Tag Archives: 2020

The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020

Over the off-season, I created a ranking system for every-ish rugby league club in the world and updating the rankings for the 2020 season would be an opportune time to reflect on the year that’s been. However, it seems like that this act of statistical hubris has angered the gods so much they gave us a global pandemic that ruined everything. While we’ll have to live with the impact of the pandemic for many years to come, one of the most immediate is that there will not be a GRLFC ranking for 2020.

While we wait for normality to return, 2020 may have been a season for the coronavirus-loving anti-expansionists, plenty still happened in rugby league football and we’re going to through as much of it as we can.*

*Even with a global pandemic, I wasn’t able to include absolutely every competition and match that occurred becuase a lot of rugby league was still played. Where possible, I’ve talked about the senior men’s club competitions, because that’s usually the easiest to get information for, but this didn’t mean that women or juniors or 9s or local competitions didn’t also go ahead. A lot of the coverage in less traditional countries comes via the IRL, RLEF and APRLC, who have all really stepped up their social media game over the last twelve to eighteen months and should be congratulated for doing so.

NRL

The year began relatively promisingly. The 9s in Perth attracted a decent crowd – despite the garbage spewed by the east coast media – and a lack of a video ref cost Phil Gould $1000. And as a side note, the North Queensland Cowboys won something.

The Indigenous and Maori sides gave us the first All-Stars matches both sides actually cared about for the first time in a decade.

As we would later discover, it’s unfortunate that the sport is run by a mouth-breathing culture warrior that thinks its important to placate the very loudly racist part of the fanbase in New South Wales and Queensland instead of, you know, everyone else.

However, that was still ahead of us. Despite the pandemic introducing a little break between rounds two and three, the NRL came back very early relative to other sports. The break gave the sport time to reflect, the results of which were:

  • The NRL found itself in breach of contract with its broadcast partners
  • CEO Todd Greenberg was turfed, nominally for daring to speak to anyone but Channel 9 about the free-to-air rights
  • Chairman Peter V’Landys renegotiated the deals, taking a reported 20% haircut and then throwing a huge chunk of the sport’s infrastructure into the cost-cutting shredder
  • V’Landys then introduced a slew of poorly thought out rule changes, presumably to make the game more exciting and improve TV ratings (it worked for almost two weeks and then ratings finished down on the year)
  • The media coverage that followed was capital-c Cringe

This is your irregular reminder that Peter V’Landys is the chairman of the ARLC and not the CEO. No one seems to care and Super League 2.0 is not coming.

The result was one of the most dismal NRL seasons of recent years, with only a couple of teams finding a way to entertain the masses (round 8’s Roosters-Storm clash was the year’s on-field highlight). A large number of clubs completely failed to develop any competitive spirit while stuck in isolation from their friends and family and the product on field reflected it. A noticeable gap formed between the top eight and bottom eight. Mission accomplished, I guess.

Then, seven sick finals games followed (Canberra’s preliminary final exit excluded), because rugby league is alright if everyone actually tries, and we limped home with a bizarre grand final that was over at half time and then wasn’t because refs.

You can read the individual team season reviews here:

The ripple effect of the cost cutting measures will likely start to be felt next year. Without knowing exactly what’s being cut and by how much, it remains impossible to know what’s coming next. Phil Gould outlined his brain fart of a master plan in a column for the Daily Telegraph in June which, given he has the ear of the Greek god V’Landys, is probably where we’re going. It’s a framework for the sport which purports to save money but is actually more expensive and really just transfers power from head office to the NRL clubs because none of these idiots actually know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

At least, scheduling and attendances will start to return to normal next year, as the virus comes under some semblance of control in Australia and New Zealand. Brisbane still looks likely to gain a second team in 2022 or 2023, although at the time of writing we do not know which one it is. I hope someone has at least done the numbers to make sure the NRL comes out ahead.

NRLW

My biggest fear was that the cost cutting measures would eliminate women’s football. For once, my worst fears were not confirmed and the NRLW went ahead as it has the last two years. While the lack of expansion was disappointing, we should be glad we got a competition at all.

The pandemic still affected the competition. All the players were forced into the bubble, unable to mix with family and friends and, for the Broncos and Warriors, unable to play home games. Quite why the NRL didn’t go to bat for the women’s competition with state governments, as they did for the men’s, is known only to them.

I assume this was the rationale for the scheduling of the competition, with games kicking off at 12.30 and 4.00 before the men’s finals’ kickoff at 7.50. This all occured at the same stadium, leading to the ridiculous arrangement in round 1 of Brisbane, Sydney, New Zealand and St George Illawarra playing in Canberra, a place that doesn’t have a NRLW team, and the first game having zero attendance because it would mean spectators would have to be at the stadium for eight hours to see all three games. It didn’t suit fans or broadcasters (ratings were down on last year), both of who would have benefited from later kick offs and/or alternative venues for the women’s games.

