Tag Archives: nrl

A guide to current ARLC policy for the NRL

Peter V’Landys and his team have already floated a lot of ideas to improve the NRL this year, a competition so obviously broken beyond repair that only their special skillset could fix it. The ideas are always frustratingly vague, lacking in details beyond one or two keywords, and there is never an explanation as to how this will resolve the problem it will allgedly address.

This results in the strange situation where idiots on social media don’t have to just reject the concept but, if they want to sound at least half-smart, have to invent the arguments as to why the ARLC might want to introduce it in the first place and then reject those arguments.

I don’t know why I’m doing their work for them but it has something to do with the fact that we only so little to glean the motivations of this administration because they won’t tell us what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. I suspect this is because they do not know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

The situation is confusing, eerily reminiscient of our completely dysfunctional federal government, so I’m here to clear the air.

Rule changes

The V’Landys administration has introduced two rounds of rule changes. The first came a few weeks before the season restart in 2020 and the second came in December, a few months before the start of the 2021 season.

The stated aim for these changes were to improve the flow of the game, bring back the little man and increase fatigue on the bigger players. I don’t know what any of these things actually mean. Not very subtly, in between the lines, the changes were made to improve broadcast ratings, specifically for Channel Nine, and for Gus Gould to continue his personal vendetta against the refereeing establishment.

The results are a mixed bag, largely leaning negative.

  • Neutral changes: auto-checking of tries
  • Negative changes: penalising ruck infringements and then offsides with the set restart (six again), reducing interchange, reducing from two to one refs, replacing scrums with play-the-ball restarts in some situations, two point field goals

The only two good changes recently – allowing teams to choose where scrums are taken and the captain’s challenge – were introduced by the previous administration. You can read more about the failings and impacts of these changes here and here.

Ratings continue their inexorable trend downwards, thanks to a mix of structural factors, including technological change, but mostly because Nine have had the same format since the 1980s and not bothered to appeal to anyone who doesn’t have osteoporosis or CTE-like symptoms from watching thirty years of Nine’s coverage.

The extremely frustrating part of this is that the ARLC won’t admit they got it wrong. Graham Annesley spends half of the Monday briefing providing cherry picked statistics to make an argument that contradicts the one he made the week before.

Indeed, there is a fundamental rejection of the idea that the rules don’t work. The tide is slowly turning though which, unfortunately, will result in more band aid solutions rather than a roll back.

Draft / NYC

The draft and the National Youth Competition (NYC) are back on the ARLC’s agenda – or were a few weeks ago – to help restore parity to the NRL. It was, evidently, a failing of club front offices to not adequately prepare their rosters for the rule changes that were introduced with no consultation on short notice except, in a twist of logic reminiscient of authoritian regimes, the rule changes hadn’t altered the balance of the competition. So there’s that.

To help square the ledger, at some unstated point in the future, a draft would (presumably?) offer earlier picks to bad clubs to help them get the best new talent. These kids would be developed through the new NYC, the same competition that was wound up only a few years ago and will be re-introduced into the current environment of cost cutting. It is not clear how bad front offices, unable to cope with the rule changes, would become masters of the draft and managing junior pathways. Indeed, a quick glance at some very big market teams in US sports shows that the draft can be just as badly mismanaged as the playing roster has been in response to the return of the little man!

It’s probably worth noting at this point that the NSWRL briefly had a draft in 1991. It was struck down by the courts because it contravenes Australian labour law. Unless the RLPA and every single player consents to its existence, as their AFL equivalents have done, more or less, then the draft will not succeed. No one has outlined a single way the draft will function, let alone how (or why) political capital will be expended to make it happen or how this obvious historical issue has been overcome.

Perhaps the best prospects out of high school and under 18s state competitions will enter a draft pool with no control over where they end up in the NYC, which sounds like an entirely reasonable thing to put on a teenager’s shoulders. Of course, there’s the US, where an eighteen year old can choose which school he attends before being drafted into the NFL or NBA several years later for considerably more money but let’s not concern ourselves with details.

The original National Youth Competition ran from 2007 to 2017. It was bad for the players’ development and mental well being and it was costly to run. State-based under 20s competitions were introduced for 2018 because they offer players (bearing in mind, these people are barely adults) a chance to stay closer to home with less pressure and an opportunity to develop their abilities against men in state cup before entering first grade. With less travel, less money needs to be spent to administer the competitions. No one has mentioned how any of these factors have been or would be resolved under the new NYC.

Expansion

In order for the game to survive long term, it needs to find new markets and new customers. The ARLC think these people live exclusively in Brisbane and New Zealand. There’s also something about improving pathways, as demonstrated by the flood of Victorians in the NRL following the Storm’s success.

Some extremely online brain geniouses think these people can be found in Perth and Adelaide. People who have suffered severe head injuries think they exist in North Sydney.

There are kids – unnamed and currently unnoticed but who definitely exist – who are good enough to play in the NRL but are denied the opportunity because there are only three clubs in Queensland and one in New Zealand. Why the excess of Sydney clubs can’t pick up the slack in scouting and development is not known. Presumably they are too focussed on the sons of former greats to watch the footage of players elsewhere that they have easy access to. I personally doubt Peter V’Landys and co are familiar with the structure of the game below the professional level, especially outside of Sydney.

In the meantime, Nine can temporarily prop up the inevitable decline of its ratings by having two teams in Brisbane. The longer this goes on, the less confident I am that Nine will pay for the privilege, but in theory having a Brisbane team in the Thursday or Friday night slot every week should do decent numbers.

Sky Sport NZ might be enticed to give up more money in exchange for the NRL TV rights (which is worth somewhere between $20 and $50 million a year, depending on the currency and source) if they can have the Friday 6pm slot played in New Zealand and featuring a New Zealand team every week.

For the brain geniouses, there are three areas that the NRL should be looking at putting brand new teams: Perth, Adelaide and New Zealand. The initial commercial strength of any of these new teams is likely to be weak to non-existent but this could be ameliorated by either relocating existing Sydney clubs and/or reducing central funding to Sydney clubs in line with their individually pathetic broadcast value and reinvesting it in the new teams. This would create a truly national rugby league and be a long term investment in building an audience in non-traditional areas.

