Tag Archives: rugby league

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Manly Sea Eagles

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

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Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

If we compare by position, the weaknesses become clearer.

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canterbury Bulldogs

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Brisbane Broncos

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

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

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In summary

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gimmicks will continue until flow improves

In their infinite wisdom, the NRL introduced rule changes over the second off-season. The two major changes were to reduce from two referees to one and the six again set reset introduced for ruck infringements. In the froth over the six again, going back to one referee has almost been an afterthought but has likely had a similar scale of impact.

It’s difficult to keep track of the purported benefits – pace, flow, fatigue, consistency and bringing back the little man – thanks to their vagueness. Anything that’s changed in the last few weeks has been ascribed to the rule changes, whether it made sense to do so or not.

With three rounds complete, it’s time to take an early look at how these changes have altered the way the game is played.

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The stats

We can use stats to cut through what we see on the screen and delve into some of what’s happening.

Points

The perception that the rule changes have led to more blowouts or points is wrong. The average margin for the rounds played are higher than average but not unusually so (last three rounds in red):

Average round margin

Even the rolling average margin over three rounds played is higher than average, but still not unusual.

Average margin over three rounds

If the current average margin of rounds 3 to 5 is somehow maintained for the whole season, then it would be on par with the 2002 season but this seems very unlikely.

Average season margin

If the pace that points have been scored over the last three rounds is maintained at 38.3 per game, that will put the balance of this season on par with 2011, the lowest scoring year in the NRL era. The current rate is two points per game below the average of the last decade and ten points below the record of 48.9 per game set in 2001.

Average points per game

The points appear to have gone missing in penalty goals.

Penalty goals

To me, the results we’ve seen are well explained by good teams beating the shit out of bad ones. If anything is at play, the season suspension has created a disparity in physical fitness across the comp, which in tandem with the new rules reducing penalty goals, might explain the mildly strange combination of higher than average margins with relatively low scoring.

Time will tell, but as the fitness disparity closes, it will be replaced by a disparity in effort as teams are gradually ruled out of contention.

Running metres

Running metres have totally blown out.

All running metres

Note that I use the stats on NRL.com, which indicate that the total running metres of rounds 3-5 has increased by roughly 9% compared to rounds 1-2. Fox League’s stats also show an increase, on the order of 10%.

There seems to be some thinking that this phenomenon is because teams don’t get a lift down field from the kick for touch that they used to get. Kicking metres, however, if anything have gone up. Perhaps stuck in their own end and without a penalty to assist, teams are kicking for distance more frequently at the end of sets.

Kicking metres

Some of these increases might be explainable through chance, as well as evolving measurement methods but, in general, more stuff is happening, as counted by the stats, in the same game time.

[Note carlos uses Fox League’s stats]

Penalties

The main change is that the NRL has increased the amount of field covered by the players in exchange for a reduction in the number of penalties.

Penalties

But if you include the number of six again calls, then the refs are as involved as ever.

Penalties + six agains

Funnily enough, teams that were giving away calculated penalties in order to gain a defensive advantage are still doing so, it’s just being swept under the rug of a rebrand. I, for one, am shocked that savvy coaches and smart players who are famous for gaming the system would work out how to game the system.

It is clearly preferable to give away a new set on the first or second tackle and set the defensive line than to attempt to keep up with the pace, especially as referees are not giving attacking teams the usual leg up to get out of their own half that they have come to expect. Refs seem to have caught on to this strategy in round 5, issuing 50% more six agains more evenly spread across the tackle count, than in rounds 3 and 4.

Six agains

The six again is an intentional compromise between stopping the game for penalties and policing ruck infringements that slow the game down. It succeeds in removing penalties but it does not effectively help police the ruck, due to reasons that will be elaborated later.

Playmaker contributions

“The little man is back” is the most mystifying response to the rule changes. Trying to untangle what this actually means is an intellectual exercise on par with understanding quantum chromodynamics.

Using Taylors, the proportion of production generated by playmakers, defined as those wearing 6, 7 and 9, compared to the rest of the starters is the same now as it has been for the last few seasons.

Production by position

The little man is back, in the sense that he never went away. If anything, he came back a year early somehow.

Play the ball speed

I’m not a huge fan of the play the ball speed metric because it doesn’t seem to reliably mean anything about winning games of football but it can be at least help us identify a narrative.

Average play the ball speeds

Or perhaps not. It’s possible that the speed increase caused by six agains is offset by eliminating the second referee yelling at players in the ruck, so we kind of end up back where we were anyway.

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When commentators talk about the “pace” of the game, I think they mean more stuff is happening in the same amount of time. When commentators talk about the “flow” of the game, I think they mean play the ball speed and minimising interruptions caused by awarding penalties. Insofar as these very generous interpretations hold up – the little man angle remains hard to fathom – and players are inarguably more fatigued, it’s questionable whether this is better.

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The feels

No one can tell you what your aesthetic preferences are, how rugby league looks and feels to watch and enjoy, or offer a certain judgement as to what is better. Aesthetics are pure subjectivity.

I can offer my opinion and justify it for what it’s worth to you, which is that the style of gameplay is not sufficiently different to justify the enormous volume of plaudits that were thrown around when the season resumed. Where the gameplay is different, this hasn’t actually improved my enjoyment of the game.

The immediate response to the rule changes was for players to do everything more, which created the illusion of filling air time with action. Round 3 reminded me of the frenetic period in the late 60s following the adoption of limited tackles. Players hadn’t optimised their tactics so responded, disoriented and panicky, by running the ball.

We’re seeing this settle relatively quickly. I expect that the amount of stuff done per game will find a new level, higher than we were used to previously. In the long run, we will get used to this but I’m yet to be convinced that more is better. If nothing else, more running metres per game cheapens the value of each metre made.

The irony is that the subtleties of the game’s structure were already happened so quickly that they were easily lost in the motion on screen. This has created a stereotype that the game is solely one-up hit-ups when nothing could be further from the truth for a well-drilled team. Speeding up has made it more difficult still to see the underlying shape of the game.

Conversely, it is entirely possible that this distortion is created by a newfound decreased emphasis on structure. Why execute complex plays when you can simply wait for your opposition to tire out and then run over the top of them? It might be easier, possibly even funnier, but I don’t believe this is more entertaining.

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The gimmicks will continue until flow improves

Discussing the effectiveness of the rule changes merits a discussion of the context in which they came about. Glossing over the fact that the chairman has to date grossly overreached his job description and acknowledging the lack of transparency in the broadcast negotiations, the next biggest issue V’Landys’ leadership has introduced is making reactive changes in response to “problems” – largely the invention of a few nostalgic boomer hacks – and then using weak justifications after the fact.

For example, most people don’t care if there’s one referee or two on the field but for some reason, it grinds the gears of a particular subset of the NRL audience that we had two refs. So be it, but if the argument is the ruck will be policed better by one referee who’s also setting the line than two referees, one at the line and one at the ruck, then that is obviously bogus. Justifying it by cost savings that evaporated as soon as they came under any scrutiny and then by reference to a Daily Telegraph fan poll does not pass the smell test. So what was the point of the change? If we can’t publicly acknowledge who or what is driving these changes, why do they get accommodated?

The application of the six again in two games shows why this administrative approach is flawed. While Parramatta were defending a last minute Penrith attack on Friday, players were still lying about in the ruck to waste time and stymie the offence. Yes, the Eels’ Dylan Brown was sent off but why not just do that in the first place? Why introduce a new rule that prevents the refs from cutting to the chase and more effectively refereeing the game? Penrith lost the game.

Arguing that refs can still penalise ruck infringements if they so choose ignores the obviously political environment in which the referees operate. We know penalties are not acceptable to management because that’s what the referees used in an attempt to clean up ruck infringements in 2018.

The refs were castigated for it because the childishly cranky part of the NRL audience that the decision-makers listen to had a whinge that they were getting bored with the stoppages. Whether the stoppages would have the desired impact in the long-term never got a run because in the short term, tantrums were being thrown about blown whistles ruining the flow and, in a supreme act of psychological projection, referees trying to make themselves the centre of attention.

In an ideal world, perhaps the commercial and judicial arms of the sport would be separate but they aren’t in rugby league. Greenberg told the refs to lay off and they did. Players and coaches were not incentivised to change and the so-called wrestle continues.

In fact, referees now have more responsibility and potential impact on the game, having to use their discretion as to whether a ruck infringement justifies no penalty, a six again or an actual penalty. Teams who find themselves in situations where they would prefer a penalty than a set restart are not given an option, as demonstrated in Thursday’s Manly-Brisbane game where two set resets were given within twenty seconds of the last five minutes of the game, in lieu of a game-tieing shot at goal. The Broncos lost.