Brisbane were the undisputed champions for the third year running. Ali Brigginshaw somehow seems to be getting better with age and the Broncos have managed to continue to unearth talents (the media still seems to be getting to grips with Tamika Upton, despite already being a two-time premiership winner), even as the other clubs siphon off players to pad out their own rosters. The Broncos’ regular season record is 8-1 with 3-0 in grand finals. If the season weren’t so short and the opposition so few, we’d hail this as one of the greatest rugby league sides of all time. I may still do that anyway.

At the other end of the scale, the Dragons were hopeless. I blame the coach for their logic-defying ability to underwhelm and not win a single 13s game in 2020.

It’s even more baffling when you remember the Dragons won the 9s at the start of the year.

The Roosters roster seemed relatively low on star factor compared to their cross-town rivals, barring the obvious exception of 7s convert Charlotte Caslick. By the end of the season, we were more familiar with Zahara Temara, Hannah Southwell and Corban McGregor, despite all three being veterans of the game. The Roosters demonstrated that cohesion on the field is far more important than lining up brand name Jillaroos to play like shit.

The Warriors struggled to pull together a proper roster, which is hardly surprising as players would have been forced to be away from home in the bubble for what is at best a part time job for a few weeks. Nonetheless, like their male counterparts, the Warriors can hold their heads high knowing they did their best under trying circumstances. Another 7s convert, Elia Green, caught the eye with her running, strength and aggression.

This year’s competition was as close as it has been so far. There’s little doubt in my mind that the 2021 edition will be more closely fought still. The Broncos might not even win it. Indeed, the talent pool is now large enough that the NRL should be expanding the competition, preferably from four to six teams and from three to ten rounds. Melbourne and Canberra would be my choices (and possibly flicking the hopeless Dragons for a western Sydney or Queensland team), especially if the NRLW is to continue to follow its preference for bigger market teams. The ARLC will probably opt for Souths and Cronulla, thereby ensuring that the NRLW follows the NRL into Sydney’s stupid quagmire, but they are at least looking at increasing the number of games.

The NRL will also want to consider how the NRLW will work commercially moving forward. At one time or another, the Dragons, Roosters and Warriors have complained about the (relatively minimal) cost of running a women’s program. If extra central funding came with a NRLW licence, we’d probably see more interest from reticent western Sydney clubs. Given that the NRLW matches rated around 100,000 each (down on last year but still ahead of most non-AFL/NRL domestic football content), de-bundling the NRLW rights from the NRL rights might be a good way to begin channelling funds into the women’s game, with the aim of establishing independence from, but parity with, the men’s game.

Super League / Challenge Cup

The Challenge Cup made it through the first five rounds by mid-March, with Super League clubs due to join the fray in round 6. By the time round 6 was actually played, in August and September, most of the lower league clubs had been mothballed for half the year. Consequently, the Cup was only really contested by eleven teams, of which Leeds were the winners, 17-16 over Salford.

Putting aside the fact that it was extremely unlikely that any lower tier club would make the final, by not having them participate at all and playing the final at an empty Wembley makes something of a mockery of the supposed point of this competition. Without modernisation from the RFL, the Cup is going to be a liability, and not an asset, moving forward.

Like the NRL, Super League had managed to play a few rounds before the rona became a Thing. At one point, Super League looked like ignoring it entirely and continuing on before being forced to stop by government decree. The same government offered £16 million in bailout loans to mitigate the financial fallout, which were met with a mixed response from stakeholders. Loans, after all, have to be repaid. If we consider Workington Man’s assistance (middle-aged, suburban Little Britain male adults – men is a stretch – that seemingly make up the bulk of Super League’s audience with no awareness of the cognitive dissonance involved in being a rugby league fan and a Tory voter) in getting the government elected, this was a terrible effort at pork barrelling.

Upon resumption, Super League had intended to complete twenty-two rounds. When it appeared that they weren’t even going to get all teams to play the same number of games, they switched from the traditional means of sorting the ladder by competition points to winning percentage. What was going to be a top four finals became a top six finals. Then, when it became clear that some clubs weren’t even going to complete their reduced fixtures, being more profitable to simply stop playing and go onto government furlough, Super League made the snap decision to end the season and go into the finals.

Salford used this opportunity to welch on their debts from years ago, taking a penalty of being deducted three wins which mattered naught this year.

Hull surprisingly dispatched Warrington and Catalans sent Leeds home in the first week, before both were coolly eliminated by Wigan and St Helens 29-2 and 48-2 respectively in the second week. The grand final, played in an empty KCOM Stadium in Hull, was a high quality, entertaining example of modern rugby league, although it was undoubtedly being written up as a dour cliche of the northern game. And then, magic:

There’s still life in the old girl yet.

With another Wigan-St Helens grand final in the books, if I have to read how the salary cup doesn’t work, I may murder someone. The salary cap doesn’t work because it’s not paired with a salary floor. SL can’t implement a salary floor because it would send half of their competition broke. And it is this, that there is a huge gap between the commercially strongest and weakest clubs in Super League, that is the actual problem. Even with the salary cap, the chasm between the big four (or six, if you want to be generous and include recent Challenge Cup winners) and the rest of the competition, never mind the lower levels, and is simply unbridgeable. There are myriad reasons for this but rugby league needs not only significant reform and new ideas but also a shitload of pounds injected if it is to be viable into the future. Scrapping the competition’s primary mechanism for parity is not it.