The NRL could also leverage the unmet demand for NRL football in south-east Queensland with some long term projects, perhaps by introducing the Dolphins initially to Brisbane with a view to move north to the Sunshine Coast in a decade or two when an appropriate stadium is available and the population has expanded, and the same again with the Jets but west to Ipswich. If Brisbane becomes large enough after the other teams have moved, there might be scope for a second team in the Brisbane LGA.

That would require planning though. Back in the real world, Brisbane 2 is practically locked in with one of three likely candidates to get the nod. Despite protestations from the NZRL and to a lesser extent, the Warriors, and the fact that a country of 5 million people can sustain only so many professional sports teams, New Zealand 2 might happen in the next decade. While NZ2 could just be a distraction at the time of writing, a 17 team competition is going to require eventually going to 16 or 18 because the weekly bye will be a weekly reminder that the number of teams is uneven, which offends the anal retentives and fails to maximise broadcast revenue. Given this administration’s predilection for Sydney, it seems unlikely we’ll lose one of their clubs, so 18 seems the likely target.

The rest is fantasy and it’s a waste of time to speculate otherwise.

Promotion & relegation

To be fair, this was tossed out there by Buzz Rothfield of the Daily Telegraph, and not the administration, as presumably he was in dire need to fill a Monday column.

Rothfield wants to streamline the NRL to create “a much stronger NRL competition with fewer blowouts and more regular blockbusters”, “huge interest in bottom placed NRL teams late in season”, “huge interest in top Championship teams late in season”, “BRING BACK THE BEARS and Newtown” (capitalisation mine), “massive boost for bush football” and “league on the Central Coast”.

It’s interesting to compare this list with the actual actions of this administration which probably cares about the Central Coast, bush footy, the Bears and Jets and promotion and relegation in equally inifintesimally small measures.

The unanswered question is if state cup football can or does most of these things already, without promotion and relegation, why does Buzz not know this? If the Central Coast or rural NSW can’t sustain teams in NSW Cup or in Ron Massey, which presently appears to be the case, I don’t know how they could sustain a team with a $4 million wage bill in Rothfield’s Championship.

Personally, I love Buzz tossing Queensland a bone by adding Mackay, the state’s seventh largest city, behind Sunshine Coast, Cairns and Toowoomba, which presumably do not merit teams in this very sane and well thought out system.

One only need to look at Super League to see the flaws of promotion and relegation writ large. Unless there are a huge number of relatively commercially even clubs, so there is something resembling partiy and that the loss of an individual club is not a disaster, and there is a relatively functional labour market for players, promotion and relegation can’t function. Super League only has a handful of clubs that actually compete for honours, most are cannon fodder and the bottom teams rotate in and out as the particular structure of the day demands.

In 2020, the Brisbane Broncos would have been relegated. Fox and Nine would have demanded a large part of their money back had that come to pass because a large and important part of their audience would have simply tuned out. The NRL would then have been unable to pay the full amount of the extremely generous centralised grants to the remaining clubs while the Broncos would have struggled to maintain the sponsorship and other revenues needed to keep that particular ship afloat. Players, now too expensive, would have had contracts torn up with minimal realistic prospects for employment. Financial crisis would have been the result.

Alternatively, knowing relegation is in play, broadcasters would simply pay less because the biggest drawing teams cannot be guaranteed to be in the league. Cue cutting the grants and the same existential crises.

Then who would have been promoted in their place? No club outside of the NRL can go from a standing start (or, as the case may be, covering an increase in one’s major expense by 250% in the space of a few months in order to stay close to alive) to finding the necessary commercial power necessary to be competitive in the NRL. The Brisbane expansion team will get, at best, eighteen months to prepare themselves to join the NRL and even that seems tight. The net result would either be salary floor non-compliances or a quick relegation or an even faster bankruptcy for the newly promoted teams.

While all of this is might be survivable, does one season of North Sydney in lieu of the Brisbane Broncos really benefit anyone? Does it outweigh the resulting crises or the required efforts to avoid crisis? Sure, some clubs might be able to beat the odds through luck or acumen, but again, who is that for? The Newtown Jets were cast aside because they didn’t have an audience in 1981. Bringing them back into the NRL in 2022 doesn’t change that.

To take an analogy, we could build a sea wall to mitigate the impacts of rising sea levels or we could decarbonise our econom… oh, I see where I went wrong.

The JEOPARDY OF RELEGATION is exciting though, argues Rothfield and half a dozen similarly minded and equally mentally capable authors on The Roar. This should trigger a surge in TV ratings. Except that there’s never any proof that this is true. It’s always an assertion that it must be true. It ignores the fact that people generally don’t watch bad sports teams and the argument always assumes the best case, when relegation is not decided until the end of the season. In reality, teams often have their fate sealed well in advance. What of the games after that?

Is it really worth throwing clubs into a commercial wood chipper for a non-existent ratings bump?

Bringing back the Bears

If I’m not keen on promotion and relegation, why not just bring back the Bears and cut out the middle man? Let me be clear to you, person with a severe head injury, this is not an option.

The Bears themselves will tell you that they have 200,000 fans. I can claim I have 200,000 fans but where is the proof? The study that the club has commissioned has not been released to the public as far as I can tell. Alleged journalists will repeat these statements as if they mean anything. Putting aside obvious demopgrahic shifts that make the Bears just as unviable in 2021 as they were in 2001, the repeated insistence that this club has something, anything, to offer the NRL today is laughable. 5,000 average attendances at North Sydney Oval while Foxtel desperately tries to bury the team in the early weekend slots because not enough people actually give a fuck about the Bears is an obvious recipe for success.

All the fans lost to the game forever with their thousand yard stares are a figment of the imagination. Not a single person has ever been able to put a number on the fans supposedly lost and it’s never asked if they were ever really fans of the sport or their own trumped up suburban superiority complex. The plural of anecdotes is not data. Never mind that other cities put aside their own traditions to get a seat at the table, the people of North Sydney – average house price of $4 million – need to have their specific feelings catered for by a supposedly national organisation.

The only reason this ever gets a run in the media is because they are extremely lazy. It is a dogwhistle to the good old days of the Sydney competition, when you didn’t have to deal with interlopers from interstate that have an irritating habit of winning regularly or, for that matter, Polynesians.

