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A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Penrith Panthers

The 2021 Penrith Panthers became the first non-Melbourne team to win 21 games of NRL in the one regular season. They were unable to match the win percentage and finishing position of last season’s efforts, in fact only coming a lowly second to the Storm. Penrith’s +390 points difference, third best of the NRL era on a per game basis, was good for 20.1 Pythagorean wins, a small out-performance but more or less earned.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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.

I have again spared you the insufferable history wank but worse, in a stunningly predictable year, I don’t think I was more wrong on any team this year than the Panthers.

Let’s rewind. Shout-out to the dude on Reddit who couldn’t square why I was so down on the Panthers’ prospects in the season preview, despite the numbers saying they would be good. One part of it is that the numbers obviously don’t tell the whole story and require a human to provide some context and nuance and sometimes these diverge in conclusions.

The other part is fuck the Panthers. The Panthers are the embodiment of Vlandoball and for a while at least, their entire fanbase refused to acknowledge that, actually, their club might have accidentally benefitted from some of the rule changes.

I think we’re past that kind of discourse and if I may indulge, the lesson here is more about me than the Panthers. In the time I’ve been doing this, this is the first time a team other than the Storm and Roosters has won the title. I’ve basically taken the route that I’ll believe it when I see it and it takes a lot of it for me to believe. This has served me pretty well until now.

I’m only just now going to admit in writing that the Panthers are legit, after they’ve won the title and after two regular seasons with a combined record of 39-4-1, including the 2020 edition setting a new record winning percentage for a NRL season and both 2020 and 2021 sitting in the top five of all NRL teams for points conceded per game and Pythagorean expectation. Let’s just say the clues were there and I did not give it due weight. It was bad analysis.

The good news is I’m ready to learn from my mistakes and annoit the Parramatta Eels as my 2022 NRL premiership favourites.

What happened

The Penrith Panthers are your 2021 NRL premiers.

Everything else is irrelevant. If you’ve read the other 15 season reviews, you’ll know that the Panthers’ form Elo rating was up there most of the season. You’ll also know that Cleary had one of the most productive seasons ever. You’ll know that Souths out-produced Penrith in both finals games.

There’s always next year

They’re finally starting to lose good players. Capewell and Burton are out. On the other hand, if they can offload Tyrone May, the team may well get better. It’s worth remembering that the Panthers NSW Cup side was leading that competition when it was cancelled, with a 12-5-1 record and six points clear of Western Suburbs. If you can be bothered looking down these lists, you’ll see some names worth keeping an eye on: Sunia Turuva, Izack Tago, Taylan May, Bill Tsikrikas and Alec Susino.

As someone who values his time, I don’t watch NSW Cup so I can’t say I’ve vetted any of these names with an eye test. Even if they are all legitimate top prospects, it seems unlikely that all five would pan out at NRL level. The Storm take this many shots each year only to unearth one or two functional first graders.

You’d have to say the future looks pretty bright. Roster – tick. Pathways – tick. Finances – tick. Coach – fine… tick. Maybe a new stadium as well? They’re another deep finals run away from establishing a genuine dynasty. It would be the Panthers’ first and the NRL’s first interruption to the Sydney/Melbourne dynastic dominance since the Broncos’ ended in 2000.

There’s still a lot of football to be played before we get too far ahead of ourselves. The Vlandoball era is slowly being wound down but the Panthers showed that, hobbled and exhausted, they could match it with the best in the pre-Vlandoball form of the game. While those some of those finals wins were close – and the grand final hinged on a couple of very fortunate moments – you don’t need to be the best to win the premiership. You just need to find a way to win.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 South Sydney Rabbitohs

The South Sydney Rabbitohs finished the season in third on the ladder, with a 20-4 record that would be worthy of recognition had not one, but two, other teams gone one better. With 775 points scored and 453 conceded, the Rabbitohs were only good for 17.6 Pythagorean wins, meaning the 20 actual wins accrued is a gross overperformance. We could ascribe some of that to excessively bad losses in the first half of the season but all results have equal weighting and the 50 point “rule” continues to hold, which is probably the most disappointing thing about this whole season.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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.

That was all I wrote and I was one intercept pass away from being right.

What happened

People slept on the Bunnies, even though they had worked their way into the mix of the top three teams. I tweeted about them being the top rated team in late August for zero likes.

