Category Archives: Analysis & Opinion

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Gold Coast Titans

The Titans of the Gold Coast finished in the top eight for the first time since 2016 and for the first time without a team above getting a points deduction for cap breaches since 2010. In both 2016 and 2021, the Titans had losing records, 10-14 being the mark this year. More promisingly, the Titans finished with just a -3 points difference. In terms of Pythagorean expectation, their record should have been a lot closer to 12-12 than 10-14. That alone suggests that next year, they’ll do better which is good because the Titans weren’t great this year.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Lots of people got excited about the Titans after a strong finish to 2020 and started extrapolating big things for the Gold Coast side in 2021. I rallied against that, citing the fact that the Titans had a terrible start to the season (they were 3-6 and below the Broncos on the ladder after round 9) and only started picking up momentum as other teams gave up under the crushing weight of pandemic-induced malaise. Moreover, their Pythagorean outlook is negative on a losing record. These are terrible omens and it is suggestive that the fundamentals might need a little more work before we start getting too ahead of ourselves and tipping premierships.

However, I am just about ready to flip on that position. Since 2020, the Titans have signed David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui on big bucks and Patrick Herbert on presumably slightly lesser bucks. With those signings, strong seasons from Jamal Fogarty, Ash Taylor, Mo Fotuaika and AJ Brimson, then better things beckon. Looking down the team list, there’s a few weaker points but on the whole, looks quite good. The Titans have the strongest pack in the league and in overall Taylor terms, are on par with the Knights and Raiders.

Still, Holbrook had a bit of a dud season and that’s been glossed over thanks to a strong finish. A charitable interpretation is this is indicative of him getting his system sorted out mid-season and a less charitable one is that maybe he got lucky. Brimson has been somewhat injury prone. Fogarty can play but we need to see it again to know he’s reliably capable of reaching that level, instead of a one-hit wonder. Without Fogarty producing, Taylor is going to flail about ineffectively as we’ve seen so many times in recent years. If these pieces aren’t in place, then Fotuaika, Fifita and Fa’asuamaleaui don’t really matter.

I wouldn’t be surprised with a mid-table finish, somewhere in the range of seventh to tenth position with a 12-12 record plus or minus a win.

Well, well, well. Mid-table finish, huh? Halves flailing about, hmm? Pythagorean outlook indicating a losing record, you say?

It’s called the Victory Lap for a reason and the Titans had fit into that Knights rebuilding mold so perfectly that it was impossible to ignore. I wish I’d stuck to my guns with a little more resolution and tipped them to miss the finals because that’s a perfectly reasonable conclusion for a team with a 10-14 record but I never saw Vlandoball coming (well, not like that anyway). Their winning percentage in 2021 is actually lower than in 2020 but because they made the finals, no one will notice or care and they’ll probably offer Justin Holbrook an extension (although he seems to have done pretty well this year).

What happened

We could go through the season but I think we all know that the Titans were a bit rubbish. What I want to do is break down the most, and definitely last, Titans play of the Titans season.

Beau Fermor makes a break with 43 seconds on the clock, down just one point.

40 metres further down the field, Fermor makes an error of judgement under pressure from Tedesco. He should have drawn and passed or run towards the goal posts, and instead he cut inside and sort of ran into his teammate and left Phillip Sami nowhere to go.

Sami gets tackled 15 metres out. It’s ok though because there’s 36 seconds left on the clock and four tackles. Plenty of time to set up for an equalising field goal or go for a winning try. Although, note the lack of support runners in shot.

Reinforcements arrive. The ball is sent wide to the other side of the field. Jamal Fogarty pirouettes instead of engaging the line. Patrick Herbert has David Fifita, noted monster, on his right shoulder. Surely he just has to get Fifita the ball and let him barge over.

Herbert hangs on to the ball and runs at the line, depriving Fifita of any space or a line he could run, which is an interesting strategy. Even at the point of the above frame, he could still salvage the play. Let’s see how it plays out.

It’s not looking good for ol Patty. A desperate offload is all he has, having been wrapped up by Josh Morris and Daniel Tupou.

Worse, it appears that Corey Thompson has already over run the point he could receive the offload.

Thompson tries to get to the ball.

He does not get there.

The road to disaster has many offramps.

There’s always next year

Does anyone want to guess how much cap space the Titans have left? The forward pack is fine, if lacking a bit of coaching polish and optimal utilisation, but the backline and especially the spine has holes. Brimson is good but not great. Fogarty is fine but has his down points. Taylor’s not coming back. Where does Jayden Campbell fit in? Who is playing 9 next year? Is Shallin Fuller good enough to start next year?

The Titans, in lieu of making big name signings because they presumably can’t afford to, are stuck between the choice of running with who they already have, and getting broadly the same results, or bringing in fresh blood and hoping that works. The latter strategy is, of course, how the Storm operate and the Titans’ feeders finished the Queensland Cup in third and fourth position. That the Titans have noticed that and signed the most promising youngsters out of Tweed and Burleigh is a positive.

The Gold Coast sit in a pretty decent position in terms of roster and pathways. I’m yet to be convinced that Holbrook knows what he’s doing, certainly not in a premiership-aspiring sense. If they continue in the Knights path, they’ve come from the bottom, had their year of overperformance, had their year of regression to the mean and now look set to win a justified place at the finals table in 2022. After that, who knows? They may flounder like the Knights and become week 1 cannon fodder or they may find a way to take that next step.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Cronulla Sharks

The Sharks, like the Raiders and Titans, won ten games and lost fourteen in 2021. They finished with a points difference of -36, landed at ninth on the ladder (needing just 34 more points to overhaul the Titans for eighth) and their Pythagorean expectation had them winning 11.2 games, 1.2 more than they actually did. We might normally chalk that up to bad luck but given the Sharks booted their own coach early in the year, we might instead chalk this underperformance up to that.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

John Morris is under pressure at Cronulla. I’m not sure why that is. On the two coaching metrics, yes, the class rating fell more than 50 points during his tenure – normally a sign of an imminent firing – but it was coming off a very high and, for the Sharks, unsustainable level. His coach factor has been positive two years running… This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has…

On that basis, I’d see another season of the Sharks scrapping for a spot in the bottom half of the top eight. The off-season hasn’t seen any major gains or losses, just an Aidan Tolman whose best days are behind him coming from the Bulldogs. The only way to go higher is to fortunately unearth some hitherto unknown talents… and realistically, Cronulla are waiting for their current prospects to mature without looking too much further down the line. The ways down will be if I’ve misjudged Morris’ capability and/or the Sharks sit idle only to be overtaken by other teams making good on their potential.

