Tag Archives: nrl

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs finished season 2021 in last place with a pathetic 3-21 record and a points difference of -370. Scoring just 14.2 points per game in the Vlandoball era, a number inflated by a last round thumping of a hapless Tigers, puts a strong case for the Doggies to be one of the worst attacking sides of the NRL era. It was, in fact, the eleventh worst of the NRL era on a points scored per game basis but, shockingly, a marginal improvement on last year (ninth worst in NRL era).

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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.

That was, it turns out, unnecessarily optimistic. The signings for this season were more or less useless. Kyle Flanagan’s NRL future hinges on the breakout of an epsilon, or possibly zeta, variant (a doctor mentioned a mu variant to me the other day, so it is possible that this joke is already out of date). Cotric (.095 TPR) and Allan (.069) went from Origin to anonymity, even before injury.

Perhaps the worst offender was head coach Trent Barrett, who seemed to bring even less than his predecessors to the role. Absent were the garbage time wins we’ve come to expect, exchanging them for losses of varying magnitudes (hapless Tigers aside) and finally extinguishing that diehard spirit that had previously kept Canterbury off the bottom of the ladder.

What happened

I came into this expecting to blame the forwards but the numbers tell a different story.

It wasn’t a great year for anyone involved with the Canterbury-Bankstown organisation but the forward platoon (the players listed at prop, second row and lock) managed to produce 83.3% of the average NRL team. The bench did marginally better at 83.8% but the playmakers and especially the backs were lacking (76.2%).

That’s not particularly surprising though. If a team doesn’t score enough points, that suggests an absence of tries which traditionally are a large component of the production of the back five. In this case, their lack of production might reflect a lack of opportunity, probably from a combination of a lack of territory, a lack of possession and a lack of playmaking.

Lachlan Lewis was still productive through limited game time but he’s done that in previous years and it hasn’t meant he’s been good but rather that he has a boot on him. Jake Averillo might be marginally more promising long term but might serve the club better as first backup. Corey Horsburgh was a welcome reinforcement. Luke Thompson was perhaps the best all round performer and after that, it gets decidedly average quickly before dropping off quicker still to demonstrate a profound lack of depth. This is a long term problem to be solved, perhaps once the team’s results aren’t so dire.

There’s always next year

The arrival of Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton, Tevita Pangai Junior and other legitimate studs, including the 2+ WARG Josh Stuckey from the Queensland Cup’s Northern Pride, should be a turning point for the club. There’s some concerning noises about the lack of cap space that would require the Bulldogs to let go of Luke Thompson, which would be disastrous but could equally be media bullshit.

There’s probably not enough in the new blood to get the club to the top of the ladder, so it remains to be seen where the additional talent is going to come from, in which case the club might find itself floating in purgatory for a while until a juniors conveyor belt can be built, but better purgatory than the seventh circle of hell or lower. There also likely needs to be a coaching change in the near future, perhaps when a more obvious candidate emerges after the Trent Barrett experiment can be conclusively said to have failed.

We’ll have to wait and see how the current regime – occupying the space created by my previous, devastating season review – cope with these challenges to judge whether they should stay in their positions or if the Bulldogs require another teardown re-build before returning to something like their historical competence.

Hmmm.

Also, Lachlan Lewis allegedly stole some speakers and that’s what gets you fired from the NRL? Go figure.

BNE2.3: What is the point of it?

Previously, in our series on Brisbane expansion:

*****

A football club has an identity. Three things comprise a club’s identity: purpose, mythology and reality. Let’s explore those ideas with some NRL case studies.

The mythology of the Brisbane Broncos is that these were excellent footballers that were assembled from the Brisbane competition and wider Queensland to go south and show the Sydneysiders how it was done. From the first game, a record thrashing of the defending premiers, and through many premierships, the club’s success was a reflection of Queensland’s innate quality. The reality of the Broncos is that they had enormous financial and other advantages that enabled them to maintain a deep roster of talent and dominate the sport for nearly twenty years. Now that those advantages have been eroded, the reality of the club is much clearer.

Indeed, the reality of most NRL clubs is much the same. They get $13 million from the NRL each year and spend nearly $10 million on player salaries, have the same football department cap and, with a few exceptions, are run by some of the worst managers in Australia. But without the sales and admin and cleaning staff, there is no club. It’s always interesting to me to see people who, despite spending a lot of time thinking about football, are unable to separate the myth from the reality.

The purpose of the Gold Coast Titans is clear. They represent the people of the Gold Coast in the premier rugby league football competition in the country and give that city a national presence that no other sports teams can or have or maybe will. The reality is that, barring a few preliminary final appearances, the club has been mediocre to poor for its entire existence, brought to the brink of financial destruction and rescued by the NRL. The Titans have no mythology. There are no star players with long careers at Robina, no premierships or even really any interesting stories. They’ve existed but not lived. Consequently, its tough for the Titans to find wider acceptance within their community because they feel incomplete. We can speculate that if the name or the colours were different, whether that would have a different outcome but you can dress inferiority up however you like but it still sucks. That’s hard to invest in and doubly hard to sit through.

In contrast, the Wests Tigers almost have too much mythology. The combination of Balmain, brimming with a long history of success with one obvious home, and Western Suburbs, decidedly less successful and far more nomadic but with at least a patina of working class battler, has yielded more questions than answers. Specifically, who are the Wests Tigers and what are they for? Who are their people? While the exploits of Benji Marshall and company go some way to establishing a uniquely Wests Tigers mythology, the recent lack of success offers little to either side of the merger. You could accept some compromise on the club’s identity if it meant winning but to live in a subpar limbo satisfies no one. So despite the historical success, it’s the lack of obvious purpose that means that the Tigers will never be the darling of the so-called ‘City Fathers’ who cluck their tongues, stroke their beards and wonder, “Whats to be done with these Wests Tigers?”

The Newcastle Knights hit the trifecta. Their purpose is to represent Newcastle on the national stage in a way no other institution could. Their mythology is that of the 1997 grand final and the Johns brothers and then the 2001 grand final and more. Their reality is not that dissimilar to the Titans since 2007 but the mythology makes all the difference. They are a real and complete football club.

This brings us to the three Brisbane bids to be the seventeeth team in the NRL. My thinking on this has changed a lot over the last two years. Where I was excited by the novelty of it, I am now quite apathetic to the outcome of this process. It lacks purpose and it lacks an overall strategic context. What is the point of it?

Nonetheless, we wait with bated breath to see if Peter V’Landys, and anyone else who he deigned to allow speak in his presence, decide to add a new team to the competition (probable) or two new teams (unlikely) or no new teams (possible). I will admit the novelty still has some appeal and we may never get to analyse an opportunity like this again.

The key here is to not fall into the trap of thinking that Brisbane’s rugby league landscape is the same as Sydney’s. Sydney rugby league is like playing Risk: the map has been thoroughly divided into territories, with imperial suburb-states all butting up against each other, and the only way to grow is to march into the neighbouring land and take over. The new Brisbane team will need to play Monopoly: they will want to find property wherever they can on the board, bring it together into a portfolio with enough nous to generate sufficient revenue for them to survive.

The idea that the new Brisbane club has to represent a particular patch of suburbia is a foreign one. Our teams – the Broncos, the Roar, the Lions and even the Reds – represent far bigger expanses of land than that. You could make an argument that the Brisbane the Broncos represent stretches from Beenleigh to Rockhampton.

Consequently, discussions about juniors catchments and population growth seem a bit redundant. If you have the scouts, there’s nothing stopping anyone from scouting juniors in south-east Queensland and signing them to a scholarship. If you have the marketing, there’s nothing stopping your fans from coming from the north side and the south side of the river.

In any case, suburban clubs don’t necessarily make for good NRL clubs (c.f. most of Sydney’s teams) but they do bring a mythology and a geographically narrow notional purpose. That’s what appeals about the Dolphins’ and the Jets’ bids. They’re just missing the reality of being able to operate a NRL franchise and can probably bridge that gap with enough money.

Of course, this mythology helps gloss over the other reality. The Dolphins were far from the most successful BRL club, winning in 1965 with the next coming long after the Broncos had suffocated that competition and more recent wins coming thanks to partnerships with NRL clubs.

As the Broncos were to the Brisbane Rugby League, so the Jets were to the Ipswich Rugby League. Having only existed since 1985 and won a single premiership in that time (with the infamous Walker Brothers at the helm), I don’t know if the Jets have really offered the people of Ipswich all that much and perhaps nothing compared to their own, earlier established clubs. Some of that is moot as the nominal Jets bid is basically the Bombers bid but with a different aircraft moniker. There’s been little discussion about the so-called Western Corridor and more discussion about their potential financial shortcomings.

The Firehawks have divorced themselves from their own mythology with a new name and tweaked colours, partly involuntarily due to the pre-existing Tigers in the NRL, but still hoping to strike out and create something new. In some ways, this is sensible. No one really knows what the appetite is going to be for the second Brisbane team or what the expectations will be and to not marry yourself too tightly to a singular vision offers some flexibility to react what the market actually wants and not what extremely online footy nerds think.

The fact is that we just don’t know a lot about the bids. We can react to colours and logos and nicknames but these things don’t matter so much and certainly not over the long term. That the online reaction is almost overwhelmingly negative tells me nothing. These people aren’t the target demographic and what they think is immaterial to the success of a new franchise.

Easts Tigers unveiled a strategic plan in 2020 to take them through to 2022 which hinted at some things normally discussed in boardrooms that that might be relevant to their bid (this, of course, has gone unnoticed by the media). Nick Livermore is happy to offer quotes in the media but is light on detail or, for that matter, lip service to the idea of the Western Corridor, let alone an Indigenous spin on the club’s branding. The Dolphins haven’t said much other than to suggest they might be the Brisbane or Moreton Bay or Sunshine State Dolphins.