As the chips fell where they did, Souths found themselves in a 50-50 grand final without their star fullback. Given they had beaten Penrith just three weeks earlier without said fullback, there was no reason Souths couldn’t win this.

But they didn’t. Would the Rabbitohs have beaten the Panthers with Latrell Mitchell?

To find out, let’s break down the four meetings these two teams had during the 2021 season.

The interesting thing here is that Mitchell played in the two games that the Rabbitohs were out-Taylored, noticeably in the Dicking in Dubbo, but did not play in the two games Souths had the ostensible advantage, including the only game out of the four that Souths actually won.

If we isolate the back three, it’s a different story.

The gap is only eight Taylors – basically nothing – in a 44 point loss and narrows to four in a 13 point loss, before blowing out to 20 Taylors in a win and then, ultimately, 38 in a narrow loss.

By comparing to the other platoons, it’s clear that Souths needed more from their back three.

The forwards out-gunned Penrith in the grand final but weren’t able to do it with the dominance they did in the week one final. That dominance had previously covered for the outside backs’ blemishes. When Penrith’s pack matched up to Souths’, or close enough to, it was time for the wingers and fullback to stand up. Taaffe and Paulo didn’t.

Taaffe put up a TPR of .077 in the grand final, compared to Mitchell’s season average of .120. Obviously, there are no guarantees that Mitchell would have performed at his usual level. After all, Taaffe’s average as starting fullback prior to the grand final was .143 (from a much smaller sample size). However, I think it’s a safe bet that Mitchell would have been more reliably better than Taaffe actually was. Mitchell’s presence probably could have been counted on to add another 15 Taylors. It wouldn’t have eliminated the gap but would have put the game within reach of the Rabbitohs and perhaps minimised the damage done by Paulo.

This isn’t to blow it out of proportion: Souths were a missed conversion and a field goal away from the title. The disparity in the end result couldn’t be greater – the Panthers’ one premiership claimed this year is infinitely greater than Souths’ zero – but this does not reflect how close it was on the field.

There’s always next year

Losing the greatest coach to, presumably, the Moreton Bay Dolphins doesn’t help. Losing their star halfback to the Broncos and their Origin centre to the Knights doesn’t either. That 2.5 wins of outperformance of Pythagorean expectation is probably going to demand a significant regression to mean next season.

The return of Latrell Mitchell will be welcome. Jason Demetriou’s biggest task is to get the best out of him while keeping his emotions in check. Cody Walker, one of the finest halves in the game, is still there, coming off a 1.8 WARG season. The incumbent Blues hooker, finally having figured out how to turn up in big games, will be helpful.

There’s still a lot to like about Souths. They’re a move or two away from maintaining their place in the upper echelon of the league, although Anthony Milford coming in is a dicey start to the reload. But there will be definite headwinds in 2022 and how they respond will tell us whether their premiership window is closing or if its permanently jammed open.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Melbourne Storm

The 2021 Melbourne Storm join the 2007 Melbourne Storm and, later, the 2021 Penrith Panthers in being the only teams to have achieved 21 wins in a NRL season. The 07 vintage is somewhat tainted by the demonstrated salary cap cheating but the most recent efforts from the Storm and Panthers are probably equally tainted by the Vlandoball era. Despite all that, they played their worst game since their 2018 grand final loss in the preliminary final and, consequently, did not win the premiership.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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.

I have declined to quote the insufferably wanky stuff about the Roman Empire. I thought I had a theme going but I should not have bothered. But, overall, I was correct. They were in the hunt and they didn’t need the GOAT, until they did.

What happened

To borrow some words from our friend at the League Eye Test:

In the end, the Storm fell 24 points short of the 2001 Eels’ total points scored record. The Eels had two extra games, so Melbourne set a new points scored per game record of 34.0, edging out other luminaries in the field including the 21 Rabbitohs and the 01 Eels (both 32.3), the 04 Bulldogs (31.7), the 21 Sea Eagles (31.0) and the 02 and 01 Knights (30.2 and 30.1 respectively).

Defensively, Melbourne were a mess. Conceding an enormous 13.2 points per game, the 2021 squad were only the sixth best in Storm history, let alone in NRL history, where they were twelfth best. Pathetic.

