Category Archives: Analysis & Opinion

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Wests Tigers

I stopped picking where I thought teams would finish pre-season because a) it’s a ridiculous crap shoot and b) I kept picking the Tigers to finish in the bottom four and they kept finishing ninth. To finish eleventh in 2020 was poor, even by their own expectations, and mine:

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

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

I wasn’t that keen on Adam Doueihi or Leilua, Joey but Leilua, Luciano proved to be a master stroke. Temporarily offloading Momirovski for the breakout player of the 2020 NRL season was another. Nonetheless, it just didn’t come together for the Tigers.

Summary

Wests Tigers finished eleventh on the ladder, the best of the 7-13 teams with a marginally more respectable -65 points difference. A few early wins over teams that turned out to be terrible gave some false promise, none moreso than their 48-0 demolition of the Broncos in round 10, which landed the Tigers in a temporary seventh place with a 5-5 record. The draw was decidedly more difficult in the back half and the Tigers won only two of their last ten. Benji Marshall, Chris Lawrence, Harry Grant, Dylan Smith, Elijah Taylor, Matt Eisenhuth, Robert Jennings and Oliver Clark are not coming back.

What happened

I’m in somewhat of an awkward position because the player data I use goes back to 2013. Given that the Tigers were last good in 2010 and 2011, this means that we don’t have any good Tigers teams to compare the current squad to. It’s less of what’s missing, so much as what do they actually have? The answer is not a lot.

The most productive seven or eight players on each team are responsible for over 50% of the team’s total production. I call these players the engine. In 2020, the Tigers generated 8,184 Taylors, enough for tenth best in the league. The top seven players combined for 4,332 Taylors. They were:

  1. David Nofoaluma (902 Ty / .181 TPR / 1.6 WARG)
  2. Adam Doueihi (780 / .124 / 1.1)
  3. Benji Marshall (660 / .176 / 1.2)
  4. Josh Aloiai (608 / .129 / 0.9)
  5. Luciano Leilua (567 / .115 / 0.7)
  6. Luke Brooks (458 / .116 / 0.6)
  7. Luke Garner (384 / .096 / 0.4)

For the record, Harry Grant was eighth, playing in a position that typically does not generate much production (357 / .174 / 0.6). He finished third by WARG of all hookers.

Let’s break down the engine into its individual components:

  • David Nofoaluma was the best winger by WARG in 2020 but we need to bear in mind that these player ratings don’t measure defensive capability very well. Let’s temper the former fact with his middling, but still positive, 1.0 Net Points Responsible For per game.
  • Out of the twelve players who started ten or more games at fullback, Adam Doueihi ranked ninth by TPR. He may be starter calibre but he’s not one of the elites.
  • Benji Marshall had a good season, finishing seventh by WARG of all halves coupled with a very respectable 5.1 Net Points Responsible For per game, sixth best in the league. He is accorded these ratings despite some questionable decision making with the ball in hand. Likely because of this and his advanced age, Marshall is not having his contract renewed.
  • Josh Aloiai made five errors and missed eighteen tackles in 890 minutes on the field and averaged 136m per game with 11.8 hit ups. He’s had a career year, accumulating 0.9 WARG, exceeding his previous personal best of 0.5 set last year.
  • Luciano Leilua was good, actually.
  • Luke Brooks had an average season, a far cry from his exceptional performances in 2019. He is now on the outer at the Tigers, dropped during the season. Quite who the Tigers and Michael Maguire think is going to do a better job on their roster (or even on the open market) is up for debate.
  • The average TPR in 2020 was .110. Luke Garner rated .096 or 15 pips below league average.

Bearing in mind that these are the most productive players on the Tigers’ roster and that Nofoaluma is likely to regress to mean next year, Marshall is off to Super League or retirement, management don’t care for Luke Brooks and certainly don’t seem to be able to get the best out of him, Doueihi is a middling fullback at best, all you’re really left with is a few hard workers and Luciano Leilua. It’s hardly the stuff premierships are made of.

While the Tigers were a little unlucky, with a Pythagorean expectation of 8.6 wins in 2020 for only seven actual wins, even if they’d performed at expectation, they would have only ended up… ninth.