If the NRL is expanded, I don’t have any particularly great hopes for the new franchise. I’d like there to be a (good) local derby partner for the Broncos. I’d like there to be a greater Queensland presence in the professional ranks of rugby league. I’d also like to see the NRL get bigger and richer and use that power to go to strange new places. But the NRL won’t do that.

The broadcasters have signalled minimal interest in a new team that doesn’t provide any additional content or offer a panacea to declining ratings. The incumbent clubs do not want to share their money or resources or spotlight or fans with a new intruder. Given that, the question remains as to where the NRL will find the new team’s central distribution payments. Surely they won’t follow Super League’s lead and allow teams to operate without central funding (see Toronto, Leigh) and surely there aren’t that many development officers left at HQ that can be let go. Then who will fund Gus Gould’s dreams of world (rugby league) domination?

It’s not even clear that the people of Brisbane are that interested in having a second team. The crowds for the plethora of games in late 2021 have been underwhelming, a far cry from the festival of footy that is Magic Round. There’s no grassroots wave of support, online or in the real world, to indicate that anyone is actually excited by the prospect of a new team, other than those who have given up on their current teams getting any better.

Perhaps we are all just exhausted by the never-ending pandemic. Perhaps it seems so inconsequential compared to the swirl of six agains and ping-ponging from reckless abandon to martial law and back again when it comes to acceptable tackle technique. Perhaps it’s just not that interesting.

The new team will be a goth in a school of jocks, unable to reconcile its place in the league because its not really wanted or needed but is there anyway, to serve a purpose that is not at all clear. This is because the NRL cannot reconcile its place within the national culture and refuses to even acknowledge that it needs to do so.

So we go around and around and wait for something to break.

It’s not just the six again

The move to do away with the ‘unlimited’ tackle rule that had been played in Australia for 59 seasons was the brainchild of the urbane secretary of the Rugby Football League in England, Bill Fallowfield. The move was designed to counter what Jack McNamara in the Manchester Evening News described as the ‘evils of the almost never-ending possession’. In both countries, a grinding, physical style of play had developed, with teams holding possession for long periods. Australian centre Bob Hagan… told of a game in which Huddersfield kicked off against Hull Kingston Rovers, and then touched the ball only twice in the first half. Hagan reckons it was this game that killed off the old rule.

Centenary of Rugby League (2008), Ian Heads and David Middleton

In the late 1950s, rugby league faced a problem. It was boring. Teams could hold the ball indefinitely and, using the favoured tactic of one out hit-ups, could maintain possession provided they didn’t make an error or do something silly like scoring.

The problem identified, a radical solution was borrowed from American football to introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ ethos to the game. Initially limiting possession to four tackles, and extended to six in 1971 in New South Wales (and later elsewhere), the new rule was trialled in pre-season competitions to test its impacts. The new rule had its detractors and the style of football it spawned was chaotic – dubbed “panic football” – but better than it had been. It forced teams to attack. Four tackles didn’t seem to provide enough time, so six tackles became the solution. The game was better for it.

The NRL website has every Sydney grand final from 1966 onwards and if you watch them like I have, you can see the evolution from unlimited possession to four tackle and then six tackles in the space of a few hours.

The key thing here is the process. A problem is identified. A solution is proposed. The solution is tested and evaluated outside of the main premiership. If successful at resolving the initial problem, the solution is implemented. The solution is adjusted as required in response to feedback

This is the basic framework of common sense decision making. Further, it is evidence that the sport of rugby league collectively and consciously decided it was not a game that valued possession of a football but one that valued attacking play and, as perhaps an unintended consequence, became a game of field position

Rugby league has a history of making these rule changes – introducing the play the ball and reducing from 15 to 13 a side in 1906, reducing the points value of goals in 1897 and increasing the points value of tries in 1983, introducing and then gradually increasing the offside rule over the years – to support the scoring of tries, considered the most interesting part of the game.

As it currently stands, the set restart will not be joining that pantheon of innovative rule changes.

The governing bodies for Queensland, NSW, French, PNG and British rugby leagues, as well as the international board, have all joined the Australian body in adopting the set restart. The rule sets still aren’t completely harmonised – the two point field goal remains an Australian-only feautre as far as I can tell, scrums are used at fewer points (or not at all) to restart play in England and the rules are different again for the women’s game for some reason – but largely everyone is now on the same page after Peter V’Landys, Project Apollo and the ARLC unilaterally changed the sport of rugby league during the 2020 covid off-season.

As more time passes, and the NRL bogs down into a mire of repeated blowout scorelines, it becomes clear what the sport has decided to sign itself up for. In a sense, it continues the tradition of attacking play but it appears to be decidedly one way. Concerningly, even as fewer six agains are called, the blowouts remain.

Worse still, the sport seems to have regressed more than half a century to being a matter of possession. Phil Lutton put together a fantastic piece in the SMH on the rule changes that, somewhat novelly, involved speaking to the actual players to see what they thought was happening, instead of merely regurgitating talking points from the administration. I believe this is called journalism.

The truly fascinating thing about is that these well-paid professional athletes cannot explain precisely what’s happening. This is not a reflection on them but rather reflects the complexity of the problem the NRL faces.

We can see the obvious. There are a lot of games decided in 2020 and moreso in 2021 by larger scorelines than we are used to. We can watch the games and see that if one team has a noticeable advantage after ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, then it won’t be long before they race out to a twenty point lead and it’s game by half time. The second forty minutes is effectively irrelevant. I’ve written about the subltety of the impact on the game before but do you really need any more evidence than this?

Previously, I compared the impacts of the rule changes to that of climate change. It’s small, it’s consistent and there are other things hapenning but it’s there. Some people’s complete inability to parse this reality – that several things can happen simultaneously to affect an outcome – leaves me baffled on a regular basis, however, if a substantial population seem to have an unbending love of simple, monocausal explanations for the complexities of the world, that does seem to explain much of history.

Not every game is a blowout, just as each day is not necessarily hotter than the last, but the data paints a picture of the overall situation that is as alarming as it is obvious. To repeat bullshit talking points about development, pathways, roster management and whatever else is insulting to the collective intelligence of the NRL fanbase. If anything, the complete absence of any thorough explanation of how the sport’s mechanics actually work on the field belies the idea that rugby league is a simple game for simple people (a subscription to Rugby League Writers will dispell that notion for you) and yet simple people insist on talking as if it were so.

Confounding this further is the abject refusal of the same blowouts afflicting the NRL to turn up in Super League, which adopted the six again after their own covid break in 2020, or either State Cup, which implemented the six again at the start of this season.

To unpack this, we’re going to have to go back to first principles.

*****

I wrote about how this all came about in June of 2020 and managed to reasonably well predict most of what’s happened since. I was wrong about the impact on margins (that only became clear later) but otherwise, the cliff notes follow.

The suspension of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic put the NRL in breach of contract with its free-to-air broadcast partner, Nine. Nine, a relic in a dying industry, felt that it had overpaid for the rights to the NRL and Origin and used this opportunity to make the NRL take a significant cut to its broadcast revenue while forcing the NRL to bring in changes that would make the game more entertaining, thereby increasing Nine’s ratings. Australian netball did somethinig similar at the behest of Nine.

The NRL introduced packages of rule changes between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, between the first two rounds and remainder of the 2020 season and then another between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. These changes tend to all be lumped together and include the captain’s challenge, reducing from two to one referee, the set restart for ruck infringements and later offside, a reduction in scrums but greater flexibility in how they are used, the 20/40 and the two point field goal for attempts beyond the 40m line.

The changes made under the V’Landys regime, most of the above, were sold on the basis that it would improve the pace of the game, the flow of the game, bring back fatigue to the game, which would allow the little man to flourish. All of this was deemed to be more entertaining, taking us back to a time of purer, less robotic football.

When the changes were first premiered, on 28 May as Parramatta defeated Brisbane 34-6, it was clear that panic football had returned after lying dormant for half a century. As the weeks progressed, it was not at all clear to me that the product was better but there was definitely more of it and I was told by the media, breathlessly and relentlessly, that it was better.

Ratings for the first two weeks of the resumed competition were record breaking. The dogshit defence of the Broncos was seen by more than 1.3 million people. But after a few weeks, ratings fell back into their usual rhythm and while the season seemed to finish with improved overall ratings, it was on fewer games and the big four matches of the grand final and State of Origin were well down on previous years.

This season, we’ve seen Origin bounce back a little, leading to suggestions that its ratings are up, which is true as long as you don’t look at what the ratings were five years ago. For the regular season, ratings seem to be down but not significantly enough that you wouldn’t be able to point to streaming and make up some stuff about historically bad teams to explain it. If the on-field product is leading to people turning off their TVs, it hasn’t been significant enough that the NRL won’t be able to duck and weave taking any responsibility for what’s happening.

All of this leads us to the inevitable question: what was the point?

I understand that one must occassionally suffer in the short term, in order to gain in the long term. The penalty crackdown in 2018 was a perfect example. In principle, we simply had to ensure a few months of penalty-ridden games to ensure that players and coaches understood that the “wrestle” would not be tolerated and the game would then speed up. Players and coaches knew that the administration did not have the stomach for it, nor for the fight in the media, and would buckle eventually. Sure enough, the administration did and we watched a lot of penalties get awarded for nothing.

This is the opposite. If there isn’t a clear goal to be achieved, as I suspect the current administration does not know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, then why do we need to suffer? None of the rules supporters seem to be able to answer that question, preferring to deflect onto a Victorian bootstraps philosophy that every team simply must do better.

