## Primer – TPR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

## The coaches that fucked up your club

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

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

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

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## How will the Toronto Wolfpack go in Super League?

The Toronto Wolfpack made their Super League debut on the weekend. After three seasons in the lower divisions, the Wolfpack’s first game in Leeds against the Castleford Tigers resulted in a quasi-respectable but messy 28-10 loss.

Still, one result is one result and not necessarily informative on its own, disappointing though it may be. For those of us in favour of rugby league expansion, the threat of the Toronto Wolfpack being relegated at the end of the season is realistic and concerning. It would be a serious, possibly fatal, setback for the franchise. Toronto’s relegation would also push Super League further down in to the parochial quagmire that makes up the bulk of its ever-decreasing audience.

With so much hanging in the balance, will Toronto survive the 2020 Super League season?

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## The Challenge Cup in 2020

Despite being an avowed radical when it comes to rugby league culture – best encapsulated as “burn it all down and guillotine those that disagree” – I can see why the Challenge Cup has appeal. Running a format similar to that of the much more famous FA Cup, there’s something between the destructive chaos wrought by knock-out football and the ability for any club to participate no matter the background that has massive appeal.

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A mix of apathy, ignorance, time slots and broadcast restrictions mean that I’ve never taken much interest in the Challenge Cup. That is, up until the Catalan Dragons won it in 2018. I discovered that the Challenge Cup had a long history of international club participation. Alongside Catalans, clubs from outside the United Kingdom, including Toronto Wolfpack, Red Star Belgrade, Longhorns of Ireland, Pia, Paris St Germain, Lezignan, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Villeneuve and Saint-Gaudens from France and Dinamo Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow, have had a crack at the tournament. In this sense, the Cup provides an excellent platform for teams to chance their hand at a higher level than they may get at home, without the commitment of joining the RFL pyramid. But 2018 was the first time a team from outside had won the competition.

The Cup has faced declining interest in recent years and not just because a French team made the final. It remains to be seen how, with the likes of knock-out finals in the Super League and Magic Weekend becoming the sport’s pilgrimage, the Wembley final maintains relevance in the 21st century. As hosting rights become a viable revenue stream for rugby league, the RFL will need to find a way to make the finals, at least, saleable and that will likely involve leaving London and following the cash.

The other challenge is finding space for it in an increasingly crammed calendar. With Super League now contested over an unnecessary twenty-nine rounds plus finals and with the slowly growing re-emphasis on international football, the half dozen weekends required to contest the Cup are valuable real estate, especially given the opportunity cost and the wear and tear on players. In my vision for a future hyper-mega-league that the sport should be working towards, even with a shortened club season, I’m not sure I’d make room for the Cup as it currently stands. On the other hand, if Origin doesn’t work in Europe, then maybe this is their equivalent.

Current travails aside, the competition for 2020 is already underway. The second round completed, the number of non-league teams is being whittled down in anticipation of the League 1 clubs joining the fray in round 3. In the fourth round, the Championship clubs will join, followed by the bottom four of Super League in the fifth and the balance in the sixth round with finals to commence thereafter. In this, we take a look ahead at how this year’s Cup might unfold.

### Rating the Challengers

You should be familiar enough with how we approach Elo ratings by now but just in case, we use two systems side-by-side. The first is a form rating, which measures short term performance by calculations based on the points margin of each game, and the second is a class rating, which measures long term performance based on small rating changes for wins and losses. You can review the history of the RFL class ratings in the post from earlier this week.

I used the class rating system as a basis for simulating the 2020 Cup 50,000 times. Historically, the class rating has been a comparatively poor predictor of match results but this system has the advantage of rating teams across leagues, saving us the trouble of trying to estimate differences between the leagues and applying corrective measures, as I did for the GRLFC Rankings. Obviously, this is an important feature when the fates can have clubs from different leagues mixing and matching.

Here’s how each team stacks up going into 2020:

Worth nothing that the ratings of new teams, like Toronto and Toulouse, are a little underdone. They haven’t had as much time as the other clubs to beef up their rating, even though they’ve accumulated points about as quickly as humanly possible.

