Tag Archives: rugby league

2021 NRL WIP Report

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

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

There’s more detail at How It All Works.

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

WIP graphs

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

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

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

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

The current status of each team:

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

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

Form

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

Production

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

1st Order Wins

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

2nd Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP for and against

Player Leaderboards

Wins Above Reserve Grade

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

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

Taylor Player Rating

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

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

2021 WARG by position

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

2021 TPR by position

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

Diving into State of Origin 2021

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

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

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

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

Game 1 Lineups

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

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

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

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

Series outlook

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

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

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

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

Historical record

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

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

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

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

Pathetic.

Bearing the burden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primer – SCWP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Super League (round 6):

For Queensland Cup (first part of round 8):

For NSW Cup (round 11):

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

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

Primer – WCL

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was Magic Round ruined by bins and send offs?

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

Ah! Well, nevertheless…

Some selected games of interest

Panthers vs Raiders, round 14, 2017

Raiders vs Warriors, round 3, 2018

Storm vs Panthers, grand final, 2020

Broncos vs Titans, round 8, 2021

This is getting embarrassing

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

****

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

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

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

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

Peter V’Landys is a loser.

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Average errors per game

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

2021: 22

2020: 22

2019: 21

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

2021: 21.6

2020: 21.7

2019: 20.7

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

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

Average Ball In Play                 

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

2021: 55min 18secs

2020: 56min 12secs

2019: 54min 48secs

Remember this because it will be important.

Average time the ball is in play before stoppage

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

2021: 62 seconds

2020: 62 seconds

2019: 57 seconds

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

Average tries per game

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

2021: 7.7

2020: 7.3

2019: 6.6

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

Play the Balls

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

2021: 284

2020: 288

2019: 270

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

2021: 19.4 tackles per player per game

2020: 20.7

2019: 19.7

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

Average Total Distance per player

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

2021: 6600m

2020: 7180m

2019: 6626m

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

Average player metres covered at more than 20km

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

2021: 299

2020: 277

2019: 255

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

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

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

To return to the beginning.

That data highlights the following matters:

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

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

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

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

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

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

2021: 9.1 LB and 57.8 TB per game

2020: 8.1 LB and 56.4 TB per game

2019: 7.4 LB and 61.5 TB per game

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Instead we get this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Deep Dive in to the 2021 NRL season

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

What happened

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

How it all works

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Idling

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

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

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

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

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

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

*Includes Northern Eagles

Assessment: 3rd group / Upside

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Recovering

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

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

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

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

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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

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

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

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

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

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

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

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

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

Assessment: 3rd group / Waiting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the new Dally M results for each system.

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

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

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

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

Big brain essay #5: Do these guys actually know what they’re doing?

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

I occassionally get the urge to write a grand unifying theory of rugby league. Indeed, that’s where many of these essays started. I usually get stuck somewhere between the scale of it and the intractable psychology and never finish it. Sometimes, some good comes of it, like Super League 2.0 is not coming, but this is probably not one of those times.

In principle, this theory would establish some of the ideas that give the game its legitimacy and purpose as a cultural institution but also ideas that we could use to make decisions in a meaningful and ideologically consistent way and offer future directions that the sport might take. Religions have a mythology that explain things. Even heartless corporations have policy documents that no one reads but boardrooms use to make decisions. Rugby league desperately needs a plan to survive.

What’s more is that ideas are free. People get paid to think of them as part of their job description. We haven’t gotten to a point where we need to worry about where the money to implement the plans is going to come from, because there’s no plan in the first instance.

My fundamental view is that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. In the globalised, hyper competitive world in which we live, if rugby league is not aggressively seeking new audiences, then other, better funded and more well known sporting organisations will come and eat rugby league’s lunch.

Almost all of the space that can be occupied by sport is already occupied in the industrialised world. Rugby league can only expand by displacing existing sports – something that hasn’t really happened since WWII – or to grow the overall pie and take a small slice at the edge – as the Wolfpack had hoped to do in Toronto. That the Wolfpack was a Big Deal for rugby league, $30 million pissed down the toilet, is indicative of the dire straits in which we find ourselves. The Blue Jays spent more on Tanner Roark and Hyun Jin Ryu in 2020.