I could accept a Perth Bears or an Adelaide Bears or a Christchurch Bears but that’s not ever seriously tabled. Why would it be when the current administration is so laser focussed on Sydney suburbs to the exclusion of all else?

Conferences

When talking about the draft hadn’t really drawn enough attention away from injuries, blowouts and other failings of this administration, the ARLC reached deep into their bag to find a sufficiently bright and loud flash bang grenade to disorient everyone. Ladies and genetlemen, it’s time for Sydney to Go Their Own Way and have a dedicated conference, separate from the regional riff raff, with a championship final that would outshine that of the NRL Super Bowl, such is the power of Sydney’s rugby league enthusiasm.

The ARLC wants to use conferences to drive intra-Sydney rivalries to new heights. They also want to bring back the good old days without having to go to the trouble of inventing a time machine. Given both conferences rate about the same on TV, it hardly seems to be beneficial to broadcasters, unless the plan is to sell the rights to the conferences separately, in which case I doubt broadcasters would be enamoured with the proposed split.

Given all of the NRL’s biggest derbies are played twice a year, including twelve of the fifteen that Blake Solly made up to give the Daily Telegraph some content and the ARLC cover fire, what advantage do conferences actually confer on the competition? In Sydney, those derbies rarely attract anything above normal interest unless both teams happen to be good at that particularly point in time or all of the planets align to allow for a good crowd.

For everyone else, the administration does not care what happens outside of Sydney. For Brisbane, Melbourne and North Queensland, the best drawing teams are their fellows in the “regional” conference (comprising the second, third, sixth, seventh and eighth largest cities in Australia and the largest in New Zealand). For Canberra, Newcastle and, to a lesser extent, New Zealand, this is a big go fuck yourself.

If we simply must proceed with this, can we pretend Newcastle is in Sydney and trade for the Dragons? On the other hand, one conference with eleven teams (9 x Sydney + Newcastle + Canberra) means the other conference only has five, so six teams will need added – let’s say Perth, Adelaide, a second NZ team, Sunshine Coast, Ipswich and another in Brisbane itself – to balance it out. If that meant never having to watch the glorified NSW Cup, I might well be on board.

I should be absolutely clear that no matter what arguments get made here or elsewhere, if the ARLC wants to do it, they will. Irrespective of what happens, we’ll be told it’s worked – whatever that means – so that’s good I guess.

Suburban stadiums

The previous administration had done well to secure a significant amount of money from the NSW government to upgrade key stadium assets that the NRL makes use of in exchange for keeping the grand final in Sydney for the rest of your natural life.

Enter the new administration, who were too late to stop the redevelopment of the SFS but came just in time to redirect approximately $700 million of funding that would have turned ANZ Stadium into a rectangular venue to an unstated number of suburban venues that would get facelifts to turn them into mini-Bankwests.

At $12,000 per seat (the actual capital cost of the actual Bankwest Stadium), $700 million buys not quite four re-developed stadiums with a capacity of 15,000 each. Some out of Leichhardt, Campbelltown, Brookvale, Kogarah, Liverpool and other unnamed self-important suburban enclaves will lose out and, on top of that, ANZ still remains a quasi-oval venue.

Far be it from me to tell the taxpayers of New South Wales how to spend their money but two things strike me about this proposal.

Firstly, the conferences idea is meant to generate sufficient TRIBALISM (interest) that crowds will boom from all the derbies. It’s not clear how these people will all fit into 15,000 capacity stadiums.

Second, the other is that by building 15,000 capacity stadiums, this effectively says that this is the best the NRL can do in Sydney – the HEARTLAND – for the next thirty to fifty years. Considering most stadiums operate at around 66% average occupancy, this actually means 10,000 is the best they can do. Even by global rugby standards, let alone other sports, 10,000 crowds for a supposedly top flight professional sport in its alleged heartland is pathetic and demonstrates Sydney’s apathy to the sport, even though we’ve spent all this time and money catering to their widdle feewings.

Moreover, this is what these teams draw now so what was the point of spending $700 million?

Some might argue that the attendances are unimportant in the modern game but it remains a vitally important revenue stream for clubs and, as sports played behind closed doors in 2020 demonstrated, there is a lot to be said for big stadiums full of fans adding to the televisual spectacle (the coronavirus hill I will die on is that fake fan noise sucks). It’s also much easier to analyse to determine trends in preferences which are as valid and representative, if outnumbered, by spectators via broadcast.

Alternatively, if bigger stadiums can be built, then either more money needs to be found in a post-recession covid-recovering economy or more seats are built at fewer venues. In that case, who else loses out? If this policy is as successful as promised for the lucky clubs to get their grounds rebuilt, aren’t you consigning the rest to the dustbin of history?

Future

Future spitballing by this administration or its media hangers-on should be ignored. Unfortunately, if you’re reading this, any other ideas that come out will likely be so stupid that you will be unable to resist the urge to dunk. I know I’m as guilty as any.

But next time something insane comes up, I want you to think about a selection of these themes that the administration does not want you think about –

  • Why weren’t the second order effects of the rule changes, including a higher than normal injury toll and more blowouts than usual, considered before implementation?
  • Does reclassifying what constitutes a concussion sufficiently protect players from injury?*
  • How do handouts to NRL clubs resolve the financial crisis created by a combination of coronavirus and overspending when actually, every sport in the world (bar the XFL) survived the pandemic and the NRL was profitable and there are significant issues with the structure of the sub-professional part of the sport that seems to have not been addressed in any way and in fact are likely to get considerably worse because of cost cutting at headquarters?
  • How and why does Peter V’Landys run two sports simultaneously?
  • Why do ratings continue to decline when the game is supposedly as exciting as it has been since the 1980s?
  • What is the precise nature of the relationship between and influence of Phil Gould on Peter V’Landys?
  • Why do all of these ideas come with a noticeable lack of detail and, sometimes, outright contradict other stated ARLC policies?
  • Why is Sydney continually placed at the centre of the rugby league universe at the expense of the rest of the world?
  • Why does Peter V’Landys seemingly have nothing to say about the women’s game, always left to Andrew Abdo to address, but is an endless source of ideas for the men’s?
  • Why did the administration cave to pressure from racists on the anthem before the All-Stars game in 2020 and then backflip for 2021?
  • Should noted piece of shit and Prime Minister Scott Morrison be allowed to use rugby league as a branding tool for himself?

