Tag Archives: rugby league

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.

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.

A deep dive in to the 2020 Queensland Cup

I was always vaguely aware of the Queensland Cup growing up, but only really took an actual interest in it when I started this site a couple of years ago. I became a Souths Logan fan, because that’s where I lived most of my life, and started going to games. Since then, I’ve toyed with doing a similar season preview to my NRL ones but really only feel confident enough now to actually do it.

Being the kind of parochial Queenslander described in the excellent book, Heartland, I care about the Queensland Cup. There aren’t many institutions that cut across the city-country, white-black and, to an extent, class divides in as well-balanced and popular way as rugby league. The Queensland Cup, equally representing all parts of the state and a substantial part of our rugby league heritage, is an extremely important part of that and it does not get the attention it deserves from the people it should appeal to the most.

This season I am running a tipping competition for the Queensland Cup. Details below:

Last season in a nutshell

For all intents and purposes, it seemed like 2019 was going to belong to the Sunshine Coast Falcons. The Falcons joined the 2011 Tweed Seagulls and 2001 Toowoomba Clydesdales as the only clubs to complete a Queensland Cup campaign with one loss and one draw. While Burleigh, Wynnum Manly and Townsville gave chase, there looked to be no stopping them. Then came the finals, their seemingly invincible talent deserted them (partly because of Melbourne drawing down on their reserves late in the season) and they went out in the preliminary finals. Instead, it was the Burleigh Bears who overcame Wynnum Manly in a straightforward affair to win the grand final at Dolphin Stadium.

How it all works

I appreciate that it’s difficult to keep up with the Pythago NRL Expanded Universe™ of metrics and ratings. Not only are they generally more complicated than standard stats, I tweak them almost every year based on what I learned during the previous season. I created a short reference guide to what it all means.

Why the QRL website doesn’t have full squad lists (preferring to only list gains and losses) and a predicted 1-17 for each team as part of the season previews, I don’t know. I tried my best to work out the squads for 2020 based on the regulars last year and the gains and losses but to save myself some embarrassment from this process not yielding 100% correct results, I removed a few of the roster sections I had in the NRL preview. The 2020 Taylor projections and sims are based on the round 1 team lists.

Jump ahead

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qcup-bur Burleigh Bears

Founded: 1934

First QCup season: 1997

Home: Pizzey Park, Burleigh

Feeder: nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

2020-bur-1

2020-bur-2

2020-bur-3

2020-bur-4

As is often the case, the roster of the winner of the Queensland Cup gets raided by other clubs who suddenly take notice of what’s going on in the second tier of Australian footbal around grand final time. Of the halves that won the grand final, Dylan Phythian has been lured away to Central Newcastle Blacktown and Jamal Fogarty has finally signed to the Titans. Whether Fogarty will get much game time in the NRL – he is presumably behind Taylor and Roberts and on par with Boyd on the depth chart – is an unknown but if he spends enough time at Burleigh, then the Bears should keep winning matches.

If Fogarty does make it to the big time (a QCup career TPR of .120 suggests it is possible but perhaps not likely), then Tanah Boyd is an option. He filled in towards the end of last season after a mid-season transfer from Souths Logan. Boyd’s numbers while at the Magpies were not particularly impressive with an average TPR of .081. Still, development is a funny thing and a TPR can be context-based, so we will see if that is a deficit in talent or attitude or opportunity.

Otherwise, there were two retirements and Tyrone Roberts-Davis is joining Matt Soper-Lawler at Newcastle. The team that won the grand final is largely intact. Rick Stone won two premierships as head coach at the turn of the century and he returns to Pizzey Park to retake the reins in 2020. Provided the Bears settle on a halves combination quickly and one that functions well, then back-to-back premierships – the first since Wynnum-Manly in 2011 and 2012 – should be on the cards.

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qcup-cqc Central Queensland Capras

Founded: 1982 as a representative team for the Central Queensland region, 1996 as a standalone football club

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Browne Park, Rockhampton

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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I’m starting to think that the Capras need some sort of salary cap dispensation. Even though the cap has only been in place for a season, it has proven very difficult for the Rockhampton Leagues Club to attract talent to Browne Park. Marquee signings of late have included one busted David Taylor and one newly minted léopard de Villeneuve, Eddy Pettybourne. The Broncos don’t help because stashing top prospects in Rockhampton when Wynnum or Souths Logan or Norths or Redcliffe are right there doesn’t make much sense. Case in point: BJ Aufaga-To’omaga (.135 in 2019) has decamped from the Capras to the Dolphins.

For a region that produced Cameron Munster and Ben Hunt, the Capras have not managed to translate available junior talent into wins. It turns out city clubs can scout too if they only have to drive five hours up the road and most prospects seem to prefer the city over Rocky. So what to do? Wait until the next genetic freak comes along and hope no one spots him first? It’s been over a decade since the Capras last played in the finals. Something needs to change because the alternative is a wooden spoon every other year.

qcup-est Easts Tigers

Founded: 1917 as Coorparoo, 1933 for Eastern Suburbs

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Totally Workwear Stadium, Coorparoo

Feeder: nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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Its been nearly thirty years since Easts last won a title. The last three trophies were a post-Broncos BRL premiership in 1991 (so that doesn’t count), a Winfield State League title in 1989 and a legitimate BRL premiership in 1983. I actually had to consult a book for some context of the early 1980s: the BRL regular season was only 14 games, with the season split between the local premiership and the State League. Wally Lewis was still at Valleys, leading them to a win in the State League that year (over Easts no less). Mal Meninga was a crucial part of the Souths setup and Wayne Bennett had taken the year off coaching. They were all years away from dominating the NSWRL. In other words, its been a while.

Here in 2020, as it often does, Easts’ season will hang in the balance of which players Melbourne assigns to them and how long it takes before they need to return to first grade. This week they get Brenko Lee and Christian Welch but the likes of Billy Walters and Brodie Croft won’t be back this season. The squad wasn’t too crash hot last year and this year looks marginally better. Linc Port returns from West End, Jayden Berrell and Caleb Daunt are down from Kawana and Michael Purcell arrives from Ipswich, which is a good get despite his TPR. Aaron Booth is back for another tour. Above all, the Tigers get a new coach in Craig Hodges, who has signed on for two seasons. His main priority should be fixing the Tigers’ defence which was well below average in 2019.

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qcup-ips Ipswich Jets

Founded: 1909 for rugby league played in Ipswich, 1985 as the Ipswich Jets

First QCup season: 1996

Home: North Ipswich Reserve, Ipswich

Pathway: nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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Big changes abound at the Jets. Ipswich have abandoned (or been abandoned?) the traditional feeder club arrangement with a Queensland NRL side, instead preferring to link up with the Newcastle Knights because “Newcastle is Ipswich-by-the-sea“. We won’t see Knights players dropping back to QCup but some of their prospects might end up in Ipswich and some of the Jets best might sign on to Newcastle’s system. The Knights have already sniffed out a couple of QCup talents to take south of the border.

Long time and premiership-winning wunderkind coaches, Shane and Ben Walker, have split with Ben heading headed off in to the sunset, leaving Keiron Lander at the helm. After a a slightly-better-than-average decade (average winning percentage of .533), some renewal into the 2020s will likely benefit the club long term. In the short term, some of the club stalwarts, like Michael Purcell and Richie Pandia, have departed. The rest of the roster looks thin enough that the Jets might struggle through 2020 without the benefit of NRL players dropping down to bolster the squad.