Without this masterplan for the sport, the sport is ruderless. I think this explains a large part of why “rugby league never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Rugby league people don’t really understand their own sport, certainly not in terms they could articulate, and don’t spend a lot of time considering purpose and meaning. Things just are. When opportunity arrives, the powers that be literally don’t know what to do*. They can’t even work out whether rugby league should be a vehicle for redemption or not.

If you need a historical example of this, consider that state of origin selection rules had been proposed as early as 1964 to imbue the interstate series with meaning and competitiveness. It was only in 1980 that it was first trialled and then broadly accepted by 1982 and really only became a big enough deal for Sydneysiders to attend in decent numbers circa 1985. This is because rugby league administrators didn’t understand what they had and could not see where it could go. State of Origin, the most commercially successful exponent of the game, was an accident.

No doubt there’s a cavalcade of people who reject the very notion that rugby league should be anything other than it is now. That’s because there’s lots of people who will complain about any change and trace their intellectual lineage back to Socrates, who had a whinge about people writing things down to remember and communicate them.

People will take issue with my suggestions, for the reasons I’ve covered and for their own, a lot of which will be reasonable. Some will simply hate the lack of symmetry and the messiness of it all. Far be it for me to tell you this is how it has to be. Honestly, it doesn’t matter because none of it will come to pass. These essays will not suddenly overturn 125 years of non-thinking.

Rugby league seemingly has nothing to offer other than to perpetuate its own existence. At least rugby union believes it is inherently superior. Give them another twenty years of selective pressure from broadcast negotiations and professionalism and they’ll probably be playing something that looks a lot like league.

I’ve ventured to suggest that rugby league’s philosophy includes elements of inclusiveness, meritocracy, identity and mass entertainment (which are hardly original insights, thanks to Tony Collins) but very few fans would even acknowledge that a philosophy exists, let alone agree what it is. Almost all fans exist because of some combination of they were born into it, the sport is fun to watch and rugby league happens to be the medium by which the local pissing contest takes place.

If horse racing is the sport of kings and soccer is the beautiful game, then by the laws of cliche, rugby league is the working man’s game. Except this working man has no sense of class solidarity, no idea of how to build anything and no means by which to do it.

And this working man isn’t really a working man anyway because that working man is a relic that died at least forty years ago.

And we’d probably be better off targetting the working woman. Should rugby league be a girl’s game? Who can say.

Rugby league will continue hand-to-mouth, financially and spiritually, until we finally reach the blessed relief of surrendering to our union counterparts, unable to distinguish ourselves from our former masters in a world that does not value our history or potential because we simply cannot be bothered.

*That is, perhaps except to fall back on tradition, which has embedded a long running culture of reactive conservatism: a borderline psychotic will to maintain the status quo until it is untenable to do so, then making the most minimal changes possible to resolve the crisis at hand. It’s worth noting that this is not a uniquely rugby league problem and many sports have this in common.

Big brain essay #4: The World’s Games

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

If I know my audience, you are likely Australian and likely have an interest in at least one, if not several, of European soccer and major North American sports leagues. While this is true for an increasing number of Australians, the interest does not flow back the other way. Europeans and Americans aren’t tuning in large, or even small, numbers to watch the AFL or NRL. Fuelled by huge broadcast deals and a pre-eminent position in G20 economies, these behemoths have the commercial and cultural power to cross borders and span the globe. Moreover, they have resources and, most importantly, the patience to do the work required to take over the world.

In the near future, European soccer is going to follow the US sports model. There is simply too much money to be made to do otherwise. The irony is that while many will complain about the Americanisation of their sport, as if the Football League wasn’t soccer’s answer to baseball’s National League, they will still tune in. The only questions that remain are when, which clubs add value and how much destruction will be done to existing institutions along the way. All this to feed the ever rising player salaries, and corresponding debt loads, of a sport that won’t accept regulations that American sports have long considered essential.

The NFL will take a huge leap in the near future, either by relocation or by creating new franchises, to expand into places like Mexico City and London, where the NFL has been laying the groundwork for decades. The NFL’s biggest obstacle in London is not logistics, which they absolutely have the power and money to overcome, or getting people to turn out for games but rather that many UK-based fans already have an allegiance to a franchise and the NFL is not sure if they’ll all come together to support a new London team. While the NFL has lost money on its trips to London, its earned some, if not all, of it back in improved broadcast deals.

