Tag Archives: analytics

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Wests Tigers

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 St George Illawarra Dragons

From earlier in the year:

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

The Dragons offered none of these narratives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Manly Sea Eagles

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

If we compare by position, the weaknesses become clearer.

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canterbury Bulldogs

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Brisbane Broncos

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

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

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In summary

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

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

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

A deep dive in to the 2020 NRL premiership

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

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

Last season in a nutshell

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

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

How it all works

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

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

Jump ahead

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nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

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

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nrl-cbr Canberra Raiders

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

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

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nrl-cnt Canterbury Bulldogs

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The Bulldogs are behind, way behind.

With Kieran Foran missing most, if not all, of the 2020 season, the Bulldogs either need significant development out of their relatively young squad or to land some signatures. Neither seem likely, especially as the club is likely to still be paying freight on players from the Castle-Hasler era and the current squad do not have the track record to suggest any superstars are emerging (perhaps Renouf To’omaga excepted). The players signed to development contracts do not have particularly impressive stats from the NSW Cup. With last year’s significant outperformance of the fundamentals, reversion to mean would likely mean a wooden spoon.

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

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nrl-cro Cronulla Sharks

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

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

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

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

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nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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

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

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

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nrl-man Manly Sea Eagles

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

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

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

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nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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

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

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

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nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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

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

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

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

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nrl-nzw New Zealand Warriors

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

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

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

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nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

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

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nrl-par Parramatta Eels

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

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

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

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

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nrl-pen Penrith Panthers

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

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

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

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nrl-ssr South Sydney Rabbitohs

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

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

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

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

Is Wayne cooked?

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nrl-sgi St George Illawarra Dragons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Qui va gagner Elite 1?

Fortunately for almost all of my readers, I have reached the limit of the French taught to me in one semester of university in just the title. I’m still not sure if I should have used the definite article, so this post will be in English but it will be about French rugby league. This is fortuitous, as the Elite 1 Championship kicks off with a Magic Weekend in Carcassonne on very early Sunday morning.

I think rugby league nerds, like me, find the idyllic notion of French rugby league to be very appealling. France is cool and exotic, particularly to Australians, in a way that rugby league generally is not. I think adopting a substantial portion of the French rugby league vocabulary would give the sport a much needed touch of class: talonneur for hooker, pilier for prop, demi for half and so on.

The unfortunate reality is French rugby league has the same cultural notions as in the Anglosphere but this is masked by an impenetrable veil of français and a lack of money, quality and prestige, which leads to minimal coverage.

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France was the fifth nation to join the rugby league fraternity in the mid-1930s. Clubs are located predominantly in the Occitanie, a region home to roughly five million people that has very approximate parallels to Spain’s Catalonia. Armed with a per capita GDP that is only bettered by Australia out of rugby league’s economies, France has been given all the advantages to succeed and failed to capitalise.

We can blame the Vichy government as much as we want but France’s golden age on the international stage occurred in the early 1950s, well after liberation in August 1944. Instead of developing into a force that should now be on par with at least New Zealand, France has slid inexorably backwards due to a lack of interest, a lack of investment and the rise of professional rugby union. It took forty years to simply win the right to refer to the game as rugby.

France finished 0-3 at the last World Cup and put up a 1-2 performance at the 9s in October. These dismal results have been made worse still by the current Chanticleers tour, where captain Jason Batieri walked away, the national side absent fourteen pros was dismantled by the Junior Kangaroos and then racist comments allegedly made by the chair of the Fédération Française de Rugby à XIII (FFR) were leaked. A lawsuit is in the offing. The next world ranking update would probably see France slide down from sixth but Samoa are somehow just as impotent on the field.

This should be a wake up call. Many of us hope that France will, at some point, turn it all around. There is absolutely no basis for this belief. At least, Theo Fages won this year’s Super League grand final in the halves for St Helens and there are plenty of Frenchmen plying their trade for the Catalan Dragons. Few, if any, have made the leap across to the NRL.

Le championnat

Despite this, I think we all benefit from learning about the wider world of rugby league. I didn’t know anything about the Elite 1, other than it existed and I own a Palau jersey, until a few weeks ago, so I’m going to share what I’ve learnt from Wikipedia and the excellent French rugby league resource, Treize Mondial.

The top domestic premiership is the Elite 1 championship, which comprises nineteen rounds of the regular season and three weeks of barrages (finals). The season starts in November, with the top six progressing to finals in June. Elite 1 sits atop the French rugby league pyramid, with optional promotion and relegation to Elite 2 and the National Divisions split into conferences underneath. Clubs compete in the Lord Derby Cup, the French counterpart to England’s Challenge Cup. Elite 1 is semi-pro but is considered below the RFL’s League 1.