People might have forgotten that it was John Morris, not Josh Hannay, that started the season as Sharks coach. Morris seemed to have done ok in 2020 with a below average roster yielding an exactly average 10-10 record with a zero points difference. The counter-argument was that the Sharks didn’t beat any of the teams above them. By contrast in 2021, the Sharks won two games against teams above them (against the Titans and another Origin depleted Panthers that the Tigers also beat) and lost a stack to teams below them, including embarrassing losses to two of the bottom three. It was not an improvement on the year before.

What happened

Morris’ 2020 and early 2021 performances were deemed not good enough and the board signed up Craig Fitzgibbon to take over next year. Morris and the club disagreed on how to handle the remainder of the season, so Morris resigned, initiating a week or two of Discourse.

Hannay has filled in as a temporary coach for both the Cowboys in 2020 and Sharks in 2021 but doesn’t appear to be in the running for any of the permanent roles that will almost ertainly become available over the next twelve months. In that sense, he is the replacement level coach; good enough to fill a hole but not good enough to start.

We don’t have any real data on how Fitzgibbon might perform. There are too many variables – personalities, state of the roster, luck – with no data to make an educated guess as to how the Sharks go under his tutelage. We do have some data that we can compare Hannay and Morris, which will let us establish a baseline comparison. If Morris is not significantly better than Hannay, then the club might have been right to punt him. If Morris is better than Hannay, then the club gave up on a finals appearance and, possibly more in the future, for a roll of the dice with Fitzgibbon.

Coaching metrics are a bit rubbery but my view is a good coach will leave the place in a better state than when he arrived and a good coach will get more out of his players than expected. We can measure these two components by looking at the change class Elo rating of a club during a coach’s tenure (coaching career points) and the difference between player TPR projections and their actual performance (coach factor), respectively.

Note that actual coach factor usually has a few more calculation steps but we did not need them for this analysis. The above shows the average across all players of the difference between the projection and the actual performance, as measured in TPR.

That’s great but what does it all mean? I take a few things away from these graphs:

  • Morris inherited a very high class rating from Shane Flanagan but not necessarily the squad to back it up. Over 2019 and 2020, he lost the 50 ratings points that indicate that someone will imminently lose their job. Having said that, he lost points at a slower rate than Hannay did.
  • While Morris was in charge, players consistently, and sometime significantly, outperformed their expectations in a way that Hannay’s tenures did not show.
  • Hannay can do a job but he’s not going make things better than you would have expected.

In summary, Morris is better than the replacement level coach and should probably be a target for any clubs looking for stabilisation and a fresh direction. Whether he is better than Fitzgibbon, only time will tell. It still seems strange to me to have punted Morris, and given up a finals appearance for a 10-14 season, without giving Morris a squad that was actually capable of contending to see if he had legitimate chops. If the expectation is that Morris would keep the club in the same rareified air as the Storm and Roosters, despite the Sharks showing no capacity to do that long term in their entire history and with nowhere near the supporting infrastructure or roster, then that seems grossly unfair.

There’s always next year

Fitzgibbon might be the second coming of Bennett and Bellamy – it seems unlikely that this is the case and the club has no real way of knowing that, which begs questions about how decisions are made – but you can only polish the proverbial so much. Fitzgibbon must be wondering what the board considers acceptable performance under these circumstances. At a minimum, to have justified this course of action, he would need to be making the preliminary finals every year. If he just manages repeat middling finals appearances, then that’s what they already had so the de-stabilisation was a waste of time. If Fitzgibbon can’t even manage that, then the board needs to look at themselves.

In the meantime, the Sharks managed to offload both Shaun Johnson (back to the Warriors) and Chad Townsend (off to the Cowboys, via the Warriors). They gain Nicho Hynes, because someone outside of QCup perverts and the Melbourne Storm noticed that he can play ball, Cam McInnes, fresh off an ACL rehab, and Dale Finucane.

The obvious comment to make on these signings is that Storm players famously do not perform to the same level once outside of the Storm system. So there’s two specific tests for Fitzgibbon:

  • Can he make Hynes into a certified, standalone stud instead of his current role of pinch hitting spine positions for the NRL’s best team?
  • Can he get Dale Finucane to maintain or improve on his career TPR of .106?

The rest of the roster is much the same from 2021 to 2022. Depending on how closely you watch the Sharks, that could be a roster full of promising youngsters who will continue their development trajectory but perhaps more importantly, it will be a roster that no longer reserves cap space for Aaron Woods, Bronson Xerri or Nene McDonald.

