify great teams and are weighted as follows:

  • 6 points for winning the premiership and minor premiership
  • 5 points for winning the premiership only
  • 4 points for winning the minor premiership but not the premiership
  • 3 points for losing the grand final
  • 2 points for finishing the regular season with a .800 or more winning percentage
  • 1 point for finishing the regulation season with a .700 or more winning percentage
  • -2 points for a winning record of less than .700
  • -3 points for a losing record

In the 29 RFL seasons that did not have finals, points are awarded as follows:

  • 6 points for winning the league and Challenge Cup
  • 5 points for winning the league only
  • 4 points for winning the Challenge Cup but not the league
  • 3 points for losing the Challenge Cup grand final

Teams are awarded the points for their greatest (highest scoring) achievement in the one season. Dynasties do not continue through either World War in England, due to the switch to emergency war-time leagues through both. The shortened 1995 season, wedged in the transition from winter to summer football, is not counted as it does not have a corresponding Challenge Cup.

At a minimum, a dynasty is achieved when the rolling sum peaks at ten points or more, comprising at least one premiership and three consecutive seasons of achievements. The dynasty’s length is determined by how long the team maintains a rolling sum above zero. The end date is set by the last achievement before the ending zero and the start date is set by the first achievement around the starting zero.

Here’s the NRL-era Roosters as an example:

roosters-nrl-dynasties

The dynasties are highlighted in yellow, each comprising a rolling sum that peaks at 10 or more and at least one premiership with at least three consecutive achievements. The first begins with the 2002 premiership and ends not in 2006, when the rolling sum returns to zero, but in 2004, the last achievement in the dynastic set. The second begins with the 2013 premiership/minor premiership double, as the first achievement in the dynasty, and continues to this day.

The nature of the system mean the start and end dates might be out by a year from what you would expect. Subjectively, the second Roosters dynasty could be split in to two, given the disastrous 2016 season and the subsequent changes in the roster, although I would argue that this dynasty is the work of Trent Robinson, rather than any specific players.

There also has to be a cut off somewhere, so some good-to-great teams are not identified here. The most obvious examples are back-to-back premiers, such as Sydney Easts and Brisbane Wests in the late 70s, that miss the cut for lacking three consecutive achievements, and teams that peak over 10 points but lack a premiership, such as early-to-mid 70s Warrington.

There is no means to prevent multiple dynasties arising at the same time. While the word implies singular control, the reality is that there are often multiple dynasties (or houses or warlords or whatever your preferred historical nomenclature) vying for control of a particular piece of geography at any given point in history. So it is in football, where multiple powerful clubs will battle for dominance at any given point in a league’s history. Consider a parallel between the superpowers of the Cold War and the current domination of the NRL by the Storm and Roosters.

The dynasties of rugby league

“Run” is how many seasons the dynasty lasted. “Peak” is the highest the rolling sum achieved during the dynasty (minimum 10, maximum 18). “Total” is the total number of achievement points racked up during the dynasty. “Average” is the sum divided by the run for the average number of achievement points scored per season.

Sydney (1908 – 1981)

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Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

nswrl ranked

Dynasties of Sydney

Brisbane (1909 – 1987)

brl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

brl ranked

Dynasties of Brisbane

*Coorparoo has been shown as an Easts dynasty

England (1901/02 – 2019)

rfl-1

rfl-2

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

rfl-ranked-1

rfl-ranked-2

Dynasties of England

Australia (1982 – 2019)

arl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

arl-ranked

Dynasties of Australia

All-time dynasties

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

ALL-TIME

Dynasties ranked by peak achievement points:

ALL-TIME-PEAK

The greatest clubs are those that peak at 18, the maximum, meaning back-to-back-to-back doubles.

Dynasties ranked by average achievement points:

ALL-TIME-AVERAGE

Greatest clubs

Clubs ranked by total achievement points accumulated during dynastic seasons:

ALL-TIME-CLUBS

ALL-TIME-CLUBS-2

*Coorparoo I is included in Brisbane Easts’ tally

Around the leagues

Of the 32 BRL clubs, 33 NSWRL/ARL/NRL clubs and 68 clubs to pass through the RFL’s top flight, 133 in total, only 31 ever managed to string together enough success in 120 years of football to be called dynasties. Obviously, a number of clubs didn’t play for very long, let alone achieve success. Many of the BRL clubs played one or two seasons in the 1910s and 1920s before disappearing, like Natives, Railways and Ipswich Starlights. The clubs that we are left with have been through a rigorous process of natural selection to be alive at this point in time. That is, of course, no guarantee of future survival.

Only seven of the twelve teams that were in the NSWRL in 1980 have registered a dynasty. Seven of the eight BRL teams had had a dynasty by 1987 with the newest, Redcliffe, being the only exception. Eighteen different clubs has dynasties in the RFL system, including several seasons (58/59, 59/60 and 65/66) where there are four simultaneous dynasties. That might sound excessive, except there are thirty-odd teams in the top flight football at this time, as the second division was only permanently re-introduced after the 1972/73 season.

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Initially, one of the things that struck me was the relative deficit of dynasties in Sydney, continuing in to the modern Australian league, when compared to Brisbane and England. The last two decades have only had two clubs in dynasty mode, Sydney and Melbourne. There’s no real equivalent to this anywhere other than Sydney.

Indeed, it seems to be Sydney’s default, especially after World War II. I wonder if this is due to the impact of money – specifically, from poker machines that were not available to Brisbane or English clubs – leading to a more skewed distribution of talent in the league and allowing richer clubs to accumulate talented players in the absence of a proper salary cap.

The NRL-era in Australia tends to undermine that suggestion but financial disparity might also explain the dominance of the big four during the Super League-era in England. While the European league has a salary cap, many clubs do not have the financial firepower to spend up to it, leaving a gap to the richer organisations.

The Brisbane dynasties were less dominant than their southern counterparts, with only Norths’ six-in-a-row run during the 60s hitting the maximum peak of 18, while Sydney had four, suggesting that the margin between top and bottom was less in Brisbane and that if you found yourself behind, it didn’t take much to close the gap. Alternatively, perhaps it was easier to maintain a relatively consistent standard of football with fewer teams to distribute talent around.

To some extent, the argument is arbitrary. Brisbane has more dynasties than Sydney: 16 plays 11 prior to 1980. In Brisbane, the average run is 6.8 years, compared to 7.6 years in Sydney. But combining Wests I and II or Valleys III and IV, where very successful teams are only separated a season or two, changes the figures above. Brisbane would then have longer average dynasties with only three more in total.

There is some evidence that professionalisation and stability of the leagues over time has improved competitiveness. For example, undefeated teams were rare and certainly not a modern phenomenon. To find the most recent in each competition, we have to wind back to Valleys in 1955 (17-0) and St George in 1959 (17-0-1) or further back to South Sydney in 1925 (12-0) for a 1.000 winning percentage. As far as I can tell, it’s never happened in England since the Northern Union formed. The closest were Wigan in 1986/87 and again in 1994/95, finishing both seasons with 28-2. Similarly, teams with no wins are rare. In Brisbane, the last was Wests in 1946 (0-10) and in Sydney, Easts in 1966 (0-18). In England, these depths haven’t been plumbed since Runcorn in 1914/15 (0-26-1), Treherbert in 1909/10 (0-12) and Liverpool City in 1906/07 (0-30).

It would seem that the NRL dynasties that we have had, have been less impactful than in the past, which might speak to the NRL’s relative equality. This is in contrast to the Super League’s big four, with Super League era dynasties occupying four of the top six all time English dynasties. That suggests we might actually be dealing with recency bias, and a third premiership in a row to the Roosters certainly would confirm that.

In Australia, the 90s are a bit of a mess. While Canterbury and Manly were very good teams at the time, I doubt anyone would consider them in the pantheon of all time greats. Both dynasties end up in the bottom third of the all-time total rankings. The Brisbane dynasty has the unusual caveat that the rolling sum goes to zero in 1996 but there’s an achievement that year (one point for a winning record above .700) and you have to roll back to 1991 to find the next year with no achievement and a rolling sum of zero. I think the dynasty running from 1992 to 2000 is correct, even if there was a reload in the middle of it and the dynasty maintains a 3.0 average per season over the six year and nine year iterations. A similar situation exists simultaneously for Canberra and whether it should be extended past 1991 to 1995 and I decided to go the opposite way. If it bothers you, feel free to add 4 seasons to their run and an additional 5 points to the total and/or take 3 seasons off Brisbane’s run and subtract 9 points.

Wigan V, Melbourne II and Sydney Easts IV have the possibility to continue through 2020, and beyond depending on how the teams perform and what shape football takes moving forward.

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Fingerprints of the Immortals

Not every dynasty has an Immortal and not every Immortal player has a dynasty. In any case, Immortality isn’t decided solely on club football but this can be an interesting tool for verifying that epitome of talent, as their careers tend to align with dynasties:

  • Churchill: Sydney Souths III, before kicking off Brisbane Norths II
  • Raper, Gasnier, Langlands, Provan: St George I
  • Fulton: Manly I
  • Lewis: Valleys V, before moving to Wynnum Manly I
  • Messenger: Sydney Easts I
  • Brown: Sydney Easts II
  • Meninga: Brisbane Souths II, before moving to Canberra I

Not pictured are Beetson, Johns and Burge.

Arthur Beetson is an interesting case that shows the limitations of this idea. He played for a number of clubs and won premierships at Redcliffe in 1965, Balmain in ’69 and Sydney Easts in ’74 and ’75. He also played for runners-up in the ’66 Tigers, the ’72 Roosters and the ’81 Dolphins in the twilight of his career. If he had managed to string that together at one club, he would have absolutely been included in the above list but instead, four premierships for three clubs in eleven years with an exceptional representative career is what gets him the nod.

While you can argue that Immortals should be supremely talented in their own right, irrespective of the team around them, you only have to look at the St George dynasty that had the services of four Immortals to see that selectors have not necessarily bought in to that idea. The Dragons’ dynasty almost certainly could not have been assembled under current salary cap rules and it raises the question of how their careers would be perceived if they weren’t part of the eleven-in-a-row dynasty.

Out of the potentials in the NRL era, Inglis, Cronk, Smith and Slater would be the obvious candidates once inevitably inducted into the Hall of Fame. They formed the core of Melbourne’s first asterisked dynasty and three of the four played through the second. Cronk even played across three, moving from two of Melbourne’s to Sydney’s current before retiring. Lockyer, Webcke, Tallis, Civoniceva and Langer are all current Hall of Famers who played in Brisbane’s dynasty years. Brad Fittler would be easily the best prospect out of Sydney’s two.

Not knowing much about the English game, it’s hard to identify what their equivalents might be. The most obvious example was Martin Offiah. He started his career at Widnes during their second dynasty and then moved to Wigan for the peak of their all-conquering fifth dynasty. Ellery Hanley also played the peak Wigan V years. At the other end of the timescale, Harold Wagstaff turns up in Huddersfield I.

Everything you ever wanted to know about NRL TV ratings but were afraid to ask

The overwhelming majority of fans get their NRL fix through the TV. An average round will attract 124,000 in the stands but 3.6 million, thirty times as many, will tune in via subscription (PTV) or free-to-air (FTA) television.

TV ratings are an under-explored and critically important part of the modern game. Ratings should be a, if not the, key factor in judging how clubs are performing and what they bring to the commercial viability of the game. Due to the difficulty and expense of getting ratings data, all we really know is that the Broncos are the game’s biggest drawcard. Everything else is a mystery.

That’s no longer the case. A big thank you goes out to @footyindustryAU of the website Sports Industry, who kindly furnished me with all of the ratings data he has collected by hand over the last three years. He’s worth a follow if you want to know what the other Australian codes are up to without having to actually follow anyone associated with the other codes.