### It’s probably going the way you’d expect

In 2020, we’re really only considering three obvious challengers:

After a poor couple of seasons, the class rating doesn’t see Leeds as a member of the big four anymore, leaving St Helens, Wigan and defending champions Warrington as the favourites to hoist the trophy at Wembley.

Outside of that, two things surprise me about the results of this exercise. The first is how many teams are exactly zero chance of winning the Cup. Sixteen of the thirty-seven teams registered no simulated wins. Of these, half a dozen made it as far as the final in a handful of cases but failed to win any of them. That’s got to be deflating. Worse still are clubs like Skolars and Coventry, who never made the semis, or West Wales, who didn’t clear the sixth round. The simple fact is if you need consecutive low probability events to go your way, eventually they pile up into an impossibility. As an exercise, multiply 30% by 30% five or six times and you’ll see what the Raiders and Bears are up against.

On the contrary, and the second surprising thing, is how many clubs can still realistically challenge. The entire Super League has a shot, largely by virtue of playing fewer games with far better squads, but even the likes of the London Broncos and Leigh Centurions could be featuring in the latter stages of the tournament, if not fighting for the title. The aforementioned big three total up to a 61% chance with the implied flipside being that there’s a 39% chance of any other team winning. If Wests Tigers can win a NRL premiership, then anything is possible.

One of the myths underpinning the Challenge Cup, and indeed similar tournaments around the world, is that anyone can win it. Reality doesn’t bear that out – the last team from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup was in 1980 and I’m not sure if or when that has happened in the Challenge Cup – but it’s still a part of the competition’s narrative. Based on the simulations, you can see that, by far, the most likely pathway is for each division to be squeezed out one-by-one as the rounds progress. Any team may be able to participate but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the capability to compete.

### Context from past cups

The chaos of knock-out football is one thing, but all of this is probabilistic. Ince Rose Bridge could very well win the Challenge Cup but it is extremely unlikely. I don’t think that’s controversial. I always say anything can happen and even the word “impossible” does a lot of heavy lifting in this context, but some events are very difficult to see occurring.

Here we have no hard and fast predictions – making them isn’t really my style in any case – but we can see from running the same exercise for the last two Cups how “good” the simulations are at making predictions. After all, the probabilities above are only as good as the mechanism for deriving them.

This time two years, the graph looked a lot like this:

And the Catalan Dragons (2.5%) won. Last year:

And the Warrington Wolves (12.1%) won. This should give fans some hope that we aren’t here to witness St Helens waltz their way to The Double but might seem to undermine the quality of the forecasting.

Looking closer, what we find across the two tournaments is that, for each team, the team exits at the round estimated to be the most likely about 40% of the time. About the same number again are only off by one round, either exiting one round earlier or surviving one round longer than their most likely outcome.

I think that’s pretty reasonable. The 2019 Wigan Warriors were the only team who had winning the Cup as their most likely outcome. It remains to be seen whether the 2020 St Helens side, who are similarly favoured, will manage to go one better than 2019 or if the likes of Huddersfield or Castleford will spring a surprise.

## Tonga are still a long shot for the 2021 World Cup

After a dominating win over Great Britain, followed by a tough and exciting win over Australia, some extremely exuberant pundits decided that Tonga were the best nation in the world and worthy of Tier 1 status.

Putting aside the fact that a poor island nation of 100,000 is not capable of generating enough native talent to compete with Australia or England and so not at all suitable for Tier 1 status, I find it hard to believe that two wins is enough to reach the top of the rugby league pile. Then the IRL updated their rankings and put New Zealand at number one. It all got too much for me.

Fortunately, the draw for the 2021 World Cup restored some sanity, despite the slightly incongruous setting of Buckingham Palace and newsworthy presence of the Duke of Sussex. With 641 days to kickoff, I got a bit excited and looked at next year’s tournament.

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## Ranking every rugby league team in the world

If you’re not interested in how the rankings work and just want to see the outputs, click here.

It began as a simple exercise to try and rate Super League players, much in the way that I rate NRL and Queensland Cup players. It turns out that the Super League website makes that an impossible task because it is a garbage fire for stats. Moving on from the wasted effort, I thought I might still do team ratings for the RFL system, mostly out of my increased interest with the Toronto Wolfpack’s promotion into Super League.