The others in the US’s Big 4 may or may not follow. NHL already has a significant presence in both the US and Canada and has a counterpart league that spans from Riga to Beijing. Basketball is, depending on who you ask, either already the second or third most popular sport in the world and the NBA is its centrepiece.

Still, if the money is there, these leagues will find it, facilitated by an economic and political environment that demands that they do. The world seems to be structured to allow the economic winner to take all. Given there are only so many sports consumers in the world with a finite supply of money and interest, that spells disaster for the losers.

***

Cricket is riding a huge rising wave. The proliferation of T20 leagues across the world has been driven by the growth of the Indian Premier League from nothing to one of the most valuable sports commodities in the world in just twelve years. An influx of private investment to replicate that success has followed, raising existential questions: How much cricket is too much? How does cricket balance internationals, domestic and franchise commitments? What gives cricket its meaning?

The T20 explosion was predicated on the assumption that, if nothing else, Indian people will indiscriminately watch cricket and if enough stars can be incentivised to turn up, the rest will take care of itself. The subsequent failure of many these startup leagues puts paid to that lie but these are likely just teething issues as we see the emergence of a new order. It’s not too difficult to imagine a world where the primary actors in T20 are a dozen or more IPL franchises who simply operate year-round in different countries, under identical branding and shuffle their expensive talent to suit, taking the cream of broadcast deals to cover costs and then some, throwing a stipend to each of the national cricket boards.

That’s just one model but its main benefit is that it would be sustainable, not just financially but also in terms of fan interest. The end result would be less T20 (and the extinction of other very short forms of cricket) but it would be broadly centrally controlled so that it can be balanced with other more meaningful, but perhaps less commercially lucrative, formats and the institution of cricket would now be stronger for it. The tumult we see now is almost irrelevant – indeed, it is necessary to weed out solutions which don’t work – as cricket powers edge their way to the arrangements that will take their sport through the 21st century.

***

The grandest irony is that the Super League ethic, which created rifts in rugby league that still aren’t fully healed twenty-five years later, has been best reflected in the fortunes of the rival Super Rugby competition. Super Rugby created new professional franchises in an international competition and undertook a heavy programme of expansion to establish or further entrench union in markets outside of the traditional hubs of South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

Union’s commitment to its traditions, specifically by ring fencing Test level talent in their home nations (creating gross competitive imbalances) and by organising the sport according to hemisphere rather than time zones (making teams difficult to follow regularly and ensuring that a substantial portion of the broadcast content is effectively worthless), has undermined and temporarily halted this enterprising attitude as union is forced to reconsider its approach. It seems unlikely that something equally stupid wouldn’t have undermined a similarly progressive Super League, had that ever existed.

At the very least, union has shown an understanding of how the world around them operates, in contrast to their pre-professional ethos. Their reward will be to maintain their position as the King of Rugbies, a position Australian league fans tacitly acknowledge by referring to, and insisting others do likewise, union as “rugby” and league as “league”.

Australian Rules, Irish football and Canadian football make a direct connection to their respective national identities by giving people “their” game, which has had varying results. This puts an obvious limitation on the potential growth of these sports that is nigh-on impossible to break through without an historically important empire backing it. Baseball expanded from a local phenomenom in New York state in the early-to-mid-19th century to a professional sport in several east Asian nations that coincidentally house large numbers of US troops by the end of the 20th century (rugby league’s expansion to Papua New Guinea came about for similar reasons). Contrast this to the CFL’s spectacular failure to expand into the US in the mid-90s because it offered nothing that the NFL or college football didn’t already.

***

It was in vogue in the mid-to-late 2000s for road cycling to think it needed to model itself on Formula 1. Presumably, the UCI, cycling’s governing body, had engaged a marketing firm that basically told them this. In short, the season is too confusing, with too many events and too many different teams. There’s no narrative and star riders don’t turn up to every race. Further, cycling needed to globalise, which was code for running events outside of western Europe paid for by governments looking for a dusting of magic from being in proximity to road cycling, one of the world’s most corrupt sports where riders will openly negotiate on the road to exchange the right to win for tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars. Never mind the doping.

To address this, the UCI deleted the long standing World Cup, which united a dozen or so one day races under a season-long banner, and created the ProTour, which was going to include all of the biggest events, including one day races, week long stage races and the three Grand Tours with the biggest teams entering every race. The race organisers hated it, preferring to invite teams at their discretion. Some of the teams hated it, with their sponsors having no use for marketing their consumer debt products or flooring or mild sheet steel to China or Australia or California and so had very little interest in travelling halfway around the world for a new race with no prestige.