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qcup-mky Mackay Cutters

Founded: 1919 for rugby league played in Mackay and Districts, 2007 as the Mackay Cutters

First QCup season: 2008

Home: BB Print Stadium, Mackay

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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I honestly don’t have a lot to say about the Cutters, partly because they don’t get a lot of screentime. Mackay did sign Ata Hingano in the off-season. While Hingano may not have been up to the task in the NRL, he put up a reasonable .090 in NSW Cup for Mounties last year. He also transforms into a superplayer for Tonga. What kind of player he becomes for the Cutters we don’t know but it’s not a bad signing for a club that’s running closer to the Capras than the Blackhawks.

Reuben Cotter at hooker/utility, Yamba Bowie on the wing, Shane Wright on the edge and Jayden Hodges at various spinal positions all performed well in 2019 and appear to be returning for 2020. Cotter and Wright were the stars on .145 and .130, respectively. A little like Rocky, Mackay is a bit too out of the way to get the best of the Cowboys’ depth signings. Overall, I expect them to be in the bottom part of the table, as they have been every year barring finals appearances in 2010 and a borderline miracle premiership in 2013, which is why I don’t have much to say.

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qcup-ntp Northern Pride

Founded: 1918 for rugby league played in Cairns and Districts, 2007 as the Northern Pride

First QCup season: 2008

Home: Barlow Park, Cairns

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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If I said that the Pride were the best Queensland football club of the 2010s, would that sound strange? The Pride had the highest average Class rating through the decade and hold the record for the longest winning streak. I guess recency bias and 2017 and 2019 being their worst seasons would suggest otherwise but through the early-to-middle of the decade, the Pride were dominating. I guess the difference is that the Pride’s lows were shorter than Burleigh’s and their highs were higher than Wynnum’s. A thought experiment worth considering as we enter the new decade.

And in this new decade, there is still not a lot to recommend the Cairnsittes. One of their most productive last year, David Murphy, is done. Their signings are thin on State Cup experience. Javid Bowen and Gideon Gela-Mosby coming in-house from the Cowboys aren’t going to turn the franchise around. On the other hand, finally moving on Jordan Biondi-Odo after several seasons of subpar production can’t hurt. There’s still a fair bit of work to be done before the Pride can return to the former glory.

Keep an eye out for American Joe Eichner as we see if he can turn himself into a starter at AAA level.

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qcup-nsd Norths Devils

Founded: 1891 as Past Grammars rugby union club, 1920 as Past Grammars rugby league club, 1933 as Northern Suburbs

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Pathion Park, Nundah

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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The Devils looked good last year without giving anyone a real reason to fear them. Norths had six stars, the equal third highest in the league after Redcliffe and Sunny Coast. They were a highly productive team that well out-performed their projections. There’s a lot to like about their younger players. Herbie Farnworth (.167), Sean O’Sullivan (.166), Ethan Bullemor (.158), Troy Dargan (.141), Pride Peterson-Robati (.137) and Paul Ulberg (.136) is a very good core to have access to. Admittedly, some of these guys will end up in Broncos colours, possibly even this year, but there’s a lot to like there. Bryce Donovan is a signing with some potential, possibly as a replacement for the ageing Jack Ahearn.

The trick will be taking a very good season and building on it to displace one of Wynnum, Sunshine Coast, Townsville and Burleigh from the top four and beating Redcliffe to do so. The opportunity will be there, particularly if the Falcons come back to the pack and the Broncos’ assignments are available. Rohan Smith is coming in to his third year as coach at Bishop Park and the Devils have improved each year under his command. There’s a lot of signs pointing the right way for them.

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qcup-pgh PNG Hunters

Founded: 1930s for rugby league in Papua New Guinea, 2013 as the PNG Hunters

First QCup season: 2014

Home: Oilsearch National Stadium, Port Moresby

Feeder: Unaffiliated

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The broom has been put through the Hunters squad. Ten of the underperforming regulars from 2019 have been released. They’ve been replaced, in part, by Casey Dickson and Mark Piti, from Digicel Cup premiers, the Lae Tigers, as well as Emmanuel Waine from the runner-up Hela Wigmen and Steven Bruno of the Kimbe Cutters and Francis Takai of the Rabaul Gurias.

I still see it being a tough year ahead. The Hunters’ main advantage is that they have more or less exclusive access to the talent pool of 7 million people but they have used it poorly over the last two seasons, struggling to replace the players that made up the premiership class of 2017. The structure of Papua New Guinea’s pathways and comparative lack of professionalism have seen their best players leave for other Queensland Cup or League 1 clubs, some on their way to the majors (see: Edene Gebbie, Justin Olam). While that benefits the national side, the Hunters need a better approach.

The new head coach, Matt Church, is making reformation of talent pathways and linking up with the Digicel Cup clubs a priority, which bodes well for a few years down the track but right now, it will be a tough ask to improve much on last year.

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qcup-red Redcliffe Dolphins

Founded: 1947 as a club, 1960 for first season in Brisbane Rugby League

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Dolphin Stadium, Redcliffe

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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What really crimped the Dolphins’ season was a surprisingly slow start to the year. Across four grades, it took a month for Redcliffe to find their first win. Once they got there, the Dolphins won more often than not but were already too far behind the main challengers to make up ground. Nonetheless, a good run through mid-season, defeating the Sunshine Coast, Wynnum and Burleigh in the space of four weeks, showed they could mix it with the best.

So, no surprises: the Dolphins will probably be good again, especially if they come out of the gates a bit faster. The strongest club commercially and the one with the tightest relationship with the Broncos, the Dolphins are usually fed the best recruits. If Perese is persona non grata with the Broncos (and stays out of jail), a smart bit of business would be to sign him to the club. He was the Dolphins’ most productive player in 2019 with a TPR of .181.

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qcup-slm Souths Logan Magpies

Founded: 1909 as South Brisbane (later Carlton) in the BRL, 1933 as Southern Suburbs, 1988 for Logan City Scorpions, 2003 as Souths Logan after Southern Suburbs took over Logan City

First QCup season: 2003

Home: Davies Park, West End

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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The Magpies’ 2019 season was one of frustration. A big signing spree, followed by a lack of on-field cohesion and piss poor defence, saw Souths Logan miss the finals comfortably, three wins shy of eighth place. Embarrassingly, the Magpies handed over three competition points to the wooden spooner Capras, the only points Central Queensland would get all season. Linc Port has moved back to Easts, Matt Soper-Lawler is off to Newcastle, Gerome Burns to Ipswich and as attention turns to Tesi Niu and Ilikena Vudogo, who are likely to follow in the footsteps of Jamayne Isaako and David Fifita, Anthony Seibold’s insatiable lust for young players will see talent reserves drawn down.

The Magpies have signed a few hands from the Sunshine Coast and Wynnum Manly, an apparent gun in Christian Hazard from Tweed, as well as former Dolphin and Dragon, Darren Nicholls (QCup TPR .132 in 2016) and the roster is starting to resemble something of a reasonable Cup team on paper. Assignments from the Broncos – like hooker (?) Cory Paix (?) – and general squad cohesion, without chopping and changing the spine each week, will make or break the season.

qcup-scf Sunshine Coast Falcons

Founded: 1996

First QCup season: 1996, then returning in 2009

Home: Sunshine Coast Stadium, Kawana

Feeder: nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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It’s still hard to believe that the Falcons fell over. Out of the three Cup teams that have finished the regular season with a single loss (no team has ever gone undefeated), the Falcons had the longest season and the best for-and-against, outscoring their opponents by 24.5 points per game (compared to 24.2 for 2001 Clydesdales and 13.2 for the 2011 Seagulls). At least the other two teams had the good grace to make the grand final, with Toowoomba winning and Tweed losing their respective games. The Falcons were comfortably bundled out of the race by the eventual premiers in the preliminary final.

