Tag Archives: analytics

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

*****

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.

2021 Queensland Cup WIP Report

We’re over half way into the Intrust Super Cup / Queensland Cup 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 Taylors.
  • 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 1.9 wins at season’s end.

There’s no projections this year as we didn’t have any information from last season to work with.

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 – Blackhawks, Tigers, Jets, Cutters, Capras
  • Actual wins overstating year to date performance / potentially tending worse – Wynnum, Devils, Tweed, Redcliffe, Pride
  • Actual wins reflective of year to date performance – Falcons, Bears, Magpies, Hunters

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

Wins Above Reserve Grade

WARG is a volume stat that compares the total amount of valuable work done (production), when compared to a replacement level player (or fringe first grader in the vernacular) at that position, irrespective of the time on field. A replacement level player has 0 WARG. It’s interesting to correlate who is the top of this leaderboard and who has been promoted to the NRL this season.

2019 was topped by Harry Grant with 2.6 WARG. The career leader (2016 – now) is Jonathon Reuben with 7.8 WARG. The single season record holder is Scott Drinkwater in 2018 with 3.0 WARG.

Taylor Player Rating

TPR is a rate stat that compares the amount of valuable work done (production) per game, factoring in time on field, to the average player at that position. An average player has a rating of .100. Minimum 5 games need to be played to qualify for TPR.

The 2019 regular season was topped by Harry Grant with single season record TPR of .266. The career (2016 – now, regular season only, minimum 15 games) leaders is also Harry Grant with a TPR of .195.

2021 WARG by position

WARG as generated when the player is listed in that position so far this season.

2021 NRL WIP Report

We’re just a bit over half way into the 2021 NRL season 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 Taylors.
  • 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.

Unlike the season preview deep dive, 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, pre-season projected wins, actual wins (0th), Pythagorean wins (1st) and 2nd order wins.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure what these are meant to look like, having been the first time I’ve presented this information in this format. For example, I’m surprised that the pre-season projections and Disappointment Line are often pretty much the same because I’d never thought to check previously. Note that the zero to one scale for winning percentage can make significant differences look minor; a .100 change in winning percentage is worth 2.4 wins at season’s end.

The projections are naturally more conservative (less likely to predict outliers) to cover the potential spread of results. Think of, for example, Penrith as having 15.6 projected wins plus/minus 3 wins. While some projections are right, it tends to overshoot really bad teams and undershoot really good teams.

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.

The current status of each team:

  • Way out – Cowboys, Rabbitohs
  • Actual wins understating year to date performance / potentially tending better – Titans, Panthers, Dragons,
  • Actual wins overstating year to date performance / potentially tending worse – Knights
  • Actual wins reflective of year to date performance – Broncos, Raiders, Bulldogs, Sharks, Sea Eagles, Storm, Warriors, Eels, Rosoters, Tigers

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 14

Production

Pre-season projected and average year-to-date Taylors per game

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

Wins Above Reserve Grade

WARG is a volume stat that compares the total amount of valuable work done (production), when compared to a replacement level player (or fringe first grader in the vernacular) at that position, irrespective of the time on field. A replacement level player has 0 WARG.

2020 was topped by Daly Cherry-Evans with 2.1 WARG. The career leader (2013 – now) is James Tedesco with 11.3 WARG. The single season record holder is Jarryd Hayne in 2014 with 2.3 WARG.

Taylor Player Rating

TPR is a rate stat that compares the amount of valuable work done (production) per game, factoring in time on field, to the average player at that position. An average player has a rating of .100. Minimum 5 games need to be played to qualify for TPR.

The 2020 regular season was topped by Cameron Smith with a TPR of .229. The career (2013 – now, regular season only, minimum 10 games) leaders are Harry Grant and Robbie Farah with a TPR of .164. The single regular season record holder is Robbie Farah with a TPR of .244 in 2013.

2021 WARG by position

WARG as generated when the player is listed in that position so far this season.

2021 TPR by position

TPR as generated when the player is listed in that position so far this season (minimum five games).

Primer – SCWP

People familiar with my philosophy will know that I put less stock in wins than most people. The binary nature – you either take everything or get nothing – means that a simple win-loss record is not a particularly nuanced and, unless you have a very long timeframe to work with, doesn’t necessarily reflect teams’ actual talent over shorter timeframes. Points difference and by extension, Pythagorean expectation, does a better job of reflecting true team ability but even that can be affected by luck or odd results. Does a 50-0 scoreline really tell you any more than a 30-0 scoreline about the relative disparity in talent? If a team scores more tries but loses the game, what does that tell you?

Baseball and college football analysts have developed a metric called “second order wins“. The actual win-loss record are considered to be zeroth order wins (nomenclature that I use and probably no one else). Pythagorean wins, the number of wins expected based on the team’s Pythagorean expectation, are considered first order wins. Second order wins calculates a Pythagorean expectation, not based on actual points scored, but utilising advanced stats to calculate expected points. The idea is that these expected points are more repeatable, and less subject to good/bad luck, and provide a less wrong basis for estiamting teams’ true talent and forecasting teams’ performances on that basis.

For use in rugby league, I propose the following hierarchy:

  • 0th order wins – actual wins
  • 1st order wins – wins as calculated by Pythagorean expectation of points for and against
  • 2nd order wins – wins as calculated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP (Should-a Could-a Would-a Points) for and against

Note that third order wins are second order wins adjusted for strength of schedule. I’m not really concerned with this right now, given that everyone in the NRL plays each other once and then mostly twice so it is of marginal value.

SCWP is not what I would call an advanced statistic because there’s only so much I can do with the data I have. I have taken two metrics for rugby league – metres gained, representing field position, and line breaks, representing playmaking – as our key statistics on which to estimate expected points. I briefly toyed with including tackle busts but it did not improve performance and I suspect we would get a similar result with other stats.

In a similar process to building up the Taylors system, I took every NRL game (2013 – 2021 rd10), QCup (2016 – 2021 rd 7), NSW Cup (2016 – 2021 rd 10) and Super League (2017 – 2021 rd 5) and calculated the running metres and line breaks for each team in each game. I put these games into buckets and then calculated the average score for the bucket with a minimum of five games. The net result is a near 1:1 relationship between metres/line breaks and points scored.

The trendline for these graphs allows us to calculate the Should-a Could-a Would-a Points (i.e. the expected points) that we would expect the team to have scored given the metres and breaks made. We take the (basically) average of the points expected by metres and the points expected by breaks, resulting in the SCWP for the game.