The UCI wanted to introduce a ProTour leaders jersey. The major race organisers refused to allow it to be worn. It was, in short, a disaster. It reached its peak when the UCI ran two simultaneous ranking systems: one for the ProTour and a separate ranking that included that and then other races because the ProTour was so hamstrung that it wasn’t won by the best rider in the world, even though that was kind of the point.

Even up to this year, the UCI has more World Tour (what they ended up calling the merger of the ProTour and world ranking systems) licences than World Tour teams. The sport is fundamentally different to motorsport in a way that is obvious to everyone with a cursory knowledge of either. It then made little sense to borrow F1’s solutions, thinking they will fix cycling’s alleged problems, like the structure of the season, while ignoring cycling’s actual problems, like corruption and doping. The UCI and other powerbrokers should have come up with their own ideas.

***

I think there’s a lot to be learned from looking at other sports, particularly if you had an interest in a suburban cottage industry sport that consistently fails to capitalise on opportunities or understand its place in the world. Indeed, these vignettes superficially teach us about lots of things – culture, history, tradition, politics, economics and all the other strands that makes up being human – at an angle that allows us to perceive insights that might otherwise be obscured by a more direct, and de-humanised, approach.

While I’m no marketing expert, I would think that trying to sell an identical product to a pre-existing and much better known one is an exercise in futility. My wife doesn’t know why there’s a difference between rugby league and rugby union, so I don’t know why we would expect Americans or anyone else to be across it. Without being cheaper or obviously better to the untrained eye (Americans aren’t comparing league and union, they’re comparing rugby to the NFL) and lacking a superior (or any) market position, how exactly is rugby league meant to differentiate itself from rugby union?

Can we at least talk about changing the name? Is an effete English private school a sensible place to derive the name of a sport which is barred from similar institutions around the English speaking world and has traditionally sought an audience in the working class?

You might argue that league is fundamentally more entertaining than union and that should be enough. I would then respond by gesturing vaguely at rugby league’s 125 year history of that marketing strategy, which has brought us to this point. Indeed, if you consider the world’s biggest sporting events – the Super Bowl, the F1 World Championship, the Tour de France, the World Series and all of soccer – being boring might actually be a pre-requisite to success and on field action is antithetical to a sport’s growth.

So if you were running a sport that considers itself separate to its very similar looking relative but has almost no presence outside of a handful of scattered locations and is in a life-or-death struggle with every other professional sport in the world to find a way to sustainably exist, how would you ensure its survival? Would business as usual suffice?

Big brain essay #2: Growing trees or growing grass

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

When talking about how they’d like the sport to look, rugby league nerds, including yours truly, like to put pins in the map. The thinking is that if you put enough teams in big cities then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, most of those teams would fail. There’s few or no fans in those places, there’s barely any strategic considerations given, other than the need to be a player in big media markets, nor any meaningful thoughts as to how the new team will engage with the local population on a sustainable and lasting basis. The best case scenario is that each new team would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, as the Melbourne Storm did and the Toronto Wolfpack tried to do. It should go without saying that rugby league does not have that kind of cash to effectively buy new fans.

What’s interesting is how infrequently we discuss the structure of the club game – everyone has their preferred format for international tournaments between World Cups – and usually people just vary who is in Super League or the NRL with little thought put into how the different rugby leagues relate to each other or how their structure reflects an understanding of what these competitions, and rugby league, are for.

If you were to start FIFA (the video game, not the governing body) right now and create a customised competition, you’d have a choice of league, group stage then knockout, or straight knockout. Almost all sports use these frameworks to structure their competitions and there’s obviously only so many ways you can arrange head to head matches for a group of teams contesting a title.

At a higher level, you have the ultra-Darwinist domestic European soccer competitions, which are either round robin leagues with promotion and relegation or knockout formats and the two don’t mix. In contrast are the socialist American big four sports leagues, which have a league phase, usually with an unbalanced schedule and some sort of regionalisation, followed by a post season knockout. Pretty much every other team sport takes their cues from these two. I will concede that after a century and a half of experimentation, we’ve probably landed on the optimal outcome but I’m still interested in exploring this a little.

