Tag Archives: rugby league

The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020

Over the off-season, I created a ranking system for every-ish rugby league club in the world and updating the rankings for the 2020 season would be an opportune time to reflect on the year that’s been. However, it seems like that this act of statistical hubris has angered the gods so much they gave us a global pandemic that ruined everything. While we’ll have to live with the impact of the pandemic for many years to come, one of the most immediate is that there will not be a GRLFC ranking for 2020.

While we wait for normality to return, 2020 may have been a season for the coronavirus-loving anti-expansionists, plenty still happened in rugby league football and we’re going to through as much of it as we can.*

*Even with a global pandemic, I wasn’t able to include absolutely every competition and match that occurred becuase a lot of rugby league was still played. Where possible, I’ve talked about the senior men’s club competitions, because that’s usually the easiest to get information for, but this didn’t mean that women or juniors or 9s or local competitions didn’t also go ahead. A lot of the coverage in less traditional countries comes via the IRL, RLEF and APRLC, who have all really stepped up their social media game over the last twelve to eighteen months and should be congratulated for doing so.

NRL

The year began relatively promisingly. The 9s in Perth attracted a decent crowd – despite the garbage spewed by the east coast media – and a lack of a video ref cost Phil Gould $1000. And as a side note, the North Queensland Cowboys won something.

The Indigenous and Maori sides gave us the first All-Stars matches both sides actually cared about for the first time in a decade.

As we would later discover, it’s unfortunate that the sport is run by a mouth-breathing culture warrior that thinks its important to placate the very loudly racist part of the fanbase in New South Wales and Queensland instead of, you know, everyone else.

However, that was still ahead of us. Despite the pandemic introducing a little break between rounds two and three, the NRL came back very early relative to other sports. The break gave the sport time to reflect, the results of which were:

  • The NRL found itself in breach of contract with its broadcast partners
  • CEO Todd Greenberg was turfed, nominally for daring to speak to anyone but Channel 9 about the free-to-air rights
  • Chairman Peter V’Landys renegotiated the deals, taking a reported 20% haircut and then throwing a huge chunk of the sport’s infrastructure into the cost-cutting shredder
  • V’Landys then introduced a slew of poorly thought out rule changes, presumably to make the game more exciting and improve TV ratings (it worked for almost two weeks and then ratings finished down on the year)
  • The media coverage that followed was capital-c Cringe

This is your irregular reminder that Peter V’Landys is the chairman of the ARLC and not the CEO. No one seems to care and Super League 2.0 is not coming.

The result was one of the most dismal NRL seasons of recent years, with only a couple of teams finding a way to entertain the masses (round 8’s Roosters-Storm clash was the year’s on-field highlight). A large number of clubs completely failed to develop any competitive spirit while stuck in isolation from their friends and family and the product on field reflected it. A noticeable gap formed between the top eight and bottom eight. Mission accomplished, I guess.

Then, seven sick finals games followed (Canberra’s preliminary final exit excluded), because rugby league is alright if everyone actually tries, and we limped home with a bizarre grand final that was over at half time and then wasn’t because refs.

You can read the individual team season reviews here:

The ripple effect of the cost cutting measures will likely start to be felt next year. Without knowing exactly what’s being cut and by how much, it remains impossible to know what’s coming next. Phil Gould outlined his brain fart of a master plan in a column for the Daily Telegraph in June which, given he has the ear of the Greek god V’Landys, is probably where we’re going. It’s a framework for the sport which purports to save money but is actually more expensive and really just transfers power from head office to the NRL clubs because none of these idiots actually know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it.

At least, scheduling and attendances will start to return to normal next year, as the virus comes under some semblance of control in Australia and New Zealand. Brisbane still looks likely to gain a second team in 2022 or 2023, although at the time of writing we do not know which one it is. I hope someone has at least done the numbers to make sure the NRL comes out ahead.

NRLW

My biggest fear was that the cost cutting measures would eliminate women’s football. For once, my worst fears were not confirmed and the NRLW went ahead as it has the last two years. While the lack of expansion was disappointing, we should be glad we got a competition at all.

The pandemic still affected the competition. All the players were forced into the bubble, unable to mix with family and friends and, for the Broncos and Warriors, unable to play home games. Quite why the NRL didn’t go to bat for the women’s competition with state governments, as they did for the men’s, is known only to them.

I assume this was the rationale for the scheduling of the competition, with games kicking off at 12.30 and 4.00 before the men’s finals’ kickoff at 7.50. This all occured at the same stadium, leading to the ridiculous arrangement in round 1 of Brisbane, Sydney, New Zealand and St George Illawarra playing in Canberra, a place that doesn’t have a NRLW team, and the first game having zero attendance because it would mean spectators would have to be at the stadium for eight hours to see all three games. It didn’t suit fans or broadcasters (ratings were down on last year), both of who would have benefited from later kick offs and/or alternative venues for the women’s games.

Brisbane were the undisputed champions for the third year running. Ali Brigginshaw somehow seems to be getting better with age and the Broncos have managed to continue to unearth talents (the media still seems to be getting to grips with Tamika Upton, despite already being a two-time premiership winner), even as the other clubs siphon off players to pad out their own rosters. The Broncos’ regular season record is 8-1 with 3-0 in grand finals. If the season weren’t so short and the opposition so few, we’d hail this as one of the greatest rugby league sides of all time. I may still do that anyway.

