Category Archives: Analysis & Opinion

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 St George Illawarra Dragons

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 New Zealand Warriors

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh.

There’s always next year

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Wests Tigers

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

How about some good news? Look at these guys:

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

There’s always next year

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Brisbane Broncos

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

*tweet of Brodie Croft playing halfback pre-season*

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

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 North Queensland Cowboys

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

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

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

On that note:

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canterbury Bulldogs

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

Hmmm.

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

BNE2.3: What is the point of it?

Previously, in our series on Brisbane expansion:

*****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s not just the six again

The move to do away with the ‘unlimited’ tackle rule that had been played in Australia for 59 seasons was the brainchild of the urbane secretary of the Rugby Football League in England, Bill Fallowfield. The move was designed to counter what Jack McNamara in the Manchester Evening News described as the ‘evils of the almost never-ending possession’. In both countries, a grinding, physical style of play had developed, with teams holding possession for long periods. Australian centre Bob Hagan… told of a game in which Huddersfield kicked off against Hull Kingston Rovers, and then touched the ball only twice in the first half. Hagan reckons it was this game that killed off the old rule.

Centenary of Rugby League (2008), Ian Heads and David Middleton

In the late 1950s, rugby league faced a problem. It was boring. Teams could hold the ball indefinitely and, using the favoured tactic of one out hit-ups, could maintain possession provided they didn’t make an error or do something silly like scoring.

The problem identified, a radical solution was borrowed from American football to introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ ethos to the game. Initially limiting possession to four tackles, and extended to six in 1971 in New South Wales (and later elsewhere), the new rule was trialled in pre-season competitions to test its impacts. The new rule had its detractors and the style of football it spawned was chaotic – dubbed “panic football” – but better than it had been. It forced teams to attack. Four tackles didn’t seem to provide enough time, so six tackles became the solution. The game was better for it.

The NRL website has every Sydney grand final from 1966 onwards and if you watch them like I have, you can see the evolution from unlimited possession to four tackle and then six tackles in the space of a few hours.

The key thing here is the process. A problem is identified. A solution is proposed. The solution is tested and evaluated outside of the main premiership. If successful at resolving the initial problem, the solution is implemented. The solution is adjusted as required in response to feedback

This is the basic framework of common sense decision making. Further, it is evidence that the sport of rugby league collectively and consciously decided it was not a game that valued possession of a football but one that valued attacking play and, as perhaps an unintended consequence, became a game of field position

Rugby league has a history of making these rule changes – introducing the play the ball and reducing from 15 to 13 a side in 1906, reducing the points value of goals in 1897 and increasing the points value of tries in 1983, introducing and then gradually increasing the offside rule over the years – to support the scoring of tries, considered the most interesting part of the game.

As it currently stands, the set restart will not be joining that pantheon of innovative rule changes.

The governing bodies for Queensland, NSW, French, PNG and British rugby leagues, as well as the international board, have all joined the Australian body in adopting the set restart. The rule sets still aren’t completely harmonised – the two point field goal remains an Australian-only feautre as far as I can tell, scrums are used at fewer points (or not at all) to restart play in England and the rules are different again for the women’s game for some reason – but largely everyone is now on the same page after Peter V’Landys, Project Apollo and the ARLC unilaterally changed the sport of rugby league during the 2020 covid off-season.

As more time passes, and the NRL bogs down into a mire of repeated blowout scorelines, it becomes clear what the sport has decided to sign itself up for. In a sense, it continues the tradition of attacking play but it appears to be decidedly one way. Concerningly, even as fewer six agains are called, the blowouts remain.

Worse still, the sport seems to have regressed more than half a century to being a matter of possession. Phil Lutton put together a fantastic piece in the SMH on the rule changes that, somewhat novelly, involved speaking to the actual players to see what they thought was happening, instead of merely regurgitating talking points from the administration. I believe this is called journalism.

The truly fascinating thing about is that these well-paid professional athletes cannot explain precisely what’s happening. This is not a reflection on them but rather reflects the complexity of the problem the NRL faces.

We can see the obvious. There are a lot of games decided in 2020 and moreso in 2021 by larger scorelines than we are used to. We can watch the games and see that if one team has a noticeable advantage after ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, then it won’t be long before they race out to a twenty point lead and it’s game by half time. The second forty minutes is effectively irrelevant. I’ve written about the subltety of the impact on the game before but do you really need any more evidence than this?

Previously, I compared the impacts of the rule changes to that of climate change. It’s small, it’s consistent and there are other things hapenning but it’s there. Some people’s complete inability to parse this reality – that several things can happen simultaneously to affect an outcome – leaves me baffled on a regular basis, however, if a substantial population seem to have an unbending love of simple, monocausal explanations for the complexities of the world, that does seem to explain much of history.