I find it somewhat puzzling that after so long, we can only imagine a couple of different ways for teams to play each other. This kind of thinking has even leaked into multi-competitor-sports, like NASCAR’s Playoffs, where it makes little sense but presumably someone thought it was a good idea for a late-season ratings boost. The recently retooled European soccer competitions – the Champion’s League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, as well as the UEFA Nations League – offer some alternatives, with complex qualification arrangements being employed to serve higher purposes. These competitions don’t just decide the best clubs in Europe but are purposely designed to give all participants some meaningful chance of winning a trophy and prize money.

***

Promotion and relegation has always sounded great in theory but relegation (and, indeed, sometimes promotion) can create existential crises that are otherwise not necessary. Sport’s rules don’t arise from some sense of natural law. Almost all aspects of sport have been arbitrarily decided in the past but we forget this with the convenient fog of time and tradition. Indeed, most traditions now are used as weapons to maintain the status quo in lieu of pursuing change and growth. So why persist?

What keeps the idea afloat in soccer is that even if relegation kills a club or two, there’s dozens ready to step up and take their place. In fact, in a twist of Victorian victim blaming, it’s the club’s fault for not being better prepared, which is ameliorated by parachute payments and leaves clubs on the bubble of leagues to bouncing back and forth. Moreover, pro-rel propagates the myth that any club can rise to the top if they just work hard enough, even though any talk of the long term prospects for a club is almost always couched in how much money can be invested. There is no realistic way to start a new club and use hard work alone to find a way to the top, especially through the last couple of leagues, and certainly not in a human lifespan. While the club works their way through levels nine and ten, the wealth of the top echelon of the top league grows faster still.

Given that, what is the point of promotion and relegation if it’s solely a function of how much money some lunatic is willing to put in? That hardly seems to be about sporting fairness. This kind of cognitive dissonance will eventually result in its elimination, which will very likely be in the favour of capital and closed leagues.

Pro-rel can work in international competitions, because the team exists because the country exists and countries generally don’t fold because of a sporting result, and in amateur competitions, where there’s no need to pay players and so revenue streams are substantially less critical to the existence of the club. Where the competitors are businesses, the change in revenue is often disastrous and the risks make planning and investment more difficult than they would otherwise need to be. The only benefit – which does not accrue to the relegated teams but instead the league they are being ejected from – is if there’s a ratings boost for potential relegation battles at the season’s end which would otherwise be ignored.

For rugby league, there are not the vast resources available to be allowed to waste on promotion and relegation. In the UK, there are 36 “professional” clubs. The loss of any one would be devastating – the money and effort and time invested becomes worthless – and risks dragging down the survivors. Further, the idea that pro-rel is some entrenched tradition is laughable. The RFL only introduced it in the early 70s. Prior to that, every club sat in the same, unwieldy 30-odd club league. There are people alive today who would remember a pre-pro-rel rugby league.

***

As I’ve suggested, Super League is at a crossroads. Crisis looms at every corner and it is crisis that is when the hard questions get asked and answered. The results of the Super League experiment since 1996 have been dismal, with only the switch from winter to summer being potentially worth salvaging to keep in sync with the sport’s other major league, and no other real, permanent gains to speak of. London, Crusaders, Paris, Sheffield and Toronto have failed to retain their place in the top flight for varying reasons. The separation of Super League from the RFL has only served to create a fiefdom of equally incompetent administrators and a duplication of infrastructure with no discernible purpose that looks almost certain to be undone after just two years. Crowds and the TV deal have seemingly peaked.

Now would seem like an opportune time to consider the competition’s place in rugby league, its place in British culture and how it might structure itself to reflect these and its own values. To do so, it would be worthwhile to consider how rugby league might move out of the shadow of soccer and union and whether it makes sense to try to replicate what they do or try something different.

I would like to make two suggestions, which will require some relatively radical departures from the norm.

Growing trees

The overall goal of expansion, growth and the rest of the lefty rugby league agenda seems to be to grow trees. That is, large and imposing clubs that can stand tall by themselves as markers of the existence of rugby league. Naturally, the most fertile ground for new life is big media markets, where a small sliver of attention from a large group of people can nourish a Wolfpack or a Storm.