Ratings are, at best, flat and, at worst, down. That rather suggests that the rules haven’t had their intended impact. If the rules don’t serve their ostensible purpose – to entertain and to increase the audience – then there shouldn’t be anything that stops the NRL from rolling them back. There seems little point in “tweaking” the rule changes to mitigate the worst outcomes because the game is less entertaining and no more popular than it was previously.

As it stands, we have had to sit through a lot of terrible football for no gain.

The problem is how to unravel what’s been done. I don’t think it is as simple as getting rid of the set restart.

*****

I’ve got to say, even with the blow-outs the games are entertaining.

Before they were robotic, they were predictable. Now, they’re entertaining. Even the blowouts over the weekend were entertaining. For the viewer.

Peter V’Landys, 17 May 2021 (Poor roster management, not faster game, to blame for growing number of blowouts: V’landys, WWOS)

Teams that have adapted well to the new game don’t seem to mind where they start their sets. Using fast play-the-balls, a reliance on metre-eating backs gaining ground early in the set and a narrow passing game to add just enough variation to keep the defence guessing, they are able to keep their attacking line moving fast enough to regularly cover the best part of a length of the field in a set. The threat of the six again is enough to keep poorly organised defensive lines scrambling, unwilling to risk sitting in the ruck too long and extending the time that they have to defend. Ironically, this plays exactly into the better teams’ hands

Should the weaker team survive the set and regain possession, the well adapted teams are flying off the line and pinning down their opponents. This increases pressure on the team with the ball, forcing them to accept a paltry gain on their set or forcing them into an error, either from an ill-advised pass or from the sheer impact of defensive line.

Now the better team has field position and the ball. From there, any team with a competent halfback should be able to string together two or three repeat sets. Failing that, they can rely on their defensive linespeed to crush the opposition until they have had enough attacking opportunities to put points on the board. Then they get the ball back from kick-off.

And that’s it. Fifteen minutes of this and most teams crack – good and bad. Players do not have the aerobic engines to compete at that intensity for long and the poorer teams do not have the defensive structures to resist. Once the players are gassed, it’s trivial for the team with the upper hand to start running through and over teams no longer able to organise themselves or make tackles. Once they’re up by twenty, it’s game over but unfortunately, there’s often up to an hour still to go.

It gets worse later in the game when the fatigue causes handling errors, turning the ball back over and resulting in more energy-sapping defence, leading to a negative feedback loop whose destination is a blown out scoreline. On the rare occassions where the losing team manages to string a set or two together, they are too fatigued to run with any intensity. It becomes laughably easy to defend their insipid attacks. In desperation and running on empty, their fifth tackle options fall apart as players de-sychronise their timing, lose cohesion and begin to rely on individuals going it alone.

In short, once you are on the backfoot, you start to play a lot like the 2020 Brisbane Broncos. More often than not, you lose like them too.

What you may notice is that nowhere in that platonic ideal of the NRL in 2021 was the team with the upper hand awarded a set restart. Indeed, it was at most the threat of a set restart that got defensive teams scrambling. This, I think, explains why Penrith can have a positive set restart difference and Melbourne can have a negative difference and both can completely dominate the competition.

You might then be wondering what the difference is between 2019 and 2021. Isn’t this just a description of good rugby league gameplay? The answer is yes but also no. The differences are subtle and mostly rooted in the rule changes that have been brought in.

Relieving penalties are a thing of the past, replaced by the set restart. Bad teams relied on these penalties being awarded, sometimes seemingly at random, as a means to get a lift down the field, an opportunity take a breath and reset their organisation or to score an easy two points with another possession to follow.

This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. It’s how the game has been played for more than a hundred years. Importantly, it interrupts the otherwise continuous possession of the better team and offers a foothold for the weaker team to work their way back into the game. Otherwise, the better team knows it has the ability to move the ball as required to score points, they simply need to hold the ball until the lesser team cracks. As Phil Lutton put it:

This style of play, with its heavy emphasis on holding possession in lieu of gaining field position, wasn’t possible previously because the conditions that allow it to exist weren’t in place.

The reduction from two on-field referees to one has had huge and completely unexplored implications. Most of the discourse at the time of the change was about working rights. The ARLC gave some token concessions and since then, the referees have shut up and gotten on with it. The problem is that between halving the number of referees and the increased pace of play, the referees are now worse at their jobs.

This is the genesis of the debacle of the high shot crackdown. High shots that were obvious enough on TV were being missed on field because the referees, like the players, were gassed and looking for too many things. That crackdown, like all of its previous editions, was quietly shelved when it turned out it was poorly thought through and ruining the spectacle of the game even moreso than the blowouts. The solution seems to have been more Bunker involvement, which I’m fairly certain was decried by segments of the media a few years ago but goes unremarked in V’Landys’ NRL. If they haven’t already, the referees are going to reach overload.

Under a two referee system, one referee set the line and the other policed the ruck. Under a one referee system, one referee does both jobs but neither of them well. The better teams are able to get off the mark a few tenths of a second earlier because the referee’s attention is elsewhere and that’s enough to get to the opposition slightly sooner and hit slightly harder. The cumulative effect starts to hurt after a while.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, teams like the Panthers can simply lie in the ruck, either waiting for a signal from the referee or their teammates to get up. If the wrestle has been eliminated, it’s been replaced with an even more blatant ruck infringement, largely daring the referees to blow a penalty that will never come. Instead, a lesser punishment in the form of a set restart may come, and the Panthers will simply shrug their shoulders and set their line, confident in the knowledge that their defence can withstand the insipid, exhausted attack of their opposition.

Considering all of this, I believe any attempts to tweak the rules, to apply another band-aid, are misguided. The suggestions to date will not disrupt this paradigm. One common one is to re-adopt the Super League rule and let the scoring team kick off. This would prevent the scoring team from regaining possession immediately after scoring but merely delays the inevitable. If the better teams can move the ball 70 metres downfield in a set, more if they get a set restart, and can manipulate the other team to dominate possession for an extended period, then we are back to square one.

Giving penalties in your own half and giving set restarts while in the attacking half doesn’t help either. Penalty goals are a key means for lesser teams with weak attacks to keep within touching distance of their opposition. By effectively eliminating the penalty goal from the game, you force weaker teams to attack the line. Penrith, who currently have the best defensive record of any Australian club of the last twenty years, would simply laugh.

In a season with a record number of shutouts, this isn’t going to redress the balance. Weaker teams need tools to keep their opposition within reach and to be able to work themselves back into the game, as they did 1895 through 2019. Without that, the blowouts will continue.

While we’ve examined one factor in detail but there are many at play and it would take a thesis to unpack everything. Some of the teams currently playing are simply bad at football and could probably stand to improve. But the teams on the wrong end of pastings have included the pre-season favourites and the club that won two premierships in 2018 and 2019. At the other end of the ladder, the Bulldogs have already won more games than the 2016 Knights and aren’t conceding anywhere near as many points as the 1999 Magpies. There’s always been bad teams but there’s never been scorelines like this. Not against good and bad teams. Not in a wet La Niña year. Not in a salary capped, full-time professional league. Not when it’s been fourteen years since the last expansion team entered the competition.

However, like breaking the four minute mile, the ceiling of what’s possible in rugby league has been raised and, even if the old rule set was reinstated, elements of the new style of play would remain. Unless the game is slowed down, it may well remain a game of possession. While I’m normally in favour of pushing the barriers of what’s humanly possible, we can only speculate as to where this might lead the sport over the coming years.

*****

So why don’t we see these blowouts in other leagues?

Despite the margin heading higher but not exceeding previous year, there’s signs in the English game. The closest game in round 12 was a forfeit. Round 8 had the fourth highest margin in Super League history. St Helens are currently conceding points at just 7.6 points per game, better even than Penrith and the best in Europe since Wigan in the 1986-87 season. The league leading attack of Warrington is less impressive, merely being the best since the 2017 Tigers. Salford’s attack has only been good for 11.5 points per game, the least since 2-23 Swinton in 1991-92. Leigh’s 0-12 record speaks for itself and their 39.1 points conceded per game is the seventh worst in the entire history of English rugby league dating back to 1895, sitting behind six Super League teams who managed to combine for 15 wins and 2 draws from 155 matches.

In Queensland Cup, Wynnum’s 34.0 points scored per game and 18.2 points conceded per game are only 16th and 52nd best marks in that competition. The Capras’ 16.1 points scored per game and the Cutters’ 33.6 points conceded per game are 26th and 27th worst, respectively. In all, it seems rather balanced. Despite this, the two leading teams each have more competition points than the bottom five combined, which includes three unaffiliated clubs.

It may just be that not enough set restarts have been called for it to be a sufficiently significant threat to fluster teams even in the absence of the six again call.

But we see a similar decline in penalties awarded.

Albeit, in percentage terms, it’s less significant in state cups than the NRL. Comparing the average penalties across 2016 to 2019 to the number called in 2021, 52% of penalties have been eliminated in NRL, compared to only 33% in Queensland Cup and 44% in NSW Cup.

It may be that in these leagues, the players aren’t athletic or skilled or coached well enough to implement the strategies used by Melbourne and Penrith in the NRL. Most of the NRL – and the Queensland Maroons, for that matter – haven’t come to grips with it yet, so it’s questionable whether we would have expected reserve graders to have mastered the new game. It may be that the spread of talent across the leagues is greater than the NRL and the effects are concealed within the typically higher scoring. It could be that Super League never adopted the second referee and state cup did so only sporadically and so the “change” back to one ref has had comparatively less impact on those competitions.

It may, as in the NRL and Super League in 2020, take time for the changes to fully percolate through. It will be worth watching other leagues to see how they adapt to the play on a year’s delay. More data should help isolate what’s happening and prove or disprove any hypotheses.