These consequences would have been obvious if they were thought about before implementation. Famously, the incredibly named Project Apollo’s innovation committee only had one hour to consider the changes. Once the novelty has worn off, questions will be asked, not just by unimportant nobodies with a WordPress account, but also by people who are actually listened to as the fallout become impossible to ignore. The Peanut King has already fired a shot across the bows, although I refuse to read what what he’s actually said.

In the rush to be seen doing something, V’Landys risks either looking foolish in rolling back the changes or worse and more likely, he will double down. For example, the suggestion that next season the scoring team will kick-off to prevent teams from getting a roll on is a dire sign but we’ll see what actually comes to pass. The slippery slope argument is that if he chooses to double down, V’Landys will apply band-aid gimmick after band-aid gimmick until the sport is barely recognisable or enjoyable to watch, satisfying no one and leaving everyone wondering how we got here.

While rugby league has a tradition of innovation to attract the mass spectator, it is also extremely questionable whether the ends will justify these means. The alternative – to take some time to consider changes, think through the second-order impacts, trial at lower levels, implement between seasons and transparently state the justification – is there to be utilised.

After a huge surge driven by a palpable sense of relief at the return of the footy, TV ratings are back to where they were pre-coronavirus. Nonetheless, the rule changes are likely here to stay.

The Warrior Dolphins

Just before kick-off of the Bulldogs-Dragons spoon bowl on Monday, the Warriors dropped a big press release. Contained within is an important story with a lot of implications for rugby league, so let’s go through them.

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For the Broncos

It wasn’t that long ago that the Broncos had six feeder clubs in the Queensland Cup. It was probably too many, even if we ignore the fact that the Capras’ remoteness makes them relatively useless. I guess Brisbane felt a responsibility to give all of the clubs something, even if it wasn’t necessarily in the optimal interest of everyone.

Over the first off-season, the Jets aligned themselves with the Newcastle Knights. Seemingly this is because the Broncos and Jets organisations had differing philosophies and the new partnership makes “very good sense as Newcastle is really Ipswich by the sea”.

Even though NRL-contracted Knights players will still drop down into the Knights’ Canterbury Cup squad rather than the Jets’ Intrust Super Cup team, Ipswich now forms part of the Newcastle pathway. Presumably this means the Knights will get some sort of droit du seigneur on Ipswich kids, provided that they aren’t snapped up by other clubs beforehand (if you think geographical boundaries mean anything, you can go count the talented alumni of Gold Coast high schools at the Brisbane Broncos).

Then, not long after the conclusion of the second off-season, the Dolphins suddenly announced that they too were leaving the stable. They first joined in 2006, leaving the Roosters to fend for themselves. The Toowoomba Clydesdales, the Broncos’ other feeder at the time, folded not long after, were replaced by Aspley for one season in the Queensland Cup and then the focus shifted to the Dolphins form 2008 onwards.

The Dolphins had been given imperial preference by the Broncos. The best of the rest played at Redcliffe and the club formed something of a finishing school for future Broncos. The Dolphins played Matt Lodge for a season in 2018 as the Broncos waited out the PR penalty for that signing and got Lodge back into shape. In short, the clubs were tight and now they are not.

In the space of six months, Brisbane has gone from six to four feeders. It’s something of a high performance sporting break-up. No one knows (yet, exactly) why. Given the current state of the team’s first grade side and both front and back offices, eyebrows are necessarily raised.

For the Warriors

A New Zealand Warriors-branded team replaced the Auckland Vulcans in the New South Wales state cup in 2014. Since then, the reserve Warriors have bobbed around average but hardly blown the doors off the competition. Their best season was 2017, finishing in second place with a 13-5-4 record, before exiting in the prelims.

The re-purchase of the Warriors by a combination of the Auckland Rugby League via the Carlaw Heritage Trust and Autex Industries, a long time supporter of New Zealand rugby league, in April 2018 led to a hint that the Warriors reserves would run through the Auckland rugby league premiership, with the aim of raising that competition’s standard. That never happened and Autex ended up buying out the rest of the Warriors after a break down of “over a difference in philosophies and personality clashes”.

So it seems that the idea is on the backburner and the Warriors have seized a great opportunity. 

The main benefit will be leveraging the Dolphins’ extensive experience in developing players. This doesn’t seem to have been to be the Warriors’ major issue. Having access to the best talent that New Zealand rugby union overlooked or discarded means having access to so many kids with potential that it’s hard to fail to develop at least a few stars. Nonetheless, the finishing school might be the one or two percent polish on development players that’s separating the Warriors from that elusive premiership.

Shuttling reserve grade players from Auckland to Brisbane is probably no more difficult than shuttling them between Auckland and Sydney. The state cup travel load in Queensland is greater than in New South Wales but it won’t be anything that Redcliffe, or the Warriors for that matter, won’t already be used to. It might be worth it if the deal comes with some Knights-style droit du seigneur on unscouted talent in the Moreton Bay region.

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For the Dolphins

With the Dolphins bidding to become the NRL’s second Brisbane franchise and if they are successful, the relationship with the Broncos would inevitably have to be severed. This might be the first, albeit somewhat premature, step.

The basic math is that if NRL squads have thirty signatories and only seventeen can play on game day and minus a few injuries, there’s roughly six to ten pros who need something to do each weekend. Typically, they play in reserve grade competitions, as accommodated by the NRL’s farm teams. In New South Wales, those surplus to first grade’s requirements are sent to play at one club but in Queensland, players are assigned to a varying number of clubs. The fringe first graders are generally better quality than the other state cup-level footballers, so getting as many into your lineup is critical to success in the second tier. 

When the Broncos’ cup ran over, the Dolphins were the primary beneficiary. The benefit for Redcliffe now is that instead of sharing nine or ten fringe first graders with Souths Logan, Norths and Wynnum-Manly, they can get a NRL club’s set of players to themselves. In terms of the 2019 Warriors, think Chanel Harris-Tavita, Tom Ale and a handful of forwards that have played at NRL level, like Bunty Afoa, Ligi Sao and Sam Lisone, and instead of getting two or three of them, the Dolphins will now have all five.

For the Queensland Cup

In the most recent editions of the Queensland Cup, there’s generally been four clubs in the mix: Redcliffe (Broncos), Burleigh (Titans), Townsville (Cowboys) and whichever of Easts and Sunshine Coast the Storm happen to favour that season. There’s the occasional incursion from your Hunters and Seagulls types but generally that’s been four of the top six.

Introducing a fifth NRL club will presumably add a fifth power. Considering Redcliffe is already one of those powers, it will be from the Broncos reassigning their talent elsewhere. They have only three metro clubs to choose from: Wynnum-Manly, Souths Logan and Norths. We could baselessly speculate that the Magpies, already home to Cory Paix, Tom Dearden and Tesi Niu in 2020, will become New Redcliffe but perhaps the Broncos would prefer to build on the stronger base at Kougari, as Wynnum-Manly finished runners-up in three grades in 2019.

Even if the Broncos split the difference, one of the clubs will likely luck out and rise up, so the establishment of a new feeder relationship resets the balance in a way not seen since NSWRL clubs were allowed to feed into the competition.

Still unknown is the fate of the under 20s and under 18s Warriors’ and Dolphins’ sides. The Warriors did not participate in Jersey Flegg in 2020 as is, after going 9-9-2 in 2019, but the SG Ball side sat in third when the competition was suspended. While the Storm uses Queensland feeders, their junior sides play in the NSW competitions as of last year. Perhaps we will see junior Dolphins continue in the Queensland competitions and junior Warriors playing in Auckland. Further unknown is if Redcliffe get the nod to go up to the NRL, whether the Warriors will return to NSW or partner with a different Queensland club.

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For the NSW Cup

Now we ask ourselves, what actually is the point of the New South Wales Cup?

The Canterbury Cup is stuck between two ideas: that the second tier competition should be a reserve grade for the Sydney NRL clubs and that there should be a high level competition across the state of New South Wales. The recent merger of the Country Rugby League into the NSWRL makes the question more pertinent.

Where is the representation of regional NSW in the state competition? Other than Newcastle, the cup is limited to a triangle between Woollongong, Penrith and Gosford. Roughly three million people, enough to be the fourth largest state in the country in its own right, live in the ACT and New South Wales outside of Sydney.

With the Canterbury Cup now down to eleven contestants, it’s time for the NSWRL to consider what its purpose is. Dare I suggest expansion to engage a wider base? There are six regions in the CRL that could provide the basis of new teams. Combine that with the Sydney has-beens (North Sydney, Newtown, Western Suburbs) and the never-weres (Mounties, Wenty, Blacktown) and a few outside teams, like the Kaiviti Silktails or new teams established in the southern states, and you’d have yourself a pretty decent league with a totally different flavour to the NRL.

We could also dispense with the idea that taking Sydney club games to regional areas is good because they would have teams to call their own, forcing the Sydney clubs to pull their fingers out and find some fans.