Not every game is a blowout, just as each day is not necessarily hotter than the last, but the data paints a picture of the overall situation that is as alarming as it is obvious. To repeat bullshit talking points about development, pathways, roster management and whatever else is insulting to the collective intelligence of the NRL fanbase. If anything, the complete absence of any thorough explanation of how the sport’s mechanics actually work on the field belies the idea that rugby league is a simple game for simple people (a subscription to Rugby League Writers will dispell that notion for you) and yet simple people insist on talking as if it were so.

Confounding this further is the abject refusal of the same blowouts afflicting the NRL to turn up in Super League, which adopted the six again after their own covid break in 2020, or either State Cup, which implemented the six again at the start of this season.

To unpack this, we’re going to have to go back to first principles.

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I wrote about how this all came about in June of 2020 and managed to reasonably well predict most of what’s happened since. I was wrong about the impact on margins (that only became clear later) but otherwise, the cliff notes follow.

The suspension of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic put the NRL in breach of contract with its free-to-air broadcast partner, Nine. Nine, a relic in a dying industry, felt that it had overpaid for the rights to the NRL and Origin and used this opportunity to make the NRL take a significant cut to its broadcast revenue while forcing the NRL to bring in changes that would make the game more entertaining, thereby increasing Nine’s ratings. Australian netball did somethinig similar at the behest of Nine.

The NRL introduced packages of rule changes between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, between the first two rounds and remainder of the 2020 season and then another between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. These changes tend to all be lumped together and include the captain’s challenge, reducing from two to one referee, the set restart for ruck infringements and later offside, a reduction in scrums but greater flexibility in how they are used, the 20/40 and the two point field goal for attempts beyond the 40m line.

The changes made under the V’Landys regime, most of the above, were sold on the basis that it would improve the pace of the game, the flow of the game, bring back fatigue to the game, which would allow the little man to flourish. All of this was deemed to be more entertaining, taking us back to a time of purer, less robotic football.

When the changes were first premiered, on 28 May as Parramatta defeated Brisbane 34-6, it was clear that panic football had returned after lying dormant for half a century. As the weeks progressed, it was not at all clear to me that the product was better but there was definitely more of it and I was told by the media, breathlessly and relentlessly, that it was better.

Ratings for the first two weeks of the resumed competition were record breaking. The dogshit defence of the Broncos was seen by more than 1.3 million people. But after a few weeks, ratings fell back into their usual rhythm and while the season seemed to finish with improved overall ratings, it was on fewer games and the big four matches of the grand final and State of Origin were well down on previous years.

This season, we’ve seen Origin bounce back a little, leading to suggestions that its ratings are up, which is true as long as you don’t look at what the ratings were five years ago. For the regular season, ratings seem to be down but not significantly enough that you wouldn’t be able to point to streaming and make up some stuff about historically bad teams to explain it. If the on-field product is leading to people turning off their TVs, it hasn’t been significant enough that the NRL won’t be able to duck and weave taking any responsibility for what’s happening.

All of this leads us to the inevitable question: what was the point?

I understand that one must occassionally suffer in the short term, in order to gain in the long term. The penalty crackdown in 2018 was a perfect example. In principle, we simply had to ensure a few months of penalty-ridden games to ensure that players and coaches understood that the “wrestle” would not be tolerated and the game would then speed up. Players and coaches knew that the administration did not have the stomach for it, nor for the fight in the media, and would buckle eventually. Sure enough, the administration did and we watched a lot of penalties get awarded for nothing.

This is the opposite. If there isn’t a clear goal to be achieved, as I suspect the current administration does not know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, then why do we need to suffer? None of the rules supporters seem to be able to answer that question, preferring to deflect onto a Victorian bootstraps philosophy that every team simply must do better.

Ratings are, at best, flat and, at worst, down. That rather suggests that the rules haven’t had their intended impact. If the rules don’t serve their ostensible purpose – to entertain and to increase the audience – then there shouldn’t be anything that stops the NRL from rolling them back. There seems little point in “tweaking” the rule changes to mitigate the worst outcomes because the game is less entertaining and no more popular than it was previously.

As it stands, we have had to sit through a lot of terrible football for no gain.

The problem is how to unravel what’s been done. I don’t think it is as simple as getting rid of the set restart.

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I’ve got to say, even with the blow-outs the games are entertaining.

Before they were robotic, they were predictable. Now, they’re entertaining. Even the blowouts over the weekend were entertaining. For the viewer.