Then I thought about the Kaiviti Silktails of Fiji entering into the New South Wales system and wondered if I should take a look at the leagues there, despite my dubiousness about whether anyone in NSW cared about lower grade football when they could follow the Dragons, the Tigers or the Knights in so-called first grade.

From there I spiralled into a mishmash of US college football tradition, websites in Serbian and copying and pasting. When I came to, I had a neatly formatted spreadsheet covering a decade of world club rugby league.

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### Ranking the world

Invariably, creating any sort of evaluation system requires judgements by the evaluator about who to include or exclude and what the evaluation system considers to be “good”. I’ll explain my position and you can decide whether or not you like it.

Scoring the teams uses an average of four similar rating systems that look at performance over different time intervals.

We’ve long had form and class Elo ratings for the NRL and Queensland Cup. Form is about the short term performance of clubs, and can represent anywhere from four to eight weeks of results depending on the draw and league, while class is about long term performance, and can represent the average of years of performance. Form is a better predictor of match results, class is a better predictor of fan disappointment.

I created similar systems for another ten leagues in NSW, PNG, France (see also my Elite 1 season preview), the UK and the USA. They work along the same lines as the NRL and Queensland Cup editions. The average rating within an Elo system is approximately 1500 and the disparity in ratings can be used to estimate match outcome probabilities.

Both sets of Elo ratings are adjusted by a classification system I borrowed from baseball. To acknowledge the fact that a 1700 team in the BRL is not likely to be as good as a 1300 team in Super League, we adjust the team ratings so we can attempt to compare apples to apples –

• Majors: NRL (ratings adjusted by +500) & Super League (+380)
• Triple-A (AAA): QCup, NSW Cup and RFL Championship (all +85)
• Double-A (AA): Ron Massey, RFL League 1, FFR Elite 1 (all -300)
• High-A (A+): Brisbane RL, FFR Elite 2 (all -700)
• Low-A (A-): USARL (-1000)

In Elo terms, a difference of 120 points between teams, like between an average NRL and an average Super League team, makes the NRL team 2:1 favourites. A 415 point gap gives the less favoured team a 8.4% chance of winning (equivalent to the replacement level), 800 points 1%, 1200 points 0.1% and 1600 points 0.01%. Consider the improbability of the Jacksonville Axemen beating the Melbourne Storm and you get an idea of where I’m coming from.

Between short term form and long term class, we’re missing a medium term component that represents roughly a single year of performance. I originally was going to create Poseidon ratings for the leagues, so I took a simpler approach and used points scored per game and points conceded per game over a regular season in lieu.

I then made my simplification much more complicated by doing a linear regression of winning percentage across all leagues compared to points scored per game and a second regression against points conceded per game. This gives a formula that converts the components of for and against into winning percentage, which is in turn converted to an equivalent Elo rating, which is then adjusted per the above. It also allows me to compare points scored per game – as a measure of competitiveness or quality or both? – across different leagues.

This specifically is just trivia but from an overall analytics perspective, the risk is if only the top league is analysed and analysts assume that the same principles apply to all leagues, incorrect conclusions will be drawn about the sport.

The ranking is decided by which team has the highest average score across the four rating components, which are given equal weighting. I call it the Global Rugby League Football Club Rankings, or GRLFC for short.

While it’s possible for teams to game a single system, it would be nigh on impossible to game all components, so I feel relatively comfortable that the highest ranked team is the “best”.

That said, form ratings and the for-and-against components only work on regular season results. Class ratings are the only component that takes into account playoff (and Challenge Cup, where applicable) performance. You may think finals footy deserve more weighting but I would put it to you that “the grand final winner is always the best team” and “any rugby league team can win on their day” are two mutually exclusive thoughts and I prefer to believe the latter. If you want to further mull it over, consider that Newtown finished seventh on the ladder in the twelve team NSW Cup in 2019 and then went on to win the Cup and then the State Championship.