The question then might be, why? The 2nd order winning percentage, based on SCWP, has a lower mean absolute error (MAE) when compared to next year’s actual winning percentage than 0th or 1st order winning percentage. Over the 2013 to 2020 NRL, 2016 to 2019 state cup and 2017 to 2020 Super League seasons (n = 221), we find:

  • 0th order winning percentage has a MAE of .149 when compared to next season’s winning percentage (equivalent to 3.6 wins over a 24 game schedule)
  • 1st order winning percentage has a MAE of .132 (3.2 wins)
  • 2nd order winning percentage has a MAE of .122 (2.9 wins)

Each iteration lowers the error by 10% when forecasting. There’s an additional layer of linear regression that could be applied over the top and this might replace the now defunct Poisedon ratings in pre-season sims.

The decreasing error is partly due to an in-built regression to mean, as SCWP typically has a lower margin than actual points which reflects the fact that teams always put in some effort, even when they get shutout on the scoreboard, and partly because SCWP reflects repeatable statistics, whereas the scoring of actual points can be somewhat prone to randomness (“we would’ve won that if he hadn’t dropped the ball three times/missed those conversions”, hence the name).

The current state of SCWP in the NRL (round 11), compared to actual for-against:

For Super League (round 6):

For Queensland Cup (first part of round 8):

For NSW Cup (round 11):

There’s an additional layer of efficiency to consider. I don’t know if the ratio between actual points scored and SCWP will prove meaningful but if a team is consistently outscoring what we would expect considering the fundamentals, that might either give us a clue about their style of play or it might signal regression to mean. This is something to keep an eye on.

There’s every chance that a SCWP v2 might come forward in the future, based on actual advanced statistics. I of course reserve the right to tinker with my own systems but I’ll let you know when I do.

Primer – WCL

WCL is a means of estimating the probability of a team winning a rugby league match at a given point in the game.

The WCL system finds all instances of a given margin at a given point in the game in that league and calculates how often a team in that position won the game. For example, if 60% of teams who had a 6 point lead after 24 minutes, then we take that to mean that a team who has a 6 point lead after 24 minutes has a 60% chance of winning the game. From this we can build up in-game win probability charts, not unlike those you might have seen on Five Thirty Eight or similar.

It’s that simple. I have used some averaging to smooth out rough edges in the dataset (especially for odd-numbered margins) and where there are too few games in the sample that the model’s results do not make sense, I have edited some of these manually. For example, a one point lead from half time through 60 minutes into the game should not have a less than 50% win probability for the leading team but it apparently does in the NRL.

Note that 100% is only achieved at full time; the remainder of the game is never more than 99.9%. Even though this is not visible, it reflects the reality that our dataset does not cover all available possibilities.

While I could build a more sophisticated model that includes all sorts of other elements, I wanted a basic means to gauge the in-game win probability based on the scoreboard. I do not care what the pre-game odds are and I do not care about the “momentum” or other states of the game. The model is blind to the teams playing and is entirely dependent on the margin and time on clock.

WCL has no overall predictive power but it can graphically summarise a game quite well with a layer of information that simply plotting the margin does not. The sum of team’s win probability percentages at each minute of the game gives a WCL score, which is indicative of how dominant the team has been. A tight game will have each team’s score close to zero, while a perfectly dominant game will have the winning team’s score close to 50 and the loser’s close to -50.

There are separate WCL datasets for NRL, NSW Cup and Qld Cup, based on all matches from 2016 to date. There’s also a generalised men’s WCL set, which is the combination of all three that should be suitable for representative games that would otherwise have too small a sample size to work with or Super League should the need arise. I have been collecting NRLW and QRLW event data as well but there are too few games to form a proper dataset.

WCL stands for Worm Chess Lathe. Worm because the graphs resemble the worm from Australian TV political debates, which are meant to reflect audience responses live in real time. Chess and Lathe because the graphs sometimes resemble a chess piece in profile (bishops and queens, generally), as if it had been created with a wood lathe. The system needed a name and WCL is as good as any.

Generally speaking, this is for novelty purposes but it can also help us answer questions like the following –

Was Magic Round ruined by bins and send offs?

While we all enjoy the chaos of bins and send offs during live football, the fun does wear off somewhat after eight in two games, so yes. But were the game outcomes materially changed by the bins and send offs?

Ah! Well, nevertheless…

Some selected games of interest

Panthers vs Raiders, round 14, 2017

Raiders vs Warriors, round 3, 2018

Storm vs Panthers, grand final, 2020

Broncos vs Titans, round 8, 2021

Primer – Rismans

A big thank you to Lorna Brown (@_Lorna_Brown) who provided me with the dataset and whose ongoing updates to the same mean that we should be able to do some form of Super League player analysis. She has – presumably through some sort of black magic and/or competence with programming – managed to scrape a far more complete dataset out of the SL website than I managed to in previous attempts.

In short, a Risman is an English Super League equivalent to a Taylor. That is, it is a unit of measurement of rugby league production. Production is the accumulation of valuable work done on field as measured by traditional statistics.

The Risman, as a unit of production, is named for Gus Risman. He is a player whose name has largely stuck in my head due to Tony Collins’ podcast, Rugby Reloaded, wherein Collins makes the case that Risman is one of the all time great footballers of any code.

Gus Risman was one of the greatest of Cardiff’s rugby codebreakers. The son of immigrants who grew up in Tiger Bay, he played top-class rugby league for more than a quarter of a century, was a Championship and Challenge Cup winner with two clubs, and captained the 1946 Lions. Not only that, but he also captained the Wales in war-time rugby union internationals while a rugby league player.

Rugby Reloaded #138

As with Dave Taylor, the unit of production is named for a player who can do it all.

The Risman is derived by running linear regressions to confirm which statistics from the Super League dataset correlate with winning percentage. The stats get distributed in to buckets and we review the success of teams achieving those statistics (minimum ten games in the bucket). The result is that tries, try assists, missed tackles, tackle busts, metres, clean breaks and errors (negative) have significant correlations with winning. This is considerably less than the NRL dataset offers, which is why I’ve opted to give these production units a different name; Rismans don’t quite measure the same stuff as Taylors.

We multiply the stat by the slope of the trendline calculated in the regression and a weighting proportional to its correlation to winning (higher the correlation, the higher the weighting) and then by 1000.

Through this product of slope and weighting, we develop a series of equivalences between stats and can compare this across leagues. The following shows the quantity of each stat a player needs to accumulate to be equal to the same production as scoring one try for the 2021 season. The NRL’s values are calculated on the dataset of the five previous seasons, while the others are based on the three previous seasons (State Cups just roll over what the weightings should have been for 2020 to 2021, given they didn’t play last year).