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The following is based only on regular season games from 2017 to 2019 and we are missing data for the last two rounds of 2017. We have no streaming numbers, so its timely to do this analysis now before that becomes a really significant, and completely opaque, component of how fans engage with the sport.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Total viewers

The basic breakdown of the broadcast deal is that everyone gets equal air time on PTV/Foxtel, with all games broadcast live, but there’s a noticeably inequitable approach taken for the games shown on FTA/Nine. Nine’s goal, having only three of the eight games a week, is to get the biggest teams on screen as frequently as the integrity of the competition will allow.

The highest rated FTA game in the dataset was the round 3 Friday night blockbuster between the Storm and Broncos in 2017, at 904,000 viewers. The lowest was last season’s round 25 Saturday spoon bowl between the Titans and Dragons, at a meagre 273,000. We see a similar range in PTV games, with the best being Thurston’s farewell game against the Titans in 2018, attracting 400,000 viewers on a Saturday evening. A round 19 fixture between the Knights and Titans in the same year plumbed PTV’s lows at only 132,000.

The most watched regular season game in the last three years was the 2017 Queensland Derby in round 2, with 1.2 million viewers (879k on FTA and 303k on PTV) tuning in. The aforementioned 2019 spoon bowl managed just 410,000 viewers in total (273k on FTA and 137k on PTV) in what is possibly one of the least watched simulcast games in the modern era of rugby league. That should provide some context for how much demand there is for a wooden spoon playoff.

Average ratings by club

That looks pretty straightforward. The Broncos are clearly the most watched team in the NRL. It might surprise people see who follows them: Melbourne, North Queensland and South Sydney. Most of the Sydney clubs sit mid-pack with the Raiders, Sea Eagles, Knights and Titans rounding out the bottom of the table.

There’s a 20% variation between the top club on PTV, Brisbane’s Broncos against the bottom-ranked Titans, but a 25% gap on FTA between the Broncos and the Knights.

That the Storm are a top rating team in the centre of the AFL universe is an eye-opener to the way the game has changed in the last twenty years and it’s worth a closer look.

Regional ratings breakdown (1)

A Storm game doesn’t have a huge impact on ratings in Sydney but does add 25,000 FTA viewers and 17,000 PTV viewers from Victoria and another 10,000 viewers in Brisbane (4k FTA, 6.5k PTV). It’s likely that this impact is understated, given how rarely the NRL rates at all in Melbourne. While these numbers sound small in the grand scheme, assuming that those figures generally hold across all games, the Storm would go from having the second highest average on PTV to twelfth, and from second to fourth on FTA without their local audience.

Relative impact of the Storm on regional ratings (1)

This really puts paid to the idea that teams from Sydney and Brisbane can have any meaningful appeal in the southern states without expansion. To truly engage Perth, Adelaide and other places in any form will require teams in those cities. It is simply not enough for Sydney clubs to move the occasional lack lustre game and hope that simple repetition engages with a wider non-traditional market. If those places are to care even a little bit, they need their own teams.

In Brisbane, a small rise in FTA and a 15% jump in PTV ratings strongly suggests that the Storm are serving as a surrogate fourth Queensland team thanks to the well-documented exploits of the future Immortals that played in purple and in maroon.

Market size

I think this is really interesting because it tells me what Nine think about the relative broadcast appeal of each team. Brisbane is the only true “big market” team, if I’m to borrow the American parlance, which is why they get the most games. Most of the Sydney teams plus North Queensland and Melbourne are mid-sized market teams and even then, there’s a small split between Souths, Parra, Easts, Canterbury and Wests on one side and Penrith, St George Illawarra, Cronulla, Melbourne and North Queensland on the other, for FTA appearances.

The Gold Coast, Canberra, Manly and Newcastle are small market teams, although the Titans appear to out-rate a number of mid-market teams, despite being terrible. There’s no shame in being a small market, unless you’re Manly. Not all markets are created equal and some have value beyond raw commercial appeal.

I’ve declined to include the Warriors because they bring most of their value through the New Zealand TV deal and have had three (3) free-to-air games on Australian TV in three (3) years.

You might want to argue that Brisbane has the highest ratings because it gets the best timeslots or that the Roosters are good, so their ratings don’t reflect the numbers they would get during leaner times. I think you’re right, so I’m going to try to separate out the following variables:

  • Timeslot
  • Round
  • Quality of teams
  • Disparity of teams’ quality

To get an apples-for-apples comparison of which NRL team rates the best on TV. Spoiler alert: it’s still the Broncos.

Timeslot

Average ratings by timeslot

The timeslots are self-explanatory with the “miscellaneous” category sweeping up the odd public holiday games, like the Monday’s Labour Day Bulldogs games or Anzac Day clashes.

The popularity of the timeslots generally aligns with what you’d expect. Saturday is really important to Foxtel, while getting the big teams on Thursday and Friday nights is critical for Nine.

The late Sunday slot, with 6.30pm kickoffs in the early part of the year, is a ratings winner for pay TV. I’m surprised that Foxtel hasn’t proposed a permanent shift from the 2pm kickoff to 6.30pm, even if it would look like the league is being played behind closed doors.

Timeslots by club

Each club’s arrangement of timeslots is almost like a fingerprint. The Cowboys dominate the late Saturday slot, the Warriors the early Friday game and Sydney clubs the Sunday afternoon game, just as much as the Broncos have the Thursday and Friday games. You can tell a team is being buried by broadcasters by how many early games they have.

The data I have does not go back far enough but I would have been curious to see how Thursday night ratings stack up against Monday night football. Reportedly, people prefer Thursdays to Mondays but I don’t have evidence for that.

Round

Average ratings by round

Generally speaking, PTV loses about 900 viewers per game for each round the season progresses and FTA loses closer to 5,000. That’s about 0.3% and 0.8% of the average audience respectively. In other words, about 20% of the audience that was watching Nine at round 1 has tuned out by round 25 (this only about 8% on Foxtel).

This is presumably a by-product for all closed leagues around the world. Fan engagement dwindles as fewer teams have anything meaningful to play for. If you want to know why there’s a push for wild card games in the NRL or expanded play-offs in other sports, there’s your answer. 

Do open leagues, with promotion and relegation, avoid this tail-off towards the end of the season? Does gaining these viewers back offset the risk that you might lose a commercially important team to relegation? Conversely, do first-past-the-post leagues lose viewers as teams fall out of the race for the title but are safe from relegation and so have nothing to play for?

We see bumps after the first third of the season as public holiday games during Easter, Anzac Day and Labour Day give the ratings a nudge upwards.

Quality of teams

Total wins

Performance scatter (1)

If you’ve made it this far without knowing what Elo ratings are and how they reflect performance, you can either read up on it or look at the above two graphs. There’s a 0.8 coefficient of correlation between the average class Elo rating over 2017 to 2019 and the number of wins that team has. The 20% not explained by the ratings is attributed to the different starting points teams had at the end of the 2016 season, among other noisy and inconsequential factors.

It’s important that you understand this because I’m going to use Elo ratings as a proxy for team quality. There are two types of Elo ratings on this site: form (short term performance) and class (long term performance).

The reason I make this distinction is because if the Roosters, for example, go on a six game losing streak, their form rating would be destroyed but their class rating would reflect a smaller loss. This is by design as we don’t yet know if this is a collapse of the Bondi empire or a blip on the radar caused by Origin selections. If losses continued, the form rating would bottom out to a point where it reflects our expectations that the Roosters will lose and the class rating would catch up eventually, reflecting the overall sentiment about the prospects of the club.

FTA Ratings vs. Elo Ratings

PTV Ratings vs. Elo Ratings

My expectation is that games featuring better teams will rate better. Neutral fans might be more inclined to watch a top of the table battle than a dust-up between two sets of incompetents. I’ve used the average of the competing team’s class and form Elo ratings to identify which games have “good” teams and which ones have “bad” teams.

While the relationship certainly exists, it is a relatively weak one unless you put the games in buckets. I used buckets of 20 rating points and the coefficient of correlation is 0.90 on PTV and 0.58 on FTA. This adds some evidence to the argument that Foxtel’s audience is relatively more interested in the potential quality of the match than Nine’s.

Disparity in team’s quality

FTA Ratings vs. Gap in Elo ratings

PTV Ratings vs. Gap in Elo ratings (1)

The problem with just using the average of Elo ratings is that a game between two teams rated at 1500 has the same rating as a game between a team rated 1350 and another at 1650. These two scenarios have completely different prospects for entertainment value. To account for that, I plotted the gap between the two teams to reflect the expectation that the game will be close or a hiding.

This is a rare example of a non-linear relationship. On the horizontal axis, we have the difference between the two teams in Elo rating terms to serve as a proxy for the likelihood of the game being a blowout as the greater the gap, the more lopsided the encounter is expected to be. What we see is that viewers are not likely to modify their behaviour until the win probability for the favourites starts to exceed 70% or so (lower than approximately $1.40 in gambling terms), after which people fail to tune in. The sample size decreases as the curve moves to the right, so is subject to more noise but the coefficient of correlation is still 0.65.

A strange quirk for this analysis is that I used the average of class and form ratings to analyse the pay TV numbers but only form ratings for free-to-air. I did this because it works better (higher coefficient of correlation) but also further hints that FTA and PTV viewers do not use the same decision making framework.

Stripping out the variables

The purpose of these graphs is to determine a relationship between the variables we want to remove and the ratings data, so that we can go back and account for those variables in explaining the ratings. The relationships do not explain 100% of the observed phenomena but if we do a good enough job of accounting for the variables, most of what’s left is the raw pulling power of the club in question.

For each variable, the trendlines established above are converted to a percentage of the average FTA or PTV rating. These four percentages are averaged and deducted from the percentage over or under average for the game’s rating. The residual percentage is averaged for each club over the three regular seasons as an indicator of the club’s attractiveness to viewers.

I’ve called this “value-add” because that’s what it is: it’s what each club adds to the ratings compared to the league average, all others things being equal.

FTA value add

PTV value add

Based on the best I could find, Foxtel contributes about 65% to the current Australian broadcast deal, while Nine picks up 35%. Weighting the FTA and PTV value-adds accordingly, give us the below:

Broadcast deal value add

As always, I have caveats.

Because this is real life involving people and not the physics of subatomic particles, there’s going to be variation, noise and errors that make it problematic to rely on the results of this analysis as an indisputable truth. This is why I’ve chosen not to weight the different variables being stripped out as more important than the other, as doing so would likely introduce more error, not reduce it.

In reality, the variables all feed on each other and there’s no clear order of cause and effect. The Broncos are a big market team that has generally been successful, in part because of the advantages of being a big market team, which leads to bigger ratings and more frequent appearances on TV, reinforcing their status as a big market team. While we would normally overcome this with the battering ram of sheer sample size, we do not have that luxury and so work with what we have.

I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to account for the opposition on a match-by-match basis but the levels of recursion made me go cross-eyed. If that invalidates my approach for you, so be it. I think the reality is that most of these variables more or less cancel out over time.

TV ratings are inherently problematic. They use a small sample size of people to determine what the rest of the nation is doing. Oztam is not a particularly transparent organisation and the fees to get access to their data are on the order of $20,000. Further, there’s no accounting for streaming numbers. That said, we don’t have much else to work with at this scale.

The concept of value-add represents the idea that a game featuring the Broncos would probably rate 10% higher if they replaced an average team in the league, all other factors being equal. What that means in dollars is not clear. Or, in other terms, how many people will watch a NRL game, purely because it is a NRL game?

A back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that each club brings about $12 to $21 million in base value to the broadcast deal (under the 2019 terms of the agreement). The Broncos’ value-add is somewhere between $6 and $26 million over and above that base value. If you’ve noticed that looks like a big range, that’s why I’m not confident publishing the estimates for other clubs and that’s without trying to estimate how much of the broadcast deal is Origin and finals, rather than the regular season.