I touched on this and other parts of Super League, RFL and the Toronto Wolfpack saga on NRL Boom Rookies.

Queensland

The three men’s competitions were able to complete just one round being before shut down by coronavirus fears and shortly after, cancelled altogether. With PNG and Tweed in the Queensland Cup, traversing borders to complete the season would have been nearly impossible, never mind the strain on the league’s predominantly semi-pro player base. The right decision was made but it was a shame that a smaller competition could not be organised later in the year to give the players some game time.

Some district comps cancelled, while others went ahead, including the BRL.

Disappointingly, the new women’s BHP Premiership also played a single round before being cancelled. This deprived the players of an opportunity to build up their skills and strength ahead of the original State of Origin date and then leading into the NRLW season. Hopefully, it will return next year with at least the same clubs involved. It was replaced by the Holcim Cup in south-east Queensland, won by Burleigh over Souths Logan.

As is a recurring theme looking back on 2020 and forward to 2021, there are a number of consequences of the pandemic which are yet to be addressed. In renegotiating the TV deal, V’Landys has hung both state cups out to dry by releasing Nine from their requirement to broadcast one game a week in each state. As of yet, there’s no obvious replacement. While all games are filmed for data collection and some clubs have set up their own streaming, there is no league wide platform and, unlike NSW, Fox does not provide coverage of a second game. Taking the Queensland Cup off free-to-air would be a huge step backwards for all the hard work that’s been done to build the competition up. While some may boldly hope for an over-the-top streaming platform or for the QRL to sell its own broadcast package in competition with the NRL, I’d settle for what we had.

As part of immediate cost cutting measures, the Broncos severed their ties with their feeder clubs. Redcliffe immediately jumped ship to join the Warriors system. Rumour has it that the Broncos will re-establish with just one club, leaving three of Wynnum Manly, Norths, Souths Logan and Central Queensland needing to find new NRL partners. If the NSWRL unbunches its undies about cross-border feeder arrangements, then it will likely resolve itself, possibly for the benefit of all.

How the pandemic has affected the prospects for the competition’s future expansion remains unknown. Pacific Treize, a new Queensland Cup bid launched in May (what feels like a million years ago) primarily focuses on nations that were relatively untouched by the virus but may find corporate support extremely hard to come by in the post-pandemic world.

We do know that juniors competitions will be modified (presumably for this year only) to give kids that missed out this year a chance in 2021.

New South Wales

A lot of what I wrote about the Queensland Cup can be repeated for the NSW Cup but with some notable differences. Unlike the QCup, NSW Cup gets two games broadcast a week, one on Fox (having already set up for the NRL game, it costs practically nothing to broadcast the curtain raiser as well) and a second on Nine. With the Warriors having gone north and the Raiders declaring that they will go it alone in 2021, the Canterbury Cup will only be contested by ten teams, most a facsimile of their parent club.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the NSWRL needs to decide what the Canterbury Cup actually is. Is it a NRL reserve grade comp or is it a state-wide competition like the Queensland Cup? It can’t be both. Having it as a reserve grade comp buries the second tier of talent in jerseys no one cares about. Consider the difference between watching North Sydney versus Newtown and watching the Roosters reserves against the Cronulla reserves. The former offers something different to the NRL, while the latter suggests the NRL but shittier. You can make all the pathway arguments you want but you’d have to find a mountain of evidence to contradict the success that the Storm have had with Easts and Sunshine Coast in producing a pipeline of rep-quality players to replace their future Immortals. To me, the concept of reserve grade as it’s imagined in the past is dead and should be buried, with the superior alternative made clear in Queensland, but it would require Sydney NRL clubs giving up space to others and that never happens.

Unlike Queensland, NSW has the Ron Massey Cup, which sits slightly above the other district competitions, and they were able to combine clubs from this and the NSW Cup to hold a one-off President’s Cup, won by Maitland over Glebe Burwood, demonstrating that under extreme circumstances that a compact local competition has its advantages.

Papua New Guinea

With the Queensland Cup cancelled, I threw the energy I would normally reserve for that comp into Papua New Guinea’s Digicel Cup. The Cup wasn’t scheduled to start until after the pandemic had thrown the world into chaos but it did result in a much shortened season of just eleven rounds (each team played the others once). The first few rounds were played entirely at the John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby but as the situation in PNG relaxed, particularly after the split round five, teams gradually returned to their own home grounds.

The Lae Tigers were the dominant team for most of the season, although they were pipped at the end for the minor premiership by the Rabaul Gurias (9-1-1) and Hela Wigmen (9-2-1), as the Tigers slowed down in the last two weeks (9-2). The Port Moresby Vipers (8-2-2), Mendi Muruks (8-3-1) and Enga Mioks (3-5-4) made up the rest of the finalists. It’s no coincidence that the teams with the most Hunters players, most of whom returned to the Digicel Cup for the season, did the best.