It is, as I said, complicated.

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Rugby league is an entirely artificial space. There is no natural order. We can decide what we want to see and there is no reason why would should have implemented these rules. They do not serve their intended purpose and the second order impacts, unknown at the time of implementation due to a lack of trialling, have made the NRL demonstrably worse.

Any defence of the rule changes starts with the presumption that they need to remain and only require modification but this flies in the face of the common sense decision making framework used previous administrators to improve the game. We must ask ourselves what purpose the changes were meant to serve, if that’s been accomplished and if not and what reasoning there is to continue with it. If the goal was to punish teams for losing, then it’s mission accomplished but if the goal was to entertain, it’s been sadly lacking.

The concern is that in a World Cup year, assuming it goes ahead at all, will see minnows will face off against Australian and New Zealander sides principally comprising players from Penrith and Melbourne. If full time professionals get blown off the park by these players, what hope is there for nations whose teams are made up of part timers and amateurs? It could get ugly and it will be embarrassing and it will reflect the shortage of common sense decision making at all levels of rugby league adminstration.

But until someone smarter than me works out what’s really going on, the best we can hope is the World Cup is refereed as the lower tiers of the sport are and hope that the next round of band-aid solutions, rumoured to already be in the works, somehow fixes the problem by accident.

BNE2.2: The Gemba Report

Previously, in our series on Brisbane expansion:

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The short version is that twelve NRL clubs have chipped in to get a study (that the ARLC probably should have commissioned themselves) to look at the impacts of expansion on the competition. They have engaged Gemba Sports Group to do this and The Australian has actually published the report in full (not paywalled).

That the existing NRL clubs, who may have to face another competitor and who stand to have their ARLC voting power mildly diluted and potentially lose future funding, commissioned the report to make a specific point needs to be kept in mind. That I want to make a different point probably also needs to be considered.

This has not generated much interest, largely because the content has been paywalled at The Australian and the articles are largely made up of quotes from the heads of Manly, Penrith and the Gold Coast talking their own book.

It is common knowledge that the player talent is not there. If there is enough talent for another team, you wouldn’t have the Bulldogs trying to get (Matt) Burton or the Wests Tigers wanting Dane Laurie. It doesn’t pass the pub test.

Brian Fletcher, Panthers CEO, 26 March 2021

On that basis, a club should be worth $50m. So what I am saying is … if a club wants to come and have a seat at the table, they have to be stumping up.

Scott Penn, Manly owner, 1 June 2021

But if expansion is done quickly at the cost to the game and the existing clubs, then we need to pause and think it through.

Steve Mitchell, Titans CEO, 23 June 2021

The basic breakdown of the report is that there’s four “sprints” (?):

  1. Impact on Fans
  2. Impact on Revenues
  3. Impact on Operations and Football
  4. Investing in NRLW and Participation

The executive summary covers the most important information over about the first 40 pages or so and then goes into more depth in the remaining 160 pages of the report.

My inclination is not to document every item of interest. You can read the report for that. My goal is to look at the arguments being made, not as the words of Gemba Group but as those of the incumbent NRL clubs, to see if they hold water.

Sprint One: Fans

This sprint boils down to the following key points –

  • The Queensland market has had declining interest in NRL over the last few years
  • The Queensland market is pretty well saturated, as measured by self-declared interest in the NRL and self-declared support of existing NRL teams
  • Therefore, for a new club to survive, they will need to convert the small group of uncommitted NRL fans (approx. 22,000 in south-east Queensland) and cannibalise the existing fanbases to get to the 150,000 or so the smallest NRL clubs have to sustain them

Fundamentally, that’s a more or less sound argument and not one that I dispute, other than to note that the declining interest in NRL in Queensland over the last few years can be easily correlated with the performance of the three Queensland clubs, having peaked in 2015 with the all-Queensland grand final.

There is, however, some issues with the numbers. This slide shows what Gemba estimates to be the fanbase of each team.

pp13

They’ve got some of the clubs right, although I have no idea about the accuracy of what they’re measuring, but there’s some obvious exceptions that don’t really square with the other big source of fan data: TV ratings. The idea that the Roosters are the third most popular club in the NRL is laughable, as evidenced by any other data point you care to name. The Storm are big – and bigger than most would credit them – but not Broncos big. The Rabbitohs are not less popular than the Raiders.

Some of the discrepancy can be explained by using point in time data in 2020, rather than over a longer time frame and factoring in other sources of information to synthesise a more wholistic view of the size of fanbases.

More of the discrepancy can be explained by the difference between what people say they do and what people actually do. The point of a new team is to get eyeballs on TV and, to a lesser extent, attend games and buy merchandise. Having people identify as fanatics is great but does not necessarily align with what the NRL are looking for. It might also mean their methodology has misestimated the number of casual or uncommitted fans, which changes the business case if some supposed fanatics are actually more malleable in their allegiances.

Half of NRL Fanatics that reside in Greater Brisbane currently support the Brisbane Broncos

The risk of fan cannibalisation is not limited to Queensland Clubs, with there being more NRL Fanatics in candidate locations that support interstate teams than the Cowboys or Titans

pp16

Cannibalising the existing Broncos fanbase is inevitable and perhaps even desirable. After all, the fans of the Cowboys came from somewhere and the same applies to the Titans. Indeed, the Broncos fanbase is made up of people who either were or would have been self-declared fanatics of the BRL clubs. People can change.

Gemba notes that they have not undertaken the bespoke research – code for the clubs didn’t stump up the fees – required to draw any conclusions here.

The Broncos have been awful of late and, as evidenced by the increasing ratings and attendances of the Lions now and in the early ’00s, the people of Brisbane prefer to follow a winning team. If the new team comes in and is successful, they will find fans (if they aren’t successful in the medium term, they will be another Titans). If the fans come from the Broncos, the Broncos have fans to spare. Having one team in the league loom commercially over the rest has its drawbacks, specifically forcing the country to watch a terrible Broncos team get pasted on free-to-air most weeks, lest the commercial base of the sport collapse.

The most important point this section could make is actually irrelevant to expansion but incredibly important to the future of rugby league (so will be ignored), which is the slowly dwindling interest as other global behemoths invade the market, especially among younger fans. These globalisation risks are something I highlighted earlier in the year.

Sprint Two: Revenue

Gemba have suggested that a seventeenth team would add twelve matches a season and modelled revenues improvements based on that. The total audience would grow but its likely, in their view, that average ratings per match would remain stagnant.

They seem to be working from the assumption that their estimate of the fanbase size is correct but the ratings don’t correlate well.

pp71

I think they have this backwards. The ratings are the goal and the number of fanatics is largely immaterial except as a means to generate ratings. In fact, I think ratings give you a better estimate of the fanbase size than whatever data they’ve used. Gemba probably would have been better spending the money on buying an Oztam subscription than commissioning a survey.

Their assumption is that the new club will have a small fanbase is probably valid and consequently will generate minimal ratings (similar to that of Penrith or Cronulla), excepting for the newly created Queensland derbies and additional matches, and this underpins their subsequent analysis. Given that averages remain about the same and the increase to total audience is driven by the additional matches, the implication is that another team is not required to play more games to generate that revenue.

This is not a view I subscribe to. I think it’s likely that a new Brisbane team will have reasonable-to-good ratings because people in Brisbane like watching football and want skin in the game, even if it’s not their preferred team. Most weeks, the new Brisbane team will play in lieu of a below average team and raise the average ratings for each round and that, even without extra games, average and total ratings will rise in the short to medium term.

I’d be surprised if broadcasters or the players’ association agreed to a longer season. While there is scope to amend the value of the broadcast deal based on expansion (but who knows whether or how this will be triggered), I think any uplift in average and/or total ratings would only accrue to the broadcasters under the current deal. I talked about this in BNE2.1.

Overall, Gemba forecasts small benefits for the league as a whole. They do this in a logical way with some evidence but I think they’ve understated the upside. You can make up your own mind.

Sprint Three: Operations

In summary –

  • NRL costs are going up, which is largely because the new team will be entitled to the central distribution plus some additional costs to move the morass of Sydney clubs to south-east Queensland more frequently (estimated by the report at $345,000).
  • Based on the AFL experience, promoting existing clubs into established markets results in league-average contributions to the new clubs. Starting new clubs from scratch in new markets requires significantly more investment.
  • It costs about $23.6 million per year to run an average NRL club, so a new club needs to find about $10 million a year over their distribution to break even.
  • A new mouth to feed means less sponsorship revenue for everyone else.
  • With a new club increasing the total salary pool from $147 million to $156 million, salary inflation will result in putting existing clubs under pressure to manage their lists.

Cap management is a challenge that clubs currently face, but may be compounded in the short term with the addition of a new team

pp139

It would be a shame if clubs had to do their jobs better, a wholly unprecedented situation not found anywhere else in society.

After that, it starts to get maddening.

If you’re not familiar with corporate risk analysis, it’s largely about identifying qualitative concerns and less about quantitative analysis and that’s how this sprint largely runs.

There will be dilution of talent as a result of more players entering the league, but there are concerns that the quality of talent will not be up to NRL standard.

pp26

There’s no evidence for this, simply the assertion which is backed by a logic but its a logic that suits the needs of the existing clubs. Where benefits are noted for balance, there are considerably fewer bullet points when compared to the risks.

In reality, if there’s a shortage of talent, it’s in the club offices, not on the football field. It is particularly galling to hear these sentiments echoed by the Panthers, while they were undefeated in first and second grade football at the time of the report’s writing, forcing Matt Burton to either play in reggies or as a first grade centre, because they are just so overladen with talent. That he can go elsewhere for an opportunity to play first grade in the halves is considered a failing of the current system, which is baffling.

