Tag Archives: season review

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Melbourne Storm

Finally, to the champions. From pre-season:

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

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

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

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

Summary

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Penrith Panthers

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

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

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

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

Summary

The Penrith Panthers are 2020 NRL premiers.

Psyche.

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canberra Raiders

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

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

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

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

I think they may be there.

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 South Sydney Rabbitohs

Finally, an interesting team to pull apart:

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

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

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

…Is Wayne cooked?

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Sydney Roosters

Earlier in the year:

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Parramatta Eels

From my season preview:

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

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

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

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

Summary

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Newcastle Knights

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

What happened

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

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

Mitchell Pearce plays a style of dominating style of football.

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

So who could it be?

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Cronulla Sharks

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What’s next

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

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

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

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

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Manly Sea Eagles

I think the best way to start these reviews is to set the tone by recapping what I thought would happen back in February. The key paragraph for Manly in this year’s season preview was:

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.

While we definitely saw the reversion to mean referred to, and then some, and less of the sound fundamentals mentioned, the story of Manly’s 2020 is relatively simple.

Summary

The carnage caused by injuries was a common theme for many teams in the 2020 season. The statistics indicate that Cherry-Evans had his usual, exceptionally high output season but had little help. The Sea Eagles slid down to finish thirteenth, with a 7-13 record, from sixth and 14-10 last year.

What happened

The Sea Eagles are the anti-Cowboys. Much as North Queensland’s season was saved from total disater by the presence of Jason Taumalolo, Manly’s season became a diaster because of the absence of Tom Trbojevic. It’s no coincidence that the Sea Eagles started the season 4-2 with Trbojevic available and then finished 3-11 with a combination of Brendan Elliot, Rueben Garrick and Tevita Funa at fullback and Trbojevic returning for just an hour in round 19.

In tandem with that, Manly lost their two best hooker options in the off-season. Api Koroisau was moved on to Penrith, considered surplus to requirements thanks to the emergence of Manase Fainu in 2019. Unfortunately, Fainu decided to stab someone at a church dance (!), missed the season and seems unlikely to ever play in the NRL again. Given that I don’t think anyone had that particular set of circumstances on their 2020 bingo card, I think the club can chalk this up to bad luck, rather than bad decision making.

Analysis of the on-field production of teams reveals that just eight players are typically responsible for half the team’s output. I call these players the “engine”. Last year, Trbojevic and Fainu were two major components of the Manly engine.

Using Wins Above Reserve Grade (WARG) as our metric to measure player contributions to team success over the course of a season, Manly’s total season WARG declined from 11.3 to 9.4, a loss of 1.9 WARG. This 17% decline came against a 3% inflation in WARG across the league, so the fall is 20% in “real” terms, a significant decrease in production.

Of that 1.9 WARG, 1.3 came from reductions in output at the fullback and hooker roles. The replacement parts were not up to maintaining the previous season’s horsepower.

A small portion of 2019’s miracle run could be chalked up to good fortune but it was mostly founded on high productivity and good coaching. However, the same structure was overly reliant on a few players, principally Cherry-Evans, Fainu, Trbjoevic, Taupau and Fonua-Blake. If two of the most important structural foundations are kicked out, then the whole edifice is going to start to creak under the strain. While Hasler appeared to be something of a miracle worker in 2019, he couldn’t repeat these same feats in 2020 with less to work with.

What’s next

Injuries will probably provide enough cover for Hasler to excuse the team’s performance in 2020. He is unlikely to get too many more chances. Another sub-.400 season will eliminate any of the gains he has made since retaking the reins at the start of 2019. If that continues, it’s unlikely that he would see out the 2022 season if he makes it even that far.

There is simply no doubt that Tom Trbojevic is one of the best fullbacks in the game, easily justifying a million dollar salary. However, the amount of time he spends on the sidelines each year has to be increasingly concerning for Manly’s management. After effectively playing full three seasons from 2016 to 2018, he played in 50% of Manly’s 2019 fixtures and just 35% in 2020. He may well be the victim of poor happenstance but he may also need to consider a more risk averse playing style. Losing 10% of his production to ensure he is on the field 90% of the time would be a fair trade.

What Manly appears to be missing is depth. Clubs like Melbourne use a pipeline of highly talented and cheap juniors to back up their marquee players. Manly has done less of this, preferring to sign hole fillers from other clubs (e.g. Danny Levi). Having said that, Taniela Paseka came across from the Tigers’ under 20 squad in 2018 and looks poised to replace the imminently departing Addin Fonua-Blake. While Hasler is likely to and can get more out taping together middling prospects into functional teams than the average NRL coach, there’s only so much that can be done. A few tweaks to the roster and some good luck will probably see Manly back in contention.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 North Queensland Cowboys

I didn’t offer anything particularly insightful about the North Queensland Cowboys in my season preview. For me, it seemed like all the pieces were there for them to be successful but they refused to win enough games to get out of the cellar. The team was shackled by playing former greats instead of the talented in the here and now, stifled by a lack of fifth tackle options and dogged by a defence that got worse with every game. The Cowboys were stuck circling the drain but never quite managed to find their way into the plughole.