The Mioks and Muruks were early cannon foodder, both eliminated in the first round of finals as expected. Lae’s comprehensive rout of Rabaul in the second week, 30-10, put the Tigers into the grand final as firm favourites. In the other final, the Wigmen dispensed with the Vipers, who continue to disappoint after not winning the competition since 2013. Hela snatched an upset in the preliminary final, downing Rabaul 11-10 with a late field goal to Solomon Pokari to seal the win and set up a rematch of the 2019 grand final. The Wigmen’s form continued into the grand final, narrowly beating out the Tigers 16-14 and winning their first premiership since 2014.

I haven’t followed the Digicel Cup that closely previously but the coverage of the competition this year, taking everything into consideration, was superb. High definition highlights are on Youtube for all the regular season games that were played in Port Moresby. It remains a baffling mystery as to why Hunters home games (the broadcast rights to which belong to the PNG RFL and not the QRL) and the Digicel Cup games cannot be broadcast in Australia but one hopes that in time Fox League will come to their senses and broadcast some content that is actual football and not total garbage from opinionated morons.

Hopefully, with the Hunters basing themselves in Queensland for their 2021 Queensland Cup campaign (and further noises suggesting the Port Moresby Vipers might be angling for a licence in future), that will restore some of the competitive balance to the competition and the likes of Gulf and Mount Hagen can close the gap to the rest of the league. On the other hand, new teams might offer a buffer.

Championship / League 1

At the time of the suspension of competition, Toulouse Olympique led the Championship, Great Britain’s second division, 5-0, followed by Leigh and Featherstone (4-0) and London (4-1). In League 1 (third division), only two rounds were played with Hunslet, Barrow and Newcastle all on 2-0. At the bottom of the table, West Wales Raiders had somehow already given up 100 points.

Only a handful of clubs took up the RFL’s offer to compete in an autumn mini-competition among the non-Super League clubs. This is hardly surprising because if there’s no matchday attendance, paltry prize money (a total pot of £250,000 was offered) and no broadcast dollars to top up the tank, there’s no revenue and therefore no football. So that was it for the bottom two tiers of allegedly professional football in the United Kingdom.

Things took a brief turn for the comical towards the end of the season, as Championship clubs jockeyed for position to get into Super League, replace Toronto and lose money even faster than they currently do (Leigh offered to forgo central funding for 2021 altogether). Irrespective of who is promoted, and it seems it will almost certainly be Bradford, Super League has already decided they will be given a much lesser share of central funding because they have not had the bear the costs of operating in 2020. This is somewhat baffling logic but hardly surprising given that half a dozen clubs are currently tendering for a licence without knowing what weighting is being applied to the judgement criteria by the “independent” committee – three from the RFL, three from Super League, led by a Tory lord – formed to award the licence that will see them almost certainly relegated at the end of 2021.

A much less competitive bidding process seems to be underway in League 1 to gain the empty Championship slot, which Rochdale are campaigning for. If successful, there would only be ten teams left in League 1. It would perhaps make more sense to take this opportunity to restructure to three leagues of twelve each.

For 2021, dual reigstration has already been canned, as have academy leagues. If crowds are not allowed to return, will the Championship and League 1 both get canned again in 2021? If so, when will they return?

Without football, is there really a football club?

New Zealand

New Zealand suspended all sport in March. Rugby league returned in June, with the Fox Memorial Premiership kicking off June 22. That came to a halt when play was suspended in Auckland in mid-August and finally cancelled on September 4.

In October, the provincial representative premiership and championships were played, with four teams in each of the men’s and women’s premierships. The grand finals in both were the same but results were inverted.

If you watched the men’s final, have read this far into this post and/or consider the IRL has New Zealand ranked as the number one men’s nation in the world, you can probably fill in the blanks on what would be coming next, which can be briefly summarised as “Why isn’t this better and where’s the money to make it better and seriously, how is it not a priority to get top-level domestic New Zealand rugby league on at least the same level as state cup?”

The women in New Zealand are well ahead of the game.

France

In March, the FFR declared a “saison blanc” because of the pandemic. At that time, Limousin were surprisingly leading the competition (8-4), five points clear of St Esteve-Catalan and Albi. In Elite 2, Villefranche were ahead on a 12-2 record, seven points clear of Pia (9-4) and Carpentras (10-3).

Elite 1 recommenced on 31 October but the situation is as bad, if not worse, now than when the 2019-20 season was cancelled. The second wave claimed two matches on the opening weekend (one since made-up, Palau and Villeneuve currently have a game in hand) but the following two rounds were completed without issue. Carcassonne currently leads the Elite 1 with a 3-0 record.

We wait with bated breath to see if the French Magic Weekend goes ahead.

Visitez treizemondial.fr pour plus d’informations.

Ireland

Bhuaigh Baile Átha Cliath an sraithe rugbaí a trí déag na-hEireann. Ruaigeadh an Longhorns an Tribesmen na Gaillimhe, 24-10, i Claddagh.