For the record, a try is worth 8.7 Taylors in the NRL, 8.4 Ty in QCup, 7.5 Ty in NSW Cup but a whopping 17.3 Rismans in Super League. This, of course, doesn’t mean anything as Taylors and Rismans have no real world value.

Due to the limitations of the dataset, we can only calculate raw production. Without positional information or time on field, it is not possible to calculate more exotic ratings like an English TPR equivalent, Wins Above Reserve Grade or undertake pre-season projections.

Raw production is still somewhat useful and if nothing else, I think it will likely come in handy for assessing squad strength at the next World Cup. Teams with superior production, as calculated post-game, win 90% of their games.

The average player generates approximately 20 Rismans per game and for players with fewer than ten games, this figure is used until a reasonable sample size can be drawn upon for that player. Based on the actual 17 fielded, teams with the superior expected Rismans, as estimated pre-game by the sum of each player’s prior career average Rismans per game, has a 63.8% successful tipping rate (n=131). This is comparable to using Taylors in the NRL. Using the same formula for the NRL and the above, we can estimate a pre-game winning probability for a given line-up (re-deriving this formula based on the small SL sample meant that the team with more expected Rismans had a lower winning probability when teams were closely matched, which doesn’t make sense).

I posted a leaderboard of players by total Rismans up to round 5 of the Super League. As a not particularly close observer of that part of the game – I still perhaps have a better idea of what’s going in England than in NSW Cup – most of the top twenty at least rang bells as players I’d heard of.

I would have included an update for round 6 but the Super League website does not have any stats listed for the Leeds-Wakefield game, except for who scored the tries. So we must bear in mind that the dataset has some fairly significant limitations, not just in scope, but in completeness. For example, some of the Qualifiers games have been included but a lot, particularly those involving Championship teams, were not. Stats avilability for finals games seems to be hit and miss.

There’s also probably something to be said for different positions accumulating different typical quantities of production but without an independent arbiter of who plays what position, I’m choosing to be blind to this because I refuse to do this manually.

Nonetheless, here’s the all-time (2017 to 2021 round 6) Risman leaderboard.

As a couple of reference points, George Williams’ 43.1 Rs/gm has translated into a TPR of .119 at NRL level. This should be exciting for Tigers fans, as Oliver Gildart will presumably perform at a similar level when he joins Wests next year based on his 43.3 Rs/gm. Undermining that somewhat is Jackson Hastings’ 56.4 Rs/gm, the second highest of any player with at least 50 games, behind Greg Eden, compared to his career .052 TPR in the NRL and .080 TPR in NSW Cup. Hastings is also en route to the Tigers in 2022. Whether a real correspondence between different leagues’ ratings can be derived will probably depend on sourcing more information to bolster the dataset but it should be interesting to see how those signings pan out in the meantime.

A Deep Dive in to the 2021 NRL season

You’ve read me wank on about the second Brisbane team, anti-siphoning legislation, Super League reform, the state of the international game, other sports, my usual critical schtick and award voting systems but now it’s time to talk about actual football. The numbers have been run, in largely the same fashion as last year, and the verdicts are in. This is the fourth annual deep pre-season dive and by the end of it, you’ll be as uncertain as I am about the year ahead.

What happened

2020 ended up being a fairly conventional season on the field with three obvious, screaming exceptions: the rise of the Penrith Panthers, the Brisbane Broncos’ spoon and the season interruption brought on by the pandemic. The mid-season rule changes, rather than causing chaos, cemented the standing of each of the teams, making outcomes more predictable than I personally care for. Melbourne were the best and the usual suspects plus Penrith were thereabouts. The Broncos gave up but the Bulldogs were probably marginally worse. I had more post-season takes in the The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020.

How it all works

These posts rely on a lot of jargon that I’ve made up which suits my analytics tools but is often dense and hard to parse, even for regular readers. If that’s you, please visit this updated guide on what each stat means. Also, there’s 1500 words of context around what statistics do and don’t mean at the end.

The main mechanism for assessment, in conjunction with the numbers, is to look at each club’s strengths, weaknesses and their opportunities for improvement and see what changes have been made in the off-season that might signal a move up or down the ladder. In 2021, there are three broad groups: the tête de la course (1st group), representing the four teams that will occupy somewhere between places one through six on the ladder; the peloton (2nd group), the meaty part of the league who are competing for the remaining finals places; and the arrière (3rd group), or teams who are unlikely to make the finals without significant twists of fate and luck.

Rosters are taken from the NRL website as of 25 February and the predicted 1-17 are based on League Unlimited’s season previews. The engines this year are a little different to the past. I’ve shown the top ten non-rookies by their projected TPR, as opposed to the eight players that contributed the most production. Players are ranked by WARG accumulated while listed in that position only and the best rank the player has is shown (e.g. if a player has played in the middle and off the bench, I’ve shown whichever had the higher ranking).

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

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

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

While I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the Broncos, I thought they might improve somewhat on last year. The Taylors are way down but I figured that reflected a lack of effort moreso than a lack of talent. I am willing to admit I was too high on some of these players in the past. However, the most recent trial game against the Cowboys suggests that some of the mental trauma of the last two years under Seibold might take a little longer to expunge. A second half collapse and deflated egos were the hallmarks of the 2020 Broncos and the back end of that game.

So be it, although if Walters can’t get it sorted, the squad will have to be scattered to the four winds for their own good and Brisbane will have to start again with a bunch has-beens while the farm system replenishes. It could be a long road back. The alternative is teaching the younger players to play eighty minutes of football and winning some – it doesn’t even have to be a lot! – games.

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

By the time you read this, you’ll have read or heard a thousand justifications for Canberra being right in the premiership race. I don’t disagree with any of them but note that the projected Taylors have them wedged firmly between Manly and Cronulla, which seems low for a premiership contender. That seems primarily due to a weak back five and strangely mediocre starting rotation, given the names therein. This might be the numbers being off or we could be in for a big case of everyone talking themselves into the Raiders for various reasons (e.g. they like Nick Campton) and then coming unstuck. Something something 2019 grand final something.

The primary concern surely has to be receiving a flogging at the hands of the Storm, which abruptly ended the Raiders’ 2020 campaign in about ten minutes. The secondary concern is whether the team has really improved since the 2019 grand final. Realistically, if Canberra are to challenge for a premiership, they need to able to match it with the likes of the 2020 Storm and 2019 Roosters and beat them in the most intense games of the season. In a sample size of two, they haven’t done it. What have they done about it since? Their numbers aren’t on pace with Melbourne or Souths or even Penrith and the outlook signals another good, maybe even great, but not exceptional year.