At the other end of the scale, the Dragons were hopeless. I blame the coach for their logic-defying ability to underwhelm and not win a single 13s game in 2020.

It’s even more baffling when you remember the Dragons won the 9s at the start of the year.

The Roosters roster seemed relatively low on star factor compared to their cross-town rivals, barring the obvious exception of 7s convert Charlotte Caslick. By the end of the season, we were more familiar with Zahara Temara, Hannah Southwell and Corban McGregor, despite all three being veterans of the game. The Roosters demonstrated that cohesion on the field is far more important than lining up brand name Jillaroos to play like shit.

The Warriors struggled to pull together a proper roster, which is hardly surprising as players would have been forced to be away from home in the bubble for what is at best a part time job for a few weeks. Nonetheless, like their male counterparts, the Warriors can hold their heads high knowing they did their best under trying circumstances. Another 7s convert, Elia Green, caught the eye with her running, strength and aggression.

This year’s competition was as close as it has been so far. There’s little doubt in my mind that the 2021 edition will be more closely fought still. The Broncos might not even win it. Indeed, the talent pool is now large enough that the NRL should be expanding the competition, preferably from four to six teams and from three to ten rounds. Melbourne and Canberra would be my choices (and possibly flicking the hopeless Dragons for a western Sydney or Queensland team), especially if the NRLW is to continue to follow its preference for bigger market teams. The ARLC will probably opt for Souths and Cronulla, thereby ensuring that the NRLW follows the NRL into Sydney’s stupid quagmire, but they are at least looking at increasing the number of games.

The NRL will also want to consider how the NRLW will work commercially moving forward. At one time or another, the Dragons, Roosters and Warriors have complained about the (relatively minimal) cost of running a women’s program. If extra central funding came with a NRLW licence, we’d probably see more interest from reticent western Sydney clubs. Given that the NRLW matches rated around 100,000 each (down on last year but still ahead of most non-AFL/NRL domestic football content), de-bundling the NRLW rights from the NRL rights might be a good way to begin channelling funds into the women’s game, with the aim of establishing independence from, but parity with, the men’s game.

Super League / Challenge Cup

The Challenge Cup made it through the first five rounds by mid-March, with Super League clubs due to join the fray in round 6. By the time round 6 was actually played, in August and September, most of the lower league clubs had been mothballed for half the year. Consequently, the Cup was only really contested by eleven teams, of which Leeds were the winners, 17-16 over Salford.

Putting aside the fact that it was extremely unlikely that any lower tier club would make the final, by not having them participate at all and playing the final at an empty Wembley makes something of a mockery of the supposed point of this competition. Without modernisation from the RFL, the Cup is going to be a liability, and not an asset, moving forward.

Like the NRL, Super League had managed to play a few rounds before the rona became a Thing. At one point, Super League looked like ignoring it entirely and continuing on before being forced to stop by government decree. The same government offered £16 million in bailout loans to mitigate the financial fallout, which were met with a mixed response from stakeholders. Loans, after all, have to be repaid. If we consider Workington Man’s assistance (middle-aged, suburban Little Britain male adults – men is a stretch – that seemingly make up the bulk of Super League’s audience with no awareness of the cognitive dissonance involved in being a rugby league fan and a Tory voter) in getting the government elected, this was a terrible effort at pork barrelling.

Upon resumption, Super League had intended to complete twenty-two rounds. When it appeared that they weren’t even going to get all teams to play the same number of games, they switched from the traditional means of sorting the ladder by competition points to winning percentage. What was going to be a top four finals became a top six finals. Then, when it became clear that some clubs weren’t even going to complete their reduced fixtures, being more profitable to simply stop playing and go onto government furlough, Super League made the snap decision to end the season and go into the finals.

Salford used this opportunity to welch on their debts from years ago, taking a penalty of being deducted three wins which mattered naught this year.

Hull surprisingly dispatched Warrington and Catalans sent Leeds home in the first week, before both were coolly eliminated by Wigan and St Helens 29-2 and 48-2 respectively in the second week. The grand final, played in an empty KCOM Stadium in Hull, was a high quality, entertaining example of modern rugby league, although it was undoubtedly being written up as a dour cliche of the northern game. And then, magic:

There’s still life in the old girl yet.

With another Wigan-St Helens grand final in the books, if I have to read how the salary cup doesn’t work, I may murder someone. The salary cap doesn’t work because it’s not paired with a salary floor. SL can’t implement a salary floor because it would send half of their competition broke. And it is this, that there is a huge gap between the commercially strongest and weakest clubs in Super League, that is the actual problem. Even with the salary cap, the chasm between the big four (or six, if you want to be generous and include recent Challenge Cup winners) and the rest of the competition, never mind the lower levels, and is simply unbridgeable. There are myriad reasons for this but rugby league needs not only significant reform and new ideas but also a shitload of pounds injected if it is to be viable into the future. Scrapping the competition’s primary mechanism for parity is not it.

I touched on this and other parts of Super League, RFL and the Toronto Wolfpack saga on NRL Boom Rookies.