What’s next

Finishing ninth in three of the last five seasons and not making the finals since 2011 shows a commitment to mediocrity that’s stronger than most clubs’ attempts to strive for excellence. Blind luck would have a team in the finals more often than that. Eventually, it will break right for the Tigers – that’s how probability works – but given how many truly awful teams there were this season, it’s hard to imagine them getting a better opportunity than 2020 to break the duck.

The Wests Tigers are not unlike the city of Canberra: you have to pay overs to get anyone to come there and they end up leaving after two years anyway. I wonder how much the salary floor (the minimum amount the clubs must spend of salary cap each year) contributes to their malaise. If there’s no one particularly talented on the roster and you can’t attract any attention from the league’s top thirty players, how do you find a way to spend up to the floor? One way is to front load a contract for Josh Reynolds at $750,000 and hope that leads to something.

It didn’t. The roster is having a big broom put through it, with two retirements and six more players not returning for 2021 with rumours of still more being shopped around. How the Tigers fill this gap is obviously critical to their future success. Harry Grant returning to the Storm is not ideal and if Cam Smith hangs around at Melbourne, Wests would be mad not to throw the chequebook and then some at Grant. Josh Addo-Carr, one of the best in the game on the wing, is going to get big bucks to pull on the number one jersey. This is a roll of the dice but minting fullbacks out of wingers might be 2021’s minting five-eighths out of outside backs.

There’s still some question marks over the club’s management. That Justin Pascoe was dumb enough to get caught cheating the salary cap should have ended his career. To be clear, I’m not saying he should lose his job for cheating; he should lose it because he wasn’t careful or smart enough to not get caught. After serving a six month deregistration, he’s still at the club, in the top job and seemingly under no pressure. Michael Maguire’s tenure hasn’t delivered much in the way of results. We can debate how much of that is his failings and how much of that is the troops under his command but, to break out an extremely tired cliche, it’s a results driven business. How many more ninth place finishes do either of them get?

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 St George Illawarra Dragons

From earlier in the year:

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

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

A couple of swings and misses – Flanagan didn’t feature, Luke transferred mid-season to Brisbane, Lomax went back to centre after two games and they finally found their fullback – but generally, the cycle repeated except without the fast start to the season. Yawns ensued.

Summary

Not much was expected of the Dragons this year. They didn’t have the cattle, the coach or the will to do much. While there were a few surprise results, a 7-13 would not have been far above realistic expectations. As was the case three of the previous four of these reviews, the head coach, Paul McGregor, was fired.

What happened

The Dragons were a non-entity. They were bad but not in a way that was interesting. St George Illawarra would have been a team that most sides had pencilled in for the two points. They picked up four wins against bottom eight sides plus one against Cronulla (embarrassing), another against Parramatta (inexplicable) and a last round win over the Sunshine Coast-Eastern Suburbs Tigcons.

Good teams’ Elo ratings improve over the course of the season and bad teams’ ratings collapse. Sometimes teams can build some momentum and then fall away. We might be interested in seeing how a coach or player adapts to a new environment and see this reflected in the team’s rating. These are theoretically interesting scenarios.

The Dragons offered none of these narratives.

The Dragons improved from equal worst in the league at round four to below average by round nine and then that was it for the year. They were stuck in a subpar purgatory. There was no rhyme or reason to it: football happened and these were the results.

From another way of looking at it, Dragons’ games yielded the least information of any team in the NRL. We use Elo ratings to estimate a pre-game winning probability, expressed as a percentage, based on the ratings of the two teams. The margin at the end of the game is converted to an equivalent percentage and the difference between the two percentages is what is used to adjust the rating up or down.

What this chart shows is the sum of those differences between expectation (pre-game winning probability) and reality (post-game conversion from margin to percentage) for each team. Small changes mean that the pre-game ratings were correct, minimal adjustment is needed and that the game hasn’t told much new. From July to September, you didn’t need to watch Dragons games because you already knew pretty well what was going to happen.

The only geniuine surprise was Matt Dufty finally making something of himself. Dufty managed to finish eleventh on the overall WARG leaderboard and fifth among fullbacks, doubling his career WARG in one season.

