Category Archives: Analysis & Opinion

Rugby league’s replacement player

Last week we looked at valuing players, specifically Tom Trbojevic, Daly Cherry-Evans and Addin Fonua-Blake, by their contributions to Manly’s winning ways. There were two problems though:

  1. How do we deal with someone like Marty Taupau? He’s played all of the games this year so we can’t find an understudy to compare him to.
  2. What if your understudy is pretty good? Cherry-Evans looks like he is comparatively less valuable than his colleagues because Kane Elgey is about 20% more productive at halfback than Brendan Elliot or Toafofoa Sipley were at their respective positions.

We should establish a fixed benchmark to compare players against.

Baseball uses the concept of a “replacement level“. I touched on it briefly last week but the rugby league equivalent would be a top level reserve grader who can be acquired for the league’s minimum salary ($105,000 in 2019). By definition, the replacement level player provides the right value for money for that salary. If a player provides less value, they shouldn’t be in first grade because they can’t justify their pay packet. The trick is to find players who provide more value and then pay them accordingly to win games for your club.

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What makes a million dollar NRL player?

“He’s not worth a million a year!”

-NRL Twitter proverb

The trick in any sport is spending your available bankroll wisely. Soccernomics established that good soccer managers, among other things, bought players low and sold them high and that was at the heart of prolonged success. Moneyball was a two hour long movie with Brad Pitt about signing otherwise valuable players that the market had skipped over. We see that same principle at work in salary capped leagues too, whether it be the New England Patriots, the Melbourne Storm or the Sydney Roosters.

The NRL’s recent increase of salary cap has minted a number of millionaire rugby league players. There is a distinct element in the rugby league fanbase that can’t wrap their heads around players being worth those kinds of dollars.

But they are.

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Mitchell Pearce saved Nathan Brown’s career

Scene: C-Bus Stadium, Gold Coast. It’s the twenty-first of April and we’re in round 6 of the 2019 National Rugby League season. At around a quarter to three in the afternoon, the referee blows the whistle for half time.

The Newcastle Knights are down 22 to nil after the worst forty minutes of football in recent memory. The Knights conceded three long range tries to the Titans off the back of errors, compounded with extremely lazy defence.

The Knights fervently loyal fanbase has endured years of failure since the financial demise of Nathan Tinkler in 2014. The club’s ownership was turned over to the NRL and a horror run followed, including three straight wooden spoons and fielding an historically bad 1-22-1 side in 2016.

The club, under the new ownership of the Wests Group, signed Kangaroos prop, David Klemmer, in the 2018-19 off-season. His acquisition was seen to be the last piece of the puzzle to bring the Novocastrians back into contention, joining young superstar Kalyn Ponga and premiership winning halfback Mitchell Pearce.

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Rating the 2019 State of Origin teams

It’s that time of the year again. The weather has just turned cold and the NRL season has built just enough momentum to be interesting and has now been brought to a screeching halt. It’s State of Origin time, the world’s only all-star game that the players actually care about. Naturally, the first question anyone needs to consider is: which team looks stronger on paper?

When it comes to assessing representative games, we don’t have access to the usual team rating tools and, even if we did, the gaps between matches and changes to the teams are so significant that Elo ratings aren’t particularly useful. This year, we can evaluate the Origin teams using Production Per Game (PPG), which is a player rating tool.

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The 40/20

Other than the field goal, there are few more exciting kicking moments in rugby league than the correct execution of a 40/20. The 40/20, meaning that the kick is taken behind the player’s forty metre line, bounces in the field of play and goes into touch inside the opponent’s twenty metre, gives a huge advantage for the kicking team, as it advances the ball forty metres down the field and offers a fresh attacking set.

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Introduced in 1997 for the Super League competition and retained for the NRL, the 40/20 doesn’t happen very often. You might see a successful attempt every five to ten games. Indeed, we see more field goals.

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Just as a bit of a trivial aside, Daly Cherry-Evans has kicked the most 40/20s in the NRL between 2013 and 2018, with sixteen, or one every 8.8 games he has started. The other players in double digits are Chris Sandow (14), Cooper Cronk (12), Cameron Smith (11) and Blake Green (10). Funnily enough, probable Immortal Johnathan Thurston never kicked a 40/20 in this period.

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The young forwards are not to blame for the Broncos’ demise

To not put too fine a point on it, the Broncos have been shockingly bad in 2019. Riding the hype train in this year, they were touted as premiership contenders (disclosure: including by me).

The Broncos have won just two games. One was against a Cowboys side that is facing similar struggles and another against a Sharks team bereft of its star power. The other six games have been losses, ranging from a late field goal from Corey Norman sealing the win for the Dragons, to thirty-two point demolitions at the hands of Easts and then again from Souths.

The finger pointing has begun. The Broncos’ extremely youthful pack has come in for criticism, both for a lack of go-forward and a lack of consistency.

The statistics tell a different story.

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Are the Warriors the most inconsistent team in the NRL?

Despite being set an 18 point line, the Warriors managed to run the Storm close on ANZAC Day in Melbourne. Were it not for a dubious decision or two in the closing phase of the game, the Aucklanders might have left AAMI Park with the win. That led to people, including me, wondering out loud via social media where that level of play had come from, especially compared to some of the Warriors’ earlier displays this season.

Some people suggested the Warriors in Melbourne was a Thing. We only need to remember last year’s 50-10 drubbing to dispel that but also recall that the Warriors have a 7-13-1 record in Melbourne, with an average margin of thirteen points in the Storm’s favour.

So what gives?

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