I think the free-to-air ratings do a better job of measuring widespread appeal, while the pay TV ratings better show what the hardcore fans want to watch. The audience on Foxtel is much stickier, which suggests to me that there is a larger component of the audience that will watch anything rugby league, preferably good quality rugby league, whereas Nine’s audience is driven by the teams involved and how they happen to be travelling at that point in the season.

Value-add vs Average class rating (1)

I don’t think I’ve fully stripped out the performance of the teams and their impact on ratings. There’s a 0.25 coefficient of correlation between the average class rating over this time against the broadcast value-add.

This brings us to the end of the analysis and to the commencement of speculation, specifically in terms of ceilings and floors. The trendline would suggest teams above it return a greater value-add given the performance of the club than the league average club would with the same performance. The reverse applies to teams below the line.

If the Tigers get better, we would expect them to slide to the right and up, as the improvements in team quality lead to an improved value-add, and I would expect them to keep roughly the same buffer to the trendline.

For the opposite case, the Roosters won two of the three premierships under consideration, so their value-add (seventh best in the league) is probably as high as its going to be. A return to the pre-Politis days would beg the question how many people would be compelled to watch Eastern Suburbs scrap it out for mid-to-lower table honours. If the commercial premise of the club is based on it being good in perpetuity, then that is not a sustainable strategy. I have the same question, but with a much more immediate emphasis, for the Sharks.

The Knights had a torrid time over the back end of the 2010s but still appear to bring more to the table than we might expect from other clubs in the same position. As Newcastle continues to pull itself out of the abyss, I wonder if they might start bringing a positive value-add over average, which would be remarkable for a city with a metro population of only half a million. You would expect them to drag on the league, being a small market whose primary purpose is to represent, rather than deliver a commercial return.

As for the Titans, the NRL’s youngest club and with no real success to speak of to date, the Gold Coast have not had much on which to build a fanbase. Modern expansion teams (post-1980) have at least two things in common: grand final wins and future Immortals. The exceptions are the Warriors, whose New Zealand TV deal secures their place in the NRL forever, and the Titans, who have never had prolonged star power or on-field success. All the other expansion clubs are gone.

The Titans might not have much appeal to the purist Foxtel audience (or worse, NRL Twitter), the Gold Coast’s FTA value-add is nonetheless the sixth best in the league. While there’s a small sample size and most of those games have traditionally been against higher rating teams, that’s also somewhat offset by the lowest rated game in the dataset. That suggests plenty of commercial power waiting to be unlocked by the next Lewis, Meninga, Johns, Smith or Thurston if they make it to Robina and bring the Provan-Summons to the Gold Coast. As I’m fond of reminding people, if the NRL can’t get a club off the ground in Australia’s sixth largest city in rugby league heartland, then there isn’t much hope.

The million-dollar question, especially in the context of the supposedly imminent collapse of every NRL club and one Immortal suggesting that four teams should be pushed over a cliff, is how each of the Sydney clubs stack up. Based on this analysis, you’d keep the Rabbitohs, the Eels and the Tigers. For the rest, who knows? Can the Bulldogs bounce back from their recent lows to re-engage with their presumably larger and recently absent fanbase? Manly have been bang-on average over the last three years and still put up regional club numbers. Put them in Newcastle’s position circa 2016 and it’s unlikely that the NRL would see much point in trying to prop them up.

The reality is that each club’s destiny is in their own hands. Souths have gone from being so insignificant that the league was prepared to do without them and now are making a case to be Sydney’s most popular team. That takes time and money and marketing but it’s not a skillset unique to the Rabbitohs and their owners and managers. Anyone can do it if they have the will and resources and if your club doesn’t have the will or the resources to expand the fanbase, then what is the point?

If the NRL did cut teams, we may well lose their existing fanbases to the void, but a new Perth or Adelaide or New Zealand or even a second Brisbane team might bring more people in to the fold to replace them and then some, resulting in a net benefit to the league. A second New Zealand team should add enough to the kiwi TV deal to pay for its own club grant and if nothing else, it would eliminate the need for 6pm kickoffs on Fridays in Australia. Perth and Adelaide might be able to justify the addition of a third Friday night game or bring online the late Sunday timeslot, as well as engaging their local markets better than outside teams could ever hope to. Even the addition of a few tens of thousands of viewers would be valuable. If a new Brisbane team brought in half as much value-add as the Broncos, they’d still be ahead of the rest of the NRL.

An addendum about regional FTA figures

A couple of people asked about regional viewing figures compared to metro. All of the above FTA analysis includes the regional numbers. I won’t be breaking further down by region because that information is not consistently available across the dataset and so the numbers it throws up might not be as reliable.

The audience for the average FTA is 40% regional (236k) versus 60% metro (361k). Unlike AFL, where I believe this proportion is skewed more in favour of metro areas, it’s important to get the regional numbers when assessing the performance of NRL ratings.

The popular teams are still popular, whether the market be regional or metro. The gap between the top and bottom clubs (Brisbane and Newcastle, respectively) is 28% and 20% for metro and regional respectively. The regional clubs – Canberra, Gold Coast, North Queensland and Newcastle – have significantly more value-add, once all the variables are stripped out, in regional ratings than metro. The Cowboys are 4th by average viewers in metro markets and 2nd in regionals, the Titans move from 9th to 8th, the Raiders from 13th to 9th and the Knights are at the bottom of both, but halve their metro value-add of -10% to -5% in regionals.

Worth remembering that given the lesser variation in regional numbers than metro, the tendency for all clubs will be to revert to mean value-add (0%) from metro to regional.

Metro vs Regional average viewers (1)

FTA value-add breakdown

 

Rugby league in the time of coronavirus

Did you know the world is in the grip of a pandemic? I’m not sure how you could have missed it, given that it’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past week.

The vibe, right here and now on 17 March 2020, is absolutely unprecedented in my lifetime. The only two parallels I can think of, in terms of generalised fear and life-or-death consequences, are the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the peak years of the 2007-10 global financial meltdown. It’s the unknown unknowns that get you.

Rugby league, a sport that didn’t stop for either world war, hasn’t faced a pandemic since 1919. In Australia, the game continued and blithely ignored the Spanish Flu, a disease that claimed 12,000 at home and millions more abroad. In Brisbane, games were moved from the Exhibition grounds to Davies Park when the former was requisitioned as a camp for flu victims. That should have been a clue.

With that long in the rear view mirror, we find ourselves in another global stress test and we get to see if rugby league is up to it.

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Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, my actual belief is that Super League and the NRL will return in 2021 in pretty much the same shape as they started 2020. It will be like the year never happened. There’s an outside chance one or more of the less secure clubs goes bust in England but I think there will be enough cash to keep the circus on the road.

This is borne out of my belief that the English speaking world is dominated by rent-seekers. You will see otherwise healthy organisations begging for payouts, rather than draw down on their own resources, because they can and are constantly rewarded for it.

Further, our political leadership is cowardly and they will be bailing out banks in six months with no examination of the conditions that led to this situation, so bailing out rugby league will be a no brainer by comparison. The RBA is already preparing to buy government bonds in a process that is generally called “quantitive easing” by wonks but normal people, if they understood, would call it “printing money”.

This is fine, says the dog in a house on fire, especially if you only look at rugby league and ignore the wider moral hazard. But in the true spirit of the apocalytpic nightmare that 2020 is rapidly descending in to, let’s baselessly and pessimistically speculate (my area of expertise after electrical engineering and before football stats) about what might happen to help fill the time as the world’s economy slowly grinds to a halt.

The worst case scenario, and one journalists are incapable of articulating because they cannot separate commercial structures from cultural institutions, is that the NRL and Super League both fold due to a lack of cash flow, taking the professional clubs with them. In this situation, rugby league will still be played in 2021 and professional rugby league will return no later than 2022 but it may be under very different circumstances to what we’ve seen over the last two and a half decades.

That might be a good thing. Both the Super League and NRL have been aware for thirty or more years that their competitions are too geographically concentrated. Mergers, relegations, relocations, licencing and liquidations have come in and out of fashion but rarely enacted.

It’s interesting to watch people new to the sport make these extremely common sense recommendations (something I did before I became too online) and then be shot down because it’s simply too hard to make it work with the kind of fanbase rugby league has under normal circumstances. Here’s some impetus to get it over the line.

In England, Super League might be left with fewer than a dozen full time professional clubs and perhaps only Wigan and St Helens might still be alive when all this is over. The Championship might then be forced to go part-time and League 1 amateur in the absence of any capital injections or an amazingly generous broadcast deal. This would necessitate the ceassation of promotion and relegation and, in many respects, simply accelerate a process that is already underway.

Suggestions that are commercially sensible but culturally ludicirous will come under great scrutiny. Will the half dozen clubs in Greater Manchester finally realise that combining their resources to create a single Mancunian professional club makes a lot more sense with far greater potential than solely representing a small village with no viable future and competing against the same? Same question but Lancashire. Same question but Cumbria. Same question but Yorkshire.

The results of the most recent general election indicate that this is probably not the case, with northerners preferring strict parochialism in the face of tough times, but times are about to get a lot tougher. A lot of those people might die and their clubs might follow suit before attitudes change.

In Australia, Cronulla announced a $3 million loss just a few weeks ago. They also indicated that they have $16 million in the bank. The NRL has already distributed emergency funds. All of that money might be gone by the end of 2020 but the Sharks will have survived. It’s hard to see which club would have a worse financial position. If they do, they’re probably done.

Still, with nothing in the bank, Cronulla would have no resources to facilitate a move – again, commercially sensible but culturally ludicrous – and the NRL won’t be able to help either. Rather than facilitating a much-needed rationalisation, the crisis might further entrench the status quo, especially if the entrenchment is publicly funded. ScoMo isn’t going to put $10 million into the Sharks only for them to leave his electorate.

It is likely that Politis will keep the Roosters going, as Murdoch will keep the Broncos alive and the consortium at the Storm will do likewise. Clubs owned by leagues clubs (Newcastle, North Queensland, Wests, etc) might struggle. There won’t be much of a grant if the clubs are forced to close and I can’t see how that won’t happen.

Indeed, if the worst case scenario does come to pass, and we only have a few clubs left standing and no league, then it will be as if the Super League war suceeded. The successor competition will be free of the NSWRFL’s baggage to create a new league from scratch, preferably one based on 2021’s demographics and not 1908’s. That will at least give us something to talk about while football isn’t being played and offers the prospect of rugby league becoming a profitable enterprise in the future. We can then endure subsequent decades of “bring back the Sea Eagles/Tigers/Sharks/Eels” chatter.

The real ‘victim’ is the international game. The momentum of the last three years is going to go to waste as there will be no spare cash to pay for its continued growth. Travel restrictions, a fact of life for the next six to twelve months at a minimum, make going anywhere a dicey proposition, let alone for something as trivial as a football game. It’s a shame but that’s life, especially in rugby league.

State of Origin will return as soon as logistically and politically feasible. Broadcasters, players and the rugby league bodies will be dying for the cash injection. They may find Australia in recession at that point, which begs the question of who is going to buy the ad time that generates the income.

Relying on Harvey Norman, a giant collateralised debt obligation that “owns” most of the commercial land that the stores sit on and whose business model is selling overpriced durable non-essential consumer goods to boomers, is risky in the absence of the federal government distributing gift cards on behalf of Gerry Harvey as economic stimulus.

Holden’s already gone. How much more money does Intrust Super have in a market crash? Beer is relatively recession-proof, so the XXXX Dry Maroons taking on the Tooheys New Blues in the VB State of Origin might be the go but not necessarily a river of gold.

Somebody’s going to ask John Singleton what we should do – looking at you, Roy Masters – and I’m going to absolutely lose it.