However, there is a substantial disconnect between this vision of the future and the existing trees, who are afraid that the sun will be blotted out and aggressively fight new growth. To address this, we need to acknowledge the separate natures of the existing heritage clubs and modern expansion clubs. To that end, I suggest creating two separate streams for rugby league football clubs, a modernist Super League and a heritage Northern Union.

Super League would effectively become the championship of Europe. Run by the RFL, thanks to its marginally more progressive outlook than the clubs that currently run the professional game in England, the focus would be on teams in large markets to be the building blocks of a wide audience that would attract huge ratings or a committed subscriber base, coupled with vision, planning and the capability to implement it. Super League would aim to reach parity with the NRL, in terms of calendar, reach, wealth, structure, regulations and playing ability, so that the sport can have two legitimate major leagues.

The Northern Union then embraces the traditions of the game. The Northern Union can base its marketing around being the northern game, with its teams drawn from a very small geographical range, and in the extremely unlikely event that the northern half of England secedes, rugby league will have a purpose made professional sport for the new country before anyone else. The Northern Union could be run as Super League is now, for and by its member clubs, and they can set regulations and a fixture schedule that best suits their commercial outlook (e.g. 29 round season, primarily attracting away fans, other stereotypes, etc) and initially, with their own broadcast deal. Being a lower tier, its unlikely that an overly long season will compromise major representative teams. The Union would also have no need for expansion, that path being via Super League 2, suiting the more inward looking nature of many clubs and fans.

Based on the clubs currently in play, a realistic starting point might be to award a dual Super League/Northern Union licence to the relatively big market and/or well established clubs, such as Leeds, Warrington, St Helens, Wigan, Hull, Salford and Bradford (taking into account the various intangibles involved, which is still mostly sticking pins in a map, although Salford may not be suitable to be the Manchester team and my impressions of Bradford could be 10 years behind reality). This would allow these teams to run a first team in SL1 and an affiliated second team, either a reserves or juniors team or a revived alternative marque, in the Northern Union (e.g. Wigan could resurrect Wigan Highfield/Liverpool Stanley as a second team or the Devils would run as Manchester in SL1 and Salford in NU). There would be a further four Super League-only licences awarded to London, Catalans, Toulouse and York. The Super League licence gives the team immunity from relegation and for the dual licencees, prevents the second team from being promoted.

With eleven teams, the best Northern Union club would be promoted to take the league to twelve. Said club would be relegated for the champion of the Northern Union if they should finish in the bottom two or three places. Despite my personal distaste for pro-rel, it’d be politically difficult to remove and there are just not enough big clubs in Europe to sustain a reasonable sized Super League without it.

Underneath Super League is Super League 2, separate to the Northern Union. The purpose of Super League 2 is not to entertain or represent or anything but to create a space in which new clubs can get themselves set up. The make up of the league would be constantly changing, as clubs either graduate to SL1 or fail quietly in a place no one cares about. Clubs would be required to submit plans so that the institution of rugby league as a whole can help development of the clubs in a way that aligns with their vision and the SL/RFL can provide feedback, based on previous experience or their own masterplan, and the parties can work together for mutual benefit.

Not every team that enters Super League 2 will graduate or fail. Coventry or West Wales, for example, might choose to remain mainstays, preferring to focus on creating grassroots in their community, develop local talent and passing the talented up the chain to an affiliated SL1 club. Toronto, on the other hand, might have come in with a plan to be promoted to SL1 in two years, outlining the steps and targets they see as being necessary to get ready for the big time.

There would be far fewer regulations in order to facilitate the rapid growth of clubs as needed, perhaps just the same as those as govern the upper end of SL1, which will probably result in significant disparity across what is likely to be a small league (in the event there aren’t enough teams, the league should switch the SL/NU second teams across to pad out SL2). This is just the price we pay for this structure, unless there is a surprising uptake of new clubs in SL2. The initial SL2 clubs would be North Wales, West Wales, Coventry, London Skolars, Newcastle, Sheffield and Ottawa (if they ever make it on to the field), leaving seventeen clubs plus up to seven second teams (possibly one or two would be required in SL2) to contest the Northern Union.

The short term focus of SL1 would be maintaining some sort of commercial and sporting parity between the clubs, preferably by taking from the rich and investing in the poor. There are myriad vehicles for doing this. The key will be maintaining a ceiling (possibly the same ceiling for all professional clubs) but also having a relatively close floor to maintain standards. If a club cannot stand on the floor, it has no business being in the room and a salary cap is useless as a mechanism for parity without a salary floor. Some clubs are not currently configured for this but have the potential to be, with some work.