There are far too many unknowns for me to make a definitive statement of the future but it beats doing the same shit over and over again for no gain.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canberra Raiders

We’ve gotten through the truly awful teams, so now we can focus on teams that underwhelmed but weren’t disgusting. First cab off the rank is the Canberra Raiders, finishing the 2021 season with a 10-14 record with a -97 points difference. That means the Raiders were only four points per game worse than the average team in the NRL (with a Pythagorean expectation of 9.9 wins), although we need to temper that by recognising that the average NRL team this year would’ve been a spoon contender in other, more competitive seasons.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

By the time you read this, you’ll have read or heard a thousand justifications for Canberra being right in the premiership race. I don’t disagree with any of them but note that the projected Taylors have them wedged firmly between Manly and Cronulla, which seems low for a premiership contender. That seems primarily due to a weak back five and strangely mediocre starting rotation, given the names therein. This might be the numbers being off or we could be in for a big case of everyone talking themselves into the Raiders…

The primary concern surely has to be receiving a flogging at the hands of the Storm, which abruptly ended the Raiders’ 2020 campaign in about ten minutes. The secondary concern is whether the team has really improved since the 2019 grand final…

The Raiders have been knocking on the door since 2016 now, so at what point do we conclude that their processes aren’t right? Perhaps it will be at the end of this year if they come home without the Provan-Summons again, having hit their ceiling once more in week three of the finals.

A lot of Raiders fans read pessimism into my words and were deflated. Everyone else had been building them up for a premiership tilt. Then George Williams left and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad got hurt. The Raiders started falling over and then they fell over. Not only did they not make week three of the finals, they didn’t make the finals at all.

The 10-14 record is more reminiscient of 2017 and 2018, than 2019 and 2020. It’s up to you to decide which one is reflective of the true level of the Canberra Raiders.

What happened

The backs and forwards appear to be there or thereabouts but their total production seems to be being eroded, just a little, each year. The bench actually increased their contribution. But, as in 2017 and 2018, the Raiders were let down by their playmaking. It wasn’t as dire as those seasons but Vlandoball has also inflated every team’s production. 10 WARG in 2021 doesn’t go as far as it did a few years ago.

Williams, George was never as productive as the elite tier halves in the league but he was better than the alternative. Wighton would go on to have a shocker, considering he was judged to the best player in the game last year (his .180 TPR would return to around his long term average of .115 this season). Williams, Sam joined the Defintion of Replacement Level club, currently chaired by Danny Levi. It was the failure to have someone to replace Williams, George that was better than Williams, Sam that was the difference between finals and an early Mad Monday for the Raiders. Alternatively, had Wighton played up to the level that the NSW selectors believe him to be capable of, the question of who occupies the halfback position would have been redundant.

Williams apparently wanted to see out the season but had been agitating for a release. The Raiders granted an early release mid-season. I don’t know the truth of it but it looks a lot like the Raiders shot themselves in the foot. We can speculate on the why.

Perhaps that could have been covered for. The Raiders played well in 2016 with a lesser contribution from the playmakers. While the backs and bench improved their production from 2020 to 2021, some the key forwards went backwards.

Specifically, Josh Papali’i, Dunamis Lui and Elliott Whitehead all took significant steps towards mean, losing about 20 pips of TPR each. While numbers won’t tell you the whole story, if the plan was to hope everyone could redline all season to cover for Englishmen returning home, then that wasn’t ever going to be sustainable.

I also think the team hasn’t really reconciled with the loss of John Bateman and probably need to think about finding someone of his calibre and attitude (except for the preference for Wigan over Canberra) to fill the void.

There’s always next year

Plenty of Raiders fans will tell you Ricky Stuart has earned the right to dig the club out of this hole, again, but he has to dig the club out of a hole that he and the administration have dug. It’s been evident that not all is right at Raiders-land and for there to be frequent and regular expressions of frustration via both the traditional and social media, suggests a lack of cohesion that is going to undermine any future plans. Perhaps it is this and not mean regression that explains the performance of the forwards?

Provided that can be rectified – and that’s a big if now – the question is what happens to the roster. They were a half step off the pace when they were good and they are now several steps behind. Even if Stuart can squeeze the best out of everyone, I would suggest Canberra need reinforcements, especially in the halves. Aidan Sezer won’t ever come back, Jackson Hastings is going to the Tigers and James Maloney would rather slip into retirement for Lezignan than return to the NRL. Super League starts to look pretty thin after that, so it might be time to revise the recruiting strategy of the last few years.

Is it time to roll the dice on Luke Brooks? Perhaps but that patches the hole, it doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t know if there are any real Moneyball signings out there that the club could make – perhaps make an offer for one of the Cowboys’ surplus halves? – and without a talent pipeline, hampered by two consecutive cancellations of the NSW Cup, the Raiders can’t draw down on the farm system like other clubs. Even the Queensland Cup cupboard looks bereft of options (former Raiders under 20, Jack Ahearn? Sam Scarlett? Cam Cullen?).

People smarter than me who know the organisation better will come up with a solution. One is to move Josh Hodgson to 7 to open up the 9 jumper for Tom Starling. That seems as good a plan as any but if it doesn’t work, don’t be surprised to see the Raiders in a similar position next season.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 St George Illawarra Dragons

The St George Illawarra Dragons finished the 2021 NRL season in eleventh place, with a 8-16 record and a -142 points difference. Thus ends the facts.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The league’s least interesting football team is back, whiter and blander than ever.

Anthony Griffin returns from the wilderness, having previously coached some of the most boring teams imaginable. He brings with him some questionable likes from Twitter, especially in the context of whether black lives do indeed matter. The Dragons lost Tyson Frizzell, albeit a shadow of what he has been or could be, Euan Aitken, Jacob Host and Jason Saab. Then they lost Cameron McInnes, not just to the Sharks but also to a busted ACL. In return, they got has-beens from the wooden spooners and Daniel Alvaro…

They were a bad team that’s gotten worse. An early season wallopping or six should see them fold on their way to a bottom of the table finish. Then the finger pointing can begin in earnest. We’ll learn the names of a lot of Dragons board members before it’s resolved.

Somehow they had an even worse season than that and yet won more games than I expected.

What happened

We didn’t get the spoon I expected. Griffin had them moving in the right direction for a while. Then this all happened:

These incidents are gross, moronic and pathetic, respectively and in equal measures. What a club.