Shockingly, their 21-1-1 winning record was built on solid fundamentals of not conceding many points and scoring a ton more. Harry Grant set a single season TPR record of .266 and led a team of highly productive players including the now-at-Coorparoo Caleb Daunt (.144), Nicho Hynes (.134), Justin Olam (.178), Jon Rueben (.158 and career WARG leader on 7.2) and soon-to-be-at-the-Gold-Coast Tino Faasuamaleaui (.169). With a number of their stars now set to emerge into the NRL this year or next, we wait with bated breath to see what the balance of the squad can do. Melbourne probably have a stash of kids in BRL and Sunshine Coast league just waiting for the opportunity, so I won’t hold my breath, waiting for a collapse, for too long.

qcup-tsv Townsville Blackhawks

Founded: 1919 for Brothers Townsville, 2014 for Townsville Blackhawks

First QCup season: 2015

Home: Jack Manski Oval, Townsville

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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My take is that it’s about time the Blackhawks won the Queensland Cup. In only their sixth season, Townsville have never finished below sixth on the ladder. Maybe its the distance to Brisbane or the newness of the club, but the Blackhawks don’t seem to be cited as the perennial contenders that they have been.

Offsetting a couple of retirements, the Blackhawks have signed ex-Cutter Carlin Anderson, ex-Hunter Moses Meninga, ex-Tiger Patrick Kaufusi and ex-Eel Josh Hoffman, which is a reasonable bolstering to a lineup that was in the top four or five squads last season. The Townsville club is not short a quid, seems to be favoured by the Cowboys for assignments and it seems hard to see how they won’t be in the mix in 2020. Kristian Woolf has left big shoes to fill but sophomore head coach Aaron Payne did well enough in his first season, with a top four out-performance of player projections and a trip to the preliminaries. Another step up is required this year for a real premiership push.

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qcup-ths Tweed Heads Seagulls

Founded: 1909 as a rugby union club, 1914 for the rugby league club in the Tweed District competition

First QCup season: 2003

Home: Piggabeen Sports Complex, Tweed Heads

Feeder: nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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Sometimes, but not often, a Queensland Cup club gets a million dollar halfback. Ipswich enjoyed having Ben Hunt for one game in 2017 and Ash Taylor closed out his 2019 season, unable to deal with the pressure of the NRL, with an elimination final loss to Redcliffe for the Tweed Heads Seagulls. Whether Taylor returns this season will depend on how his return to the majors pans out.

Once you take him out and Christian Hazard, who has departed for the Magpies, the list looks decidedly uninteresting. Despite a closer relationship with the Titans than their colleagues further up the coast, the Seagulls have a couple of players they can rely on, fullback Talor Walters chief among them, but lack sparkle otherwise. Their offence is in dire need of an overhaul if the numbers are to be believed. If last season was a surprising out-performance of their player projections and Pythagorean expectation, then I would expect to see a return to more normal programming this year. Unless something big breaks their way, Tweed look like they’ll camp themselves out on the edge of finals contention.

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qcup-wms Wynnum Manly Seagulls

Founded: 1931 as a club, merged into Eastern Suburbs in 1933, then returning to the Brisbane Rugby League as Wynnum-Manly in 1951

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Kougari Oval, Wynnum

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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That was unexpected. Not only were the Seagulls one of the protagonists for the 2020 Intrust Super Cup premiership, reaching the grand final, the Wynnum Manly club also made the grand finals for the Under 20s Hasting Deerings Colts, Under 18s Mal Meninga Cup and the Brisbane Rugby League. They only managed one win, a 22-20 victory over Valleys in the BRL. The other three were losses for the Baysiders. A tough look.

Still, at State Cup level, perhaps it should not have been unexpected, given the on-paper roster. Guys like Mitch Cronin (.177), Pat Tempelman (.158), Sam Scarlett (.163) and Edene Gebbie (.168) were instrumental in the team’s productivity. Indeed, the Gulls’ reliance on their playmakers was only matched by the Falcons. Wynnum has a comparatively low forward bias but when you break it down, the individuals involved are good enough. Kaolo Saitaua (.177) distinguished himself last year. With all of these gentlemen seemingly returning for the new season and a slight tightening of defence, evevn though the Taylors are down on them, then there’s no reason Wynnum-Manly couldn’t flip the script on last year.

BNE2 or, On Expansion and its relationship with Brisbane

Six months ago, the Titans were on the chopping block to keep the Sydney clubs alive and some think still should be. With the NRL’s footprint study having presumably been delivered to the ARLC, if not the general public, Peter V’Landys has let drop that he’s not interested in taking the NRL to Perth and is far more interested in adding a seventeenth NRL team in Brisbane.

In recent weeks, as the NRL edges closer to admitting it will admit a second Brisbane club to the competition, the media has been prolific in its coverage. There’s no surprise about that. The prospect of the NRL adding its first new team in – by the time 2023 rolls around – sixteen years is seriously exciting and interesting.

Even as a staunch Broncos fan, I don’t have a problem with it. I’m genuinely looking forward to the prospect of a full blown Brisbane derby twice a year. It will make the Hull derby look like the Roosters and Rabbitohs playing in a three-quarters-empty ANZ Stadium. It would also mitigate the need for all Broncos games to be scheduled on a Thursday or Friday, lest the commercial base of the sport collapse. It might be nice to go to the football on a Saturday arvo for a change.

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Naturally, the questions of how, why, when and what follow, along with approximately a million opinions. If this sounds like an exaggeration, I can assure it is not because I’ve read them all.

Some Broncos fans don’t want the incumbent’s prestige to be challenged. Others question the viability of a new team when all Brisbanites are rusted-on Broncos fans. Still others don’t want Brisbane to follow Sydney into a saturated quagmire of competing interests that cannot be resolved for the good of the game. Most people want to see what’s being offered first.

Refreshingly, there’s some but not a lot of entrenched history and nostalgia and feelings that have to be challenged. Brisbane arguably obliterated a lot of its own rugby league heritage when the Broncos were formed. It will be sad for the city to lose a symbol of its unity but the Maroons have done a far better job of bringing people together over the last ten years, with more success and far fewer scandals.

For me, the ideal bid is one that adds enough value to the league that it can pay for an eighteenth team in a non-traditional market. The pap about securing the Brisbane market for rugby league and providing another pathway to Origin is rubbish. The NRL’s ratings in Brisbane were 30% higher on a per capita basis than Sydney in 2019. While you consider that, I’ll try to find a player who is missing out on a Maroon jersey because there are only three professional teams in Queensland.

A seventeenth team in Brisbane doesn’t expand the game but it should make money. The ideal bid would add $100 million to the NRL’s coffers, either through a licence fee or extra dollars for the next broadcast deal or both, because that’s how much it cost to get the Storm going. Melbourne remains rugby league’s only successful expansion in to a new market since World War II. If we are actually going to go to Perth again or Adelaide or further into New Zealand, it won’t just be funded on chook raffles, gate receipts and pokie revenue.