Queensland

The three men’s competitions were able to complete just one round being before shut down by coronavirus fears and shortly after, cancelled altogether. With PNG and Tweed in the Queensland Cup, traversing borders to complete the season would have been nearly impossible, never mind the strain on the league’s predominantly semi-pro player base. The right decision was made but it was a shame that a smaller competition could not be organised later in the year to give the players some game time.

Some district comps cancelled, while others went ahead, including the BRL.

Disappointingly, the new women’s BHP Premiership also played a single round before being cancelled. This deprived the players of an opportunity to build up their skills and strength ahead of the original State of Origin date and then leading into the NRLW season. Hopefully, it will return next year with at least the same clubs involved. It was replaced by the Holcim Cup in south-east Queensland, won by Burleigh over Souths Logan.

As is a recurring theme looking back on 2020 and forward to 2021, there are a number of consequences of the pandemic which are yet to be addressed. In renegotiating the TV deal, V’Landys has hung both state cups out to dry by releasing Nine from their requirement to broadcast one game a week in each state. As of yet, there’s no obvious replacement. While all games are filmed for data collection and some clubs have set up their own streaming, there is no league wide platform and, unlike NSW, Fox does not provide coverage of a second game. Taking the Queensland Cup off free-to-air would be a huge step backwards for all the hard work that’s been done to build the competition up. While some may boldly hope for an over-the-top streaming platform or for the QRL to sell its own broadcast package in competition with the NRL, I’d settle for what we had.

As part of immediate cost cutting measures, the Broncos severed their ties with their feeder clubs. Redcliffe immediately jumped ship to join the Warriors system. Rumour has it that the Broncos will re-establish with just one club, leaving three of Wynnum Manly, Norths, Souths Logan and Central Queensland needing to find new NRL partners. If the NSWRL unbunches its undies about cross-border feeder arrangements, then it will likely resolve itself, possibly for the benefit of all.

How the pandemic has affected the prospects for the competition’s future expansion remains unknown. Pacific Treize, a new Queensland Cup bid launched in May (what feels like a million years ago) primarily focuses on nations that were relatively untouched by the virus but may find corporate support extremely hard to come by in the post-pandemic world.

We do know that juniors competitions will be modified (presumably for this year only) to give kids that missed out this year a chance in 2021.

New South Wales

A lot of what I wrote about the Queensland Cup can be repeated for the NSW Cup but with some notable differences. Unlike the QCup, NSW Cup gets two games broadcast a week, one on Fox (having already set up for the NRL game, it costs practically nothing to broadcast the curtain raiser as well) and a second on Nine. With the Warriors having gone north and the Raiders declaring that they will go it alone in 2021, the Canterbury Cup will only be contested by ten teams, most a facsimile of their parent club.

As I wrote earlier in the year, the NSWRL needs to decide what the Canterbury Cup actually is. Is it a NRL reserve grade comp or is it a state-wide competition like the Queensland Cup? It can’t be both. Having it as a reserve grade comp buries the second tier of talent in jerseys no one cares about. Consider the difference between watching North Sydney versus Newtown and watching the Roosters reserves against the Cronulla reserves. The former offers something different to the NRL, while the latter suggests the NRL but shittier. You can make all the pathway arguments you want but you’d have to find a mountain of evidence to contradict the success that the Storm have had with Easts and Sunshine Coast in producing a pipeline of rep-quality players to replace their future Immortals. To me, the concept of reserve grade as it’s imagined in the past is dead and should be buried, with the superior alternative made clear in Queensland, but it would require Sydney NRL clubs giving up space to others and that never happens.

Unlike Queensland, NSW has the Ron Massey Cup, which sits slightly above the other district competitions, and they were able to combine clubs from this and the NSW Cup to hold a one-off President’s Cup, won by Maitland over Glebe Burwood, demonstrating that under extreme circumstances that a compact local competition has its advantages.

Papua New Guinea

With the Queensland Cup cancelled, I threw the energy I would normally reserve for that comp into Papua New Guinea’s Digicel Cup. The Cup wasn’t scheduled to start until after the pandemic had thrown the world into chaos but it did result in a much shortened season of just eleven rounds (each team played the others once). The first few rounds were played entirely at the John Guise Stadium in Port Moresby but as the situation in PNG relaxed, particularly after the split round five, teams gradually returned to their own home grounds.

The Lae Tigers were the dominant team for most of the season, although they were pipped at the end for the minor premiership by the Rabaul Gurias (9-1-1) and Hela Wigmen (9-2-1), as the Tigers slowed down in the last two weeks (9-2). The Port Moresby Vipers (8-2-2), Mendi Muruks (8-3-1) and Enga Mioks (3-5-4) made up the rest of the finalists. It’s no coincidence that the teams with the most Hunters players, most of whom returned to the Digicel Cup for the season, did the best.

The Mioks and Muruks were early cannon foodder, both eliminated in the first round of finals as expected. Lae’s comprehensive rout of Rabaul in the second week, 30-10, put the Tigers into the grand final as firm favourites. In the other final, the Wigmen dispensed with the Vipers, who continue to disappoint after not winning the competition since 2013. Hela snatched an upset in the preliminary final, downing Rabaul 11-10 with a late field goal to Solomon Pokari to seal the win and set up a rematch of the 2019 grand final. The Wigmen’s form continued into the grand final, narrowly beating out the Tigers 16-14 and winning their first premiership since 2014.