2020 was another year in the same vein and we wonder what will break the cycle.

Embed from Getty Images

Summary

The Cowboys managed to be bad in such a way that it attracted minimal attention outside of their own fanbase. Their roster should have had them in the finals and for the third consecutive season, they finished in the bottom four. Coach Paul Green was fired. In the NRL era, the wooden spooner wins 25.8% of their games on average; the Cowboys managed 25.0% in 2020.

What happened

If we look at the Cowboys’ Pythagorean expectation, there is some room for hope. Their for and against suggested the Cowboys should have been around 7-13, good enough to clear the bottom four at least. North Queensland may have been the victim of some bad luck in being unable to convert for and against when faces with binary of losses and wins. They were rarely blown out of the water, registering just four losses out of fifteen by 18 or more points (season average of 26.0 points conceded per game), but put up only 12 points or less in eight games (season average of 18.4 points scored per game).

In Elo terms, the Cowboys averaged a form rating of 1433 over the season, roughly equivalent to a 8-12 season and a noticeable improvement over their actual 5-15 record.

The Cowboys’ production put them thirteenth best in the league, clear of the Bulldogs, Titans and Broncos and putting them in the same conversation as the Warriors and Manly.

A deficit of 32 Taylors to the league average is roughly equivalent to 50 Elo rating points or very roughly equivalent to a four point headstart.

If we compare by position, the weaknesses become clearer.

Herein we see that the team is generally outplayed across the park. The wingers are on par with the league average, probably due to Kyle Feldt’s try scoring helping mask his defensive deficiencies, which is not tracked well by TPR but he shows up at the bottom of the list for Net Points Responsible For.

The obvious standout is Jason Taumalolo, already one of the all time greats, at lock. Taumalolo averaged 47.0 Taylors per game (season TPR .176 or 12% of the Cowboys’ total production) while the league average lock excluding Taumalolo produced 25.8. If we were to replace him with the league average, the Cowboys production drops from 382 Taylors per game to 355. That would slot North Queensland in between Canterbury and the Gold Coast, from thirteenth in the league to fifteenth, just above Brisbane.

While this shows Taumalolo’s outsized individual contribution to the fortunes of the Cowboys’, it also highlights the limitations of analysis by production or Pythagorean expectation or Elo ratings. Production correlates to winning but what actually wins games is points on the board. That responsibility falls primarily on the playmakers – currently some unresolved combination of Jake Clifford, Michael Morgan, Scott Drinkwater and Reece Robson – to make it happen, as well as better execution out of the likes of Valentine Holmes and his comrades in the outside backs. The younger talents to replace the class of 2015 have arrived and it’s now on the Cowboys and their new coach to make them into first graders – preferably with some sense of defensive cohesion – and then into contenders.

What’s next

Other than a golden eight weeks or so from Michael Morgan in the run to the 2017 grand final, the franchise has struggled since Johnathan Thurston injured his shoulder in 2017. That seems to have been a limitation of Paul Green’s management style. Despite bringing the club its first premiership in 2015, three years at the wrong end of the ladder was enough to end his time in Townsville.

Todd Payten comes in as the Cowboys’ new coach, after impressing the league with the resilience he has managed to instill in the Warriors during his abbreviated and temporary tenure. He will not have to live with Thurston’s legacy casting a shadow over his own or have to work out how to retool his entire system. Simplistically, his impetus could be the extra edge the team needs not just to convert shoulda-coulda wins into reality but to win enough games to reflect the calibre of players on the roster. We wait with bated breath.

Off the field, Queensland Country Bank Stadium had all of one home game before coronavirus, which was a sellout against the Broncos, meaning that the Cowboys either had the highest attendance this year, according to Rugby League Project, or the fifth highest, according to AFLTables. If/when things return to normal, that facility should serve the club well, being significantly closer to Townsville’s city centre and the Cowboys Leagues Club than the old Dairy Farmers.

The Cowboys’ pay TV ratings are up slightly on last year, from 226,000 to 232,000, but only good enough for ninth best in 2020. This is a far cry from as recently as 2017, when the Cowboys led the league on Foxtel, and running a close second to the Broncos in 2018 with 260,000 viewers (part of this will be due to time slot changes). North Queensland remains an anomaly in rugby league, with such a large and geographically disparate fanbase, but as all fanbases do, they demand success if they are to remain engaged.

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