I could go on.

No matter what this administration throws up, a subsection of the fanbase and almost all of the media will accept it as a Good Idea because it appears it is their innate nature to be toadies. The discussion about six agains demonstrates this well: not a single commentator has suggested removing it from the rulebook. The best the rugby league Overton Window can offer is to modify it to mitigate its more outrageous impacts on the game. It’s cowardice.

Despite being an enormous coward myself, I don’t think I will ever understand this. V’Landys, Abdo and co have the power and they can defend themselves. The status quo and the powerful should always be relentlessly questioned and made to justify their ideas (and their existence, cf France 1789 – 1799). It is only then that we can be honest about what is good and what is working and what is not. However, in this environment stuffed with spineless lackies and uncritical thinkers all too willing to embrace their messiah, we can only wait for better times.

*My favourite response to this is that “now all the risks are known, players can judge for themselves.” The risks are very much NOT well understood, let alone known, and this is the point.

A Deep Dive in to the 2021 NRL season

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

What happened

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

How it all works

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Idling

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

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

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

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

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

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

*Includes Northern Eagles

Assessment: 3rd group / Upside

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Recovering

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the new Dally M results for each system.

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

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

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

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

Big brain essay #1: The content pipeline

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

Sometime last year, I watched all of 30 Rock, the sitcom about making a sketch show at NBC. In there was a joke about how the new network head knew broadcast television was dead and his job was to squeeze every last dollar out of the inevitable decline. That joke premiered around 2011. It occurs to me, here in 2021, that when news of a particularly odious decision is handed down about the NRL’s broadcast arrangements, fans (at least, the fans who are interested in that sort of thing) are quick to jump the gun and start labelling TV execs stupid. The execs know, just as well as you do, what’s going on but they would never vocalise that they work in a dying industry. If you were in their position, I doubt you’d do anything different.

Nine, to just pick a random example out of the air, knows that the free-to-air gravy train is gone and they are now in a doom loop. They cut the cost of production to match ad revenue, which leads to lower quality programming, fewer viewers, less ad revenue and another drop in the cost of production to match. This will continue until free-to-air bottoms out with all the commercial stations going bankrupt or a miracle occurs that allows commercial FTA to eke out a radio-like existence. Perhaps a religious sect will come to power and ban the internet in Australia or terrorists will slice through the undersea cables that connect Australia to the rest of the world. Then we’ll all come crawling back.

Until then, Australian rugby league has to deal with terrestrial broadcasters. As an important sporting and cultural institution, rugby league finds itself on the anti-siphoning list. This means that the NRL grand final, State of Origin, Kangaroos Test matches and Kangaroos World Cup matches played locally are offered to free-to-air broadcasters first before they can be sold to pay TV providers. It’s a piece of legislation that was brought in in 1994 to prevent the then-new pay TV providers from paywalling “events deemed culturally important are freely available to all Australians. Though technically any event could be added to the anti-siphoning list, it has historically been used exclusively for sport.” As Business Insider has noted, the legislation is due to expire shortly and there has been no discussion to date about what happens next.

Theoretically, in the unlikely circumstances that it is not renewed, then the NRL could go full paywall, sacrificing mass audience for maximum income. F1 has already done it, with free-to-air TV deals to broadcast live racing a thing of the past and likely long term to be replaced by F1’s own over-the-top streaming platform and production, as the sport moves to maximise its profitability among a smaller audience. Cycling is moving that way, with GCN+ and Eurosport hoovering up most of the broadcast rights to second and third tier events and streaming internationally to audiences too small even for pay TV to look after. The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL, among others, all have their own streaming platforms, albeit generally relying on traditional broadcasters to produce the games.

A smart move, rather than reinvent the wheel, would be for the NRL to create a long term deal with Kayo (or whatever other provider), possibly with a lower price tag in exchange for equity in the platform itself. If the NRL did then purchase a stake (or, more likely, bail out) in Super League later, they would then be able to effectively roll all pro rugby league content on to one platform that could service the global audience. Unlike other leagues, the sport wouldn’t own the platform outright but would also be spared the technical headaches of owning and operating such a system, offering better value for money because rugby league would come bundled with other content, which in turns gives the platform a stable foundation on which to build a subscriber base and bid for future broadcast rights. The season would then be re-designed to keep subscribers engaged all year around, instead of pausing their subscription after the grand final and unpausing for the All Stars. Of course, at some point, someone would need to be contracted to produce the games.

Coupled with a move away from traditional broadcast arrangments to a more self-reliant future, one of rugby league’s medium term goals should be aiming to create a 24 hour content pipeline. That is, I should be able to sit down at about 5pm on a Friday evening and watch consecutive games of pro or semi-pro, men’s and women’s rugby league kick off every two hours until about 3pm on the following Monday, Australian eastern time.

Rugby league is already roughly aligning itself along time zones, rather than continents like soccer and hemispheres like union, with the emergence of an Americas confederation to join the RLEF in Europe and the APRLC in the Asia-Pacific region. Late at night on the east coast of Australia is around lunchtime in the UK, late at night in Europe is evening on the east coast of the Americas and late night on the west coast is around lunchtime in Australia. The baton could be passed around the globe every weekend, if only we had the teams and infrastructure, and while the sun may set frequently on the rugby league empire, its only because we play under lights.

As much as that sounds like an overdose, it’s 36 timeslots and so would only require 72 pro/semi-pro teams or a minimum of twelve clubs per zone capable of furnishing a men’s and women’s programme. The men’s game could already cover this, if its participants were a little more spread out.

Ideally, the pipeline facilitates a cross-pollination of fans across leagues. The most obvious example is the occassional English game that kicks off at Saturday midday local time and gets broadcast on Fox League at 10pm, following the Saturday night game in Australia. If there’s a main audience in one zone and two marginal audiences in the other zones, to me that’s got to be better than just having the main audience.