I’m a big fan of the idea that if you put in place the right processes, eventually luck evens out and the results will fall your way. Canberra’s strategy for 2021 might be to get the right pieces and hope to get on a tear like the Panthers of last year. The Raiders have been knocking on the door since 2016 now, so at what point do we conclude that their processes aren’t right? Perhaps it will be at the end of this year if they come home without the Provan-Summons again, having hit their ceiling once more in week three of the finals.

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

I lamented in last year season’s preview that the Bulldogs needed to play catch-up as their squad was projected to be a long way behind the rest of the competition. Then, they were projected to average 328 Taylors per game, the lowest in the league and two fewer than the Penrith Panthers that were in fifteenth (so not really that far behind) and some 60 behind the contenders. This year, armed with new signings like Kyle Flanagan, Nick Cotric and Corey Allan, the Bulldogs aren’t last, having moved 14 projected Taylors clear of the last placed Broncos but they are 68 Taylors off the pace of the premiers and 20 behind the next-best Tigers.

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Idling

Lots of people have advocated the Sharks moving to Adelaide or Perth, based on their hemmed-in geography, and handing their territory over to the Dragons to consolidate southern Sydney and Illawarra into a single franchise. However, based on the last few years of decision making, surely it should be the other way around? The Sharks have lost a lot of money but recent developments have given them cash in hand and a new hospitality venue. The Sharks have won a premiership. The Sharks haven’t made as many recruiting blunders (the Maloney/Moylan swap perhaps being the duddest) as the Dragons have in just this off-season. So I’ve changed my mind: the Sharks can stay and the Dragons can go to Perth.

John Morris is under pressure at Cronulla. I’m not sure why that is. On the two coaching metrics, yes, the class rating fell more than 50 points during his tenure – normally a sign of an imminent firing – but it was coming off a very high and, for the Sharks, unsustainable level. His coach factor has been positive two years running and only Craig Bellamy has matched it over that time. This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has. While the Sharks have failed to impress in the post-season, I don’t think they’ve set themselves up to succeed. It seems unfair to boot Morris, only to bring back the ethically-bypassed Shane Flanagan, who will probably not get much further but at least he won them a premiership five years ago.

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

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

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

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

I wouldn’t be surprised with a mid-table finish, somewhere in the range of seventh to tenth position with a 12-12 record plus or minus a win. They could surprise on the upside with a bit of luck, especially if Cameron Smith makes a miracle mid-season signing, in which case anything is possible. In that scenario and the Titans win the premiership, then my season review will be a long apology to Mal Meninga for ever doubting him.

Despite being a dreaded rival, my main motivation for wanting the Titans to do well is so we can end the unnecessary agonising about how sport on the Gold Coast doesn’t work and what the Titans need to do to fix their alleged problems. Pro sport goes to the Gold Coast because its the sixth largest city in the country. The Titans don’t work because they don’t win. When they do, everything else will become window dressing. It’s not rocket science.

*Includes Northern Eagles

Assessment: 3rd group / Upside

Depending on which number you want to listen to, Manly’s cattle either look as good as the Raiders and the Knights (projected Taylors) or are looking fairly average (roster and composition simpscore). Des Hasler had his worst coach factor since it started being calculated in 2016. While Pythagorean expectation has a better outlook for Manly in 2021, that’s coming off a lack lustre 7-13 and the Sea Eagles performed more or less at expectation. Even a couple of extra wins wouldn’t make for a winning record. Most of the indicators suggest a pretty average year ahead.

Then why do the projected Taylors suggest the Sea Eagles could be in the finals mix? Daly Cherry-Evans had an extremely productive 2020, finishing with the third best TPR in the league (.222) behind Cameron Smith (.229) and Nathan Cleary (.224). This is largely due to being the only moderately effective player on the field for Manly for much of the season and he shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden. Off the back of that, he is projected to have a similarly productive 2021 (.179). Kieran Foran comes to Brookvale from the Bulldogs from a similar position, albeit much less productive with considerably more time spent on the side lines, and he has a projection of .130 for 2021. Put them together and it looks like a super-productive duo. In reality, how successful this pairing is (provided Foran stays fit) will depend heavily on how willing Cherry-Evans is to share the workload. They are unlikely to have the opportunity to produce as much in total as the projections suggest, given there is only so much one can do in the time available, so I think their Taylors may look inflated. Moreover, at some point, someone needs to score tries.

Outside of an already injured Tom Trbojevic, Martin Taupau and Taniela Paseka, there’s very little to recommend Manly. They certainly do not have the look of a team looking to play finals. Still, I think Hasler might bounce back this season, his 2019 strategy of taping together reserve graders having run out of adhesive strength in 2020. Put that with a good year from Josh Aloiai, Taupau and Paseka, Foran and Cherry-Evans working together seamlessly, Jason Saab pushing one of the other backs out of the lineup and some desperately needed luck on the injury front, the Sea Eagles might surprise a few but that’s a lot of ifs that need to go right.

And they need a hooker. It’s like they forgot to sign one.

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

Last year, I compared the Storm to the Roman Empire. To continue that metaphor, we’re reaching the end of Augustus’ reign (Augustus being a composite of the big three plus Bellamy). After the early, unstable years of the Republic and the preceding monarchy, which united the disparate lands of South Queensland, Perth, Adelaide and the Hunter Valley under a new royal purple banner, the Augustan epoch has been marked by regular trips to the finals, punctuated by premierships. Even without the salary cap breached premierships, the Storm have won as many men’s NRL titles as any club.

And just like Rome at the end of Augustus’ reign, we’ve reached the peak but there’s another couple of centuries ahead before Rome really bottoms out as a power. Still longer, if you count the Byzantines and really continuing to today if you want to stretch and include Romania. In other words, it seems unlikely that this is the year that the Goths sack Melbourne. They’ll be around for a while yet.

The roster remains one of the best in the league, as measured in projected Taylors. The Storm have the most successful coach of the last twenty years. That just doesn’t disappear over night because the best player of the NRL era retires and/or moves to the Gold Coast. The club doesn’t need the GOAT to win the premiership, the team merely needs to be very good. The Storm will be, once again, and barring a distraction like Bellamy’s future and replacement having a surprisingly damanging impact on the team’s psyche, they will be in the running.