Ultimately, pandemics aren’t there to “clean up society” as one extremely ill-informed but fortunately anonymous Super League chairman put it. There will be far reaching and extreme consequences of coronavirus that grossly outweigh the minutiae of a sport at the margins of world culture.

Continuing with business-as-usual in the face of a literal pandemic is simply baffling. That this is even a position that is up for debate shows how just how frayed social cohesion has become after decades of globalist neoliberalism. Nonetheless, here we are with no alternatives but to keep calm and carry on because our political and economic structures aren’t up to the task. See also: climate change.

Both leagues, supposedly worth millions of pounds and billions of dollars, should have been better prepared.

It’s not that they should have predicted a global pandemic (although why not because there’s been plenty down through history and it is never different this time around) but they should have been at least be aware that something with this magnitude of risk – very low probability but extremely catastrophic consequences – can occur and protected the organisations accordingly.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb wrote several bestsellers about this after the GFC. It’s not a secret and I really won’t care if clubs or leagues fall over due to mismanagement in the face of entirely foreseeable economic conditions. What is a season cancellation due to mutant influenza but an extreme reduction in cash flow? How do you not have a plan for that? If your plan is “we’re boned”, well then, guess what?

It’s clear that neither league can self-insure against the worst possible outcomes so they should have mitigated the risk by putting it on insurers. That’s what insurers are there for. These are the basic elements of management and it’s a test that rugby league fails time and time again.

A deep dive in to the 2020 Queensland Cup

I was always vaguely aware of the Queensland Cup growing up, but only really took an actual interest in it when I started this site a couple of years ago. I became a Souths Logan fan, because that’s where I lived most of my life, and started going to games. Since then, I’ve toyed with doing a similar season preview to my NRL ones but really only feel confident enough now to actually do it.

Being the kind of parochial Queenslander described in the excellent book, Heartland, I care about the Queensland Cup. There aren’t many institutions that cut across the city-country, white-black and, to an extent, class divides in as well-balanced and popular way as rugby league. The Queensland Cup, equally representing all parts of the state and a substantial part of our rugby league heritage, is an extremely important part of that and it does not get the attention it deserves from the people it should appeal to the most.

This season I am running a tipping competition for the Queensland Cup. Details below:

Last season in a nutshell

For all intents and purposes, it seemed like 2019 was going to belong to the Sunshine Coast Falcons. The Falcons joined the 2011 Tweed Seagulls and 2001 Toowoomba Clydesdales as the only clubs to complete a Queensland Cup campaign with one loss and one draw. While Burleigh, Wynnum Manly and Townsville gave chase, there looked to be no stopping them. Then came the finals, their seemingly invincible talent deserted them (partly because of Melbourne drawing down on their reserves late in the season) and they went out in the preliminary finals. Instead, it was the Burleigh Bears who overcame Wynnum Manly in a straightforward affair to win the grand final at Dolphin Stadium.

How it all works

I appreciate that it’s difficult to keep up with the Pythago NRL Expanded Universe™ of metrics and ratings. Not only are they generally more complicated than standard stats, I tweak them almost every year based on what I learned during the previous season. I created a short reference guide to what it all means.

Why the QRL website doesn’t have full squad lists (preferring to only list gains and losses) and a predicted 1-17 for each team as part of the season previews, I don’t know. I tried my best to work out the squads for 2020 based on the regulars last year and the gains and losses but to save myself some embarrassment from this process not yielding 100% correct results, I removed a few of the roster sections I had in the NRL preview. The 2020 Taylor projections and sims are based on the round 1 team lists.

Jump ahead

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qcup-bur Burleigh Bears

Founded: 1934

First QCup season: 1997

Home: Pizzey Park, Burleigh

Feeder: nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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As is often the case, the roster of the winner of the Queensland Cup gets raided by other clubs who suddenly take notice of what’s going on in the second tier of Australian footbal around grand final time. Of the halves that won the grand final, Dylan Phythian has been lured away to Central Newcastle Blacktown and Jamal Fogarty has finally signed to the Titans. Whether Fogarty will get much game time in the NRL – he is presumably behind Taylor and Roberts and on par with Boyd on the depth chart – is an unknown but if he spends enough time at Burleigh, then the Bears should keep winning matches.

If Fogarty does make it to the big time (a QCup career TPR of .120 suggests it is possible but perhaps not likely), then Tanah Boyd is an option. He filled in towards the end of last season after a mid-season transfer from Souths Logan. Boyd’s numbers while at the Magpies were not particularly impressive with an average TPR of .081. Still, development is a funny thing and a TPR can be context-based, so we will see if that is a deficit in talent or attitude or opportunity.

Otherwise, there were two retirements and Tyrone Roberts-Davis is joining Matt Soper-Lawler at Newcastle. The team that won the grand final is largely intact. Rick Stone won two premierships as head coach at the turn of the century and he returns to Pizzey Park to retake the reins in 2020. Provided the Bears settle on a halves combination quickly and one that functions well, then back-to-back premierships – the first since Wynnum-Manly in 2011 and 2012 – should be on the cards.

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qcup-cqc Central Queensland Capras

Founded: 1982 as a representative team for the Central Queensland region, 1996 as a standalone football club

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Browne Park, Rockhampton

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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I’m starting to think that the Capras need some sort of salary cap dispensation. Even though the cap has only been in place for a season, it has proven very difficult for the Rockhampton Leagues Club to attract talent to Browne Park. Marquee signings of late have included one busted David Taylor and one newly minted léopard de Villeneuve, Eddy Pettybourne. The Broncos don’t help because stashing top prospects in Rockhampton when Wynnum or Souths Logan or Norths or Redcliffe are right there doesn’t make much sense. Case in point: BJ Aufaga-To’omaga (.135 in 2019) has decamped from the Capras to the Dolphins.

For a region that produced Cameron Munster and Ben Hunt, the Capras have not managed to translate available junior talent into wins. It turns out city clubs can scout too if they only have to drive five hours up the road and most prospects seem to prefer the city over Rocky. So what to do? Wait until the next genetic freak comes along and hope no one spots him first? It’s been over a decade since the Capras last played in the finals. Something needs to change because the alternative is a wooden spoon every other year.

qcup-est Easts Tigers

Founded: 1917 as Coorparoo, 1933 for Eastern Suburbs

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Totally Workwear Stadium, Coorparoo

Feeder: nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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Its been nearly thirty years since Easts last won a title. The last three trophies were a post-Broncos BRL premiership in 1991 (so that doesn’t count), a Winfield State League title in 1989 and a legitimate BRL premiership in 1983. I actually had to consult a book for some context of the early 1980s: the BRL regular season was only 14 games, with the season split between the local premiership and the State League. Wally Lewis was still at Valleys, leading them to a win in the State League that year (over Easts no less). Mal Meninga was a crucial part of the Souths setup and Wayne Bennett had taken the year off coaching. They were all years away from dominating the NSWRL. In other words, its been a while.

Here in 2020, as it often does, Easts’ season will hang in the balance of which players Melbourne assigns to them and how long it takes before they need to return to first grade. This week they get Brenko Lee and Christian Welch but the likes of Billy Walters and Brodie Croft won’t be back this season. The squad wasn’t too crash hot last year and this year looks marginally better. Linc Port returns from West End, Jayden Berrell and Caleb Daunt are down from Kawana and Michael Purcell arrives from Ipswich, which is a good get despite his TPR. Aaron Booth is back for another tour. Above all, the Tigers get a new coach in Craig Hodges, who has signed on for two seasons. His main priority should be fixing the Tigers’ defence which was well below average in 2019.

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qcup-ips Ipswich Jets

Founded: 1909 for rugby league played in Ipswich, 1985 as the Ipswich Jets

First QCup season: 1996

Home: North Ipswich Reserve, Ipswich

Pathway: nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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Big changes abound at the Jets. Ipswich have abandoned (or been abandoned?) the traditional feeder club arrangement with a Queensland NRL side, instead preferring to link up with the Newcastle Knights because “Newcastle is Ipswich-by-the-sea“. We won’t see Knights players dropping back to QCup but some of their prospects might end up in Ipswich and some of the Jets best might sign on to Newcastle’s system. The Knights have already sniffed out a couple of QCup talents to take south of the border.

Long time and premiership-winning wunderkind coaches, Shane and Ben Walker, have split with Ben heading headed off in to the sunset, leaving Keiron Lander at the helm. After a a slightly-better-than-average decade (average winning percentage of .533), some renewal into the 2020s will likely benefit the club long term. In the short term, some of the club stalwarts, like Michael Purcell and Richie Pandia, have departed. The rest of the roster looks thin enough that the Jets might struggle through 2020 without the benefit of NRL players dropping down to bolster the squad.

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qcup-mky Mackay Cutters

Founded: 1919 for rugby league played in Mackay and Districts, 2007 as the Mackay Cutters

First QCup season: 2008

Home: BB Print Stadium, Mackay

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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I honestly don’t have a lot to say about the Cutters, partly because they don’t get a lot of screentime. Mackay did sign Ata Hingano in the off-season. While Hingano may not have been up to the task in the NRL, he put up a reasonable .090 in NSW Cup for Mounties last year. He also transforms into a superplayer for Tonga. What kind of player he becomes for the Cutters we don’t know but it’s not a bad signing for a club that’s running closer to the Capras than the Blackhawks.

Reuben Cotter at hooker/utility, Yamba Bowie on the wing, Shane Wright on the edge and Jayden Hodges at various spinal positions all performed well in 2019 and appear to be returning for 2020. Cotter and Wright were the stars on .145 and .130, respectively. A little like Rocky, Mackay is a bit too out of the way to get the best of the Cowboys’ depth signings. Overall, I expect them to be in the bottom part of the table, as they have been every year barring finals appearances in 2010 and a borderline miracle premiership in 2013, which is why I don’t have much to say.

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qcup-ntp Northern Pride

Founded: 1918 for rugby league played in Cairns and Districts, 2007 as the Northern Pride

First QCup season: 2008

Home: Barlow Park, Cairns

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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If I said that the Pride were the best Queensland football club of the 2010s, would that sound strange? The Pride had the highest average Class rating through the decade and hold the record for the longest winning streak. I guess recency bias and 2017 and 2019 being their worst seasons would suggest otherwise but through the early-to-middle of the decade, the Pride were dominating. I guess the difference is that the Pride’s lows were shorter than Burleigh’s and their highs were higher than Wynnum’s. A thought experiment worth considering as we enter the new decade.

And in this new decade, there is still not a lot to recommend the Cairnsittes. One of their most productive last year, David Murphy, is done. Their signings are thin on State Cup experience. Javid Bowen and Gideon Gela-Mosby coming in-house from the Cowboys aren’t going to turn the franchise around. On the other hand, finally moving on Jordan Biondi-Odo after several seasons of subpar production can’t hurt. There’s still a fair bit of work to be done before the Pride can return to the former glory.

Keep an eye out for American Joe Eichner as we see if he can turn himself into a starter at AAA level.

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qcup-nsd Norths Devils

Founded: 1891 as Past Grammars rugby union club, 1920 as Past Grammars rugby league club, 1933 as Northern Suburbs

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Pathion Park, Nundah

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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The Devils looked good last year without giving anyone a real reason to fear them. Norths had six stars, the equal third highest in the league after Redcliffe and Sunny Coast. They were a highly productive team that well out-performed their projections. There’s a lot to like about their younger players. Herbie Farnworth (.167), Sean O’Sullivan (.166), Ethan Bullemor (.158), Troy Dargan (.141), Pride Peterson-Robati (.137) and Paul Ulberg (.136) is a very good core to have access to. Admittedly, some of these guys will end up in Broncos colours, possibly even this year, but there’s a lot to like there. Bryce Donovan is a signing with some potential, possibly as a replacement for the ageing Jack Ahearn.