I haven’t followed the Digicel Cup that closely previously but the coverage of the competition this year, taking everything into consideration, was superb. High definition highlights are on Youtube for all the regular season games that were played in Port Moresby. It remains a baffling mystery as to why Hunters home games (the broadcast rights to which belong to the PNG RFL and not the QRL) and the Digicel Cup games cannot be broadcast in Australia but one hopes that in time Fox League will come to their senses and broadcast some content that is actual football and not total garbage from opinionated morons.

Hopefully, with the Hunters basing themselves in Queensland for their 2021 Queensland Cup campaign (and further noises suggesting the Port Moresby Vipers might be angling for a licence in future), that will restore some of the competitive balance to the competition and the likes of Gulf and Mount Hagen can close the gap to the rest of the league. On the other hand, new teams might offer a buffer.

Championship / League 1

At the time of the suspension of competition, Toulouse Olympique led the Championship, Great Britain’s second division, 5-0, followed by Leigh and Featherstone (4-0) and London (4-1). In League 1 (third division), only two rounds were played with Hunslet, Barrow and Newcastle all on 2-0. At the bottom of the table, West Wales Raiders had somehow already given up 100 points.

Only a handful of clubs took up the RFL’s offer to compete in an autumn mini-competition among the non-Super League clubs. This is hardly surprising because if there’s no matchday attendance, paltry prize money (a total pot of £250,000 was offered) and no broadcast dollars to top up the tank, there’s no revenue and therefore no football. So that was it for the bottom two tiers of allegedly professional football in the United Kingdom.

Things took a brief turn for the comical towards the end of the season, as Championship clubs jockeyed for position to get into Super League, replace Toronto and lose money even faster than they currently do (Leigh offered to forgo central funding for 2021 altogether). Irrespective of who is promoted, and it seems it will almost certainly be Bradford, Super League has already decided they will be given a much lesser share of central funding because they have not had the bear the costs of operating in 2020. This is somewhat baffling logic but hardly surprising given that half a dozen clubs are currently tendering for a licence without knowing what weighting is being applied to the judgement criteria by the “independent” committee – three from the RFL, three from Super League, led by a Tory lord – formed to award the licence that will see them almost certainly relegated at the end of 2021.

A much less competitive bidding process seems to be underway in League 1 to gain the empty Championship slot, which Rochdale are campaigning for. If successful, there would only be ten teams left in League 1. It would perhaps make more sense to take this opportunity to restructure to three leagues of twelve each.

For 2021, dual reigstration has already been canned, as have academy leagues. If crowds are not allowed to return, will the Championship and League 1 both get canned again in 2021? If so, when will they return?

Without football, is there really a football club?

New Zealand

New Zealand suspended all sport in March. Rugby league returned in June, with the Fox Memorial Premiership kicking off June 22. That came to a halt when play was suspended in Auckland in mid-August and finally cancelled on September 4.

In October, the provincial representative premiership and championships were played, with four teams in each of the men’s and women’s premierships. The grand finals in both were the same but results were inverted.

If you watched the men’s final, have read this far into this post and/or consider the IRL has New Zealand ranked as the number one men’s nation in the world, you can probably fill in the blanks on what would be coming next, which can be briefly summarised as “Why isn’t this better and where’s the money to make it better and seriously, how is it not a priority to get top-level domestic New Zealand rugby league on at least the same level as state cup?”

The women in New Zealand are well ahead of the game.

France

In March, the FFR declared a “saison blanc” because of the pandemic. At that time, Limousin were surprisingly leading the competition (8-4), five points clear of St Esteve-Catalan and Albi. In Elite 2, Villefranche were ahead on a 12-2 record, seven points clear of Pia (9-4) and Carpentras (10-3).

Elite 1 recommenced on 31 October but the situation is as bad, if not worse, now than when the 2019-20 season was cancelled. The second wave claimed two matches on the opening weekend (one since made-up, Palau and Villeneuve currently have a game in hand) but the following two rounds were completed without issue. Carcassonne currently leads the Elite 1 with a 3-0 record.

We wait with bated breath to see if the French Magic Weekend goes ahead.

Visitez treizemondial.fr pour plus d’informations.

Ireland

Bhuaigh Baile Átha Cliath an sraithe rugbaí a trí déag na-hEireann. Ruaigeadh an Longhorns an Tribesmen na Gaillimhe, 24-10, i Claddagh.

Fiji

The Vodafone Cup went ahead, delayed and shortened by the threat of coronavirus. Split into eastern (8 teams) and western zones (10 teams), teams played each other once with the top four of each zone proceeding to the knock-outs. The Ravoravo Rabbitoh topped the west (8-0-1), while the Namuaniwaqa Sea Eagles won the east (6-1). Both teams were knocked out in the quarter finals. The grand final will was contested by the Police Sharks (2nd in the east, 5-1-1) against the Coastline Roos (4th in the western zone, 7-2), with the Sharks running out victors 18-16.

Game 3 of Fiji’s Origin series will be on December 5, as Maroon sides go for a clean sweep of Origin series.