There is a concern amongst interviewed clubs about the quality of the players that would be entering the league to fill the additional spots created by a new team. However, there is a general sentiment that there are enough players to fill an additional team of 34 players.

pp143

The corollary is the fate of the 2019 Sunshine Coast Falcons and how other NRL teams just allowed Melbourne to keep their most talented members, which included at various points Harry Grant, Justin Olam, Nicho Hynes, Tui Kamikamica, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Ryan Panehuyzen, without a fight. Instead, Melbourne’s rivals preferred to wait until their market value had risen beyond cheap before showing any interest.

Feedback from current NRL clubs suggests there is currently a lack of incentives and structures in place for clubs to prioritise the development of junior talent. If a new club does not take a development mindset towards building junior talent, there is a risk that current Queensland based clubs will be negatively impacted as they may lose junior talent for little compensation

pp161

For mine, it’s clear that the talent is there but the scouting and development structures are not, which is ironic considering the report states that clubs are concerned that there’s no reward for developing talent. It pays huge dividends because the rest of the league won’t scout outside their postcode. This self-serving analysis is not a useful contribution to the discourse.

It may become increasingly more challenging for a new club to establish talent pathways, as existing teams continue to grow their presence in Queensland from a talent identification perspective (e.g. Melbourne Storm’s affiliation with the Sunshine Coast Falcons and Brisbane Easts, and the NZ Warriors’ affiliation with Redcliffe Dolphins)

pp34

The report notes that clubs who rely on Queensland talent will have to spend more to maintain their pipeline. There are three unaffiliated clubs in the Queensland Cup, two of which will sign up with any NRL club that will have them. Of the three clubs that might come into the NRL, they all exist in some form in QCup, meaning the Storm might have to shift partners from Easts (or rely solely on Sunshine Coast), the Warriors might re-enter the NSW Cup with their own side (which might happen anyway) in lieu of using Redcliffe and the Jets would obviously link up with their currently unaffiliated namesakes. There are still substantial opportunities for more clubs to utilise Queensland in their pathways.

The report rightly identifies that there are unanswered questions about how the new team will operate. Will they be given cap dispensations? How will the draw be structured? What’s going to happen to distributions? That’s on the NRL to address. But if the result of expansion is player salaries going up and additional playing and coaching jobs being created, this is presented in the executive summary as a bad thing (the body is more balanced). It is, of course, bad if your business is running a football club but it is less so if you are ordinary fan who simply wants to see the people responsible for playing the game rewarded for their efforts.

Outside consultants are unlikely to publicly publish a report which states that their clients could and should actually be a lot better at their jobs. What’s irritating is that this has been relayed, verbatim, with little to no analysis or interpretation or context, by the media. Fortunately, it’s been paywalled so no one else seems to have picked up on these extremely lazy talking points.

Sprint Four: Women/grassroots

The final sprint talks about the current risks and opportunities for the women’s game and grassroots. This seems like a non-sequitir, given the report is notionally about adding another NRLM team in Brisbane, but there is an opportunity cost. The money that’s invested in a new team is money that can’t be invested in the NRLW and women’s game.

To a level that’s true. Of course, the unstated assumption is that the existing clubs’ central distribution is to be left untouched, even though a large number of clubs do not generate sufficient commercial return to justify such a generous grant and their existence is largely subsidised by the Warriors, Broncos and other big clubs. Perhaps we should cut the men’s club distribution by $1 million a year and reinvest that in the women’s game? We could then have our cake and eat it. That this would come at the expense of a number of precariously balanced legacy clubs wouldn’t bother me in the slightest.

One strange thing to note is that the report states that the NRLW has the fewest passionate fans but also shows that it rates better than Super Rugby, A-League, AFLW and NBL. Gemba seems to have again confused their fan metrics with what actually matters. The NRLW has the least ability to drive subscriptions, because it is bundled with the NRL rights. What is not stated is the commercial impact if NRLW gets its own broadcast deal. The competition could become self-funding and realise its potential. When you think about the NRLW in terms of the failure of the current administration to capitalise on its potential, then this negates the opportunity cost and makes this entire line of argument redundant in the context of expanding the NRLM.

pp 182
pp 194

Personally, I find it gross that a number of NRL clubs have shown little to no interest in the women’s game, not even bothering to pretend to want a NRLW franchise, but will use it as a distraction to further their case that they should not be subject to any further competition in the men’s league.

The real opportunity cost is using this time and money to put another team in Brisbane, presumably at the behest and benefit of Nine, when the report notes that the demand for a team in Western Australia or South Australia is about the same as it is for a second Brisbane team. Of course, that would cost the NRL a lot more money.

Conclusion

Consultancy, irrespective of the discipline, is fundamentally about giving the client what they want within the legal and ethical bounds of the profession. Most reports of this nature are used by C-suite executives to bludgeon their counterparts on the opposite side of the board room table, rather than being works of science. Many simply go unread, their heftiness being the primary goal.

Gemba’s brief was to develop a report that highlights the heretofore unexplored impacts of the second Brisbane team, with an emphasis on commercial and quantative analysis, and they’ve hit it out of the park. It’s clear that sprint one and two is their own work. As I get older, I realise in these grey-scaled scenarios, there’s not a right or wrong, so much as a more defensible or a less defensible position and while I could quibble here or there, their arguments are sound. I disagree with their conclusions but that doesn’t make me right and if I had done a similar report, not only would it look terrible but it would have had a very different goal in mind.

Where it falls down is where Gemba have been guided by their clients, the football clubs. Sprints three is about repeating the club’s concerns, dressed up in the language of corporate risk management. The implication is that the clubs see what’s good for them as being what’s good for rugby league.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The sport would greatly benefit from not only removing these lunatics from control of the ARLC but also shedding several or more from the top tier of the sport and redirecting their central funding to support expansion and the women’s game and grassroots or country football. On that basis, it’s difficult to swallow the conclusions reached in this part but it’s created the most talking points in the media, so in that sense it’s mission accomplished.

Still, it’s better to have some information out there, than not all, as long as we understand the context in which it was created, which is that most of the existing clubs do not want any further competition. There are a lot of interesting bits of information that I have not covered.

The ARLC pursued something similar under the Greenberg administration and this was subsequently buried in a dark hole by V’Landys. It seems unlikely that we will ever see that report.

Nor will we likely ever know on what basis the ARLC makes their decision about the successful expansion option. The information released by the clubs themselves is fairly scant – Easts held a press conference that could have been an email to talk finance and there’s reports the Jets are short on bank guarantees – and I assume the contents of the bids will remain commercial-in-confidence.

Irrespective, I have no doubt that a second Brisbane team will be announced in about a month. I guess we’ll see what happens and if its a disaster, at least the Panthers and Titans will be able to say I told you so.

2021 NRL WIP Report

We’re just a bit over half way into the 2021 NRL season and it’s time to review how each team and player are performing. We’ll be looking at this using the following analytical tools:

  • FormElo ratings that reflect short term performance.
  • Production – The accumulation of valuable work on field, as measured by statistics that correlate with winning. Production is measured in Taylors.
  • Disappointment Line – The minimum number of wins for the season to not be considered disappointing by fans, as calculated by the pre-season class (long term performance) Elo rating.
  • 1st order winsPythagorean expectation calculated by points for and against.
  • 2nd order wins – Pythagorean expectation calculated by SCWP.

There’s more detail at How It All Works.

Unlike the season preview deep dive, I won’t be providing much analysis for individual teams or players, instead preferring to let you do the work for your favourite team or player with the context about how the tools work provided.

WIP graphs

Comparing win percentage of the Disappointment Line, pre-season projected wins, actual wins (0th), Pythagorean wins (1st) and 2nd order wins.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not 100% sure what these are meant to look like, having been the first time I’ve presented this information in this format. For example, I’m surprised that the pre-season projections and Disappointment Line are often pretty much the same because I’d never thought to check previously. Note that the zero to one scale for winning percentage can make significant differences look minor; a .100 change in winning percentage is worth 2.4 wins at season’s end.

The projections are naturally more conservative (less likely to predict outliers) to cover the potential spread of results. Think of, for example, Penrith as having 15.6 projected wins plus/minus 3 wins. While some projections are right, it tends to overshoot really bad teams and undershoot really good teams.

Significant divergences between actual and Pythagorean wins are usually indicative of mean regression in future. That is, teams underperforming will improve their actual win percentage and vice versa so that the two numbers tend to converge. However, there’s always one or two that manage to avoid this convergence. We call them lucky/unlucky, depending on the direction that they miss.

The current status of each team:

  • Way out – Cowboys, Rabbitohs
  • Actual wins understating year to date performance / potentially tending better – Titans, Panthers, Dragons,
  • Actual wins overstating year to date performance / potentially tending worse – Knights
  • Actual wins reflective of year to date performance – Broncos, Raiders, Bulldogs, Sharks, Sea Eagles, Storm, Warriors, Eels, Rosoters, Tigers

For teams with less than .500 percentage, 2nd order wins is always better than actual wins and vice versa. The trick here is to not focus on this specific value per se but to look at it as a prediction for next year’s performance. The next season’s performance for most teams will fall within one standard deviation (plus/minus .130) of their 2nd order win percentage for this season.

Form

Form Elo ratings at the end of 2020 and the end of round 14

Production

Pre-season projected and average year-to-date Taylors per game

1st Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of actual points for and against

2nd Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP for and against

Player Leaderboards

Wins Above Reserve Grade

WARG is a volume stat that compares the total amount of valuable work done (production), when compared to a replacement level player (or fringe first grader in the vernacular) at that position, irrespective of the time on field. A replacement level player has 0 WARG.