Fiji

The Vodafone Cup went ahead, delayed and shortened by the threat of coronavirus. Split into eastern (8 teams) and western zones (10 teams), teams played each other once with the top four of each zone proceeding to the knock-outs. The Ravoravo Rabbitoh topped the west (8-0-1), while the Namuaniwaqa Sea Eagles won the east (6-1). Both teams were knocked out in the quarter finals. The grand final will was contested by the Police Sharks (2nd in the east, 5-1-1) against the Coastline Roos (4th in the western zone, 7-2), with the Sharks running out victors 18-16.

Game 3 of Fiji’s Origin series will be on December 5, as Maroon sides go for a clean sweep of Origin series.

Samoa

Samoa’s club premiership kicked off in late August with eight senior teams and four under 20s. The Apia Barracudas beat the Letava Bulldogs 24 – 8 in the senior grand final, with the Vaitele Wests Tigers coming in third, 22 – 18 over the Matniuel Lions. The Under 20s Final was won by the Matniuel Lions over Vaitele Wests Tigers, 22 – 16.

The Tumua Maroons won the Island of Origin series 22-22, 36-38 and then 24-14 over the Pule Blues.

Asia-Pacific

In Melanesia:

In Western Australia:

In Cook Islands:

In Vanuatu:

In Japan and Phillipines:

In Thailand:

In Brazil:

In the United States, the USARL was cancelled. Who knows if it’ll be back?

Europe

In Serbia:

Apparently, the Balkan Super League is still going ahead. We’ll see how that pans out, given last year’s edition ran out of steam and that was without a global pandemic.

In Ukraine:

In Albania:

In Lebanon:

In Russia, the season was suspended.

Africa

In South Africa:

Nigeria and Ghana have affiliate status with the IRL, while Burundi and Cameroon are playing rugby league.

International

Remember the 2017 World Cup and how good international football was looking for a brief fleeting second? Also remember when the Lions did a southern hemisphere tour and lost all four games and didn’t even play Australia? That was as hilarious as it was completely pointless.

Then coronavirus said no and took it all away. At the time of writing, a single international men’s rugby league match has been completed in 2020 with the Netherlands defeating Germany 20-18 in the Griffin Cup. New Zealand hosted two women’s matches, with the Kiwi Ferns defeating Fetu Samoa 28-8 (an improvement on last year’s fixture) and Tonga defeating Niue 66-8.

The problem is that there’s another World Cup in 2021 and it will be one that many participants will come into not having played since the end of 2019. Here’s what’s scheduled for 2021 so far.

The lack of attention paid to the world arena would only happen in this sport, with its fetish for suburbs and pit towns.

The UK government has shown no signs of being able to get on top of the pandemic, so it may well be that the World Cup is delayed a year or moved down under. We just don’t know, which is crazy considering this is meant to be the sport’s centrepiece.

In the interim, someone is going to have to develop a feasible commercial model for international football and other representative fixtures that aren’t the senior men’s and women’s State of Origin games. Even though internationals usually do pretty good numbers on TV in Australia, having to pay match payments of $30,000 to Kangaroos for no extra broadcast revenue irrespective of the number of games played, is not it. Until then, half assing it will be the way forward.

State of Origin

New South Wales won the men’s series 3-0.

Hahaha fuck you.

A deep dive in to the 2020 NRL premiership

This is my third season preview and I have got some things laughably wrong in the previous attempts (see 2018 and 2019). This year’s will be a slightly different format to previous years but undertaken in the same spirit of considering each team’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, as well as assessing the changes made since last year and their potentially positive or negative impact on performance.

However, I plan to have fewer laughably wrong predictions in 2020 simply by making fewer predictions. After all, if you want to see laughably wrong rugby league analysis, you can just pick up a copy of the paper.

Last season in a nutshell

2019 was a weird season and completely different to its equally weird predecessor. In 2018, eight teams finished within a win of each other and then were systematically dismantled by the Roosters and Storm in the finals. In 2019, we had three teams that could clearly play football, another couple that were adequate and a bunch of losers that didn’t want to make the finals. The round 17 golden point field goal shoot-out between the Broncos and Warriors, leading to a draw after multiple botched attempts, encapsulated the lose-at-all-costs mentality that defined positions seven through fifteen on the ladder. In the end, the Roosters emerged victorious in a manner that still infuriates me, with the Raiders running out of points and the Storm running out of steam when it counted.

A relatively quiet off-season – dominated by Latrell Mitchell’s signature, the Tigers’ warchest, Melbourne pollinating the landscape with overpriced talent and what the second Brisbane team should be named – has seen most teams turn up to 2020 in roughly the same shape as they approached 2019. It makes it very difficult to get a grasp on how this year might pan out, without just repeating pretty much what happened in 2019. And, no, neither the Nines nor pre-season trials will provide any insight.

How it all works

I appreciate that it’s difficult to keep up with the Pythago NRL Expanded Universe™ of metrics and ratings. Not only are they generally more complicated than standard stats, I tweak them almost every year based on what I learned during the previous season. I created a short reference guide to what it all means.