Quite how rugby league becomes a year-round venture, I don’t know. Every sport needs an off-season but league’s season could be extended with a decent rep programme after the club season has finished and better leveraging warm-ups and pre-season trials. There’s probably space for a short form of the game too. Consider a calendar of pre-season 9s (or 7s) tournaments and 13s trial matches in February, an 18 round club season with a couple of rep breaks starting in March and finishing July, finals through August, an extended men’s and women’s World Club Challenge in September and internationals and other rep games in October and November with a little breathing space in December and January. Its not too far off what we have now but the top players would have somewhere between 25 and 33 first class matches each year, which is a manageable load (if it turns out that’s not a manageable load from a brain injury perspective, then the sport will need to be re-designed).

Most of that is less pipeline and more pipe dream. The reality is that the anti-siphoning legislation will likely be renewed, as politicians are usually reluctant to make a point of pissing off the legacy media over something most Australians either don’t care about or take for granted. The boldest tweak I can realistically imagine would be to include the FTA streaming platforms (9Now, 10Play, etc, etc, as well as the new Kayo Freebies) and adding the Super Netball grand final. We are also light years from having a serious semi-pro competition in the United States that’s worth broadcasting, as if this will ever happen. I very much doubt whether the current RL management in Australia would even want to attempt any of this, probably thinking that the internet is a flash in the pan and Nine is a safe enough bet. Alternatively, they may look forward to a future of bidding between Telstra, Optus, Stan and Kayo. Super League can’t even be bothered to schedule its games to leverage a potential Australian audience, which is why the Australian rights are worth a pittance to Super League despite it being rugby league’s largest market.

Most people will tell you that you need to be on free-to-air to reach a mass audience. That may be true now but I don’t know how much longer that will remain the case. With no mass reach, free-to-air has little to offer professional sport. The paywall beckons. It may be that Youtube will take the place of FTA broadcasters, as an ad-supported service that everyone knows about. The trick will be getting their attention and then converting them into subscribers.

BNE2.1: The game done changed

“It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid”

Last year was an illuminating time for those who closely follow the working man’s game. If, like me, you’ve only been a keen trainspotter for a few years, we might not remember older train wrecks, like Crusaders. Conveniently, the Toronto Wolfpack experience, which saw $30 million pissed down the toilet for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear, brought some truths about the sport into very clear focus.

At a certain point, possibly while mulling things over for too long without live sport or being able to socialise, it clicked in my mind that it didn’t matter how well thought out an expansionist’s plan might be, it will never be implemented. There is no perfect post that will change anyone’s mind. This may be obvious to you but sometimes I can be very dense.

My silver lining on the new Brisbane NRL team is then dubiously reasoned, if not downright naive, in retrospect. While a Brisbane team could be leveraged commercially to take the game west (again), it will not be. Instead, it will be used to shore up Nine’s failing ratings in Queensland, as the three extant clubs flail about hopelessly. That’s just who the people running the game are, especially Peter V’landys and especially Phil Gould. Two shitty suburban culture warriors in the pocket of a free-to-air broadcaster are the Pacific game’s leading lights and that’s why we have two point field goals now.

It is, at the end of the day, all rather stupid. You won’t find a more Darwinian sporting observer than yours truly but even with my complete and utter lack of regard for tradition, introducing a team solely for the benefit of a legacy media organisation in 2023 is too far for me. For the sport as a whole to make money, by all means, do what you got to do. Even the Super League schism had some benefits for rugby league by forcing it to modernise somewhat. Who really gives a fuck if the only benefit is that Channel Nine survives a bit longer?

The thing of it is that there’s barely any risk for the NRL. You personally are not going to lose your team if the new Brisbane team fails, because you are not a fan of that team. No one is because it doesn’t exist. The NRL isn’t investing any money or taking any equity as far as I know, so there’s no financial risk. If the team fails, at worst the resulting quagmire might take out a storied Queensland Cup club (and, as recent events have clearly indicated, no one in Sydney cares about them) and the NRL suffers a bit of reputational blowback. If it works, ratings go up on Nine, the next TV deal is better and the NRL can profit. That money will be recycled on to the existing clubs in the form of higher club grants because Phil Gould believes the NRL is make-believe and the clubs are the only reality, which explains why North Sydney fans didn’t mind their club exiting first class football and we’ve never heard about it since.

The money will be wasted, as usual with Queensland clubs subsidising Sydney no-hopers, instead of being invested in making the sport better because that’s just what happens.

The candidates

Now that nasty cynicism is out of the way, here’s some more. After the Bombers and Western Corridor bids merged, there are now three candidates: Dolphins, Firehawks and Jets, representing Redcliffe, Eastern Suburbs Brisbane and Ipswich, respectively.

You shouldn’t rate the Queensland Cup’s popularity on how much I talk about it but rather based on the fact that it won’t be on TV this year. The idea that each club has community links is not unreasonable but those links represent very few people in the grand scheme of things and a lot of them are going to be conflicted about leaving the Broncos for a new venture. For mine, the three bids are now pretty much the same, so it’ll probably come down to who knows the ARLC best and/or who has the most money.

The recent merger has meant that the Western Corridor bid has dropped the Western Corridor aspect of their bid to become “Brisbane”, which makes much more commercial sense but is questionable if you purportedly represented the hitherto-culturally-non-existent Logan-Ipswich-Toowoomba conglomeration. The Indigenous angle they were taking is gone too. Presumably, the Jets team noticed the stance Peter V’Landys took prior to last year’s All Stars game regarding the anthem and read between the lines on his feelings about black people.

Similarly, the Bombers have dropped their name and replaced it with another imperialist death machine but at least one that has some rugby league history (stolen, like so many things, from the NFL), so kudos. As a result, the Jets have joined forces with an organisation that stands for nothing other than their own gain to give it a light patina of community respectability. In many ways, it is the perfect bid because there is so little to it, it can be moulded into whatever the powers that be want it to be. This will almost certainly be worse than what people could come up with organically (see above re: two point field goals), starting with an incredibly omnious 9/11 themed logo (which obviously may not be real).

