This season, the NRL marketing department has decided to run with the tagline “faster and more unpredictable than ever” in one of its ads. Putting aside the fact that this is the blandest possible declaration that the NRL stands for nothing (indeed, tacitly endorses the racist view that a black man with an Aboriginal flag is a “political” statement with no place in the sport if 2020’s back pedalling is anything to go by), I dispute their very premise.
Let’s consider the two clauses to this statement:
Is the NRL faster than ever?
Is the NRL more unpredictable than ever?
In the Boolean sense, both parts would have to be true for the statement as a whole to be logically true.
The Rugby League Eye Test has done all of the research regarding the sport’s perceived fastness. There’s no need for me to re-create his work here but the cliff notes are as follows. The game is more condensed. This means that the first round of rule changes during last year’s covid break increased the amount of stuff being done in the same amount of time. The second round of rule changes during the offseason has decreased the allotted time available with the same amount of stuff being done.
Players expend energy more quickly and are more tired as a result, which is a great outcome if that’s your entirely mystifying goal. Ostensibly, it was for Peter V’Landys and his team. The problem is that fatigued players make more errors, have worse tackle technique and run slower. Shockingly, this hasn’t generated more exciting or better football for mine. The contrary argument is surely increasingly difficult to mount and even for the boomer enthusiasts (read: Phil Gould) who might like to intimate that the errors have created more opportunities for natural footy players, the reality is that line breaks are higher but not setting any records, one out hit ups are up significantly and handling errors – easily the most frustrating part of rugby league – were up 12% in 2020 on 2019.
It’s almost like the players were optimised for the sporting environment in which they plyed their trade and to change that in significant ways sees many of the players – both forwards and backs – short on the necessary aerobic capacity to do their jobs. I suppose its the clubs’ faults for not seeing these changes coming a few weeks out from the season starting and recruiting accordingly several years earlier.
Without the GPS data, it’s a tough call to make whether the game is faster. By definition, if you increase the amount of stuff being done and/or decrease the time it takes, you are increasing the rate of it and in common terms, making it faster. That said, the players may not be physically moving faster and may well actually be slower.
People will largely be familiar with form Elo ratings by now but if not, here’s the place to start. Form Elo ratings are optimised to return the highest reasonable head-to-head tipping rate through the regular season. Given the system has been more or less fixed for the entire history of the NRL, the success of the form Elo tipping can serve as a proxy for predictability. In a literal sense, the more successful at tipping the Elo ratings were, the more predictable the season was. It’s interesting then that 2020 was by far the most predictable NRL season.
Even noting that the seasons 1998 to 2002 are slight cheats in terms of predictive power for reasons I won’t go into now, 2020’s 71.3% success rate is a full 3.5% clear of the next best 67.7% in 2011. We’re currently tracking at 75% in 2021 in what is usually the least predictable part of the season (the latter stages can be 10% higher again) and several of the upsets have swung only on an unusually high number of injuries.
Considering a long run average of 61.8%, an increase of this magnitude is significant.
Last year, when I wrote about this same topic, I believed that the theory that rule changes encouraged blowout wins was at the very least exaggerated, if not wrong. I have flipped on that position.
What’s tripped me up is that the scorelines initially seemed to be similar to previous years, perhaps a little on the low side with slightly higher margins but well within what we’re used to seeing. This has held true. From 2007 to 2020, the 2020 season had the second highest average winning score (28.6 points, compared to 28.9 in 2008 and 27.6 over the long run average from 2007 to 2019) and the fourth lowest average losing score (13.2 points, compared to 12.8 in 2013 and 13.6 over the long run average), contributing to the second highest average margin over that period (15.4 points, compared to 15.4 in 2013 and 13.9 over the long run). In 2020, some of that will be explained by the absence of home ground advantage, typically worth four points to the home team, some of it will be the usual ebbs and flows of noisy data but the majority can be explained by fewer penalties, resulting in a collapse in penalty goals.
What’s completely fucked is how much favourites are winning by. If we label the team that is judged by their form Elo rating to be more likely to win the game as the “favourite”, then the favourite’s average margin (assessing losses as negative margin and wins as positive margin) has increased noticeably since round 3 of 2020.
What this means is that the favourites are not only more likely to win than in previous years, they are more likely to do it with more points in hand. By any slicing of the data, this is more predictable, not less predictable, and worse, less competitive.
FACT CHECK: the NRL receives 4 Pinocchios out of 5 for their claim
One of rugby league’s great strengths is that any team can win on their day. We can all remember games our teams had no right to win but did anyway, through perserverance, skill, hard work or just plain dumb luck. The new rules have made it harder for upsets to occur and weakened the game and its capacity to entertain us in doing so.
An alternative explanation for this data is that I follow one of the three or four historically bad teams we’re currently seeing, so this is all sour grapes. Historically bad teams come along once every ten years or so (e.g. mid-10s Knights, mid-00s Souths, late 90s Magpies, etc) and make up 1% to 2% of all seasons played. Each is a story of their own multitude of catastrophic failures. On that basis, estimating the odds of three or four arriving simultaneously, completely indendepently from each other, and by pure chance, ranges from one in 125,000 to one in 20,000,000. Sure it’s possible but it ain’t likely.
If such teams were common enough that four could form simultaneously, then the label historic would be unnecessary. They would merely be bad in the ordinary sense. If the outcome of the rule changes is to create such a change in the league that teams that normally would only be seen once a decade are now an annual ocurrence, then it’s obvious to me that the rule changes are a net negative to the league. Who wants to relive the experience of the 2016 Knights? Who’s that for?
Just for fun, let’s have a look at the distribution of who’s benefitted most from the sudden step change in the environment.
It won’t be hard to work out which fanbases will defend the changes the hardest and which ones won’t. There’s going to be some disturbing parallels between this argument and that of climate change. There is a small but definite effect at work which has clear, negative consequences for almost everyone. The flipside is that a small group of people benefit disproportionately from this effect, so deny its existence and attribute their success to their own innate virtue. Thus, a debate is formed when the evidence is clear and there is no actual debate.
It should be fun resolving that one. I look forward to “there’s always been blowout wins” becoming the new “we’ve always had bushfires”. Small changes to finely tuned ecosystems can have outsized impacts.
The NRL is probably not faster and is definitely not more unpredictable than ever. It’s almost as if this tagline was developed on the idea that the rule changes have made the sport more watchable because the administration is in the pocket of the free-to-air broadcaster. The NRL’s slide in the ratings when compared to AFL, starting from a position of relative parity in 2019 and then falling noticeably behind in 2020, suggests that the entertainment value is not what the authorities expected.
The tide against Peter V’Landys is slowing turning. The same cheerleaders in the media who were referring to him as a “Greek god” as little as eleven months ago are now questioning the value for money on the new broadcast arrangements. It won’t take long for people to realise the on-field product is obviously worse for the changes (or maybe it will take a long time, given just how unpopular my views are in general) and could have been avoided if any of the experts had been given more than thirty seconds’ notice to think about it. The media will eventually latch on to the idea that this strongman and his lack of process has achieved very little other than to bluff rubes, including most of the NRL’s alleged journalists and the decision-makers at Super League who adopted a lot of the changes and will provide a second set of data by season’s end, and then we will enter the final stages of V’Landys’ chairmanship.
In the interim, it remains to be seen if the ARLC will come up with some more brain genious solutions to problems that didn’t exist before they created them or if we will simply have to get used to this new environment and wait for the gap to close up again. We wait with bated breath.
Regular readers will know that I like to keep up with all the developments in world football, not just the top level. Because so many second and third class comps were cancelled last year, we aren’t able to do a serious season preview for each one in 2021 (if I even had the time). Many of the players have been on the sidelines for simply too long and, where we have data, it is too old to be of real use.
Nonetheless, there were still movements in the off-season that are worth keeping an eye on and if you missed The Year in Rugby League Football, we’ll cover some old ground to provide context for the season ahead.
Queensland Cup / Intrust Super Cup
If this is your first foray to the QCup, welcome. This is, without hyperbole, the world’s greatest rugby football league (Digicel Cup runs a close second). One game on Sunday will be available for streaming through the QRL website, as well as a few other outlets, with a Saturday game on Kayo Freebies. While its frustrating to lose the free-to-air slot that’s been made available the last few years (which presumably happened because Phil Gould tells Peter V’Landys what to do and Gould couldn’t find Queensland on a map, much less acknowledge the value that the Queensland Cup does and could have), this theoretically makes the competition much more accessible. At some point, we hope the QRL can go its own way with its own broadcast rights and reduce its dependence on the clueless Sydney-based parasites.
The biggest change for this season is Redcliffe’s switch from being the Broncos’ primary feeder to the Warriors’, which I wrote about last year. As usual, unless a transcedent talent emerges (e.g. Harry Grant in 2019, Cameron Munster and Jason Taumalolo in 2013, etc), the main front runners will be the clubs that get the best players from their NRL affiliates. Typically this will be Redcliffe (Warriors), Wynnum-Manly (Broncos, maybe Souths Logan or Norths), Townsville (Cowboys, although their assignments are relatively balanced), two-year defending champions Burleigh (Titans) and either Sunshine Coast or Easts (Storm).
My money is on the latter, given most of the first-rate Storm talents have been assigned to the Falcons but won’t generally be available. Easts Tigers have also rebranded as the Brisbane Tigers and signed former Souths Logan coach, Jon Buchanan, to replace Terry Matterson, who has taken up a role at the Broncos. They also pinched Darren Nicholson from the Magpies and have snaffled up Mitch Frei and former Jet Michael Purcell. I’d say they are having a serious tilt at ending their premiership drought which extends back to 1991 (post-Broncos BRL), 1989 (post-Broncos Winfield State League), 1983 (pre-Broncos BRL but season split with the Winfield State League) and/or 1978 (legit BRL title), depending on your perspective. Either way, like Parramatta, they’ve never won a title that matters despite five QCup grand final appearances since 1996.
Souths have signed up Steven Bretherton to coach for 2021 and 2022 and Karmichael Hunt and Kevin Locke will be appearing for the black-and-whites (and-blue-and-golds) with Tom Dearden if the Broncos decide they don’t want him for some insane reason.
Even after watching the Digicel Cup highlights from last year, it’s difficult to say whether the Hunters will materially improve on 2019’s wooden spoon as part of their post-2017 rebuild, citing a mix of new and old players, including the immortal Ase Boas and the temporary services of Watson Boas, who is unable to rejoin Doncaster. I fully expect the Capras, who currently do not have a coach, to be bringing up the rear as usual. Norths have signed Danny Levi, the perfect replacement level NRL player.
For 2020, I did do a deep dive season preview which was made redundant within about two weeks thanks to this thing you might have heard of called the Novel Coronavirus. A year on, with no play in between, a lot of the information I have from the 2019 season is redundant now. On top of that, the rule changes brought in last year have only just filtered through to State Cup (no word on whether 2021 rules will also be adopted this year). The reality is that we will not know how clubs and players have come through until we have some games in the books.
QRLW / BHP Premiership
We didn’t get much of a chance to get to know the new QRLW competition, suspended after one round in 2020. The BHP Premiership will kick off on April 10 2021, a few weeks after the men’s competition. Eight teams, largely the same as last year, will compete: Brisbane Tigers, Burleigh Bears, Wests Panthers, Central Queensland Capras, North Queensland Gold Stars, Valleys Diehards, Tweed Heads Seagulls and Souths Logan Magpies. It is great to see two heritage clubs returning to second class football, as neither Wests nor Valleys have played in the Queensland Cup since 2003 and 2004, respectively, and the latter was part of a short-lived joint venture with Brothers.
Ali Brigginshaw has gone from Brothers Ipswich to Valleys, after Brothers declined to enter this year’s competition, where she will be coached by Scott Prince. Brigginshaw played for Souths Logan in the Holcim Cup last year. Tamika Upton has also moved on from Souths Logan, and previously the Capras, to Burleigh. Tarryn Aiken will suit up again for Tweed Heads. The rebalancing of the competition’s talent should narrow the gap between Burleigh and Souths Logan at one end, and Wests and Tweed at the other that was experienced during last year’s Holcim Cup.
It is genuinely difficult to know who will be good in the BHP Premiership. One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching this competition will be seeing who comes out on top and learning some new names along the way. The Bears and Magpies already had strong programmes. Valleys aren’t messing around. The Tigers have invested in theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gold Stars, taking talent from Townsville, Cairns and Mackay, also field a competitive team. We’ll have to wait and see.
NSW Cup / Knock-on Effect Cup
Coincidentally, the Raiders made a last second decision to rejoin the NSW Cup shortly after Peter V’Landys announced he wanted all three grades back. For them, it’s probably a much smarter decision than the previous idea of using the Canberra Raiders Cup, i.e. local footy in Canberra, as reserve grade but has meant their withdrawal from some junior competitions.