2020 was topped by Daly Cherry-Evans with 2.1 WARG. The career leader (2013 – now) is James Tedesco with 11.3 WARG. The single season record holder is Jarryd Hayne in 2014 with 2.3 WARG.

Taylor Player Rating

TPR is a rate stat that compares the amount of valuable work done (production) per game, factoring in time on field, to the average player at that position. An average player has a rating of .100. Minimum 5 games need to be played to qualify for TPR.

The 2020 regular season was topped by Cameron Smith with a TPR of .229. The career (2013 – now, regular season only, minimum 10 games) leaders are Harry Grant and Robbie Farah with a TPR of .164. The single regular season record holder is Robbie Farah with a TPR of .244 in 2013.

2021 WARG by position

WARG as generated when the player is listed in that position so far this season.

2021 TPR by position

TPR as generated when the player is listed in that position so far this season (minimum five games).

Diving into State of Origin 2021

It feels weird doing another Origin analysis so recently after the last one, a scant seven months ago, but here we are for another round of player analysis using statistical techniques, now including a significant amount of historical data, and Penrith bashing.

Before that, I want to take a victory lap on this prediction from last year:

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.

I was off by one year but right about everything else. This is the last year for a standalone Sunday Origin. I could deal with this if the plan was to free up a weekend for internationals after Origin featuring some combination of the Kangaroos, Kiwis, Toa Samoa, Mate Ma’a Tonga, Kumuls, Bati and a third tier nation like England, perhaps playing the opening round of a meaningful international trophy but let’s face it, it’s a pipe dream. All must be sacrificed on the altar of Origin and NRL ratings.

Game 1 Lineups

Normally, I have little to offer in terms of constructive criticism for these lineups because the selection committees usually get it right, or thereabouts, and I hate trying to trace eligibility of players. This year though, with no Clint Gutherson in the centres, we must comment on the inexclipability of the following selections: Tariq Sims, Jaydn Su’A and Jake Trbojevic.

Statistically, Sims and Trbojevic have little to offer and surely New South Wales has substantially better options in these positions. David Klemmer hasn’t been at his best under the new rules but his TPR of .112 greatly exceeds that of Trbojevic at prop. Josh Schuster is sitting on an average TPR of .117 in the second row, a full 20 pips clear of Tariq Sims (a player who I didn’t realise was still in first grade), albeit Schuster is listed as a five-eighth on Manly’s website which might speak to his ball playing capability. Who can say if that would come in handy.

Stats aren’t everything and TPR doesn’t represent the full gamut of the game but really.

Queensland have fewer options at second row but surely it would have been better to shift Kurt Capewell to his club position and find another centre. Perhaps there’s one in Queensland Cup? Delouise Hoeter currently leads QCup by WARG at centre and would probably be Maroon eligible, as an alumnus of Keebra Park High. Tesi Niu has a Cup TPR of .110, predominantly at fullback. Maybe Daejarn Asi? Look, there’s a lot of low cards in the Queensland NRL deck – I briefly considered Tom Opacic (.102 in NRL this year) – but I’m sure someone can be found to do a job that doesn’t require giving a jersey to Jaydn Su’A, the Queenslander with the lowest TPR since Moses M’Bye’s ill-fated selections in 2019.

Series outlook

That the Maroons have such a substantial edge in the forwards’ production, mostly from the expected efforts of David Fifita and to a lesser extent Arrow and Welch, rather suggests that the Maroons should have the upper hand in this contest. As the old adage goes, forwards decide the result and the backs decide by how much. While Queensland’s back five is noticeably weaker than New South Wales, the Maroons should have a sufficient platform to let Munster run riot. The Blues will have to work hard to get Cleary in the game who rarely seems to have an impact in a game at rep level unless his pack is rolling.

While I’m tipping Queensland in the first meeting, it sits on a knife’s edge. Elo currently favours NSW as the superior state but only just, 1517 to 1483, a gap that overcome by home ground advantage. Indeed, Elo gives Queensland a 55% chance of winning this. The Maroons playing at Suncorp is worth +7.7 points and I would expect a similar advantage at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville to help offset any weaknesses in the lineup.

Even if the Maroons do come out victorious, the second game should snap back to reality, especially as the Blues will have some players available for the second game that they would have preferred to play in the first. The third will then be in the lap of the gods but, as it is played at ANZ and assuming a full strength NSW side, you’d think that would be enough to get the Blues home for a series win.

Brad Fittler will make it look harder than it needs to be and if he loses this series, surely he can’t be there in 2022. Paul Green may be even sufficiently useless to fail to get the boys fired up in Townsville and Queensland will be back to giving Wayne Bennett another crack next year while they wait for one of the golden generation to put their hand up.

Historical record

The NRL has now put stats up for all men’s Origins dating back to 2004. To take the data and turn it into something useful, I’ve taken the average of the various variables used in the NRL player rating calculations from 2013 to 2021 as a basis for some Origin-equivalent player rating calculations.

Normally, to get TPR we would factor in the time played but as we do not have this data for before 2014, I can’t do this. Consequently, instances like Cameron Munster’s two minutes in game two last year look bad, which is why it’s important to both know this context and understand that most or least production isn’t the same as the best or worst players. If you feel like you want to re-litigate the merits and shortfalls of the Taylor Player Rating system, you can read about it and make your own decisions.

We can calculate total Taylors, which accrues to the players with the most games in particular positions. To account for that, we also have average Taylors generated per game and I’ve divided each player’s Taylors by their positional average to generate a positional value over average number (VOA) and averaged that over their career.

This does mean we can finally answer the question whether Andrew Johns is a stat padding fraud or merely a fraud.

Pathetic.

Bearing the burden

As there is every year, there’s been a lot of chat about the burden of Origin unfairly impacting teams. Instead of the usual suspects, this year the Penrith Panthers’ fanbase has decided to pipe up after their regular season winning streak (*) has come to an end at the hands of an entirely beatable Wests Tigers team, allegedly because they were down seven players due to Origin commitments.

A few years ago, I wrote a piece that theorised that Origin tends to have a randomising impact on the competition. I dusted off the dataset and updated it to include the full history of Origin from 1980 through to this season, to see which clubs have borne the heaviest load of Origin selections.

These numbers should be roughly correct but I caveat it by pointing out that I scraped this from Wikipedia, which often has obscure rugby league trivia wrong and has coded the data in a difficult to parse manner, I have excluded the split 1997 season and that, like everyone, I do make mistakes

Penrith sit eleventh out of the current sixteen NRL clubs, with this year’s selections pushing them past Cronulla and sitting well clear of two clubs that didn’t exist for at least the first two decades of Origin and the one based in New Zealand that largely signs players ineligible for Origin. The other team is South Sydney.

The Panthers have less than a third of the Origin selections of the Brisbane Broncos and, coincidentally, exactly the same amount as the eight original BRL clubs, who haven’t had an Origin cap since 1987, two of which folded and a third left the Queensland Cup after an 0-23 season.

We can break it down further to see that it took the Panthers until 1995, well after they’d won their first premiership, to just catch up to the Wynnum Manly Seagulls.

If all six Panthers that are currently listed as starting play all three games, that would be the equal nineteenth biggest imposition on a single club in Origin history. This would be on par with the 90 and 04 Broncos, 03 Roosters, 83 Sea Eagles, 07 Storm and potentially, 21 Rabbitohs, who also have six players in the teams. The eighteen greater examples are the 08 Storm, 95 Bears, 90 Raiders, 83 Eels, 11 Dragons and thirteen Broncos teams. The top five are 03, 01, 02, 94 and 98 Broncos with 32, 31, 31, 30 and 29 total selections respectively.

Some might say it’s about time that Penrith started pulling their weight in Origin contributions. Others might simply point out that Panthers fans don’t seem to be able cope with the rarified air that comes with being at the top of the pile. Either way, they need to get over it.

Primer – SCWP

People familiar with my philosophy will know that I put less stock in wins than most people. The binary nature – you either take everything or get nothing – means that a simple win-loss record is not a particularly nuanced and, unless you have a very long timeframe to work with, doesn’t necessarily reflect teams’ actual talent over shorter timeframes. Points difference and by extension, Pythagorean expectation, does a better job of reflecting true team ability but even that can be affected by luck or odd results. Does a 50-0 scoreline really tell you any more than a 30-0 scoreline about the relative disparity in talent? If a team scores more tries but loses the game, what does that tell you?

Baseball and college football analysts have developed a metric called “second order wins“. The actual win-loss record are considered to be zeroth order wins (nomenclature that I use and probably no one else). Pythagorean wins, the number of wins expected based on the team’s Pythagorean expectation, are considered first order wins. Second order wins calculates a Pythagorean expectation, not based on actual points scored, but utilising advanced stats to calculate expected points. The idea is that these expected points are more repeatable, and less subject to good/bad luck, and provide a less wrong basis for estiamting teams’ true talent and forecasting teams’ performances on that basis.

For use in rugby league, I propose the following hierarchy:

  • 0th order wins – actual wins
  • 1st order wins – wins as calculated by Pythagorean expectation of points for and against
  • 2nd order wins – wins as calculated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP (Should-a Could-a Would-a Points) for and against

Note that third order wins are second order wins adjusted for strength of schedule. I’m not really concerned with this right now, given that everyone in the NRL plays each other once and then mostly twice so it is of marginal value.

SCWP is not what I would call an advanced statistic because there’s only so much I can do with the data I have. I have taken two metrics for rugby league – metres gained, representing field position, and line breaks, representing playmaking – as our key statistics on which to estimate expected points. I briefly toyed with including tackle busts but it did not improve performance and I suspect we would get a similar result with other stats.