Whichever bid is successful, people and specifically, people on Twitter who aren’t fans and will never be fans of the new club, will hate everything about it – logo, name, colours. I note the hypocrisy but I at least know that it won’t matter. Twitter’s usefulness as a barometer on rugby league matters is only as a contraindicator and we wait with bated breath for the exit polls from Facebook and the Daily Telegraph to see which way Peter V’Landys is going to go.

In any case, Brisbane is so starved of NRL, it’ll probably work, especially after a sold out all-Queensland double header at Suncorp results in the destruction of a large part of the city.

The TV deal

The most frequent question asked in relation to BNE2 is “how does adding a 17th team result in higher ratings?” It’s a good one because there obviously isn’t going to be a ninth match each weekend and instead one team will sit on the sidelines with a bye. Here’s the theory that I think Nine, V’Landys and co are working with:

  1. Even if BNE2 is half as successful as the Broncos, it’ll still rate better than most of the league. That means, most weeks will remove ratings anchors like the Knights, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Raiders and replace them with an above average team, which will improve the overall ratings across the season, even without adding a game.
  2. The current FTA arrangement has a hard cap on the number of times a team can appear on free-to-air (I believe it is currently 16 for the Broncos and 12 for everyone else) and another cap on how many return fixtures are allowed per club (Nine might show both legs of Broncos-Cowboys, Broncos-Eels and Broncos-Rabbitohs but then wouldn’t be able to show both legs of, e.g., Broncos-Titans). By adding a second Brisbane team, this allows Nine to have more Broncos-equivalent games, with a Brisbane team on FTA every weekend. This also explains the inexplicable increase in Dragons FTA appearances for 2021 because they’d run out of good teams to show.
  3. Nine sells all of its content to regional networks at what amounts to a fixed rate and so doesn’t care how well football rates in the sticks. Its revenue is driven by the five city metro ratings. From Nine’s point of view, the Gold Coast Titans are a regional football team and they probably don’t see them as moving ratings in the Brisbane market. That the Titans are just “down the road” doesn’t factor in.
  4. A second Brisbane team then is likely to uplift Brisbane’s ratings more, and more often, when compared to how a Perth team would lift ratings in Perth.
  5. The recent broadcast renegotiations allowed for the deal to be improved if a new team is added.

I think its extremely likely that ratings will go up in the short term (or, more accurately, go down less quickly) after BNE2 comes in, even just for novelty purposes. Even if it doesn’t last or the broadast deal doesn’t go up by enough to cover the club grant, I’m sure the ARLC will just boot the Warriors or Storm to compensate.

Diving into State of Origin 2020

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

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

  • Elo ratings
  • Venue records
  • Taylors

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

Form guide

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

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

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

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

Home ground advantage

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

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

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

Historical Taylors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tipping 2020

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

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

Women’s Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Melbourne Storm

Finally, to the champions. From pre-season:

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.

You picked the Storm to be good too? Well done.

Summary

What happened

The Melbourne Storm are good – they had the best defence by Poseidon, they had the best average form Elo rating through the season and future Immortal Cameron Smith was TPR champ – but after going through fifteen of these reviews, this one graph stuck out for me.

This graph shows the each club’s difference between their players’ pre-season TPR projection and their actual TPR. A higher score means the player outperformed their projection more, which is good, and vice versa.

What caught my eye was not just how embarrassingly poor the Broncos were but also the apparent mediocrity of the Storm. This graph is my proxy for coaching ability and specifically who gets the best out of their roster. How could the greatest coach of the NRL era be so middle of the road? Last season, Bellamy was top of the table.

I thought about it and I think it’s because, unlike the Panthers, the Storm were projected to be good, indeed the best in the NRL, and they had very little room to improve, even with the excess of production caused by Vlandoball. They did that because of the way the club goes about its core business of winning football matches.

One of the themes I’ve come back to in these reviews, especially looking at the top teams, is the concept of process. Rugby league is a harsh and chaotic master and the only way to weather it is to have good processes in place. Good processes are repeatable and lightning in a bottle results are not.

We tend to think of dominant teams as having endless runs of premierships, which the Storm do not have. What they have done is implement systems that allow a certain reliability of premierships. They may not win every year but the systems ensure they are always in the hunt and will inevitably capitalise every few seasons. Refer to the 2012, 2017 and 2020 seasons. This is the essence of their long term success.

This is not to say that these teams are all the same. The 2017 vintage Storm would have become extremely frustrated with their inability to force the Panthers to capitulate and this would have led to mistakes, possibly costing them the grand final (see their week 1 final where the Eels briefly stood up to them). The 2020 vintage were far more flexible, if less domineering, and that was what got them over the line. The ability to retool every couple of years is also critical to their long term success.

As a result, the Storm now are as good as when they cheated the cap, if not better.

What’s laughable is that, other than the Roosters and maybe the Raiders and the Rabbitohs, no other team has sought to create their own version of this approach. Sign players on a value-for-money basis, give them the best coaching to maximise their potential and implement pathways that are constantly generating cheap talent; it’s that simple.

If anything, clubs at the bottom of the league are getting left even further behind. These dunces wait for multiple generational talents to stumble into their clubs and hope they get it together at some point. They will continue to fail because they do not understand this.

(You can tell who these clubs are because their end of season reviews end in a state of existential crisis, whereas the good teams are talked about in terms of how well they will roll into next year)

What’s next

Cam Smith probably retires, Dave Donaghy might move to Brisbane and maybe brings Craig Bellamy with him.

Assuming these things come to pass over the next twelve to twenty-four months, will these be the personnel changes that finally bring the Storm dynasty (the current iteration has been in train since 2016) to an end? Are the ideas, systems, processes – the intangibles – so embedded into the very fabric of the club that they will never be dethroned? Much like how Papenhuyzen replaced Slater, Hughes replaced Cronk and Grant will likely replace Smith, is the next man up in the boardroom capable of living up to the club’s lofty standards?

Will the Storm be the club of the 2020s or will that torch be passed to another?

The wheel of history eventually lowers the powerful down into the dust but it took the Roman Empire 400 years to decline from its peak to its end (1500 if you include Byzantium). The reality is we may not live long enough to see the Storm’s empire come crashing down.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Penrith Panthers

The line between hard nose, scientific anlytics and gut-based mysticism is a fine one indeed. From the season preview:

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.