With the exit of the Warriors, this brings the NSW Cup up to a beefy eleven teams, of which there are several heritage clubs – Newtown (Sharks), North Sydney (Roosters), Western Suburbs (Tigers) – and a couple of the bigger western Sydney clubs – Mounties (Bulldogs) and Blacktown (Sea Eagles) – and Canberra, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith, St George Illawarra and South Sydney just running straight reserve grade sides. For those playing at home, that’s five teams with distinct identities and six running with the “like the NRL but a bit shit” marketing angle.
The Cup is now sponsored by the Knock-on Effect which, depending on what mood I’m in, either sounds like a competition to make the most handling errors or raising awareness for CTE.
Trodden said it was fitting to extend the partnership with Transport for NSW after the success of The Knock-On Effect campaign, which aims to reduce road deaths and serious injuries on NSW roads.
The strength of teams runs on how well their senior side goes. The Dragons were minor premiers in 2019 with a 13-6-3 record (Souths won more games but also lost more and finished one point behind) but the Jets won the grand final from seventh place thanks to reinforcements becoming available after the Sharks were knocked out of the NRL finals. I’d expect some of the deeper NRL teams, e.g. Raiders, Sharks and Rabbitohs, to be able to keep relatively talented players in the second tier, setting their sides up for strong seasons barring a crisis in first grade. The top eight (from eleven or twelve) finals system makes for total chaos so I won’t even pretend to know who might win the title.
Super League spent most of 2020 lurching from disaster to disaster, covering its blemishes and saving its graces with a blistering grand final. Not only did the league cut its brightest hope for a wider and more commercially viable future, it retreated further into its own backyard. Super League refused to cast a net as far as York, let alone London or Toulouse, and instead opted for Leigh, a club whose Super League record is 8-42-1 and is only a twenty minute drive to not one but three other Super League clubs.
Between the TV deal going down 25%, sponsorship paid in pizza and £750,000 reportedly spent on a private equity deal rejected by four clubs and the RFL, I’m not sure if Super League is a metaphor for Brexit or vice versa. A wider, Atlantic vision is just not happening because Rob Elstone is about as competent as Boris Johnson but without the sociopathic charisma.
Then again, he’s off, so we’ll see what his replacement brings. It is 2021 and a chance for the Northern Union to think about how to remake itself for the 21st century. They will absolutely not do that, instead preferring to focus on grimly holding on for dear life. In the meantime, there’s liable to be a football competition break out at any second. The start of the season has already been delayed, primarily due to the UK government’s Super League-esque handling of the pandemic, to March 11. Unlike in the lower divisions, Super League has a TV contract to fulfill, so will play with or without fans (expected to return sometime in May or June). Someone will eventually work out what to do with Catalans (and Toulouse), given current travel restrictions. Charter flights should solve the problem but one wonders how much money Bernard Gausch really has.
I briefly toyed with making this into a deep dive but unlike other editions, we don’t have player data to work with for Super League (the player stats on the SL website are an absolute mess) and I only track Elo ratings. The maths work out pretty much the same each season in any case. St Helens, Wigan and Warrington will lead the way, with one of the first two probably winning the grand final, although Wire are long overdue. There’s a constantly shuffling middle pack, comprising Leeds, Catalans, Salford, Hull FC, Castleford and Huddersfield whose fortunes will swing on how far they can get into the Challenge Cup as much as anything. The Rhinos should be aiming to rejoin the top tier clubs this year. At the end of the field, Wakefield Trinity, Hull KR and the re-branded Wolfpack / Leigh Centurions, will be struggling to avoid the drop.
The Challenge Cup is designed to be a bit of a crap-shoot but will likely be dominated by Super League teams in the latter stages, as it almost inevitably is. If a team falls out of contention in one comp but remains in the running in the other, they will swing resources to maximise their chances of winning something. 2021 could be a good year for a lesser light to break through at Wembley, a few teams in the middle tier have done in recent years. The RFL is using this opportunity to see what demand there is for streaming via Our League charging what are, quite frankly, outrageous prices.
£20, or about AU$36 at time of writing, would buy you two months of a basic Kayo sub, which is not limited to lower division rugby league football, while the QRL and NSWRL will broadcast games for free, as did the NRL with its pre-season trials in lieu of charging, wait for it,
$18 just to watch a pre season trial.
If the RFL’s and Super League’s audience buy into this en masse, they’re dumber than I thought. Our League will either be a roaring commercial success, built on extracting ever more shillings out of their C2DE audience, or a catastrophic failure, having priced out some of the biggest victims of Tory austerity. I’m sure it’ll be fine though.
Crowds will return in the near-ish future, which is good news for the Championship and League 1. They will not be forced to play behind closed doors for no revenue for long. The Championship will commence at the beginning of April with crowds returning sometime in May. Without much of a season played in 2020, we won’t know for sure how the teams will sort themselves out but all eyes will be on the promotion race out of the Championship.
It will be fiercely contested between London Broncos, Tolouse Olympique, York City Knights and perennial challenges, Featherstone Rovers. Out of those four, I don’t really care which one gets ahead as long as the promotion doesn’t stretch the club past its breaking point. Likely the best overall outcome for the game would be the ascension of Toulouse or, to a lesser extent, London, or a greater extent if they move to Plough Lane. The scenario of Featherstone being promoted at the expense of, say, Catalans would have sent me into an apoplectic fit not too long ago but I have decided to accept English football for what it is, especially after Rovers’ chairman blasted Super League for their handling of the Wolfpack fiasco.
Newcastle Thunder have been promoted to the Championship in the off-season, which with the aforementioned and Sheffield, gives the Championship a big city twist on the northern game. Hopefully, the Thunder can avoid the drop. A few signings should see them through, leaving the smaller traditional clubs to fight out the relegation battle. Halifax have adopted a new Panthers moniker and branding.
The Elite 1 season, which kicked off at the end of October in 2020, has continued through the pandemic, as a professional sport exempt from France’s ban. Quite how the clubs are generating revenue with no crowds and a minimal TV deal remains to be seen. Still, the Canaries, the Babys Dracs and the Sangliers lead the way after approximately eleven matchdays. There have been numerous cancellations/postponements due to positive tests, so it remains to be seen in what shape the season finishes.
The good news is that Elite 1 is apparently looking to expand from ten to twelve teams, promoting two out of Elite 2. It seems a little strange to me, given Palau, the last promoted team in 2013, and Toulouse Olympique’s reserve side, the former Toulouse Jules-Julien taken over in 2016, have struggled to compete in Elite 1. One questions whether the new clubs might similarly struggle. I also wonder if this weakens Elite 2 too much but perhaps it’s preferable for the FFR to put its eggs in the Elite 1 basket in hopes of breaking out of their rut and perhaps attracting a broadcaster.
Lyon and Toulon are baselessly speculated upon as being the best candidates for promotion, even as they languished at the bottom of the ladder in the previous shortened season and were not much better in the full season prior. Lyon, a large city well outside the French rugby league heartlands, and Toulon, a big rugby (of the Nazi kind) town, is perhaps indicative of the direction the new FFR President wants to take the game, even if the sporting merits aren’t there.
In the meantime, if you need a primer on French football, you can read this season preview I wrote pre-covid or listen to actual French or French-adjacent people explain it:
Commencing in May, League 1 has been condensed down to just ten teams. Unless there’s been a miracle, West Wales and Coventry will continue to struggle, although one hopes the Raiders and Bears can win a few games each this year. The best rated teams are Doncaster, Workington Town and Barrow, although recent investment in Rochdale might turn them into competitors.
The Digicel Cup will return in 2021 with the same teams as in 2020. There were several expressions of interest to create new franchises but none were accepted by the PNGRFL. With the Hunters returning to the Queensland Cup and based in Queensland for the foreseeable future, some competitive balance should be restored, although I would expect Lae, Port Moresby and Hela to be the main contenders again. We can only hope it is this year that a broadcast deal is struck for Australia.
France’s Elite 2 2020-21 season was put on hold due to «la deuxieme vague» after only two rounds, with les Loups de US Entraigues XIII leading 2-0. It will presumably return when the ban on amateur sport is lifted in France.
The success of last season’s President’s Cup sees the NSWRL trying something similar again in 2021. It appears that some mix of Sydney Shield and Ron Massey will form a central conference, with the Newcastle RL to the north in another conference and Illawarra RL in the south. This surprisingly innovative format from the hidebound Blues has some potential and will be worth keeping an eye on, especially with the participation of the Kaiviti Silktails, who are basing themselves in New South Wales for this season. After it becomes clear no one has any meaningful interest in NSW Cup/NRL reserve grade, it’s possible this becomes NSW’s answer to the Queensland Cup, which would be a good thing.
BRL A-grade was the second tier of Queensland football below the NRL, after the QCup was cancelled for 2020. It was the first season under the “new” system of having affiliations with the Brisbane-based QCup clubs. Eight teams completed the season (down from the mooted nine after Beenleigh dropped out and the originally planned for ten). Wynnum Manly ran out premiers again, defeating Wests in the final after minor premiers Valleys stumbled earlier in the finals. I assume we’re running out this way again with Pine Rivers and Brighton (Dolphins), Carina and Bulimba (Tigers), Normanby (Magpies), Wests and Valleys (Devils) and Wynnum Juniors or maybe Beenleigh (Seagulls). Marmin Barba has nominally retired from Cup and has been spotted at Wests. Hopefully Scott Prince can suit up for Valleys again.
The USARL looks primed to kick off in May with twelve clubs, the most since 2017 (and slightly down on the 14 that participated in 2015-16). This is good news considering I wasn’t sure it’d be back at all.
Hopefully, we will be able to complete a GRLFC ranking with a women’s equivalent for 2021.
2020 ended up being a fairly conventional season on the field with three obvious, screaming exceptions: the rise of the Penrith Panthers, the Brisbane Broncos’ spoon and the season interruption brought on by the pandemic. The mid-season rule changes, rather than causing chaos, cemented the standing of each of the teams, making outcomes more predictable than I personally care for. Melbourne were the best and the usual suspects plus Penrith were thereabouts. The Broncos gave up but the Bulldogs were probably marginally worse. I had more post-season takes in the The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020.
The main mechanism for assessment, in conjunction with the numbers, is to look at each club’s strengths, weaknesses and their opportunities for improvement and see what changes have been made in the off-season that might signal a move up or down the ladder. In 2021, there are three broad groups: the tête de la course (1st group), representing the four teams that will occupy somewhere between places one through six on the ladder; the peloton (2nd group), the meaty part of the league who are competing for the remaining finals places; and the arrière (3rd group), or teams who are unlikely to make the finals without significant twists of fate and luck.
Rosters are taken from the NRL website as of 25 February and the predicted 1-17 are based on League Unlimited’s season previews. The engines this year are a little different to the past. I’ve shown the top ten non-rookies by their projected TPR, as opposed to the eight players that contributed the most production. Players are ranked by WARG accumulated while listed in that position only and the best rank the player has is shown (e.g. if a player has played in the middle and off the bench, I’ve shown whichever had the higher ranking).
Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering
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.
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. The Taylors are way down but I figured that reflected a lack of effort moreso than a lack of talent. I am willing to admit I was too high on some of these players in the past. However, the most recent trial game against the Cowboys suggests that some of the mental trauma of the last two years under Seibold might take a little longer to expunge. A second half collapse and deflated egos were the hallmarks of the 2020 Broncos and the back end of that game.
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. It could be a long road back. 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.
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 for various reasons (e.g. they like Nick Campton) and then coming unstuck. Something something 2019 grand final something.
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. Realistically, if Canberra are to challenge for a premiership, they need to able to match it with the likes of the 2020 Storm and 2019 Roosters and beat them in the most intense games of the season. In a sample size of two, they haven’t done it. What have they done about it since? Their numbers aren’t on pace with Melbourne or Souths or even Penrith and the outlook signals another good, maybe even great, but not exceptional year.
I’m a big fan of the idea that if you put in place the right processes, eventually luck evens out and the results will fall your way. Canberra’s strategy for 2021 might be to get the right pieces and hope to get on a tear like the Panthers of last year. 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.
I lamented in last year season’s preview that the Bulldogs needed to play catch-up as their squad was projected to be a long way behind the rest of the competition. Then, they were projected to average 328 Taylors per game, the lowest in the league and two fewer than the Penrith Panthers that were in fifteenth (so not really that far behind) and some 60 behind the contenders. This year, armed with new signings like Kyle Flanagan, Nick Cotric and Corey Allan, the Bulldogs aren’t last, having moved 14 projected Taylors clear of the last placed Broncos but they are 68 Taylors off the pace of the premiers and 20 behind the next-best Tigers.