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

If South Sydney do go one further this year, imagine your club being in so deep a hole that Wayne Bennett couldn’t coach you to a grand final. It would be the first such instance since he was at Brothers in the early 1980s. That’s a full four decades ago for those playing at home. Couldn’t be Southern Suburbs, Canberra, Brisbane, St George Illawarra or (probably) South Sydney. For the record, Brothers folded in the 1990s. Not sure why I thought of that.

Anyway, Adam O’Brien. For reasons I can’t quite articulate – perhaps it’s that Newcastle has become the sole Isaac Moses FC and hired Anthony Seibold as an assistant coach – I’m not 100% sold on him. It could simply be a lack of sample size. O’Brien is clearly a better coach than Nathan Brown and has taken the Knights from the arrière into the peloton. My question is then can he take them to the front of the race?

The roster actually looks good. Like Canberra and the Gold Coast, Newcastle have assembled a talented cast for their starting line up. TPR has most of the forward pack sitting around average, but that in itself is an above average result (average players are rarer than you think) and in the same ballpark as the Raiders. The playmaking positions – likely to be Mann, Pearce and Brailey, according to League Unlimited – isn’t too bad but hardly scintillating stuff. We might see more out of Brailey this year, provided he stays on the field, and less out of Pearce but their combined production isn’t expected to be much more than the Broncos can muster. The difference is in the backs, specifically Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best, who need little introduction if you’re the kind of person reading this.

The pieces are there. There’s a good squad, a promising coach and a stable club. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Knights do well this year but their late season fade-outs of the last couple years, and some other things I can’t quite put my finger on (I could be conflating an injury toll last year with actual performance if we’re being honest), mean that putting them in the second group is a safer bet, with an acknowledgement that they have the ingredients, if not the demonstrated proof, that they could be – perhaps should be – in the first.

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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

Nonetheless, like many people, the Warriors (along with the Dragons) are one of my favourites for the wooden spoon in 2021. I had them pegged in a similar position last season but, despite the difficult circumstances in which they played, their coaching got them through with enough wins and panache to avoid the bottom four. They don’t have that this season, after Todd Payten declined the job, preferring Townsville. Instead, the Warriors are being led by the man who has the worst coaching factor of the last five years, including the all-time worst NRL season (1-22-1 with the 2016 Knights) which would also be the worst single season coach factor if Anthony Seibold hadn’t gone 3-17 with a much better team. Suffice to say, I have little confidence in Brown’s ability to unite the squad and motivate them while they live away from home for another year. Under normal circumstances and a better coach, there’s enough potential production for the Warriors to look good for a top eight finish.

If you need to understand the level of savvy Phil Gould brings to the boardroom, one only need look at how much better Penrith are running without him and that Roger Tuivasa-Scheck has already decided to go to union next year. Cameron George, a NRL club CEO, is a refsfaulter and seems to get most of his ideas from talkback radio. In fact, if one thing unites these three men, it’s a love of being in the media: Brown’s credibility was decimated with the Knights squad because of his frequent TV appearances, the only reason I know Cameron George’s name is because he says shit so stupid on the radio in New Zealand that it crosses the Tasman and Phil Gould should have retired from commentary at least a decade ago.

Last year, I highlighted that the Bulldogs board had done them no favours and now they’re all gone. This year, I hope the Warriors will be re-bristling their brooms to push this triumvirate out the door before next season. In doing so, if they keep their relatively talented roster together, it won’t be long before the Warriors are a factor again.

Assessment: 2nd group / Recovering

For a long time, the Cowboys looked good on paper but struggled to deliver under previous coach, Paul Green. Now, we have a Cowboys team that doesn’t look too crash hot on paper with the potential to deliver under new coach, Todd Payten.

The actual names in the North Queensland roster should inspire some hope: Drinkwater, Morgan, Holmes, Clifford, Robson, Taumalolo. Having the best forward and the once best winger in the game should do that. Payten demonstrated his chops last year, keeping a Warriors squad united in trying circumstances and moving in the right direction. What that means is that even though the Cowboys have mediocre projections, that reflects the mediocre results they’ve had under a coach that the game passed by. By that logic, under a new dynamic coach, one able to get the best out his men, should see the team out-perform expectations.

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

If I look at my watch, I think the Eels are due for an imminent collapse and a wooden spoon. It could be something in the vein of their 2018 campaign, in which the team completely fell apart for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear and bookended by fourth place in 2017 and fifth place in 2019. Parra stepped up their game again to third in 2020 but the squad is looking decidedly less dialled in, having lost Kane Evans, Daniel Alvaro and George Jennings, and replaced them with Keegan Hipgrave, Bryce Cartwright and Tom Opacic.

Mitch Moses was productive even if he didn’t pass the eye test while Blake Ferguson had an outright shocker last season. Brad Arthur is going to have put a jolt into those two if they want to maintain their momentum up the ladder. Dyaln Brown doesn’t look too bad and put up a decent average TPR last year but seven of his sixteen regular season appearances for the Eels were absolute nothings. My internal jury is still out on the Moses-Brown combination and this year will see a verdict rendered. The likely outcome is that they do okay, maybe even above average, but get chucked in the bin anyway by a fanbase demanding success that they’ve never had.

I doubt we’ll be all that surprised to reviewing the Eels’ season in October and wondering why Parramatta, at best, went out in straight sets again. The answer is that they haven’t improved on last year’s team and that side was at least one, if not multiple, steps off the premiership pace. In many respects, they’ve gone backwards since then. In the absence of being able to use luck as an excuse – which having out-performed their Pythagorean expectation, they cannot – then the only reasonable conclusion is that the Eels are headed down the ladder.

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

If Melbourne are the Roman Empire, then Penrith is Macedonia in the late fourth century BC. A group of young and extremely motivated men took advantage of the specific time and place that the gods had provided them and as a result, almost conquered the world. The 2020 grand final was their Hyphasis, a long campaign finally ended by reaching the absolute limits of their capability. The 2021 season will then be their march back to Persia to consolidate their gains. As students of history will know, that didn’t go particularly well for the Macedonian aristocrats. Will Jarome Luai catch typhoid and die after eating poultry and drinking wine? Will Nathan Cleary also die of typhoid? Will Matt Burton flee to Egypt to create his own kingdom, which I guess might be the Bulldogs? Who will play the roles of the other Diadochi? Ivan Cleary as Seleucus or Philip II? Who can say.