I can’t in good conscience claim to have had any particular insight here because the above is so vague that any outcome would fit it. In hindsight, I was trying to highlight the potential variance in the Panthers’ future that was not reflected in their numbers and that, at least, proved correct.

Summary

The Penrith Panthers are 2020 NRL premiers.

Psyche.

What happened

The Panthers won a lot of games. I mean, a lot. An 18-1-1 is the best regular season win percentage (.925) of any team in the NRL era. The next closest is the 2007 Storm, who went 21-3 (.875) and cheated the salary cap.

We could spend a lot of time rattling off how good the Panthers were but briefly:

  • Penrith finished the season as minor premiers, 2.5 wins clear of Melbourne
  • Penrith finished the season with the highest form Elo rating (2nd highest average over the season)
  • The Panthers were the most productive team by Taylors
  • They had the third best offence and fourth best defence by Poseidon
  • Nathan Cleary was second of all halves, James Tamou third of all middles, Api Korosiau third of all hookers, Josh Mansour second of all wingers and Stephen Crichton best of all centres by WARG
  • The Panthers were by far the most out-performing of their player projections
  • They were the biggest beats of their Disappointment Line

Penrith were also the second biggest outperformers of their Pythagorean expectation. Normally, that would mean wins without fundamentals but the above list completely contradicts that idea.

My own gut feel was that, while they had won a lot of games, they had typically won by smaller margins and failed to blow any teams off the park and in that, they might come unstuck later on. Even that wasn’t true upon review: 26-0 over the Warriors, 56-24 over the Sharks, 42-12 over Manly and 42-0 over the Bulldogs.

There’s no secret to it. The Panthers played a lot of football and they played it very well.

The Panthers dominated possession, leading the league with an average of 54%. This was supported by the competition’s best completion rate (82%) and sixth best for handling errors (which, considering the amount of possession and therefore opportunity to make handling errors, is a truly remarkable feat). Combining their line speed with a pathological desire for metres (they were first by kick, kick return and running metres), Penrith were able to dominate the field, which handed them more possession.

The camaraderie was their for all to see. Even as someone with no particular sympathy for Penrith and downright antipathy for any Sydney club, it warmed my heart to see the Boys get fired up before, during and after games as win followed win. Despite their failure to win the grand final, there’s a huge lesson in team building to be learned by the rest of league. Cleary and his staff have taken a squad no one gave much mind to and got them all operating at peak performance for almost 22 weeks. It’s just so rare.

They were fortunate not to be struck down with injuries like many of their rivals but they were competent enough to take advantage of the opportunity. It’s also likely that the excess of possession covered for a relatively inefficient offence (the Panthers scored fewer points than the Roosters, despite the Roosters aveaging only 49% possession). When the platform laid by the forwards is the league’s best, then the playmaking behind does not need to be maximally efficient to rack up points because the opportunities to score are so frequent.

What caused Penrith to fail so miserably in the first half of the grand final will be speculated upon by rugby league scholars for the foreseeable future. I expect people will attempt to ascribe a single cause to it but failures almost always have several causes. Here’s my guesses in no particular order:

  1. A lack of experience led to the team being overawed by the occasion
  2. A lack of coaching motivation and some odd and late selection choices undermined the team’s cohesion and mental state
  3. Bad luck, as ordinary mistakes were met with disproportionally large punishments, frequently in the form of runaway tries the other way (I think this is what Gus Gould means by “the scoreboard is unfair”)
  4. Melbourne are pretty fucking good and where they don’t dominate, they contain

What’s next

A lot of pundits are expecting that the Panthers will be a Good Team for the foreseeable future. I’m, naturally, more circumspect than that.

Exceptional years are just that, exceptional. They are by definition not repeatable. So while Penrith will likely feature in the top six for the next two or three years, until the current squad is turned over so much that they’re no longer recognisable, I don’t know if they have the credentials to challenge for the premiership every year.

In other words, I’m yet to be convinced that their process is on the same level as Sydney, Melbourne and maybe Canberra. Processes are repeatable. 54% possession is the kind of strategy that other teams cotton on to and nullify. Camaraderie like that shown in 2020 is practically the stuff of lightning in a bottle and potentially completely destroyed by the events of last Sunday.

The alternative is that the grand final loss becomes a rallying point for the 2021 campaign. Ivan Cleary is famously the least successful long term coach in the NRL, with no premierships from two grand final appearances after 342 games as head coach. He has a winning record of 49.6% acording to Rugby League Project. Next year he gets to prove to the leauge that his process is legit and give his lengthy but so far silverware-free career a sense of legacy.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canberra Raiders

Before we begin, I’d like to extend an apology to Curtis Scott. In my season preview, I wrote the following:

Leilua, Rapana and Sezer have all left in the off-season, to be replaced by Curtis Scott, who celebrated by punching some cops.

It turns out that wasn’t true and I had forgotten that ACAB. Sorry, Mr Scott. Around that I wrote:

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… 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.

I think they may be there.

Summary

The Canberra Raiders finished in fifth place with a 14-6 record and +128 points difference (5th best in the league). In a season where injuries killed many teams’ chances, the Milk found new talents ready to take the step up and fill the gaps. It was the difference between them and Manly.

What happened

I don’t know if there’s many interesting takes left about the Raiders after season 2020 but general consensus seems to have landed on (see also: How It All Works):

  • Jack Wighton is pretty good at football, because he is insane. He is now a Dally M winner and owner of a .180 TPR.
  • George Williams is another successful find (.128) as Canberra continues to strip the Super League of talent.
  • Elliott Whitehead played really well but in a way that doesn’t turn up in the stats (.090).
  • Josh Papalii (.152) would be the game’s best middle forward if it wasn’t for Taumalolo.
  • Corey Harawira-Naera is an incredibly dubious signing that does not get enough criticism but he still rated well (.123).
  • Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad tries harder than any other player in the NRL but didn’t have his best year (.106).
  • There’s a crop of young Raiders coming through, led by Tom Starling (.153) and Hudson Young (.119).
  • John Bateman and Nick Cotric are off. I don’t doubt their production will be easily replaced.
  • Josh Hodgson spent a lot of time on the sidelines this season, which begs the question:

If Tom Starling can continue his scintillating start to his career (small sample size alert!), and with a productive halves pairing behind him, then the 30 year old Hodgson may be surplus to requirements. His 8.35 games this year should have been enough time to amass better than a career worst TPR.