Like Nofoaluma and Feldt, we may have to temper these productive performances by acknowledging WARG does not do a good job of measuring defensive capability and Net Points Responsible For at least makes the attempt.

There you go, there might be something there. Let’s see if he can do it again.

What’s next

Griffinball. The retread coach that’s been fired from both Penrith and Brisbane is back and this time, he’s racist af. As someone with a reputation for an uninteresting brand of football plus his work history, I don’t think I can in good conscience recommend watching any Dragons games moving forward.

If, for some reason, you don’t find this a compelling argument and insist on watching the Dragons, next year at least offers the prospect of confirming if Matt Dufty is legit now and watching the development of the likes of Adam Clune, Mikaele Ravalawa, Jason Saab and Tristan Sailor. Oh wait, they let the last two go. Presumably they were too ethnic for their new coach.

[It has since come to light since first publishing this that Tristan Sailor is allegedly a scumbag. My apologies for suggesting that the Dragons were awful racists in letting him go. Instead, they are scumbags for signing him in the first place.]

The Dragons also need to resolve their Corey Norman problem. It’s not his play, although it is that, so much as his huge, millstone of a salary. At a lower price, he might have a future but he does not deserve an elite playmaker’s salary. The freed up cash could be used to replenish their dire forward pack, which other than an aging Paul Vaughan, lacks big names as Frizell departs for Newcastle and Graham long gone for St Helens. It won’t matter who the halves are or how much they are paid if the forward pack is butter.

It doesn’t look great for St George Illawarra. They don’t have the cattle, the coach or the will. The yawns look to continue.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Manly Sea Eagles

I think the best way to start these reviews is to set the tone by recapping what I thought would happen back in February. The key paragraph for Manly in this year’s season preview was:

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

While we definitely saw the reversion to mean referred to, and then some, and less of the sound fundamentals mentioned, the story of Manly’s 2020 is relatively simple.

Summary

The carnage caused by injuries was a common theme for many teams in the 2020 season. The statistics indicate that Cherry-Evans had his usual, exceptionally high output season but had little help. The Sea Eagles slid down to finish thirteenth, with a 7-13 record, from sixth and 14-10 last year.

What happened

The Sea Eagles are the anti-Cowboys. Much as North Queensland’s season was saved from total disater by the presence of Jason Taumalolo, Manly’s season became a diaster because of the absence of Tom Trbojevic. It’s no coincidence that the Sea Eagles started the season 4-2 with Trbojevic available and then finished 3-11 with a combination of Brendan Elliot, Rueben Garrick and Tevita Funa at fullback and Trbojevic returning for just an hour in round 19.

In tandem with that, Manly lost their two best hooker options in the off-season. Api Koroisau was moved on to Penrith, considered surplus to requirements thanks to the emergence of Manase Fainu in 2019. Unfortunately, Fainu decided to stab someone at a church dance (!), missed the season and seems unlikely to ever play in the NRL again. Given that I don’t think anyone had that particular set of circumstances on their 2020 bingo card, I think the club can chalk this up to bad luck, rather than bad decision making.

Analysis of the on-field production of teams reveals that just eight players are typically responsible for half the team’s output. I call these players the “engine”. Last year, Trbojevic and Fainu were two major components of the Manly engine.

Using Wins Above Reserve Grade (WARG) as our metric to measure player contributions to team success over the course of a season, Manly’s total season WARG declined from 11.3 to 9.4, a loss of 1.9 WARG. This 17% decline came against a 3% inflation in WARG across the league, so the fall is 20% in “real” terms, a significant decrease in production.

Of that 1.9 WARG, 1.3 came from reductions in output at the fullback and hooker roles. The replacement parts were not up to maintaining the previous season’s horsepower.

A small portion of 2019’s miracle run could be chalked up to good fortune but it was mostly founded on high productivity and good coaching. However, the same structure was overly reliant on a few players, principally Cherry-Evans, Fainu, Trbjoevic, Taupau and Fonua-Blake. If two of the most important structural foundations are kicked out, then the whole edifice is going to start to creak under the strain. While Hasler appeared to be something of a miracle worker in 2019, he couldn’t repeat these same feats in 2020 with less to work with.