Peter V’Landys, 17 May 2021 (Poor roster management, not faster game, to blame for growing number of blowouts: V’landys, WWOS)

Teams that have adapted well to the new game don’t seem to mind where they start their sets. Using fast play-the-balls, a reliance on metre-eating backs gaining ground early in the set and a narrow passing game to add just enough variation to keep the defence guessing, they are able to keep their attacking line moving fast enough to regularly cover the best part of a length of the field in a set. The threat of the six again is enough to keep poorly organised defensive lines scrambling, unwilling to risk sitting in the ruck too long and extending the time that they have to defend. Ironically, this plays exactly into the better teams’ hands

Should the weaker team survive the set and regain possession, the well adapted teams are flying off the line and pinning down their opponents. This increases pressure on the team with the ball, forcing them to accept a paltry gain on their set or forcing them into an error, either from an ill-advised pass or from the sheer impact of defensive line.

Now the better team has field position and the ball. From there, any team with a competent halfback should be able to string together two or three repeat sets. Failing that, they can rely on their defensive linespeed to crush the opposition until they have had enough attacking opportunities to put points on the board. Then they get the ball back from kick-off.

And that’s it. Fifteen minutes of this and most teams crack – good and bad. Players do not have the aerobic engines to compete at that intensity for long and the poorer teams do not have the defensive structures to resist. Once the players are gassed, it’s trivial for the team with the upper hand to start running through and over teams no longer able to organise themselves or make tackles. Once they’re up by twenty, it’s game over but unfortunately, there’s often up to an hour still to go.

It gets worse later in the game when the fatigue causes handling errors, turning the ball back over and resulting in more energy-sapping defence, leading to a negative feedback loop whose destination is a blown out scoreline. On the rare occassions where the losing team manages to string a set or two together, they are too fatigued to run with any intensity. It becomes laughably easy to defend their insipid attacks. In desperation and running on empty, their fifth tackle options fall apart as players de-sychronise their timing, lose cohesion and begin to rely on individuals going it alone.

In short, once you are on the backfoot, you start to play a lot like the 2020 Brisbane Broncos. More often than not, you lose like them too.

What you may notice is that nowhere in that platonic ideal of the NRL in 2021 was the team with the upper hand awarded a set restart. Indeed, it was at most the threat of a set restart that got defensive teams scrambling. This, I think, explains why Penrith can have a positive set restart difference and Melbourne can have a negative difference and both can completely dominate the competition.

You might then be wondering what the difference is between 2019 and 2021. Isn’t this just a description of good rugby league gameplay? The answer is yes but also no. The differences are subtle and mostly rooted in the rule changes that have been brought in.

Relieving penalties are a thing of the past, replaced by the set restart. Bad teams relied on these penalties being awarded, sometimes seemingly at random, as a means to get a lift down the field, an opportunity take a breath and reset their organisation or to score an easy two points with another possession to follow.

This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. It’s how the game has been played for more than a hundred years. Importantly, it interrupts the otherwise continuous possession of the better team and offers a foothold for the weaker team to work their way back into the game. Otherwise, the better team knows it has the ability to move the ball as required to score points, they simply need to hold the ball until the lesser team cracks. As Phil Lutton put it:

This style of play, with its heavy emphasis on holding possession in lieu of gaining field position, wasn’t possible previously because the conditions that allow it to exist weren’t in place.

The reduction from two on-field referees to one has had huge and completely unexplored implications. Most of the discourse at the time of the change was about working rights. The ARLC gave some token concessions and since then, the referees have shut up and gotten on with it. The problem is that between halving the number of referees and the increased pace of play, the referees are now worse at their jobs.

This is the genesis of the debacle of the high shot crackdown. High shots that were obvious enough on TV were being missed on field because the referees, like the players, were gassed and looking for too many things. That crackdown, like all of its previous editions, was quietly shelved when it turned out it was poorly thought through and ruining the spectacle of the game even moreso than the blowouts. The solution seems to have been more Bunker involvement, which I’m fairly certain was decried by segments of the media a few years ago but goes unremarked in V’Landys’ NRL. If they haven’t already, the referees are going to reach overload.

Under a two referee system, one referee set the line and the other policed the ruck. Under a one referee system, one referee does both jobs but neither of them well. The better teams are able to get off the mark a few tenths of a second earlier because the referee’s attention is elsewhere and that’s enough to get to the opposition slightly sooner and hit slightly harder. The cumulative effect starts to hurt after a while.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, teams like the Panthers can simply lie in the ruck, either waiting for a signal from the referee or their teammates to get up. If the wrestle has been eliminated, it’s been replaced with an even more blatant ruck infringement, largely daring the referees to blow a penalty that will never come. Instead, a lesser punishment in the form of a set restart may come, and the Panthers will simply shrug their shoulders and set their line, confident in the knowledge that their defence can withstand the insipid, exhausted attack of their opposition.