In Brisbane, trying to carve off a portion of the city’s geography and/or play out of a suburban stadium is far too limiting and offers no space for the franchise to grow. The 2.2 million people in the Brisbane metropolitan area are not going to broadly identify with a team named after a peninsula in the far northern suburbs or a western suburb of 200,000 people. More people live in the Sutherland Shire and the Sharks’ recently announced $3 million loss indicates how well that’s going in 2020.

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If the Titans and Sharks can draw 18,000 to Suncorp on a Thursday night, then a new Brisbane team should expect a gate averaging at least 20,000. The same is not true of a team playing at Dolphin Oval (capacity: 11,170) or North Ipswich Reserve (5,500). A new stadium might only be funded if it can be used for the Olympics in twelve years and that assumes Brisbane wins the bid, which won’t be announced until it is too late to start planning a team. More to the point, no one in their right mind would leave that kind of money on the table.

To be viable, the team is going to need to name itself “Brisbane” (or maybe “Moreton Bay” or “South-east Queensland” or similar) and play its home games out of Suncorp Stadium. There are no alternatives to this, it’s just the way it has to be for the team to maximise its potential and have the remotest chance of succeeding to deliver the value the game needs out of a seventeenth team. If this sounds a bit too ‘corporate’ or even suspiciously ‘Super League’, it’s because I live in 2020.

Those that fear the creation of a franchise in the mould of the Titans haven’t been paying attention. The Gold Coast side are the worst rating team on Foxtel, ranking dead last in average viewers over the last three regular seasons, 20% lower than the leading Broncos. However, free-to-air is different matter, where the Titans are 3,000 average viewers shy of the two-time premiers over the same period and out-rated Penrith, Canterbury, St George Illawarra, Wests Tigers, Canberra, Manly and Newcastle. While I haven’t accounted for time slots, it’s also fair to say that the Titans have not been a drawcard during that time.

In attendances, despite being wooden spooners, the Titans got more fans through the gates than the Dragons in 2019. In 2018, the Titans’ gate was better than the Raiders, Sharks, Sea Eagles and the Eels, despite playing several games in regional areas because of the Commonwealth Games. In 2017, the reigning premiers couldn’t attract as many patrons as the Titans, nor could the Warriors, Panthers, Bunnies, Dragons or Tigers.

Memberships are an issue, with the Titans trailing the league since 2016 and falling further behind. On the other hand, the Dragons supposedly had 21,000 members in 2019 and averaged fewer than 10,000 at their games, so perhaps Titans fans are just savvier?

In other words, given that the Titans are terrible and still have better metrics than a big chunk of the league, a Titans clone would be the least we could hope for. Imagine what they could do if they started winning.

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So I’m not concerned we’ll add another Titans to the competition. I’m concerned we’ll add another Sydney club.

Sydney and Melbourne are exceptions in world sport, not the norm. No other sports has top level professional teams so heavily concentrated in one city. The closest analogs are La Liga clubs in Madrid and baseball teams in Tokyo and neither meet the same density on a per capita basis. American sports and, to a lesser extent, European soccer find themselves roughly distributed to maximise returns and optimise density. This can happen either organically, as soccer’s promotion and relegation system seems to work, or inorganically, via the American franchising system. As a result, their sports teams are in a less precarious position financially, which has obvious benefits.

In that context, it seems silly to look at Sydney as the only or even a desirable model of rugby league, when it is a crucible unlikely to be repeated elsewhere. It is sillier still to take Sydney’s rugby league culture and assume all markets have already been divied up into the exclusive fiefdoms of existing clubs, comprising fans attached like barnacles to a set of colours chosen for arbitrary, geographical or familial reasons that would rather die than adopt another set of colours that might actually be more meaningful. But you don’t need me to remind you of Australian rugby league’s inherent Sydney-centrism.

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The Broncos represent a broad church. Going by revenue, membership numbers and average attendances, there probably aren’t than many more hardcore Broncos supporters than any of the big Sydney clubs, despite being a one town team. These people aren’t leaving the Broncos but they might only be a few hundred thousand people.

There exists, outside of the Broncos’ direct sphere of influence, a larger fanbase of casual footy fans who go to or watch Broncos games because that’s what’s available. It would be a mistake to assume that they won’t be agnostic or switch teams, especially if the new team is more successful, just because that’s what extremely online NRL monomaniacs think they would do in that situation. It is worth remembering that projecting what you think you would do in a particular situation on to millions of people you’ve never met is a risky basis for decision making.

If you look at million-or-so ratings for Friday nights, the two million-plus population of Brisbane, State of Origin, the reception of Magic Round and the scale of the south-east Queensland economy, there’s clearly an opportunity to meet the latent demand for NRL that the Broncos can’t or won’t.

For example, outside of Magic Round, there are only twelve Broncos home games a year, which are predominantly on Thursday or Friday night. If you can’t make those specific nights, you can’t go to a NRL game unless you’re willing to get a on a train for an hour and a half from Central plus whatever time it takes you to get there or get on a plane. A new team doubles the opportunities available.

Ultimately, tribalism or rust have nothing to do with this because Brisbane is not Sydney.

As we edge closer to reality, we can consider what options are actually available. Far from my idealistic notions of enriching the NRL to expand the game, we’re left with a handful of bids, none of which are perfect.

(Despite the above, I acknowledge that I may never regard any bid as ideal because I subconsciously don’t want a second Brisbane team)

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North Sydney Bears

As officially endorsed by the Peanut King himself, Paul Kent, bringing back the Bears is the ultimate Sydney boomer nostalgia move that screams “Fuck your history and ideas, I’m forcing mine on you and you will like it” (Peter FitzSimons could only commit to bringing the Bears back to the Central Coast, an even more baffling proposition).

Notwithstanding the extremely obvious fact that the AFL would own all of the intellectual property related to the ‘Brisbane Bears’, Queenslanders are not going to follow a relocated Sydney team. Pre-Origin, that strategy might have worked but you can’t make Queensland-versus-New South Wales the game’s central commercial proposition and then expect one half of that rivalry to accept a cast-off from the other. To cite precedent, in 1999, the Bears took a home game against the Cowboys to Lang Park. The match attracted a paltry 3,382 attendees.

The point of relocating a team is that they will have an existing fanbase in the original city to fall back on while they build a bigger one in the new city. The problem is if you have not played first grade as a standalone club since 1999, and there are kids who have been born since then that can legally buy alcohol now, how many fans are still around to fall back on? How many were there to begin with?

“How good would it be though?” Fuck off.

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Redcliffe Dolphins

The Redcliffe Dolphins are the strongest Queensland Cup club, with a soon-to-be 10,000 seat stadium, a big leagues club, a storied history and are firmly entrenched in their local community, which is a hard-to-access peninsula at the northern end of Moreton Bay. If you wanted a Brisbane version of Manly, you couldn’t look past the Dolphins.

If I knew more about AFL, I’d draw a comparison to Port Adelaide, which I think is the only top level sports club in Australia that has been brought up from a lower tier. It would seem the idea has 100% success rate, compared to the dicey 50-50 chances of creating new franchises from scratch, so they’ve got that going for them.