The trick will be taking a very good season and building on it to displace one of Wynnum, Sunshine Coast, Townsville and Burleigh from the top four and beating Redcliffe to do so. The opportunity will be there, particularly if the Falcons come back to the pack and the Broncos’ assignments are available. Rohan Smith is coming in to his third year as coach at Bishop Park and the Devils have improved each year under his command. There’s a lot of signs pointing the right way for them.

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qcup-pgh PNG Hunters

Founded: 1930s for rugby league in Papua New Guinea, 2013 as the PNG Hunters

First QCup season: 2014

Home: Oilsearch National Stadium, Port Moresby

Feeder: Unaffiliated

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The broom has been put through the Hunters squad. Ten of the underperforming regulars from 2019 have been released. They’ve been replaced, in part, by Casey Dickson and Mark Piti, from Digicel Cup premiers, the Lae Tigers, as well as Emmanuel Waine from the runner-up Hela Wigmen and Steven Bruno of the Kimbe Cutters and Francis Takai of the Rabaul Gurias.

I still see it being a tough year ahead. The Hunters’ main advantage is that they have more or less exclusive access to the talent pool of 7 million people but they have used it poorly over the last two seasons, struggling to replace the players that made up the premiership class of 2017. The structure of Papua New Guinea’s pathways and comparative lack of professionalism have seen their best players leave for other Queensland Cup or League 1 clubs, some on their way to the majors (see: Edene Gebbie, Justin Olam). While that benefits the national side, the Hunters need a better approach.

The new head coach, Matt Church, is making reformation of talent pathways and linking up with the Digicel Cup clubs a priority, which bodes well for a few years down the track but right now, it will be a tough ask to improve much on last year.

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qcup-red Redcliffe Dolphins

Founded: 1947 as a club, 1960 for first season in Brisbane Rugby League

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Dolphin Stadium, Redcliffe

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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What really crimped the Dolphins’ season was a surprisingly slow start to the year. Across four grades, it took a month for Redcliffe to find their first win. Once they got there, the Dolphins won more often than not but were already too far behind the main challengers to make up ground. Nonetheless, a good run through mid-season, defeating the Sunshine Coast, Wynnum and Burleigh in the space of four weeks, showed they could mix it with the best.

So, no surprises: the Dolphins will probably be good again, especially if they come out of the gates a bit faster. The strongest club commercially and the one with the tightest relationship with the Broncos, the Dolphins are usually fed the best recruits. If Perese is persona non grata with the Broncos (and stays out of jail), a smart bit of business would be to sign him to the club. He was the Dolphins’ most productive player in 2019 with a TPR of .181.

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qcup-slm Souths Logan Magpies

Founded: 1909 as South Brisbane (later Carlton) in the BRL, 1933 as Southern Suburbs, 1988 for Logan City Scorpions, 2003 as Souths Logan after Southern Suburbs took over Logan City

First QCup season: 2003

Home: Davies Park, West End

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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The Magpies’ 2019 season was one of frustration. A big signing spree, followed by a lack of on-field cohesion and piss poor defence, saw Souths Logan miss the finals comfortably, three wins shy of eighth place. Embarrassingly, the Magpies handed over three competition points to the wooden spooner Capras, the only points Central Queensland would get all season. Linc Port has moved back to Easts, Matt Soper-Lawler is off to Newcastle, Gerome Burns to Ipswich and as attention turns to Tesi Niu and Ilikena Vudogo, who are likely to follow in the footsteps of Jamayne Isaako and David Fifita, Anthony Seibold’s insatiable lust for young players will see talent reserves drawn down.

The Magpies have signed a few hands from the Sunshine Coast and Wynnum Manly, an apparent gun in Christian Hazard from Tweed, as well as former Dolphin and Dragon, Darren Nicholls (QCup TPR .132 in 2016) and the roster is starting to resemble something of a reasonable Cup team on paper. Assignments from the Broncos – like hooker (?) Cory Paix (?) – and general squad cohesion, without chopping and changing the spine each week, will make or break the season.

qcup-scf Sunshine Coast Falcons

Founded: 1996

First QCup season: 1996, then returning in 2009

Home: Sunshine Coast Stadium, Kawana

Feeder: nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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It’s still hard to believe that the Falcons fell over. Out of the three Cup teams that have finished the regular season with a single loss (no team has ever gone undefeated), the Falcons had the longest season and the best for-and-against, outscoring their opponents by 24.5 points per game (compared to 24.2 for 2001 Clydesdales and 13.2 for the 2011 Seagulls). At least the other two teams had the good grace to make the grand final, with Toowoomba winning and Tweed losing their respective games. The Falcons were comfortably bundled out of the race by the eventual premiers in the preliminary final.

Shockingly, their 21-1-1 winning record was built on solid fundamentals of not conceding many points and scoring a ton more. Harry Grant set a single season TPR record of .266 and led a team of highly productive players including the now-at-Coorparoo Caleb Daunt (.144), Nicho Hynes (.134), Justin Olam (.178), Jon Rueben (.158 and career WARG leader on 7.2) and soon-to-be-at-the-Gold-Coast Tino Faasuamaleaui (.169). With a number of their stars now set to emerge into the NRL this year or next, we wait with bated breath to see what the balance of the squad can do. Melbourne probably have a stash of kids in BRL and Sunshine Coast league just waiting for the opportunity, so I won’t hold my breath, waiting for a collapse, for too long.

qcup-tsv Townsville Blackhawks

Founded: 1919 for Brothers Townsville, 2014 for Townsville Blackhawks

First QCup season: 2015

Home: Jack Manski Oval, Townsville

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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My take is that it’s about time the Blackhawks won the Queensland Cup. In only their sixth season, Townsville have never finished below sixth on the ladder. Maybe its the distance to Brisbane or the newness of the club, but the Blackhawks don’t seem to be cited as the perennial contenders that they have been.

Offsetting a couple of retirements, the Blackhawks have signed ex-Cutter Carlin Anderson, ex-Hunter Moses Meninga, ex-Tiger Patrick Kaufusi and ex-Eel Josh Hoffman, which is a reasonable bolstering to a lineup that was in the top four or five squads last season. The Townsville club is not short a quid, seems to be favoured by the Cowboys for assignments and it seems hard to see how they won’t be in the mix in 2020. Kristian Woolf has left big shoes to fill but sophomore head coach Aaron Payne did well enough in his first season, with a top four out-performance of player projections and a trip to the preliminaries. Another step up is required this year for a real premiership push.

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qcup-ths Tweed Heads Seagulls

Founded: 1909 as a rugby union club, 1914 for the rugby league club in the Tweed District competition

First QCup season: 2003

Home: Piggabeen Sports Complex, Tweed Heads

Feeder: nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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Sometimes, but not often, a Queensland Cup club gets a million dollar halfback. Ipswich enjoyed having Ben Hunt for one game in 2017 and Ash Taylor closed out his 2019 season, unable to deal with the pressure of the NRL, with an elimination final loss to Redcliffe for the Tweed Heads Seagulls. Whether Taylor returns this season will depend on how his return to the majors pans out.

Once you take him out and Christian Hazard, who has departed for the Magpies, the list looks decidedly uninteresting. Despite a closer relationship with the Titans than their colleagues further up the coast, the Seagulls have a couple of players they can rely on, fullback Talor Walters chief among them, but lack sparkle otherwise. Their offence is in dire need of an overhaul if the numbers are to be believed. If last season was a surprising out-performance of their player projections and Pythagorean expectation, then I would expect to see a return to more normal programming this year. Unless something big breaks their way, Tweed look like they’ll camp themselves out on the edge of finals contention.

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qcup-wms Wynnum Manly Seagulls

Founded: 1931 as a club, merged into Eastern Suburbs in 1933, then returning to the Brisbane Rugby League as Wynnum-Manly in 1951

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Kougari Oval, Wynnum

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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That was unexpected. Not only were the Seagulls one of the protagonists for the 2020 Intrust Super Cup premiership, reaching the grand final, the Wynnum Manly club also made the grand finals for the Under 20s Hasting Deerings Colts, Under 18s Mal Meninga Cup and the Brisbane Rugby League. They only managed one win, a 22-20 victory over Valleys in the BRL. The other three were losses for the Baysiders. A tough look.

Still, at State Cup level, perhaps it should not have been unexpected, given the on-paper roster. Guys like Mitch Cronin (.177), Pat Tempelman (.158), Sam Scarlett (.163) and Edene Gebbie (.168) were instrumental in the team’s productivity. Indeed, the Gulls’ reliance on their playmakers was only matched by the Falcons. Wynnum has a comparatively low forward bias but when you break it down, the individuals involved are good enough. Kaolo Saitaua (.177) distinguished himself last year. With all of these gentlemen seemingly returning for the new season and a slight tightening of defence, evevn though the Taylors are down on them, then there’s no reason Wynnum-Manly couldn’t flip the script on last year.

BNE2 or, On Expansion and its relationship with Brisbane

Six months ago, the Titans were on the chopping block to keep the Sydney clubs alive and some think still should be. With the NRL’s footprint study having presumably been delivered to the ARLC, if not the general public, Peter V’Landys has let drop that he’s not interested in taking the NRL to Perth and is far more interested in adding a seventeenth NRL team in Brisbane.

In recent weeks, as the NRL edges closer to admitting it will admit a second Brisbane club to the competition, the media has been prolific in its coverage. There’s no surprise about that. The prospect of the NRL adding its first new team in – by the time 2023 rolls around – sixteen years is seriously exciting and interesting.

Even as a staunch Broncos fan, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m genuinely looking forward to the prospect of a full blown Brisbane derby twice a year. It will make the Hull derby look like the Roosters and Rabbitohs playing in a three-quarters-empty ANZ Stadium. It would also mitigate the need for all Broncos games to be scheduled on a Thursday or Friday, lest the commercial base of the sport collapse. It might be nice to go to the football on a Saturday arvo for a change.

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Naturally, the questions of how, why, when and what follow, along with approximately a million opinions. If this sounds like an exaggeration, I can assure it is not because I’ve read them all.

Some Broncos fans don’t want the incumbent’s prestige to be challenged. Others question the viability of a new team when all Brisbanites are rusted-on Broncos fans. Still others don’t want Brisbane to follow Sydney into a saturated quagmire of competing interests that cannot be resolved for the good of the game. Most people want to see what’s being offered first.

Refreshingly, there’s some but not a lot of entrenched history and nostalgia and feelings that have to be challenged. Brisbane arguably obliterated a lot of its own rugby league heritage when the Broncos were formed. It will be sad for the city to lose a symbol of its unity but the Maroons have done a far better job of bringing people together over the last ten years, with more success and far fewer scandals.

For me, the ideal bid is one that adds enough value to the league that it can pay for an eighteenth team in a non-traditional market. The pap about securing the Brisbane market for rugby league and providing another pathway to Origin is rubbish. The NRL’s ratings in Brisbane were 30% higher on a per capita basis than Sydney in 2019. While you consider that, I’ll try to find a player who is missing out on a Maroon jersey because there are only three professional teams in Queensland.

A seventeenth team in Brisbane doesn’t expand the game but it should make money. The ideal bid would add $100 million to the NRL’s coffers, either through a licence fee or extra dollars for the next broadcast deal or both, because that’s how much it cost to get the Storm going. Melbourne remains rugby league’s only successful expansion in to a new market since World War II. If we are actually going to go to Perth again or Adelaide or further into New Zealand, it won’t just be funded on chook raffles, gate receipts and pokie revenue.

In Brisbane, trying to carve off a portion of the city’s geography and/or play out of a suburban stadium is far too limiting and offers no space for the franchise to grow. The 2.2 million people in the Brisbane metropolitan area are not going to broadly identify with a team named after a peninsula in the far northern suburbs or a western suburb of 200,000 people. More people live in the Sutherland Shire and the Sharks’ recently announced $3 million loss indicates how well that’s going in 2020.