What’s next

Injuries will probably provide enough cover for Hasler to excuse the team’s performance in 2020. He is unlikely to get too many more chances. Another sub-.400 season will eliminate any of the gains he has made since retaking the reins at the start of 2019. If that continues, it’s unlikely that he would see out the 2022 season if he makes it even that far.

There is simply no doubt that Tom Trbojevic is one of the best fullbacks in the game, easily justifying a million dollar salary. However, the amount of time he spends on the sidelines each year has to be increasingly concerning for Manly’s management. After effectively playing full three seasons from 2016 to 2018, he played in 50% of Manly’s 2019 fixtures and just 35% in 2020. He may well be the victim of poor happenstance but he may also need to consider a more risk averse playing style. Losing 10% of his production to ensure he is on the field 90% of the time would be a fair trade.

What Manly appears to be missing is depth. Clubs like Melbourne use a pipeline of highly talented and cheap juniors to back up their marquee players. Manly has done less of this, preferring to sign hole fillers from other clubs (e.g. Danny Levi). Having said that, Taniela Paseka came across from the Tigers’ under 20 squad in 2018 and looks poised to replace the imminently departing Addin Fonua-Blake. While Hasler is likely to and can get more out taping together middling prospects into functional teams than the average NRL coach, there’s only so much that can be done. A few tweaks to the roster and some good luck will probably see Manly back in contention.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 North Queensland Cowboys

I didn’t offer anything particularly insightful about the North Queensland Cowboys in my season preview. For me, it seemed like all the pieces were there for them to be successful but they refused to win enough games to get out of the cellar. The team was shackled by playing former greats instead of the talented in the here and now, stifled by a lack of fifth tackle options and dogged by a defence that got worse with every game. The Cowboys were stuck circling the drain but never quite managed to find their way into the plughole.

2020 was another year in the same vein and we wonder what will break the cycle.

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Summary

The Cowboys managed to be bad in such a way that it attracted minimal attention outside of their own fanbase. Their roster should have had them in the finals and for the third consecutive season, they finished in the bottom four. Coach Paul Green was fired. In the NRL era, the wooden spooner wins 25.8% of their games on average; the Cowboys managed 25.0% in 2020.

What happened

If we look at the Cowboys’ Pythagorean expectation, there is some room for hope. Their for and against suggested the Cowboys should have been around 7-13, good enough to clear the bottom four at least. North Queensland may have been the victim of some bad luck in being unable to convert for and against when faces with binary of losses and wins. They were rarely blown out of the water, registering just four losses out of fifteen by 18 or more points (season average of 26.0 points conceded per game), but put up only 12 points or less in eight games (season average of 18.4 points scored per game).

In Elo terms, the Cowboys averaged a form rating of 1433 over the season, roughly equivalent to a 8-12 season and a noticeable improvement over their actual 5-15 record.

The Cowboys’ production put them thirteenth best in the league, clear of the Bulldogs, Titans and Broncos and putting them in the same conversation as the Warriors and Manly.

A deficit of 32 Taylors to the league average is roughly equivalent to 50 Elo rating points or very roughly equivalent to a four point headstart.

If we compare by position, the weaknesses become clearer.

Herein we see that the team is generally outplayed across the park. The wingers are on par with the league average, probably due to Kyle Feldt’s try scoring helping mask his defensive deficiencies, which is not tracked well by TPR but he shows up at the bottom of the list for Net Points Responsible For.

The obvious standout is Jason Taumalolo, already one of the all time greats, at lock. Taumalolo averaged 47.0 Taylors per game (season TPR .176 or 12% of the Cowboys’ total production) while the league average lock excluding Taumalolo produced 25.8. If we were to replace him with the league average, the Cowboys production drops from 382 Taylors per game to 355. That would slot North Queensland in between Canterbury and the Gold Coast, from thirteenth in the league to fifteenth, just above Brisbane.

While this shows Taumalolo’s outsized individual contribution to the fortunes of the Cowboys’, it also highlights the limitations of analysis by production or Pythagorean expectation or Elo ratings. Production correlates to winning but what actually wins games is points on the board. That responsibility falls primarily on the playmakers – currently some unresolved combination of Jake Clifford, Michael Morgan, Scott Drinkwater and Reece Robson – to make it happen, as well as better execution out of the likes of Valentine Holmes and his comrades in the outside backs. The younger talents to replace the class of 2015 have arrived and it’s now on the Cowboys and their new coach to make them into first graders – preferably with some sense of defensive cohesion – and then into contenders.