However, I’m more interested in whether Canberra are now in the same league as Sydney and Melbourne. The last few years have been the Raiders’ best in the NRL and likely their best performances since the early 1990s.

The Raiders’ class Elo rating of 1589 is now the fourth highest in the league behind the Storm (1715), Roosters (1635) and Panthers (1603). And then these last few years in closer detail.

Here’s a team that is consistently above average and builds form at the right time of year. They may well rue the lost opportunities that were 2016, when the Raiders finished second (17-6-1) and were knocked out in the preliminary final by minor premiers Melbourne, and 2019, when the Raiders were hobbled by bizarre circumstances as much as their stifled attack in their grand final against Sydney.

These are the hallmarks of a Good Team. There aren’t too many of them in the NRL at the moment.

What’s next

While the Raiders are 5-4 over the Roosters since 2016 and 3-3 to the Storm over the last two years, Canberra still need to find a way to play their best football in the last two weeks of the season. They haven’t done that. Those franchises have won premierships and the Raiders have been waiting for over twenty-five years now.

The club’s in no danger off the field. Indeed, their ratings have rocketed up to an average of 250,000 per game on pay TV, which was fourth best in the NRL this year. This is a huge improvement on 228,000 in 2018 and 2019 (13th and 7th best respectively). For a small market club, that’s not bad.

Ricky Stuart is Canberra’s dad and he’s not going anywhere. The roster looks balanced, well valued and supported by capable reserves. The Raiders might not be as pumped up as the Panthers, as rich as the Roosters or as clinical as the Storm but who is? The defence has been of premiership calibre for more than 12 months now.

As loathe as I am to conclude everything’s fine and patience is needed, where could you realistically find any improvement that isn’t just hoping (or paying well overs) a freak turns up in the roster somehow? The process seems sound to me. I couldn’t possibly recommend any changes – other than to actually turn up when playing the Storm at Suncorp Stadium – so we’re left to twiddle our thumbs and wait.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 South Sydney Rabbitohs

Finally, an interesting team to pull apart:

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?

…Is Wayne cooked?

I am happy to advise that my concerns were generally unfounded. Souths had another tilt at the premiership and Wayne isn’t as cooked as we had feared.

Summary

South Sydney finished the season in sixth place on the ladder, with a 12-8 record and +169 points difference, which was the league’s fourth highest. They lost their star fullback to injury and found a replacement just in time to hit the afterburners into the finals. The Rabbitohs made it to the preliminaries, going through Newcastle and Parramatta, where the Panthers knocked them out 20-16.

What happened

Using standard deviation as a measure of consistency (remember that a larger standard deviation implies a greater spread of results) and Taylors as our measure of work done, Souths were the least consistent team in the NRL.

And while that will be the label put on the 2020 campaign forevermore, it would help to breakdown that performance into finer detail.

The move of Latrell Mitchell, or rather his return, to the fullback position was one of the more interesting scenarios to consider coming into the season. Would a player equally known for lightning pace and skill as his lack of fitness and involvement be able to manage one of the most taxing positions on the field?

Prior to coronavirus, it looked like maybe not. It seems likely that the break allowed him some time to find himself, find some form and get used to the role because when he returned, he was as good as ever. In the first two rounds, he averaged a TPR of just .045, which is sub-replacement level production, but improved to .139 over the remainder of his season. It was enough to be the ninth best fullback by WARG despite playing only fourteen games. Cruelled by injury later in the year, Johnston briefly filled in – average TPR .047 – before Corey Allan exploded out of the blocks with an average rating of .181.

The fortunes of the team loosely followed the fortunes of their fullbacks, which is hardly surprising considering how important the position is and how well production measures the fullback’s offensive contributions. There’s probably no greater single contribution to acceleration of Souths’ last four weeks than the effort put in at fullback, perhaps alongside the superlative form of Cody Walker.

The three-quarter line (centres and wingers) have the highest coefficient of correlation between the team’s overall production and their average TPR rating. This sounds insightful until you remember that the bulk of production is scoring tries and that’s what three-quarters are for. Still, the likes of Graham, Paulo and Johnston were largely responsible for driving the 5-0 winning streak from round 12 until round 16. It was this, and the hitting of the afterburners, that took Souths from no-hopers like Cronulla to having decent prospects by the time October rolled around.

Souths’ inconsistency carried through to the main playmakers, with the league’s highest standard deviation of production of 41, well ahead of second placed Cronulla’s 32. Eyeballing the chart below and it would seem Cook was the main driver of the variation, having a relatively quiet season by his own standards, despite the rule changes seemingly being in his favour. It may well be that Cook, age 29, is losing his pace. Speed is, after all, a young man’s game.

I think if nothing else, Souths’ 2020 is proof that inconsistency isn’t inherently bad. If your team is poor and you want them to be consistent, then consistency isn’t going to make them good. Luck needs to turn, processes need to come good or changes made to improve performance. That improvement is by definition inconsistent with previous performances.

Instead, we saw the value of consistency of personnel and timing of form. Mid-season, the Bunnies were 5-5 and below the Tigers. By the end, they’d put 60 past the two time premiers and were into week three of the finals.

What’s next

The biggest issue facing the club in the immediate future is the transition of power from Wayne Bennett to Jason Demetriou. What we’ve seen of Demetriou so far suggests that the transition will be orderly and the club is in safe hands. Whether Bennett sticks around or moves back to south-east Queensland into some sort of mentorial role or retires remains to be seen. Undoubtedly, he’ll want to go out a winner and it was a shame they didn’t get there this year.

The most pressing issue is how do Souths break their duck? 2020 is their fifth preliminary final loss in nine seasons. While the first two were preludes to the 2014 premiership, we’ve now seen Souths fall one week short three years running. It’s good, indeed better than almost all of their competitors, but at some point, they’ll want to convert that to a premiership. In this context, arguing its just luck flies in the face of the sample size. Instead, there’s a tiny sliver of improvement that needs to come from somewhere to put the Rabbitohs over the top.

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