Considering all of this, I believe any attempts to tweak the rules, to apply another band-aid, are misguided. The suggestions to date will not disrupt this paradigm. One common one is to re-adopt the Super League rule and let the scoring team kick off. This would prevent the scoring team from regaining possession immediately after scoring but merely delays the inevitable. If the better teams can move the ball 70 metres downfield in a set, more if they get a set restart, and can manipulate the other team to dominate possession for an extended period, then we are back to square one.

Giving penalties in your own half and giving set restarts while in the attacking half doesn’t help either. Penalty goals are a key means for lesser teams with weak attacks to keep within touching distance of their opposition. By effectively eliminating the penalty goal from the game, you force weaker teams to attack the line. Penrith, who currently have the best defensive record of any Australian club of the last twenty years, would simply laugh.

In a season with a record number of shutouts, this isn’t going to redress the balance. Weaker teams need tools to keep their opposition within reach and to be able to work themselves back into the game, as they did 1895 through 2019. Without that, the blowouts will continue.

While we’ve examined one factor in detail but there are many at play and it would take a thesis to unpack everything. Some of the teams currently playing are simply bad at football and could probably stand to improve. But the teams on the wrong end of pastings have included the pre-season favourites and the club that won two premierships in 2018 and 2019. At the other end of the ladder, the Bulldogs have already won more games than the 2016 Knights and aren’t conceding anywhere near as many points as the 1999 Magpies. There’s always been bad teams but there’s never been scorelines like this. Not against good and bad teams. Not in a wet La Niña year. Not in a salary capped, full-time professional league. Not when it’s been fourteen years since the last expansion team entered the competition.

However, like breaking the four minute mile, the ceiling of what’s possible in rugby league has been raised and, even if the old rule set was reinstated, elements of the new style of play would remain. Unless the game is slowed down, it may well remain a game of possession. While I’m normally in favour of pushing the barriers of what’s humanly possible, we can only speculate as to where this might lead the sport over the coming years.

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So why don’t we see these blowouts in other leagues?

Despite the margin heading higher but not exceeding previous year, there’s signs in the English game. The closest game in round 12 was a forfeit. Round 8 had the fourth highest margin in Super League history. St Helens are currently conceding points at just 7.6 points per game, better even than Penrith and the best in Europe since Wigan in the 1986-87 season. The league leading attack of Warrington is less impressive, merely being the best since the 2017 Tigers. Salford’s attack has only been good for 11.5 points per game, the least since 2-23 Swinton in 1991-92. Leigh’s 0-12 record speaks for itself and their 39.1 points conceded per game is the seventh worst in the entire history of English rugby league dating back to 1895, sitting behind six Super League teams who managed to combine for 15 wins and 2 draws from 155 matches.

In Queensland Cup, Wynnum’s 34.0 points scored per game and 18.2 points conceded per game are only 16th and 52nd best marks in that competition. The Capras’ 16.1 points scored per game and the Cutters’ 33.6 points conceded per game are 26th and 27th worst, respectively. In all, it seems rather balanced. Despite this, the two leading teams each have more competition points than the bottom five combined, which includes three unaffiliated clubs.

It may just be that not enough set restarts have been called for it to be a sufficiently significant threat to fluster teams even in the absence of the six again call.

But we see a similar decline in penalties awarded.

Albeit, in percentage terms, it’s less significant in state cups than the NRL. Comparing the average penalties across 2016 to 2019 to the number called in 2021, 52% of penalties have been eliminated in NRL, compared to only 33% in Queensland Cup and 44% in NSW Cup.

It may be that in these leagues, the players aren’t athletic or skilled or coached well enough to implement the strategies used by Melbourne and Penrith in the NRL. Most of the NRL – and the Queensland Maroons, for that matter – haven’t come to grips with it yet, so it’s questionable whether we would have expected reserve graders to have mastered the new game. It may be that the spread of talent across the leagues is greater than the NRL and the effects are concealed within the typically higher scoring. It could be that Super League never adopted the second referee and state cup did so only sporadically and so the “change” back to one ref has had comparatively less impact on those competitions.

It may, as in the NRL and Super League in 2020, take time for the changes to fully percolate through. It will be worth watching other leagues to see how they adapt to the play on a year’s delay. More data should help isolate what’s happening and prove or disprove any hypotheses.

It is, as I said, complicated.

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Rugby league is an entirely artificial space. There is no natural order. We can decide what we want to see and there is no reason why would should have implemented these rules. They do not serve their intended purpose and the second order impacts, unknown at the time of implementation due to a lack of trialling, have made the NRL demonstrably worse.

Any defence of the rule changes starts with the presumption that they need to remain and only require modification but this flies in the face of the common sense decision making framework used previous administrators to improve the game. We must ask ourselves what purpose the changes were meant to serve, if that’s been accomplished and if not and what reasoning there is to continue with it. If the goal was to punish teams for losing, then it’s mission accomplished but if the goal was to entertain, it’s been sadly lacking.