What’s next

Other than a golden eight weeks or so from Michael Morgan in the run to the 2017 grand final, the franchise has struggled since Johnathan Thurston injured his shoulder in 2017. That seems to have been a limitation of Paul Green’s management style. Despite bringing the club its first premiership in 2015, three years at the wrong end of the ladder was enough to end his time in Townsville.

Todd Payten comes in as the Cowboys’ new coach, after impressing the league with the resilience he has managed to instill in the Warriors during his abbreviated and temporary tenure. He will not have to live with Thurston’s legacy casting a shadow over his own or have to work out how to retool his entire system. Simplistically, his impetus could be the extra edge the team needs not just to convert shoulda-coulda wins into reality but to win enough games to reflect the calibre of players on the roster. We wait with bated breath.

Off the field, Queensland Country Bank Stadium had all of one home game before coronavirus, which was a sellout against the Broncos, meaning that the Cowboys either had the highest attendance this year, according to Rugby League Project, or the fifth highest, according to AFLTables. If/when things return to normal, that facility should serve the club well, being significantly closer to Townsville’s city centre and the Cowboys Leagues Club than the old Dairy Farmers.

The Cowboys’ pay TV ratings are up slightly on last year, from 226,000 to 232,000, but only good enough for ninth best in 2020. This is a far cry from as recently as 2017, when the Cowboys led the league on Foxtel, and running a close second to the Broncos in 2018 with 260,000 viewers (part of this will be due to time slot changes). North Queensland remains an anomaly in rugby league, with such a large and geographically disparate fanbase, but as all fanbases do, they demand success if they are to remain engaged.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canterbury Bulldogs

At the start of the year, before the coronavirus pandemic and indeed time itself, I wrote

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

That turned out to be a relatively prescient summation of the 2020 Bulldogs season. Had it not been for Seibold’s Broncos, Canterbury absolutely would have finished last. Considering that this season featured a team on a permanent road trip, that is a damning indictment.

Summary

Canterbury didn’t win very many games on account of not being very good at football. They tried for a while, did not deliver results and like a number of clubs this season, fired their coach.

What happened

Despite finishing eleventh with a 10-14 record in 2017, the club’s situation off-field was something of a disaster. A clean out ensued in 2018, which delivered a 8-16 season that was above expectations. 2019 saw consolidation at 10-14 and many had the Dogs primed to take the next step in 2020 towards a winning record. Instead, they went backwards.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at this narrative, partly because there’s little to be gained from an in-depth analysis of their on-field performance this year (it was not good, 1 to 17) and partly because it’s what set expectations for this and next season.

Pythagorean expectation does a reasonable job of estimating a team’s win-loss record using for and against. The advantage of using Pythag is that it has a finer resolution on team performance than the binary of win-loss records. Typically, actual wins and wins as estimated by Pythagorean expectation are expected to be close over the course of the season, as shown between 2004 and 2012 in the above.

When the two diverge, we usually attribute this to luck and say teams are either over- or under-performing their Pythagorean expectation. This is important to note because lucky seasons, where teams outperform, tend to be followed by unlucky seasons, where teams underperform, and vice versa. The actual win-loss record can mask the team’s underlying quality and set unrealistic expectations moving forward.

2017 was bang on: 10 actual wins with 9.4 Pythagorean wins. In 2018, the team underperformed (8 actual, 10.8 Pythag) followed by an outperformance in 2019 (10 actual, 7.8 Pythag) and then underperformance again in 2020 (3 actual, 5.0 Pythag). In other words, the Bulldogs actually got worse, declining from 10.8 to 5.0 Pythag wins from 2018 to 2020. When people talk about Canterbury not improving under Dean Pay, this is what they mean.