Each club (as represented by their combination of name, colours and logo) is only represented once in each year’s rankings, by the version of that club in the highest league. For example, Wentworthville have been in the NSW Cup and the lower tier Ron Massey Cup. To date, Wenty have been represented in the rankings by their state cup team. However, as the Magpies will be replaced in the NSW Cup by Parra reserve grade in 2020, and while this doesn’t change much in reality, they will be henceforth represented in the rankings by their Ron Massey team. This is mostly because it makes the rankings a little more interesting, not having been clogged up by a half dozen clones of the NSWRL clubs.

I would like to have included the Auckland Rugby League’s Fox Memorial comp as a double-A league but it seems to be impossible to find scores. I also would have liked to add more low-A comps, like those in Serbia or Netherlands or maybe even Nigeria or Kenya, but scores for these comps are even more difficult to find or have incomplete results or don’t really play enough games. As a result, we may never know whether the Otahuhu Leopards are better than the Villeneuve Léopards.

I drove myself mad enough to trying to get the results that I did. I don’t feel the need to delve further into district comps in Australia but, who knows, I may well change my mind on that. It would be nice to go further back on some comps, particularly in France and PNG, but we have what we have. A big thanks to rugbyleagueproject.org, leagueunlimited.com and treizemondial.fr for hosting what they do have, because we can’t possibly rely on federations to have curated their own records and history.

A full season of results is required for a club to be ranked. This is only a problem for French clubs, with both Elite 1 and 2 running through their winter and the date the ranking is nominally calculated is December 31. A French club’s first part season is given a provisional place in the rankings, converting to a ranking the year after, based on the previous twelve months’ worth of results.

The rankings can be seen for 2009 through 2019 here. Your current top seeds in each competition are –

• NRL (Major): Melbourne Storm (1)
• Super League (Major): St Helens (5)
• Championship (AAA): Toronto Wolfpack (29)
• Queensland Cup (AAA): Sunshine Coast Falcons (30)
• NSW Cup (AAA): Newtown Jets (40)
• Ron Massey (AA): St Marys (63)
• League 1 (AA): Oldham Roughyeds (64)
• PNG NRLC (AA): Lae Tigers (66)
• Elite 1 (AA): Albi Tigers (69)
• Elite 2 (A+): Villegailhenc-Aragon (101)
• BRL (A+): West Brisbane Panthers (105)
• USARL (A-): Jacksonville Axemen (109)

### Women’s Rankings

In an ideal world, we’d have a women’s ranking to complement the men’s. But the NRLW has only completed 14 games, which is not a sufficient sample although we may see that double in 2020. The QRLW will only commence this year and it remains to be seen what the NSWRL is going to do with their women’s premiership, whether this becomes the equivalent of a Ron Massey Cup to a new NSWRLW/women’s NSW Cup or if, as is usually the case, the Sydney comp will be promoted to be the state comp.

In the more enlightened Europe, the women’s Super League has completed its first season, comprising 14 rounds, and the Elite Feminine has just commenced its second season, the previous being 12 rounds. The bones are there for a women’s club ranking, but it will take time for Australia to catch up a little and make the rankings more balanced. With any luck, I should be able to deliver the first rankings at the end of this year.

### The World Club Challenge

International club football is a rare thing, indeed. The ridiculously lopsided 1997 World Club Challenge (Australian clubs scored 2506 points to the Europeans’ 957) largely put paid to the idea that there could be a competition on an equal footing between the two major leagues of football. Other than a short lived World Club Series, which was overly reliant on the charity of big Australian clubs, all that remains of the concept is the World Club Challenge match-up between the winners of the Super League and the NRL.

First held irregularly since 1976 and annually since 2000, the match suffers from the disparity in the quality of the leagues – obviously driven by money – and a lack of interest – largely driven by a lack of promotion and lack of commitment from most Australian clubs. The advantage has ebbed and flowed, generally in favour of the Australian sides but in the late 2000s, the English fought back before being pummelled back into submission more recently.

Incidentally, I arrived at a 120 point discount between the NRL and Super League based on Super League clubs’ for and against in the WCC over the last twenty years. The application of Pythagorean expectation and then converting that (approx. 33% win percentage for SL) into Elo rating points.