There’s always next year

Ben Hunt deserves better. Christ, Matt Dufty deserves better. Josh McGuire isn’t the biggest cunt on this team. Speaking of the biggest cunt on this team, Jack de Belin was average and not worth the bad karma (to put it mildly). They will waste the best years of Junior Amone and Mikaele Ravalawa. Why are there so many ex-Broncos?

The Dragons are an embarrassment to an already embarrassing league and I’m sickened thinking about what depths they will plumb next year. We, and I include their fans in this, would probably all be better off if they didn’t exist.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 New Zealand Warriors

What a season for the Warriors. A top twelve finish gave them something to write home about. The New Zealand franchise won just as many games (8) as basket case club, the Wests Tigers, but with a slightly less disastrous points difference (-171). The second season on the road was probably just as tough as the first, except it was about 50% longer and this year the Warriors had to play under Nathan Brown. Nonetheless, the Titans now have more finals appearances in the last decade, so that’s something for everyone to think about.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Nathan Brown, Phil Gould and Cameron George have enough combined idiocy to act as the four horsemen of New Zealand football’s apocalypse, despite there only being three of them. If they could sign someone in the vein of Keegan Hipgrave, this metaphor would be a lot more satisfying.

…[T]he Warriors (along with the Dragons) are one of my favourites for the wooden spoon in 2021. I had them pegged in a similar position last season but, despite the difficult circumstances in which they played, their coaching got them through with enough wins and panache to avoid the bottom four… the Warriors are [now] being led by the man who has the worst coaching factor of the last five years, including the all-time worst NRL season… I have little confidence in Brown’s ability to unite the squad and motivate them while they live away from home for another year. Under normal circumstances and a better coach, there’s enough potential production for the Warriors to look good for a top eight finish.

If you need to understand the level of savvy Phil Gould brings to the boardroom, one only need look at how much better Penrith are running without him and that Roger Tuivasa-Scheck has already decided to go to union next year. Cameron George, a NRL club CEO, is a refsfaulter and seems to get most of his ideas from talkback radio.

I really wondered if I’d gone too far on this at several points in the season. Then the Warriors were in fourteenth with a 5-13 record after round 19, the worst performance to that point in the season since 1999 (5-12 by round 19, also in fourteenth place). There were seasons in between where the Warriors were running dead last and still had more wins than they did this year. They were, by their own standards, terrible.

There were three reasons no one noticed. The first being that no one wants to pile on a bunch of guys living away from home for an extended period, making sacrifices in the popular parlance. The second is that these are the New Zealand Warriors and I’m convinced the average NRL pundit and the average NRL punter are not aware that there is a team based in New Zealand in this competition. The third is that there were at least two teams, and probably several more, that were somehow worse.

What happened

The Warriors started the season with the sixth best roster by pre-season projections. Don’t believe me? Here’s a graph.

Now let’s check in with how the team actually performed against those expectations.

That doesn’t look good. If only there were some warning about a gross under performance.

(The above graph should read 2016 – 2021, my apologies)

Oh. Well, I’m sure this is Wayne Bennett’s fault somehow. Phil Gould can help get things on the right track.

Oh. Well, at least Cameron George has his eye on the ball.

Oh.

There’s always next year

Phil Gould couldn’t even be bothered seeing out the season and took a more lucrative offer at the Bulldogs. Nathan Brown is still doing Nathan Brown things. Cameron George is the proverbial immovable barncale on the ass of this franchise. Matt Lodge is the face of your club now. Accept it, Warriors fans. I had to boo through it for sixty-five games, now its your turn. At least he can play the role of Keegan Hipgrave from the opening metaphor.

Roger Tuivasa-Scheck is gone and he’s not coming back. He saw the writing on the wall early and bailed for union. Smart. The Warriors organisation took this as a personal slight and instead of trying to win games and make the finals in the easiest season in living memory, they punted a Dally M winner to the wing to make room for a precocious child who had not shown any real promise in an actual football game to that point. Walsh’s marginally above average .123 in QCup was perhaps not indicative of the shit hot five weeks of form he hit while smothering what was left of Tuivasa-Scheck’s NRL career (TPR .224). It was, however, definitely indicative of the mediocre .109 Walsh put up from round 12 onwards. People tried to argue with me that moving Walsh to fullback was a bad idea. The numbers don’t lie.

Shaun Johnson returns to Auckland-on-Moreton-Bay for a two year contract to revive the good old days of 2011, when the Warriors were relevant enough to lose a grand final. I’m sure the Warriors will look good on paper in 2022, just as I’m certain they will under-deliver.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Wests Tigers

Good lord, the absolute scale of the mess of this football club is immense. Considering the Tigers finished thirteenth, and not last, with an 8-16 record and -214 points difference, it seems like an overreaction in isolation. But for a Sydney club that hasn’t played in the finals since 2011, and bearing in mind there’s a 50/50 chance of making the finals every year, tempers are rising. There’s only so many ninth and fourteenth places that people will accept, without a single indication that things will genuinely improve, before they give up. Or at least get very angry on social media and turn on each other like rabid dogs.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

Despite this, there’s nothing to really recommend the Tigers this year. They’re pinning their hopes on Luke Brooks, a player I have time for, especially based on his 2019 production, but who struggled last year and the club doesn’t seem to be particularly setting him up for glory in 2021. James Tamou is a good signing but Wests need so much more. Maguire might be the man to steer the ship in current circumstances and has a reasonable record of extracting the best out of what he’s been given.

There’s just so much nothing in the roster – all the serious talents have gravitated elsewhere, not least Harry Grant – that it’s difficult to see how the Tigers plan to break out of the rut. Perhaps Edene Gebbie or Joey Leilua will get his head in the game. Maybe Daine Laurie will deliver earlier. Maybe, perhaps and it’s all relying on potential, not proven performance. Fundamentally, they were a bottom half team last season, they’ve lost their best player and during the off-season, they haven’t improved as much as the teams around them or even some of the teams below them.