2020 team projections are based on round 1 lineups, taken as a mix from NRL.com and League Unlimited. 2020 roster composition is based on the listed signings on League Unlimited (as of 28 February) but 2019 roster information is based only on players who played at least one game.

Jump ahead

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nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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Brisbane deserved to finish ninth or tenth last season. The Broncos were the second most heavily biased to their forwards, behind the Cowboys and the immutable Taumalolo. The strong and young forward pack means that the Broncos are projected to have the third most production in 2020 but there’s diminishing returns in having powerful forwards if the other parts of the team continue to struggle to execute. The reality is that Brisbane needs less stupidity out of the forwards, more offence out of the backs and an all round improvement in defence.

I assume we will see more of the same from last year because nothing has changed significantly enough to suggest otherwise. Giving the captaincy to Glenn over Boyd doesn’t change the fact that neither should be on the field. If Boyd plays anywhere, that side of the field will shut down in attack and one or two players will have to cover his defensive workload. None of the talk out of the club has really addressed this or any of the many other problems, so I don’t see how they could have fixed them.

As to what question Brodie Croft answers, I don’t know but it isn’t halfback production. Ironically, I think the team would perform better if Milford’s TPR was lower and he didn’t have to waste time carrying so much dead weight, both undercooked rookies and overcooked veterans.

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nrl-cbr Canberra Raiders

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Possibly more than any other team, the Raiders have lost the most talent in the off-season. Taylor is down on their prospects but expects Canberra to still perform above average. Elo and Poseidon, carrying through from 2019, expect them to return to premiership contention. The Raiders’ defence wasn’t quite enough to win them the premiership (as a rule of thumb, the Poseidon defence rating should be at least +50) and it would be unlikely to not see some reversion towards mean this year. With luck, it won’t be as disastrous as 2017 and 2018 following 2016.

While Canberra’s defence was good, the attack completely dissipated in the finals. Bringing in an English half is a risk, but so was bringing in English forwards, and it paid handsome dividends. By all accounts, George Williams is the goods and might be the missing piece of the puzzle. Leilua, Rapana and Sezer have all left in the off-season, to be replaced by Curtis Scott, who celebrated by punching some cops. After being mired mid-to-lower-table for so long under the decade-long dual dominance of Sydney and Melbourne, it would be genuinely surprising to see a team turn a corner and transform into perennial challengers.

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nrl-cnt Canterbury Bulldogs

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The Bulldogs are behind, way behind.

With Kieran Foran missing most, if not all, of the 2020 season, 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.

However, we’re now into our second full season of rebuild at Belmore and the signs have been promising. Late surges of form in 2018 and 2019 when other teams start to switch off towards the end of the season have often been timely, snagging wins that Canterbury have no right to and desperately need. This defiance indicates that Dean Pay can coach (“Dogs of war”, etc, etc) and jag the seven or eight wins required to avoid the spoon. I’m comparatively bullish on the Bulldogs but they need to resolve their cap issues to get some talent on board if they want to really progress.

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nrl-cro Cronulla Sharks

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With their home games moved to Kogarah, we may finally get an answer to the age-old question: what do the Cronulla Sharks actually do to justify their place in the NRL? 

The Sharks’ 12-12 record and seventh place belied how well they played last season. Let down significantly by their goal kicking, the Sharks lost a record five games despite scoring more tries. While that’s a NSWRL/NRL record, I doubt that’s ever happened at any other time in football. The odds of it are simply astronomical. Tack on a couple of extra wins to last year’s total to appropriately set your expectations.

Cronulla should have the talent to comfortably make the finals in 2020. We probably won’t see anything much more interesting than that out of them unless a couple of the top clubs stumble.

With Paul Gallen retired, the team will have to adjust their production bias away from the forwards. I still have question marks on Bronson Xerri but his production last year was impressive and Braden Hamlin-Uele should probably be starting.

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nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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Perhaps the most significant thing to happen to the Titans last season was being surpassed by Newcastle, to be left at the bottom of the league in class Elo ratings. It might be recalled that the Knights were the worst NRL team of all time in 2016 and since then, the Knights have gotten better and the Titans so much worse.

Last season, you would have only taken a handful of players from the Titans to your own club given the opportunity: Arrow, Fotuaika, Brimson (who has a surprisingly low TPR) and maybe Tyrone Roberts if you were feeling generous. The Titans managed to hang on to them, except Arrow who will be departing for Souths next year. The rest of the roster under Garth Brennan was a joke, hence the 4-20 record, so hopes are pinned on the incoming Justin Holbrook, having left the best Super League team for the worst NRL team. Indeed, last season the Titans were ranked lower than half of the Super League.

With the number of experienced veterans and the talent pool on their door step, the Titans really should be better than they are. They are not and the sims reflect it. Fans will hope the new coach can get more out of the squad. Appointing Kevin Proctor captain is not the most auspicious start to turning around the club’s culture. Sick 9s jersey though.