Pay managed to get the team fired up to win some games at the back end of 2018. This gave the playing group self-belief and the club some media hype going in to the next season. Further belief/hype was generated off the back of more wins in garbage time in 2019 but this time, the performance was based on shaky fundamentals. By this season, the playing group sensed that Pay was not able to drive them to new heights and did not commit like they had in previous years, leading to an absence of the plucky wins that had defined the previous two seasons and underperforming their Pythag.

With Pay now gone, we may well see a bounce back in 2021 with an outperformance, but it seems unlikely we’ll see a recovery like 2009.

What’s next

At some point, someone is going to point out that the post-Castle board continue to make very bad decisions on behalf of the Bulldogs. God only knows what Trent Barrett said in his interview with the club to be given a second chance as a head coach after one of the most disastrous tenures in the NRL era at Manly. Signing Nick Cotric on big bucks doesn’t solve any of the team’s fundamental problems. The players that have been linked with the club do not inspire confidence.

We’re not that long removed from a Bulldogs premiership in the NSW Cup. The junior lights of the 2018 campaign – Renouf Toomaga, Reimis Smith, Jayden Okunbor, Ofahiki Ogden, Rhyse Martin and Lachlan Lewis – have all made it to first grade and where an impression has been made, it’s only because there was nothing else to distract viewers. Morgan Harper, their best player by WARG in the 2019 reserve squad, has now played more first grade games for Manly than Canterbury. Among other things, the club needs to consider how to better secure brighter talents or better develop the talents that they do have. Dean Pay clearly wasn’t the man to ensure that happened as players did not appear to improve under his leadership. I don’t have a lot of confidence that Trent Barrett can do any better but I’ve been wrong before.

The club then has few options to improve its genuinely lack lustre roster. The Bulldogs currently occupy a space on the market where they will be regularly linked with fringe-rep players who are seeking a pay rise from their current employers. Despite this being a patently obvious bargaining tactic, some talented players will inevitably come across to seek their filthy lucre. But it has been demonstrated time and time again that this is not a strategy for building a premiership contending roster. Until something breaks their way, that leaves Canterbury in something of a holding pattern.

Longer term, the Bulldogs have to start thinking about how many fans they actually have. In 2015, just five years ago, the Dogs had the second best attendances in the league, at over 20,000 per game. Now, their TV ratings are in the toilet, last year’s attendances were less than 13,000 per game and Roy Morgan has them as the twelfth most popular team in the league.

Several years of plucky but mediocre results has eroded a once large legion of fans. For mine, based on their decision making, the future is not bright at Belmore. If it continues, will the Bulldogs end up with Manly and Cronulla as perennial candidates for relocation?

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Brisbane Broncos

It wasn’t a particularly pleasant year to be a Broncos fan. I think the only upside of the experience of the club winning its first ever wooden spoon, before the likes of Manly, Wests Tigers or St George Illawarra, is that we can put to bed the idea that Sydney rugby league rivalries matter in any way. If you want tribalism, watch fifteen fanbases come together and support any-club-but-the-Broncos to ensure they finished last. The onanistic orgy on social media would not have been out of place on an X-rated site.

Nonetheless, the club deserved to be 2020’s lanterne rouge. It was a perfect case study in systemic managerial failure.

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In summary

What happened

Just about everything went wrong. Players got injured with alarming regularity and, with the results on field, were not brought back with any urgency. When players were fielded, they were either bad selections (the Brodie Croft experience) or lacked motivation (almost everyone). When players were fielded and attempted to play, they could neither attack nor defend, giving away penalties (including a slew of ruck infringements), making basic errors and lacking any visual indications of cohesion. The Broncos went 1-17 from the season resumption and finished with an historically bad for-and-against.

Looking closer, the Broncos consistently were overwhelmed by opposition possession, winning a majority of the ball in only three games of twenty. Consequently, the Broncos lost the territory battle by more than 400 metres on average.

Normally, this would be the end of the story. What halves could make anything happen behind that kind of pack performance? But even on the rare occasions that the Broncos were in the red zone with ball in hand, they showed so little. For example, the Broncos’ held 50% of the possession in their 58-12 loss to the Roosters. It would not be fair to blame just the pack.

Brisbane’s much vaunted young forwards, supposedly the best in the league, fell apart after a few injuries. While I’m not a huge depth guy, between roster mismanagement and injuries, the Broncos were left with no option but to raid the farm system, looking for talents to blood and fill the gaps.