Of course such an approach would undermine the direct influence that the Sydney NRL clubs have, so it will never fly. They may point to earlier, half-hearted efforts made in areas outside of Sydney and their presumed failure as a reason to consolidate the competition into a vanilla reserve grade offering. “We tried that, it didn’t work.”

Insofar as there’s any measure of the respective popularity of the second tier comps, the Queensland grand final seems to attract greater attendances than its New South Wales counterpart. My theory is that while the quality is generally stronger in New South Wales (fewer clubs with more fringe first graders) it has less appeal because its main selling point is to have the same clubs as the NRL but with worse rosters. Its difficult to see such a competition achieving any degree of popularity, outside of the anoraks who have read this far and people watching the lead-in to the Sunday arvo game.

The thing about different clubs is that they represent different areas, have different colours and different histories. These clubs have different meanings and that’s what gets people to care. Fans having multiple clubs to support across different competitions would be a net benefit for rugby league, keeping people more engaged and for longer.

Maybe think about it, New South Wales.

Super League 2.0 is not coming

Take half an hour and watch this.

The interesting thing about the debate is what’s missing. There’s no discussion about the purpose or meaning of Super League. There’s a large pile of cash on the table. The bigger clubs and RFL have plainly decided to accept this because they need the money more than anything else, and the deal supposedly comes with a ticking clock. That the RFL were reportedly prepared to accept the first offer without negotiating is extremely telling of the desperation involved.

On the other side, there’s the smaller clubs who feel owed something but are likely to be left in the cold or forced into shotgun marriages. Keighley had secured promotion and looked to be denied it by the creation of the Super League. Their insistence that their new grounds – capacity 10,000 – would set them up as a big club would be laughably small-minded if most Super League clubs didn’t operate along the same lines twenty-five years later. Featherstone Rovers, we are told, are the heart of a community ruined by industrial closures. Quite how such an economically disadvantaged community of 15,000 is meant to sustain a professional sports team in to the twenty-first century is not clear.

Instead, the RFL should have insisted that they needed more time to get stakeholders on board, develop a feasible structure for the sport and decide how to best invest the money. Off the cuff, all Maurice Lindsay can offer for the money’s ultimate destination is grassroots, developing the game and stadium upgrades with the influx of TV money – basically, following the Premier League’s lead a few years earlier – and it’s easy to see that being an enormous waste of money. Surely there isn’t a significant number of people who could be converted to rugby league, if only it were played in nicer stadiums.

Lindsay, however, was right that thirty-five does not go into fourteen. That there was ever an idea that that many fully professional clubs could be supported over such a small area is mystifying in retrospect. The intention, to merge existing clubs into new entities that would have a significant enough geographical and commercial reach to support a fully professional franchise, was sound in principle, as long as you didn’t look too much at details, like history, meaning and the defensive-borderline-paranoid psyche of the northern English.

The idea that a number of small English clubs with a hundred years of rivalry and basically nothing to show for it, would come together on an even footing to run a professional sports team is the kind of coked-up thinking that only the Super League war could throw up.

The mergers were dropped, Super League went ahead, the RFL got the money and not much else has changed for the English game in the next twenty years. The arrival of Canadian teams in 2017 and 2021 and a French club winning the Challenge Cup in 2018, signals the dawn of a new era – unplanned, unanticipated and somewhat unwelcome – that may well have been curtailed by the pandemic.

The golden opportunity provided by the virus to wipe the slate clean and begin anew has been wasted by the powers that be in both hemispheres. In all likelihood, the public bail-outs in England will only send more good money after bad and further entrench the status quo, not remove and replace it with something better. Defects in the game’s structure, writ large with the millions of dollars at stake and the attention of millions more, will remain, unaddressed.

In short, a Super League 2.0 is not coming.

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Ironically, the renegotiation of the broadcast deal in Australia has only served to highlight how badly Super League 2.0 is needed. The executives at Nine can read the writing on the wall as well as the rest of us. The virus should have created a large socially isolated captive audience for television. Instead, it is accelerating the trends that were in place beforehand. People prefer to watch what’s available online, which is orders of magnitude better than free-to-air and the good stuff on pay TV can be pirated or streamed or VPNed for far less than Foxtel are asking. The economic uncertainty is resulting in slashed marketing budgets, meaning that even if anyone was watching TV, advertisers can’t afford the ad time anyway.

The acquisition of the Fairfax stable of newspapers in 2018 has only made the pressure worse. It remains to be seen if there’s a long term future for traditional mastheads in a digital age. Repeated slashing of quality and staff in the face of repeated poor corporate performance is eroding what’s left of the major dailies’ brands.

In either case, newspapers and free-to-air television are relics of an ecosystem that has been irreparably altered by the Chicxulub impactor that is the internet. The traditional media is on life support and, at the right price, rugby league is one of the machines that go ‘ping’.

* * * *

I’ve long been suspicious of Peter V’Landys.

It wasn’t so much what V’Landys stood for because we didn’t know what that was in 2018. An unnamed someone decided to get the Andrew Webster to write and the Sydney Morning Herald to publish a puff piece and that rang alarm bells. The article was a hybrid of soft interview juxtaposed with “concerns”, which were unfounded and unattributed. It smacked of the same treatment lifelong deadshit politicians get before they challenge for the party leadership and become Prime Minister.

Journalists are meant to be smart, worldly and experienced but prove through their work that they do not deserve this reputation. You could argue that there is a higher game at play, and you’d be right, and that journalists are expected to walk a tight rope between speaking truth to power and maintaining access to the same power to do their jobs. But it seems here on the sidelines that the criticism of the powerful only ever comes when it serves the purpose of another power and almost never in the public interest.

Some have given up pretences entirely. Most would be better off re-positioning themselves as public relations officers for Newscorp or Nine and their interests and be done with it. It would at least be more honest and earn less public scorn.

It never ceases to amaze me how the media can whip up a frenzy apropos of nothing and, simply by whipping up the frenzy, make otherwise powerful and smart people do things that they’d rather not. It’s a damning indictment on the spinelessness of our leadership class that in the age of social media, the powerful aren’t able to completely bypass the traditional media, whose public trust is roughly on par with used car salesmen and real estate agents.

So it was, first with Peter Beattie and then later with Todd Greenberg. Beattie had stated that he hadn’t planned to be chairman of the ARLC for a long time but he obviously came in with a plan to shake things up quickly and decisively. He and Greenberg managed to get the international calendar to take some shape, had governments building new stadiums in Sydney to keep the grand final, had other governments paying for events like State of Origin and Magic Round, kicked off a profitable digital strategy and clubs and players were benefiting from a generous centralised grant and increased salary cap instituted by Beattie’s predecessor.

In short, they managed to make the NRL more reliant on itself and less reliant on the anonymous and not-so-anonymous bottom-feeders that have stifled the game’s progress for the last forty years lest it threaten their suburban fiefdom.

Then, in 2019, the drums started beating and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Beattie had resigned and V’Landys ascended to the throne. Whether Beattie did not have the will to stave off the media’s inanity for another six months or simply had run out of political capital is not clear but it does seem like his work is unfinished. That Beattie’s legacy hasn’t been hugely tarnished by the same media suggests that he went quickly and willingly.

Once the chosen one had been crowned, he deigned to let us know what he stood for during his acceptance speech:

  • Suburban stadium redevelopments in Sydney
  • Tribalism, bringing it back
  • Getting referees in line, maybe going back to one
  • A nod to families
  • Getting more out of gambling companies
  • No mention of the international game or expansion

I’m not sure V’Landys even bothered to do a token reference to grassroots or bush footy. When pressed, we discovered that Brisbane still needed to be secured for rugby league, even though it has been played here since 1909, and that Western Australia was already a lost cause, a rusted-on AFL state. Much like the Melbourne Storm in Victoria, I guess.

The agenda strikes me as the perfect enapsulation of the Sydney boomer nostalgia bubble. I assume this is driven by faceless men behind the scenes, pining for a time when the footy was “better” and standing on a suburban hill with 2,000 other men was the pinnacle of the rugby league experience. With the passage of time, those who ache for the past forget the drawbacks but I suppose the authentic experience is regularly recreated at Leichhardt Oval. We are offerred the inferior product we know in lieu of a brighter but uncharted future.

Then, it was Greenberg’s turn. The knives were out and the cliches were flogged mercilessly. It was financial mismanagement supposedly. A huge head office and a white elephant digital strategy. Or maybe it was the response to the pandemic. Being reactionary? “Concerns” within clubland, possibly about the successful and necessary no-fault stand down.

Buzz Rothfield tried his best to gotcha and got absolutely banged in response.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone stuck to their lines, which for the professional communicators among them were incredibly muddled. I was suffering from cognitive dissonance, that itchy feeling in your brain when you try to process contradictory information before you realise what’s wrong. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t even a shade of grey, it was clear cut. The game was profitable and growing. Everyone was getting paid. What the fuck was the actual problem? Am I really being gaslit by the rugby league media?