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nrl-man Manly Sea Eagles

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The Taylors bear out how low expectations were for Manly in 2019, only for those expectations to be obliterated. The Sea Eagles were one of the few teams outside the big two that could win regularly. I went out on a limb pre-season and suggested Manly would make the finals. While that was pure luck on my part, they managed to do it. It turns out Des Hasler can still coach, even after taking some shine off his reputation while at the Bulldogs.

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.

It hasn’t been discussed nearly enough how costly Manase Fainu missing some (most? all?) of the upcoming season will be. He was one of the big unknowns that stepped up last year and with Api Koroisau now at Penrith, Manly are bereft of options at hooker. It is too early to discuss Cade Cust as a long-term successor to Daly Cherry-Evans but he had an impressive debut season.

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nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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The Storm and Craig Bellamy, as they often are, were the biggest outperformers of their projections in the league. Melbourne finished the season with a 20-4 record, a record only bettered* by the Storm’s 21-3 2007 season. Unlike 2017, where it seemed inevitable that the Storm would win the premiership after winning 20 games, they never seemed to get much credit for what was still a very impressive season in 2019.

Melbourne just have the knack of taking extremely talented young men, putting them on the football field and winning games. Positions don’t seem important, neither do the names. It will likely continue forever because there is plenty of talent pushing through in reserve grade. Even the departure of several reasonable quality players doesn’t seem to have made a dent in their prospects.

So yeah, they’re pretty good. If I’m lucky, I may live long enough to see the next Broncos win over the Storm, an event about as frequent as Halley’s Comet.

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nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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The Knights will be glad to see the back of the 2010s, where they were the worst team in the NRL and nearly went broke. The good news is that the Knights might legitimately make the finals this year.

The Knights massively outperformed in 2018, which then led to many talking heads predicting serious success in 2019. Success wasn’t forthcoming because the fundamentals weren’t there. Instead, we had a heady mix of nostalgia, over-excitement and Blue bias that completely crippled the predominantly Sydney-based media’s capacity to objectively analyse (I have the same problem in the opposite direction but at least I’m aware of it).

Mitchell Pearce had a career season in 2019, at least until I wrote about it, but otherwise the team struggled to meet expectations. I’m more of a numbers guy than a culture guy, but even I could see that the team was often not trying. Results from round 16 through 21 last year bear that out. Their thrashing at the hands of the Titans in round 5 was more typical of the season than the six wins that followed.

The finishing touches to the “rebuild” have now been applied, not least Adam O’Brien replacing Nathan Brown as head coach, to bring the Knights back in contention for finals places. Newcastle are still a way off challenging for the premiership.

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nrl-nzw New Zealand Warriors

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People think the Warriors are bad. They haven’t been. New Zealand’s club embodies average-ness with every fibre and loves to squander an opportunity. The thing about the median is that it’s not last place, so I’m always wary of any prediction that gives the spoon to the Warriors.

The loss of Shaun Johnson was not well compensated and the team is now overly reliant on Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the back line to generate production. The forward pack has not been impressive as a whole. The lack of star power – currently projected to be zero players – is concerning, although not damning. Kodi Nikorima is, at best, a below average halfback and Chanel Harris-Tavita is apparently too young to start but he’s far better bet (.098 in 2019 compared to the .085-ish range Nikorima has played in the last three years). The Warriors will chase eighth place with the Broncos, Tigers and Knights until they get tired and slump down the ladder.

More worryingly, the Warriors are on the precipice of falling full-time into the ‘bad’ category and once that happens, I don’t know how the club will pull itself out. The Auckland Rugby League should be a conveyor belt of talent and the Warriors should be at least Broncos-calibre, if not the Storm. Until that gets worked out, New Zealand will probably bounce along the bottom of the ladder.

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nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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A good showing at the 9s tournament in Perth has clouded judgement about what the Cowboys are capable of. Consider their stacked halves options of Michael Morgan, Jake Clifford and Scott Drinkwater. Drinkwater is only a thought there because Valentine Holmes is obviously the fullback. The ever-reliable Vaa’i Taumalolo will put the team on his back and Kyle Feldt will finish in the corner.

It sounds good in principle but most of these pieces have been available for the last three years and, other than limping to the grand final in 2017 and avoiding the spoon in 2018 and 2019, those three years have had little to celebrate. After all, we’re projecting a team with some well-known players to only be twelfth best. Without Taumalolo, a certified freak and statistical anomaly, that number would be a lot closer to the bottom.

Paul Green seems intent on stifling the creativity of his playmakers and/or was overly reliant on Johnathan Thurston to make plays. Either way, he has to adjust to the new Thurston-less world where scoring six to twelve points is not going to be enough. Despite delivering the premiership in 2015, a bad 2020 might be the end of the road for Green.

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nrl-par Parramatta Eels

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I think this is it for the Eels. They are due for their once-a-decade (give or take) tilt at the premiership.