While the level of performance was correctly forecast, I don’t think it accurately describes the 2021 Wests Tigers experience. The roster has some sparkles – Doueihi (who jumped up in my reckoning at least), Utoikamanu, Laurie, Mikaele, Leilua and so on – and they were surrounded by guys who largely couldn’t be bothered.

In some part, blame for that rests with Michael Maguire. He’s lost 30 class Elo rating points since starting at the Tigers, so it’s not quite the certainty for the guillotine that 50 points would imply but there’s definitely pressure on. When you combine his seeming inability to do the job with the Tigers propaganda documentary in which Maguire had editing rights, this reflects poorly on upper management who, at the time of writing, do not appear to be taking action or under any pressure themselves. I’ve said before that Justin Pascoe should be gone and I don’t think 2021 showed any reason to change that, not least because it was so similar to what we’ve seen previously (I’m almost certain I’ve said before that ‘there’s only so many ninth places people will tolerate’ before and yet here we are).

What happened

One of Maguire’s more baffling moves mid-year was to shift Adam Doueihi from five-eighth to centre to make room for Origin superstar*, Moses Mbye.

The thing is that it kind of worked. The Tigers went 3-4 during this period, with wins over an Origin-depleted Panthers, Knights and Dragons and losses to Souths, Parra, Melbourne and, for some reason, the New Zealand-Central Coast Warriors. Putting Doueihi back to 6 maybe, maybe changes one of those outcomes. So perhaps it’s less “worked” and more “wasn’t a total disaster”. That extra win was still two short of what the Tigers needed to make the finals.

But the numbers show a different story. The Tigers gave up 20 Taylors in production – roughly 5% of the average NRL team’s output – by switching Doueihi, just in his contribution alone. That might not sound like a lot but losing 20 Taylors moves the Tigers’ average output from eleventh best in the league to fifteenth, wedged between the Broncos and the Bulldogs. That’s without considering that Mbye was worse at five-eighth than any of the centres were at playing centre. It was, truly, a baffling decision and one that should be exhibit A in the trial of Michael Maguire.

How about some good news? Look at these guys:

All those young guys I cited before don’t look like they were actually quite that productive but still better than most of the team. Unlike last year, where only six Tigers exceeded the league average TPR mark, this year ten did. So that’s progress and at least the youngsters have time on their side.

There’s always next year

If the problem the Tigers had was assembling a good, young core of a football team, then it’d be problem solved. Unfortunately, every team has a good, young core of players to build around. Some of the teams coming up from behind them have very good young players. The actual problem is taking that and building on it to create a productive, winning football team. Not many clubs manage it and, as I’ve been saying for some time now, the Tigers do not have what it takes in their front office to succeed. Dumb luck would have a NRL team in the finals at least once in a decade – the Titans have done it twice with less than twelve wins – and the Tigers can’t even hurdle that bar.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Brisbane Broncos

The Broncos didn’t finish last. They didn’t even finish second last. The Broncos wound up in fourteenth, 7-17 with a -249 points difference. Their points difference was only third worst in the league. The attack was also third worst, somehow behind the seventh placed Knights, and the defence an astonishing fourth worst. 2020 was so bad that all of these are actually positive things. As a bonus, the retiring has-been didn’t use the final game of the season as an opportunity for a gender reveal.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The Broncos aren’t going to get the spoon again. Sorry, it’s just not how football works. They probably will not make the finals but there is literally only a single direction that the sport’s biggest franchise can take coming off a 3-17 season that included a 59-0 flogging, somehow breaking the previous year’s record flogging.

*tweet of Brodie Croft playing halfback pre-season*

Never mind. It looks like the Kevolution might take a little longer than initially anticipated.

While I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the Broncos, I thought they might improve somewhat on last year… So be it, although if Walters can’t get it sorted, the squad will have to be scattered to the four winds for their own good and Brisbane will have to start again with a bunch has-beens while the farm system replenishes… The alternative is teaching the younger players to play eighty minutes of football and winning some – it doesn’t even have to be a lot! – games.

Brodie Croft’s spectre has finally been vanquished from Red Hill, off to Salford per my prophetic meme.

The rest more or less came to pass. The Broncos were travelling poorly, with a roster that was worse than 2020’s and results that were better, and started offloading almost whoever they could get rid of. Matt Lodge, gone. Tevita Pangai, gone. Tom Dearden, gone. Reece Walsh, gone. That last one was probably not the smartest decision but we can blame the old front office, who are almost all gone as well, for that.

Then they started getting better and in a prime example of nature healing, debuting children again. And they won some more games – it wasn’t even that many! – and finished above the Cowboys, which is all we ever really wanted.

What happened

Let’s check in and see how our new coach is doing.

It’s an interesting strategy to crash the team even faster than your most loathed predecessor, especially if one wants to retain one’s job.

The rule of thumb is that once a coach loses 50 points, irrespective of their starting point, they end up losing their job sooner or later. It is extremely rare to be given the opportunity to turn it around after that kind of performance, although there are exceptions (see Catalans below). Walters’ sits at -31, having bottomed out at -38. While there’s currently no real pressure, a bad start to next season will almost certainly seal his fate. He will have to work extremely hard to break even and even that might not be enough to get a contract extension. A career season is what’s required.

Now let’s check in with how he went during his only other head coaching appointment.

I see. One could also use this chart to compare Walters’ performance to that of, say, Trent Robinson. I’m sure it will be fine.

There’s always next year

Adam Reynolds. Kurt Capewell. Jordan Pereira. If at least two of those names don’t fill the Broncos’ rivals’ hearts with dread, then I don’t know football.

The Broncos appear to have made the right moves to re-balance the roster but then that’s been ostensibly the case the last couple of off-seasons. The promise of high performance and, even laughably, a premiership window dissolved into the mirages they always were under the twin tyrannies of incompetent coaching and incompetent administration. I’ll believe that the Broncos have improved when I see them improve. Rationally, it should be the case but irrationally, I’ve sat through 58-0 and 59-0 and a combined 10-34 record over those seasons and, like dental surgery, I’d honestly prefer not to have to do that again.