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.
Lots of people have advocated the Sharks moving to Adelaide or Perth, based on their hemmed-in geography, and handing their territory over to the Dragons to consolidate southern Sydney and Illawarra into a single franchise. However, based on the last few years of decision making, surely it should be the other way around? The Sharks have lost a lot of money but recent developments have given them cash in hand and a new hospitality venue. The Sharks have won a premiership. The Sharks haven’t made as many recruiting blunders (the Maloney/Moylan swap perhaps being the duddest) as the Dragons have in just this off-season. So I’ve changed my mind: the Sharks can stay and the Dragons can go to Perth.
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 and only Craig Bellamy has matched it over that time. This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has. While the Sharks have failed to impress in the post-season, I don’t think they’ve set themselves up to succeed. It seems unfair to boot Morris, only to bring back the ethically-bypassed Shane Flanagan, who will probably not get much further but at least he won them a premiership five years ago.
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 hope they don’t get done by ASADA, like Bronson Xerri or the Sharks themselves of a few years earlier) 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. I, for one, wish the Illawarra-Sutherland Sharks all the best.
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. They could surprise on the upside with a bit of luck, especially if Cameron Smith makes a miracle mid-season signing, in which case anything is possible. In that scenario and the Titans win the premiership, then my season review will be a long apology to Mal Meninga for ever doubting him.
Despite being a dreaded rival, my main motivation for wanting the Titans to do well is so we can end the unnecessary agonising about how sport on the Gold Coast doesn’t work and what the Titans need to do to fix their alleged problems. Pro sport goes to the Gold Coast because its the sixth largest city in the country. The Titans don’t work because they don’t win. When they do, everything else will become window dressing. It’s not rocket science.
Depending on which number you want to listen to, Manly’s cattle either look as good as the Raiders and the Knights (projected Taylors) or are looking fairly average (roster and composition simpscore). Des Hasler had his worst coach factor since it started being calculated in 2016. While Pythagorean expectation has a better outlook for Manly in 2021, that’s coming off a lack lustre 7-13 and the Sea Eagles performed more or less at expectation. Even a couple of extra wins wouldn’t make for a winning record. Most of the indicators suggest a pretty average year ahead.
Then why do the projected Taylors suggest the Sea Eagles could be in the finals mix? Daly Cherry-Evans had an extremely productive 2020, finishing with the third best TPR in the league (.222) behind Cameron Smith (.229) and Nathan Cleary (.224). This is largely due to being the only moderately effective player on the field for Manly for much of the season and he shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden. Off the back of that, he is projected to have a similarly productive 2021 (.179). Kieran Foran comes to Brookvale from the Bulldogs from a similar position, albeit much less productive with considerably more time spent on the side lines, and he has a projection of .130 for 2021. Put them together and it looks like a super-productive duo. In reality, how successful this pairing is (provided Foran stays fit) will depend heavily on how willing Cherry-Evans is to share the workload. They are unlikely to have the opportunity to produce as much in total as the projections suggest, given there is only so much one can do in the time available, so I think their Taylors may look inflated. Moreover, at some point, someone needs to score tries.
Outside of an already injured Tom Trbojevic, Martin Taupau and Taniela Paseka, there’s very little to recommend Manly. They certainly do not have the look of a team looking to play finals. Still, I think Hasler might bounce back this season, his 2019 strategy of taping together reserve graders having run out of adhesive strength in 2020. Put that with a good year from Josh Aloiai, Taupau and Paseka, Foran and Cherry-Evans working together seamlessly, Jason Saab pushing one of the other backs out of the lineup and some desperately needed luck on the injury front, the Sea Eagles might surprise a few but that’s a lot of ifs that need to go right.
And they need a hooker. It’s like they forgot to sign one.
Last year, I compared the Storm to the Roman Empire. To continue that metaphor, we’re reaching the end of Augustus’ reign (Augustus being a composite of the big three plus Bellamy). After the early, unstable years of the Republic and the preceding monarchy, which united the disparate lands of South Queensland, Perth, Adelaide and the Hunter Valley under a new royal purple banner, the Augustan epoch has been marked by regular trips to the finals, punctuated by premierships. Even without the salary cap breached premierships, the Storm have won as many men’s NRL titles as any club.
And just like Rome at the end of Augustus’ reign, we’ve reached the peak but there’s another couple of centuries ahead before Rome really bottoms out as a power. Still longer, if you count the Byzantines and really continuing to today if you want to stretch and include Romania. In other words, it seems unlikely that this is the year that the Goths sack Melbourne. They’ll be around for a while yet.
The roster remains one of the best in the league, as measured in projected Taylors. The Storm have the most successful coach of the last twenty years. That just doesn’t disappear over night because the best player of the NRL era retires and/or moves to the Gold Coast. The club doesn’t need the GOAT to win the premiership, the team merely needs to be very good. The Storm will be, once again, and barring a distraction like Bellamy’s future and replacement having a surprisingly damanging impact on the team’s psyche, they will be in the running.
If South Sydney do go one further this year, imagine your club being in so deep a hole that Wayne Bennett couldn’t coach you to a grand final. It would be the first such instance since he was at Brothers in the early 1980s. That’s a full four decades ago for those playing at home. Couldn’t be Southern Suburbs, Canberra, Brisbane, St George Illawarra or (probably) South Sydney. For the record, Brothers folded in the 1990s. Not sure why I thought of that.
Anyway, Adam O’Brien. For reasons I can’t quite articulate – perhaps it’s that Newcastle has become the sole Isaac Moses FC and hired Anthony Seibold as an assistant coach – I’m not 100% sold on him. It could simply be a lack of sample size. O’Brien is clearly a better coach than Nathan Brown and has taken the Knights from the arrière into the peloton. My question is then can he take them to the front of the race?
The roster actually looks good. Like Canberra and the Gold Coast, Newcastle have assembled a talented cast for their starting line up. TPR has most of the forward pack sitting around average, but that in itself is an above average result (average players are rarer than you think) and in the same ballpark as the Raiders. The playmaking positions – likely to be Mann, Pearce and Brailey, according to League Unlimited – isn’t too bad but hardly scintillating stuff. We might see more out of Brailey this year, provided he stays on the field, and less out of Pearce but their combined production isn’t expected to be much more than the Broncos can muster. The difference is in the backs, specifically Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best, who need little introduction if you’re the kind of person reading this.
The pieces are there. There’s a good squad, a promising coach and a stable club. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Knights do well this year but their late season fade-outs of the last couple years, and some other things I can’t quite put my finger on (I could be conflating an injury toll last year with actual performance if we’re being honest), mean that putting them in the second group is a safer bet, with an acknowledgement that they have the ingredients, if not the demonstrated proof, that they could be – perhaps should be – in the first.
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.
Nonetheless, like many people, the 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. They don’t have that this season, after Todd Payten declined the job, preferring Townsville. Instead, the Warriors are being led by the man who has the worst coaching factor of the last five years, including the all-time worst NRL season (1-22-1 with the 2016 Knights) which would also be the worst single season coach factor if Anthony Seibold hadn’t gone 3-17 with a much better team. Suffice to say, 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. In fact, if one thing unites these three men, it’s a love of being in the media: Brown’s credibility was decimated with the Knights squad because of his frequent TV appearances, the only reason I know Cameron George’s name is because he says shit so stupid on the radio in New Zealand that it crosses the Tasman and Phil Gould should have retired from commentary at least a decade ago.
Last year, I highlighted that the Bulldogs board had done them no favours and now they’re all gone. This year, I hope the Warriors will be re-bristling their brooms to push this triumvirate out the door before next season. In doing so, if they keep their relatively talented roster together, it won’t be long before the Warriors are a factor again.
For a long time, the Cowboys looked good on paper but struggled to deliver under previous coach, Paul Green. Now, we have a Cowboys team that doesn’t look too crash hot on paper with the potential to deliver under new coach, Todd Payten.
The actual names in the North Queensland roster should inspire some hope: Drinkwater, Morgan, Holmes, Clifford, Robson, Taumalolo. Having the best forward and the once best winger in the game should do that. Payten demonstrated his chops last year, keeping a Warriors squad united in trying circumstances and moving in the right direction. What that means is that even though the Cowboys have mediocre projections, that reflects the mediocre results they’ve had under a coach that the game passed by. 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, albeit still finished as the top middle, but has been overtaken as the career WARG leader by James Tedesco. 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.
If I look at my watch, I think the Eels are due for an imminent collapse and a wooden spoon. It could be something in the vein of their 2018 campaign, in which the team completely fell apart for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear and bookended by fourth place in 2017 and fifth place in 2019. Parra stepped up their game again to third in 2020 but the squad is looking decidedly less dialled in, having lost Kane Evans, Daniel Alvaro and George Jennings, and replaced them with Keegan Hipgrave, Bryce Cartwright and Tom Opacic.
Mitch Moses was productive even if he didn’t pass the eye test while Blake Ferguson had an outright shocker last season. Brad Arthur is going to have put a jolt into those two if they want to maintain their momentum up the ladder. Dyaln Brown doesn’t look too bad and put up a decent average TPR last year but seven of his sixteen regular season appearances for the Eels were absolute nothings. My internal jury is still out on the Moses-Brown combination and this year will see a verdict rendered. The likely outcome is that they do okay, maybe even above average, but get chucked in the bin anyway by a fanbase demanding success that they’ve never had.
I doubt we’ll be all that surprised to reviewing the Eels’ season in October and wondering why Parramatta, at best, went out in straight sets again. The answer is that they haven’t improved on last year’s team and that side was at least one, if not multiple, steps off the premiership pace. In many respects, they’ve gone backwards since then. In the absence of being able to use luck as an excuse – which having out-performed their Pythagorean expectation, they cannot – then the only reasonable conclusion is that the Eels are headed down the ladder.
If Melbourne are the Roman Empire, then Penrith is Macedonia in the late fourth century BC. A group of young and extremely motivated men took advantage of the specific time and place that the gods had provided them and as a result, almost conquered the world. The 2020 grand final was their Hyphasis, a long campaign finally ended by reaching the absolute limits of their capability. The 2021 season will then be their march back to Persia to consolidate their gains. As students of history will know, that didn’t go particularly well for the Macedonian aristocrats. Will Jarome Luai catch typhoid and die after eating poultry and drinking wine? Will Nathan Cleary also die of typhoid? Will Matt Burton flee to Egypt to create his own kingdom, which I guess might be the Bulldogs? Who will play the roles of the other Diadochi? Ivan Cleary as Seleucus or Philip II? Who can say.
There are many questions, mostly revolving around the safety of western Sydney’s drinking water, but I think that the Panthers will regress hard. There are three reasons for this:
Ivan Cleary can’t maintain the same standard
The Panthers lost players
Penrith got lucky
It’s a little baffling to watch Ivan Cleary, a man with a club coaching record of 170-168-4, suddenly turn into a superstar. A little too baffling for my taste. The 2020 Panthers outperformed their projections so thoroughly that it is literally unprecedented. Craig Bellamy was rated +7 in 2019, the previous best coach factor. Cleary was rated +12 in 2020. He was as good as Seibold was bad. That simply makes no sense.
It is incredibly rare to see everything go so right for a team and it is similarly impossible to imagine it happening again. While the Panthers might be one of the top rated teams by projected Taylors, if we wipe 10% off that to account for the rigors of reality hitting home, they come right back into the pack. Their Pythagorean expectation was outperformed by more than two wins in the regular season and Pythagoras will demand his tribute this year, perhaps with an equal overreaction in the other direction.
Compounding this, the squad that made it to Hyphasis has already started to drift apart. Matt Burton has one foot out the door. James Tamou, captain and commander, has gone to Leichhardt/Campbelltown/Tamworth. Zane Tetevano, who has rated few mentions in the aftermath of the campaign, is taking his .152 TPR (36th best in the league) to Leeds. A number of lesser lights, including Caleb Aekins, Josh Mansour, Kaide Ellis and another half dozen names, have departed Penrith. That kind of turnover is bad for cohesion at the best of times and worse to eliminate all of the depth that would help the Panthers ride out any potential crises this year.
A big deal was famously made of wanting to keep the squad together but when it came down to a choice between divying up the spoils of war and continuing the campaign together, the lads (justifiably) took the former. Good for them but Gedrosia lies ahead. The Macedonians survived the desert crossing but they weren’t expected to play finals footy after.
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.