Even now, journalists, commentators and other people whose opinion we know only because they are paid to fill airtime and column inches, are unable to write or speak about Todd Greenberg’s legacy without referencing financial mismanagement. Traditionally, when one is accused of something like mismanagement, examples are proffered and yet, cursory glances at the facts reveal something completely different.

If something gets repeated often enough, it becomes true. The history books will record that head office costs were “bloated” and that he had to go.

We’re left to speculate what actually is going on because the people whose job it is to tell us won’t or can’t. Seemingly, the closest anyone came to the truth was that V’Landys doesn’t play nice, which is insanely childish.

Meanwhile, Peter V’Landys is treated with the same reverence as the second coming of Christ because apparently, the rugby league media’s main takeaway from watching world events of the last five years is that a strong man with a penchant for action, or at least being seen as imposing his will, and no respect for consultation is a good thing.

The current situation has placed existential pressure on the broadcasters. The NRL may be in breach of contract, even though suspending play is the right thing to do in the face of a deadly pandemic. This gives the broadcasters leverage to negotiate down a big expense in the form of NRL broadcast rights. The NRL doesn’t have enough ammunition to put up much of a fight and it seems that V’Landys isn’t interested in doing so. The broadcast deal has been (or maybe still is being?) extended for reduced value. It was then revealed that Nine, not so much as hating the digital strategy, actually coveted it.

V’Landys sits at the nexus of a major power play, from clubs and broadcasters threatened by a brave new world that might get by without them. I don’t claim a conspiracy because its laughable these people could have planned anything two years in advance. The irony is that if the clubs could be trusted to cooperate like this, they could form a cartel to protect themselves and we might actually be better for it.

Quite who did what and what the ends are still isn’t clear. I’d speculate that V’Landys is treated as the messiah because he will lead the game back in time to a golden age that only exists in the mind of some powerbrokers. It could be the much more likely and grubbier alternative that people who take big dollars out of the game want to continue to take big dollars out of the game. Or both.

The full picture will be drip fed through selected journalists over time and we will see it when it will be too late to do anything meaningful about it, if we could even do anything about it now.

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Rugby began as a means to turn schoolboys into men. Rugby and the Muscular Christian ideology mirrored each other in the mid-to-late 19th century. When the Northern Union went its own way in 1895 and the Rugby Football Union another, the RFU doubled down on its elitism, deliberately avoiding the mass spectacle and the associated rougher element, creating a game to instil the same moral education that a boy would receive at Eton.

The idea that the private schooling system can produce moral individuals is laughable. Take a quick glance at the leadership class’ performance, from Gallipoli to Brexit, and report back on the results. The rich are always happy to sacrifice the poor to protect the rich and hate them for reminding them that their wealth is often unjust.

If you needed further evidence of rugby-as-morality’s failings, the collaboration between rugby union and the Nazi-aligned Vichy government in France during World War II and tours to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s should seal the deal.

After 1895, rugby league needed to appeal to the masses. Professional sport has to be entertaining to get people through the gate and, later, to turn on the TV. Its working class roots in the northern industrial towns of England and the suburbs and regional areas of New South Wales, Queensland and Auckland imbued a sense of meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are, just how well you can play.

As a result, rugby league clubs and leagues tend to be more inclusive and representative than the prevailing cultural mainstream. If you’re reading this, you will probably be able to rattle off a litanical list of milestones. That’s not to say league hasn’t had its moments. The reception of Olsen Filipaina and other Polynesians to Sydney rugby league and the naming of the Edwin Brown grandstand in Toowoomba strike me as two particularly gross examples. Still, it’s clear the culture of league is usually better than the culture around it.

Once the virus is over, fees for broadcast rights will remain critically important for both rugby codes. That union was a generally unappealing game did not matter for most of its history. If you don’t pay your players, then there’s no need to chase broadcast dollars by tidying up your product. Once professionalism was officially legalised in 1995, and it was clear that the world had moved beyond union’s notions of how society should operate, union became subject to the same market forces as league. The result is that union is following league’s evolutionary path to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, minimising scrums and technical penalties. It would not surprise me to discover that they are considering abolishing the lineout, dropping two players from each side and a means to limit possession.

As the two codes converge, already very similar to the uninitiated and now subject to the same selective pressures, we start to wonder what rugby league, the somewhat smaller and significantly less powerful of the two codes, will do to make its mark in the world. If people don’t know the whole story, then there is little hope for league’s long term survival. Moreover, in a globalised, kleptocratic, winner-takes-all economic system, we don’t know whether rugby will be able to find breathing room in the face of North America’s big four and European soccer becoming world-spanning sporting behemoths.

On rugby’s new frontiers, people will tell you both codes of rugby get along and there’s no code wars. The same people will contribute “why can’t we all just get along?” to the political discourse, seemingly unaware that some are campaigning for their very lives in the face of prejudice, inequality and fascism. It is the same attitude but, it should go without saying, the stakes are many orders of magnitude less significant in sports than politics.

Still, if there were no stakes, then the rugby codes would merge and we could get on with working out how to co-exist with other sports. That will never happen because there are stakes and wounds and history that have not been resolved. It is not an irrational take that union is the embodiment of late 19th century aristocracy, elitist and exploitative, cosy with fascism and league should never reconcile with that world view. The irrational take is that these things don’t matter, they’re in the past and you’re being childish by having feelings about them.

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You might wonder why I’ve bothered to tell you these stories and what brings together these disparate thoughts. Over the off-season, I wrote approximately this same piece but it was lengthier, unedited and all-around insane. It will remain unpublished.

But there’s a lot of Big Stuff happening right now. It helps to talk about it and helps fill the time until rugby league’s imminent return. It’s also interesting to me at least to consider how the past and the present might inform the future.

The Dynasties of Rugby League

The 1956-66 St George Dragons are often cited as the greatest rugby league dynasty of all time, especially if the author of the statement is of a particular age. Unlike most received wisdom in rugby league, this seems to be hold up pretty well from whichever angle you examine it. But what of other teams in other leagues? And of other dynasties? How do they compare?

For the purpose of this study, a dynasty is a club side that maintained a high level of success, if not outright dominance, for an extended period of time. We want to know this as a consideration in a larger argument about the greatest teams of all time. While this an argument that will not be resolved here, now or ever, it gives us something to talk about while we wait for the resumption of the football season.

We are aiming to use a relatively objective set of criteria to identify dynasties without having to use personal assessments, with all the baggage that brings. The results are what I think are reasonable, although you could and probably will argue the details. We also want to show a bit of flexibility, as the criteria used are arbitrary but most variations on this system will yield roughly the same answers.

This is not going to be the story of each dynasty, of which there are more than sixty across Sydney, Brisbane, England and Australia, and that would be better suited to a book, than a blog. However, I think there’s a lot to learn about the nature of football and how players or coaches or changes in the environment impact rugby league’s history.

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The accounting system

I’ve adapted Bill James’ system for identifying baseball dynasties for the equivalent achievements in rugby league. Under the tweaked system, each team has a rolling sum of achievements from the previous three seasons. Achievements are purposely designed to set a high standard to identify great teams and are weighted as follows:

  • 6 points for winning the premiership and minor premiership
  • 5 points for winning the premiership only
  • 4 points for winning the minor premiership but not the premiership
  • 3 points for losing the grand final
  • 2 points for finishing the regular season with a .800 or more winning percentage
  • 1 point for finishing the regulation season with a .700 or more winning percentage
  • -2 points for a winning record of less than .700
  • -3 points for a losing record

In the 29 RFL seasons that did not have finals, points are awarded as follows:

  • 6 points for winning the league and Challenge Cup
  • 5 points for winning the league only
  • 4 points for winning the Challenge Cup but not the league
  • 3 points for losing the Challenge Cup grand final

Teams are awarded the points for their greatest (highest scoring) achievement in the one season. Dynasties do not continue through either World War in England, due to the switch to emergency war-time leagues through both. The shortened 1995 season, wedged in the transition from winter to summer football, is not counted as it does not have a corresponding Challenge Cup.

At a minimum, a dynasty is achieved when the rolling sum peaks at ten points or more, comprising at least one premiership and three consecutive seasons of achievements. The dynasty’s length is determined by how long the team maintains a rolling sum above zero. The end date is set by the last achievement before the ending zero and the start date is set by the first achievement around the starting zero.

Here’s the NRL-era Roosters as an example:

roosters-nrl-dynasties

The dynasties are highlighted in yellow, each comprising a rolling sum that peaks at 10 or more and at least one premiership with at least three consecutive achievements. The first begins with the 2002 premiership and ends not in 2006, when the rolling sum returns to zero, but in 2004, the last achievement in the dynastic set. The second begins with the 2013 premiership/minor premiership double, as the first achievement in the dynasty, and continues to this day.