Ben Ikin and Dave Donaghy should be good for it and Kevin Walters might not be. It’ll take time as every NRL rebuild project over the last decade has generally shown. Finals might be on the cards if everything goes well but I suspect just getting out of the basement will be achievement enough. Best case scenario is that football will go to pot again and a 10-14 record will be enough to qualify for the post-season with the Broncos on the right side of it this time. Worst case scenario is probably more of the same as this year which will be bearable but might only speed up my disengagement with the sport. There are so many other sports teams out there.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 North Queensland Cowboys

The North Queensland Cowboys finished in second last place, pipped by arch rivals – remember when that was a thing? – the Brisbane Broncos in the final round. With a 7-17 record, the Cowboys finished with the worst defence in the NRL, conceding 748 points in 24 games. That works out to 31.2 points conceded per game. Keen eyed observers would compare this to the rate at which the 2020 Brisbane Broncos leaked points, which was also 31.2 points per game and was considered an historically bad performance (13th worst in the NRL era), and use that to draw the conclusion that the Cowboys were lucky to share a league with the 2021 Bulldogs.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The actual names in the North Queensland roster should inspire some hope… Having the best forward and the once best winger in the game should do that. Payten demonstrated his chops last year… By that logic, under a new dynamic coach, one able to get the best out his men, should see the team out-perform expectations.

The Cowboys will have to push themselves to make the top eight but I am far from ruling it out. Taumalolo lost a little of his punch last season… The revival begins there, ably assisted by Francis Molo and needing more effort or bigger seasons out of Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Tom Gilbert. After that, some combination of Drinkwater, Morgan and Clifford needs to gel, even though Clifford is departing for Newcastle next season. Points will follow with even the most dubious outside backs in that scenario and a finals appearance thereafter.

Then again, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

The logic is flawless, provided Todd Payten is in fact the dynamic, man manager coach that I had convinced myself he was but, it turns out, probably isn’t. I suspect this was a result of going along with the groupthink narrative instead of listening to my internal critic, although you can see my cowardly attempt at an each way bet in the digital ink.

Michael Morgan retired, which didn’t help. Jason Taumalolo’s hands suddenly appear to be made of egg shell, with multiple hand injuries sidelining the Pacific Dally Messenger this year. Jake Clifford was let go early and replaced by the inferior Tom Dearden. The pack, and/or maybe the coach, either refused to or were unable to get to grips with the new game and the results suffered for it. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow looks better than he did last year and there are other young guys that can follow his lead.

What happened

To calculate a proxy for coaching performance, we look at the gap between the pre-season projected TPR and the actual TPR of each player in the team. Payten’s Cowboys sit about mid-field, which seems fine until you look at the company he’s keeping.

Slightly above Payten are Kevin Walters, not a man who carries a special reputation, Josh Hannay, mostly with some John Morris thrown in, and Adam O’Brien, who just coached a team to seventh place with an abysmal attack (that may be considered good coaching, depending on your perspective). Payten is a clear step behind the coaches we’d consider in the top tier and, for some reason, the Titans’ Justin Holbrook. Importantly, he’s a clear step ahead of the disasters currently unfolding at the Bulldogs, Warriors and Tigers. The jury will remain out on Payten for the time being but he will need results next year to keep his job.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ million dollar man for a million years has returned to his early career form. While the new rules haven’t suited him, Payten has insisted on shuffling him around and changing his role despite plenty of evidence as to how Taumalolo should be optimally used, something even Paul Green managed to work out. The one-time career WARG leader is now contributing 5.7% of the Cowboy’s Wins Above Reserve Grade, down from a peak of 19.1% in 2017. While the Cowboys’ WARG total has grown over that time and Taumalolo missed plenty of games, it’s not fast enough to disguise the decline of Taumalolo’s contribution. Taumalolo had a TPR of .113 in 2013, peaked at .180 in 2017 and has declined to just .110 in 2021. While this is still above average (just), this is despite the league-wide inflation in production thanks to Vlandoball. Todd Payten getting his head wrapped around how to get the most out of Taumalolo will likely be key to his long-term job prospects.

There’s always next year

There sure is. The problem is that the Cowboys look like going around in much the same shape again. The bottom three in 2021 were the same bottom three as in 2020. Whereas the other two members of that illustrious club have made moves to remedy this situation, the Cowboys appear content to not join this arms race.

It’s mildly concerning that while the Broncos sign Adam Reynolds and the Bulldogs sign Matt Burton, the Cowboys see Chad Townsend as an equivalent halfback.

It’s more concerning that the signing of Chad Townsend, confirmed at best to be an average footballer, came with the signing of Tom Dearden, confirmed at best to be a long term project, while still hanging on to Scott Drinkwater. It’s concerning and perplexing.

Such recruitment decisions suggests that perhaps the right hand and the left hand of the Cowboys do not necessarily speak to each other on trifling matters such as spending 800,000 Australian dollars per annum on the services of one Chadwick Townsend while spending a further few hundred thousands of dollars on another halfback that looked like Allan Langer for about three games if you squinted.

If that’s the case, there is very little to hope for moving forward, irrespective of the bona fides of Todd Payten or the structural integrity of Jason Taumalolo’s hands or that Reecce Robson and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are pretty handy or that there is a promising cavalry of younger players just over the horizon.

On that note:

Get ready to chalk up another one for the “how could they let him go” brigade. At least there’s always next year.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs finished season 2021 in last place with a pathetic 3-21 record and a points difference of -370. Scoring just 14.2 points per game in the Vlandoball era, a number inflated by a last round thumping of a hapless Tigers, puts a strong case for the Doggies to be one of the worst attacking sides of the NRL era. It was, in fact, the eleventh worst of the NRL era on a points scored per game basis but, shockingly, a marginal improvement on last year (ninth worst in NRL era).