If your club finished twelfth, do you think you’d improve by lowering the quality of your roster? Probably not. If your team had a 7-13 record, do you think that hiring a mediocre coach that’s never gotten more than expected out of his players would help improve that record? Probably not. The Dragons’ best projected player is stat padder Corey Norman, and even so only the sixteenth best half in the NRL last year. The Dragons’ starting halfback finished seventh of all hookers. Matt Dufty had a good 2020 and he might not be able to repeat that and realistically, he’s the best player in their spine.
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.
I admire the cockiness of ordering 10,000 “South Sydney 2021 Premiers” t-shirts in March in a now deleted tweet. It’s the kind of big dick energy that comes with winning one premiership that matters and a bunch more that don’t against labourers and dockers.
Last year’s question marks are gone. The narrative power of sending the all-time GOAT rugby league coach out a winner is simply too powerful. We are beyond statistics and numbers and deep into primal rugby league territory. The 2021 premiership awaits.
60-8. That was the end of the Roosters in 2020. In a year where the Broncos completely shit the bed, conceding 59 points to the reigning premiers and getting the wooden spoon, the same reigning premiers went one worse and gave up 60 to Souths.
Still, people will overreact to that and the Roosters lack of a halfback. They’ll probably not consider how good the rest of the roster will be, especially once Victor Radley returns and adds his value, and that teams have won premierships with lesser combinations than Luke Keary and a question mark. It turns out that question mark could be the son of a former footballer, either that of Aidrian Lam or Ben Walker, who will probably demonstrate that he can do enough to keep the team in the running. After all, this franchise won a grand final with a halfback who had a broken shoulder. I’m sure a borderline rookie can be built up to the task.
People who believe the lack of halfback is a death sentence have no faith in Trent Robinson, despite the evidence of the last few seasons. The Roosters may not be prime premiership material, like they were in 2019, but they’re at worst in tier 1b of potential winners. Just look at their engine. They’ll be fine.
I often tip bad things for the Tigers but they always manage to avoid the absolute worst case scenario. Still, it’ll be a decade this year since they last made the finals, which I will remind you would be a 50-50 shot if it was awarded by random chance (and roughly a one-in-a-thousand chance of missing ten times consecutively).
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.
Irrespective of the results on the field this year, coming to the end of the run of big, dud contracts they signed will be a relief. Wests might be unearthing a core of young players to build around but the they have been here before and stuffed it up, so I won’t be hanging my hat on that. That narrative (the young core, not the stuffing it up) and the cap space could attract the kind of talent that gets Wests back in the running. I won’t believe until I see it.
Today, I specifically do not want to replace voting with a statistical rating. I cannot stress enough just how little I want to do that. Of the two half decent, publicly avilable player rating systems, TPR and the League Eye Test’s Net Points Responsible For, neither account for everything that happens on the field and attempting to quantify all aspects of sport dehumanises the experience of watching and enjoying rugby league.
Awards should be given partly on emotion because it’s stupid to assume there’s a purely rational way to hand them out. Rationally, we should only care who the best teams are, seeing as that’s the point of the sport, and who the best players are is a sideshow that should only concern hacks padding out column inches. Indeed, I believe the flaws in any system are ultimately good because that creates fuel for the content machine and keeps the sport in the news, particularly as the higlighting of flaws comes toward the end of the season when there are fewer games to talk about (this is my pet theory as to why college football doesn’t do away with its ridiculous system for anoiting a national champion). Moreover, these flaws reflect our own flaws as humans and that’s one of the things that makes life interesting. Irrational emotions are part of us and part of the sport.
The Dally Ms are back in the news cycle with a proposed change of voting system courtesy of a Buzz Rothfield shit-stirring Sunday column. Under the current system, the judge has to be at the ground to vote the best player on field three points, the second best two and the third best one. The player with the most votes at the end of the season wins. The current system typically favours good players on average teams who are able to sweep up the points on a regular basis, albeit the award has generally been given to the right player, or close enough to, at the end of the year.
Under the proposed system, each player gets a rating out of ten in every game. The flaws in this are obvious. Even the keenest observer would struggle to give every single player in a match an objective and justifiable rating out of ten. I definitely couldn’t do it without making up at least a few. People naturally, when presented with this kind of problem, tend towards an average of seven, and not five, because people are generally kind of nice. Your five and my five are not likely to be the same and there seems to be no way to calibrate for this, other than intensive training, something that is not an issue under the current system because while we might disagree who is the best, we both understand what the best generally means. What is average is another kettle of fish.
There’s also a scaling problem, which affects both systems, wherein a player who absolutely plays everyone off the park is given the max score but the score rarely reflects how far ahead the player is compared to the rest. If Taumalolo runs for 300 metres, scores three tries and pots a field goal, he will get either a three under the old system or a ten under the proposed. The next best player gets a two for his efforts, implying that Taumalolo’s performance was only 50% more valuable, even though he probably would have earned that three points after the first try and 200 metres. Similarly, if he’s awarded a ten, is everyone else a six at best by comparison? Meanwhile, in the next game, the best player scores one try and assists another but gets an equal three points or ten rating.
Bearing all of that in mind, here’s the top ten from the five most recent Dally M votes.
As a point of comparison, here’s the TPR and WARG champions for each of those seasons.
What I want to do is compare how different voting systems impact on the final results. We’re going to look at four different voting systems –
System A: after round 9, 18 and the end of the season, the top ten players are awarded votes from 10 for the best player through that part of the season, down to one for the tenth best. Votes are tallied at season’s end and the player with the most votes wins.
System B: is the same as system A but players are assessed after every round based on their performance in that round.
System C: the current Dally M voting system, as a control.
System D: the proposed system.
Rather than go back and watch every game for the last five years, close to 1,900 hours of entertainment, I’m using my player ratings as a proxy for a (non-existent) rational voter. Systems A, B and C are assessed on WARG while system D is assessed on TPR. I think this difference is justifiable based on how I think people would approach the different voting systems. When when assessing players individually on a 0-10 scale, I’d expect judges would compare them to players at the same position and account for time on field, as TPR does, while WARG does a better job of assessing who has done the best by minimising those factors in favour of raw production.
To translate TPR into a 0-10 rating, I tried to put ratings into buckets that more or less reflects a normal distribution, as follows.
One would expect voters to award their ratings in a likewise fashion but will probably skew it based on their personality and what they’re expected to judge.
Here are the new Dally M results for each system.
If we just compare the results from the different systems, system A generates three or four defensible winners out of five, system B only a single one in 2019, system C three or four and system D two to three. In my subjective opinion, the current Dally M system seems to perform the best, even if sex pest Blake Ferguson was to be awarded the title of “the best” in 2018.
You can review the top tens but I watched most of these seasons and I couldn’t possibly remember who was seventh best in 2017. The point is less about who is in what position but rather how the different voting systems affect the outcome. In none of the five years, despite having the same information, did the systems uniamously appoint a winner.
All systems are going to have pluses and minuses. The validity of the result comes from two things. The first is a widespread understanding what the purpose of the award is. Is it for the best and fairest or the most valuable or something else? Each of those mean different things and the system to award the winner needs to reflect its purpose.
The second is capability of the voters. The average NRL twitter user (and/or person reading this) is going to assume that the judges are idiots, because they produce largely terrible commentary, and because they are susceptible to the same groupthink, biases and laziness as the rest of us. That, too, is very human, as is hubristicly assuming you would do a better job over the long run. When I see two people on the timeline have the complete opposite understanding of what just occured in a replay, I know that the individual punters will not do a better job and that the utopia of a perfect player award system is as far away as ever.
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
I occassionally get the urge to write a grand unifying theory of rugby league. Indeed, that’s where many of these essays started. I usually get stuck somewhere between the scale of it and the intractable psychology and never finish it. Sometimes, some good comes of it, like Super League 2.0 is not coming, but this is probably not one of those times.
In principle, this theory would establish some of the ideas that give the game its legitimacy and purpose as a cultural institution but also ideas that we could use to make decisions in a meaningful and ideologically consistent way and offer future directions that the sport might take. Religions have a mythology that explain things. Even heartless corporations have policy documents that no one reads but boardrooms use to make decisions. Rugby league desperately needs a plan to survive.
What’s more is that ideas are free. People get paid to think of them as part of their job description. We haven’t gotten to a point where we need to worry about where the money to implement the plans is going to come from, because there’s no plan in the first instance.
My fundamental view is that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. In the globalised, hyper competitive world in which we live, if rugby league is not aggressively seeking new audiences, then other, better funded and more well known sporting organisations will come and eat rugby league’s lunch.
Almost all of the space that can be occupied by sport is already occupied in the industrialised world. Rugby league can only expand by displacing existing sports – something that hasn’t really happened since WWII – or to grow the overall pie and take a small slice at the edge – as the Wolfpack had hoped to do in Toronto. That the Wolfpack was a Big Deal for rugby league, $30 million pissed down the toilet, is indicative of the dire straits in which we find ourselves. The Blue Jays spent more on Tanner Roark and Hyun Jin Ryu in 2020.
Without this masterplan for the sport, the sport is ruderless. I think this explains a large part of why “rugby league never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Rugby league people don’t really understand their own sport, certainly not in terms they could articulate, and don’t spend a lot of time considering purpose and meaning. Things just are. When opportunity arrives, the powers that be literally don’t know what to do*. They can’t even work out whether rugby league should be a vehicle for redemption or not.
If you need a historical example of this, consider that state of origin selection rules had been proposed as early as 1964 to imbue the interstate series with meaning and competitiveness. It was only in 1980 that it was first trialled and then broadly accepted by 1982 and really only became a big enough deal for Sydneysiders to attend in decent numbers circa 1985. This is because rugby league administrators didn’t understand what they had and could not see where it could go. State of Origin, the most commercially successful exponent of the game, was an accident.
No doubt there’s a cavalcade of people who reject the very notion that rugby league should be anything other than it is now. That’s because there’s lots of people who will complain about any change and trace their intellectual lineage back to Socrates, who had a whinge about people writing things down to remember and communicate them.
People will take issue with my suggestions, for the reasons I’ve covered and for their own, a lot of which will be reasonable. Some will simply hate the lack of symmetry and the messiness of it all. Far be it for me to tell you this is how it has to be. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because none of it will come to pass. These essays will not suddenly overturn 125 years of non-thinking.
Rugby league seemingly has nothing to offer other than to perpetuate its own existence. At least rugby union believes it is inherently superior. Give them another twenty years of selective pressure from broadcast negotiations and professionalism and they’ll probably be playing something that looks a lot like league.
I’ve ventured to suggest that rugby league’s philosophy includes elements of inclusiveness, meritocracy, identity and mass entertainment (which are hardly original insights, thanks to Tony Collins) but very few fans would even acknowledge that a philosophy exists, let alone agree what it is. Almost all fans exist because of some combination of they were born into it, the sport is fun to watch and rugby league happens to be the medium by which the local pissing contest takes place.
If horse racing is the sport of kings and soccer is the beautiful game, then by the laws of cliche, rugby league is the working man’s game. Except this working man has no sense of class solidarity, no idea of how to build anything and no means by which to do it.
And this working man isn’t really a working man anyway because that working man is a relic that died at least forty years ago.
And we’d probably be better off targetting the working woman. Should rugby league be a girl’s game? Who can say.
Rugby league will continue hand-to-mouth, financially and spiritually, until we finally reach the blessed relief of surrendering to our union counterparts, unable to distinguish ourselves from our former masters in a world that does not value our history or potential because we simply cannot be bothered.
*That is, perhaps except to fall back on tradition, which has embedded a long running culture of reactive conservatism: a borderline psychotic will to maintain the status quo until it is untenable to do so, then making the most minimal changes possible to resolve the crisis at hand. It’s worth noting that this is not a uniquely rugby league problem and many sports have this in common.
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
If I know my audience, you are likely Australian and likely have an interest in at least one, if not several, of European soccer and major North American sports leagues. While this is true for an increasing number of Australians, the interest does not flow back the other way. Europeans and Americans aren’t tuning in large, or even small, numbers to watch the AFL or NRL. Fuelled by huge broadcast deals and a pre-eminent position in G20 economies, these behemoths have the commercial and cultural power to cross borders and span the globe. Moreover, they have resources and, most importantly, the patience to do the work required to take over the world.
In the near future, European soccer is going to follow the US sports model. There is simply too much money to be made to do otherwise. The irony is that while many will complain about the Americanisation of their sport, as if the Football League wasn’t soccer’s answer to baseball’s National League, they will still tune in. The only questions that remain are when, which clubs add value and how much destruction will be done to existing institutions along the way. All this to feed the ever rising player salaries, and corresponding debt loads, of a sport that won’t accept regulations that American sports have long considered essential.