Still, I believe that the WCC should be one of the centrepieces of the season, not unlike an abbreviated World Series or Super Bowl. A match day programme could be filled out by play-offs from the champions of the men’s, women’s and secondary men’s comps – perhaps with the winners of the NRL State Championship and the winner of a play-off of the premiers of the RFL Championship and Elite 1 – in the Pacific and the Atlantic. Such an event could be saleable to broadcasters, sponsors and hosts.

Of course, if successful, the WCC would then undermine the respective competitions’ grand final days, so there’s an obvious conflict of interest. The conflict is difficult to resolve when the stakeholders are more interested in maintaining their own position than making money or securing a commercial future. While cash may be a corrupting influence, the game will not survive as a professional sport without it.

Given the absence of international club fixtures, you could fairly wonder what the applications of this ranking system might be, other than to have a rough guess at whether the Gold Coast Titans are better or worse than the Sunshine Coast Falcons (the answer is: slightly better). My feel is that the final score is a rough proxy for a singular globalised Elo rating system. Consequently, it may not be very good but I looked back to the last ten WCCs.

It was successful in predicting the higher ranked team winning eight of the ten matches but not particularly predictive in terms of the gap between the teams (the trendline above shows basically zero correlation) nor in the scale of favouritism (favourites won 80% of the time compared to 65.9% predicted probability). Still, it’s only a sample size of ten games where the Super League sides have been beaten pretty comprehensively.

In the meantime, this gives the English something to work towards.

## Qui va gagner Elite 1?

Fortunately for almost all of my readers, I have reached the limit of the French taught to me in one semester of university in just the title. I’m still not sure if I should have used the definite article, so this post will be in English but it will be about French rugby league. This is fortuitous, as the Elite 1 Championship kicks off with a Magic Weekend in Carcassonne on very early Sunday morning.

I think rugby league nerds, like me, find the idyllic notion of French rugby league to be very appealling. France is cool and exotic, particularly to Australians, in a way that rugby league generally is not. I think adopting a substantial portion of the French rugby league vocabulary would give the sport a much needed touch of class: talonneur for hooker, pilier for prop, demi for half and so on.

The unfortunate reality is French rugby league has the same cultural notions as in the Anglosphere but this is masked by an impenetrable veil of français and a lack of money, quality and prestige, which leads to minimal coverage.

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France was the fifth nation to join the rugby league fraternity in the mid-1930s. Clubs are located predominantly in the Occitanie, a region home to roughly five million people that has very approximate parallels to Spain’s Catalonia. Armed with a per capita GDP that is only bettered by Australia out of rugby league’s economies, France has been given all the advantages to succeed and failed to capitalise.

We can blame the Vichy government as much as we want but France’s golden age on the international stage occurred in the early 1950s, well after liberation in August 1944. Instead of developing into a force that should now be on par with at least New Zealand, France has slid inexorably backwards due to a lack of interest, a lack of investment and the rise of professional rugby union. It took forty years to simply win the right to refer to the game as rugby.

France finished 0-3 at the last World Cup and put up a 1-2 performance at the 9s in October. These dismal results have been made worse still by the current Chanticleers tour, where captain Jason Batieri walked away, the national side absent fourteen pros was dismantled by the Junior Kangaroos and then racist comments allegedly made by the chair of the Fédération Française de Rugby à XIII (FFR) were leaked. A lawsuit is in the offing. The next world ranking update would probably see France slide down from sixth but Samoa are somehow just as impotent on the field.

This should be a wake up call. Many of us hope that France will, at some point, turn it all around. There is absolutely no basis for this belief. At least, Theo Fages won this year’s Super League grand final in the halves for St Helens and there are plenty of Frenchmen plying their trade for the Catalan Dragons. Few, if any, have made the leap across to the NRL.

### Le championnat

Despite this, I think we all benefit from learning about the wider world of rugby league. I didn’t know anything about the Elite 1, other than it existed and I own a Palau jersey, until a few weeks ago, so I’m going to share what I’ve learnt from Wikipedia and the excellent French rugby league resource, Treize Mondial.