In a similar process to building up the Taylors system, I took every NRL game (2013 – 2021 rd10), QCup (2016 – 2021 rd 7), NSW Cup (2016 – 2021 rd 10) and Super League (2017 – 2021 rd 5) and calculated the running metres and line breaks for each team in each game. I put these games into buckets and then calculated the average score for the bucket with a minimum of five games. The net result is a near 1:1 relationship between metres/line breaks and points scored.

The trendline for these graphs allows us to calculate the Should-a Could-a Would-a Points (i.e. the expected points) that we would expect the team to have scored given the metres and breaks made. We take the (basically) average of the points expected by metres and the points expected by breaks, resulting in the SCWP for the game.

The question then might be, why? The 2nd order winning percentage, based on SCWP, has a lower mean absolute error (MAE) when compared to next year’s actual winning percentage than 0th or 1st order winning percentage. Over the 2013 to 2020 NRL, 2016 to 2019 state cup and 2017 to 2020 Super League seasons (n = 221), we find:

  • 0th order winning percentage has a MAE of .149 when compared to next season’s winning percentage (equivalent to 3.6 wins over a 24 game schedule)
  • 1st order winning percentage has a MAE of .132 (3.2 wins)
  • 2nd order winning percentage has a MAE of .122 (2.9 wins)

Each iteration lowers the error by 10% when forecasting. There’s an additional layer of linear regression that could be applied over the top and this might replace the now defunct Poisedon ratings in pre-season sims.

The decreasing error is partly due to an in-built regression to mean, as SCWP typically has a lower margin than actual points which reflects the fact that teams always put in some effort, even when they get shutout on the scoreboard, and partly because SCWP reflects repeatable statistics, whereas the scoring of actual points can be somewhat prone to randomness (“we would’ve won that if he hadn’t dropped the ball three times/missed those conversions”, hence the name).

The current state of SCWP in the NRL (round 11), compared to actual for-against:

For Super League (round 6):

For Queensland Cup (first part of round 8):

For NSW Cup (round 11):

There’s an additional layer of efficiency to consider. I don’t know if the ratio between actual points scored and SCWP will prove meaningful but if a team is consistently outscoring what we would expect considering the fundamentals, that might either give us a clue about their style of play or it might signal regression to mean. This is something to keep an eye on.

There’s every chance that a SCWP v2 might come forward in the future, based on actual advanced statistics. I of course reserve the right to tinker with my own systems but I’ll let you know when I do.

Primer – WCL

WCL is a means of estimating the probability of a team winning a rugby league match at a given point in the game.

The WCL system finds all instances of a given margin at a given point in the game in that league and calculates how often a team in that position won the game. For example, if 60% of teams who had a 6 point lead after 24 minutes, then we take that to mean that a team who has a 6 point lead after 24 minutes has a 60% chance of winning the game. From this we can build up in-game win probability charts, not unlike those you might have seen on Five Thirty Eight or similar.

It’s that simple. I have used some averaging to smooth out rough edges in the dataset (especially for odd-numbered margins) and where there are too few games in the sample that the model’s results do not make sense, I have edited some of these manually. For example, a one point lead from half time through 60 minutes into the game should not have a less than 50% win probability for the leading team but it apparently does in the NRL.

Note that 100% is only achieved at full time; the remainder of the game is never more than 99.9%. Even though this is not visible, it reflects the reality that our dataset does not cover all available possibilities.

While I could build a more sophisticated model that includes all sorts of other elements, I wanted a basic means to gauge the in-game win probability based on the scoreboard. I do not care what the pre-game odds are and I do not care about the “momentum” or other states of the game. The model is blind to the teams playing and is entirely dependent on the margin and time on clock.

WCL has no overall predictive power but it can graphically summarise a game quite well with a layer of information that simply plotting the margin does not. The sum of team’s win probability percentages at each minute of the game gives a WCL score, which is indicative of how dominant the team has been. A tight game will have each team’s score close to zero, while a perfectly dominant game will have the winning team’s score close to 50 and the loser’s close to -50.

There are separate WCL datasets for NRL, NSW Cup and Qld Cup, based on all matches from 2016 to date. There’s also a generalised men’s WCL set, which is the combination of all three that should be suitable for representative games that would otherwise have too small a sample size to work with or Super League should the need arise. I have been collecting NRLW and QRLW event data as well but there are too few games to form a proper dataset.

WCL stands for Worm Chess Lathe. Worm because the graphs resemble the worm from Australian TV political debates, which are meant to reflect audience responses live in real time. Chess and Lathe because the graphs sometimes resemble a chess piece in profile (bishops and queens, generally), as if it had been created with a wood lathe. The system needed a name and WCL is as good as any.

Generally speaking, this is for novelty purposes but it can also help us answer questions like the following –

Was Magic Round ruined by bins and send offs?

While we all enjoy the chaos of bins and send offs during live football, the fun does wear off somewhat after eight in two games, so yes. But were the game outcomes materially changed by the bins and send offs?

Ah! Well, nevertheless…

Some selected games of interest

Panthers vs Raiders, round 14, 2017

Raiders vs Warriors, round 3, 2018

Storm vs Panthers, grand final, 2020

Broncos vs Titans, round 8, 2021

This is getting embarrassing

Previously in our “Peter V’landys sucks” series:

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At 10.25am on Thursday, 20 May 2021, the NRL issued a press release.

The National Rugby League (NRL) today releases the below data of key football and fatigue related indicators in the game and corrects some misconceptions about the changes in the game over the last two years.

Season to date statistics, NRL.com, 20 May 2021

Unlike most of the NRL nerds who were choking on their own spittled rage, I was at the dentist when this came to my attention. Rather than to fire off a missive from the waiting room, I used my time while my teeth were being scraped and drilled to think about this press release and I came to the following conclusion.

Peter V’Landys is a loser.

****

Justice Wigney said the overall impression of the program was not that Mr V’landys knew the “wholesale slaughter” of horses was occurring, but that regulators didn’t know what was going on and their data was inaccurate and unreliable. 

He said a viewer would also have also been left with the impression that rules and regulations to prevent wastage were “ineffective and inadequately enforced”.

“That may have conveyed that the regulators, including Mr V’landys, were somewhat incompetent or ineffective,” Justice Wigney said in his judgment.

Racing NSW boss Peter V’landys loses defamation case over ABC animal cruelty story, ABC, 14 May 2021

V’Landys is a loser in the literal sense that he lost a court case last week, in which he was descibred as “incompetent”, and also in the figurative sense.

This press release is not the action of a man who feels comfortable in his position. While I understand it was likely dreamt up by the cnidarian Graham Annesley, this undoubtedly represents V’Landys’ position.

Let’s review it in detail. I’m going to start with the data and then go back to the conclusions presented at the beginning.

Average errors per game

The average number of errors has remained flat before and after the implementation of new rules. Fatigued players are more likely to make errors, but we observe no material change.

2021: 22

2020: 22

2019: 21

The lack of significant figures is doing some heavy lifting here. The real numbers are:

2021: 21.6

2020: 21.7

2019: 20.7

You might argue that it’s still just one extra error per game. Over a full 201 game schedule, that’s an additional 200 errors per year. Literally the worst part of football has increased 4.3%.

Moreover, if errors and fatigue directly correlate, as asserted by the NRL, then that’s a 4.3% increase in fatigue. Considering players were more or less at their limits in pre-Vlandoball, it’s unclear why they have decided that this is not a material increase.

Average Ball In Play                 

The amount of ball in play is an indicator of live game time. It has risen 30 seconds per game since 2019 but reduced by 54 seconds from 2020.

2021: 55min 18secs

2020: 56min 12secs

2019: 54min 48secs

Remember this because it will be important.

Average time the ball is in play before stoppage

The average live time the ball is in play is 5 seconds longer before a stoppage from 2019 but there has been no change from 2020 to 2021.

2021: 62 seconds

2020: 62 seconds

2019: 57 seconds

Devoid of context, these numbers are meaningless. How many stoppages are there? What are the stoppages for? Doesn’t this suggest players are putting in longer efforts between breaks? Would this, in turn, cause fatigue? Who amongst us can say? The NRL can’t.

Average tries per game

There’s one additional try per game in 2021 compared to 2019 which leads to an additional stoppage per game.

2021: 7.7

2020: 7.3

2019: 6.6

A deeper dive into the data, or simply looking at the free work provided by the NRL analytics community, would show you what’s going on, instead of counting tries. One might wonder, for instance, why tries have gone up this year or, indeed, if that’s a good thing.

Play the Balls

The number of Play the Balls is down slightly from 2020 to 2021. This implies slightly less tackle count year on year.

2021: 284

2020: 288

2019: 270

Considering the NRL tracks the number of tackles made, it’s not clear why they used play the balls as a proxy for tackle counts. Let me do that:

2021: 19.4 tackles per player per game

2020: 20.7

2019: 19.7

Is that not simpler? Moreover, this obviously correlates with time of ball in play.

Average Total Distance per player

Players are running less distance per game in 2021 than they were under previous rules in 2019.

2021: 6600m

2020: 7180m

2019: 6626m

It’s not clear why this metric is important. It correlates with time of ball in play, rising in 2020 and then falling again in 2021.

Average player metres covered at more than 20km

The average number of player metres covered at high speed (more than 20km/h) has increased by 22 metres in 2021 compared to 2020. Players are running less metres per game, but slightly more metres at higher speeds.

2021: 299

2020: 277

2019: 255

It’s not explained why the threshhold of 20km/h is significant. Nonetheless, the metres covered at speed has increased 8.6% from 2019 to 2020 and then 7.9% again from 2020 to 2021, for a total increase of 17.3%. Players are running further, faster – how does this not cause fatigue?