Dolphin Oval isn’t quite big enough for the NRL which, despite never aiming up, should be forcing clubs to play out of minimum 25,000 all-seater stadiums. The Dolphins have acknowledged this and reckon they’ll play out of Suncorp. They’ve also acknowledged that Redcliffe won’t have widespread appeal, so they will also adopt a generic Brisbane/Queensland moniker (“Moreton Bay Dolphins” has a nice ring and might engage the people of the Moreton Bay Regional Council) but focus their marketing more on the Dolphins brand.

Bringing up a second tier club isn’t ideal but at least the Dolphins have shown the right thinking about it.

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Easts Tigers

The Easts Tigers bid runs on the same logic as the Dolphins’, which means it has the same strengths and weaknesses. The main differences are that Langlands Park is nowhere near NRL standard, so home games must go to Suncorp, and the club already acknowledges it will need to change name and colours if it is to join the NRL because of the Wests Tigers.

No suggestions for what the new brand might be have been forthcoming, other than an interesting idea that they will form the ‘south’ Brisbane counterpart to the Broncos’ ‘north’. This is an insulting suggestion as a Souths Logan fan, but at least makes some sense, given a million or so live above the river and a similar number below.

The Tigers previously experimented with being the East Coast Tigers in 2001-02, a throwback to a potential merger with the Gold Coast Chargers and/or Balmain Tigers before that resolved itself by both teams ceasing to exist. With no attachments to their current identity, they could get permission to revive the South Queensland Crushers marque, a nod to millennial nostalgia instead of boomers’, as if that would somehow be preferable and not at all unbearable. That would be interesting to see how popular opinion swings to or away from them.

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Western Corridor

The Western Corridor bid is basically the same as the Tigers’ and Dolphins’ and builds on the Ipswich Jets. The Western Corridor nominally covers the area from Logan, west to Ipswich and then out to Toowoomba, which I’ll grant you is growing very quickly but is generally extremely low density suburbia with no discernible identity other than “we’re not Brisbane, I don’t care what the ABS says” until you get to Toowoomba, at which point Brisbane ended about forty-five minutes ago.

There’s no stadium along the M2, so games would either have to go to Suncorp or QSAC, which would need a massive refurbishment and is still in the Brisbane LGA, until North Ipswich Reserve can be developed. Loganers would likely find it easier to still attend Suncorp than Ipswich, given the way public transport is set up in this city. If that’s the case, then the catchment for the Western Corridor bid would be quite limited. A ‘west Brisbane’ approach – like the airport at Toowoomba – might be more generic but loosens the connection to Ipswich.

They’ve yet to be interviewed by the Courier Mail this time around, perhaps doing some preparation, so this bid still has more details to come.

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Brisbane Bombers

While the above has not dated well from their launch in 2011, the Bombers’ biggest advantage is that they exist. At least, in the sense that they have a logo and presumably an ABN. Their sole decision made to date, to name themselves the Bombers, really brings a lot of doubt on the organisation’s decision making. Naming yourself the ‘Bombers’ in 2020 will be like naming yourself the ‘Predator Drones’ in 2070, provided that professional sport still exists then. It probably should have been knocked on the head when Essendon got done for doping.

As a club-independent consortium of businessmen who have operated in the real world, along with Billy Moore and Scott Sattler, the Bombers are actually closer to what I think is required but it’s hard to tell if they are actually rich enough to make it work. They are not popular with the Twitterati and seem incapable of making an argument for why they specifically should get a licence that isn’t couched in the most generic corporate-speak imaginable, which means they make a lot of the same arguments that I’ve just made. Thinking about it, they’d be a lot more popular with me if they just changed the branding. I have an idea:

The NRL will get more information than we will ever be allowed to see on which to base their decision. I’d like to think that the due diligence will yield the best possible outcome but we’ll have to wait and see.

If it doesn’t pan out for BNE2 and the NRL insists on another team in south-east Queensland, I know a city up the road that hasn’t got any pro men’s sports teams that could grow into a NRL team, like Brisbane did with the Broncos, Canberra did with the Raiders and we hope the Gold Coast will do with the Titans.

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Rugby league’s biggest problem is that it doesn’t know what it wants. Historically, the sport has knee jerked in response to challenges and more or less weathered them intact, but has really failed to make a significant mark outside of the territories it held circa 1939.

The point of expanding the game is to make it bigger. The bigger it is, the more talent it attracts, the better it gets; it’s a simple equation. It also ensures the sport’s survival. With a greater distribution and diversity, the scale of disaster required wipe rugby league off the map becomes less and less likely.

In Australia, NRL should strive to be the national code that represents its citizens as equally as possible. Rugby league is poised to do this in a way that rugby union and AFL cannot. The sport has four cultural values to impart:

  • Get paid for your labour
  • Rugby should be entertaining to watch
  • Your class, race, religion, sexuality or other identity won’t hold you back if you play well enough
  • Represent your people, not the arbitrarily defined country into which you were born

Despite what those on rugby’s frontiers in the New World would tell you, these ideas are important. If they weren’t, we may as well fold the NRL and get behind the Wallabies.

Expansion is hard, expensive, has to be well planned and above all, has to have a clearly identified purpose. None of these have been rugby league’s forte. The NRL has money now and it is as popular as it has ever been. The slightest modicum of intelligence applied to planning and decision making will go a long way to securing the sport’s, and its ideals’, future.

A deep dive in to the 2020 NRL premiership

This is my third season preview and I have got some things laughably wrong in the previous attempts (see 2018 and 2019). This year’s will be a slightly different format to previous years but undertaken in the same spirit of considering each team’s strengths, weaknesses and opportunities, as well as assessing the changes made since last year and their potentially positive or negative impact on performance.

However, I plan to have fewer laughably wrong predictions in 2020 simply by making fewer predictions. After all, if you want to see laughably wrong rugby league analysis, you can just pick up a copy of the paper.

Last season in a nutshell

2019 was a weird season and completely different to its equally weird predecessor. In 2018, eight teams finished within a win of each other and then were systematically dismantled by the Roosters and Storm in the finals. In 2019, we had three teams that could clearly play football, another couple that were adequate and a bunch of losers that didn’t want to make the finals. The round 17 golden point field goal shoot-out between the Broncos and Warriors, leading to a draw after multiple botched attempts, encapsulated the lose-at-all-costs mentality that defined positions seven through fifteen on the ladder. In the end, the Roosters emerged victorious in a manner that still infuriates me, with the Raiders running out of points and the Storm running out of steam when it counted.

A relatively quiet off-season – dominated by Latrell Mitchell’s signature, the Tigers’ warchest, Melbourne pollinating the landscape with overpriced talent and what the second Brisbane team should be named – has seen most teams turn up to 2020 in roughly the same shape as they approached 2019. It makes it very difficult to get a grasp on how this year might pan out, without just repeating pretty much what happened in 2019. And, no, neither the Nines nor pre-season trials will provide any insight.

How it all works

I appreciate that it’s difficult to keep up with the Pythago NRL Expanded Universe™ of metrics and ratings. Not only are they generally more complicated than standard stats, I tweak them almost every year based on what I learned during the previous season. I created a short reference guide to what it all means.

2020 team projections are based on round 1 lineups, taken as a mix from NRL.com and League Unlimited. 2020 roster composition is based on the listed signings on League Unlimited (as of 28 February) but 2019 roster information is based only on players who played at least one game.

Jump ahead

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nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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Brisbane deserved to finish ninth or tenth last season. The Broncos were the second most heavily biased to their forwards, behind the Cowboys and the immutable Taumalolo. The strong and young forward pack means that the Broncos are projected to have the third most production in 2020 but there’s diminishing returns in having powerful forwards if the other parts of the team continue to struggle to execute. The reality is that Brisbane needs less stupidity out of the forwards, more offence out of the backs and an all round improvement in defence.