The NFL will take a huge leap in the near future, either by relocation or by creating new franchises, to expand into places like Mexico City and London, where the NFL has been laying the groundwork for decades. The NFL’s biggest obstacle in London is not logistics, which they absolutely have the power and money to overcome, or getting people to turn out for games but rather that many UK-based fans already have an allegiance to a franchise and the NFL is not sure if they’ll all come together to support a new London team. While the NFL has lost money on its trips to London, its earned some, if not all, of it back in improved broadcast deals.
The others in the US’s Big 4 may or may not follow. NHL already has a significant presence in both the US and Canada and has a counterpart league that spans from Riga to Beijing. Basketball is, depending on who you ask, either already the second or third most popular sport in the world and the NBA is its centrepiece.
Still, if the money is there, these leagues will find it, facilitated by an economic and political environment that demands that they do. The world seems to be structured to allow the economic winner to take all. Given there are only so many sports consumers in the world with a finite supply of money and interest, that spells disaster for the losers.
Cricket is riding a huge rising wave. The proliferation of T20 leagues across the world has been driven by the growth of the Indian Premier League from nothing to one of the most valuable sports commodities in the world in just twelve years. An influx of private investment to replicate that success has followed, raising existential questions: How much cricket is too much? How does cricket balance internationals, domestic and franchise commitments? What gives cricket its meaning?
The T20 explosion was predicated on the assumption that, if nothing else, Indian people will indiscriminately watch cricket and if enough stars can be incentivised to turn up, the rest will take care of itself. The subsequent failure of many these startup leagues puts paid to that lie but these are likely just teething issues as we see the emergence of a new order. It’s not too difficult to imagine a world where the primary actors in T20 are a dozen or more IPL franchises who simply operate year-round in different countries, under identical branding and shuffle their expensive talent to suit, taking the cream of broadcast deals to cover costs and then some, throwing a stipend to each of the national cricket boards.
That’s just one model but its main benefit is that it would be sustainable, not just financially but also in terms of fan interest. The end result would be less T20 (and the extinction of other very short forms of cricket) but it would be broadly centrally controlled so that it can be balanced with other more meaningful, but perhaps less commercially lucrative, formats and the institution of cricket would now be stronger for it. The tumult we see now is almost irrelevant – indeed, it is necessary to weed out solutions which don’t work – as cricket powers edge their way to the arrangements that will take their sport through the 21st century.
The grandest irony is that the Super League ethic, which created rifts in rugby league that still aren’t fully healed twenty-five years later, has been best reflected in the fortunes of the rival Super Rugby competition. Super Rugby created new professional franchises in an international competition and undertook a heavy programme of expansion to establish or further entrench union in markets outside of the traditional hubs of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
Union’s commitment to its traditions, specifically by ring fencing Test level talent in their home nations (creating gross competitive imbalances) and by organising the sport according to hemisphere rather than time zones (making teams difficult to follow regularly and ensuring that a substantial portion of the broadcast content is effectively worthless), has undermined and temporarily halted this enterprising attitude as union is forced to reconsider its approach. It seems unlikely that something equally stupid wouldn’t have undermined a similarly progressive Super League, had that ever existed.
At the very least, union has shown an understanding of how the world around them operates, in contrast to their pre-professional ethos. Their reward will be to maintain their position as the King of Rugbies, a position Australian league fans tacitly acknowledge by referring to, and insisting others do likewise, union as “rugby” and league as “league”.
Australian Rules, Irish football and Canadian football make a direct connection to their respective national identities by giving people “their” game, which has had varying results. This puts an obvious limitation on the potential growth of these sports that is nigh-on impossible to break through without an historically important empire backing it. Baseball expanded from a local phenomenom in New York state in the early-to-mid-19th century to a professional sport in several east Asian nations that coincidentally house large numbers of US troops by the end of the 20th century (rugby league’s expansion to Papua New Guinea came about for similar reasons). Contrast this to the CFL’s spectacular failure to expand into the US in the mid-90s because it offered nothing that the NFL or college football didn’t already.
It was in vogue in the mid-to-late 2000s for road cycling to think it needed to model itself on Formula 1. Presumably, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, had engaged a marketing firm that basically told them this. In short, the season is too confusing, with too many events and too many different teams. There’s no narrative and star riders don’t turn up to every race. Further, cycling needed to globalise, which was code for running events outside of western Europe paid for by governments looking for a dusting of magic from being in proximity to road cycling, one of the world’s most corrupt sports where riders will openly negotiate on the road to exchange the right to win for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Never mind the doping.
To address this, the UCI deleted the long standing World Cup, which united a dozen or so one day races under a season-long banner, and created the ProTour, which was going to include all of the biggest events, including one day races, week long stage races and the three Grand Tours with the biggest teams entering every race. The race organisers hated it, preferring to invite teams at their discretion. Some of the teams hated it, with their sponsors having no use for marketing their consumer debt products or flooring or mild sheet steel to China or Australia or California and so had very little interest in travelling halfway around the world for a new race with no prestige.
The UCI wanted to introduce a ProTour leaders jersey. The major race organisers refused to allow it to be worn. It was, in short, a disaster. It reached its peak when the UCI ran two simultaneous ranking systems: one for the ProTour and a separate ranking that included that and then other races because the ProTour was so hamstrung that it wasn’t won by the best rider in the world, even though that was kind of the point.
Even up to this year, the UCI has more World Tour (what they ended up calling the merger of the ProTour and world ranking systems) licences than World Tour teams. The sport is fundamentally different to motorsport in a way that is obvious to everyone with a cursory knowledge of either. It then made little sense to borrow F1’s solutions, thinking they will fix cycling’s alleged problems, like the structure of the season, while ignoring cycling’s actual problems, like corruption and doping. The UCI and other powerbrokers should have come up with their own ideas.
I think there’s a lot to be learned from looking at other sports, particularly if you had an interest in a suburban cottage industry sport that consistently fails to capitalise on opportunities or understand its place in the world. Indeed, these vignettes superficially teach us about lots of things – culture, history, tradition, politics, economics and all the other strands that makes up being human – at an angle that allows us to perceive insights that might otherwise be obscured by a more direct, and de-humanised, approach.
While I’m no marketing expert, I would think that trying to sell an identical product to a pre-existing and much better known one is an exercise in futility. My wife doesn’t know why there’s a difference between rugby league and rugby union, so I don’t know why we would expect Americans or anyone else to be across it. Without being cheaper or obviously better to the untrained eye (Americans aren’t comparing league and union, they’re comparing rugby to the NFL) and lacking a superior (or any) market position, how exactly is rugby league meant to differentiate itself from rugby union?
Can we at least talk about changing the name? Is an effete English private school a sensible place to derive the name of a sport which is barred from similar institutions around the English speaking world and has traditionally sought an audience in the working class?
You might argue that league is fundamentally more entertaining than union and that should be enough. I would then respond by gesturing vaguely at rugby league’s 125 year history of that marketing strategy, which has brought us to this point. Indeed, if you consider the world’s biggest sporting events – the Super Bowl, the F1 World Championship, the Tour de France, the World Series and all of soccer – being boring might actually be a pre-requisite to success and on field action is antithetical to a sport’s growth.
So if you were running a sport that considers itself separate to its very similar looking relative but has almost no presence outside of a handful of scattered locations and is in a life-or-death struggle with every other professional sport in the world to find a way to sustainably exist, how would you ensure its survival? Would business as usual suffice?
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
Once again, the international game remains an after thought of the sport, even in a World Cup year and even on this personal rugby league web log. My World Cup sims are no different to when I ran them at the start of 2020 and I fully expect the Kangaroos to take home the trophy while Greece and Jamaica will be grist for the mill. There may be a few other bilaterals and Tests played in the run up to the World Cup but, while entertaining, they are of little importance in the grand scheme of things.
New Zealand will probably beat Tonga mid-year, especially if the six again is introduced by the IRL, and England should play France (or better yet, a combined Great Britain versus a combined European Union team) but will instead stuff around with the Exiles format that no one really wanted last time it was played. There will be a slew of smaller and newer nations trying the game out against other small and new nations. Possibly the biggest benefit of the recent pandemic has been the slashing of player payments for representative games which should make it cheaper to put on Kangaroos matches.
As it probably does every other year, the international game remains at an interesting crossroads. On one hand, rugby league is now played in more places than ever before. On the other, so is pretty much every other sport and they all have better management and more money and better cultural cachet.
On one hand, the international game is the simplest way to market the game because everyone has heard of countries, has a right to at least one passport and understands the basic principles of international sport. On the other, rugby league really excels at organising representative games below the international level (see State of Origin, NRL All Stars) that are considerably and demonstrably more valuable than internationals, in a way that other sports either won’t or can’t.
On one hand, 9s is an excellent format for driving the growth of the game, both in that developing countries can have smaller, less technically gifted squads and still be competitive, and because the festival-like nature of individual events is an easier sell to potential promoters and more in line with how (non-hardcore-sports) younger people like to spend their time and money. On the other hand, there seems to be little interest in 9s outside of the hardcore fans and its current pinnacle is playing in front of a half-interested crowd of 15,000 in Sydney, which itself may prove to be a one-off. The alternative is playing 7s, where there’s a living to be made and Olympic gold medals to be won.
Rugby league’s main advantage – other than the fact that it has nothing to offer philosophically other than its own self-propagation, so doesn’t get too caught up in tradition* – is that it has very few participants at the highest level, which allows the likes of Papua New Guinea and Tonga a stage that they would otherwise not be able to access. Of course, if rugby league really is successful in growing, then other larger and richer nations will come through and elbow those minnows off the stage. Indeed, a truly global rugby league probably has the same participants at its World Cup as the soccer and union ones do, at which point the sport loses its point of differentiation. If rugby league stays put, then we really only have a few nations to provide the bulk of revenue and the death spiral continues.
These tensions need to be resolved as part of a masterplanning exercise to give rugby league a higher sense of purpose than simply existing. This purpose will be the basis of league’s survival, a point of differentiation from other sports and cultural institutions on which to market and grow the game. The risk is that we may well conclude that we have nothing to offer, surrender to union/soccer and move on with our lives (union will simply evolve into league, perhaps faster without league saying “I told you so” on the side, so don’t worry about that).
The other quandry is what does rugby league intend to do with all of these new players. While it is extremely heartening to see the dangers players in Cameroon will overcome just play for their country or see clips on social media of league being played and commentated on in countries that have no right to have heard of league in the first place, what is the end goal of the seeds being scattered by the IRL, RLEF and APRLC across the world?
If you were an athletically talented African, would you take up rugby league, which is a big question mark but a very shallow pool, rugby union, already entrenched in South Africa, Madagascar and Namibia, or soccer, where FIFA is proposing a new continental African club competition, or basketball, where the NBA and FIBA is investing in an African basketball league. These new leagues might fail but soccer and basketball will probably get two or three goes at creating professional leagues in Africa to get at least one to stick – money be damned – before rugby league can shoot its first and probably only shot. I’d wager an IPL Africa T20 competition is more likely to gain a foothold than rugby league.
Is it enough to invest the limited resources the sport has so that people simply play rugby league for the joy of it and go no further? Will the talented be carted off to pit towns in the north of England or the suburbs of Sydney and put to work, allowed to return home for internationals? Will it be the reverse, with semi-pros heading from Australia and England to Africa to make a living, as they currently do in France? Are we really proposing that the sport can turn all of these new prospects – or even a tenth of the prospects that might suceed long term – into professional players and leagues? Given the sport’s history, that seems ludicrous but without that end goal, these new nations will struggle for World Cup qualification, let alone being able to position themselves to compete with the established powers.
Rugby league doesn’t seem to know what its doing or why it does it. It has no sense of its own history, beyond the few monomaniacs reading this, nor any real understanding of the potential value of its story. In lieu, league seems to be apeing the movements of other sports, hoping that it is this cosmetic change (unlike all of the previous ones) that will finally open the floodgates.
My view is that if you’re on the same strategy as everyone else and travelling at the same speed or slower, you cannot hope to overtake them. You need a different strategy (and some luck) to close the gap. At best, most people seem to think that league can make a living at the margins (see the ever popular “if only we could get 0.5% of the US sporting market” tweet), which is no living at all because the powerful will simply wipe league out and probably accidentally and unthinkingly. So do we keep doing what we’re doing now, watching other sports disappear into the distance, or try something new?
Rugby league already has a fairly blase attitude to the idea of nationality, a tradition that dates back to Dally Messenger, who played for Australia, New Zealand and Australasia. Players now regularly play for two countries because the international game is so shallow, there was no other way forward. You’d be hard pressed to find people who think this change is for the worse, as if Australia, New Zealand and England dominating minnows into perpetuity is a good way to get the general public in those countries to care about internationals again, although they do exist.