However, I take particular exception to “slightly more metres at higher speeds”. At the elite level of sport, single percentage point gains are huge. The 2020 Tour de France was won by Tadej Pogacar in a time of 87 hours and 20 minutes. The last placed finisher, Roger Kluge, complete the race in 93 hours and 27 minutes. If he’d found a 17% improvement in his speed, Kluge would have won the race by over seven hours. In Formula 1, if a qualifying time is more than 107% of the pole sitter’s, the driver is not allowed to start the race, deemed a safety hazard. In the 2020 London Marathon, if the men’s winner, Shura Kitata, had been 17.3% slower on his winning time, he would have been good enough for the top ten… of the women’s race.

In simpler terms, try running a kilometre as fast as you can go. You should be dry heaving at the finish. Then do it again but hold the same pace for 1173 metres. It’s not a slight increase.

To return to the beginning.

That data highlights the following matters:

While there’s a perception the players have never been more fatigued, the data simply does not support that assertion.

Players who are fatigued are more likely to make errors – yet the error rate over the last three years has remained flat. The error rate today is almost the same as the error rate before the new rule changes.

Personally, I’d first demonstrate that there is a connection between fatigue and errors. Logically, it follows that there is but if you are serious about creating a data-driven argument, this assertion is not enough. Moreover, as demonstrated above, players are making more errors.

Players are running about 500m less per game this season than last season and consistent with the number of metres run in 2019.

There’s now 7.7 tries per game compared to just over 6.6 in 2019. That means the players are getting more stoppages for tries this year than previous years. The increase in tries coincides with players running faster from tackle breaks and in open play.

I’ve addressed most of this but it’s worth noting that the NRL collects line break and tackle break data but has not included it in this release.

2021: 9.1 LB and 57.8 TB per game

2020: 8.1 LB and 56.4 TB per game

2019: 7.4 LB and 61.5 TB per game

Would the increase in line breaks not be something to celebrate? Potentially, this is a result of more tries being scored but this is a much sounder and easier argument to make. Unless, of course, we think slightly hard about why more line breaks are occuring.

Fatigue does not appear to be impacting on field performances or decision making. Players aren’t making more errors, they are not running more metres and they are getting more breaks because there are more tries. 

There is no data provided to suggest anything about decision making. Players are making more 4.3% errors. Players are scoring more tries, getting more breaks in play and reducing time in play, which is reducing the other statistics cited. Around and around we go with this circular argument.

The release makes no real argument and the statistics provided do not address any of the root causes of this issue or even provide meaningful context. Where increases have been noted, these have been noted as “slight” or negligible when they are in fact significant.

This is the press release of a, to borrow a Trumpism, loser. It’s not only stupid, the argument presented argues against the NRL’s own lines from a few months ago. The goal post shifting would impress the likes of Rumsfeld and Cheney, the architects of the Iraq War, if it were carried out competently but it hasn’t and they’d likely be disgusted with the ineptitude.

A winner wouldn’t need to issue this release and they certainly wouldn’t use numbers to justify their point.

****

At it’s most basic level, it’s insulting that the NRL thought this would placate anyone. The kind of people swayed by statistics are generally not swayed by bad statistics and have keen enough noses to smell dumb shit a mile off. The kind of people who aren’t swayed by statistics, people I would generously call V’Landys’ base, aren’t going to care. Who is this for and what point is it really trying to make?

We will continue to meticulously monitor the data and if there is a negative trend we will address it. Player welfare is our absolute priority and if there were any signs that fatigue was having a negative impact, we would act immediately.

If the intention was to placate the players, by suggesting that the ARLC has their best interests at heart and are closely monitoring the situation, it didn’t work.

I suppose there is an argument to be made regarding the recent crackdown on high shots to the head. If the players are making mistakes in their tackling technique due to fatigue, then that would mean the rule changes implemented by the V’Landys administration should be rolled back on player safety grounds, causing V’Landys to lose face. However, if you can demonstrate that there is no fatigue factor, then the players are making mistakes in their tackling technique because they are lazy and therefore do not deserve to be listened to.

Of course, one might wonder about the point of the rule changes, which was to bring more fatigue back into the game as a means to improve the entertainment value of the product.

“Look, the objective is to have a free-flowing game of rugby league that is not all about defence,” V’landys said. “We are in the entertainment business and the very loud message I got from the broadcasters is that we are not as entertaining as we once were.

“And that is because of the wrestle, the slowing down of the ruck and not as much fatigue.

“So basically we have to look at all that. We need to make our game attractive to the fans.

Peter V’landys targets interchange to boost NRL entertainment factor, Daily Telegraph, 18 May 2020

By July, this success was trumpeted to all who cared to hear.

This was exactly what V’landys and his fellow commissioners envisaged when they brought in rule changes designed to speed up the game and remove the wrestle.

“I promised the broadcasters we would make it more entertaining,” V’landys said. “That was a great game – one of the best games I have ever seen. We wanted to make the game more free flowing and get rid of the wrestle. And we will keep making changes.

“I think it is better. There is more fatigue. It is more entertaining. You can’t say it is not more entertaining.”

NRL ready to use soaring ratings as launch pad for broadcast talks, The Australian, 3 July 2020

Now we are told there isn’t more fatigue. Of course, this begs several questions. If the rule changes didn’t promote fatigue, then what was the point? Why did increasing the usage of the six again – seemingly the main culprit of fatigue – in 2021 lead to less fatigue? If there is a direct connection between entertainment value and fatigue, wouldn’t the NRL putting out a press release saying there isn’t more fatigue imply there isn’t more entertainment? Should Peter V’Landys give more money back to Channel Nine for this broken promise? It would certainly explain the declining ratings.

Instead we get this.

“I’ve got to say, even with the blow-outs the games are entertaining,” V’landys told Phil Gould in a special sit-down interview on Nine’s 100% Footy.

“Before they were robotic, they were predictable. Now, they’re entertaining. Even the blowouts over the weekend were entertaining. For the viewer…

“So, don’t blame the rule changes. All they’ve done have made the game more entertaining. The six-again has made the game less predictable. The blow-outs aren’t all to do with the six-again, the blowouts are to do with the rosters of the teams.

Poor roster management, not faster game, to blame for growing number of blowouts: V’landys, WWOS, 17 May 2021

Ignoring the fact that the game is as predictable as it has been for at least twenty-five years, there’s a noticeable absence of using fatigue as an explanatory mechanism for the sudden increase in the NRL’s entertianment value.

We might also wonder if the reduction from two referees to one referee and the increased pace of the game that was celebrated up until a week or two ago, resulted in referees missing high shots in the rounds preceding the crackdown that would have otherwise been picked up under the two referee system. We might further wonder if this has triggered an overreaction and more or less ruined Magic Round with a record number of sin bins. This might allow us to take a longer view on this administration’s actions that they should have taken in the first instance.

There’s probably a line to be drawn between V’Landys’ role as the head of Racing NSW, where he oversaw the disposal of unneeded and unwanted living creatures like so much trash, and his administration’s cavalier disregard for player welfare or input, embodied in the form of this press release. From this, we might draw a conclusion about his capability as a leader or as a decent human being and juxtapose this against the most recent crackdown on high shots, perhaps in the context of the ARLC’s legal liabilities.

In a better world, he’d be forced to resign. In this one, we are forced to wait.

****

The decline and fall of the V’landian empire is to some extent inevitable. All empires crumble. What’s stunning is the rapidity by which the decline has come about.

At the start of this year, V’Landys was in an unassailable position. A month ago, his detractors were very much in the minority. In the last week, his administration has issued a writ for a crackdown the day of the commencement of the game’s showpiece resulting in an unbearably poor round of football, he lost his defamation suit against the ABC and then this press release comes out.

Then there’s Racing NSW boss Peter V’Landys, who comes from a multi-billion-dollar industry and must shake his head in disbelief about how the country’s second biggest football code is being run.

Plummeting faith in the people who run rugby league, Andrew Webster, SMH, 28 June 2018

For a man who seemingly had all the credentials, it’s astonishing he did not have a single person around him to suggest he take the week off. Instead, he ran to a sympathetic journalist and had his face plastered on the back of the Daily Telegraph.

Considering the much discussed policy pipeline of Phil Gould’s prolapsed brain farts to Peter V’Landys’ mouth, it’s interesting a man who seemingly had such political nous never wondered why Phil Gould – a man with a long standing in the game, a national platform and presumably plenty of political capital – didn’t simply take the mantle for himself. Perhaps V’Landys convinced himself that Gould was unelectable but Gould’s ideas were fundamentally sound and V’Landys could use these to take control of the ARLC, adding another line to his resume, inching him closer to whatever his end goal is. In reality, his political insight has managed to get players and fans off side in the space of a fortnight.

Then again, his credentials were only ever boasted of by journalists, most of whom either refuse or are unable to handle the people who they are meant to hold to account, so perhaps we should take these endorsements with a grain of salt. It is entirely likely that they confused his predeliction for fighting a constant, running PR battle through the media, dropping a flash bang grenade a week as a distraction, with savvy.

Consequently, it’s entirely possible that he has, in fact, been a dumb loser this whole time.

Peter V’Landys is a sad embodiment of the Australian establishment. He has little to no understanding of the world in which he lives (did he not realise that his previous comments on fatigue were easily searchable?) and so has nothing to offer as leader. He is, however, capable of forming alliances with the right people and using them to advance himself within large organisations and, if necessary, putting the knife in the back himself. Putting a man like this in charge of a sport and letting him play with the levers like a drunk monkey was only ever going to have one result.

Nonetheless, I’m sure we’ll all be told how great he is right up until he’s not and how no one could have seen this coming and this is just the way it is at the top of such a rough and tumble sport. There will be other cliches that disengage the mind but we do have receipts.

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.

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