I assume we will see more of the same from last year because nothing has changed significantly enough to suggest otherwise. Giving the captaincy to Glenn over Boyd doesn’t change the fact that neither should be on the field. If Boyd plays anywhere, that side of the field will shut down in attack and one or two players will have to cover his defensive workload. None of the talk out of the club has really addressed this or any of the many other problems, so I don’t see how they could have fixed them.

As to what question Brodie Croft answers, I don’t know but it isn’t halfback production. Ironically, I think the team would perform better if Milford’s TPR was lower and he didn’t have to waste time carrying so much dead weight, both undercooked rookies and overcooked veterans.

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nrl-cbr Canberra Raiders

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Possibly more than any other team, the Raiders have lost the most talent in the off-season. Taylor is down on their prospects but expects Canberra to still perform above average. Elo and Poseidon, carrying through from 2019, expect them to return to premiership contention. The Raiders’ defence wasn’t quite enough to win them the premiership (as a rule of thumb, the Poseidon defence rating should be at least +50) and it would be unlikely to not see some reversion towards mean this year. With luck, it won’t be as disastrous as 2017 and 2018 following 2016.

While Canberra’s defence was good, the attack completely dissipated in the finals. Bringing in an English half is a risk, but so was bringing in English forwards, and it paid handsome dividends. By all accounts, George Williams is the goods and might be the missing piece of the puzzle. Leilua, Rapana and Sezer have all left in the off-season, to be replaced by Curtis Scott, who celebrated by punching some cops. After being mired mid-to-lower-table for so long under the decade-long dual dominance of Sydney and Melbourne, it would be genuinely surprising to see a team turn a corner and transform into perennial challengers.

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nrl-cnt Canterbury Bulldogs

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The Bulldogs are behind, way behind.

With Kieran Foran missing most, if not all, of the 2020 season, 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.

However, we’re now into our second full season of rebuild at Belmore and the signs have been promising. Late surges of form in 2018 and 2019 when other teams start to switch off towards the end of the season have often been timely, snagging wins that Canterbury have no right to and desperately need. This defiance indicates that Dean Pay can coach (“Dogs of war”, etc, etc) and jag the seven or eight wins required to avoid the spoon. I’m comparatively bullish on the Bulldogs but they need to resolve their cap issues to get some talent on board if they want to really progress.

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nrl-cro Cronulla Sharks

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With their home games moved to Kogarah, we may finally get an answer to the age-old question: what do the Cronulla Sharks actually do to justify their place in the NRL? 

The Sharks’ 12-12 record and seventh place belied how well they played last season. Let down significantly by their goal kicking, the Sharks lost a record five games despite scoring more tries. While that’s a NSWRL/NRL record, I doubt that’s ever happened at any other time in football. The odds of it are simply astronomical. Tack on a couple of extra wins to last year’s total to appropriately set your expectations.

Cronulla should have the talent to comfortably make the finals in 2020. We probably won’t see anything much more interesting than that out of them unless a couple of the top clubs stumble.

With Paul Gallen retired, the team will have to adjust their production bias away from the forwards. I still have question marks on Bronson Xerri but his production last year was impressive and Braden Hamlin-Uele should probably be starting.

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nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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Perhaps the most significant thing to happen to the Titans last season was being surpassed by Newcastle, to be left at the bottom of the league in class Elo ratings. It might be recalled that the Knights were the worst NRL team of all time in 2016 and since then, the Knights have gotten better and the Titans so much worse.

Last season, you would have only taken a handful of players from the Titans to your own club given the opportunity: Arrow, Fotuaika, Brimson (who has a surprisingly low TPR) and maybe Tyrone Roberts if you were feeling generous. The Titans managed to hang on to them, except Arrow who will be departing for Souths next year. The rest of the roster under Garth Brennan was a joke, hence the 4-20 record, so hopes are pinned on the incoming Justin Holbrook, having left the best Super League team for the worst NRL team. Indeed, last season the Titans were ranked lower than half of the Super League.

With the number of experienced veterans and the talent pool on their door step, the Titans really should be better than they are. They are not and the sims reflect it. Fans will hope the new coach can get more out of the squad. Appointing Kevin Proctor captain is not the most auspicious start to turning around the club’s culture. Sick 9s jersey though.

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nrl-man Manly Sea Eagles

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The Taylors bear out how low expectations were for Manly in 2019, only for those expectations to be obliterated. The Sea Eagles were one of the few teams outside the big two that could win regularly. I went out on a limb pre-season and suggested Manly would make the finals. While that was pure luck on my part, they managed to do it. It turns out Des Hasler can still coach, even after taking some shine off his reputation while at the Bulldogs.

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.

It hasn’t been discussed nearly enough how costly Manase Fainu missing some (most? all?) of the upcoming season will be. He was one of the big unknowns that stepped up last year and with Api Koroisau now at Penrith, Manly are bereft of options at hooker. It is too early to discuss Cade Cust as a long-term successor to Daly Cherry-Evans but he had an impressive debut season.

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nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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The Storm and Craig Bellamy, as they often are, were the biggest outperformers of their projections in the league. Melbourne finished the season with a 20-4 record, a record only bettered* by the Storm’s 21-3 2007 season. Unlike 2017, where it seemed inevitable that the Storm would win the premiership after winning 20 games, they never seemed to get much credit for what was still a very impressive season in 2019.

Melbourne just have the knack of taking extremely talented young men, putting them on the football field and winning games. Positions don’t seem important, neither do the names. It will likely continue forever because there is plenty of talent pushing through in reserve grade. Even the departure of several reasonable quality players doesn’t seem to have made a dent in their prospects.

So yeah, they’re pretty good. If I’m lucky, I may live long enough to see the next Broncos win over the Storm, an event about as frequent as Halley’s Comet.

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nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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The Knights will be glad to see the back of the 2010s, where they were the worst team in the NRL and nearly went broke. The good news is that the Knights might legitimately make the finals this year.

The Knights massively outperformed in 2018, which then led to many talking heads predicting serious success in 2019. Success wasn’t forthcoming because the fundamentals weren’t there. Instead, we had a heady mix of nostalgia, over-excitement and Blue bias that completely crippled the predominantly Sydney-based media’s capacity to objectively analyse (I have the same problem in the opposite direction but at least I’m aware of it).

Mitchell Pearce had a career season in 2019, at least until I wrote about it, but otherwise the team struggled to meet expectations. I’m more of a numbers guy than a culture guy, but even I could see that the team was often not trying. Results from round 16 through 21 last year bear that out. Their thrashing at the hands of the Titans in round 5 was more typical of the season than the six wins that followed.

The finishing touches to the “rebuild” have now been applied, not least Adam O’Brien replacing Nathan Brown as head coach, to bring the Knights back in contention for finals places. Newcastle are still a way off challenging for the premiership.

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nrl-nzw New Zealand Warriors

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People think the Warriors are bad. They haven’t been. New Zealand’s club embodies average-ness with every fibre and loves to squander an opportunity. The thing about the median is that it’s not last place, so I’m always wary of any prediction that gives the spoon to the Warriors.