There are many questions, mostly revolving around the safety of western Sydney’s drinking water, but I think that the Panthers will regress hard. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Ivan Cleary can’t maintain the same standard
  2. The Panthers lost players
  3. Penrith got lucky

It’s a little baffling to watch Ivan Cleary, a man with a club coaching record of 170-168-4, suddenly turn into a superstar. A little too baffling for my taste. The 2020 Panthers outperformed their projections so thoroughly that it is literally unprecedented. Craig Bellamy was rated +7 in 2019, the previous best coach factor. Cleary was rated +12 in 2020. He was as good as Seibold was bad. That simply makes no sense.

It is incredibly rare to see everything go so right for a team and it is similarly impossible to imagine it happening again. While the Panthers might be one of the top rated teams by projected Taylors, if we wipe 10% off that to account for the rigors of reality hitting home, they come right back into the pack. Their Pythagorean expectation was outperformed by more than two wins in the regular season and Pythagoras will demand his tribute this year, perhaps with an equal overreaction in the other direction.

Compounding this, the squad that made it to Hyphasis has already started to drift apart. Matt Burton has one foot out the door. James Tamou, captain and commander, has gone to Leichhardt/Campbelltown/Tamworth. Zane Tetevano, who has rated few mentions in the aftermath of the campaign, is taking his .152 TPR (36th best in the league) to Leeds. A number of lesser lights, including Caleb Aekins, Josh Mansour, Kaide Ellis and another half dozen names, have departed Penrith. That kind of turnover is bad for cohesion at the best of times and worse to eliminate all of the depth that would help the Panthers ride out any potential crises this year.

A big deal was famously made of wanting to keep the squad together but when it came down to a choice between divying up the spoils of war and continuing the campaign together, the lads (justifiably) took the former. Good for them but Gedrosia lies ahead. The Macedonians survived the desert crossing but they weren’t expected to play finals footy after.

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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

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

If your club finished twelfth, do you think you’d improve by lowering the quality of your roster? Probably not. If your team had a 7-13 record, do you think that hiring a mediocre coach that’s never gotten more than expected out of his players would help improve that record? Probably not. The Dragons’ best projected player is stat padder Corey Norman, and even so only the sixteenth best half in the NRL last year. The Dragons’ starting halfback finished seventh of all hookers. Matt Dufty had a good 2020 and he might not be able to repeat that and realistically, he’s the best player in their spine.

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

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

I admire the cockiness of ordering 10,000 “South Sydney 2021 Premiers” t-shirts in March in a now deleted tweet. It’s the kind of big dick energy that comes with winning one premiership that matters and a bunch more that don’t against labourers and dockers.

Last year’s question marks are gone. The narrative power of sending the all-time GOAT rugby league coach out a winner is simply too powerful. We are beyond statistics and numbers and deep into primal rugby league territory. The 2021 premiership awaits.

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

60-8. That was the end of the Roosters in 2020. In a year where the Broncos completely shit the bed, conceding 59 points to the reigning premiers and getting the wooden spoon, the same reigning premiers went one worse and gave up 60 to Souths.

Still, people will overreact to that and the Roosters lack of a halfback. They’ll probably not consider how good the rest of the roster will be, especially once Victor Radley returns and adds his value, and that teams have won premierships with lesser combinations than Luke Keary and a question mark. It turns out that question mark could be the son of a former footballer, either that of Aidrian Lam or Ben Walker, who will probably demonstrate that he can do enough to keep the team in the running. After all, this franchise won a grand final with a halfback who had a broken shoulder. I’m sure a borderline rookie can be built up to the task.

People who believe the lack of halfback is a death sentence have no faith in Trent Robinson, despite the evidence of the last few seasons. The Roosters may not be prime premiership material, like they were in 2019, but they’re at worst in tier 1b of potential winners. Just look at their engine. They’ll be fine.

Assessment: 3rd group / Waiting

I often tip bad things for the Tigers but they always manage to avoid the absolute worst case scenario. Still, it’ll be a decade this year since they last made the finals, which I will remind you would be a 50-50 shot if it was awarded by random chance (and roughly a one-in-a-thousand chance of missing ten times consecutively).

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

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

Irrespective of the results on the field this year, coming to the end of the run of big, dud contracts they signed will be a relief. Wests might be unearthing a core of young players to build around but the they have been here before and stuffed it up, so I won’t be hanging my hat on that. That narrative (the young core, not the stuffing it up) and the cap space could attract the kind of talent that gets Wests back in the running. I won’t believe until I see it.

The Dally Ms are a wank, let’s use…something else

Wait, haven’t we done this before? Absolutely, in a post that hasn’t aged super-well, I replaced the Dally Ms with the old player rating system to assess the best player in each season. That system has been improved upon with TPR and WARG, so the conclusions drawn there can be safely discarded.

Today, I specifically do not want to replace voting with a statistical rating. I cannot stress enough just how little I want to do that. Of the two half decent, publicly avilable player rating systems, TPR and the League Eye Test’s Net Points Responsible For, neither account for everything that happens on the field and attempting to quantify all aspects of sport dehumanises the experience of watching and enjoying rugby league.

Awards should be given partly on emotion because it’s stupid to assume there’s a purely rational way to hand them out. Rationally, we should only care who the best teams are, seeing as that’s the point of the sport, and who the best players are is a sideshow that should only concern hacks padding out column inches. Indeed, I believe the flaws in any system are ultimately good because that creates fuel for the content machine and keeps the sport in the news, particularly as the higlighting of flaws comes toward the end of the season when there are fewer games to talk about (this is my pet theory as to why college football doesn’t do away with its ridiculous system for anoiting a national champion). Moreover, these flaws reflect our own flaws as humans and that’s one of the things that makes life interesting. Irrational emotions are part of us and part of the sport.

The Dally Ms are back in the news cycle with a proposed change of voting system courtesy of a Buzz Rothfield shit-stirring Sunday column. Under the current system, the judge has to be at the ground to vote the best player on field three points, the second best two and the third best one. The player with the most votes at the end of the season wins. The current system typically favours good players on average teams who are able to sweep up the points on a regular basis, albeit the award has generally been given to the right player, or close enough to, at the end of the year.

Under the proposed system, each player gets a rating out of ten in every game. The flaws in this are obvious. Even the keenest observer would struggle to give every single player in a match an objective and justifiable rating out of ten. I definitely couldn’t do it without making up at least a few. People naturally, when presented with this kind of problem, tend towards an average of seven, and not five, because people are generally kind of nice. Your five and my five are not likely to be the same and there seems to be no way to calibrate for this, other than intensive training, something that is not an issue under the current system because while we might disagree who is the best, we both understand what the best generally means. What is average is another kettle of fish.