The concern is that in a World Cup year, assuming it goes ahead at all, will see minnows will face off against Australian and New Zealander sides principally comprising players from Penrith and Melbourne. If full time professionals get blown off the park by these players, what hope is there for nations whose teams are made up of part timers and amateurs? It could get ugly and it will be embarrassing and it will reflect the shortage of common sense decision making at all levels of rugby league adminstration.

But until someone smarter than me works out what’s really going on, the best we can hope is the World Cup is refereed as the lower tiers of the sport are and hope that the next round of band-aid solutions, rumoured to already be in the works, somehow fixes the problem by accident.

2021 Super League WIP Report

We’re about a third of the way through the Super League season (maybe? Depending on covid and weather, I suppose) and it’s time to review how each team and player are performing. We’ll be looking at this using the following analytical tools:

  • FormElo ratings that reflect short term performance.
  • Production – The accumulation of valuable work on field, as measured by statistics that correlate with winning. Production is measured in Rismans.
  • Disappointment Line – The minimum number of wins for the season to not be considered disappointing by fans, as calculated by the pre-season class (long term performance) Elo rating.
  • 1st order winsPythagorean expectation calculated by points for and against.
  • 2nd order wins – Pythagorean expectation calculated by SCWP.

There’s more detail at How It All Works.

I won’t be providing much analysis for individual teams or players, instead preferring to let you do the work for your favourite team or player with the context about how the tools work provided.

WIP graphs

Comparing win percentage of the Disappointment Line, actual wins (0th), Pythagorean wins (1st) and 2nd order wins.

Note that the zero to one scale for winning percentage can make significant differences look minor; a .100 change in winning percentage is worth up to 2.5 wins at season’s end.

Some of the games have no or incomplete stats, so the second order stats might not move in line with the first order or winning percentage. Some teams haven’t played all of their games between round 1 and 11, in which case the lines do not change through this round. Statistics do not include Castleford’s forefit to St Helens.

Significant divergences between actual and Pythagorean wins are usually indicative of mean regression in future. That is, teams underperforming will improve their actual win percentage and vice versa so that the two numbers tend to converge. However, there’s always one or two that manage to avoid this convergence. We call them lucky/unlucky, depending on the direction that they miss and the ladder is currently a mess.

The outlook for each team:

  • Actual wins understating year to date performance / potentially tending better – St Helens, Leeds, Huddersfield, Leigh
  • Actual wins overstating year to date performance / potentially tending worse – Catalans, Wigan
  • Actual wins reflective of year to date performance – Warrington, Hull FC, Hull KR, Castleford, Wakefield Trinity, Salford

For teams with less than .500 percentage, 2nd order wins is always better than actual wins and vice versa. The trick here is to not focus on this specific value per se but to look at it as a prediction for next year’s performance. The next season’s performance for most teams will fall within one standard deviation (plus/minus .130) of their 2nd order win percentage for this season.

Form

Form Elo ratings at the end of 2020 and the end of round 11

1st Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of actual points for and against

2nd Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP for and against

Player Leaderboards

Rismans

Rismans are the unit of measure for the amount of valuable work done (production), equivalent to Taylors in Australia. Due to the state of the dataset, not all games and appearances will have been captured.

The career leader (2017 – now) for total Rismans is Jermaine McGillvary with 4402. The single season record holder is Jackson Hastings in 2019 with 1768. 2020 was topped by Bevan French with 1114.

Rismans per game

As above but averaged per game (minimum 5 games)

The career leader (2017 – now) for Rismans per game is Peta Hiku with 74.1 (minimum 10 games). The single season record holder is (minimum 5 games) Craig Hall in 2018 with 76.7. 2020 was topped by Ash Handley with 68.0.

BNE2.2: The Gemba Report

Previously, in our series on Brisbane expansion:

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The short version is that twelve NRL clubs have chipped in to get a study (that the ARLC probably should have commissioned themselves) to look at the impacts of expansion on the competition. They have engaged Gemba Sports Group to do this and The Australian has actually published the report in full (not paywalled).

That the existing NRL clubs, who may have to face another competitor and who stand to have their ARLC voting power mildly diluted and potentially lose future funding, commissioned the report to make a specific point needs to be kept in mind. That I want to make a different point probably also needs to be considered.

This has not generated much interest, largely because the content has been paywalled at The Australian and the articles are largely made up of quotes from the heads of Manly, Penrith and the Gold Coast talking their own book.

It is common knowledge that the player talent is not there. If there is enough talent for another team, you wouldn’t have the Bulldogs trying to get (Matt) Burton or the Wests Tigers wanting Dane Laurie. It doesn’t pass the pub test.