The nature of the system mean the start and end dates might be out by a year from what you would expect. Subjectively, the second Roosters dynasty could be split in to two, given the disastrous 2016 season and the subsequent changes in the roster, although I would argue that this dynasty is the work of Trent Robinson, rather than any specific players.

There also has to be a cut off somewhere, so some good-to-great teams are not identified here. The most obvious examples are back-to-back premiers, such as Sydney Easts and Brisbane Wests in the late 70s, that miss the cut for lacking three consecutive achievements, and teams that peak over 10 points but lack a premiership, such as early-to-mid 70s Warrington.

There is no means to prevent multiple dynasties arising at the same time. While the word implies singular control, the reality is that there are often multiple dynasties (or houses or warlords or whatever your preferred historical nomenclature) vying for control of a particular piece of geography at any given point in history. So it is in football, where multiple powerful clubs will battle for dominance at any given point in a league’s history. Consider a parallel between the superpowers of the Cold War and the current domination of the NRL by the Storm and Roosters.

The dynasties of rugby league

“Run” is how many seasons the dynasty lasted. “Peak” is the highest the rolling sum achieved during the dynasty (minimum 10, maximum 18). “Total” is the total number of achievement points racked up during the dynasty. “Average” is the sum divided by the run for the average number of achievement points scored per season.

Sydney (1908 – 1981)

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Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

nswrl ranked

Dynasties of Sydney

Brisbane (1909 – 1987)

brl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

brl ranked

Dynasties of Brisbane

*Coorparoo has been shown as an Easts dynasty

England (1901/02 – 2019)

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rfl-2

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

rfl-ranked-1

rfl-ranked-2

Dynasties of England

Australia (1982 – 2019)

arl

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

arl-ranked

Dynasties of Australia

All-time dynasties

Dynasties ranked by total achievement points:

ALL-TIME

Dynasties ranked by peak achievement points:

ALL-TIME-PEAK

The greatest clubs are those that peak at 18, the maximum, meaning back-to-back-to-back doubles.

Dynasties ranked by average achievement points:

ALL-TIME-AVERAGE

Greatest clubs

Clubs ranked by total achievement points accumulated during dynastic seasons:

ALL-TIME-CLUBS

ALL-TIME-CLUBS-2

*Coorparoo I is included in Brisbane Easts’ tally

Around the leagues

Of the 32 BRL clubs, 33 NSWRL/ARL/NRL clubs and 68 clubs to pass through the RFL’s top flight, 133 in total, only 31 ever managed to string together enough success in 120 years of football to be called dynasties. Obviously, a number of clubs didn’t play for very long, let alone achieve success. Many of the BRL clubs played one or two seasons in the 1910s and 1920s before disappearing, like Natives, Railways and Ipswich Starlights. The clubs that we are left with have been through a rigorous process of natural selection to be alive at this point in time. That is, of course, no guarantee of future survival.

Only seven of the twelve teams that were in the NSWRL in 1980 have registered a dynasty. Seven of the eight BRL teams had had a dynasty by 1987 with the newest, Redcliffe, being the only exception. Eighteen different clubs has dynasties in the RFL system, including several seasons (58/59, 59/60 and 65/66) where there are four simultaneous dynasties. That might sound excessive, except there are thirty-odd teams in the top flight football at this time, as the second division was only permanently re-introduced after the 1972/73 season.

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Initially, one of the things that struck me was the relative deficit of dynasties in Sydney, continuing in to the modern Australian league, when compared to Brisbane and England. The last two decades have only had two clubs in dynasty mode, Sydney and Melbourne. There’s no real equivalent to this anywhere other than Sydney.

Indeed, it seems to be Sydney’s default, especially after World War II. I wonder if this is due to the impact of money – specifically, from poker machines that were not available to Brisbane or English clubs – leading to a more skewed distribution of talent in the league and allowing richer clubs to accumulate talented players in the absence of a proper salary cap.

The NRL-era in Australia tends to undermine that suggestion but financial disparity might also explain the dominance of the big four during the Super League-era in England. While the European league has a salary cap, many clubs do not have the financial firepower to spend up to it, leaving a gap to the richer organisations.

The Brisbane dynasties were less dominant than their southern counterparts, with only Norths’ six-in-a-row run during the 60s hitting the maximum peak of 18, while Sydney had four, suggesting that the margin between top and bottom was less in Brisbane and that if you found yourself behind, it didn’t take much to close the gap. Alternatively, perhaps it was easier to maintain a relatively consistent standard of football with fewer teams to distribute talent around.

To some extent, the argument is arbitrary. Brisbane has more dynasties than Sydney: 16 plays 11 prior to 1980. In Brisbane, the average run is 6.8 years, compared to 7.6 years in Sydney. But combining Wests I and II or Valleys III and IV, where very successful teams are only separated a season or two, changes the figures above. Brisbane would then have longer average dynasties with only three more in total.

There is some evidence that professionalisation and stability of the leagues over time has improved competitiveness. For example, undefeated teams were rare and certainly not a modern phenomenon. To find the most recent in each competition, we have to wind back to Valleys in 1955 (17-0) and St George in 1959 (17-0-1) or further back to South Sydney in 1925 (12-0) for a 1.000 winning percentage. As far as I can tell, it’s never happened in England since the Northern Union formed. The closest were Wigan in 1986/87 and again in 1994/95, finishing both seasons with 28-2. Similarly, teams with no wins are rare. In Brisbane, the last was Wests in 1946 (0-10) and in Sydney, Easts in 1966 (0-18). In England, these depths haven’t been plumbed since Runcorn in 1914/15 (0-26-1), Treherbert in 1909/10 (0-12) and Liverpool City in 1906/07 (0-30).

It would seem that the NRL dynasties that we have had, have been less impactful than in the past, which might speak to the NRL’s relative equality. This is in contrast to the Super League’s big four, with Super League era dynasties occupying four of the top six all time English dynasties. That suggests we might actually be dealing with recency bias, and a third premiership in a row to the Roosters certainly would confirm that.

In Australia, the 90s are a bit of a mess. While Canterbury and Manly were very good teams at the time, I doubt anyone would consider them in the pantheon of all time greats. Both dynasties end up in the bottom third of the all-time total rankings. The Brisbane dynasty has the unusual caveat that the rolling sum goes to zero in 1996 but there’s an achievement that year (one point for a winning record above .700) and you have to roll back to 1991 to find the next year with no achievement and a rolling sum of zero. I think the dynasty running from 1992 to 2000 is correct, even if there was a reload in the middle of it and the dynasty maintains a 3.0 average per season over the six year and nine year iterations. A similar situation exists simultaneously for Canberra and whether it should be extended past 1991 to 1995 and I decided to go the opposite way. If it bothers you, feel free to add 4 seasons to their run and an additional 5 points to the total and/or take 3 seasons off Brisbane’s run and subtract 9 points.

Wigan V, Melbourne II and Sydney Easts IV have the possibility to continue through 2020, and beyond depending on how the teams perform and what shape football takes moving forward.

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Fingerprints of the Immortals

Not every dynasty has an Immortal and not every Immortal player has a dynasty. In any case, Immortality isn’t decided solely on club football but this can be an interesting tool for verifying that epitome of talent, as their careers tend to align with dynasties:

  • Churchill: Sydney Souths III, before kicking off Brisbane Norths II
  • Raper, Gasnier, Langlands, Provan: St George I
  • Fulton: Manly I
  • Lewis: Valleys V, before moving to Wynnum Manly I
  • Messenger: Sydney Easts I
  • Brown: Sydney Easts II
  • Meninga: Brisbane Souths II, before moving to Canberra I

Not pictured are Beetson, Johns and Burge.

Arthur Beetson is an interesting case that shows the limitations of this idea. He played for a number of clubs and won premierships at Redcliffe in 1965, Balmain in ’69 and Sydney Easts in ’74 and ’75. He also played for runners-up in the ’66 Tigers, the ’72 Roosters and the ’81 Dolphins in the twilight of his career. If he had managed to string that together at one club, he would have absolutely been included in the above list but instead, four premierships for three clubs in eleven years with an exceptional representative career is what gets him the nod.

While you can argue that Immortals should be supremely talented in their own right, irrespective of the team around them, you only have to look at the St George dynasty that had the services of four Immortals to see that selectors have not necessarily bought in to that idea. The Dragons’ dynasty almost certainly could not have been assembled under current salary cap rules and it raises the question of how their careers would be perceived if they weren’t part of the eleven-in-a-row dynasty.

Out of the potentials in the NRL era, Inglis, Cronk, Smith and Slater would be the obvious candidates once inevitably inducted into the Hall of Fame. They formed the core of Melbourne’s first asterisked dynasty and three of the four played through the second. Cronk even played across three, moving from two of Melbourne’s to Sydney’s current before retiring. Lockyer, Webcke, Tallis, Civoniceva and Langer are all current Hall of Famers who played in Brisbane’s dynasty years. Brad Fittler would be easily the best prospect out of Sydney’s two.