The medium term focus – over the next decade or so – would be to focus on preparing Sheffield and Newcastle to join SL1 from SL2 and investing now, laying the ground work with the locals, to give them a place in the top flight in the future. The long term focus – over the next twenty or more years – would be identifying the next candidates to follow them. Twenty years should be enough time to build up a London Skolars or North Wales Crusaders to be ready for the big time or even creating teams from scratch in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France (perhaps another tilt at Paris) or elsewhere in Europe in a shorter timeframe. Private investment will be required and the SL/RFL needs to have development officers for rich people to funnel the money into the correct places. The growing footprint of the game should result in a greater audience, improving sponsorship prospects and broadcast deals (or, more likely, an increase in subscribers).

If we must keep the knockout competitions, the Challenge Cup would become the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It would only be open to the professional SL1, SL2 and NU clubs. The 1895 Cup would then be open only to Northern Union and amateur clubs. The purpose of both is clear: the Challenge Cup is inevitably dominated by the top flight professional clubs, so the biggest knockout competition is only open to the biggest clubs (the draw could also be engineered to ensure a NU or SL2 team makes the semis), which would have the dual benefit of reducing the number of rounds required. The 1895 Cup, recently introduced by the RFL to make the Challenge Cup final into a double header, can build its brand around being the competition open only to the “real” rugby league clubs, even though the final is likely to be still dominated by the top end of the Northern Union, at least the amateur clubs have a cost effective avenue for participation. You could swap the names on the competitions, it wouldn’t really matter.

The very long term plan would be ensuring new teams get added to Super League on a regular basis. As the future of rugby league is secured by its presence in big sporting markets, the number of Northern Union places in Super League could be increased to give greater heritage representation but one would hope that the gap between the Super League and Northern Union would grow to be so great over time, those clubs would simply not be able to compete and pro/rel would necessarily have to be eliminated. This should be considered a desirable outcome.

If NU clubs have the investment behind them, the demand is there and there is value to be added, then promoting a team can be decided in the board room, although I would expect it to be pretty rare that a NU could display that kind of value. The sport does not and is unlikely to ever have the resources required to support the flippancy of pro/rel. Super League simply cannot risk losing a big market team because they had a bad year, particularly considering the sunk investment and the total lack of value for big market teams in the second division, nor can it find the resources to ensure the gap between the first and second divisions remains bridgeable. It is already too great between Super League and the Championship and any actual growth is likely to exercebate it, rather than close it.

The barriers to this proposal are numerous. Clubs and fans aren’t going to want to be cut off from the top tier. Super League 2 is going to be expensive to run and very unlikely to attract a broadcast deal or much viewership. The Northern Union might actually be more popular than Super League, having more clubs in places where fans already exist, in which case, I don’t know if we can declare SL1 to be the top tier, especially if NU clubs can capitalise on this and out-spend the SL1 clubs. The Northern Union has been buried for a very long time and bringing back that brand now is extremely dubious. It’s not clear how squads can be managed shifting from a very low level SL2 to an elite SL1 without total disruption.

Still, the three leagues each would have a purpose and the framework would exist to offer Super League the opportunity to build itself into a position to compete as the complementary major league in Europe to the Asia-Pacific’s NRL.

Growing grass

The Football Bowl Subdivison is the top 130 or so college football teams in the US. Despite being the perfect candidate for a promotion and relegation setup, all the competing schools sit on ostensibly the same level. Almost all are divided into eleven conferences of differing sizes, which are broadly geographical and reflective of the status of the member schools, with some having regional divisions underneath. Notionally at least, all schools have a shot at the National Championship, although in reality, because of the somewhat subjective selection process for the final four teams, there is a limited subset of schools that are actually in the running, even before a game is played. For mine, the tension between the ridiculous structure of the sport, the ranking systems, the selection for the National Championship and the insane commitments to tradition and amateurism, makes college football interesting, even if the product is lacking.

One of rugby league’s strengths is its hyper-localisation. It elevates small places, that would otherwise have no right to be there, to the national stage in a way other sports can’t or won’t. While I am extremely dubious about this being a long term survival strategy, there’s no doubting this unique aspect of rugby league culture has value. Maintaining a local feel to the sport, compared to having well paid athletes flying all over the place, at least reduces the sport’s carbon footprint.