The Taylors are not too crash hot on the Eels. There are holes in key TPR ratings: Reed Mahoney at hooker, Dylan Brown nominally at five-eighth and, to a lesser extent, Clint Gutherson at fullback. The forward pack is slightly above average but none are exceptional. Reagan Campbell-Gillard might be one of those high-TPR, low-impact players, like Aaron Woods. On the other hand, Parramatta are capable of outperforming their projections which, for their top players at least, seem conservative. Last season’s hiccups only came when meeting the Storm, a hurdle that has felled better teams in the past.

The Eels are one of the better set up football clubs in Sydney. They have a good new stadium in the heart of their community, not too far from their leagues club. They’ve had a reasonable amount of on-field success the last few years if we ignore the total and inexplicable collapse that was 2018 (which might explain the conservative projections). It will be worth keeping an eye out to see if the club an build on this and win two premierships this season to complete their five year plan.

If not, 2021 will probably be a tear down, followed by a firesale clearance, and then a rebuild.

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nrl-pen Penrith Panthers

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The numbers suggest a tough year ahead for the Panthers, with not much to look forward to. The projected team is only two Taylors per game better than the Bulldogs. TPR lists only four guys worth a damn, roughly the same as the Titans. The sims have ten wins and eleventh place on the ladder picked out for Penrith, a re-run of 2019.

My gut says Penrith could do a lot this year. The grand final might be a step too far but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them scrapping for a second week final nor would it surprise me if we wrote them off as finals contenders shortly after Origin. The risk is there is plenty of potential but not a lot of proven execution, as last year’s rookies become this year’s sophomores and the pack that was bulldozing the league a few years ago slowly being whittled away.

It might not matter if this year is a write-off for the Panthers if they can channel the experience into development, making this squad better in future campaigns. Ivan Cleary and a Gould-less Panthers will have to take better care of the next generation than they have done in the past.

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nrl-ssr South Sydney Rabbitohs

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I have a quiet confidence in Souths’ premiership aspirations but questions remain unanswered.

Souths’ spine is projected to be a full five Taylors per game better than Melbourne’s, which is next best, so it is little surprise that the Rabbitohs are the mostly heavily biased to their playmakers. Damien Cook is the keystone of the spine and has been the league’s most productive player by TPR two years running. The .200 barrier hasn’t been broken since Robbie Farah did it back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, years that the Tigers won a combined seventeen games. After two years of wrecking the league, have coaches finally watched enough tape of Damien Cook to put a lid on him? More pressingly, will Damien Cook turn up this postseason?

Latrell Mitchell’s mooted move to fullback returns him to a position he hasn’t officially played since his 2016 season for the Roosters. He put up an average TPR of .087 then. Mitchell is projected to carry through his (famously quite lazy) productivity at centre and bring .120 of production to fullback. I am loathe to make individual manual tweaks to my systems, so that seems like a bad assumption that is worth adjusting for. 30 pips of production at fullback is worth about 10 Taylors, enough to move Souths from fourth best squad to outside the top eight. Questions: will Latrell at fullback work? Will Latrell put his full back into working?

If they fail, it is not clear if the rest of the team will be able to pick up enough slack to keep the Bunnies in the premiership hunt. Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker form a potent pair. Cameron Murray looks ready to go up another level. But is the forward pack good enough without numerous Burgii? Edene Gebbie looked a little lost at the 9s, so who else is waiting in the wings if needed?

Is Wayne cooked?

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nrl-sgi St George Illawarra Dragons

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I didn’t want to make any specific predictions but wooden spoon, anyone?

It would be the first for Illawarra since 1989 and the first for St George since 1938. The reality is that Paul McGregor’s head is already on the chopping block. Since taking the reins, the Dragon’s class rating has dropped nearly 100 points, an untenable position and one no major league coach of the last two decades has been able to drag their team out before their time was up. No improvements to the roster, no improvements to coaching… wait, didn’t the Dragons sign Shane Flanagan as an “assistant”? That will be an interesting play and may well push the Dragons up the ladder.

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.

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nrl-esr Sydney Roosters

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I’m quite comfortable assuming that the Roosters won’t go three in a row. They’re still good though, probably even still good enough for a minor premiership. A projected 15+ wins and the second best squad on paper is not going to have trouble reaching a preliminary final. The Storm are the only team superior on paper and they share the equal best class Elo rating.

When we talk about the trinity of rugby league – hungah, pashun and desiyah – do the Roosters still espouse these values? Cooper Cronk’s retirement and nominal replacement with near-rookie Kyle Flanagan is the kind of loss of edge that turns premiership winners into runners-up, as the Storm have amply demonstrated.

After all, it’s not just about production. Yelling at other players to get them organised is a rare and extremely valuable commodity. Luke Keary may have it but it will be the first time in his career that the 28 year old will be the elder of the halves pairing. But to put this supposed weakness into context, the Roosters will absolutely be a top four team come September.

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nrl-wst Wests Tigers

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The Tigers continue to defy my predictions of a wooden spoon to instead finish ninth. Last year, they really should have been eighth and the 12-12 record the year before should have seen them in the top eight. Basically, bad luck has kept them from breaking the NRL’s longest finals drought.

Still, you make your own luck. 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.

All they had to do was spend their money wisely. Now they just need to lock down a home ground.