A local TV deal has been struck for the upcoming season. Some games will be available for streaming live on viaOccitanie at what are, quite frankly, ungodly hours to be awake in Australia to watch fourth division European rugby league.

There are ten clubs competing in Elite 1 for the 2019-20 season, with eight located in Occitania, Villenueve in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Avignon on the border but officially in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

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Only Toulouse can claim to be a city by global standards. While I am usually critical of rugby league’s tendency to embed itself in suburbs and small towns at the expense of focussing on larger metropolitan areas, there are some fairly substantial differences between Pyreneean France and western Sydney.

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el1-alb ALBI RUGBY LEAGUE

Les Tigres

Somehow rugby league has managed to find itself, even in France, in a coal mining town. Albi was one of the first places that coal extraction was attempted on an industrial scale in the nineteenth century. In 2010, the cité épiscopale was UNESCO Heritage listed, including the 13th century Sainte-Cécile cathedral and the Berbie Palace on the banks of the Tarn. The irony being that Albigensian, the demonym for the people of Albi, is most closely associated with heresy. Catharism touched many French rugby league towns during the Middle Ages.

As much as coal mining is a recurring theme, every rugby league competition seems to have a club nicknamed the Tigers. Les Tigres have five national championships to their name but it has been over four decades since the last in 1977. Their one and only cup came in 1974. Since then, in 2008, the original Albi club went bankrupt and dissolved, ending 74 years of history. The new Albi club was reinstated in the second division, rising to the first for the 2015-16 season, where they have finished mid-table each season.

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el1-avi SO AVIGNON XIII

Les Bisons

Did you know that there was for a time two Popes? It happens more often than you would think but in this specific case, the Western Schism in the fourteenth century saw a Pope base himself out of the city of Avignon. This is possibly the only rugby league city on the face of the earth that can boast having been home to a Pope.

However, we are more interested in their treizistes. The Avignonais side play in blue and white as the Bisons. Avignon have had some success, including five cups, the most recent in 2013, and their first and only Elite 1 title in 2018. Avignon advanced through the semi-finals, despite losing 23-16, after St Esteve Catalan were disqualified for fielding ineligible players.

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el1-car CARCASSONNE XIII

Les Canaris

Carcassonne is the only place out of the ten listed that I’ve actually visited and the only one with a popular board game named after it. Carcassonne boasts a bunch of cool things: a walled medieval city (check out the torture museum), probably the nicest jersey in the Elite 1, and it was the home of Puig Aubert, star of the 1950s touring French national team that beat Australia in a Test series. His statue adorns the Stade Albert Domec, the city’s rugby ground.

The Canaries, known that because of the striking yellow colour of their kit and logo, have fifteen Coupes de France, the most of any club, and eleven national titles, equal most with pre-merger Catalans. Carcassonne are the reigning Lord Derby Cup holders, beating St Esteve Catalan 22-6 in front of a crowd of 4,000 in Perpignan.

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el1-lez FC LEZIGNAN XIII

Les Sangliers (Wild boars), Les Moulins

Lezignan-Corbieres is a fairly typical French town of around 11,000. It has a cathedral, wine making facilities, municipal baths and convenient access to the motorway. It also boasts a good rugby league team. Les Sangliers have the fourth most national titles, with seven total including four in a row from 2008 to 2011. This is the longest streak of any club, a feat shared only with the 1982 to 1985 XIII Catalans. Six cups also sit in the trophy case, with the most recent silverware won in 2015.

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el1-lim XIII LIMOUXIN

Les Grizzlies, Les Blanquetiers

Limoux is probably more famous for its local sparking white wine than its football team. Blanquette de Limoux is an appellation d’origine contrôlée, meaning that, like champagne, true Blanquette de Limoux can only be made from certain grapes, grown in a particular area and processed in a specified way. The wine is the centrepiece of the Carnival of Limoux, which bills itself as France’s longest festival.

Speaking of those fifteen, Limoux have been one of the more recently successful teams, winning back to back national titles in 2016 and 2017, adding to their sole previous championship from 1968. In the cup, Les Blanquetiers have been more Poulidoresque, winning two in 1996 and 2008, but also losing ten grand finals in their sixty-eight year history, the third most of any team.