I’d suggest muddying the waters further and discarding countries altogether and focussing on people. Peoples and countries can have a lot of overlap but aren’t necessarily the same. The Tongan team that electrified the 2017 World Cup were nominally representing the Kingdom of Tonga but the players were really representing their heritage, that of the Tongan people, which includes their parents and grandparents. That engagement can be more meaningful than the arbitrarily drawn lines on a map.
If Tonga was conquered by, say, Tanzania tomorrow, the Kingdom would cease to exist but the Tongan people would continue. Should Tonga then be scrubbed from international rugby league? Would the Tongan players be roped into representing Tanzania? Would they then prefer to revert to their tier 1 countries? Would an exception from the rules, which only recognises UN-recognised countries and sub-nationalities that those countries have devolved a responsibility for sport, be made?
Who knows but the purpose of a thought experiment is to not think literally about the scenario in question but consider what the response might tell you about the deeper beliefs involved. Rugby league would be poorer for not having a Tongan team but presumably, in this instance, the Tongan Rugby League would subsumed into the Tanzania Rugby League because those are the rules and the players would then prefer to play for Australia or New Zealand. Only countries can play other countries.
West Papuans, the Basque** and Palestinians are peoples but not countries. The main reason for this is because some time ago, some powerful, generally white, men said it was so. The same kind of men made a distinction between Scotland, Wales, England and Ireland, even though none of them were sovereign nations at the time professional sport emerged in the late 19th century, largely because they were racist assholes who didn’t want to play anyone further away than Edinburgh or Dublin, and those divisions were more real to them than they are in other places***. That’s why the Welsh have a rugby league team that can win the World Cup but the Maori don’t.
If you want to point out that the Maori don’t have a country, then you might need to think a little harder about that proposition, perhaps in the context of the history of colonialism.
So who gets a team and who doesn’t? Who cares is the better question (I have my limits; a Confederate States of America team might be too far). If the entirety of twentieth century history couldn’t resolve at what point a people become significant enough to justify sovereignty, I doubt rugby league has the intellectual ammunition to do so. Indeed, the International Rugby League has outsourced the problem to the United Nations.
Steve Mascord will tell you that rugby league needs to tow the line of the status quo to secure government funding. Putting aside the fact that sub-national governments exist with their own funding bodies and that some companies lean heavily on a sub-national identity as part of their marketing and that some national governments put extremely difficult to overcome barriers in the way just for bureaucracy’s sake, what is the funding actually going to achieve? It seems hard to believe that any government would invest enough in league to turn it into a professional sport. If we want more than participation, I can’t be the only one who’s wondering how rugby league intends to nail the conversion from nothing to a sustained something. A plan of one step isn’t a plan at all.
Are the national teams just a show to get enough people into the game to start clubs which might become professional? Surely it would be cheaper to scrap the international game altogether and invest the money directly into starting clubs. The $200,000 paid to the Kangaroos for a Test match would go a lot further in funding teams in Lagos or Accra.
Is it so rugby league get some international recognition? If so, so what? League is never going to be added to the Olympics, after being beaten to the punch by union. The NFL has shown you can be a big swinging dick in world sport, especially in English speaking countries, without any international participation and the Olympics needs soccer a lot more than soccer needs the Olympics.
It’s obvious to me that international sport is the way it is because of its simplicity. A cursory listen to the Chasing Kangaroos podcast will give you plenty of stories of people who got involved in rugby league because its new and they can represent their country. Might more people become passionate about rugby league if it allows them to express an identity that they can’t elsewhere? Will it be more than sticking to the way it is now?
I don’t know but I do think that the idea of countries (nation-states specifically) is going to decline over the coming decades, especially as what are countries now get swept up into ever larger and ever more tightly bound market-states. Are we wasting our time investing in different European nations if the European Union ends up sending a unified team as a political statement to the 2052 Olympics? We could have a relatively competitive EURL team made up of Irish and French players right now. Would the 2053 Rugby League World Cup follow suit or persist with Ireland, France, Italy and Greece?
Don’t think I’m here to revolutionise international rugby league by putting New South Wales, Queensland, Yorkshire and co in the World Cup, even though some of those teams are demonstrably more valuable properties than any international side and I’d be as likely to watch the Maroons or Kangaroos compete at that level. But a World Cup featuring the Indigenous, Maori and whoever else can form a team could feel more rugby league, or at least more in line with what passes for league’s philosophy, than trying to replicate the World Cup of union, a monument to British imperialism, or of soccer, dominated by the world’s largest economies. Elevating the small and lowly into the spotlight is largely what the sport has to hang its hat on but should we make it an organising principle?
Perhaps the international game will finally live up to its potential and the league World Cup will simply become the Aldi World Cup to soccer’s and union’s Coles and Woolworths. If that’s the case, then let’s be clear about it and acknowledge that we’re not about the small or lowly and we’re in fact about the big and powerful.
*Thereotically at least, this should mean that the sport is not mired in tradition and can be adapated on the fly to suit new and evolving political, economic and cultural situations. The reality, especially in this time of boomer-led cultural ossification, is quite different.
**To drive this point home, the Spanish constitution recognises the Basque and another half dozen groups as nationalities within Spain. In theory under the IRL’s current rules, if the Spanish government devolved governance of sport to these autonomous communities, they could enter international rugby league competitions with their own teams. But because the Spanish government hasn’t, they can’t. It seems strange to me that this could be decided by something as arbitrary as where the bureaucracy assigns responsibility and/or that RL has adopted this rule in the first place, instead of something that could be more consistenly applied globally. The Basque currently are not represented as its own nation in any “official” international sporting event to my knowledge, but they have applied to UEFA to be granted membership along the lines of Gibraltar and the Faroe Islands. This is of course entirely hypothetical, because the Basque have a rugby union but no rugby league (So who cares? See above about thought experiments).
Compare this to Queensland, which has a rugby league (QRL) and a national governing body (ARLC), and ministers for sport at state and federal levels but no one who matters recognises Queensland as a nationality. Also consider Scotland and Wales, which are recognised as nationalities, have devolved responsibility for sport but have two competing governing bodies: Wales/Scotland Rugby League and the RFL, which is nominally responsible for rugby league throughout the UK. I doubt this strictly qualifies Wales or Scotland for an international team under the IRL’s rules because the governning body responsible for the team (Wales/Scotland RL) is meant to have exclusive control of the sport in that geographical area, which is obviously not the case if the RFL exists in an overarching role. As usual, people will probably just not worry about it because they can field a team, and we don’t want to ask awkward questions about why the rules are the way they are, otherwise we might have to do something about it and then who knows what’ll happen. Chaos, probably.
***Yes, history is more complex than this. You’ll have to forgive me for not turning this into a 30,000 word thesis on colonialism and the nature of nationalism that I am grossly under-qualified to write, to cover every nuance of this issue.
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
When talking about how they’d like the sport to look, rugby league nerds, including yours truly, like to put pins in the map. The thinking is that if you put enough teams in big cities then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, most of those teams would fail. There’s few or no fans in those places, there’s barely any strategic considerations given, other than the need to be a player in big media markets, nor any meaningful thoughts as to how the new team will engage with the local population on a sustainable and lasting basis. The best case scenario is that each new team would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, as the Melbourne Storm did and the Toronto Wolfpack tried to do. It should go without saying that rugby league does not have that kind of cash to effectively buy new fans.
What’s interesting is how infrequently we discuss the structure of the club game – everyone has their preferred format for international tournaments between World Cups – and usually people just vary who is in Super League or the NRL with little thought put into how the different rugby leagues relate to each other or how their structure reflects an understanding of what these competitions, and rugby league, are for.
If you were to start FIFA (the video game, not the governing body) right now and create a customised competition, you’d have a choice of league, group stage then knockout, or straight knockout. Almost all sports use these frameworks to structure their competitions and there’s obviously only so many ways you can arrange head to head matches for a group of teams contesting a title.
At a higher level, you have the ultra-Darwinist domestic European soccer competitions, which are either round robin leagues with promotion and relegation or knockout formats and the two don’t mix. In contrast are the socialist American big four sports leagues, which have a league phase, usually with an unbalanced schedule and some sort of regionalisation, followed by a post season knockout. Pretty much every other team sport takes their cues from these two. I will concede that after a century and a half of experimentation, we’ve probably landed on the optimal outcome but I’m still interested in exploring this a little.
I find it somewhat puzzling that after so long, we can only imagine a couple of different ways for teams to play each other. This kind of thinking has even leaked into multi-competitor-sports, like NASCAR’s Playoffs, where it makes little sense but presumably someone thought it was a good idea for a late-season ratings boost. The recently retooled European soccer competitions – the Champion’s League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, as well as the UEFA Nations League – offer some alternatives, with complex qualification arrangements being employed to serve higher purposes. These competitions don’t just decide the best clubs in Europe but are purposely designed to give all participants some meaningful chance of winning a trophy and prize money.
Promotion and relegation has always sounded great in theory but relegation (and, indeed, sometimes promotion) can create existential crises that are otherwise not necessary. Sport’s rules don’t arise from some sense of natural law. Almost all aspects of sport have been arbitrarily decided in the past but we forget this with the convenient fog of time and tradition. Indeed, most traditions now are used as weapons to maintain the status quo in lieu of pursuing change and growth. So why persist?
What keeps the idea afloat in soccer is that even if relegation kills a club or two, there’s dozens ready to step up and take their place. In fact, in a twist of Victorian victim blaming, it’s the club’s fault for not being better prepared, which is ameliorated by parachute payments and leaves clubs on the bubble of leagues to bouncing back and forth. Moreover, pro-rel propagates the myth that any club can rise to the top if they just work hard enough, even though any talk of the long term prospects for a club is almost always couched in how much money can be invested. There is no realistic way to start a new club and use hard work alone to find a way to the top, especially through the last couple of leagues, and certainly not in a human lifespan. While the club works their way through levels nine and ten, the wealth of the top echelon of the top league grows faster still.
Given that, what is the point of promotion and relegation if it’s solely a function of how much money some lunatic is willing to put in? That hardly seems to be about sporting fairness. This kind of cognitive dissonance will eventually result in its elimination, which will very likely be in the favour of capital and closed leagues.
Pro-rel can work in international competitions, because the team exists because the country exists and countries generally don’t fold because of a sporting result, and in amateur competitions, where there’s no need to pay players and so revenue streams are substantially less critical to the existence of the club. Where the competitors are businesses, the change in revenue is often disastrous and the risks make planning and investment more difficult than they would otherwise need to be. The only benefit – which does not accrue to the relegated teams but instead the league they are being ejected from – is if there’s a ratings boost for potential relegation battles at the season’s end which would otherwise be ignored.
For rugby league, there are not the vast resources available to be allowed to waste on promotion and relegation. In the UK, there are 36 “professional” clubs. The loss of any one would be devastating – the money and effort and time invested becomes worthless – and risks dragging down the survivors. Further, the idea that pro-rel is some entrenched tradition is laughable. The RFL only introduced it in the early 70s. Prior to that, every club sat in the same, unwieldy 30-odd club league. There are people alive today who would remember a pre-pro-rel rugby league.
As I’ve suggested, Super League is at a crossroads. Crisis looms at every corner and it is crisis that is when the hard questions get asked and answered. The results of the Super League experiment since 1996 have been dismal, with only the switch from winter to summer being potentially worth salvaging to keep in sync with the sport’s other major league, and no other real, permanent gains to speak of. London, Crusaders, Paris, Sheffield and Toronto have failed to retain their place in the top flight for varying reasons. The separation of Super League from the RFL has only served to create a fiefdom of equally incompetent administrators and a duplication of infrastructure with no discernible purpose that looks almost certain to be undone after just two years. Crowds and the TV deal have seemingly peaked.
Now would seem like an opportune time to consider the competition’s place in rugby league, its place in British culture and how it might structure itself to reflect these and its own values. To do so, it would be worthwhile to consider how rugby league might move out of the shadow of soccer and union and whether it makes sense to try to replicate what they do or try something different.
I would like to make two suggestions, which will require some relatively radical departures from the norm.
The overall goal of expansion, growth and the rest of the lefty rugby league agenda seems to be to grow trees. That is, large and imposing clubs that can stand tall by themselves as markers of the existence of rugby league. Naturally, the most fertile ground for new life is big media markets, where a small sliver of attention from a large group of people can nourish a Wolfpack or a Storm.
However, there is a substantial disconnect between this vision of the future and the existing trees, who are afraid that the sun will be blotted out and aggressively fight new growth. To address this, we need to acknowledge the separate natures of the existing heritage clubs and modern expansion clubs. To that end, I suggest creating two separate streams for rugby league football clubs, a modernist Super League and a heritage Northern Union.