The top domestic premiership is the Elite 1 championship, which comprises nineteen rounds of the regular season and three weeks of barrages (finals). The season starts in November, with the top six progressing to finals in June. Elite 1 sits atop the French rugby league pyramid, with optional promotion and relegation to Elite 2 and the National Divisions split into conferences underneath. Clubs compete in the Lord Derby Cup, the French counterpart to England’s Challenge Cup. Elite 1 is semi-pro but is considered below the RFL’s League 1.

A local TV deal has been struck for the upcoming season. Some games will be available for streaming live on viaOccitanie at what are, quite frankly, ungodly hours to be awake in Australia to watch fourth division European rugby league.

There are ten clubs competing in Elite 1 for the 2019-20 season, with eight located in Occitania, Villenueve in Nouvelle-Aquitaine and Avignon on the border but officially in the region of Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

Only Toulouse can claim to be a city by global standards. While I am usually critical of rugby league’s tendency to embed itself in suburbs and small towns at the expense of focussing on larger metropolitan areas, there are some fairly substantial differences between Pyreneean France and western Sydney.

#### ALBI RUGBY LEAGUE

Les Tigres

Somehow rugby league has managed to find itself, even in France, in a coal mining town. Albi was one of the first places that coal extraction was attempted on an industrial scale in the nineteenth century. In 2010, the cité épiscopale was UNESCO Heritage listed, including the 13th century Sainte-Cécile cathedral and the Berbie Palace on the banks of the Tarn. The irony being that Albigensian, the demonym for the people of Albi, is most closely associated with heresy. Catharism touched many French rugby league towns during the Middle Ages.

As much as coal mining is a recurring theme, every rugby league competition seems to have a club nicknamed the Tigers. Les Tigres have five national championships to their name but it has been over four decades since the last in 1977. Their one and only cup came in 1974. Since then, in 2008, the original Albi club went bankrupt and dissolved, ending 74 years of history. The new Albi club was reinstated in the second division, rising to the first for the 2015-16 season, where they have finished mid-table each season.

#### SO AVIGNON XIII

Les Bisons

Did you know that there was for a time two Popes? It happens more often than you would think but in this specific case, the Western Schism in the fourteenth century saw a Pope base himself out of the city of Avignon. This is possibly the only rugby league city on the face of the earth that can boast having been home to a Pope.

However, we are more interested in their treizistes. The Avignonais side play in blue and white as the Bisons. Avignon have had some success, including five cups, the most recent in 2013, and their first and only Elite 1 title in 2018. Avignon advanced through the semi-finals, despite losing 23-16, after St Esteve Catalan were disqualified for fielding ineligible players.

#### CARCASSONNE XIII

Les Canaris

Carcassonne is the only place out of the ten listed that I’ve actually visited and the only one with a popular board game named after it. Carcassonne boasts a bunch of cool things: a walled medieval city (check out the torture museum), probably the nicest jersey in the Elite 1, and it was the home of Puig Aubert, star of the 1950s touring French national team that beat Australia in a Test series. His statue adorns the Stade Albert Domec, the city’s rugby ground.

The Canaries, known that because of the striking yellow colour of their kit and logo, have fifteen Coupes de France, the most of any club, and eleven national titles, equal most with pre-merger Catalans. Carcassonne are the reigning Lord Derby Cup holders, beating St Esteve Catalan 22-6 in front of a crowd of 4,000 in Perpignan.

#### FC LEZIGNAN XIII

Les Sangliers (Wild boars), Les Moulins

Lezignan-Corbieres is a fairly typical French town of around 11,000. It has a cathedral, wine making facilities, municipal baths and convenient access to the motorway. It also boasts a good rugby league team. Les Sangliers have the fourth most national titles, with seven total including four in a row from 2008 to 2011. This is the longest streak of any club, a feat shared only with the 1982 to 1985 XIII Catalans. Six cups also sit in the trophy case, with the most recent silverware won in 2015.

#### XIII LIMOUXIN

Les Grizzlies, Les Blanquetiers

Limoux is probably more famous for its local sparking white wine than its football team. Blanquette de Limoux is an appellation d’origine contrôlée, meaning that, like champagne, true Blanquette de Limoux can only be made from certain grapes, grown in a particular area and processed in a specified way. The wine is the centrepiece of the Carnival of Limoux, which bills itself as France’s longest festival.