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If the Titans and Sharks can draw 18,000 to Suncorp on a Thursday night, then a new Brisbane team should expect a gate averaging at least 20,000. The same is not true of a team playing at Dolphin Oval (capacity: 11,170) or North Ipswich Reserve (5,500). A new stadium might only be funded if it can be used for the Olympics in twelve years and that assumes Brisbane wins the bid, which won’t be announced until it is too late to start planning a team. More to the point, no one in their right mind would leave that kind of money on the table.

To be viable, the team is going to need to name itself “Brisbane” (or maybe “Moreton Bay” or “South-east Queensland” or similar) and play its home games out of Suncorp Stadium. There are no alternatives to this, it’s just the way it has to be for the team to maximise its potential and have the remotest chance of succeeding to deliver the value the game needs out of a seventeenth team. If this sounds a bit too ‘corporate’ or even suspiciously ‘Super League’, it’s because I live in 2020.

Those that fear the creation of a franchise in the mould of the Titans haven’t been paying attention. The Gold Coast side are the worst rating team on Foxtel, ranking dead last in average viewers over the last three regular seasons, 20% lower than the leading Broncos. However, free-to-air is different matter, where the Titans are 3,000 average viewers shy of the two-time premiers over the same period and out-rated Penrith, Canterbury, St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers, Canberra, Manly and Newcastle. While I haven’t accounted for time slots, it’s also fair to say that the Titans have not been a drawcard during that time.

In attendances, despite being wooden spooners, the Titans got more fans through the gates than the Dragons in 2019. In 2018, the Titans’ gate was better than the Raiders, Sharks, Sea Eagles and the Eels, despite playing several games in regional areas because of the Commonwealth Games. In 2017, the reigning premiers couldn’t attract as many patrons as the Titans, nor could the Warriors, Panthers, Bunnies, Dragons or Tigers.

Memberships are an issue, with the Titans trailing the league since 2016 and falling further behind. On the other hand, the Dragons supposedly had 21,000 members in 2019 and averaged fewer than 10,000 at their games, so perhaps Titans fans are just savvier?

In other words, given that the Titans are terrible and still have better metrics than a big chunk of the league, a Titans clone would be the least we could hope for. Imagine what they could do if they started winning.

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So I’m not concerned we’ll add another Titans to the competition. I’m concerned we’ll add another Sydney club.

Sydney and Melbourne are exceptions in world sport, not the norm. No other sports has top level professional teams so heavily concentrated in one city. The closest analogs are La Liga clubs in Madrid and baseball teams in Tokyo and neither meet the same density on a per capita basis. American sports and, to a lesser extent, European soccer find themselves roughly distributed to maximise returns and optimise density. This can happen either organically, as soccer’s promotion and relegation system seems to work, or inorganically, via the American franchising system. As a result, their sports teams are in a less precarious position financially, which has obvious benefits.

In that context, it seems silly to look at Sydney as the only or even a desirable model of rugby league, when it is a crucible unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. It is sillier still to take Sydney’s rugby league culture and assume all markets have already been divied up into the exclusive fiefdoms of existing clubs, comprising fans attached like barnacles to a set of colours chosen for arbitrary, geographical or familial reasons that would rather die than adopt another set of colours that might actually be more meaningful. But you don’t need me to remind you of Australian rugby league’s inherent Sydney-centrism.

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The Broncos represent a broad church. Going by revenue, membership numbers and average attendances, there probably aren’t than many more hardcore Broncos supporters than any of the big Sydney clubs, despite being a one town team. These people aren’t leaving the Broncos but they might only be a few hundred thousand people.

There exists, outside of the Broncos’ direct sphere of influence, a larger fanbase of casual footy fans who go to or watch Broncos games because that’s what’s available. It would be a mistake to assume that they won’t be agnostic or switch teams, especially if the new team is more successful, just because that’s what extremely online NRL monomaniacs think they would do in that situation. It is worth remembering that projecting what you think you would do in a particular situation on to millions of people you’ve never met is a risky basis for decision making.

If you look at million-or-so ratings for Friday nights, the two million-plus population of Brisbane, State of Origin, the reception of Magic Round and the scale of the south-east Queensland economy, there’s clearly an opportunity to meet the latent demand for NRL that the Broncos can’t or won’t.

For example, outside of Magic Round, there are only twelve Broncos home games a year, which are predominantly on Thursday or Friday night. If you can’t make those specific nights, you can’t go to a NRL game unless you’re willing to get a on a train for an hour and a half from Central plus whatever time it takes you to get there or get on a plane. A new team doubles the opportunities available.

Ultimately, tribalism or rust have nothing to do with this because Brisbane is not Sydney.

As we edge closer to reality, we can consider what options are actually available. Far from my idealistic notions of enriching the NRL to expand the game, we’re left with a handful of bids, none of which are perfect.

(Despite the above, I acknowledge that I may never regard any bid as ideal because I subconsciously don’t want a second Brisbane team)

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North Sydney Bears

As officially endorsed by the Peanut King himself, Paul Kent, bringing back the Bears is the ultimate Sydney boomer nostalgia move that screams “Fuck your history and ideas, I’m forcing mine on you and you will like it” (Peter FitzSimons could only commit to bringing the Bears back to the Central Coast, an even more baffling proposition).

Notwithstanding the extremely obvious fact that the AFL would own all of the intellectual property related to the ‘Brisbane Bears’, Queenslanders are not going to follow a relocated Sydney team. Pre-Origin, that strategy might have worked but you can’t make Queensland-versus-New South Wales the game’s central commercial proposition and then expect one half of that rivalry to accept a cast-off from the other. To cite precedent, in 1999, the Bears took a home game against the Cowboys to Lang Park. The match attracted a paltry 3,382 attendees.

The point of relocating a team is that they will have an existing fanbase in the original city to fall back on while they build a bigger one in the new city. The problem is if you have not played first grade as a standalone club since 1999, and there are kids who have been born since then that can legally buy alcohol now, how many fans are still around to fall back on? How many were there to begin with?

“How good would it be though?” Fuck off.

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Redcliffe Dolphins

The Redcliffe Dolphins are the strongest Queensland Cup club, with a soon-to-be 10,000 seat stadium, a big leagues club, a storied history and are firmly entrenched in their local community, which is a hard-to-access peninsula at the northern end of Moreton Bay. If you wanted a Brisbane version of Manly, you couldn’t look past the Dolphins.

If I knew more about AFL, I’d draw a comparison to Port Adelaide, which I think is the only top level sports club in Australia that has been brought up from a lower tier. It would seem the idea has 100% success rate, compared to the dicey 50-50 chances of creating new franchises from scratch, so they’ve got that going for them.

Dolphin Oval isn’t quite big enough for the NRL which, despite never aiming up, should be forcing clubs to play out of minimum 25,000 all-seater stadiums. The Dolphins have acknowledged this and reckon they’ll play out of Suncorp. They’ve also acknowledged that Redcliffe won’t have widespread appeal, so they will also adopt a generic Brisbane/Queensland moniker (“Moreton Bay Dolphins” has a nice ring and might engage the people of the Moreton Bay Regional Council) but focus their marketing more on the Dolphins brand.

Bringing up a second tier club isn’t ideal but at least the Dolphins have shown the right thinking about it.

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Easts Tigers

The Easts Tigers bid runs on the same logic as the Dolphins’, which means it has the same strengths and weaknesses. The main differences are that Langlands Park is nowhere near NRL standard, so home games must go to Suncorp, and the club already acknowledges it will need to change name and colours if it is to join the NRL because of the Wests Tigers.

No suggestions for what the new brand might be have been forthcoming, other than an interesting idea that they will form the ‘south’ Brisbane counterpart to the Broncos’ ‘north’. This is an insulting suggestion as a Souths Logan fan, but at least makes some sense, given a million or so live above the river and a similar number below.

The Tigers previously experimented with being the East Coast Tigers in 2001-02, a throwback to a potential merger with the Gold Coast Chargers and/or Balmain Tigers before that resolved itself by both teams ceasing to exist. With no attachments to their current identity, they could get permission to revive the South Queensland Crushers marque, a nod to millennial nostalgia instead of boomers’, as if that would somehow be preferable and not at all unbearable. That would be interesting to see how popular opinion swings to or away from them.

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Western Corridor

The Western Corridor bid is basically the same as the Tigers’ and Dolphins’ and builds on the Ipswich Jets. The Western Corridor nominally covers the area from Logan, west to Ipswich and then out to Toowoomba, which I’ll grant you is growing very quickly but is generally extremely low density suburbia with no discernible identity other than “we’re not Brisbane, I don’t care what the ABS says” until you get to Toowoomba, at which point Brisbane ended about forty-five minutes ago.

There’s no stadium along the M2, so games would either have to go to Suncorp or QSAC, which would need a massive refurbishment and is still in the Brisbane LGA, until North Ipswich Reserve can be developed. Loganers would likely find it easier to still attend Suncorp than Ipswich, given the way public transport is set up in this city. If that’s the case, then the catchment for the Western Corridor bid would be quite limited. A ‘west Brisbane’ approach – like the airport at Toowoomba – might be more generic but loosens the connection to Ipswich.

They’ve yet to be interviewed by the Courier Mail this time around, perhaps doing some preparation, so this bid still has more details to come.

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Brisbane Bombers

While the above has not dated well from their launch in 2011, the Bombers’ biggest advantage is that they exist. At least, in the sense that they have a logo and presumably an ABN. Their sole decision made to date, to name themselves the Bombers, really brings a lot of doubt on the organisation’s decision making. Naming yourself the ‘Bombers’ in 2020 will be like naming yourself the ‘Predator Drones’ in 2070, provided that professional sport still exists then. It probably should have been knocked on the head when Essendon got done for doping.

As a club-independent consortium of businessmen who have operated in the real world, along with Billy Moore and Scott Sattler, the Bombers are actually closer to what I think is required but it’s hard to tell if they are actually rich enough to make it work. They are not popular with the Twitterati and seem incapable of making an argument for why they specifically should get a licence that isn’t couched in the most generic corporate-speak imaginable, which means they make a lot of the same arguments that I’ve just made. Thinking about it, they’d be a lot more popular with me if they just changed the branding. I have an idea:

The NRL will get more information than we will ever be allowed to see on which to base their decision. I’d like to think that the due diligence will yield the best possible outcome but we’ll have to wait and see.

If it doesn’t pan out for BNE2 and the NRL insists on another team in south-east Queensland, I know a city up the road that hasn’t got any pro men’s sports teams that could grow into a NRL team, like Brisbane did with the Broncos, Canberra did with the Raiders and we hope the Gold Coast will do with the Titans.

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Rugby league’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants. Historically, the sport has knee jerked in response to challenges and more or less weathered them intact, but has really failed to make a significant mark outside of the territories it held circa 1939.

The point of expanding the game is to make it bigger. The bigger it is, the more talent it attracts, the better it gets; it’s a simple equation. It also ensures the sport’s survival. With a greater distribution and diversity, the scale of disaster required wipe rugby league off the map becomes less and less likely.

In Australia, NRL should strive to be the national code that represents its citizens as equally as possible. Rugby league is poised to do this in a way that rugby union and AFL cannot. The sport has four cultural values to impart:

  • Get paid for your labour
  • Rugby should be entertaining to watch
  • Your class, race, religion, sexuality or other identity won’t hold you back if you play well enough
  • Represent your people, not the arbitrarily defined country into which you were born

Despite what those on rugby’s frontiers in the New World would tell you, these ideas are important. If they weren’t, we may as well fold the NRL and get behind the Wallabies.

