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A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Penrith Panthers

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

1. Ivan Cleary can’t maintain the same standard

2. The Panthers lost players

3. Penrith got lucky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened

The Penrith Panthers are your 2021 NRL premiers.

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 South Sydney Rabbitohs

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Manly Sea Eagles

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

Then why do the projected Taylors suggest the Sea Eagles could be in the finals mix? Daly Cherry-Evans had an extremely productive 2020, finishing with the third best TPR in the league (.222) behind Cameron Smith (.229) and Nathan Cleary (.224)… Kieran Foran comes to Brookvale from the Bulldogs from a similar position, albeit much less productive with considerably more time spent on the side lines, and he has a projection of .130 for 2021. Put them together and it looks like a super-productive duo. In reality, how successful this pairing is (provided Foran stays fit) will depend heavily on how willing Cherry-Evans is to share the workload…

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Sydney Roosters

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

What happened

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Parramatta Eels

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

The Victory Lap

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

That’s before we get into defence.

There’s always next year

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Newcastle Knights

The Newcastle Knights finished the 2021 season in seventh place with a perfectly respectable and completely uninteresting 12-12 record and a slightly more bizarre -143 points difference.

Gone are the days we can heap scorn on this franchise. That’s two consecutive seventh places, after two consecutive eleventh places after three consecutive spoons. They’ve entered the rugby league middle class and are here to stay. To that end, they made week one of the finals before giving Parramatta a run for their money for an hour but ultimately capitulating.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

The roster actually looks good. Like Canberra and the Gold Coast, Newcastle have assembled a talented cast for their starting line up…

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

Second group it was but also, after battling a noticeable injury toll again.

What happened

Let’s go back to that slightly more bizarre points difference of -143. The Knights’ attack was unusually bad. It was second worst in the league, well clear of the Bulldogs’ paltry 340 but 18 behind the Broncos’ total. Typically, the team that finishes seventh does not have an awful attack. This doesn’t seem to have been noticed in a very weird year of NRL, with record breaking events left, right and centre.

This chart plots each team’s actual winning percentage (0th), its expected winning percentage as calculated by Pythagorean expectation (1st) and its expected winning percentage as calculated by SCWP (2nd). We’re yet to really establish the usefulness of second order wins and SCWP but generally it tends towards a mean regression for teams and a mildly predictive outlook for the next season. It’s built on repeatable actions (running metres and line breaks), rather than the mildly less predictable scoring of points and still less predictable activity of actually winning games of football.

The interesting thing for me is that, noting the earlier comment about mean regression, is that Newcastle is the only team whose 2nd order winning percentage, sits between their 0th and 1st order percentages. Every other team’s 2nd order winning percentage sits between their team’s other points and .500.

The traditional way of analysing that chart would be to note the differences between actual winning and Pythagorean expectation. The teams that greatly outperform (to the left in the above chart) are typically assigned the status of being ‘lucky’, while the teams that grossly underperform (to the right) are considered ‘unlucky’. The Knights sits at the far left hand side of the chart, their 12-12 record concealing a season we might have expected to yield only eight or nine wins.

Newcastle sit at the other end of this chart, which shows the gap between 1st and 2nd order wins. Teams at the extremes of this chart typically had outlier results (e.g. the Panthers and Storm winning 21 games, the Bulldogs losing 21 games). The Knights are down with the Broncos, Tigers and Cowboys. While Newcastle’s second order wins were suggestive of a ten or eleven win season, their efficiency in turning their running metres and linebreaks into actual points was as bad as that of their adjacent colleagues.

This doesn’t seem to have mattered, as they found a way to win anyway. It’ll be interesting to see which one of these future indicators win out. A massive outperformance of Pythagorean expectation is usually followed by a reversion in the opposite direction in the next season. That would be enough to push Newcastle out of the finals. However, second order wins are a better predictor of actual win percentage next year than first order, which I guess a record of 10-14 or 11-13 also suggests Newcastle will be just outside the finals.

Hmmm. Perhaps it’s better to convince oneself that, due to excessive injuries, these numbers are not reflective of the Knights’ true capability. Best not to worry about it.

There’s always next year

I find Adam O’Brien’s performance to date perplexing. He came in with big wraps after 2020, finally getting the team into the finals for the first time since 2013, taking the step up that Nathan Brown couldn’t or wouldn’t. I had my doubts and this season he seems to have tread water. Now, again, we could cite injury tolls but O’Brien finished with a +5 coach factor in 2020, which was equally injury affected, and gets a big fat 0 (even slightly negative) in 2021. That means, unlike last year, he didn’t get more than expected out of the players that did play this year.

2022 then shapes as a make or break year for O’Brien. Newcastle’s bad luck with injuries has to end soon and it may as well be in the next few months. Mitchell Pearce might be soon making his way for the door but the key will be who the Knights sign to replace him. Jake Clifford averaged .109 TPR in a blue and red jumper, substantially better than his .069 as a Cowboy this year, but hardly blowing the doors off the competition. Of course, this could change without Pearce hogging production duties (averaged .145 since joining Newcastle and .123 this year). Adam Clune joins the Knights from next year as first drop half, which is not a bad pickup, and Dane Gagai will offer a bit of starch to a backline that’s low on experience.

With a squad that’s more or less the same as the last two year’s – that is, should be good enough – and a couple of signings to strengthen the deck, there’s nothing stopping O’Brien from grabbing the future with both hands. The pass mark surely has to be making a preliminary final. Otherwise, what was the point?