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el1-pal PALAU XIII

Les Broncos

Palau (pronounced “pah-lo”) is not to be confused with the Pacific island nation (pronounced “pah-lau”) or any number of small French towns of the same name. The Broncos are from Palau-del-Vidre at the foot of the Pyrenees, population 3,226, approximately twenty kilometres south of Perpignan. Fun fact: Palau hosts an international glass festival.

Palau have only recently been promoted to Elite 1, taking the step up in 2013 after dominating Elite 2 for the previous five seasons. The team has never won the national championship or the Lord Derby Cup. The 2018-19 season was the Broncos’ best to date, finishing seventh.

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el1-sec ST ESTEVE XIII CATALAN

Les Baby Dracs

XIII Catalan were founded in 1934 in Perpignan. In 1965, a mere six kilometres away, local rivals Saint-Estève were founded on the other side of La Têt. Catalan won eleven national championships and Saint-Estève six. In 2000, the clubs merged into a Perpignanais super-club, then called Union Treiziste Catalan. UTC were granted a licence to join Super League for the 2006 season, ahead of Toulouse and Villeneuve. They’ve remained there ever since, winning France’s first Challenge Cup in 2018.

In France, UTC continued in Elite 1, winning the 2005 and 2019 championships and the Lord Derby in 2016. The club was renamed St Esteve XIII Catalan and plays out of the Stade Municipal in Saint-Estève. The Baby Dragons serve as a feeder club for the Super League club.

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el1-gau RC ST GAUDENS XIII

Les Ours (Bears)

The rugby league club was founded in 1958 but the town traces its history back to the Roman era. Saint-Gaudens is named for Gaudens, a fifth century martyr who was decapitated by Visigoths and who I cannot find any other details about. The Route d’Occitanie, a professional cycling race, visits Saint-Gaudens often and has been won by the top names in the sport.

Saint-Gaudens XIII have four French national titles – 1970, 1974, 1991 and 2004 – and three cups – 1973, 1991 and 1992. Member troubles hit Saint-Gaudens in 2011 and the team was forced to sit out the 2011-12 season. The club returned the following season in Elite 2 before rejoining Elite 1 in 2016. Les Ours have yet to qualify for the finals since their return.

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el1-to2 TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE ELITE

Les Broncos

Toulouse is the largest city represented in Elite 1, with a metro population of 1.3 million. The senior team are currently in their second attempt to climb the RFL pyramid. The first attempt saw them spend three seasons in the Championship from 2009 to 2011. Following their fifth and sixth national titles in back-to-back years and a cup/championship double in 2014, Toulouse rejoined League One in 2016. Olympique immediately secured promotion to the Championship, where they have remained since the 2017 season.

In 2016, to keep a Toulousain presence in the top tier of French rugby league, the then Toulouse Jules-Julien Broncos were taken over and promoted from Elite 2 to serve as the reserve team. The consequence of this is that the junior Toulouse side is not very good and will require some time before they are able to challenge for Elite 1 honours.

Depending on which source you look at, some still refer to the team as the Broncos, as a nod to the previous incarnation, but the club seems to prefer Toulouse Olympique Elite.

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el1-vil VILLENEUVE XIII RL

Les Léopards

The Leopards hail from Villenueve-sur-Lot in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, just a stone’s throw over the border from Occitania. This is not to be confused with the other ten thousand French towns named Villenueve. The bridge across the river gave the town some prominence during the Middle Ages, as one of the few crossings of the Lot. In modern times, I personally don’t believe it but French Wikipedia says Villenueve-sur-Lot was a hot spot for jazz.

Villeneuve are one of the more historically successful French clubs, having won the national premiership and the Lord Derby Cup nine times each. Villeneuve is the third on the all-time list for both competitions, behind Catalans and Carcassonne, and both were last won in 2003. This was the end of an exceptional five year run for the club, including three championship/cup doubles. A bankruptcy in 2005 followed, with a failed bid for a Super League licence in 2006, which eventually went to Catalans.

Ratings

Statistics are pretty hard to come by but I did manage to dig out results for 2016-17 season onwards and tries scored for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons*. From that, I was able to construct form (short term) and class (long term) Elo ratings and Poseidon ratings.

The ratings as at the end of the 2018-19 season are:

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While I can’t do some of the high level analysis that I do for the NRL, with class ratings we can at least set the Disappointment Line. This is calculated by determining how many games a team of that class rating will win against league average opposition. If a team wins more regular season games than the line set, their season is officially pas décevant.