Expansion is hard, expensive, has to be well planned and above all, has to have a clearly identified purpose. None of these have been rugby league’s forte. The NRL has money now and it is as popular as it has ever been. The slightest modicum of intelligence applied to planning and decision making will go a long way to securing the sport’s, and its ideals’, future.

A deep dive in to the 2020 NRL premiership

This is my third season preview and I have got some things laughably wrong in the previous attempts (see 2018 and 2019). This year’s will be a slightly different format to previous years but undertaken in the same spirit of considering each team’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, as well as assessing the changes made since last year and their potentially positive or negative impact on performance.

However, I plan to have fewer laughably wrong predictions in 2020 simply by making fewer predictions. After all, if you want to see laughably wrong rugby league analysis, you can just pick up a copy of the paper.

Last season in a nutshell

2019 was a weird season and completely different to its equally weird predecessor. In 2018, eight teams finished within a win of each other and then were systematically dismantled by the Roosters and Storm in the finals. In 2019, we had three teams that could clearly play football, another couple that were adequate and a bunch of losers that didn’t want to make the finals. The round 17 golden point field goal shoot-out between the Broncos and Warriors, leading to a draw after multiple botched attempts, encapsulated the lose-at-all-costs mentality that defined positions seven through fifteen on the ladder. In the end, the Roosters emerged victorious in a manner that still infuriates me, with the Raiders running out of points and the Storm running out of steam when it counted.

A relatively quiet off-season – dominated by Latrell Mitchell’s signature, the Tigers’ warchest, Melbourne pollinating the landscape with overpriced talent and what the second Brisbane team should be named – has seen most teams turn up to 2020 in roughly the same shape as they approached 2019. It makes it very difficult to get a grasp on how this year might pan out, without just repeating pretty much what happened in 2019. And, no, neither the Nines nor pre-season trials will provide any insight.

How it all works

I appreciate that it’s difficult to keep up with the Pythago NRL Expanded Universe™ of metrics and ratings. Not only are they generally more complicated than standard stats, I tweak them almost every year based on what I learned during the previous season. I created a short reference guide to what it all means.

2020 team projections are based on round 1 lineups, taken as a mix from NRL.com and League Unlimited. 2020 roster composition is based on the listed signings on League Unlimited (as of 28 February) but 2019 roster information is based only on players who played at least one game.

Jump ahead

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nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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Brisbane deserved to finish ninth or tenth last season. The Broncos were the second most heavily biased to their forwards, behind the Cowboys and the immutable Taumalolo. The strong and young forward pack means that the Broncos are projected to have the third most production in 2020 but there’s diminishing returns in having powerful forwards if the other parts of the team continue to struggle to execute. The reality is that Brisbane needs less stupidity out of the forwards, more offence out of the backs and an all round improvement in defence.

I assume we will see more of the same from last year because nothing has changed significantly enough to suggest otherwise. Giving the captaincy to Glenn over Boyd doesn’t change the fact that neither should be on the field. If Boyd plays anywhere, that side of the field will shut down in attack and one or two players will have to cover his defensive workload. None of the talk out of the club has really addressed this or any of the many other problems, so I don’t see how they could have fixed them.

As to what question Brodie Croft answers, I don’t know but it isn’t halfback production. Ironically, I think the team would perform better if Milford’s TPR was lower and he didn’t have to waste time carrying so much dead weight, both undercooked rookies and overcooked veterans.

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nrl-cbr Canberra Raiders

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Possibly more than any other team, the Raiders have lost the most talent in the off-season. Taylor is down on their prospects but expects Canberra to still perform above average. Elo and Poseidon, carrying through from 2019, expect them to return to premiership contention. The Raiders’ defence wasn’t quite enough to win them the premiership (as a rule of thumb, the Poseidon defence rating should be at least +50) and it would be unlikely to not see some reversion towards mean this year. With luck, it won’t be as disastrous as 2017 and 2018 following 2016.

While Canberra’s defence was good, the attack completely dissipated in the finals. Bringing in an English half is a risk, but so was bringing in English forwards, and it paid handsome dividends. By all accounts, George Williams is the goods and might be the missing piece of the puzzle. Leilua, Rapana and Sezer have all left in the off-season, to be replaced by Curtis Scott, who celebrated by punching some cops. After being mired mid-to-lower-table for so long under the decade-long dual dominance of Sydney and Melbourne, it would be genuinely surprising to see a team turn a corner and transform into perennial challengers.

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nrl-cnt Canterbury Bulldogs

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The Bulldogs are behind, way behind.

With Kieran Foran missing most, if not all, of the 2020 season, the Bulldogs either need significant development out of their relatively young squad or to land some signatures. Neither seem likely, especially as the club is likely to still be paying freight on players from the Castle-Hasler era and the current squad do not have the track record to suggest any superstars are emerging (perhaps Renouf To’omaga excepted). The players signed to development contracts do not have particularly impressive stats from the NSW Cup. With last year’s significant outperformance of the fundamentals, reversion to mean would likely mean a wooden spoon.

However, we’re now into our second full season of rebuild at Belmore and the signs have been promising. Late surges of form in 2018 and 2019 when other teams start to switch off towards the end of the season have often been timely, snagging wins that Canterbury have no right to and desperately need. This defiance indicates that Dean Pay can coach (“Dogs of war”, etc, etc) and jag the seven or eight wins required to avoid the spoon. I’m comparatively bullish on the Bulldogs but they need to resolve their cap issues to get some talent on board if they want to really progress.

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With their home games moved to Kogarah, we may finally get an answer to the age-old question: what do the Cronulla Sharks actually do to justify their place in the NRL? 

The Sharks’ 12-12 record and seventh place belied how well they played last season. Let down significantly by their goal kicking, the Sharks lost a record five games despite scoring more tries. While that’s a NSWRL/NRL record, I doubt that’s ever happened at any other time in football. The odds of it are simply astronomical. Tack on a couple of extra wins to last year’s total to appropriately set your expectations.

Cronulla should have the talent to comfortably make the finals in 2020. We probably won’t see anything much more interesting than that out of them unless a couple of the top clubs stumble.

With Paul Gallen retired, the team will have to adjust their production bias away from the forwards. I still have question marks on Bronson Xerri but his production last year was impressive and Braden Hamlin-Uele should probably be starting.

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Perhaps the most significant thing to happen to the Titans last season was being surpassed by Newcastle, to be left at the bottom of the league in class Elo ratings. It might be recalled that the Knights were the worst NRL team of all time in 2016 and since then, the Knights have gotten better and the Titans so much worse.

Last season, you would have only taken a handful of players from the Titans to your own club given the opportunity: Arrow, Fotuaika, Brimson (who has a surprisingly low TPR) and maybe Tyrone Roberts if you were feeling generous. The Titans managed to hang on to them, except Arrow who will be departing for Souths next year. The rest of the roster under Garth Brennan was a joke, hence the 4-20 record, so hopes are pinned on the incoming Justin Holbrook, having left the best Super League team for the worst NRL team. Indeed, last season the Titans were ranked lower than half of the Super League.

With the number of experienced veterans and the talent pool on their door step, the Titans really should be better than they are. They are not and the sims reflect it. Fans will hope the new coach can get more out of the squad. Appointing Kevin Proctor captain is not the most auspicious start to turning around the club’s culture. Sick 9s jersey though.

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nrl-man Manly Sea Eagles

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The Taylors bear out how low expectations were for Manly in 2019, only for those expectations to be obliterated. The Sea Eagles were one of the few teams outside the big two that could win regularly. I went out on a limb pre-season and suggested Manly would make the finals. While that was pure luck on my part, they managed to do it. It turns out Des Hasler can still coach, even after taking some shine off his reputation while at the Bulldogs.

Backing up without the element of surprise and the reversion to mean will be challenging. Reversion to mean is a harsh mistress and often a huge outperformance is punished with an equally severe reaction in the opposite direction in the following season. The law of averages demands its tribute. For now at least, Manly’s prospects for 2020 appear to be good and based on sound fundamentals.

It hasn’t been discussed nearly enough how costly Manase Fainu missing some (most? all?) of the upcoming season will be. He was one of the big unknowns that stepped up last year and with Api Koroisau now at Penrith, Manly are bereft of options at hooker. It is too early to discuss Cade Cust as a long-term successor to Daly Cherry-Evans but he had an impressive debut season.

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nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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The Storm and Craig Bellamy, as they often are, were the biggest outperformers of their projections in the league. Melbourne finished the season with a 20-4 record, a record only bettered* by the Storm’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 don’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 doesn’t seem to have made a dent in their prospects.

So yeah, they’re pretty good. If I’m lucky, I may live long enough to see the next Broncos win over the Storm, an event about as frequent as Halley’s Comet.

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nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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The Knights will be glad to see the back of the 2010s, where they were the worst team in the NRL and nearly went broke. The good news is that the Knights might legitimately make the finals this year.

The Knights massively outperformed in 2018, which then led to many talking heads predicting serious success in 2019. Success wasn’t forthcoming because the fundamentals weren’t there. Instead, we had a heady mix of nostalgia, over-excitement and Blue bias that completely crippled the predominantly Sydney-based media’s capacity to objectively analyse (I have the same problem in the opposite direction but at least I’m aware of it).

Mitchell Pearce had a career season in 2019, at least until I wrote about it, but otherwise the team struggled to meet expectations. I’m more of a numbers guy than a culture guy, but even I could see that the team was often not trying. Results from round 16 through 21 last year bear that out. Their thrashing at the hands of the Titans in round 5 was more typical of the season than the six wins that followed.

The finishing touches to the “rebuild” have now been applied, not least Adam O’Brien replacing Nathan Brown as head coach, to bring the Knights back in contention for finals places. Newcastle are still a way off challenging for the premiership.

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nrl-nzw New Zealand Warriors

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People think the Warriors are bad. They haven’t been. New Zealand’s club embodies average-ness with every fibre and loves to squander an opportunity. The thing about the median is that it’s not last place, so I’m always wary of any prediction that gives the spoon to the Warriors.

The loss of Shaun Johnson was not well compensated and the team is now overly reliant on Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the back line to generate production. The forward pack has not been impressive as a whole. The lack of star power – currently projected to be zero players – is concerning, although not damning. Kodi Nikorima is, at best, a below average halfback and Chanel Harris-Tavita is apparently too young to start but he’s far better bet (.098 in 2019 compared to the .085-ish range Nikorima has played in the last three years). The Warriors will chase eighth place with the Broncos, Tigers and Knights until they get tired and slump down the ladder.

More worryingly, the Warriors are on the precipice of falling full-time into the ‘bad’ category and once that happens, I don’t know how the club will pull itself out. The Auckland Rugby League should be a conveyor belt of talent and the Warriors should be at least Broncos-calibre, if not the Storm. Until that gets worked out, New Zealand will probably bounce along the bottom of the ladder.

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nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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A good showing at the 9s tournament in Perth has clouded judgement about what the Cowboys are capable of. Consider their stacked halves options of Michael Morgan, Jake Clifford and Scott Drinkwater. Drinkwater is only a thought there because Valentine Holmes is obviously the fullback. The ever-reliable Vaa’i Taumalolo will put the team on his back and Kyle Feldt will finish in the corner.

It sounds good in principle but most of these pieces have been available for the last three years and, other than limping to the grand final in 2017 and avoiding the spoon in 2018 and 2019, those three years have had little to celebrate. After all, we’re projecting a team with some well-known players to only be twelfth best. Without Taumalolo, a certified freak and statistical anomaly, that number would be a lot closer to the bottom.

Paul Green seems intent on stifling the creativity of his playmakers and/or was overly reliant on Johnathan Thurston to make plays. Either way, he has to adjust to the new Thurston-less world where scoring six to twelve points is not going to be enough. Despite delivering the premiership in 2015, a bad 2020 might be the end of the road for Green.