In principle, this is what a farm system is for but once raided, it will take time to replenish. Some of these youngsters will be discarded, likely ending their careers before they’ve really had a chance, in order to allow the club to rebalance its roster. This will be the legacy of Seibold, White and co.

What’s next

The Broncos get a cleaner slate to start next season. CEO Paul White is leaving, having overseen a decade of mediocrity with the club’s first wooden spoon and a grand final loss to their chief rivals as the only sporting achievements to speak of for the men’s side.

At the time of writing, the next CEO has not been announced. Like most people, I don’t have any particular insight to offer into the quality of candidates but each individual will have their own particular style for running the club. Some will want to focus on the commercial side only and some will want to be involved in the football side. It is too early to say what would be preferable but it would be nice to have leadership that recognises its own limitations. See also: Darren Lockyer.

The club remains profitable and since October 2010, when White took over, the club’s share price has risen from 30c to 42c. However, the current price is well down on the peak reached in November 2017 of 56c. In other words, Seibold’s reign coincided with one-third of the value of the Broncos disappearing.

Anthony Seibold was fired mid-season, far far too late to change the course that the club was on and infuriatingly late, considering that it was obvious following the 2019 finals that he did not have what it takes. At the time of writing, the next coach has not been announced but it will likely be concurrent with or shortly after the CEO announcement.

Neither Kevin Walters nor Paul Green are going to right the ship on their own, so it will remain to be seen what infrastructure is provided around them. In the first instance, Seibold’s assistants need to be turfed. They are as culpable as the head coach but have received none of the media scrutiny. The injuries, the lack of effort and the on-field disorganisation are the result of people who had fancy titles but failed to deliver.

The timing of the slate cleaning doesn’t do the club any favours but bad decision making got them into this mess, it’s not going to get them out of it. Some fans are expecting to bounce back to finals next season but I think it will take some time longer to – for fuck’s sake – rebuild.

The gimmicks will continue until flow improves

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

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

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

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The stats

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

Points

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

Average round margin

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

Average margin over three rounds

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

Average season margin

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

Average points per game

The points appear to have gone missing in penalty goals.

Penalty goals

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

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

Running metres

Running metres have totally blown out.

All running metres

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

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

Kicking metres

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

[Note carlos uses Fox League’s stats]

Penalties

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

Penalties

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

Penalties + six agains

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

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

Six agains

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

Playmaker contributions

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

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

Production by position

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

Play the ball speed

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

Average play the ball speeds

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

****

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

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The feels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The gimmicks will continue until flow improves

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Warrior Dolphins

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

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For the Broncos

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

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

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

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

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

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

For the Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

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For the Dolphins

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

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

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

For the Queensland Cup

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

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

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

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

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For the NSW Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe think about it, New South Wales.

Super League 2.0 is not coming

Take half an hour and watch this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, a Super League 2.0 is not coming.

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

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

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

* * * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It didn’t matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dynasties of Rugby League

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

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

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

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

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The accounting system

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

roosters-nrl-dynasties

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

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

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

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

The dynasties of rugby league

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

Sydney (1908 – 1981)

nswrl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

nswrl ranked

Dynasties of Sydney

Brisbane (1909 – 1987)

brl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

brl ranked

Dynasties of Brisbane

*Coorparoo has been shown as an Easts dynasty

England (1901/02 – 2019)

rfl-1

rfl-2

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

rfl-ranked-1

rfl-ranked-2

Dynasties of England

Australia (1982 – 2019)

arl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

arl-ranked

Dynasties of Australia

All-time dynasties

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

ALL-TIME

Dynasties ranked by peak achievement points:

ALL-TIME-PEAK

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

Dynasties ranked by average achievement points:

ALL-TIME-AVERAGE

Greatest clubs

Clubs ranked by total achievement points accumulated during dynastic seasons:

ALL-TIME-CLUBS

ALL-TIME-CLUBS-2

*Coorparoo I is included in Brisbane Easts’ tally

Around the leagues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fingerprints of the Immortals

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

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

Not pictured are Beetson, Johns and Burge.

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

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

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

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

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