A hyper-local rugby leauge would look something like the college football landscape. Clubs would be divided into loosely defined conferences, with the winners qualifying to a round of play-offs to determine the champion. All 36 current RFL and SL clubs would be on the same level, spread across four conferences, each with a winner (or a winner and runner-up) qualifying for the post-season. There might even be some scope for clubs to set some of their own non-conference fixtures.

Players would be paid but to maintain some parity and prevent big places from having an advantage over small places, the commercial ceiling for clubs would have to be set very low, possibly so low that a floor is not needed. Rugby league will lose its talents to better paid opportunities elsewhere but that’s the price we would have to pay to maintain locality, especially if places like Palau and Featherstone are expected to be able to maintain competitive professional sports teams. If individual clubs’ cups run over, then they would be encouraged to set up distinct teams in other places. The alternative, to deregulate entirely, is a great way to ensure there are only half a dozen clubs are left standing.

The big advantage is then that it doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new rugby league team and there is a known ceiling on how much can be spent or lost. This should appeal to wealthy people who want to own a sports team but cannot afford a soccer, union or whatever franchise. There are numerous villages, suburbs and towns that could host a new team and with low costs, there’s plenty of time to build up a fanbase and take a long term view. It also offers the opportunity for alternative ownership models – especially fan and community owned – as the barrier to entry is much lower. Crucially, the new team enters at the top (only) level with an almost immediate shot at the title.

The other advantage is that its easy to facilitate expansion and easy to add leagues whole cloth. If, as perhaps should be the case, Elite One and Two were folded into the RFL system, we’d have fifty-four clubs that could be divied into five or six conferences. Think something along the lines of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, South England, Elite East and Elite West (or adopting the equivalent American-style names, e.g. “The Big Yorkie”) conferences. The winner of each would progress to the post-season, probably with an additional round for the runners-up to fight it out for the remaining slots.

New teams would have to provide very little evidence that they are sustainable, so would be able to go through a basic tick box exericse and find a conference to join. If it seems unimpressive now, this system could be expanded indefinitely, provided enough owners can be found, perhaps with two or three hundred clubs across Europe divided into twenty or thirty conferences and creating a monster round-of-32 post-season bracket. Big cities would simply house lots of clubs, as Sydney and London do now, and diffuse themselves across different conferences.

It’s difficult to see how that wouldn’t attract a mass audience eventually, albeit none of the individual clubs would have large followings and indeed, probably very small followings but with similarly small revenues, costs and debts. Soccer fans complain about money ruining the game and the divorce between the clubs and their communities. This structure is purpose-built to keep clubs small and close to their communities, while engaging with a larger geographical area because rugby league doesn’t have to choose to be bound by national borders, as soccer has chosen to do.

Under this regime, if kept, the Challenge Cup serves a new purpose to put teams in competition with teams they would not normally play against and perhaps this would be utilised in lieu of clubs setting their own fixture list. The 1895 Cup would serve no purpose, just as it does now, so can be put in the bin.

The champions of the European Rugby League conferences wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete with the champions of the NRL (assuming it maintains its current format), being far smaller and far less wealthy, but the competition as a whole might be able to generate interest just through its sheer scale.

***

The English game needs to make a decision about what it wants to be. Is it licencing or pro-rel? Alternating between the two suits no one but because there’s such a disparity between the top end of town and the rest, the system not in use looks more appealling than the one in use. This time it’ll be different. It’s this change that’ll resolve the unaddressed problems somehow but I don’t know how that can be if no one confronts what the problem is in the first place. My suggestions are that the dead weight is carved off into its competition to (mostly) let the rest of rugby league get on with it or that all clubs are cut to the same size and spec.

People will hate these suggestions and not just because its change but because they fundamentally disagree that this is how the sport should be configured. That’s fine, although if you cite tradition, I’ll just point out that is the peer pressure of dead people and I don’t care what they think. But the current system doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why not try something new*?

*I also accept that there’s nothing really new under the sun. As reported by Rugby League Digest, pretty much every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I found it was considered and discarded during the Super League war. I don’t think this reflects the merits of a given idea, given that no side seemed really interested in compromise, and the status quo looks great simply because we’ve doing it for a while.

« Older Entries