Samoa

Samoa’s club premiership kicked off in late August with eight senior teams and four under 20s. The Apia Barracudas beat the Letava Bulldogs 24 – 8 in the senior grand final, with the Vaitele Wests Tigers coming in third, 22 – 18 over the Matniuel Lions. The Under 20s Final was won by the Matniuel Lions over Vaitele Wests Tigers, 22 – 16.

The Tumua Maroons won the Island of Origin series 22-22, 36-38 and then 24-14 over the Pule Blues.

Asia-Pacific

In Melanesia:

In Western Australia:

In Cook Islands:

In Vanuatu:

In Japan and Phillipines:

In Thailand:

In Brazil:

In the United States, the USARL was cancelled. Who knows if it’ll be back?

Europe

In Serbia:

Apparently, the Balkan Super League is still going ahead. We’ll see how that pans out, given last year’s edition ran out of steam and that was without a global pandemic.

In Ukraine:

In Albania:

In Lebanon:

In Russia, the season was suspended.

Africa

In South Africa:

Nigeria and Ghana have affiliate status with the IRL, while Burundi and Cameroon are playing rugby league.

International

Remember the 2017 World Cup and how good international football was looking for a brief fleeting second? Also remember when the Lions did a southern hemisphere tour and lost all four games and didn’t even play Australia? That was as hilarious as it was completely pointless.

Then coronavirus said no and took it all away. At the time of writing, a single international men’s rugby league match has been completed in 2020 with the Netherlands defeating Germany 20-18 in the Griffin Cup. New Zealand hosted two women’s matches, with the Kiwi Ferns defeating Fetu Samoa 28-8 (an improvement on last year’s fixture) and Tonga defeating Niue 66-8.

The problem is that there’s another World Cup in 2021 and it will be one that many participants will come into not having played since the end of 2019. Here’s what’s scheduled for 2021 so far.

The lack of attention paid to the world arena would only happen in this sport, with its fetish for suburbs and pit towns.

The UK government has shown no signs of being able to get on top of the pandemic, so it may well be that the World Cup is delayed a year or moved down under. We just don’t know, which is crazy considering this is meant to be the sport’s centrepiece.

In the interim, someone is going to have to develop a feasible commercial model for international football and other representative fixtures that aren’t the senior men’s and women’s State of Origin games. Even though internationals usually do pretty good numbers on TV in Australia, having to pay match payments of $30,000 to Kangaroos for no extra broadcast revenue irrespective of the number of games played, is not it. Until then, half assing it will be the way forward.

State of Origin

New South Wales won the men’s series 3-0.

Hahaha fuck you.

Diving into State of Origin 2020

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

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

  • Elo ratings
  • Venue records
  • Taylors

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

Form guide

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

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

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

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

Home ground advantage

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

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

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

Historical Taylors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tipping 2020

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

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

Women’s Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Melbourne Storm

Finally, to the champions. From pre-season:

Melbourne finished the season with a 20-4 record, a record only bettered* by the Storm’s 21-3 2007 season. Unlike 2017, where it seemed inevitable that the Storm would win the premiership after winning 20 games, they never seemed to get much credit for what was still a very impressive season in 2019.

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

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

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

Summary

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Penrith Panthers

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

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

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

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

Summary

The Penrith Panthers are 2020 NRL premiers.

Psyche.

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canberra Raiders

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

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

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

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

I think they may be there.

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 South Sydney Rabbitohs

Finally, an interesting team to pull apart:

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

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

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

…Is Wayne cooked?

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Sydney Roosters

Earlier in the year:

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

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

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

At the risk of these season reviews just being me patting myself on the back for my one-off Nate Silver-esque season preview whose prescience will never be repeated, I got unusually specific about the Roosters’ season (finish top four, minimum .625 winning percentage) and was proven right, as long as we ignore the comment about the preliminary final.

But enough about me, this is about the Roosters and their failure to win a third consecutive premiership.

Summary

The Sydney Roosters finished in fourth place with a 14-6 record and +230 points difference. They left the finals in straight sets, after a one point loss to the Panthers and a four point loss to the Raiders.

What happened

Functionally, 2020 ran along very similar lines to the Roosters’ 2019 season until they hit a brick wall named Souths and got pasted by 60. While in previous years, they would have had a few more games to rebuild their rating, Easts were in the finals the next week and were done for the year a week later.

Some might get cause and effect confused, ascribing the Roosters’ finals exit to the loss to Souths. Instead, I see both as symptomatic of a wider problem within the Roosters. I’m just not 100% sure what it is.

Theory #1: It’s somehow Sonny Bill Williams’ fault.

With an average TPR of .076, compared to the team average of .122, he hardly covered himself in glory but he was barely more than a bit player in the story of the 2020 Roosters.

Theory #2: It’s somehow Kyle Flanagan’s fault.

While the incumbent number 7 was indeed dropped, and while the league’s top point scorer, he accumulated plenty of production. This came predominantly via an average of 260m of kicking metre per game, which flatters to deceive, as well as 11 try assists (21st in the league) and 9 line break assists (24th in the league).

Flanagan may well be a functional first grade halfback (we will see how much the team carried him and how much he carried the team in time), he’s hardly in a position to replace Cooper Cronk.