Brian Fletcher, Panthers CEO, 26 March 2021

On that basis, a club should be worth $50m. So what I am saying is … if a club wants to come and have a seat at the table, they have to be stumping up.

Scott Penn, Manly owner, 1 June 2021

But if expansion is done quickly at the cost to the game and the existing clubs, then we need to pause and think it through.

Steve Mitchell, Titans CEO, 23 June 2021

The basic breakdown of the report is that there’s four “sprints” (?):

  1. Impact on Fans
  2. Impact on Revenues
  3. Impact on Operations and Football
  4. Investing in NRLW and Participation

The executive summary covers the most important information over about the first 40 pages or so and then goes into more depth in the remaining 160 pages of the report.

My inclination is not to document every item of interest. You can read the report for that. My goal is to look at the arguments being made, not as the words of Gemba Group but as those of the incumbent NRL clubs, to see if they hold water.

Sprint One: Fans

This sprint boils down to the following key points –

  • The Queensland market has had declining interest in NRL over the last few years
  • The Queensland market is pretty well saturated, as measured by self-declared interest in the NRL and self-declared support of existing NRL teams
  • Therefore, for a new club to survive, they will need to convert the small group of uncommitted NRL fans (approx. 22,000 in south-east Queensland) and cannibalise the existing fanbases to get to the 150,000 or so the smallest NRL clubs have to sustain them

Fundamentally, that’s a more or less sound argument and not one that I dispute, other than to note that the declining interest in NRL in Queensland over the last few years can be easily correlated with the performance of the three Queensland clubs, having peaked in 2015 with the all-Queensland grand final.

There is, however, some issues with the numbers. This slide shows what Gemba estimates to be the fanbase of each team.

pp13

They’ve got some of the clubs right, although I have no idea about the accuracy of what they’re measuring, but there’s some obvious exceptions that don’t really square with the other big source of fan data: TV ratings. The idea that the Roosters are the third most popular club in the NRL is laughable, as evidenced by any other data point you care to name. The Storm are big – and bigger than most would credit them – but not Broncos big. The Rabbitohs are not less popular than the Raiders.

Some of the discrepancy can be explained by using point in time data in 2020, rather than over a longer time frame and factoring in other sources of information to synthesise a more wholistic view of the size of fanbases.

More of the discrepancy can be explained by the difference between what people say they do and what people actually do. The point of a new team is to get eyeballs on TV and, to a lesser extent, attend games and buy merchandise. Having people identify as fanatics is great but does not necessarily align with what the NRL are looking for. It might also mean their methodology has misestimated the number of casual or uncommitted fans, which changes the business case if some supposed fanatics are actually more malleable in their allegiances.

Half of NRL Fanatics that reside in Greater Brisbane currently support the Brisbane Broncos

The risk of fan cannibalisation is not limited to Queensland Clubs, with there being more NRL Fanatics in candidate locations that support interstate teams than the Cowboys or Titans

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Cannibalising the existing Broncos fanbase is inevitable and perhaps even desirable. After all, the fans of the Cowboys came from somewhere and the same applies to the Titans. Indeed, the Broncos fanbase is made up of people who either were or would have been self-declared fanatics of the BRL clubs. People can change.

Gemba notes that they have not undertaken the bespoke research – code for the clubs didn’t stump up the fees – required to draw any conclusions here.

The Broncos have been awful of late and, as evidenced by the increasing ratings and attendances of the Lions now and in the early ’00s, the people of Brisbane prefer to follow a winning team. If the new team comes in and is successful, they will find fans (if they aren’t successful in the medium term, they will be another Titans). If the fans come from the Broncos, the Broncos have fans to spare. Having one team in the league loom commercially over the rest has its drawbacks, specifically forcing the country to watch a terrible Broncos team get pasted on free-to-air most weeks, lest the commercial base of the sport collapse.

The most important point this section could make is actually irrelevant to expansion but incredibly important to the future of rugby league (so will be ignored), which is the slowly dwindling interest as other global behemoths invade the market, especially among younger fans. These globalisation risks are something I highlighted earlier in the year.

Sprint Two: Revenue

Gemba have suggested that a seventeenth team would add twelve matches a season and modelled revenues improvements based on that. The total audience would grow but its likely, in their view, that average ratings per match would remain stagnant.

They seem to be working from the assumption that their estimate of the fanbase size is correct but the ratings don’t correlate well.

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I think they have this backwards. The ratings are the goal and the number of fanatics is largely immaterial except as a means to generate ratings. In fact, I think ratings give you a better estimate of the fanbase size than whatever data they’ve used. Gemba probably would have been better spending the money on buying an Oztam subscription than commissioning a survey.