However, if points difference per game were a thing, the 2021 Storm would be atop that list too, scoring 20.8 more points than they conceded. The next best, that same 2001 Eels team, could only manage 16.7 and their vanquishers, the 2021 Panthers, 16.3.

The net result of all that is the Storm earned their 21 wins with 20.6 Pythagorean wins but none of that matters because they went to pieces when it did matter. Such a waste.

There’s always next year

Much like the Roosters’ summary, I fully expect the Storm to keep going until they don’t. They played a horrible preliminary final and still only lost by four points. A couple of unlucky incidents turn into lucky ones and they’re playing in the grand final.

Rather than dwell on the obvious – that the 2021 Storm have entered the conversation for best team to fail to win the premiership – I thought it was interesting that both of the Storm’s feeders had comparatively bad years.

The Tigers were awful, although not quite Capras/Jets awful but definitely Cutters awful, finishing 11th with a 4-12-1 record. The Falcons managed to make the top eight (in a fourteen team comp) and were promptly dismissed by Redcliffe, the Warriors’ feeder, in the finals.

Obviously, there was no QCup last year but the skeleton of this year’s Storm squad came up through the 2019 Falcons, who had their own record-setting season. Before that, the Tigers made the grand final in 2018 and the Falcons made the grand final in 2017. We haven’t seen such a pedestrian season from both franchises since 2015.

If the Storm conveyor belt has slowed down and if this generation isn’t on the same level as the golden generation before, then you can do the math.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Manly Sea Eagles

The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, one time historically bad team, finished the season 16-8 and rounded out the top four. With a points differential of +252, in a normal season, that would have possibly been enough for a minor premiership. They fell five wins short. In the finals, they were embarrassed by the Storm, then embarrased the Roosters and then finally were embarrassed again by Souths. What a rollercoaster.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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)… 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…

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.

Manly more or less got there and then some, exceeding expectations. I was open to a finish in the bottom half of the top eight but avoiding the week one elimination final was a lot more than could have been reasonably foreseen. A lot of that was built off the back of good coaching. Hasler got the hang of the new game right when Tom Trbojevic returned from his first injury layoff and turned a 0-4 / -122 start into a 16-4 / +374 run through the major part of the season before hitting several brick walls in the post-season.

What happened

We could argue about whether this constitutes one of the all time great individual seasons but quite frankly, I don’t care. It certainly was productive for Dally M (positional) winner Reuben Garrick and the other guy though. Manly took a month to work on their game, got their star back and never looked back.

This is both a neat and accurate summary of the season. While playing this narrative out, Manly picked up a reputation for downhill running: pummelling weaker teams while being unable to match stronger teams. There is some merit to that idea.

The green dots are high generally when the black dots are low. Some of that will be Manly’s playing style and some of that will simply be that they played the hardest teams early in the year, got beat down and then took advantage of the absolute disarray of the rest of the competition. Six of one, half a dozen of the other for mine.

It’s less clear cut on an individual player basis. Here’s each of Manly’s players with at least 1.0 WARG (plus Jake Trbojevic) and a comparison of their TPR player rating (average of .100) and the opposition’s Elo rating for that game (average of 1500), as measure of the opposition quality.

The main conclusion here is that the new rules did not suit Jake Trbojevic.

There’s always next year

Ultimately, having one sublime player and something resembling a team around him will run out of ability against a genuinely good team. Considering they were last, 0-4 and having given up 156 points (39 per game) to get to the preliminary final is a fairly massive achievement for Manly.

The question is how do they build on this for next year? That they managed to unlock Vlandoball and convert that into three of the most impressively productive seasons in recent memory is one thing. But when that’s old news next year, what then? When the six again has been tuned down, or worse, when the rest of the league have caught up on a) how to play the game under the new ruleset and b) how to keep a lid on Tom Trbojevic, how will Manly stay ahead?

They made the finals twice, and only just, in the five previous seasons and are only 1-1 in the Vlandoball era. There’s no sense that this has been building up to a premiership tilt, more trying to keep a roster around the Trbojevics, and this year everything went their way.