Theory #3: It’s actually Cooper Cronk’s fault.

Because our media fails us so spectacularly on such a regular basis, it’s rarely communicated just how close the gap is between first and second, wins and losses, premierships and spoons in the NRL. That gap is considerably less than most leagues around the world and probably a lot less than you think (e.g. the Broncos could close at least half the distance by simply trying).

Therefore, it’s actually Cooper Cronk’s fault for retiring. Without a ready made replacement to equal or exceed his input, the Roosters inevitably lost that one or two tenths of a percent that’s the difference between them swanning to victory in 2019 and a straight sets exit in 2020.

Theory #4: The Roosters are still a very good team capable of winning the premiership, they just didn’t this year

Famously, the Roosters don’t focus on completion rates and consequently, theirs is one of the worst in the league. They deliberately play a higher risk style, built on speed and skill. Naturally, this means that there’s a greater variance in the outcomes of their games than a more risk averse team. Sometimes, in fact frequently, it comes together and they blow teams off the park and sometimes, albeit rarely, it all goes wrong and they get blown off the park.

They weren’t “meant” to win the 2018 premiership, were very much favourites for the 2019 premiership and looked the same for much of this year but it was a slow start and a poor finish that ultimately brought them undone.

As for that poor finish, it’s worth remembering that they were a field goal away from sending Penrith to an elimination final and then only a converted try shy of getting to the preliminary final the hard way. To paraphrase Billy Beane, “Their job is to get to the finals. What happens after that is fucking luck.”

What’s next

They’ll be fine. Who’s even remotely worried?

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Parramatta Eels

From my season preview:

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

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

Someone on the League Unlimited forums called me a cunt (auto censored to “merkin”) because of that paragraph. I assume it was because I dared to suggest that the Eels should consider the premiership a realistic possibility but, in retrospect, my assessments of those specific players ended up being well wide of the mark. In fact, it was the unnamed players – Moses, Ferguson, Sivo and co – that let their club down.

Then again if you’re going to worry about people calling you an Emily Seebohm, then rugby league is not the sport to be writing about.

Summary

What happened

The fin de saison was pretty funny but this story actually goes back to an earlier tweet.

The first game back after the coronavirus break was the most watched regular season game in years. With the rule changes brought in by Dear Leader, the hype was out of control and not at all connected to reality. Unbelievably, I copped some heat for this take but I think I was ultimately proven right, specifically on the last point.

Parramatta scored only 392 points in 2020. This was the ninth best in the league. 148 points, or more than a third of the total, came in just four games against Queensland teams. Considering the Eels finished in third with a 15-5 record, this is a huge and highly unusual disparity. A points difference of +104 was only good enough for seventh in the league and 12.8 Pythagorean wins. Let’s see if we can find out where it went wrong (see: How It All Works).

I fully came into this expecting to pin the season on Blake Ferguson and Maika Sivo for their massive underperformances this year, undercutting an otherwise functional squad. While they did underperform their 2019 efforts, every team has underperformers, and the efforts of Junior Paulo, Marata Niukore, Clint Gutherson, the emergence of Dylan Brown and the doping of Michael Jennings should have ameliorated this.

In reality, even if Sivo had overcome all odds to repeat his 2019 and Ferguson lived up to his projection, they would have only added 9 Taylors of production per game on average.

Parramatta were already the fifth most productive team on the season. They weren’t in the same league as Penrith, Souths or Easts. These three averaged 475 Taylors per game, compared to Parramatta’s 441. Adding a hypothetical 9 Taylors from the wing still leaves the Eels well short of these premiership contenders.

Moreover, while both Sivo and Ferguson were largely absent for large swathes of the season, Gutherson’s huge increase in production actually covered for it.

With the tools at my disposal, there’s no clear villain or hero here, but when there’s a discrepancy of this magnitude between the numbers and the results on field, we have to abandon high falutin’ attempts at analytics and get a little more basic. Here’s two stats:

  1. Mitchell Moses had the second most kick metres for the year, 8491m, behind Nathan Cleary.
  2. Mitchell Moses was equal twenty-ninth for most try assists in 2020, with just 8, equal with Kurt Mann, Lachlan Lewis and Josh Morris.

Mitchell Moses had the team’s third highest TPR and racked up the production but the Eels didn’t score enough points. Moses’ job is to turn field position into scoring opportunities. The Eels were fortunate to win as many games as they did, probably by avoiding being massacred by injuries like so many other clubs, but that weakness was shown up amply through the closing stages of 2020. It will be clearer still in 2021 when that advantage is eliminated, unless something changes.

Plenty has been and will be written about Moses until he eventually crumples under the media pressure (see: Ash Taylor) so I don’t feel the need to go over it. Smarter people than me will identify the actual issues and whether they may or may not be Moses-related but broadly, Parramatta’s attack needs an overhaul, either at the roster level or the coaching level or both, to get them into genuine contention. The defence is already there.