There’s also a scaling problem, which affects both systems, wherein a player who absolutely plays everyone off the park is given the max score but the score rarely reflects how far ahead the player is compared to the rest. If Taumalolo runs for 300 metres, scores three tries and pots a field goal, he will get either a three under the old system or a ten under the proposed. The next best player gets a two for his efforts, implying that Taumalolo’s performance was only 50% more valuable, even though he probably would have earned that three points after the first try and 200 metres. Similarly, if he’s awarded a ten, is everyone else a six at best by comparison? Meanwhile, in the next game, the best player scores one try and assists another but gets an equal three points or ten rating.

Bearing all of that in mind, here’s the top ten from the five most recent Dally M votes.

As a point of comparison, here’s the TPR and WARG champions for each of those seasons.

What I want to do is compare how different voting systems impact on the final results. We’re going to look at four different voting systems –

  • System A: after round 9, 18 and the end of the season, the top ten players are awarded votes from 10 for the best player through that part of the season, down to one for the tenth best. Votes are tallied at season’s end and the player with the most votes wins.
  • System B: is the same as system A but players are assessed after every round based on their performance in that round.
  • System C: the current Dally M voting system, as a control.
  • System D: the proposed system.

Rather than go back and watch every game for the last five years, close to 1,900 hours of entertainment, I’m using my player ratings as a proxy for a (non-existent) rational voter. Systems A, B and C are assessed on WARG while system D is assessed on TPR. I think this difference is justifiable based on how I think people would approach the different voting systems. When when assessing players individually on a 0-10 scale, I’d expect judges would compare them to players at the same position and account for time on field, as TPR does, while WARG does a better job of assessing who has done the best by minimising those factors in favour of raw production.

To translate TPR into a 0-10 rating, I tried to put ratings into buckets that more or less reflects a normal distribution, as follows.

One would expect voters to award their ratings in a likewise fashion but will probably skew it based on their personality and what they’re expected to judge.

Here are the new Dally M results for each system.

If we just compare the results from the different systems, system A generates three or four defensible winners out of five, system B only a single one in 2019, system C three or four and system D two to three. In my subjective opinion, the current Dally M system seems to perform the best, even if sex pest Blake Ferguson was to be awarded the title of “the best” in 2018.

You can review the top tens but I watched most of these seasons and I couldn’t possibly remember who was seventh best in 2017. The point is less about who is in what position but rather how the different voting systems affect the outcome. In none of the five years, despite having the same information, did the systems uniamously appoint a winner.

All systems are going to have pluses and minuses. The validity of the result comes from two things. The first is a widespread understanding what the purpose of the award is. Is it for the best and fairest or the most valuable or something else? Each of those mean different things and the system to award the winner needs to reflect its purpose.

The second is capability of the voters. The average NRL twitter user (and/or person reading this) is going to assume that the judges are idiots, because they produce largely terrible commentary, and because they are susceptible to the same groupthink, biases and laziness as the rest of us. That, too, is very human, as is hubristicly assuming you would do a better job over the long run. When I see two people on the timeline have the complete opposite understanding of what just occured in a replay, I know that the individual punters will not do a better job and that the utopia of a perfect player award system is as far away as ever.

Diving into State of Origin 2020

We’re unusually late in the year to be talking Origin but to understate it completely, 2020 has been an unusual year.

I’ve tried analysing Origin using my slate of analytical tools in previous years (2018 and 2019) with mixed success. Taking those lessons on board, I’ve reworked some of the tools and we’ll look at this year’s series through these lenses:

  • Elo ratings
  • Venue records
  • Taylors

If you just want to cut to the chase, my tips are the Blues for the men’s and Maroons for the women’s. Further, I expect that the ratings dip we saw through the finals will continue through the Origin series and we’ll be back to mid-week games by next winter. To keep broadcasters happy and make up for this year’s underperformance, any talk of standalone weekends will be quashed. It’ll be just like in the 80s, so that will keep the Daily Telegraph readers and ARLC chairman happy until they realise the futility of nostalgia, which will probably only happen on their deathbeds, if at all. It’s not like anyone wants to see New Zealand versus Tonga anyway.

Form guide

I always said it would be stupid to do an Elo rating system for a three game per year series with only two teams contesting it but here we are.

New South Wales’ current rating is 1516 and Queensland’s 1483. On neutral ground, as in Adelaide, the Blues have a 55% probability of winning (equivalent to a one point margin). In Sydney for game 2, the Blues’ chances improve to 64% (3 points) and in Brisbane for game 3, the Maroons’ would be 54% favourites (1 point). Obviously, this will change as the games are played and ratings updated.

For the nerds, this system is margin-based (like Form Elo, we set a line based on pregame ratings and after the game, ratings go up for the team that beats the line) but with a low K-value (50) to make the series relatively slow moving. To maximise tips would require setting K at 225, which turns the ratings into chaos. As is, Elo has tipped the correct winner 53% of the time in the Origin era, which rises to 60% if we crank the K value up to 225. You could just tip against the winner of the last game or flip a coin for a similar success rate. We’re being descriptive, rather than predictive.

Home ground advantage and margin prediction factor is based on the whole history of interstate games, which the home team (excluding games at neutral venues) won 59% of the time by an average of 4.5 points. I had intended to generate these values on a decade-by-decade basis but there are several points in history where the away team had the advantage, which ruins the whole system. I say keep it simple.

Home ground advantage

You could do pretty well tipping Origin by simply tipping the home team. That strategy would have returned a 58% success rate over the last ten series.

Suncorp has long been a fortress for Queensland. Since 2010, the home ground advantage has been worth over ten points to the Maroons. Equally, but with far fewer games, the neutral venues have been considerably more accommodating to the Blues. Go figure. The Blues have an advantage of less than two points at ANZ Stadium but as the memory of Queensland’s golden age fades from memory, I would expect it to return to its long term advantage of approximately four points.

The advantage should be with New South Wales for games 1 and 2 and with Queensland in game 3.

Historical Taylors

I want to preface this section by saying that this is not really what the Taylor system for player ratings was designed for and that rugby league isn’t a sport where you could plug and play players and get 2 + 2 = 4, especially when you take a surplus of fullbacks and drop them into other parts of the back line. I get it, I really do, but we have to use the tools we have at our disposal.

With that in mind, I went back a looked at how the lineups from 2014 onwards would have been rated by Taylors.