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nrl-par Parramatta Eels

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I think this is it for the Eels. They are due for their once-a-decade (give or take) tilt at the premiership.

The Taylors are not too crash hot on the Eels. There are holes in key TPR ratings: Reed Mahoney at hooker, Dylan Brown nominally at five-eighth and, to a lesser extent, Clint Gutherson at fullback. The forward pack is slightly above average but none are exceptional. Reagan Campbell-Gillard might be one of those high-TPR, low-impact players, like Aaron Woods. On the other hand, Parramatta are capable of outperforming their projections which, for their top players at least, seem conservative. Last season’s hiccups only came when meeting the Storm, a hurdle that has felled better teams in the past.

The Eels are one of the better set up football clubs in Sydney. They have a good new stadium in the heart of their community, not too far from their leagues club. They’ve had a reasonable amount of on-field success the last few years if we ignore the total and inexplicable collapse that was 2018 (which might explain the conservative projections). It will be worth keeping an eye out to see if the club an build on this and win two premierships this season to complete their five year plan.

If not, 2021 will probably be a tear down, followed by a firesale clearance, and then a rebuild.

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nrl-pen Penrith Panthers

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The numbers suggest a tough year ahead for the Panthers, with not much to look forward to. The projected team is only two Taylors per game better than the Bulldogs. TPR lists only four guys worth a damn, roughly the same as the Titans. The sims have ten wins and eleventh place on the ladder picked out for Penrith, a re-run of 2019.

My gut says Penrith could do a lot this year. The grand final might be a step too far but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them scrapping for a second week final nor would it surprise me if we wrote them off as finals contenders shortly after Origin. The risk is there is plenty of potential but not a lot of proven execution, as last year’s rookies become this year’s sophomores and the pack that was bulldozing the league a few years ago slowly being whittled away.

It might not matter if this year is a write-off for the Panthers if they can channel the experience into development, making this squad better in future campaigns. Ivan Cleary and a Gould-less Panthers will have to take better care of the next generation than they have done in the past.

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nrl-ssr South Sydney Rabbitohs

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I have a quiet confidence in Souths’ premiership aspirations but questions remain unanswered.

Souths’ spine is projected to be a full five Taylors per game better than Melbourne’s, which is next best, so it is little surprise that the Rabbitohs are the mostly heavily biased to their playmakers. Damien Cook is the keystone of the spine and has been the league’s most productive player by TPR two years running. The .200 barrier hasn’t been broken since Robbie Farah did it back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, years that the Tigers won a combined seventeen games. After two years of wrecking the league, have coaches finally watched enough tape of Damien Cook to put a lid on him? More pressingly, will Damien Cook turn up this postseason?

Latrell Mitchell’s mooted move to fullback returns him to a position he hasn’t officially played since his 2016 season for the Roosters. He put up an average TPR of .087 then. Mitchell is projected to carry through his (famously quite lazy) productivity at centre and bring .120 of production to fullback. I am loathe to make individual manual tweaks to my systems, so that seems like a bad assumption that is worth adjusting for. 30 pips of production at fullback is worth about 10 Taylors, enough to move Souths from fourth best squad to outside the top eight. Questions: will Latrell at fullback work? Will Latrell put his full back into working?

If they fail, it is not clear if the rest of the team will be able to pick up enough slack to keep the Bunnies in the premiership hunt. Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker form a potent pair. Cameron Murray looks ready to go up another level. But is the forward pack good enough without numerous Burgii? Edene Gebbie looked a little lost at the 9s, so who else is waiting in the wings if needed?

Is Wayne cooked?

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nrl-sgi St George Illawarra Dragons

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I didn’t want to make any specific predictions but wooden spoon, anyone?

It would be the first for Illawarra since 1989 and the first for St George since 1938. The reality is that Paul McGregor’s head is already on the chopping block. Since taking the reins, the Dragon’s class rating has dropped nearly 100 points, an untenable position and one no major league coach of the last two decades has been able to drag their team out before their time was up. No improvements to the roster, no improvements to coaching… wait, didn’t the Dragons sign Shane Flanagan as an “assistant”? That will be an interesting play and may well push the Dragons up the ladder.

The squad itself isn’t magic but should be better than last place. New signing Isaac Luke has always been a productive player but he will presumably be second fiddle to Cameron McInnes when he returns from injury, reducing the potential volume of work Luke could be doing. Indeed, St George Illawarra are extremely reliant on their spine to perform. While Hunt, Norman and McInnes have been productive, I don’t think they’ve been especially effective. The Dragons are also still searching for a fullback. Lomax may or may not be it.

If Flanagan really is the de facto, if not de jure, head coach, then he should be able to coax that performance out of the roster. If McGregor is still in charge, then a 5-0 start will turn into a 7-17 season and the cycle will begin anew.

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nrl-esr Sydney Roosters

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I’m quite comfortable assuming that the Roosters won’t go three in a row. They’re still good though, probably even still good enough for a minor premiership. A projected 15+ wins and the second best squad on paper is not going to have trouble reaching a preliminary final. The Storm are the only team superior on paper and they share the equal best class Elo rating.

When we talk about the trinity of rugby league – hungah, pashun and desiyah – do the Roosters still espouse these values? Cooper Cronk’s retirement and nominal replacement with near-rookie Kyle Flanagan is the kind of loss of edge that turns premiership winners into runners-up, as the Storm have amply demonstrated.

After all, it’s not just about production. Yelling at other players to get them organised is a rare and extremely valuable commodity. Luke Keary may have it but it will be the first time in his career that the 28 year old will be the elder of the halves pairing. But to put this supposed weakness into context, the Roosters will absolutely be a top four team come September.

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nrl-wst Wests Tigers

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The Tigers continue to defy my predictions of a wooden spoon to instead finish ninth. Last year, they really should have been eighth and the 12-12 record the year before should have seen them in the top eight. Basically, bad luck has kept them from breaking the NRL’s longest finals drought.

Still, you make your own luck. The Tigers were the biggest movers in the off-season and showed unusual astuteness in their acquisitions: Leilua times two, Adam Doueihi, Walters and maybe Harry Grant (.266 TPR in 2019’s QCup) will land.

The projections and the sims lock in a knife-edge battle for the Tigers to take that final step from ninth to eighth. Exactly 50% chance of making the finals, exactly 12.0 wins projected and an average finishing position of 8.6. I’m not ready to make them a lock but this is the best chance Wests have had in a long time.

All they had to do was spend their money wisely. Now they just need to lock down a home ground.

Primer – TPR

For the third season in a row, I’m changing the player rating system. We mourn the passing of Statscore (not really) and PPG (again, not really) as we slowly converge on to a system that I can take for granted and don’t have to refine any further.

The core of the system hasn’t changed. The proposition is that there are important and unimportant statistics and that counting the important ones provides information about players and teams and can be predictive.

PPG was useful, and development and application through 2019 demonstrated that:

The last one should be taught in universities as a perfect example of ringing the bell at the top. Sheer narrative power subsequently forced Pearce back to mean and Brown onto the compost heap.

The mechanics of PPG have been preserved through TPR. My biggest issue is that when I wrote about production (that is, the accumulation of useful statistics), I didn’t have any units to work with. I originally didn’t think this would be a problem but it would make some things clearer if I did have units. So I took a leaf from the sciences and landed on naming it after the man that could do it all, David “Coal Train” Taylor.

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“PPG”, which was Production – and not Points – Per Game, doesn’t make much sense now, so that’s been punted and replaced with TPR, or Taylor Player Rating. There has been a substantial change in the way I’d calculated WARG in the primer at the start of 2019 and the way I calculated it in Rugby league’s replacement player at the end. The latter method is now canonical but the name is going to stick.

In brief, TPR and WARG are derived through the following six steps:

  1. Run linear regressions to confirm which statistics correlate with winning percentage. The stats get distributed in to buckets and we review the success of teams achieving those statistics. One crucial change was to exclude any buckets from the regression with fewer than ten games in it. We end up with tries, running metres, kick return metres, post-contact metres, line breaks, line break assists, try assists, tackle busts, hit ups, dummy half run metres, missed tackles (negative), kick metres, forced drop outs, errors (negative) and, in Queensland only, penalties (negative) as having significant correlations out of the data provided by the NRL.
  2. Take the slope of the trendline calculated in the regression and weight it by its correlation (higher the correlation, the higher the weighting). Through this weighting, we develop a series of equivalences between stats. The below is shows the quantities required of each stat to be equivalent to one try in 2020:
    equivalences
  3. Players who accumulate these statistics are said to be generating production, which is now measured in Taylors, and is the product of the weighting/slope multiplied by the quantity of stats accumulated multiplied by 1000. However, due to the limitations of the statistics, some positions on the field generate significantly more Taylors than others.
    Average Taylors per game by position (1)
  4. To combat this, the production generated each game is then compared to the average production generated at that position (averaging previous 5 seasons of data in NRL, 3 seasons for State Cup). We make the same adjustments for time on field as in PPG and then divide by 10 for aesthetic purposes. The resulting number is the Taylor Player Rating, or TPR.
  5. We derive a formula for estimating win probability based on production for each competition and then substitute in a winning percentage of .083 (or two wins in twenty-four games, per the previous definition of a replacement-level team) and estimate the amount of production created by a team of fringe players against the competition average. This gives us a TPR that we can set replacement level at. The Taylors created over and above replacement level is added to the notional replacement level team’s production and the increase in winning probability is attributed to that player as a Win Above Reserve Grade, or WARG. Replacement level in TPR for the NRL is .057, Queensland is .072 and NSW is .070. The career WARG leaders are currently:
    career warg
  6. Finally, we go back and check that it all makes sense by confirming that TPR has some predictive power (~61% successful tipping rate, head-to-head) and there’s a correlation with team performance (~0.60 r-squared for team season production against team winning percentage).

For a more in-depth explanation, you can refer back to the original PPG primer. The differences between last year’s system and this year’s are slight and, for most intents and purposes, PPG and TPR are equivalent. Some of the changes are small in impact but important.

The most obvious change is the addition of NSW Cup data to the Queensland Cup and NRL datasets. This was driven by my interest in assessing the farm systems of each NRL club and you can’t make a decent fist of that if you’re missing twelve feeder clubs from the picture. It will also allow me to better test talent identification in the lower levels if I have more talents to identify and to better set expectations of players as they move between competitions.

For the most recent seasons, TPR only uses past data to calculate its variables, whereas PPG used all of the data available and created a false sense of success. A system that uses 2018 data to create after-the-fact predictions for the 2018 season isn’t going to give you an accurate view of how it will perform in 2019.

Finally, projecting player performance into the future is a pretty powerful concept, even if the tools for doing so are limited. I went back and re-derived all of the reversion-to-mean formulas used in The Art of Projection. It turns out that the constants for the projection formula don’t change much between seasons, so this is fixed across the datasets for now. It also turns out adjustments for age and experience are different and largely useless under the TPR system, such is the ephemera of statistical analysis.

One application for projections is that I’ll be able to run season simulations using the winning probability formula and team production that will be able to measure the impact of including or excluding a player on the outcome of a team’s season. It may not be super-accurate (the projections have large average errors) but it will be interesting. I also like the idea that out- or under-performance of projections as an assessment of coaching.

Finally, to reiterate things that I think are important caveats: TPR is a value-over-average rate statistic, while WARG is a volume statistic. No, statistics don’t tell the whole story and even these ones don’t measure effectiveness. Yes, any player rating system is going to have a certain level of arbitrariness to it because the system designer has to make decisions about what they consider important and unimportant. I’m fully aware of these things and wrote 1500 words accordingly at the end of the PPG primer.

A thing I’m trying to do this season is publish all of my rating systems on Google Sheets so anyone can have a look. You can see match-by-match ratings for NRL and the two State Cups if that’s your jam.

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