What’s next

Let’s go one step further back. I use each team’s class Elo rating pre-season to set what I call a Disappointment Line. The point is to calculate a number of wins for each team that the fanbase can be reasonably satisfied with, given where the team started the season. Starting with a rating of 1486, the Eels were set a line of 9.6 wins. Finishing the year with 15 actual wins was the second best beating of the line (Penrith was 8.1 wins over), so I think the fanbase should be at least somewhat satisfied with the team’s regular season performance. Even if we look at Pythagorean wins, ignoring the fortune the club has enjoyed, a 12-8 season would still be above expectation. Anyway you care to slice it, I think the Eels were one of the six genuinely good teams in 2020 but, crucially, probably only the sixth best.

In contrast, the Eels have played finals football in three of the last four seasons and have not made a preliminary final in that time, much less made serious inroads to breaking their premiership drought*. I don’t buy the argument that the finals require a special skill set. Either you have the management, personnel and systems in place to be good, and then you benefit from a lack of mistakes and some luck to carry you through the chaos of the knockout rounds, or you don’t and you lose.

I’ve written about the relatively good shape that the Eels are in off the field. All that is missing is a premiership. They are probably closer than you think.

*For the record, this drought extends back to 1986, when Sydney clubs didn’t have to travel any further than Canberra, beat a team from Queensland or play any Polynesians to win the premiership. Despite these facts, idiots put Sydney premierships on par with NRL premierships. Parramatta, and I cannot stress this enough, have never won a premiership that matters, so their drought is actually of infinite length.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Newcastle Knights

The seventh placed Knights had a respectable 11-8-1 record but were unable to capitalise, exiting week one of the finals. From pre-season:

…The good news is that the Knights might legitimately make the finals this year.

The Knights massively outperformed in 2018, which then led to many talking heads predicting serious success in 2019. Success wasn’t forthcoming because the fundamentals weren’t there. …

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

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

For the first two months of the season, it looked like I had completely undercooked my expectations for the Knights in 2020. In May, I would not have been surprised for them to have finished in the top four and challenged for the premiership. Then the wheels came off and I’d look like a psychic if it wasn’t for how the wheels fell off.

Summary

What happened

As a whole, the team exceeded the league average production (see: How It All Works). The Knights averaged 430 Taylors per game while the rest of the league managed 412. Most of this production came from the back five, which outproduced the league average by 12%. If we put aside his defensive positioning, Ponga was relatively productive with the ball in hand – third best fullback this year by WARG – and maybe it will surprise that the Knights went off their first cliff around the same time Edrick Lee was injured.

While the pack and interchange managed to mildly exceed the league average (3% over in both cases), the halfback, five-eighth and hooker combined to underperform by 7%.

Mitchell Pearce plays a style of dominating style of football.

In fact, he was increasingly dominant until this year. While you might assume that Pearce had a down year, he finished with 1.1 WARG, eighth of all halfbacks and five-eighths in the league. While this is not bad, this is far from the elite cadre with which he is normally associated.

Against a background of inflated production – the long run average TPR is .096 and which blew out to .110 in 2020, thanks predominantly to the rule changes – Pearce was as consistent as ever but he lacked the dizzying highs that we saw last year and returned to career form.

It seems, to be effective, he needs a foil. Nathan Brown briefly toyed with making Kalyn Ponga fit that role at the start of 2019 and it didn’t work. For the first two months of 2020 (5-2-1, including a draw with the eventual minor premiers), Pearce had Kurt Mann to work with. During their brief renaissance from round 13 to 15 (3-0), the Knights had Blake Green.

Mann was moved to hooker for the remainder of the season after the on-loan Andrew McCullough tore his hamstring off the bone. Green later tore his ACL and then signed for Canterbury. Mason Lino unproductively filled in, Pearce stopped caring and the team’s performance deteriorated to the point that they were beaten 36-6 by the Titans in the penultimate week of the regular season. The finals result two weeks later was no surprise.

What’s next

I’m not as enthusiastic as many were or are on Adam O’Brien but the benefit of conducting this exercise has shown he at least has demonstrated a degree of flexibility. The team looked great at full strength through the first eight rounds. As injuries mounted, results suffered but O’Brien was able to find spare parts to get the machine moving in the right direction again. When those parts failed, the Knights had already secured their first finals appearance since 2013 and I think that was probably enough for O’Brien’s first year so a degree of coasting/helplessness can be excused. In 2021, he will not be afforded that luxury but I suspect he will be fine.

We haven’t spent much time considering the Knights’ defensive attitude. While the Knights’ defence has improved this season, starting the year with a -11 defensive Poseidon rating and finishing with a +11, there is still a lot of work to be done to get that number into premiership contention (around +25). The post-16 Roosters and post-18 Raiders have shown that most of that work can be done in one season, with some polish in a second, but it will require continuous and positive improvement in 2021.

Above everything else right now, the Knights need a hooker. If Andrew McCullough is the answer, then the question cannot be “are we definitely winning the premiership in this, the year Two Thousand and Twenty-something Anno Domini?” It is the most obvious missing piece to the Knights’ premiership aspirations.

So who could it be?

In 2019, the Knights reserve grade team split the hooking role between Chris Randall (average TPR at hooker in 2019 of .112 over eight games) and Zac Woolford (.036 over twelve games). In Queensland, the Knights’ not-a-feeder-but-pathway-partner Ipswich had Kierran Moseley play twenty games for .141 in 2019.