For these charts, I have calculated each player’s TPR to that point in the season that the game was played and estimated the number of Taylors (xTy) they would produce at their listed position. I have also included the actual Taylors (Ty) generated by the player during the game. If you’re not interested in the detail, here’s a table summarising these charts.

The most obvious issue is that this method almost always tips New South Wales. The last six series have been split 9-9, so this may not be a great means of guessing who will win. However, the average projected Taylors per game is 865 Taylors and the average actual Taylors produced is also 865. This shows there is at least some internal consistency but we may be suffering at the hands of rugby league chaos which does not allow for nice, neat mathematical projections.

In reality, what happens is that the best players are selected from their club teams and, as there is considerable overlap between talent and production, we end up with a lot of highly productive players in too small a space. The way rugby league is actually played means that only so much can be done in a game and some players will not be as productive as they would in a club situation. Similarly, many players will be out of position and adjusting on the fly, rather than playing at their best.

Having said that, Origin produced 116 Taylors more than the typical NRL game did over the same period (749 Taylors per game). Origin means more football.

Interestingly, the Maroons have typically outperformed their projection by 20 Taylors per game. Mal Meninga was able to coax an additional 39 Taylors per game over the projections in 2014 and 2015, while Kevin Walters has only managed 13 from 2016 to 2019. New South Wales underperformed by 59 Taylors during Laurie Daley’s reign (2014 to 2017) but have outperformed by an average of 54 Taylors under Brad Fittler’s tenure (2018 and 2019). Some of those differences will be squad composition, self-belief and motivation and some of it will be coaching, although I wouldn’t care to speculate on the precise mix.

This all provides context for when we look at this fairly damning chart for game 1 of this year’s series.

[Correction: The tip should have read “New South Wales by 66%” but didn’t due to a calculation error. Still a big gap though.]

Irrespective of the merits of the tips, we haven’t seen on paper advantage like this in recent times and you would very likely have to go back to 1995 to find a similar chasm between the two sides. Famously, Queensland won that series in a clean sweep, which just goes to show that anything is possible, especially if your opposition thinks they’ve already got it won.

The most productive game in NRL history by Taylors was Souths stomping on the Roosters at the end of the 2020 regular season, which generated 1042 Taylors. Only game 1 of 2019 in Origin has exceeded that with 1049 Taylors. We are projecting 1023 Taylors for game 1 of 2020, the highest aggregate projection. Even with Vlandoball, that doesn’t leave a lot of room to exceed expectations. If one were to clutch at straws, it would be that Queensland have a lot more room to outperform, even if this is the highest projected output of a Maroons side since game 3, 2014.

Queensland may well alter this line-up before game day. Personally, I would have preferred to see Harry Grant at hooker. His .174 TPR would have added an additional 13 Taylors and closed 14% of the gap between the two states. However, the Maroons appear to be in big trouble with the wingers and centres chosen. In a normal year, a functional Corey Oates would add another 6 Taylors over Xavier Coates but unfortunately, Corey is broken. Valentine Holmes’ addition on the other side would be a similar improvement. Nonetheless, these changes would close the gap a little but does not eliminate it.

For New South Wales, it’s hard to imagine a better squad. Brad Fittler will get a lot of credit for his coaching genius when, in reality, he has a sizeable talent advantage to work with. Clint Gutherson, one of the better fullbacks in the game, does not seem suited to his responsibilities at centre, which could be an avenue that Origin Gagai exploits. Some of the forward selections seem a bit doughy, especially Jake Trbojevic at lock after the season he has had, but their Queensland counterparts aren’t rated much better.

Tipping 2020

We’ve already established that the Taylors lean NSW and Elo, until recently, loved Queensland, so we’re really only left with home ground advantage to separate the teams. It’s hardly a good or useful or robust system but since someone will inevitably ask for it, here’s what an Origin jury would have tipped.

Despite this, I’m inclined to agree with the Jury’s recommendation of the Blues. In fact, I voted that the Blues would clean sweep the series in the end of season fan poll. It would take an exceptional turnaround, not beyond the realms of possibility but very close to a miracle, for it to be any other way. Truly, this would be a fitting end for 2020.

Women’s Game

At the risk of this being seen as a tack-on, the reality is that records of women’s interstate games is spotty and that 21 NRLW games over three years does not give us the kind of statistical sample size that suits the kind of analysis I want to do. We are, unfortunately, left with the eye test.

Idiots will tell you that women’s Origin should have been moved from North Sydney Oval to Bankwest for this year’s edition because, somehow in a series of only two teams, most commentators forgot about the second team. Fortunately, the NRL is not that silly and has forced the coward Blues to face a hostile crowd on the Sunshine Coast. That said, bigger idiots think the women’s game should be a curtain raiser to the men’s, ensuring the women never play in front of a decent crowd.

If Queensland win this, it would be their first official Origin win and first interstate win since 2014 (2015 was a draw, after winning fourteen in a row prior according to Wikipedia). The Maroons have closed the gap that existed in previous Origins. Ali Brigginshaw, rather than being slowed by age, has had her best season yet and with Tarryn Aitken serving in the halves and Tamika Upton at fullback, Queensland have a dynamic playmaking combination. Broncos trio Tallisha Harden, Annette Brander and shot putter Chelsea Lenarduzzi will run it up the middle to lay a platform. Letting go of the pre-NRLW stalwarts and focussing on the younger talent that has come through is going to help immensely. The key ingredients are there.

The Blues’ stars, particularly those at the Dragons, looked extremely lack lustre during the NRLW season. Maddie Studdon has been dropped, Sam Bremner has other commitments and Isabelle Kelly and Kezie Apps will carry injuries in to this game. As usual, keeping a lid on Jess Sergis will be key to getting the upper hand. Hannah Southwell and Millie Boyle are a strong pair to underpin the pack. Kylie Hilder didn’t play NRLW this year or last year and is 44 years old, so I’m not sure if her naming isn’t an error. In contrast, a stack of Roosters have been named and if they can retain their cohesion from the NRLW, they may well overcome any talent deficit.

If nothing else, the women’s game will be much closer than the men’s series and should be considerably more compelling. I’m tipping the Maroons.

Like the NRLW, women’s Origin is coming along in leaps and bounds. The end goal – however long it takes – will be to have a women’s competition and representative season that is equal to and independent of the men’s side of the game. That means not having women’s games as curtain raisers but as standalone events. It will take time for the audience to grow, and women’s standalone games will likely be at smaller venues in the immediate future, but the audience will come if the product remains entertaining and is given the nourishment it needs to grow.

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