Speaking of those fifteen, Limoux have been one of the more recently successful teams, winning back to back national titles in 2016 and 2017, adding to their sole previous championship from 1968. In the cup, Les Blanquetiers have been more Poulidoresque, winning two in 1996 and 2008, but also losing ten grand finals in their sixty-eight year history, the third most of any team.

#### PALAU XIII

Les Broncos

Palau (pronounced “pah-lo”) is not to be confused with the Pacific island nation (pronounced “pah-lau”) or any number of small French towns of the same name. The Broncos are from Palau-del-Vidre at the foot of the Pyrenees, population 3,226, approximately twenty kilometres south of Perpignan. Fun fact: Palau hosts an international glass festival.

Palau have only recently been promoted to Elite 1, taking the step up in 2013 after dominating Elite 2 for the previous five seasons. The team has never won the national championship or the Lord Derby Cup. The 2018-19 season was the Broncos’ best to date, finishing seventh.

#### ST ESTEVE XIII CATALAN

Les Baby Dracs

XIII Catalan were founded in 1934 in Perpignan. In 1965, a mere six kilometres away, local rivals Saint-Estève were founded on the other side of La Têt. Catalan won eleven national championships and Saint-Estève six. In 2000, the clubs merged into a Perpignanais super-club, then called Union Treiziste Catalan. UTC were granted a licence to join Super League for the 2006 season, ahead of Toulouse and Villeneuve. They’ve remained there ever since, winning France’s first Challenge Cup in 2018.

In France, UTC continued in Elite 1, winning the 2005 and 2019 championships and the Lord Derby in 2016. The club was renamed St Esteve XIII Catalan and plays out of the Stade Municipal in Saint-Estève. The Baby Dragons serve as a feeder club for the Super League club.

#### RC ST GAUDENS XIII

Les Ours (Bears)

The rugby league club was founded in 1958 but the town traces its history back to the Roman era. Saint-Gaudens is named for Gaudens, a fifth century martyr who was decapitated by Visigoths and who I cannot find any other details about. The Route d’Occitanie, a professional cycling race, visits Saint-Gaudens often and has been won by the top names in the sport.

Saint-Gaudens XIII have four French national titles – 1970, 1974, 1991 and 2004 – and three cups – 1973, 1991 and 1992. Member troubles hit Saint-Gaudens in 2011 and the team was forced to sit out the 2011-12 season. The club returned the following season in Elite 2 before rejoining Elite 1 in 2016. Les Ours have yet to qualify for the finals since their return.

#### TOULOUSE OLYMPIQUE ELITE

Les Broncos

Toulouse is the largest city represented in Elite 1, with a metro population of 1.3 million. The senior team are currently in their second attempt to climb the RFL pyramid. The first attempt saw them spend three seasons in the Championship from 2009 to 2011. Following their fifth and sixth national titles in back-to-back years and a cup/championship double in 2014, Toulouse rejoined League One in 2016. Olympique immediately secured promotion to the Championship, where they have remained since the 2017 season.

In 2016, to keep a Toulousain presence in the top tier of French rugby league, the then Toulouse Jules-Julien Broncos were taken over and promoted from Elite 2 to serve as the reserve team. The consequence of this is that the junior Toulouse side is not very good and will require some time before they are able to challenge for Elite 1 honours.

Depending on which source you look at, some still refer to the team as the Broncos, as a nod to the previous incarnation, but the club seems to prefer Toulouse Olympique Elite.

#### VILLENEUVE XIII RL

Les Léopards

The Leopards hail from Villenueve-sur-Lot in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region, just a stone’s throw over the border from Occitania. This is not to be confused with the other ten thousand French towns named Villenueve. The bridge across the river gave the town some prominence during the Middle Ages, as one of the few crossings of the Lot. In modern times, I personally don’t believe it but French Wikipedia says Villenueve-sur-Lot was a hot spot for jazz.