Not knowing much about the English game, it’s hard to identify what their equivalents might be. The most obvious example was Martin Offiah. He started his career at Widnes during their second dynasty and then moved to Wigan for the peak of their all-conquering fifth dynasty. Ellery Hanley also played the peak Wigan V years. At the other end of the timescale, Harold Wagstaff turns up in Huddersfield I.

Everything you ever wanted to know about NRL TV ratings but were afraid to ask

The overwhelming majority of fans get their NRL fix through the TV. An average round will attract 124,000 in the stands but 3.6 million, thirty times as many, will tune in via subscription (PTV) or free-to-air (FTA) television.

TV ratings are an under-explored and critically important part of the modern game. Ratings should be a, if not the, key factor in judging how clubs are performing and what they bring to the commercial viability of the game. Due to the difficulty and expense of getting ratings data, all we really know is that the Broncos are the game’s biggest drawcard. Everything else is a mystery.

That’s no longer the case. A big thank you goes out to @footyindustryAU of the website Sports Industry, who kindly furnished me with all of the ratings data he has collected by hand over the last three years. He’s worth a follow if you want to know what the other Australian codes are up to without having to actually follow anyone associated with the other codes.

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The following is based only on regular season games from 2017 to 2019 and we are missing data for the last two rounds of 2017. We have no streaming numbers, so its timely to do this analysis now before that becomes a really significant, and completely opaque, component of how fans engage with the sport.

Let’s start with the obvious:

Total viewers

The basic breakdown of the broadcast deal is that everyone gets equal air time on PTV/Foxtel, with all games broadcast live, but there’s a noticeably inequitable approach taken for the games shown on FTA/Nine. Nine’s goal, having only three of the eight games a week, is to get the biggest teams on screen as frequently as the integrity of the competition will allow.

The highest rated FTA game in the dataset was the round 3 Friday night blockbuster between the Storm and Broncos in 2017, at 904,000 viewers. The lowest was last season’s round 25 Saturday spoon bowl between the Titans and Dragons, at a meagre 273,000. We see a similar range in PTV games, with the best being Thurston’s farewell game against the Titans in 2018, attracting 400,000 viewers on a Saturday evening. A round 19 fixture between the Knights and Titans in the same year plumbed PTV’s lows at only 132,000.

The most watched regular season game in the last three years was the 2017 Queensland Derby in round 2, with 1.2 million viewers (879k on FTA and 303k on PTV) tuning in. The aforementioned 2019 spoon bowl managed just 410,000 viewers in total (273k on FTA and 137k on PTV) in what is possibly one of the least watched simulcast games in the modern era of rugby league. That should provide some context for how much demand there is for a wooden spoon playoff.

Average ratings by club

That looks pretty straightforward. The Broncos are clearly the most watched team in the NRL. It might surprise people see who follows them: Melbourne, North Queensland and South Sydney. Most of the Sydney clubs sit mid-pack with the Raiders, Sea Eagles, Knights and Titans rounding out the bottom of the table.

There’s a 20% variation between the top club on PTV, Brisbane’s Broncos against the bottom-ranked Titans, but a 25% gap on FTA between the Broncos and the Knights.

That the Storm are a top rating team in the centre of the AFL universe is an eye-opener to the way the game has changed in the last twenty years and it’s worth a closer look.

Regional ratings breakdown (1)

A Storm game doesn’t have a huge impact on ratings in Sydney but does add 25,000 FTA viewers and 17,000 PTV viewers from Victoria and another 10,000 viewers in Brisbane (4k FTA, 6.5k PTV). It’s likely that this impact is understated, given how rarely the NRL rates at all in Melbourne. While these numbers sound small in the grand scheme, assuming that those figures generally hold across all games, the Storm would go from having the second highest average on PTV to twelfth, and from second to fourth on FTA without their local audience.

Relative impact of the Storm on regional ratings (1)

This really puts paid to the idea that teams from Sydney and Brisbane can have any meaningful appeal in the southern states without expansion. To truly engage Perth, Adelaide and other places in any form will require teams in those cities. It is simply not enough for Sydney clubs to move the occasional lack lustre game and hope that simple repetition engages with a wider non-traditional market. If those places are to care even a little bit, they need their own teams.

In Brisbane, a small rise in FTA and a 15% jump in PTV ratings strongly suggests that the Storm are serving as a surrogate fourth Queensland team thanks to the well-documented exploits of the future Immortals that played in purple and in maroon.

Market size

I think this is really interesting because it tells me what Nine think about the relative broadcast appeal of each team. Brisbane is the only true “big market” team, if I’m to borrow the American parlance, which is why they get the most games. Most of the Sydney teams plus North Queensland and Melbourne are mid-sized market teams and even then, there’s a small split between Souths, Parra, Easts, Canterbury and Wests on one side and Penrith, St George Illawarra, Cronulla, Melbourne and North Queensland on the other, for FTA appearances.

The Gold Coast, Canberra, Manly and Newcastle are small market teams, although the Titans appear to out-rate a number of mid-market teams, despite being terrible. There’s no shame in being a small market, unless you’re Manly. Not all markets are created equal and some have value beyond raw commercial appeal.

I’ve declined to include the Warriors because they bring most of their value through the New Zealand TV deal and have had three (3) free-to-air games on Australian TV in three (3) years.

You might want to argue that Brisbane has the highest ratings because it gets the best timeslots or that the Roosters are good, so their ratings don’t reflect the numbers they would get during leaner times. I think you’re right, so I’m going to try to separate out the following variables:

  • Timeslot
  • Round
  • Quality of teams
  • Disparity of teams’ quality

To get an apples-for-apples comparison of which NRL team rates the best on TV. Spoiler alert: it’s still the Broncos.

Timeslot

Average ratings by timeslot

The timeslots are self-explanatory with the “miscellaneous” category sweeping up the odd public holiday games, like the Monday’s Labour Day Bulldogs games or Anzac Day clashes.

The popularity of the timeslots generally aligns with what you’d expect. Saturday is really important to Foxtel, while getting the big teams on Thursday and Friday nights is critical for Nine.

The late Sunday slot, with 6.30pm kickoffs in the early part of the year, is a ratings winner for pay TV. I’m surprised that Foxtel hasn’t proposed a permanent shift from the 2pm kickoff to 6.30pm, even if it would look like the league is being played behind closed doors.

Timeslots by club

Each club’s arrangement of timeslots is almost like a fingerprint. The Cowboys dominate the late Saturday slot, the Warriors the early Friday game and Sydney clubs the Sunday afternoon game, just as much as the Broncos have the Thursday and Friday games. You can tell a team is being buried by broadcasters by how many early games they have.

The data I have does not go back far enough but I would have been curious to see how Thursday night ratings stack up against Monday night football. Reportedly, people prefer Thursdays to Mondays but I don’t have evidence for that.

Round

Average ratings by round

Generally speaking, PTV loses about 900 viewers per game for each round the season progresses and FTA loses closer to 5,000. That’s about 0.3% and 0.8% of the average audience respectively. In other words, about 20% of the audience that was watching Nine at round 1 has tuned out by round 25 (this only about 8% on Foxtel).

This is presumably a by-product for all closed leagues around the world. Fan engagement dwindles as fewer teams have anything meaningful to play for. If you want to know why there’s a push for wild card games in the NRL or expanded play-offs in other sports, there’s your answer. 

Do open leagues, with promotion and relegation, avoid this tail-off towards the end of the season? Does gaining these viewers back offset the risk that you might lose a commercially important team to relegation? Conversely, do first-past-the-post leagues lose viewers as teams fall out of the race for the title but are safe from relegation and so have nothing to play for?

We see bumps after the first third of the season as public holiday games during Easter, Anzac Day and Labour Day give the ratings a nudge upwards.

Quality of teams

Total wins

Performance scatter (1)

If you’ve made it this far without knowing what Elo ratings are and how they reflect performance, you can either read up on it or look at the above two graphs. There’s a 0.8 coefficient of correlation between the average class Elo rating over 2017 to 2019 and the number of wins that team has. The 20% not explained by the ratings is attributed to the different starting points teams had at the end of the 2016 season, among other noisy and inconsequential factors.

It’s important that you understand this because I’m going to use Elo ratings as a proxy for team quality. There are two types of Elo ratings on this site: form (short term performance) and class (long term performance).

The reason I make this distinction is because if the Roosters, for example, go on a six game losing streak, their form rating would be destroyed but their class rating would reflect a smaller loss. This is by design as we don’t yet know if this is a collapse of the Bondi empire or a blip on the radar caused by Origin selections. If losses continued, the form rating would bottom out to a point where it reflects our expectations that the Roosters will lose and the class rating would catch up eventually, reflecting the overall sentiment about the prospects of the club.