As with many previous season previews, the range of outcomes for Manly in 2022 feels extremely wide. Let’s keep a close eye on the signings tracker for next year and let’s see if key players decide to race randoms while pissed before we form any concrete views.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Sydney Roosters

In fifth on the ladder, we find the formerly Eastern Suburbs and currently Sydney Roosters. A more than respectable 16-8 season was paired with a +141 points difference, which was noticeably better than their 14.8 Pythagorean wins would have suggested. Their defence, leaking 489 points, was worse than any other in the top six bar the historically bad Manly and their offence was nearly 200 points behind that of the Storm.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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.

What happened

Here’s the Roosters line-up from round 1, a 46-4 victory over Manly, and the line-up from week 2 of the finals, a 42-6 loss to Manly.

I don’t know if the season needs much more analysis than that. Not pictured are the retirement of Boyd Cordner, who was expected to return in 2021 and didn’t, the emergence and subsequent injury to Sam Walker and injuries to another bunch of replacement-level depth players. Trent Robinson did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances to get as far as he did with the North Sydney Bears and the ghosts of the Sydney Roosters.

There’s always next year

I think the funniest moment of the season was when hot shot future star Sam Walker spent a few weeks throwing cut out passes for easy tries, got found out by the Brisbane Broncos in round 11 and got absolutely pasted for it. He’ll be better for that spiritual dacking, which is a concerning prospect for the rest of the competition. The Roosters have:

  • One of the three best coaches in the game (added 179 class Elo rating points during his tenure)
  • One top shelf half (.131 since joining the Roosters) and the sport’s best prospect (.124 in 2021) occupying the other half position
  • The best fullback over the last five years and likely one of the best ever (12.1 career WARG)
  • A forward pack that has minced every team in the league at least once
  • A recent record of winning premierships (2018 and 2019)

Despite losing three club veterans in the space of twelve months, with the other Morris joining them in the off-season, it’s hard to think of another club – other than the Melbourne Storm – that’s better poised than the Sydney Roosters for a serious tilt at 2022’s premiership.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Parramatta Eels

The Parramatta Eels finished the season in sixth place on the ladder before a graceful exit from the finals in the second week, at the hands of the Penrith Panthers. A 15-9 record came with a +109 points difference that was fairly reflective of their capability. A 457 points conceded was a respectable fourth best, albeit a mile behind the top two, while their 566 points was less than the Titans managed to conjure.

The Victory Lap

We could quote from my pre-season preview but I thought this was more telling about where Parramatta are at.

Experts, analysts, amateurs, people with cars as their profile picture on Facebook, and the slim overlap in the venn diagram of rugby league fans and university statistics graduates, all of them expect regression from Parramatta this year. “They were lucky in 2020”, “they won a lot of close games”, “they didn’t beat anybody”, “their draw was soft”, “hurr durr straight sets”, you’ve heard it all before and you’ll be hearing it plenty more over the next six months because the pass mark for the rugby league world to begrudgingly admit the Eels are “okay” is reaching week three of the finals.

The Preview – Round 1, 2021: Eels vs Broncos, The Cumberland Throw

I thought it was clear when the Eels struggled to overcome last year’s wooden spooners in the game this quote was previewing that Parramatta probably didn’t have It. While the return leg in round 7 was far more comprehensive and Parramatta beat Melbourne twice, the Eels often beat the Storm late in the seasons that the Storm go on to win the grand final. In fact, it happened in 1999, 2009, 2012, 2017 and 2020. 2001 was the only year that the Eels won this match up after July 1 and the Storm didn’t win the grand final. Given I’m writing their season obituary, I think we can safely conclude that this isn’t an omen heralding a potential 2021 grand final appearance for the Eels.

I thought this run of results from round 20 to 22 was more indicative of the level the Eels:

  • Roosters 28 – Eels 0
  • Rabbitohs 40 – Eels 12
  • Sea Eagles 56 – Eels 10

As were the three losses to Penrith, including when it really mattered. They only scraped home by eight points against Newcastle in a season where eight points may as well be one. Recency bias will mean people focus on a gutsy performance in their last game but we’ve been here before and the season as a whole demands attention. Any team can turn up three or four times a year; it’s the other games that are the problem.

A narrow and equally gutsy two point loss to the invincible 2017 Storm didn’t stop them from capitulating to the eighth placed Cowboys the following week and then going on to a 6-18 season and the 2018 wooden spoon. It may be different this time but it’s always different and yet the pattern repeats.

Sure, the Parramatta Eels are “okay”. Even that’s harsh – they’re good but they’re not great.