The loss of Shaun Johnson was not well compensated and the team is now overly reliant on Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and the back line to generate production. The forward pack has not been impressive as a whole. The lack of star power – currently projected to be zero players – is concerning, although not damning. Kodi Nikorima is, at best, a below average halfback and Chanel Harris-Tavita is apparently too young to start but he’s far better bet (.098 in 2019 compared to the .085-ish range Nikorima has played in the last three years). The Warriors will chase eighth place with the Broncos, Tigers and Knights until they get tired and slump down the ladder.

More worryingly, the Warriors are on the precipice of falling full-time into the ‘bad’ category and once that happens, I don’t know how the club will pull itself out. The Auckland Rugby League should be a conveyor belt of talent and the Warriors should be at least Broncos-calibre, if not the Storm. Until that gets worked out, New Zealand will probably bounce along the bottom of the ladder.

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nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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A good showing at the 9s tournament in Perth has clouded judgement about what the Cowboys are capable of. Consider their stacked halves options of Michael Morgan, Jake Clifford and Scott Drinkwater. Drinkwater is only a thought there because Valentine Holmes is obviously the fullback. The ever-reliable Vaa’i Taumalolo will put the team on his back and Kyle Feldt will finish in the corner.

It sounds good in principle but most of these pieces have been available for the last three years and, other than limping to the grand final in 2017 and avoiding the spoon in 2018 and 2019, those three years have had little to celebrate. After all, we’re projecting a team with some well-known players to only be twelfth best. Without Taumalolo, a certified freak and statistical anomaly, that number would be a lot closer to the bottom.

Paul Green seems intent on stifling the creativity of his playmakers and/or was overly reliant on Johnathan Thurston to make plays. Either way, he has to adjust to the new Thurston-less world where scoring six to twelve points is not going to be enough. Despite delivering the premiership in 2015, a bad 2020 might be the end of the road for Green.

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nrl-par Parramatta Eels

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I think this is it for the Eels. They are due for their once-a-decade (give or take) tilt at the premiership.

The Taylors are not too crash hot on the Eels. There are holes in key TPR ratings: Reed Mahoney at hooker, Dylan Brown nominally at five-eighth and, to a lesser extent, Clint Gutherson at fullback. The forward pack is slightly above average but none are exceptional. Reagan Campbell-Gillard might be one of those high-TPR, low-impact players, like Aaron Woods. On the other hand, Parramatta are capable of outperforming their projections which, for their top players at least, seem conservative. Last season’s hiccups only came when meeting the Storm, a hurdle that has felled better teams in the past.

The Eels are one of the better set up football clubs in Sydney. They have a good new stadium in the heart of their community, not too far from their leagues club. They’ve had a reasonable amount of on-field success the last few years if we ignore the total and inexplicable collapse that was 2018 (which might explain the conservative projections). It will be worth keeping an eye out to see if the club an build on this and win two premierships this season to complete their five year plan.

If not, 2021 will probably be a tear down, followed by a firesale clearance, and then a rebuild.

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nrl-pen Penrith Panthers

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The numbers suggest a tough year ahead for the Panthers, with not much to look forward to. The projected team is only two Taylors per game better than the Bulldogs. TPR lists only four guys worth a damn, roughly the same as the Titans. The sims have ten wins and eleventh place on the ladder picked out for Penrith, a re-run of 2019.

My gut says Penrith could do a lot this year. The grand final might be a step too far but it wouldn’t surprise me to see them scrapping for a second week final nor would it surprise me if we wrote them off as finals contenders shortly after Origin. The risk is there is plenty of potential but not a lot of proven execution, as last year’s rookies become this year’s sophomores and the pack that was bulldozing the league a few years ago slowly being whittled away.

It might not matter if this year is a write-off for the Panthers if they can channel the experience into development, making this squad better in future campaigns. Ivan Cleary and a Gould-less Panthers will have to take better care of the next generation than they have done in the past.

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nrl-ssr South Sydney Rabbitohs

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I have a quiet confidence in Souths’ premiership aspirations but questions remain unanswered.

Souths’ spine is projected to be a full five Taylors per game better than Melbourne’s, which is next best, so it is little surprise that the Rabbitohs are the mostly heavily biased to their playmakers. Damien Cook is the keystone of the spine and has been the league’s most productive player by TPR two years running. The .200 barrier hasn’t been broken since Robbie Farah did it back-to-back in 2013 and 2014, years that the Tigers won a combined seventeen games. After two years of wrecking the league, have coaches finally watched enough tape of Damien Cook to put a lid on him? More pressingly, will Damien Cook turn up this postseason?

Latrell Mitchell’s mooted move to fullback returns him to a position he hasn’t officially played since his 2016 season for the Roosters. He put up an average TPR of .087 then. Mitchell is projected to carry through his (famously quite lazy) productivity at centre and bring .120 of production to fullback. I am loathe to make individual manual tweaks to my systems, so that seems like a bad assumption that is worth adjusting for. 30 pips of production at fullback is worth about 10 Taylors, enough to move Souths from fourth best squad to outside the top eight. Questions: will Latrell at fullback work? Will Latrell put his full back into working?

If they fail, it is not clear if the rest of the team will be able to pick up enough slack to keep the Bunnies in the premiership hunt. Adam Reynolds and Cody Walker form a potent pair. Cameron Murray looks ready to go up another level. But is the forward pack good enough without numerous Burgii? Edene Gebbie looked a little lost at the 9s, so who else is waiting in the wings if needed?

Is Wayne cooked?

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nrl-sgi St George Illawarra Dragons

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I didn’t want to make any specific predictions but wooden spoon, anyone?

It would be the first for Illawarra since 1989 and the first for St George since 1938. The reality is that Paul McGregor’s head is already on the chopping block. Since taking the reins, the Dragon’s class rating has dropped nearly 100 points, an untenable position and one no major league coach of the last two decades has been able to drag their team out before their time was up. No improvements to the roster, no improvements to coaching… wait, didn’t the Dragons sign Shane Flanagan as an “assistant”? That will be an interesting play and may well push the Dragons up the ladder.

The squad itself isn’t magic but should be better than last place. New signing Isaac Luke has always been a productive player but he will presumably be second fiddle to Cameron McInnes when he returns from injury, reducing the potential volume of work Luke could be doing. Indeed, St George Illawarra are extremely reliant on their spine to perform. While Hunt, Norman and McInnes have been productive, I don’t think they’ve been especially effective. The Dragons are also still searching for a fullback. Lomax may or may not be it.

If Flanagan really is the de facto, if not de jure, head coach, then he should be able to coax that performance out of the roster. If McGregor is still in charge, then a 5-0 start will turn into a 7-17 season and the cycle will begin anew.

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nrl-esr Sydney Roosters

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I’m quite comfortable assuming that the Roosters won’t go three in a row. They’re still good though, probably even still good enough for a minor premiership. A projected 15+ wins and the second best squad on paper is not going to have trouble reaching a preliminary final. The Storm are the only team superior on paper and they share the equal best class Elo rating.

When we talk about the trinity of rugby league – hungah, pashun and desiyah – do the Roosters still espouse these values? Cooper Cronk’s retirement and nominal replacement with near-rookie Kyle Flanagan is the kind of loss of edge that turns premiership winners into runners-up, as the Storm have amply demonstrated.

After all, it’s not just about production. Yelling at other players to get them organised is a rare and extremely valuable commodity. Luke Keary may have it but it will be the first time in his career that the 28 year old will be the elder of the halves pairing. But to put this supposed weakness into context, the Roosters will absolutely be a top four team come September.