FTA Ratings vs. Elo Ratings

PTV Ratings vs. Elo Ratings

My expectation is that games featuring better teams will rate better. Neutral fans might be more inclined to watch a top of the table battle than a dust-up between two sets of incompetents. I’ve used the average of the competing team’s class and form Elo ratings to identify which games have “good” teams and which ones have “bad” teams.

While the relationship certainly exists, it is a relatively weak one unless you put the games in buckets. I used buckets of 20 rating points and the coefficient of correlation is 0.90 on PTV and 0.58 on FTA. This adds some evidence to the argument that Foxtel’s audience is relatively more interested in the potential quality of the match than Nine’s.

Disparity in team’s quality

FTA Ratings vs. Gap in Elo ratings

PTV Ratings vs. Gap in Elo ratings (1)

The problem with just using the average of Elo ratings is that a game between two teams rated at 1500 has the same rating as a game between a team rated 1350 and another at 1650. These two scenarios have completely different prospects for entertainment value. To account for that, I plotted the gap between the two teams to reflect the expectation that the game will be close or a hiding.

This is a rare example of a non-linear relationship. On the horizontal axis, we have the difference between the two teams in Elo rating terms to serve as a proxy for the likelihood of the game being a blowout as the greater the gap, the more lopsided the encounter is expected to be. What we see is that viewers are not likely to modify their behaviour until the win probability for the favourites starts to exceed 70% or so (lower than approximately $1.40 in gambling terms), after which people fail to tune in. The sample size decreases as the curve moves to the right, so is subject to more noise but the coefficient of correlation is still 0.65.

A strange quirk for this analysis is that I used the average of class and form ratings to analyse the pay TV numbers but only form ratings for free-to-air. I did this because it works better (higher coefficient of correlation) but also further hints that FTA and PTV viewers do not use the same decision making framework.

Stripping out the variables

The purpose of these graphs is to determine a relationship between the variables we want to remove and the ratings data, so that we can go back and account for those variables in explaining the ratings. The relationships do not explain 100% of the observed phenomena but if we do a good enough job of accounting for the variables, most of what’s left is the raw pulling power of the club in question.

For each variable, the trendlines established above are converted to a percentage of the average FTA or PTV rating. These four percentages are averaged and deducted from the percentage over or under average for the game’s rating. The residual percentage is averaged for each club over the three regular seasons as an indicator of the club’s attractiveness to viewers.

I’ve called this “value-add” because that’s what it is: it’s what each club adds to the ratings compared to the league average, all others things being equal.

FTA value add

PTV value add

Based on the best I could find, Foxtel contributes about 65% to the current Australian broadcast deal, while Nine picks up 35%. Weighting the FTA and PTV value-adds accordingly, give us the below:

Broadcast deal value add

As always, I have caveats.

Because this is real life involving people and not the physics of subatomic particles, there’s going to be variation, noise and errors that make it problematic to rely on the results of this analysis as an indisputable truth. This is why I’ve chosen not to weight the different variables being stripped out as more important than the other, as doing so would likely introduce more error, not reduce it.

In reality, the variables all feed on each other and there’s no clear order of cause and effect. The Broncos are a big market team that has generally been successful, in part because of the advantages of being a big market team, which leads to bigger ratings and more frequent appearances on TV, reinforcing their status as a big market team. While we would normally overcome this with the battering ram of sheer sample size, we do not have that luxury and so work with what we have.

I briefly toyed with the idea of trying to account for the opposition on a match-by-match basis but the levels of recursion made me go cross-eyed. If that invalidates my approach for you, so be it. I think the reality is that most of these variables more or less cancel out over time.

TV ratings are inherently problematic. They use a small sample size of people to determine what the rest of the nation is doing. Oztam is not a particularly transparent organisation and the fees to get access to their data are on the order of $20,000. Further, there’s no accounting for streaming numbers. That said, we don’t have much else to work with at this scale.

The concept of value-add represents the idea that a game featuring the Broncos would probably rate 10% higher if they replaced an average team in the league, all other factors being equal. What that means in dollars is not clear. Or, in other terms, how many people will watch a NRL game, purely because it is a NRL game?

A back-of-the-envelope estimate suggests that each club brings about $12 to $21 million in base value to the broadcast deal (under the 2019 terms of the agreement). The Broncos’ value-add is somewhere between $6 and $26 million over and above that base value. If you’ve noticed that looks like a big range, that’s why I’m not confident publishing the estimates for other clubs and that’s without trying to estimate how much of the broadcast deal is Origin and finals, rather than the regular season.

I think the free-to-air ratings do a better job of measuring widespread appeal, while the pay TV ratings better show what the hardcore fans want to watch. The audience on Foxtel is much stickier, which suggests to me that there is a larger component of the audience that will watch anything rugby league, preferably good quality rugby league, whereas Nine’s audience is driven by the teams involved and how they happen to be travelling at that point in the season.

Value-add vs Average class rating (1)

I don’t think I’ve fully stripped out the performance of the teams and their impact on ratings. There’s a 0.25 coefficient of correlation between the average class rating over this time against the broadcast value-add.

This brings us to the end of the analysis and to the commencement of speculation, specifically in terms of ceilings and floors. The trendline would suggest teams above it return a greater value-add given the performance of the club than the league average club would with the same performance. The reverse applies to teams below the line.

If the Tigers get better, we would expect them to slide to the right and up, as the improvements in team quality lead to an improved value-add, and I would expect them to keep roughly the same buffer to the trendline.

For the opposite case, the Roosters won two of the three premierships under consideration, so their value-add (seventh best in the league) is probably as high as its going to be. A return to the pre-Politis days would beg the question how many people would be compelled to watch Eastern Suburbs scrap it out for mid-to-lower table honours. If the commercial premise of the club is based on it being good in perpetuity, then that is not a sustainable strategy. I have the same question, but with a much more immediate emphasis, for the Sharks.

The Knights had a torrid time over the back end of the 2010s but still appear to bring more to the table than we might expect from other clubs in the same position. As Newcastle continues to pull itself out of the abyss, I wonder if they might start bringing a positive value-add over average, which would be remarkable for a city with a metro population of only half a million. You would expect them to drag on the league, being a small market whose primary purpose is to represent, rather than deliver a commercial return.

As for the Titans, the NRL’s youngest club and with no real success to speak of to date, the Gold Coast have not had much on which to build a fanbase. Modern expansion teams (post-1980) have at least two things in common: grand final wins and future Immortals. The exceptions are the Warriors, whose New Zealand TV deal secures their place in the NRL forever, and the Titans, who have never had prolonged star power or on-field success. All the other expansion clubs are gone.

The Titans might not have much appeal to the purist Foxtel audience (or worse, NRL Twitter), the Gold Coast’s FTA value-add is nonetheless the sixth best in the league. While there’s a small sample size and most of those games have traditionally been against higher rating teams, that’s also somewhat offset by the lowest rated game in the dataset. That suggests plenty of commercial power waiting to be unlocked by the next Lewis, Meninga, Johns, Smith or Thurston if they make it to Robina and bring the Provan-Summons to the Gold Coast. As I’m fond of reminding people, if the NRL can’t get a club off the ground in Australia’s sixth largest city in rugby league heartland, then there isn’t much hope.

The million-dollar question, especially in the context of the supposedly imminent collapse of every NRL club and one Immortal suggesting that four teams should be pushed over a cliff, is how each of the Sydney clubs stack up. Based on this analysis, you’d keep the Rabbitohs, the Eels and the Tigers. For the rest, who knows? Can the Bulldogs bounce back from their recent lows to re-engage with their presumably larger and recently absent fanbase? Manly have been bang-on average over the last three years and still put up regional club numbers. Put them in Newcastle’s position circa 2016 and it’s unlikely that the NRL would see much point in trying to prop them up.

The reality is that each club’s destiny is in their own hands. Souths have gone from being so insignificant that the league was prepared to do without them and now are making a case to be Sydney’s most popular team. That takes time and money and marketing but it’s not a skillset unique to the Rabbitohs and their owners and managers. Anyone can do it if they have the will and resources and if your club doesn’t have the will or the resources to expand the fanbase, then what is the point?

If the NRL did cut teams, we may well lose their existing fanbases to the void, but a new Perth or Adelaide or New Zealand or even a second Brisbane team might bring more people in to the fold to replace them and then some, resulting in a net benefit to the league. A second New Zealand team should add enough to the kiwi TV deal to pay for its own club grant and if nothing else, it would eliminate the need for 6pm kickoffs on Fridays in Australia. Perth and Adelaide might be able to justify the addition of a third Friday night game or bring online the late Sunday timeslot, as well as engaging their local markets better than outside teams could ever hope to. Even the addition of a few tens of thousands of viewers would be valuable. If a new Brisbane team brought in half as much value-add as the Broncos, they’d still be ahead of the rest of the NRL.