Their assumption is that the new club will have a small fanbase is probably valid and consequently will generate minimal ratings (similar to that of Penrith or Cronulla), excepting for the newly created Queensland derbies and additional matches, and this underpins their subsequent analysis. Given that averages remain about the same and the increase to total audience is driven by the additional matches, the implication is that another team is not required to play more games to generate that revenue.

This is not a view I subscribe to. I think it’s likely that a new Brisbane team will have reasonable-to-good ratings because people in Brisbane like watching football and want skin in the game, even if it’s not their preferred team. Most weeks, the new Brisbane team will play in lieu of a below average team and raise the average ratings for each round and that, even without extra games, average and total ratings will rise in the short to medium term.

I’d be surprised if broadcasters or the players’ association agreed to a longer season. While there is scope to amend the value of the broadcast deal based on expansion (but who knows whether or how this will be triggered), I think any uplift in average and/or total ratings would only accrue to the broadcasters under the current deal. I talked about this in BNE2.1.

Overall, Gemba forecasts small benefits for the league as a whole. They do this in a logical way with some evidence but I think they’ve understated the upside. You can make up your own mind.

Sprint Three: Operations

In summary –

  • NRL costs are going up, which is largely because the new team will be entitled to the central distribution plus some additional costs to move the morass of Sydney clubs to south-east Queensland more frequently (estimated by the report at $345,000).
  • Based on the AFL experience, promoting existing clubs into established markets results in league-average contributions to the new clubs. Starting new clubs from scratch in new markets requires significantly more investment.
  • It costs about $23.6 million per year to run an average NRL club, so a new club needs to find about $10 million a year over their distribution to break even.
  • A new mouth to feed means less sponsorship revenue for everyone else.
  • With a new club increasing the total salary pool from $147 million to $156 million, salary inflation will result in putting existing clubs under pressure to manage their lists.

Cap management is a challenge that clubs currently face, but may be compounded in the short term with the addition of a new team

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It would be a shame if clubs had to do their jobs better, a wholly unprecedented situation not found anywhere else in society.

After that, it starts to get maddening.

If you’re not familiar with corporate risk analysis, it’s largely about identifying qualitative concerns and less about quantitative analysis and that’s how this sprint largely runs.

There will be dilution of talent as a result of more players entering the league, but there are concerns that the quality of talent will not be up to NRL standard.

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There’s no evidence for this, simply the assertion which is backed by a logic but its a logic that suits the needs of the existing clubs. Where benefits are noted for balance, there are considerably fewer bullet points when compared to the risks.

In reality, if there’s a shortage of talent, it’s in the club offices, not on the football field. It is particularly galling to hear these sentiments echoed by the Panthers, while they were undefeated in first and second grade football at the time of the report’s writing, forcing Matt Burton to either play in reggies or as a first grade centre, because they are just so overladen with talent. That he can go elsewhere for an opportunity to play first grade in the halves is considered a failing of the current system, which is baffling.

There is a concern amongst interviewed clubs about the quality of the players that would be entering the league to fill the additional spots created by a new team. However, there is a general sentiment that there are enough players to fill an additional team of 34 players.

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The corollary is the fate of the 2019 Sunshine Coast Falcons and how other NRL teams just allowed Melbourne to keep their most talented members, which included at various points Harry Grant, Justin Olam, Nicho Hynes, Tui Kamikamica, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Ryan Panehuyzen, without a fight. Instead, Melbourne’s rivals preferred to wait until their market value had risen beyond cheap before showing any interest.

Feedback from current NRL clubs suggests there is currently a lack of incentives and structures in place for clubs to prioritise the development of junior talent. If a new club does not take a development mindset towards building junior talent, there is a risk that current Queensland based clubs will be negatively impacted as they may lose junior talent for little compensation

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For mine, it’s clear that the talent is there but the scouting and development structures are not, which is ironic considering the report states that clubs are concerned that there’s no reward for developing talent. It pays huge dividends because the rest of the league won’t scout outside their postcode. This self-serving analysis is not a useful contribution to the discourse.

It may become increasingly more challenging for a new club to establish talent pathways, as existing teams continue to grow their presence in Queensland from a talent identification perspective (e.g. Melbourne Storm’s affiliation with the Sunshine Coast Falcons and Brisbane Easts, and the NZ Warriors’ affiliation with Redcliffe Dolphins)

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The report notes that clubs who rely on Queensland talent will have to spend more to maintain their pipeline. There are three unaffiliated clubs in the Queensland Cup, two of which will sign up with any NRL club that will have them. Of the three clubs that might come into the NRL, they all exist in some form in QCup, meaning the Storm might have to shift partners from Easts (or rely solely on Sunshine Coast), the Warriors might re-enter the NSW Cup with their own side (which might happen anyway) in lieu of using Redcliffe and the Jets would obviously link up with their currently unaffiliated namesakes. There are still substantial opportunities for more clubs to utilise Queensland in their pathways.

