Tag Archives: season preview

A deep dive in to the 2020 Queensland Cup

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

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

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

Last season in a nutshell

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

How it all works

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

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

Jump ahead

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qcup-bur Burleigh Bears

Founded: 1934

First QCup season: 1997

Home: Pizzey Park, Burleigh

Feeder: nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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

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

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

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qcup-cqc Central Queensland Capras

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

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Browne Park, Rockhampton

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

qcup-est Easts Tigers

Founded: 1917 as Coorparoo, 1933 for Eastern Suburbs

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Totally Workwear Stadium, Coorparoo

Feeder: nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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

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

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qcup-ips Ipswich Jets

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

First QCup season: 1996

Home: North Ipswich Reserve, Ipswich

Pathway: nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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

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

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qcup-mky Mackay Cutters

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

First QCup season: 2008

Home: BB Print Stadium, Mackay

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

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qcup-ntp Northern Pride

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

First QCup season: 2008

Home: Barlow Park, Cairns

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

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

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qcup-nsd Norths Devils

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

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Pathion Park, Nundah

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

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qcup-pgh PNG Hunters

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

First QCup season: 2014

Home: Oilsearch National Stadium, Port Moresby

Feeder: Unaffiliated

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

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

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

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qcup-red Redcliffe Dolphins

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

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Dolphin Stadium, Redcliffe

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

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qcup-slm Souths Logan Magpies

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

First QCup season: 2003

Home: Davies Park, West End

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

qcup-scf Sunshine Coast Falcons

Founded: 1996

First QCup season: 1996, then returning in 2009

Home: Sunshine Coast Stadium, Kawana

Feeder: nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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

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

qcup-tsv Townsville Blackhawks

Founded: 1919 for Brothers Townsville, 2014 for Townsville Blackhawks

First QCup season: 2015

Home: Jack Manski Oval, Townsville

Feeder: nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

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qcup-ths Tweed Heads Seagulls

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

First QCup season: 2003

Home: Piggabeen Sports Complex, Tweed Heads

Feeder: nrl-gct Gold Coast Titans

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

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

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qcup-wms Wynnum Manly Seagulls

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

First QCup season: 1996

Home: Kougari Oval, Wynnum

Feeder: nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

A deep dive in to the 2020 NRL premiership

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

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

Last season in a nutshell

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

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

How it all works

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

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

Jump ahead

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nrl-bne Brisbane Broncos

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

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

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

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nrl-cbr Canberra Raiders

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

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

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nrl-cnt Canterbury Bulldogs

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The Bulldogs are behind, way behind.

With Kieran Foran missing most, if not all, of the 2020 season, the Bulldogs either need significant development out of their relatively young squad or to land some signatures. Neither seem likely, especially as the club is likely to still be paying freight on players from the Castle-Hasler era and the current squad do not have the track record to suggest any superstars are emerging (perhaps Renouf To’omaga excepted). The players signed to development contracts do not have particularly impressive stats from the NSW Cup. With last year’s significant outperformance of the fundamentals, reversion to mean would likely mean a wooden spoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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nrl-mel Melbourne Storm

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

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

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

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nrl-new Newcastle Knights

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

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

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

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

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nrl-nzw New Zealand Warriors

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

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

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

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nrl-nqc North Queensland Cowboys

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

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

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

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nrl-par Parramatta Eels

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

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

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

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

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nrl-pen Penrith Panthers

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

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

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

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nrl-ssr South Sydney Rabbitohs

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

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

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

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

Is Wayne cooked?

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nrl-sgi St George Illawarra Dragons

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

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

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

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

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nrl-esr Sydney Roosters

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

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

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

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nrl-wst Wests Tigers

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

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

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

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

A deep dive for each team’s 2019 NRL season

With the first Maori versus Indigenous All-stars game and another edition of the World Club Challenge in the history books, our attention turns to the NRL season ahead.

As with last year, I’m going to do a SWOP – Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Prospect – analysis for each team. My general philosophy for judging a team’s prospects is that where a team finishes on the ladder the previous year is a more or less accurate reflection of their level, give or take a win or two. If no changes are made, we should see a similar performance if the season was repeated. There are exceptions, e.g. the Raiders pathological inability to close out a game should be relatively easy to fix and the Knights’ managed maybe two convincing wins in 2018 but still finished eleventh, but broadly, if a team finishes with seven wins and they hope to improve to thirteen and make the finals, then we should look at what significant changes have been made in order to make that leap up the table.

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One thing new NRL fans need to know about each team

Last year’s Rugby League World Cup introduced the sport to a lot of new potential fans around the world. If anyone in rugby league administration could see past their nose, they’d be trying to win over these new converts to the game’s top competition: the National Rugby League.

The 2018 season starts this week and if you’re new to the sport, trying to navigate the franchises and understanding why nine teams are based in Sydney can be an arduous task, doubly so if you’re American. I’m here to help by giving you a small overview of each team, just like you guys did for us.

If you need a wider perspective, check out the Complete History of the NRL and the Complete History of the NRL (nerd edition).

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A deep dive for each NRL team’s 2018 season

The only thing more reliable than March bringing rugby league back is the slew of season previews that each and every media outlet feels the need to produce. I’m no different in this regard and here is what is likely to be the longest post I’ve ever compiled.

This year’s season preview takes a look at each team and is a mix of my usual statistics, a bit of SWOT analysis and some good old fashioned taking a wild punt and hoping it’ll make you look wise come October.

(A SWOT analysis is where you look at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. There’s only one threat in the NRL, and that’s the other fifteen teams, so it’s more of a SWO analysis)

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Predicting this year’s NRL premiership winner with class

Can we predict a premiership winner from their Elo ratings?

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Obviously, yes. That’s what the Stocky is for and this site would pointless if this was not true. But what if we wanted to look into the future before a single game has been played? I think that the Elo ratings of premiership winning teams might have a common pattern to them that show up if we take a closer look at their long term performance, or class, ratings with Eratosthenes.

We’ll need some premiership winners to review. To do this analysis I’ve tried to pick one premiership per club (to avoid autocorrelation) and pick a premiership that stands on its own. That eliminated a number of premierships years for Melbourne and multiple premierships for Manly and Brisbane. I also biased it towards more recent premiers where possible. I was left with the following list:

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