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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 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.

Who will win the 2019 NRL Premiership?

At this time of year, is there anything else you want to know more than the answer to this question?

For our crystal ball, we turn to Monte Carlo simulations. These simulations work on the principle that if we know the inputs to a complex system and how they relate to each other, then we can test the outcomes of that system using random numbers to simulate different situations.

At its most basic, just imagine if you simulated the outcome of football matches by rolling dice. Numbers one and two might represent a win for the Gold Coast and numbers three through six might be a win for Wests. If you repeat that a couple of thousand times, not only will you be extremely bored but the Gold Coast will “win” about 33% of the time and Wests 66%.

Now take the same approach for the nine finals games, with the winner advancing per the NRL’s system, but instead of using dice, you generate a random number between zero and one and calculate the win probability using Archimedes (form) Elo ratings. Then repeat it 5,000 times over. The number of times that the Storm or Roosters or Broncos or Eels “win” the premiership across your simulations should give you some insight into the probability of that happening in real life. I call this the Finals Stocky and I present its findings.

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Analysis – Stocky vs Reality: Did your team outperform? (Pt II)

The Stocky is the main forecasting tool driving the analysis on this site. It’s a simulator of the season ahead, using the Monte Carlo method and based on Elo ratings, that gives insight into the future performance of each club. My main interest has been the number of wins, as it determines ladder positions which in turn have a big impact on the finals. The Stocky might not be able to tell you which games a team will win, but it is good at telling you how many wins are ahead.

But how does a computer simulation (in reality, a very large spreadsheet) compare to reality? To test it, I’ve put together a graph of each team’s performance against what the Stocky projected for them. Each graph shows:

  • The Stocky’s projection for total wins (blue)
  • Converting that projection to a “pace” for that point in the season (red)
  • Comparing that to the actual number of wins (yellow)

It will never be exactly right, particularly as you can only ever win whole numbers of games and the Stocky loves a decimal point, but as we’ll see, the Stocky is not too bad at tracking form and projecting that forward.

This week is Part II, from North Queensland to Wests Tigers. Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle, was last week. Also see this week’s projections update for some errors in the Stocky.

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Analysis – Stocky vs Reality: Did your team outperform? (Pt I)

The Stocky is the main forecasting tool driving the analysis on this site. It’s a simulator of the season ahead, using the Monte Carlo method and based on Elo ratings, that gives insight into the future performance of each club. My main interest has been the number of wins, as it determines ladder positions which in turn have a big impact on the finals. The Stocky might not be able to tell you which games a team will win, but it is good at telling you how many wins are ahead.

But how does a computer simulation (in reality, a very large spreadsheet) compare to reality? To test it, I’ve put together a graph of each team’s performance against what the Stocky projected for them. Each graph shows:

  • The Stocky’s projection for total wins (blue)
  • Converting that projection to a “pace” for that point in the season (red)
  • Comparing that to the actual number of wins (yellow)

It will never be exactly right, particularly as you can only ever win whole numbers of games and the Stocky loves a decimal point, but as we’ll see, the Stocky is not too bad at tracking form and projecting that forward.

This week is Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle. Part II, from North Queensland to Wests Tigers, will be next week.

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Analysis – Another bloody mid-season review (Part I)

With the conclusion of round 13, it’s half time in the 2017 NRL season. It’s the ideal time to do what everyone else is doing and look back at the season so far. This week we’re looking at the first eight clubs that come up in alphabetical order.

Part II to come next week.

Benchmarks

There are some important benchmarks to consider when looking ahead to the end of the season.

Firstly, let’s look at the regular season. I’ve tallied up the average number of wins for each position, the average for-and-against and the number of teams with a negative for-and-against for each spot on the ladder. The dataset covers 1998 to 2016, so there are some inconsistencies from seasons which had twenty or fourteen teams and where points penalties were applied to the 2002 Bulldogs, 2016 Eels and 2010 Storm.

The main takeaways are that twelve wins should get you into the finals and eighteen should get you the minor premiership. Six or seven wins will still only get you the bottom spots on the ladder (unless the 2016 Knights are playing).

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Club Report – Manly Sea Eagles

man-badgeBackground

After an ARL premiership in 1996, Manly entered the NRL in a slightly awkward position. The Sea Eagles took up the NRL’s offer to merge with local rivals North Sydney, forming the Northern Eagles. On-field performances were terrible and in 2003, it was apparent that the marriage was dysfunctional. The venture got a divorce – the Bears never returned to first grade while the Sea Eagles have stuck it out since.

Since the divorce, Manly have been one of the strongest teams in the competition with an unbroken run of finals appearances from 2005 to 2014. Only the salary cap-breaching Melbourne were better and there’s a solid argument that the two runners-up “honours” held by the Sea Eagles could perhaps have been premierships. The last couple of years have not been up to standard but after a patchy start, this year sees them as genuine finals contenders again.

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