Villeneuve are one of the more historically successful French clubs, having won the national premiership and the Lord Derby Cup nine times each. Villeneuve is the third on the all-time list for both competitions, behind Catalans and Carcassonne, and both were last won in 2003. This was the end of an exceptional five year run for the club, including three championship/cup doubles. A bankruptcy in 2005 followed, with a failed bid for a Super League licence in 2006, which eventually went to Catalans.

### Ratings

Statistics are pretty hard to come by but I did manage to dig out results for 2016-17 season onwards and tries scored for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons*. From that, I was able to construct form (short term) and class (long term) Elo ratings and Poseidon ratings.

The ratings as at the end of the 2018-19 season are:

While I can’t do some of the high level analysis that I do for the NRL, with class ratings we can at least set the Disappointment Line. This is calculated by determining how many games a team of that class rating will win against league average opposition. If a team wins more regular season games than the line set, their season is officially pas décevant.

Note that the Elite 1 uses a bonus point system. Three points are awarded for a win and one point for a loss of twelve or less. Palau finished last season with just five wins but amassed eleven bonus points out of fourteen losses. On that basis, I’ve also set a line in terms of competition points (three times the line), which might prove a bit on the easy side to beat.

With the points difference from last season, we can measure each team’s fortuitousness. When teams outperform their Pythagorean expectation, they typically (but not always) revert towards the mean in the following season and vice versa. The greater the difference the actual and Pythagorean wins, the stronger the reversion typically is.

### La saison à venir

Even with these simple ratings, we can do simulations. I’m in the process of rebuilding all of my datasets to be more organised and convenient, so I’m going to use the Elite 1 season as a test for some changes.

Like the Stocky, these sims are Monte Carlo simulations. The sims are “cold”, where ratings do not change within the simulation, whereas previously the sims were “hot”. This greatly reduces the amount of computational power required and there’s philosophical reasons for preferring cold over hot.

To test the ability of the sims, I used the ratings from the end of the 2017-18 season to see how well they predicted the known outcomes of the 2018-19 season.

These simulations are never going to be able to see what we don’t know, especially with the limited information at our disposal for Elite 1. There’s always surprise packets in every season. The important thing is to get the other teams that aren’t surprise packets roughly correct.

Considering that we were working off the 2017-18 ratings as inputs to the 2018-19 season, with no considerations for team changes or any other background noise, that level of accuracy is not too bad.

The mean absolute error (MAE) was 2.1 wins for both form and Poseidon sims, with a successful prediction of the eventual champion, St Esteve Catalan. The sims were too down on Carcassonne and Villenueve, while overly expectant of defending champions Avignon. A weighted average of Poseidon and form (ratio 2:1) delivered the lowest MAE at 1.9. Introducing the results of the class sim only increases the error.

Trialling this in one very specific instance is obviously problematic (I can only assume this what the French almost definitely don’t call le bias de petit montant) and I won’t be extrapolating this particular method without testing on multiple competitions across multiple seasons but it’s a start.

Looking ahead to the upcoming season, plugging in the 2018-19 ratings to the 2019-20 draw gives us the following:

The 2019-20 season is looking far more open than the 2018-19 season did, even if the simulations belie how close Les Canaris came to a double. Whereas the Baby Dracs were outright favourites in premiership percentages, if not regular season wins, this year we have at least three front-runners with two more close behind. Treize Mondial have named Carcassonne their pre-season favourites for the title (assuming the mayonnaise comes together), and I’m inclined to agree, although St Esteve Catalan and Limoux look to be in the mix.

Lezignan and Albi look good for the top six. Palau, who are primed to take a step forward, and Villenueve will likely scrap out for the final place in the barrages. Unless there’s a surprise resurgence, we’re expecting Avignon, St Gaudens and Olympique to continue to struggle. Their ratings at the end of the last season do not hold much promise. Avignon, having signed Jack Payne from Mounties, probably have the most upside potential.

I don’t plan to keep this up to date with every round but will likely check in on progress and update ratings once a month or so. It will be an interesting follow.

* More results would be better if anyone has them. French Wikipedia doesn’t list the results in order, which is not helpful, and the FFR website is a mess. Contact me if you have something you think might be useful.