What happened

One of the benefits of quantifying the performance of teams and the productivity of individuals is that you’re not beholden to the tyranny of ranked order. The gap between sixth and first is always five places but the actual distance that represents in terms of quality fluctuates. Some years, like 2018, that gap is a hop, skip and a jump. Some years, like this one, the gap is a medium sized canyon.

At no point have the Eels really looked like being in that top tier of contenders. The first phase of the season, it was Penrith, Melbourne and Sydney. The Roosters dropped off through the mid-season and the post-Origin malaise brought Souths into the mix. The same can’t be said for the Eels.

Normally we’d look to solely blame Moses for the team’s failure but there’s two thoughts to consider here. The first is the lack of production from the guys in jumpers two through six. Dylan Brown might be fine defensively but if he is to be a long term halves partner to Moses, he needs to start actually doing stuff. Things like making metres, kicking and assisting the scoring of tries. The rest of the backs need to find another WARG per season to really make Parramatta into contenders. Reed Mahoney will close the gap at hooker: his TPR in 2019 was .070, improved to .080 in 2020 and exploded to .172 in 2021. It’s likely that this post is very different if he stays fit.

The second is that while Moses has above average rates of line breaks, line break assists and try assists, he is below average in several other key areas: scoring tries, running metres and, marginally, kick metres. He is also well above average in errors and missed tackles. Some of these sins get covered through sheer volume (see above WARG breakdown) and some of these stats are functions of possession but ultimately, if Moses isn’t scoring tries, Brown isn’t doing much of anything offensively and there’s a somewhat but not massively above average rate of assists, then that suggests a lack of playmaking. If you can’t make plays happen during the regular season, what hope do you have come finals?

That’s before we get into defence.

There’s always next year

I’m not going to pretend that I have any meaningful solutions for Parramatta that aren’t “just get a bit better”. There’s obviously something there. Never mind Mahoney, the Eels had Tom Opacic looking like a world beater for about six weeks. Bryce Cartwright had his shit sorted out. Keegan Hipgrave still sucks but everyone has swings and misses. Those are just the signings I derided pre-season. Isaiah Papali’i was a masterstroke, one of the club’s most productive with Gutherson and Mahoney.

Still, unlike Newcastle and the Gold Coast, they don’t seem to have much unrealised potential or perhaps cap space. While the Eels have been a team comfortably lodged in positions three to six for four of the last five years, they’ve never looked like threatening the dual golden age of the Storm and the Roosters, not in the way the Panthers have ridden the Vlandoball wave. In many respects, they resemble the Raiders. They’re a team that has mountaineered to the utmost but find the peak unclimbable.

That suggests something has to change. I don’t know what it is. It could be Moses, it could be Arthur, it could be Ferguson’s bad juju, it could be the turf at Bankwest for all I know. Maybe they should think about signing Izaia Perese or Jonathan Reuben or Tom Davies to punch up the backline? Or just get Maika Sivo back on the field. I do know, however, that if Parramatta continue to do the same thing, then they will likely yield the same results. While being in the second tier of teams is noticeably better than finishing last or close to every year, at some point that’s not enough. The gap to the top tier has to be closed because if the plan is to wait for one of perennially dominant franchises to fall over, better teams than Parramatta have died waiting for it to happen.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Cronulla Sharks

The Sharks, like the Raiders and Titans, won ten games and lost fourteen in 2021. They finished with a points difference of -36, landed at ninth on the ladder (needing just 34 more points to overhaul the Titans for eighth) and their Pythagorean expectation had them winning 11.2 games, 1.2 more than they actually did. We might normally chalk that up to bad luck but given the Sharks booted their own coach early in the year, we might instead chalk this underperformance up to that.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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… This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has…

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 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.

People might have forgotten that it was John Morris, not Josh Hannay, that started the season as Sharks coach. Morris seemed to have done ok in 2020 with a below average roster yielding an exactly average 10-10 record with a zero points difference. The counter-argument was that the Sharks didn’t beat any of the teams above them. By contrast in 2021, the Sharks won two games against teams above them (against the Titans and another Origin depleted Panthers that the Tigers also beat) and lost a stack to teams below them, including embarrassing losses to two of the bottom three. It was not an improvement on the year before.