TPR typically does a middling-to-bad job of assessing hookers’ contributions to the game, so I’m loathe to write anyone off based on it but these are not exceptional numbers. By contrast, Harry Grant played 19 games for an average TPR of .266. But if the Knights can’t sign anyone then they will need to dig into their talent pipeline. Is now a good time to point out that Tom Starling played NSW Cup for Newcastle in 2018? Having said that, Starling’s emergence likely frees up one of Josh Hodgson, Tom Starling or Sivila Havili. The latter might not be it but between the merry-go-rounds at Canberra and Melbourne, there is likely to be an opportunity to snap up a good number 9 for a canny recruiter.

[EDIT: As some have pointed out, Jayden Brailey is the incumbent hooker, after spending almost all of 2020 injured. His numbers aren’t spectacular but if you like Brailey and don’t care about TPR – which is a perfectly valid view – then the focus shifts back to whether you can find a better 6 than Kurt Mann with whatever cap space the Knights have left available. The same questions arise, with the answer that your club is better off manufacturing a player than buying one but the Cowboys have a surplus of playmakers at the moment.]

The clock ticks on Mitchell Pearce and I think this year shows we are past his peak. His next contract may well be in England. However, with Kurt Mann back at five-eighth, a good-to-great hooker, a bit more belief in the pack and some luck with injuries in the backs, then the Knights might well be able to put it together next year or the year after.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Cronulla Sharks

We have finally dispatched with the bottom eight and can begin our reviews of the (allegedly) best eight teams. From pre-season:

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

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

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

I was right to question Xerri, although that was coincidental as I obviously didn’t expect him to go down for doping, and Hamlin-Uele did end up starting. They made the finals, less comfortably than anticipated, and other than being a strange statistical anomaly for the second year running, we didn’t see much of interest out of them.

Summary

The Sharks won 10 games and lost 10 games. Along the way, they scored 480 points and conceded 480 points. Cronulla finished eighth of sixteen, beating the other teams in the top eight exactly zero times before exiting week one of the finals.

What happened

There’s been a few suggestions among the professional takesmen that the 2020 Sharks were the worst ever to play finals football. I think that this was even raised shows how low the bar for NRL analysis is.

Oh, how quickly we forget! Just last year, the Broncos had a losing record of 11-13-1, played one finals game and lost 58-0 to a team who were bundled out themselves the following week 32-0. The 2019 Broncos have an excellent case for being the worst finals team ever on these facts alone. I won’t bother looking any further back.

The reality is that the Sharks were perfectly average and in a sixteen team comp with a top eight finals system, average teams make the finals. It happens every year.

So let’s raise the bar by looking at the evolution of the Shark’s squad (see: How It All Works).

Here we see the build up of Cronulla’s only premiership winning squad. They relied on names you would be familiar with – Fifita, Barba, Lewis, Prior, Gallen, Leutele, Feki, Holmes and Graham – and played a style of football that was well suited to the environment of the time. Their prize was the 2016 premiership.

The premiership winning squad was perhaps not old but definitely “experienced”. Here we see the beginnings of a transition. We don’t need to look too closely at the actual numbers but rather look at the colours. The palette of the 2017 team, largely the same as in 2016, is considerably different to that of main contributors to the 2019 campaign.

And so to today. Fifita, Johnson, Dugan and Graham are long in the tooth while Townsend and Moylan (not pictured) are unlikely to be up to the task of winning the Sharks’ second premiership. While the transition is not yet complete, the names that will form the core of the next phase of the Sharks’ history is starting to form up. Rudolf, Talakai, Hamlin-Uele and Katoa are the start of something new.

We don’t know how far they’ll go as a unit. It will rely heavily on the club’s acquisitions for 2021 and 2022. Assuming Johnson only has one or two years of elite production left in him, then the whole spine needs serious and immediate consideration. The alternative is that, as other clubs improve, the Sharks will fall behind.

What’s next

For mine, John Morris has not been properly tested yet. He came to the top job while expectations for the club were high and the aforementioned transition has resulted in performances slipping down to a more mediocre level. More than a few clubs have cleared the coaching decks in 2020, keeping the media’s focus away from the Shire. If Morris is to avoid scrutiny in 2021 and 2022, he needs to be continuing to develop the young talent at his disposal.

Fortunately for Morris, the Sharks’ feeder, the Newtown Jets, has played in the last two Canterbury Cup grand finals. In 2019, they won both the State Cup and the National Championship with almost identical last second chip and chases. The support provided from reserve grade has been both important and refreshing for the franchise. With the Kaiviti Silktails in Ron Massey Cup aligning themselves with the Jets in State Cup and in turn the Sharks in the NRL last year, this opens up a new and exciting pipeline for the Sharks to exploit.

Re-development of the Sharks’ home ground has dislocated the club this year and will into the immediate future but it has already paid handsome dividends, with Cronulla sitting on a hefty bank balance. Whether the club’s management is prudent with their money will dictate the club’s long term commercial future, which would otherwise be very bleak due to a small fanbase and constrained geography. I don’t hold high hopes because this is rugby league but the opportunity is there.

One sensible investment would be to use the money in the bank to fund a relocation to Perth and capture a large portion of Western Australia’s 2+ million potential fans. They won’t but it’s nice to dream that one of the clubs might show some ambition beyond their own backyard.

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