Super League would effectively become the championship of Europe. Run by the RFL, thanks to its marginally more progressive outlook than the clubs that currently run the professional game in England, the focus would be on teams in large markets to be the building blocks of a wide audience that would attract huge ratings or a committed subscriber base, coupled with vision, planning and the capability to implement it. Super League would aim to reach parity with the NRL, in terms of calendar, reach, wealth, structure, regulations and playing ability, so that the sport can have two legitimate major leagues.
The Northern Union then embraces the traditions of the game. The Northern Union can base its marketing around being the northern game, with its teams drawn from a very small geographical range, and in the extremely unlikely event that the northern half of England secedes, rugby league will have a purpose made professional sport for the new country before anyone else. The Northern Union could be run as Super League is now, for and by its member clubs, and they can set regulations and a fixture schedule that best suits their commercial outlook (e.g. 29 round season, primarily attracting away fans, other stereotypes, etc) and initially, with their own broadcast deal. Being a lower tier, its unlikely that an overly long season will compromise major representative teams. The Union would also have no need for expansion, that path being via Super League 2, suiting the more inward looking nature of many clubs and fans.
Based on the clubs currently in play, a realistic starting point might be to award a dual Super League/Northern Union licence to the relatively big market and/or well established clubs, such as Leeds, Warrington, St Helens, Wigan, Hull, Salford and Bradford (taking into account the various intangibles involved, which is still mostly sticking pins in a map, although Salford may not be suitable to be the Manchester team and my impressions of Bradford could be 10 years behind reality). This would allow these teams to run a first team in SL1 and an affiliated second team, either a reserves or juniors team or a revived alternative marque, in the Northern Union (e.g. Wigan could resurrect Wigan Highfield/Liverpool Stanley as a second team or the Devils would run as Manchester in SL1 and Salford in NU). There would be a further four Super League-only licences awarded to London, Catalans, Toulouse and York. The Super League licence gives the team immunity from relegation and for the dual licencees, prevents the second team from being promoted.
With eleven teams, the best Northern Union club would be promoted to take the league to twelve. Said club would be relegated for the champion of the Northern Union if they should finish in the bottom two or three places. Despite my personal distaste for pro-rel, it’d be politically difficult to remove and there are just not enough big clubs in Europe to sustain a reasonable sized Super League without it.
Underneath Super League is Super League 2, separate to the Northern Union. The purpose of Super League 2 is not to entertain or represent or anything but to create a space in which new clubs can get themselves set up. The make up of the league would be constantly changing, as clubs either graduate to SL1 or fail quietly in a place no one cares about. Clubs would be required to submit plans so that the institution of rugby league as a whole can help development of the clubs in a way that aligns with their vision and the SL/RFL can provide feedback, based on previous experience or their own masterplan, and the parties can work together for mutual benefit.
Not every team that enters Super League 2 will graduate or fail. Coventry or West Wales, for example, might choose to remain mainstays, preferring to focus on creating grassroots in their community, develop local talent and passing the talented up the chain to an affiliated SL1 club. Toronto, on the other hand, might have come in with a plan to be promoted to SL1 in two years, outlining the steps and targets they see as being necessary to get ready for the big time.
There would be far fewer regulations in order to facilitate the rapid growth of clubs as needed, perhaps just the same as those as govern the upper end of SL1, which will probably result in significant disparity across what is likely to be a small league (in the event there aren’t enough teams, the league should switch the SL/NU second teams across to pad out SL2). This is just the price we pay for this structure, unless there is a surprising uptake of new clubs in SL2. The initial SL2 clubs would be North Wales, West Wales, Coventry, London Skolars, Newcastle, Sheffield and Ottawa (if they ever make it on to the field), leaving seventeen clubs plus up to seven second teams (possibly one or two would be required in SL2) to contest the Northern Union.
The short term focus of SL1 would be maintaining some sort of commercial and sporting parity between the clubs, preferably by taking from the rich and investing in the poor. There are myriad vehicles for doing this. The key will be maintaining a ceiling (possibly the same ceiling for all professional clubs) but also having a relatively close floor to maintain standards. If a club cannot stand on the floor, it has no business being in the room and a salary cap is useless as a mechanism for parity without a salary floor. Some clubs are not currently configured for this but have the potential to be, with some work.
The medium term focus – over the next decade or so – would be to focus on preparing Sheffield and Newcastle to join SL1 from SL2 and investing now, laying the ground work with the locals, to give them a place in the top flight in the future. The long term focus – over the next twenty or more years – would be identifying the next candidates to follow them. Twenty years should be enough time to build up a London Skolars or North Wales Crusaders to be ready for the big time or even creating teams from scratch in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France (perhaps another tilt at Paris) or elsewhere in Europe in a shorter timeframe. Private investment will be required and the SL/RFL needs to have development officers for rich people to funnel the money into the correct places. The growing footprint of the game should result in a greater audience, improving sponsorship prospects and broadcast deals (or, more likely, an increase in subscribers).
If we must keep the knockout competitions, the Challenge Cup would become the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It would only be open to the professional SL1, SL2 and NU clubs. The 1895 Cup would then be open only to Northern Union and amateur clubs. The purpose of both is clear: the Challenge Cup is inevitably dominated by the top flight professional clubs, so the biggest knockout competition is only open to the biggest clubs (the draw could also be engineered to ensure a NU or SL2 team makes the semis), which would have the dual benefit of reducing the number of rounds required. The 1895 Cup, recently introduced by the RFL to make the Challenge Cup final into a double header, can build its brand around being the competition open only to the “real” rugby league clubs, even though the final is likely to be still dominated by the top end of the Northern Union, at least the amateur clubs have a cost effective avenue for participation. You could swap the names on the competitions, it wouldn’t really matter.
The very long term plan would be ensuring new teams get added to Super League on a regular basis. As the future of rugby league is secured by its presence in big sporting markets, the number of Northern Union places in Super League could be increased to give greater heritage representation but one would hope that the gap between the Super League and Northern Union would grow to be so great over time, those clubs would simply not be able to compete and pro/rel would necessarily have to be eliminated. This should be considered a desirable outcome.
If NU clubs have the investment behind them, the demand is there and there is value to be added, then promoting a team can be decided in the board room, although I would expect it to be pretty rare that a NU could display that kind of value. The sport does not and is unlikely to ever have the resources required to support the flippancy of pro/rel. Super League simply cannot risk losing a big market team because they had a bad year, particularly considering the sunk investment and the total lack of value for big market teams in the second division, nor can it find the resources to ensure the gap between the first and second divisions remains bridgeable. It is already too great between Super League and the Championship and any actual growth is likely to exercebate it, rather than close it.
The barriers to this proposal are numerous. Clubs and fans aren’t going to want to be cut off from the top tier. Super League 2 is going to be expensive to run and very unlikely to attract a broadcast deal or much viewership. The Northern Union might actually be more popular than Super League, having more clubs in places where fans already exist, in which case, I don’t know if we can declare SL1 to be the top tier, especially if NU clubs can capitalise on this and out-spend the SL1 clubs. The Northern Union has been buried for a very long time and bringing back that brand now is extremely dubious. It’s not clear how squads can be managed shifting from a very low level SL2 to an elite SL1 without total disruption.
Still, the three leagues each would have a purpose and the framework would exist to offer Super League the opportunity to build itself into a position to compete as the complementary major league in Europe to the Asia-Pacific’s NRL.
The Football Bowl Subdivison is the top 130 or so college football teams in the US. Despite being the perfect candidate for a promotion and relegation setup, all the competing schools sit on ostensibly the same level. Almost all are divided into eleven conferences of differing sizes, which are broadly geographical and reflective of the status of the member schools, with some having regional divisions underneath. Notionally at least, all schools have a shot at the National Championship, although in reality, because of the somewhat subjective selection process for the final four teams, there is a limited subset of schools that are actually in the running, even before a game is played. For mine, the tension between the ridiculous structure of the sport, the ranking systems, the selection for the National Championship and the insane commitments to tradition and amateurism, makes college football interesting, even if the product is lacking.
One of rugby league’s strengths is its hyper-localisation. It elevates small places, that would otherwise have no right to be there, to the national stage in a way other sports can’t or won’t. While I am extremely dubious about this being a long term survival strategy, there’s no doubting this unique aspect of rugby league culture has value. Maintaining a local feel to the sport, compared to having well paid athletes flying all over the place, at least reduces the sport’s carbon footprint.
A hyper-local rugby leauge would look something like the college football landscape. Clubs would be divided into loosely defined conferences, with the winners qualifying to a round of play-offs to determine the champion. All 36 current RFL and SL clubs would be on the same level, spread across four conferences, each with a winner (or a winner and runner-up) qualifying for the post-season. There might even be some scope for clubs to set some of their own non-conference fixtures.
Players would be paid but to maintain some parity and prevent big places from having an advantage over small places, the commercial ceiling for clubs would have to be set very low, possibly so low that a floor is not needed. Rugby league will lose its talents to better paid opportunities elsewhere but that’s the price we would have to pay to maintain locality, especially if places like Palau and Featherstone are expected to be able to maintain competitive professional sports teams. If individual clubs’ cups run over, then they would be encouraged to set up distinct teams in other places. The alternative, to deregulate entirely, is a great way to ensure there are only half a dozen clubs are left standing.
The big advantage is then that it doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new rugby league team and there is a known ceiling on how much can be spent or lost. This should appeal to wealthy people who want to own a sports team but cannot afford a soccer, union or whatever franchise. There are numerous villages, suburbs and towns that could host a new team and with low costs, there’s plenty of time to build up a fanbase and take a long term view. It also offers the opportunity for alternative ownership models – especially fan and community owned – as the barrier to entry is much lower. Crucially, the new team enters at the top (only) level with an almost immediate shot at the title.
The other advantage is that its easy to facilitate expansion and easy to add leagues whole cloth. If, as perhaps should be the case, Elite One and Two were folded into the RFL system, we’d have fifty-four clubs that could be divied into five or six conferences. Think something along the lines of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, South England, Elite East and Elite West (or adopting the equivalent American-style names, e.g. “The Big Yorkie”) conferences. The winner of each would progress to the post-season, probably with an additional round for the runners-up to fight it out for the remaining slots.
New teams would have to provide very little evidence that they are sustainable, so would be able to go through a basic tick box exericse and find a conference to join. If it seems unimpressive now, this system could be expanded indefinitely, provided enough owners can be found, perhaps with two or three hundred clubs across Europe divided into twenty or thirty conferences and creating a monster round-of-32 post-season bracket. Big cities would simply house lots of clubs, as Sydney and London do now, and diffuse themselves across different conferences.
It’s difficult to see how that wouldn’t attract a mass audience eventually, albeit none of the individual clubs would have large followings and indeed, probably very small followings but with similarly small revenues, costs and debts. Soccer fans complain about money ruining the game and the divorce between the clubs and their communities. This structure is purpose-built to keep clubs small and close to their communities, while engaging with a larger geographical area because rugby league doesn’t have to choose to be bound by national borders, as soccer has chosen to do.
Under this regime, if kept, the Challenge Cup serves a new purpose to put teams in competition with teams they would not normally play against and perhaps this would be utilised in lieu of clubs setting their own fixture list. The 1895 Cup would serve no purpose, just as it does now, so can be put in the bin.
The champions of the European Rugby League conferences wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete with the champions of the NRL (assuming it maintains its current format), being far smaller and far less wealthy, but the competition as a whole might be able to generate interest just through its sheer scale.
The English game needs to make a decision about what it wants to be. Is it licencing or pro-rel? Alternating between the two suits no one but because there’s such a disparity between the top end of town and the rest, the system not in use looks more appealling than the one in use. This time it’ll be different. It’s this change that’ll resolve the unaddressed problems somehow but I don’t know how that can be if no one confronts what the problem is in the first place. My suggestions are that the dead weight is carved off into its competition to (mostly) let the rest of rugby league get on with it or that all clubs are cut to the same size and spec.
People will hate these suggestions and not just because its change but because they fundamentally disagree that this is how the sport should be configured. That’s fine, although if you cite tradition, I’ll just point out that is the peer pressure of dead people and I don’t care what they think. But the current system doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why not try something new*?
*I also accept that there’s nothing really new under the sun. As reported by Rugby League Digest, pretty much every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I found it was considered and discarded during the Super League war. I don’t think this reflects the merits of a given idea, given that no side seemed really interested in compromise, and the status quo looks great simply because we’ve doing it for a while.
It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.