What happened

Morris’ 2020 and early 2021 performances were deemed not good enough and the board signed up Craig Fitzgibbon to take over next year. Morris and the club disagreed on how to handle the remainder of the season, so Morris resigned, initiating a week or two of Discourse.

Hannay has filled in as a temporary coach for both the Cowboys in 2020 and Sharks in 2021 but doesn’t appear to be in the running for any of the permanent roles that will almost ertainly become available over the next twelve months. In that sense, he is the replacement level coach; good enough to fill a hole but not good enough to start.

We don’t have any real data on how Fitzgibbon might perform. There are too many variables – personalities, state of the roster, luck – with no data to make an educated guess as to how the Sharks go under his tutelage. We do have some data that we can compare Hannay and Morris, which will let us establish a baseline comparison. If Morris is not significantly better than Hannay, then the club might have been right to punt him. If Morris is better than Hannay, then the club gave up on a finals appearance and, possibly more in the future, for a roll of the dice with Fitzgibbon.

Coaching metrics are a bit rubbery but my view is a good coach will leave the place in a better state than when he arrived and a good coach will get more out of his players than expected. We can measure these two components by looking at the change class Elo rating of a club during a coach’s tenure (coaching career points) and the difference between player TPR projections and their actual performance (coach factor), respectively.

Note that actual coach factor usually has a few more calculation steps but we did not need them for this analysis. The above shows the average across all players of the difference between the projection and the actual performance, as measured in TPR.

That’s great but what does it all mean? I take a few things away from these graphs:

  • Morris inherited a very high class rating from Shane Flanagan but not necessarily the squad to back it up. Over 2019 and 2020, he lost the 50 ratings points that indicate that someone will imminently lose their job. Having said that, he lost points at a slower rate than Hannay did.
  • While Morris was in charge, players consistently, and sometime significantly, outperformed their expectations in a way that Hannay’s tenures did not show.
  • Hannay can do a job but he’s not going make things better than you would have expected.

In summary, Morris is better than the replacement level coach and should probably be a target for any clubs looking for stabilisation and a fresh direction. Whether he is better than Fitzgibbon, only time will tell. It still seems strange to me to have punted Morris, and given up a finals appearance for a 10-14 season, without giving Morris a squad that was actually capable of contending to see if he had legitimate chops. If the expectation is that Morris would keep the club in the same rareified air as the Storm and Roosters, despite the Sharks showing no capacity to do that long term in their entire history and with nowhere near the supporting infrastructure or roster, then that seems grossly unfair.

There’s always next year

Fitzgibbon might be the second coming of Bennett and Bellamy – it seems unlikely that this is the case and the club has no real way of knowing that, which begs questions about how decisions are made – but you can only polish the proverbial so much. Fitzgibbon must be wondering what the board considers acceptable performance under these circumstances. At a minimum, to have justified this course of action, he would need to be making the preliminary finals every year. If he just manages repeat middling finals appearances, then that’s what they already had so the de-stabilisation was a waste of time. If Fitzgibbon can’t even manage that, then the board needs to look at themselves.

In the meantime, the Sharks managed to offload both Shaun Johnson (back to the Warriors) and Chad Townsend (off to the Cowboys, via the Warriors). They gain Nicho Hynes, because someone outside of QCup perverts and the Melbourne Storm noticed that he can play ball, Cam McInnes, fresh off an ACL rehab, and Dale Finucane.

The obvious comment to make on these signings is that Storm players famously do not perform to the same level once outside of the Storm system. So there’s two specific tests for Fitzgibbon:

  • Can he make Hynes into a certified, standalone stud instead of his current role of pinch hitting spine positions for the NRL’s best team?
  • Can he get Dale Finucane to maintain or improve on his career TPR of .106?

The rest of the roster is much the same from 2021 to 2022. Depending on how closely you watch the Sharks, that could be a roster full of promising youngsters who will continue their development trajectory but perhaps more importantly, it will be a roster that no longer reserves cap space for Aaron Woods, Bronson Xerri or Nene McDonald.

There are far too many unknowns for me to make a definitive statement of the future but it beats doing the same shit over and over again for no gain.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canberra Raiders

We’ve gotten through the truly awful teams, so now we can focus on teams that underwhelmed but weren’t disgusting. First cab off the rank is the Canberra Raiders, finishing the 2021 season with a 10-14 record with a -97 points difference. That means the Raiders were only four points per game worse than the average team in the NRL (with a Pythagorean expectation of 9.9 wins), although we need to temper that by recognising that the average NRL team this year would’ve been a spoon contender in other, more competitive seasons.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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…

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…

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.