The report rightly identifies that there are unanswered questions about how the new team will operate. Will they be given cap dispensations? How will the draw be structured? What’s going to happen to distributions? That’s on the NRL to address. But if the result of expansion is player salaries going up and additional playing and coaching jobs being created, this is presented in the executive summary as a bad thing (the body is more balanced). It is, of course, bad if your business is running a football club but it is less so if you are ordinary fan who simply wants to see the people responsible for playing the game rewarded for their efforts.

Outside consultants are unlikely to publicly publish a report which states that their clients could and should actually be a lot better at their jobs. What’s irritating is that this has been relayed, verbatim, with little to no analysis or interpretation or context, by the media. Fortunately, it’s been paywalled so no one else seems to have picked up on these extremely lazy talking points.

Sprint Four: Women/grassroots

The final sprint talks about the current risks and opportunities for the women’s game and grassroots. This seems like a non-sequitir, given the report is notionally about adding another NRLM team in Brisbane, but there is an opportunity cost. The money that’s invested in a new team is money that can’t be invested in the NRLW and women’s game.

To a level that’s true. Of course, the unstated assumption is that the existing clubs’ central distribution is to be left untouched, even though a large number of clubs do not generate sufficient commercial return to justify such a generous grant and their existence is largely subsidised by the Warriors, Broncos and other big clubs. Perhaps we should cut the men’s club distribution by $1 million a year and reinvest that in the women’s game? We could then have our cake and eat it. That this would come at the expense of a number of precariously balanced legacy clubs wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.

One strange thing to note is that the report states that the NRLW has the fewest passionate fans but also shows that it rates better than Super Rugby, A-League, AFLW and NBL. Gemba seems to have again confused their fan metrics with what actually matters. The NRLW has the least ability to drive subscriptions, because it is bundled with the NRL rights. What is not stated is the commercial impact if NRLW gets its own broadcast deal. The competition could become self-funding and realise its potential. When you think about the NRLW in terms of the failure of the current administration to capitalise on its potential, then this negates the opportunity cost and makes this entire line of argument redundant in the context of expanding the NRLM.

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Personally, I find it gross that a number of NRL clubs have shown little to no interest in the women’s game, not even bothering to pretend to want a NRLW franchise, but will use it as a distraction to further their case that they should not be subject to any further competition in the men’s league.

The real opportunity cost is using this time and money to put another team in Brisbane, presumably at the behest and benefit of Nine, when the report notes that the demand for a team in Western Australia or South Australia is about the same as it is for a second Brisbane team. Of course, that would cost the NRL a lot more money.

Conclusion

Consultancy, irrespective of the discipline, is fundamentally about giving the client what they want within the legal and ethical bounds of the profession. Most reports of this nature are used by C-suite executives to bludgeon their counterparts on the opposite side of the board room table, rather than being works of science. Many simply go unread, their heftiness being the primary goal.

Gemba’s brief was to develop a report that highlights the heretofore unexplored impacts of the second Brisbane team, with an emphasis on commercial and quantative analysis, and they’ve hit it out of the park. It’s clear that sprint one and two is their own work. As I get older, I realise in these grey-scaled scenarios, there’s not a right or wrong, so much as a more defensible or a less defensible position and while I could quibble here or there, their arguments are sound. I disagree with their conclusions but that doesn’t make me right and if I had done a similar report, not only would it look terrible but it would have had a very different goal in mind.

Where it falls down is where Gemba have been guided by their clients, the football clubs. Sprints three is about repeating the club’s concerns, dressed up in the language of corporate risk management. The implication is that the clubs see what’s good for them as being what’s good for rugby league.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The sport would greatly benefit from not only removing these lunatics from control of the ARLC but also shedding several or more from the top tier of the sport and redirecting their central funding to support expansion and the women’s game and grassroots or country football. On that basis, it’s difficult to swallow the conclusions reached in this part but it’s created the most talking points in the media, so in that sense it’s mission accomplished.

Still, it’s better to have some information out there, than not all, as long as we understand the context in which it was created, which is that most of the existing clubs do not want any further competition. There are a lot of interesting bits of information that I have not covered.

The ARLC pursued something similar under the Greenberg administration and this was subsequently buried in a dark hole by V’Landys. It seems unlikely that we will ever see that report.

Nor will we likely ever know on what basis the ARLC makes their decision about the successful expansion option. The information released by the clubs themselves is fairly scant – Easts held a press conference that could have been an email to talk finance and there’s reports the Jets are short on bank guarantees – and I assume the contents of the bids will remain commercial-in-confidence.

Irrespective, I have no doubt that a second Brisbane team will be announced in about a month. I guess we’ll see what happens and if its a disaster, at least the Panthers and Titans will be able to say I told you so.

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