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The Tigers continue to defy my predictions of a wooden spoon to instead finish ninth. Last year, they really should have been eighth and the 12-12 record the year before should have seen them in the top eight. Basically, bad luck has kept them from breaking the NRL’s longest finals drought.

Still, you make your own luck. The Tigers were the biggest movers in the off-season and showed unusual astuteness in their acquisitions: Leilua times two, Adam Doueihi, Walters and maybe Harry Grant (.266 TPR in 2019’s QCup) will land.

The projections and the sims lock in a knife-edge battle for the Tigers to take that final step from ninth to eighth. Exactly 50% chance of making the finals, exactly 12.0 wins projected and an average finishing position of 8.6. I’m not ready to make them a lock but this is the best chance Wests have had in a long time.

All they had to do was spend their money wisely. Now they just need to lock down a home ground.

Primer – TPR

For the third season in a row, I’m changing the player rating system. We mourn the passing of Statscore (not really) and PPG (again, not really) as we slowly converge on to a system that I can take for granted and don’t have to refine any further.

The core of the system hasn’t changed. The proposition is that there are important and unimportant statistics and that counting the important ones provides information about players and teams and can be predictive.

PPG was useful, and development and application through 2019 demonstrated that:

The last one should be taught in universities as a perfect example of ringing the bell at the top. Sheer narrative power subsequently forced Pearce back to mean and Brown onto the compost heap.

The mechanics of PPG have been preserved through TPR. My biggest issue is that when I wrote about production (that is, the accumulation of useful statistics), I didn’t have any units to work with. I originally didn’t think this would be a problem but it would make some things clearer if I did have units. So I took a leaf from the sciences and landed on naming it after the man that could do it all, David “Coal Train” Taylor.

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“PPG”, which was Production – and not Points – Per Game, doesn’t make much sense now, so that’s been punted and replaced with TPR, or Taylor Player Rating. There has been a substantial change in the way I’d calculated WARG in the primer at the start of 2019 and the way I calculated it in Rugby league’s replacement player at the end. The latter method is now canonical but the name is going to stick.

In brief, TPR and WARG are derived through the following six steps:

  1. Run linear regressions to confirm which statistics correlate with winning percentage. The stats get distributed in to buckets and we review the success of teams achieving those statistics. One crucial change was to exclude any buckets from the regression with fewer than ten games in it. We end up with tries, running metres, kick return metres, post-contact metres, line breaks, line break assists, try assists, tackle busts, hit ups, dummy half run metres, missed tackles (negative), kick metres, forced drop outs, errors (negative) and, in Queensland only, penalties (negative) as having significant correlations out of the data provided by the NRL.
  2. Take the slope of the trendline calculated in the regression and weight it by its correlation (higher the correlation, the higher the weighting). Through this weighting, we develop a series of equivalences between stats. The below is shows the quantities required of each stat to be equivalent to one try in 2020:
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  3. Players who accumulate these statistics are said to be generating production, which is now measured in Taylors, and is the product of the weighting/slope multiplied by the quantity of stats accumulated multiplied by 1000. However, due to the limitations of the statistics, some positions on the field generate significantly more Taylors than others.
    Average Taylors per game by position (1)
  4. To combat this, the production generated each game is then compared to the average production generated at that position (averaging previous 5 seasons of data in NRL, 3 seasons for State Cup). We make the same adjustments for time on field as in PPG and then divide by 10 for aesthetic purposes. The resulting number is the Taylor Player Rating, or TPR.
  5. We derive a formula for estimating win probability based on production for each competition and then substitute in a winning percentage of .083 (or two wins in twenty-four games, per the previous definition of a replacement-level team) and estimate the amount of production created by a team of fringe players against the competition average. This gives us a TPR that we can set replacement level at. The Taylors created over and above replacement level is added to the notional replacement level team’s production and the increase in winning probability is attributed to that player as a Win Above Reserve Grade, or WARG. Replacement level in TPR for the NRL is .057, Queensland is .072 and NSW is .070. The career WARG leaders are currently:
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  6. Finally, we go back and check that it all makes sense by confirming that TPR has some predictive power (~61% successful tipping rate, head-to-head) and there’s a correlation with team performance (~0.60 r-squared for team season production against team winning percentage).

For a more in-depth explanation, you can refer back to the original PPG primer. The differences between last year’s system and this year’s are slight and, for most intents and purposes, PPG and TPR are equivalent. Some of the changes are small in impact but important.

The most obvious change is the addition of NSW Cup data to the Queensland Cup and NRL datasets. This was driven by my interest in assessing the farm systems of each NRL club and you can’t make a decent fist of that if you’re missing twelve feeder clubs from the picture. It will also allow me to better test talent identification in the lower levels if I have more talents to identify and to better set expectations of players as they move between competitions.

For the most recent seasons, TPR only uses past data to calculate its variables, whereas PPG used all of the data available and created a false sense of success. A system that uses 2018 data to create after-the-fact predictions for the 2018 season isn’t going to give you an accurate view of how it will perform in 2019.

Finally, projecting player performance into the future is a pretty powerful concept, even if the tools for doing so are limited. I went back and re-derived all of the reversion-to-mean formulas used in The Art of Projection. It turns out that the constants for the projection formula don’t change much between seasons, so this is fixed across the datasets for now. It also turns out adjustments for age and experience are different and largely useless under the TPR system, such is the ephemera of statistical analysis.

One application for projections is that I’ll be able to run season simulations using the winning probability formula and team production that will be able to measure the impact of including or excluding a player on the outcome of a team’s season. It may not be super-accurate (the projections have large average errors) but it will be interesting. I also like the idea that out- or under-performance of projections as an assessment of coaching.

Finally, to reiterate things that I think are important caveats: TPR is a value-over-average rate statistic, while WARG is a volume statistic. No, statistics don’t tell the whole story and even these ones don’t measure effectiveness. Yes, any player rating system is going to have a certain level of arbitrariness to it because the system designer has to make decisions about what they consider important and unimportant. I’m fully aware of these things and wrote 1500 words accordingly at the end of the PPG primer.

A thing I’m trying to do this season is publish all of my rating systems on Google Sheets so anyone can have a look. You can see match-by-match ratings for NRL and the two State Cups if that’s your jam.

The coaches that fucked up your club

When a coach arrives at a major league club, fresh and excited to make his own mark in the history books, you’d have to think that, as a minimum threshold for success, he’d want to leave the place in better shape than when he arrived. Sometimes, the vagaries of reality make it difficult to assess a coach’s legacy but we can definitely ignore nuance and simplify things down to a nice looking line on a graph.

For this, we use Class Elo ratings. Over this kind of time frame, you can think of the rating as a glorified win-loss stock ticker. It goes up when the team wins and it goes down when the team loses. The rating goes up more for unexpected wins and goes down more for unexpected losses. Grand finals are weighted the heaviest, then finals and then regular season games. Challenge Cup results are included for Super League teams. You can see each team’s class Elo rating history for NRL and Super League.

This post compares different coaches at each club and see how they improved the club’s rating from their first game. I’ve included most, but not all of, the coaches for each club over the last two decades. Caretakers have generally been excluded. I used rugbyleagueproject.org (DONATE TO THE PATREON) to determine the extents of careers but it may not be 100% complete for coaching details and career lengths may be out by a few games. It is very hard to find out which round a coach was sacked from a club in 2003 if it’s not on RLP. 

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