A lot of Raiders fans read pessimism into my words and were deflated. Everyone else had been building them up for a premiership tilt. Then George Williams left and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad got hurt. The Raiders started falling over and then they fell over. Not only did they not make week three of the finals, they didn’t make the finals at all.

The 10-14 record is more reminiscient of 2017 and 2018, than 2019 and 2020. It’s up to you to decide which one is reflective of the true level of the Canberra Raiders.

What happened

The backs and forwards appear to be there or thereabouts but their total production seems to be being eroded, just a little, each year. The bench actually increased their contribution. But, as in 2017 and 2018, the Raiders were let down by their playmaking. It wasn’t as dire as those seasons but Vlandoball has also inflated every team’s production. 10 WARG in 2021 doesn’t go as far as it did a few years ago.

Williams, George was never as productive as the elite tier halves in the league but he was better than the alternative. Wighton would go on to have a shocker, considering he was judged to the best player in the game last year (his .180 TPR would return to around his long term average of .115 this season). Williams, Sam joined the Defintion of Replacement Level club, currently chaired by Danny Levi. It was the failure to have someone to replace Williams, George that was better than Williams, Sam that was the difference between finals and an early Mad Monday for the Raiders. Alternatively, had Wighton played up to the level that the NSW selectors believe him to be capable of, the question of who occupies the halfback position would have been redundant.

Williams apparently wanted to see out the season but had been agitating for a release. The Raiders granted an early release mid-season. I don’t know the truth of it but it looks a lot like the Raiders shot themselves in the foot. We can speculate on the why.

Perhaps that could have been covered for. The Raiders played well in 2016 with a lesser contribution from the playmakers. While the backs and bench improved their production from 2020 to 2021, some the key forwards went backwards.

Specifically, Josh Papali’i, Dunamis Lui and Elliott Whitehead all took significant steps towards mean, losing about 20 pips of TPR each. While numbers won’t tell you the whole story, if the plan was to hope everyone could redline all season to cover for Englishmen returning home, then that wasn’t ever going to be sustainable.

I also think the team hasn’t really reconciled with the loss of John Bateman and probably need to think about finding someone of his calibre and attitude (except for the preference for Wigan over Canberra) to fill the void.

There’s always next year

Plenty of Raiders fans will tell you Ricky Stuart has earned the right to dig the club out of this hole, again, but he has to dig the club out of a hole that he and the administration have dug. It’s been evident that not all is right at Raiders-land and for there to be frequent and regular expressions of frustration via both the traditional and social media, suggests a lack of cohesion that is going to undermine any future plans. Perhaps it is this and not mean regression that explains the performance of the forwards?

Provided that can be rectified – and that’s a big if now – the question is what happens to the roster. They were a half step off the pace when they were good and they are now several steps behind. Even if Stuart can squeeze the best out of everyone, I would suggest Canberra need reinforcements, especially in the halves. Aidan Sezer won’t ever come back, Jackson Hastings is going to the Tigers and James Maloney would rather slip into retirement for Lezignan than return to the NRL. Super League starts to look pretty thin after that, so it might be time to revise the recruiting strategy of the last few years.

Is it time to roll the dice on Luke Brooks? Perhaps but that patches the hole, it doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t know if there are any real Moneyball signings out there that the club could make – perhaps make an offer for one of the Cowboys’ surplus halves? – and without a talent pipeline, hampered by two consecutive cancellations of the NSW Cup, the Raiders can’t draw down on the farm system like other clubs. Even the Queensland Cup cupboard looks bereft of options (former Raiders under 20, Jack Ahearn? Sam Scarlett? Cam Cullen?).

People smarter than me who know the organisation better will come up with a solution. One is to move Josh Hodgson to 7 to open up the 9 jumper for Tom Starling. That seems as good a plan as any but if it doesn’t work, don’t be surprised to see the Raiders in a similar position next season.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Wests Tigers

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

How about some good news? Look at these guys:

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

There’s always next year

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Brisbane Broncos

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

*tweet of Brodie Croft playing halfback pre-season*

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

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

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