Note that the Elite 1 uses a bonus point system. Three points are awarded for a win and one point for a loss of twelve or less. Palau finished last season with just five wins but amassed eleven bonus points out of fourteen losses. On that basis, I’ve also set a line in terms of competition points (three times the line), which might prove a bit on the easy side to beat.

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With the points difference from last season, we can measure each team’s fortuitousness. When teams outperform their Pythagorean expectation, they typically (but not always) revert towards the mean in the following season and vice versa. The greater the difference the actual and Pythagorean wins, the stronger the reversion typically is.

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La saison à venir

Even with these simple ratings, we can do simulations. I’m in the process of rebuilding all of my datasets to be more organised and convenient, so I’m going to use the Elite 1 season as a test for some changes.

Like the Stocky, these sims are Monte Carlo simulations. The sims are “cold”, where ratings do not change within the simulation, whereas previously the sims were “hot”. This greatly reduces the amount of computational power required and there’s philosophical reasons for preferring cold over hot.

To test the ability of the sims, I used the ratings from the end of the 2017-18 season to see how well they predicted the known outcomes of the 2018-19 season.

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These simulations are never going to be able to see what we don’t know, especially with the limited information at our disposal for Elite 1. There’s always surprise packets in every season. The important thing is to get the other teams that aren’t surprise packets roughly correct.

Considering that we were working off the 2017-18 ratings as inputs to the 2018-19 season, with no considerations for team changes or any other background noise, that level of accuracy is not too bad.

The mean absolute error (MAE) was 2.1 wins for both form and Poseidon sims, with a successful prediction of the eventual champion, St Esteve Catalan. The sims were too down on Carcassonne and Villenueve, while overly expectant of defending champions Avignon. A weighted average of Poseidon and form (ratio 2:1) delivered the lowest MAE at 1.9. Introducing the results of the class sim only increases the error.

Trialling this in one very specific instance is obviously problematic (I can only assume this what the French almost definitely don’t call le bias de petit montant) and I won’t be extrapolating this particular method without testing on multiple competitions across multiple seasons but it’s a start.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, plugging in the 2018-19 ratings to the 2019-20 draw gives us the following:

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The 2019-20 season is looking far more open than the 2018-19 season did, even if the simulations belie how close Les Canaris came to a double. Whereas the Baby Dracs were outright favourites in premiership percentages, if not regular season wins, this year we have at least three front-runners with two more close behind. Treize Mondial have named Carcassonne their pre-season favourites for the title (assuming the mayonnaise comes together), and I’m inclined to agree, although St Esteve Catalan and Limoux look to be in the mix.

Lezignan and Albi look good for the top six. Palau, who are primed to take a step forward, and Villenueve will likely scrap out for the final place in the barrages. Unless there’s a surprise resurgence, we’re expecting Avignon, St Gaudens and Olympique to continue to struggle. Their ratings at the end of the last season do not hold much promise. Avignon, having signed Jack Payne from Mounties, probably have the most upside potential.

I don’t plan to keep this up to date with every round but will likely check in on progress and update ratings once a month or so. It will be an interesting follow.

* More results would be better if anyone has them. French Wikipedia doesn’t list the results in order, which is not helpful, and the FFR website is a mess. Contact me if you have something you think might be useful.

The Art of Projection

Over the last month, we’ve been looking at rating players using a metric called Production Per Game, or PPG. We’ve used it to find players at the higher end, justifying million dollar salaries, and at the lower end, identifying fringe first graders.

The tricky thing about rating players is determining what information from the past can be used to project the player’s performance into the future. I hope it’s obvious why this might be interesting.

Within a player’s career, there is a noticeable amount of variation from season to season. On average, players get two pips (one pip is .001 of a PPG rating) worse, although the actual range is lies between improving by 96 pips or losing 86 somewhere (standard deviation of 24 pips) from season to season.

Embed from Getty Images

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NRL Tips – Round 25, 2019

I wrote about Sydney as an obstacle to expansion yesterday.

It started as an intro to this post but ended up being over 1000 words and I thought it should stand alone. It’s the result of thoughts that have been bubbling since I started paying proper attention to rugby league when I started doing this in 2017, clarified somewhat this year by League Digest (you should go listen), crystalised by Heartland by Joe Gorman (you should go buy and read it) over the last few weeks. I’m far from the only one who thinks this way: Nick Campton from the Daily Tele and NRL Boom Rookies touched on very similar themes this very week.

Whether this is having any impact in the real world is unlikely but at least we can all furiously agree with each other.

Here’s some other stuff:

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