An addendum about regional FTA figures

A couple of people asked about regional viewing figures compared to metro. All of the above FTA analysis includes the regional numbers. I won’t be breaking further down by region because that information is not consistently available across the dataset and so the numbers it throws up might not be as reliable.

The audience for the average FTA is 40% regional (236k) versus 60% metro (361k). Unlike AFL, where I believe this proportion is skewed more in favour of metro areas, it’s important to get the regional numbers when assessing the performance of NRL ratings.

The popular teams are still popular, whether the market be regional or metro. The gap between the top and bottom clubs (Brisbane and Newcastle, respectively) is 28% and 20% for metro and regional respectively. The regional clubs – Canberra, Gold Coast, North Queensland and Newcastle – have significantly more value-add, once all the variables are stripped out, in regional ratings than metro. The Cowboys are 4th by average viewers in metro markets and 2nd in regionals, the Titans move from 9th to 8th, the Raiders from 13th to 9th and the Knights are at the bottom of both, but halve their metro value-add of -10% to -5% in regionals.

Worth remembering that given the lesser variation in regional numbers than metro, the tendency for all clubs will be to revert to mean value-add (0%) from metro to regional.

Metro vs Regional average viewers (1)

FTA value-add breakdown

 

Rugby league in the time of coronavirus

Did you know the world is in the grip of a pandemic? I’m not sure how you could have missed it, given that it’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past week.

The vibe, right here and now on 17 March 2020, is absolutely unprecedented in my lifetime. The only two parallels I can think of, in terms of generalised fear and life-or-death consequences, are the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the peak years of the 2007-10 global financial meltdown. It’s the unknown unknowns that get you.

Rugby league, a sport that didn’t stop for either world war, hasn’t faced a pandemic since 1919. In Australia, the game continued and blithely ignored the Spanish Flu, a disease that claimed 12,000 at home and millions more abroad. In Brisbane, games were moved from the Exhibition grounds to Davies Park when the former was requisitioned as a camp for flu victims. That should have been a clue.

With that long in the rear view mirror, we find ourselves in another global stress test and we get to see if rugby league is up to it.

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Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, my actual belief is that Super League and the NRL will return in 2021 in pretty much the same shape as they started 2020. It will be like the year never happened. There’s an outside chance one or more of the less secure clubs goes bust in England but I think there will be enough cash to keep the circus on the road.

This is borne out of my belief that the English speaking world is dominated by rent-seekers. You will see otherwise healthy organisations begging for payouts, rather than draw down on their own resources, because they can and are constantly rewarded for it.

Further, our political leadership is cowardly and they will be bailing out banks in six months with no examination of the conditions that led to this situation, so bailing out rugby league will be a no brainer by comparison. The RBA is already preparing to buy government bonds in a process that is generally called “quantitive easing” by wonks but normal people, if they understood, would call it “printing money”.

This is fine, says the dog in a house on fire, especially if you only look at rugby league and ignore the wider moral hazard. But in the true spirit of the apocalytpic nightmare that 2020 is rapidly descending in to, let’s baselessly and pessimistically speculate (my area of expertise after electrical engineering and before football stats) about what might happen to help fill the time as the world’s economy slowly grinds to a halt.

The worst case scenario, and one journalists are incapable of articulating because they cannot separate commercial structures from cultural institutions, is that the NRL and Super League both fold due to a lack of cash flow, taking the professional clubs with them. In this situation, rugby league will still be played in 2021 and professional rugby league will return no later than 2022 but it may be under very different circumstances to what we’ve seen over the last two and a half decades.

That might be a good thing. Both the Super League and NRL have been aware for thirty or more years that their competitions are too geographically concentrated. Mergers, relegations, relocations, licencing and liquidations have come in and out of fashion but rarely enacted.

It’s interesting to watch people new to the sport make these extremely common sense recommendations (something I did before I became too online) and then be shot down because it’s simply too hard to make it work with the kind of fanbase rugby league has under normal circumstances. Here’s some impetus to get it over the line.

In England, Super League might be left with fewer than a dozen full time professional clubs and perhaps only Wigan and St Helens might still be alive when all this is over. The Championship might then be forced to go part-time and League 1 amateur in the absence of any capital injections or an amazingly generous broadcast deal. This would necessitate the ceassation of promotion and relegation and, in many respects, simply accelerate a process that is already underway.

Suggestions that are commercially sensible but culturally ludicirous will come under great scrutiny. Will the half dozen clubs in Greater Manchester finally realise that combining their resources to create a single Mancunian professional club makes a lot more sense with far greater potential than solely representing a small village with no viable future and competing against the same? Same question but Lancashire. Same question but Cumbria. Same question but Yorkshire.

The results of the most recent general election indicate that this is probably not the case, with northerners preferring strict parochialism in the face of tough times, but times are about to get a lot tougher. A lot of those people might die and their clubs might follow suit before attitudes change.

In Australia, Cronulla announced a $3 million loss just a few weeks ago. They also indicated that they have $16 million in the bank. The NRL has already distributed emergency funds. All of that money might be gone by the end of 2020 but the Sharks will have survived. It’s hard to see which club would have a worse financial position. If they do, they’re probably done.

Still, with nothing in the bank, Cronulla would have no resources to facilitate a move – again, commercially sensible but culturally ludicrous – and the NRL won’t be able to help either. Rather than facilitating a much-needed rationalisation, the crisis might further entrench the status quo, especially if the entrenchment is publicly funded. ScoMo isn’t going to put $10 million into the Sharks only for them to leave his electorate.

It is likely that Politis will keep the Roosters going, as Murdoch will keep the Broncos alive and the consortium at the Storm will do likewise. Clubs owned by leagues clubs (Newcastle, North Queensland, Wests, etc) might struggle. There won’t be much of a grant if the clubs are forced to close and I can’t see how that won’t happen.

Indeed, if the worst case scenario does come to pass, and we only have a few clubs left standing and no league, then it will be as if the Super League war suceeded. The successor competition will be free of the NSWRFL’s baggage to create a new league from scratch, preferably one based on 2021’s demographics and not 1908’s. That will at least give us something to talk about while football isn’t being played and offers the prospect of rugby league becoming a profitable enterprise in the future. We can then endure subsequent decades of “bring back the Sea Eagles/Tigers/Sharks/Eels” chatter.

The real ‘victim’ is the international game. The momentum of the last three years is going to go to waste as there will be no spare cash to pay for its continued growth. Travel restrictions, a fact of life for the next six to twelve months at a minimum, make going anywhere a dicey proposition, let alone for something as trivial as a football game. It’s a shame but that’s life, especially in rugby league.

State of Origin will return as soon as logistically and politically feasible. Broadcasters, players and the rugby league bodies will be dying for the cash injection. They may find Australia in recession at that point, which begs the question of who is going to buy the ad time that generates the income.

Relying on Harvey Norman, a giant collateralised debt obligation that “owns” most of the commercial land that the stores sit on and whose business model is selling overpriced durable non-essential consumer goods to boomers, is risky in the absence of the federal government distributing gift cards on behalf of Gerry Harvey as economic stimulus.

Holden’s already gone. How much more money does Intrust Super have in a market crash? Beer is relatively recession-proof, so the XXXX Dry Maroons taking on the Tooheys New Blues in the VB State of Origin might be the go but not necessarily a river of gold.

Somebody’s going to ask John Singleton what we should do – looking at you, Roy Masters – and I’m going to absolutely lose it.

Ultimately, pandemics aren’t there to “clean up society” as one extremely ill-informed but fortunately anonymous Super League chairman put it. There will be far reaching and extreme consequences of coronavirus that grossly outweigh the minutiae of a sport at the margins of world culture.

Continuing with business-as-usual in the face of a literal pandemic is simply baffling. That this is even a position that is up for debate shows how just how frayed social cohesion has become after decades of globalist neoliberalism. Nonetheless, here we are with no alternatives but to keep calm and carry on because our political and economic structures aren’t up to the task. See also: climate change.

Both leagues, supposedly worth millions of pounds and billions of dollars, should have been better prepared.

It’s not that they should have predicted a global pandemic (although why not because there’s been plenty down through history and it is never different this time around) but they should have been at least be aware that something with this magnitude of risk – very low probability but extremely catastrophic consequences – can occur and protected the organisations accordingly.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb wrote several bestsellers about this after the GFC. It’s not a secret and I really won’t care if clubs or leagues fall over due to mismanagement in the face of entirely foreseeable economic conditions. What is a season cancellation due to mutant influenza but an extreme reduction in cash flow? How do you not have a plan for that? If your plan is “we’re boned”, well then, guess what?

It’s clear that neither league can self-insure against the worst possible outcomes so they should have mitigated the risk by putting it on insurers. That’s what insurers are there for. These are the basic elements of management and it’s a test that rugby league fails time and time again.

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