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The signs have been broadly positive for the Bulldogs for a number of years now and they haven’t made much progress since parting ways with Des Hasler, Raelene Castle and a stack of bad contracts. Transfer moves aside, and any signings would have been an improvement on what they had, I don’t have a lot of faith in Trent Barrett. Despite his last outing at Manly, he comes with some wraps from after being involved in Penrith’s rapid ascent to the grand final in 2020.

I still have the Doggies pegged in the back of the bunch with little hope that they will significantly outperform my expectations. I, of course, have been wrong before. The road back to contention may be a long and painful one but if the right decisions are made to put sound foundations back under the club, it will be worth it in the long run.

That was, it turns out, unnecessarily optimistic. The signings for this season were more or less useless. Kyle Flanagan’s NRL future hinges on the breakout of an epsilon, or possibly zeta, variant (a doctor mentioned a mu variant to me the other day, so it is possible that this joke is already out of date). Cotric (.095 TPR) and Allan (.069) went from Origin to anonymity, even before injury.

Perhaps the worst offender was head coach Trent Barrett, who seemed to bring even less than his predecessors to the role. Absent were the garbage time wins we’ve come to expect, exchanging them for losses of varying magnitudes (hapless Tigers aside) and finally extinguishing that diehard spirit that had previously kept Canterbury off the bottom of the ladder.

What happened

I came into this expecting to blame the forwards but the numbers tell a different story.

It wasn’t a great year for anyone involved with the Canterbury-Bankstown organisation but the forward platoon (the players listed at prop, second row and lock) managed to produce 83.3% of the average NRL team. The bench did marginally better at 83.8% but the playmakers and especially the backs were lacking (76.2%).

That’s not particularly surprising though. If a team doesn’t score enough points, that suggests an absence of tries which traditionally are a large component of the production of the back five. In this case, their lack of production might reflect a lack of opportunity, probably from a combination of a lack of territory, a lack of possession and a lack of playmaking.

Lachlan Lewis was still productive through limited game time but he’s done that in previous years and it hasn’t meant he’s been good but rather that he has a boot on him. Jake Averillo might be marginally more promising long term but might serve the club better as first backup. Corey Horsburgh was a welcome reinforcement. Luke Thompson was perhaps the best all round performer and after that, it gets decidedly average quickly before dropping off quicker still to demonstrate a profound lack of depth. This is a long term problem to be solved, perhaps once the team’s results aren’t so dire.

There’s always next year

The arrival of Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton, Tevita Pangai Junior and other legitimate studs, including the 2+ WARG Josh Stuckey from the Queensland Cup’s Northern Pride, should be a turning point for the club. There’s some concerning noises about the lack of cap space that would require the Bulldogs to let go of Luke Thompson, which would be disastrous but could equally be media bullshit.

There’s probably not enough in the new blood to get the club to the top of the ladder, so it remains to be seen where the additional talent is going to come from, in which case the club might find itself floating in purgatory for a while until a juniors conveyor belt can be built, but better purgatory than the seventh circle of hell or lower. There also likely needs to be a coaching change in the near future, perhaps when a more obvious candidate emerges after the Trent Barrett experiment can be conclusively said to have failed.

We’ll have to wait and see how the current regime – occupying the space created by my previous, devastating season review – cope with these challenges to judge whether they should stay in their positions or if the Bulldogs require another teardown re-build before returning to something like their historical competence.

Hmmm.

Also, Lachlan Lewis allegedly stole some speakers and that’s what gets you fired from the NRL? Go figure.

BNE2.3: What is the point of it?

Previously, in our series on Brisbane expansion:

*****

A football club has an identity. Three things comprise a club’s identity: purpose, mythology and reality. Let’s explore those ideas with some NRL case studies.

The mythology of the Brisbane Broncos is that these were excellent footballers that were assembled from the Brisbane competition and wider Queensland to go south and show the Sydneysiders how it was done. From the first game, a record thrashing of the defending premiers, and through many premierships, the club’s success was a reflection of Queensland’s innate quality. The reality of the Broncos is that they had enormous financial and other advantages that enabled them to maintain a deep roster of talent and dominate the sport for nearly twenty years. Now that those advantages have been eroded, the reality of the club is much clearer.

Indeed, the reality of most NRL clubs is much the same. They get $13 million from the NRL each year and spend nearly $10 million on player salaries, have the same football department cap and, with a few exceptions, are run by some of the worst managers in Australia. But without the sales and admin and cleaning staff, there is no club. It’s always interesting to me to see people who, despite spending a lot of time thinking about football, are unable to separate the myth from the reality.

The purpose of the Gold Coast Titans is clear. They represent the people of the Gold Coast in the premier rugby league football competition in the country and give that city a national presence that no other sports teams can or have or maybe will. The reality is that, barring a few preliminary final appearances, the club has been mediocre to poor for its entire existence, brought to the brink of financial destruction and rescued by the NRL. The Titans have no mythology. There are no star players with long careers at Robina, no premierships or even really any interesting stories. They’ve existed but not lived. Consequently, its tough for the Titans to find wider acceptance within their community because they feel incomplete. We can speculate that if the name or the colours were different, whether that would have a different outcome but you can dress inferiority up however you like but it still sucks. That’s hard to invest in and doubly hard to sit through.

In contrast, the Wests Tigers almost have too much mythology. The combination of Balmain, brimming with a long history of success with one obvious home, and Western Suburbs, decidedly less successful and far more nomadic but with at least a patina of working class battler, has yielded more questions than answers. Specifically, who are the Wests Tigers and what are they for? Who are their people? While the exploits of Benji Marshall and company go some way to establishing a uniquely Wests Tigers mythology, the recent lack of success offers little to either side of the merger. You could accept some compromise on the club’s identity if it meant winning but to live in a subpar limbo satisfies no one. So despite the historical success, it’s the lack of obvious purpose that means that the Tigers will never be the darling of the so-called ‘City Fathers’ who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards and wonder, “Whats to be done with these Wests Tigers?”