Sometime last year, I watched all of 30 Rock, the sitcom about making a sketch show at NBC. In there was a joke about how the new network head knew broadcast television was dead and his job was to squeeze every last dollar out of the inevitable decline. That joke premiered around 2011. It occurs to me, here in 2021, that when news of a particularly odious decision is handed down about the NRL’s broadcast arrangements, fans (at least, the fans who are interested in that sort of thing) are quick to jump the gun and start labelling TV execs stupid. The execs know, just as well as you do, what’s going on but they would never vocalise that they work in a dying industry. If you were in their position, I doubt you’d do anything different.
Nine, to just pick a random example out of the air, knows that the free-to-air gravy train is gone and they are now in a doom loop. They cut the cost of production to match ad revenue, which leads to lower quality programming, fewer viewers, less ad revenue and another drop in the cost of production to match. This will continue until free-to-air bottoms out with all the commercial stations going bankrupt or a miracle occurs that allows commercial FTA to eke out a radio-like existence. Perhaps a religious sect will come to power and ban the internet in Australia or terrorists will slice through the undersea cables that connect Australia to the rest of the world. Then we’ll all come crawling back.
Until then, Australian rugby league has to deal with terrestrial broadcasters. As an important sporting and cultural institution, rugby league finds itself on the anti-siphoning list. This means that the NRL grand final, State of Origin, Kangaroos Test matches and Kangaroos World Cup matches played locally are offered to free-to-air broadcasters first before they can be sold to pay TV providers. It’s a piece of legislation that was brought in in 1994 to prevent the then-new pay TV providers from paywalling “events deemed culturally important are freely available to all Australians. Though technically any event could be added to the anti-siphoning list, it has historically been used exclusively for sport.” As Business Insider has noted, the legislation is due to expire shortly and there has been no discussion to date about what happens next.
Theoretically, in the unlikely circumstances that it is not renewed, then the NRL could go full paywall, sacrificing mass audience for maximum income. F1 has already done it, with free-to-air TV deals to broadcast live racing a thing of the past and likely long term to be replaced by F1’s own over-the-top streaming platform and production, as the sport moves to maximise its profitability among a smaller audience. Cycling is moving that way, with GCN+ and Eurosport hoovering up most of the broadcast rights to second and third tier events and streaming internationally to audiences too small even for pay TV to look after. The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, among others, all have their own streaming platforms, albeit generally relying on traditional broadcasters to produce the games.
A smart move, rather than reinvent the wheel, would be for the NRL to create a long term deal with Kayo (or whatever other provider), possibly with a lower price tag in exchange for equity in the platform itself. If the NRL did then purchase a stake (or, more likely, bail out) in Super League later, they would then be able to effectively roll all pro rugby league content on to one platform that could service the global audience. Unlike other leagues, the sport wouldn’t own the platform outright but would also be spared the technical headaches of owning and operating such a system, offering better value for money because rugby league would come bundled with other content, which in turns gives the platform a stable foundation on which to build a subscriber base and bid for future broadcast rights. The season would then be re-designed to keep subscribers engaged all year around, instead of pausing their subscription after the grand final and unpausing for the All Stars. Of course, at some point, someone would need to be contracted to produce the games.
Coupled with a move away from traditional broadcast arrangments to a more self-reliant future, one of rugby league’s medium term goals should be aiming to create a 24 hour content pipeline. That is, I should be able to sit down at about 5pm on a Friday evening and watch consecutive games of pro or semi-pro, men’s and women’s rugby league kick off every two hours until about 3pm on the following Monday, Australian eastern time.
Rugby league is already roughly aligning itself along time zones, rather than continents like soccer and hemispheres like union, with the emergence of an Americas confederation to join the RLEF in Europe and the APRLC in the Asia-Pacific region. Late at night on the east coast of Australia is around lunchtime in the UK, late at night in Europe is evening on the east coast of the Americas and late night on the west coast is around lunchtime in Australia. The baton could be passed around the globe every weekend, if only we had the teams and infrastructure, and while the sun may set frequently on the rugby league empire, its only because we play under lights.
As much as that sounds like an overdose, it’s 36 timeslots and so would only require 72 pro/semi-pro teams or a minimum of twelve clubs per zone capable of furnishing a men’s and women’s programme. The men’s game could already cover this, if its participants were a little more spread out.
Ideally, the pipeline facilitates a cross-pollination of fans across leagues. The most obvious example is the occassional English game that kicks off at Saturday midday local time and gets broadcast on Fox League at 10pm, following the Saturday night game in Australia. If there’s a main audience in one zone and two marginal audiences in the other zones, to me that’s got to be better than just having the main audience.
Quite how rugby league becomes a year-round venture, I don’t know. Every sport needs an off-season but league’s season could be extended with a decent rep programme after the club season has finished and better leveraging warm-ups and pre-season trials. There’s probably space for a short form of the game too. Consider a calendar of pre-season 9s (or 7s) tournaments and 13s trial matches in February, an 18 round club season with a couple of rep breaks starting in March and finishing July, finals through August, an extended men’s and women’s World Club Challenge in September and internationals and other rep games in October and November with a little breathing space in December and January. Its not too far off what we have now but the top players would have somewhere between 25 and 33 first class matches each year, which is a manageable load (if it turns out that’s not a manageable load from a brain injury perspective, then the sport will need to be re-designed).
Most of that is less pipeline and more pipe dream. The reality is that the anti-siphoning legislation will likely be renewed, as politicians are usually reluctant to make a point of pissing off the legacy media over something most Australians either don’t care about or take for granted. The boldest tweak I can realistically imagine would be to include the FTA streaming platforms (9Now, 10Play, etc, etc, as well as the new Kayo Freebies) and adding the Super Netball grand final. We are also light years from having a serious semi-pro competition in the United States that’s worth broadcasting, as if this will ever happen. I very much doubt whether the current RL management in Australia would even want to attempt any of this, probably thinking that the internet is a flash in the pan and Nine is a safe enough bet. Alternatively, they may look forward to a future of bidding between Telstra, Optus, Stan and Kayo. Super League can’t even be bothered to schedule its games to leverage a potential Australian audience, which is why the Australian rights are worth a pittance to Super League despite it being rugby league’s largest market.
Most people will tell you that you need to be on free-to-air to reach a mass audience. That may be true now but I don’t know how much longer that will remain the case. With no mass reach, free-to-air has little to offer professional sport. The paywall beckons. It may be that Youtube will take the place of FTA broadcasters, as an ad-supported service that everyone knows about. The trick will be getting their attention and then converting them into subscribers.
Last year was an illuminating time for those who closely follow the working man’s game. If, like me, you’ve only been a keen trainspotter for a few years, we might not remember older train wrecks, like Crusaders. Conveniently, the Toronto Wolfpack experience, which saw $30 million pissed down the toilet for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, brought some truths about the sport into very clear focus.
At a certain point, possibly while mulling things over for too long without live sport or being able to socialise, it clicked in my mind that it didn’t matter how well thought out an expansionist’s plan might be, it will never be implemented. There is no perfect post that will change anyone’s mind. This may be obvious to you but sometimes I can be very dense.
My silver lining on the new Brisbane NRL team is then dubiously reasoned, if not downright naive, in retrospect. While a Brisbane team could be leveraged commercially to take the game west (again), it will not be. Instead, it will be used to shore up Nine’s failing ratings in Queensland, as the three extant clubs flail about hopelessly. That’s just who the people running the game are, especially Peter V’landys and especially Phil Gould. Two shitty suburban culture warriors in the pocket of a free-to-air broadcaster are the Pacific game’s leading lights and that’s why we have two point field goals now.
It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid. You won’t find a more Darwinian sporting observer than yours truly but even with my complete and utter lack of regard for tradition, introducing a team solely for the benefit of a legacy media organisation in 2023 is too far for me. For the sport as a whole to make money, by all means, do what you got to do. Even the Super League schism had some benefits for rugby league by forcing it to modernise somewhat. Who really gives a fuck if the only benefit is that Channel Nine survives a bit longer?
The thing of it is that there’s barely any risk for the NRL. You personally are not going to lose your team if the new Brisbane team fails, because you are not a fan of that team. No one is because it doesn’t exist. The NRL isn’t investing any money or taking any equity as far as I know, so there’s no financial risk. If the team fails, at worst the resulting quagmire might take out a storied Queensland Cup club (and, as recent events have clearly indicated, no one in Sydney cares about them) and the NRL suffers a bit of reputational blowback. If it works, ratings go up on Nine, the next TV deal is better and the NRL can profit. That money will be recycled on to the existing clubs in the form of higher club grants because Phil Gould believes the NRL is make-believe and the clubs are the only reality, which explains why North Sydney fans didn’t mind their club exiting first class football and we’ve never heard about it since.
The money will be wasted, as usual with Queensland clubs subsidising Sydney no-hopers, instead of being invested in making the sport better because that’s just what happens.
Now that nasty cynicism is out of the way, here’s some more. After the Bombers and Western Corridor bids merged, there are now three candidates: Dolphins, Firehawks and Jets, representing Redcliffe, Eastern Suburbs Brisbane and Ipswich, respectively.
You shouldn’t rate the Queensland Cup’s popularity on how much I talk about it but rather based on the fact that it won’t be on TV this year. The idea that each club has community links is not unreasonable but those links represent very few people in the grand scheme of things and a lot of them are going to be conflicted about leaving the Broncos for a new venture. For mine, the three bids are now pretty much the same, so it’ll probably come down to who knows the ARLC best and/or who has the most money.
The recent merger has meant that the Western Corridor bid has dropped the Western Corridor aspect of their bid to become “Brisbane”, which makes much more commercial sense but is questionable if you purportedly represented the hitherto-culturally-non-existent Logan-Ipswich-Toowoomba conglomeration. The Indigenous angle they were taking is gone too. Presumably, the Jets team noticed the stance Peter V’Landys took prior to last year’s All Stars game regarding the anthem and read between the lines on his feelings about black people.
Similarly, the Bombers have dropped their name and replaced it with another imperialist death machine but at least one that has some rugby league history (stolen, like so many things, from the NFL), so kudos. As a result, the Jets have joined forces with an organisation that stands for nothing other than their own gain to give it a light patina of community respectability. In many ways, it is the perfect bid because there is so little to it, it can be moulded into whatever the powers that be want it to be. This will almost certainly be worse than what people could come up with organically (see above re: two point field goals), starting with an incredibly omnious 9/11 themed logo (which obviously may not be real).
Whichever bid is successful, people and specifically, people on Twitter who aren’t fans and will never be fans of the new club, will hate everything about it – logo, name, colours. I note the hypocrisy but I at least know that it won’t matter. Twitter’s usefulness as a barometer on rugby league matters is only as a contraindicator and we wait with bated breath for the exit polls from Facebook and the Daily Telegraph to see which way Peter V’Landys is going to go.
In any case, Brisbane is so starved of NRL, it’ll probably work, especially after a sold out all-Queensland double header at Suncorp results in the destruction of a large part of the city.
The TV deal
The most frequent question asked in relation to BNE2 is “how does adding a 17th team result in higher ratings?” It’s a good one because there obviously isn’t going to be a ninth match each weekend and instead one team will sit on the sidelines with a bye. Here’s the theory that I think Nine, V’Landys and co are working with:
Even if BNE2 is half as successful as the Broncos, it’ll still rate better than most of the league. That means, most weeks will remove ratings anchors like the Knights, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Raiders and replace them with an above average team, which will improve the overall ratings across the season, even without adding a game.
The current FTA arrangement has a hard cap on the number of times a team can appear on free-to-air (I believe it is currently 16 for the Broncos and 12 for everyone else) and another cap on how many return fixtures are allowed per club (Nine might show both legs of Broncos-Cowboys, Broncos-Eels and Broncos-Rabbitohs but then wouldn’t be able to show both legs of, e.g., Broncos-Titans). By adding a second Brisbane team, this allows Nine to have more Broncos-equivalent games, with a Brisbane team on FTA every weekend. This also explains the inexplicable increase in Dragons FTA appearances for 2021 because they’d run out of good teams to show.
Nine sells all of its content to regional networks at what amounts to a fixed rate and so doesn’t care how well football rates in the sticks. Its revenue is driven by the five city metro ratings. From Nine’s point of view, the Gold Coast Titans are a regional football team and they probably don’t see them as moving ratings in the Brisbane market. That the Titans are just “down the road” doesn’t factor in.
A second Brisbane team then is likely to uplift Brisbane’s ratings more, and more often, when compared to how a Perth team would lift ratings in Perth.
The recent broadcast renegotiations allowed for the deal to be improved if a new team is added.
I think its extremely likely that ratings will go up in the short term (or, more accurately, go down less quickly) after BNE2 comes in, even just for novelty purposes. Even if it doesn’t last or the broadast deal doesn’t go up by enough to cover the club grant, I’m sure the ARLC will just boot the Warriors or Storm to compensate.