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Cronulla Sharks

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

John Morris is under pressure at Cronulla. I’m not sure why that is. On the two coaching metrics, yes, the class rating fell more than 50 points during his tenure – normally a sign of an imminent firing – but it was coming off a very high and, for the Sharks, unsustainable level. His coach factor has been positive two years running… This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has…

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canberra Raiders

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

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

By the time you read this, you’ll have read or heard a thousand justifications for Canberra being right in the premiership race. I don’t disagree with any of them but note that the projected Taylors have them wedged firmly between Manly and Cronulla, which seems low for a premiership contender. That seems primarily due to a weak back five and strangely mediocre starting rotation, given the names therein. This might be the numbers being off or we could be in for a big case of everyone talking themselves into the Raiders…

The primary concern surely has to be receiving a flogging at the hands of the Storm, which abruptly ended the Raiders’ 2020 campaign in about ten minutes. The secondary concern is whether the team has really improved since the 2019 grand final…

The Raiders have been knocking on the door since 2016 now, so at what point do we conclude that their processes aren’t right? Perhaps it will be at the end of this year if they come home without the Provan-Summons again, having hit their ceiling once more in week three of the finals.

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s always next year

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 St George Illawarra Dragons

The St George Illawarra Dragons finished the 2021 NRL season in eleventh place, with a 8-16 record and a -142 points difference. Thus ends the facts.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

Somehow they had an even worse season than that and yet won more games than I expected.

What happened

We didn’t get the spoon I expected. Griffin had them moving in the right direction for a while. Then this all happened:

These incidents are gross, moronic and pathetic, respectively and in equal measures. What a club.

There’s always next year

Ben Hunt deserves better. Christ, Matt Dufty deserves better. Josh McGuire isn’t the biggest cunt on this team. Speaking of the biggest cunt on this team, Jack de Belin was average and not worth the bad karma (to put it mildly). They will waste the best years of Junior Amone and Mikaele Ravalawa. Why are there so many ex-Broncos?

The Dragons are an embarrassment to an already embarrassing league and I’m sickened thinking about what depths they will plumb next year. We, and I include their fans in this, would probably all be better off if they didn’t exist.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 New Zealand Warriors

What a season for the Warriors. A top twelve finish gave them something to write home about. The New Zealand franchise won just as many games (8) as basket case club, the Wests Tigers, but with a slightly less disastrous points difference (-171). The second season on the road was probably just as tough as the first, except it was about 50% longer and this year the Warriors had to play under Nathan Brown. Nonetheless, the Titans now have more finals appearances in the last decade, so that’s something for everyone to think about.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

…[T]he Warriors (along with the Dragons) are one of my favourites for the wooden spoon in 2021. I had them pegged in a similar position last season but, despite the difficult circumstances in which they played, their coaching got them through with enough wins and panache to avoid the bottom four… the Warriors are [now] being led by the man who has the worst coaching factor of the last five years, including the all-time worst NRL season… I have little confidence in Brown’s ability to unite the squad and motivate them while they live away from home for another year. Under normal circumstances and a better coach, there’s enough potential production for the Warriors to look good for a top eight finish.

If you need to understand the level of savvy Phil Gould brings to the boardroom, one only need look at how much better Penrith are running without him and that Roger Tuivasa-Scheck has already decided to go to union next year. Cameron George, a NRL club CEO, is a refsfaulter and seems to get most of his ideas from talkback radio.

I really wondered if I’d gone too far on this at several points in the season. Then the Warriors were in fourteenth with a 5-13 record after round 19, the worst performance to that point in the season since 1999 (5-12 by round 19, also in fourteenth place). There were seasons in between where the Warriors were running dead last and still had more wins than they did this year. They were, by their own standards, terrible.

There were three reasons no one noticed. The first being that no one wants to pile on a bunch of guys living away from home for an extended period, making sacrifices in the popular parlance. The second is that these are the New Zealand Warriors and I’m convinced the average NRL pundit and the average NRL punter are not aware that there is a team based in New Zealand in this competition. The third is that there were at least two teams, and probably several more, that were somehow worse.

What happened

The Warriors started the season with the sixth best roster by pre-season projections. Don’t believe me? Here’s a graph.

Now let’s check in with how the team actually performed against those expectations.

That doesn’t look good. If only there were some warning about a gross under performance.

(The above graph should read 2016 – 2021, my apologies)

Oh. Well, I’m sure this is Wayne Bennett’s fault somehow. Phil Gould can help get things on the right track.

Oh. Well, at least Cameron George has his eye on the ball.

Oh.

There’s always next year

Phil Gould couldn’t even be bothered seeing out the season and took a more lucrative offer at the Bulldogs. Nathan Brown is still doing Nathan Brown things. Cameron George is the proverbial immovable barncale on the ass of this franchise. Matt Lodge is the face of your club now. Accept it, Warriors fans. I had to boo through it for sixty-five games, now its your turn. At least he can play the role of Keegan Hipgrave from the opening metaphor.

Roger Tuivasa-Scheck is gone and he’s not coming back. He saw the writing on the wall early and bailed for union. Smart. The Warriors organisation took this as a personal slight and instead of trying to win games and make the finals in the easiest season in living memory, they punted a Dally M winner to the wing to make room for a precocious child who had not shown any real promise in an actual football game to that point. Walsh’s marginally above average .123 in QCup was perhaps not indicative of the shit hot five weeks of form he hit while smothering what was left of Tuivasa-Scheck’s NRL career (TPR .224). It was, however, definitely indicative of the mediocre .109 Walsh put up from round 12 onwards. People tried to argue with me that moving Walsh to fullback was a bad idea. The numbers don’t lie.

Shaun Johnson returns to Auckland-on-Moreton-Bay for a two year contract to revive the good old days of 2011, when the Warriors were relevant enough to lose a grand final. I’m sure the Warriors will look good on paper in 2022, just as I’m certain they will under-deliver.

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