The Newcastle Knights hit the trifecta. Their purpose is to represent Newcastle on the national stage in a way no other institution could. Their mythology is that of the 1997 grand final and the Johns brothers and then the 2001 grand final and more. Their reality is not that dissimilar to the Titans since 2007 but the mythology makes all the difference. They are a real and complete football club.

This brings us to the three Brisbane bids to be the seventeeth team in the NRL. My thinking on this has changed a lot over the last two years. Where I was excited by the novelty of it, I am now quite apathetic to the outcome of this process. It lacks purpose and it lacks an overall strategic context. What is the point of it?

Nonetheless, we wait with bated breath to see if Peter V’Landys, and anyone else who he deigned to allow speak in his presence, decide to add a new team to the competition (probable) or two new teams (unlikely) or no new teams (possible). I will admit the novelty still has some appeal and we may never get to analyse an opportunity like this again.

The key here is to not fall into the trap of thinking that Brisbane’s rugby league landscape is the same as Sydney’s. Sydney rugby league is like playing Risk: the map has been thoroughly divided into territories, with imperial suburb-states all butting up against each other, and the only way to grow is to march into the neighbouring land and take over. The new Brisbane team will need to play Monopoly: they will want to find property wherever they can on the board, bring it together into a portfolio with enough nous to generate sufficient revenue for them to survive.

The idea that the new Brisbane club has to represent a particular patch of suburbia is a foreign one. Our teams – the Broncos, the Roar, the Lions and even the Reds – represent far bigger expanses of land than that. You could make an argument that the Brisbane the Broncos represent stretches from Beenleigh to Rockhampton.

Consequently, discussions about juniors catchments and population growth seem a bit redundant. If you have the scouts, there’s nothing stopping anyone from scouting juniors in south-east Queensland and signing them to a scholarship. If you have the marketing, there’s nothing stopping your fans from coming from the north side and the south side of the river.

In any case, suburban clubs don’t necessarily make for good NRL clubs (c.f. most of Sydney’s teams) but they do bring a mythology and a geographically narrow notional purpose. That’s what appeals about the Dolphins’ and the Jets’ bids. They’re just missing the reality of being able to operate a NRL franchise and can probably bridge that gap with enough money.

Of course, this mythology helps gloss over the other reality. The Dolphins were far from the most successful BRL club, winning in 1965 with the next coming long after the Broncos had suffocated that competition and more recent wins coming thanks to partnerships with NRL clubs.

As the Broncos were to the Brisbane Rugby League, so the Jets were to the Ipswich Rugby League. Having only existed since 1985 and won a single premiership in that time (with the infamous Walker Brothers at the helm), I don’t know if the Jets have really offered the people of Ipswich all that much and perhaps nothing compared to their own, earlier established clubs. Some of that is moot as the nominal Jets bid is basically the Bombers bid but with a different aircraft moniker. There’s been little discussion about the so-called Western Corridor and more discussion about their potential financial shortcomings.

The Firehawks have divorced themselves from their own mythology with a new name and tweaked colours, partly involuntarily due to the pre-existing Tigers in the NRL, but still hoping to strike out and create something new. In some ways, this is sensible. No one really knows what the appetite is going to be for the second Brisbane team or what the expectations will be and to not marry yourself too tightly to a singular vision offers some flexibility to react what the market actually wants and not what extremely online footy nerds think.

The fact is that we just don’t know a lot about the bids. We can react to colours and logos and nicknames but these things don’t matter so much and certainly not over the long term. That the online reaction is almost overwhelmingly negative tells me nothing. These people aren’t the target demographic and what they think is immaterial to the success of a new franchise.

Easts Tigers unveiled a strategic plan in 2020 to take them through to 2022 which hinted at some things normally discussed in boardrooms that that might be relevant to their bid (this, of course, has gone unnoticed by the media). Nick Livermore is happy to offer quotes in the media but is light on detail or, for that matter, lip service to the idea of the Western Corridor, let alone an Indigenous spin on the club’s branding. The Dolphins haven’t said much other than to suggest they might be the Brisbane or Moreton Bay or Sunshine State Dolphins.

If the NRL is expanded, I don’t have any particularly great hopes for the new franchise. I’d like there to be a (good) local derby partner for the Broncos. I’d like there to be a greater Queensland presence in the professional ranks of rugby league. I’d also like to see the NRL get bigger and richer and use that power to go to strange new places. But the NRL won’t do that.

The broadcasters have signalled minimal interest in a new team that doesn’t provide any additional content or offer a panacea to declining ratings. The incumbent clubs do not want to share their money or resources or spotlight or fans with a new intruder. Given that, the question remains as to where the NRL will find the new team’s central distribution payments. Surely they won’t follow Super League’s lead and allow teams to operate without central funding (see Toronto, Leigh) and surely there aren’t that many development officers left at HQ that can be let go. Then who will fund Gus Gould’s dreams of world (rugby league) domination?

It’s not even clear that the people of Brisbane are that interested in having a second team. The crowds for the plethora of games in late 2021 have been underwhelming, a far cry from the festival of footy that is Magic Round. There’s no grassroots wave of support, online or in the real world, to indicate that anyone is actually excited by the prospect of a new team, other than those who have given up on their current teams getting any better.

Perhaps we are all just exhausted by the never-ending pandemic. Perhaps it seems so inconsequential compared to the swirl of six agains and ping-ponging from reckless abandon to martial law and back again when it comes to acceptable tackle technique. Perhaps it’s just not that interesting.

The new team will be a goth in a school of jocks, unable to reconcile its place in the league because its not really wanted or needed but is there anyway, to serve a purpose that is not at all clear. This is because the NRL cannot reconcile its place within the national culture and refuses to even acknowledge that it needs to do so.

So we go around and around and wait for something to break.

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