Tag Archives: season review

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Sydney Roosters

In fifth on the ladder, we find the formerly Eastern Suburbs and currently Sydney Roosters. A more than respectable 16-8 season was paired with a +141 points difference, which was noticeably better than their 14.8 Pythagorean wins would have suggested. Their defence, leaking 489 points, was worse than any other in the top six bar the historically bad Manly and their offence was nearly 200 points behind that of the Storm.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

What happened

Here’s the Roosters line-up from round 1, a 46-4 victory over Manly, and the line-up from week 2 of the finals, a 42-6 loss to Manly.

I don’t know if the season needs much more analysis than that. Not pictured are the retirement of Boyd Cordner, who was expected to return in 2021 and didn’t, the emergence and subsequent injury to Sam Walker and injuries to another bunch of replacement-level depth players. Trent Robinson did about as well as could be expected under the circumstances to get as far as he did with the North Sydney Bears and the ghosts of the Sydney Roosters.

There’s always next year

I think the funniest moment of the season was when hot shot future star Sam Walker spent a few weeks throwing cut out passes for easy tries, got found out by the Brisbane Broncos in round 11 and got absolutely pasted for it. He’ll be better for that spiritual dacking, which is a concerning prospect for the rest of the competition. The Roosters have:

  • One of the three best coaches in the game (added 179 class Elo rating points during his tenure)
  • One top shelf half (.131 since joining the Roosters) and the sport’s best prospect (.124 in 2021) occupying the other half position
  • The best fullback over the last five years and likely one of the best ever (12.1 career WARG)
  • A forward pack that has minced every team in the league at least once
  • A recent record of winning premierships (2018 and 2019)

Despite losing three club veterans in the space of twelve months, with the other Morris joining them in the off-season, it’s hard to think of another club – other than the Melbourne Storm – that’s better poised than the Sydney Roosters for a serious tilt at 2022’s premiership.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Parramatta Eels

The Parramatta Eels finished the season in sixth place on the ladder before a graceful exit from the finals in the second week, at the hands of the Penrith Panthers. A 15-9 record came with a +109 points difference that was fairly reflective of their capability. A 457 points conceded was a respectable fourth best, albeit a mile behind the top two, while their 566 points was less than the Titans managed to conjure.

The Victory Lap

We could quote from my pre-season preview but I thought this was more telling about where Parramatta are at.

Experts, analysts, amateurs, people with cars as their profile picture on Facebook, and the slim overlap in the venn diagram of rugby league fans and university statistics graduates, all of them expect regression from Parramatta this year. “They were lucky in 2020”, “they won a lot of close games”, “they didn’t beat anybody”, “their draw was soft”, “hurr durr straight sets”, you’ve heard it all before and you’ll be hearing it plenty more over the next six months because the pass mark for the rugby league world to begrudgingly admit the Eels are “okay” is reaching week three of the finals.

The Preview – Round 1, 2021: Eels vs Broncos, The Cumberland Throw

I thought it was clear when the Eels struggled to overcome last year’s wooden spooners in the game this quote was previewing that Parramatta probably didn’t have It. While the return leg in round 7 was far more comprehensive and Parramatta beat Melbourne twice, the Eels often beat the Storm late in the seasons that the Storm go on to win the grand final. In fact, it happened in 1999, 2009, 2012, 2017 and 2020. 2001 was the only year that the Eels won this match up after July 1 and the Storm didn’t win the grand final. Given I’m writing their season obituary, I think we can safely conclude that this isn’t an omen heralding a potential 2021 grand final appearance for the Eels.

I thought this run of results from round 20 to 22 was more indicative of the level the Eels:

  • Roosters 28 – Eels 0
  • Rabbitohs 40 – Eels 12
  • Sea Eagles 56 – Eels 10

As were the three losses to Penrith, including when it really mattered. They only scraped home by eight points against Newcastle in a season where eight points may as well be one. Recency bias will mean people focus on a gutsy performance in their last game but we’ve been here before and the season as a whole demands attention. Any team can turn up three or four times a year; it’s the other games that are the problem.

A narrow and equally gutsy two point loss to the invincible 2017 Storm didn’t stop them from capitulating to the eighth placed Cowboys the following week and then going on to a 6-18 season and the 2018 wooden spoon. It may be different this time but it’s always different and yet the pattern repeats.

Sure, the Parramatta Eels are “okay”. Even that’s harsh – they’re good but they’re not great.

What happened

One of the benefits of quantifying the performance of teams and the productivity of individuals is that you’re not beholden to the tyranny of ranked order. The gap between sixth and first is always five places but the actual distance that represents in terms of quality fluctuates. Some years, like 2018, that gap is a hop, skip and a jump. Some years, like this one, the gap is a medium sized canyon.

At no point have the Eels really looked like being in that top tier of contenders. The first phase of the season, it was Penrith, Melbourne and Sydney. The Roosters dropped off through the mid-season and the post-Origin malaise brought Souths into the mix. The same can’t be said for the Eels.

Normally we’d look to solely blame Moses for the team’s failure but there’s two thoughts to consider here. The first is the lack of production from the guys in jumpers two through six. Dylan Brown might be fine defensively but if he is to be a long term halves partner to Moses, he needs to start actually doing stuff. Things like making metres, kicking and assisting the scoring of tries. The rest of the backs need to find another WARG per season to really make Parramatta into contenders. Reed Mahoney will close the gap at hooker: his TPR in 2019 was .070, improved to .080 in 2020 and exploded to .172 in 2021. It’s likely that this post is very different if he stays fit.

The second is that while Moses has above average rates of line breaks, line break assists and try assists, he is below average in several other key areas: scoring tries, running metres and, marginally, kick metres. He is also well above average in errors and missed tackles. Some of these sins get covered through sheer volume (see above WARG breakdown) and some of these stats are functions of possession but ultimately, if Moses isn’t scoring tries, Brown isn’t doing much of anything offensively and there’s a somewhat but not massively above average rate of assists, then that suggests a lack of playmaking. If you can’t make plays happen during the regular season, what hope do you have come finals?

That’s before we get into defence.

There’s always next year

I’m not going to pretend that I have any meaningful solutions for Parramatta that aren’t “just get a bit better”. There’s obviously something there. Never mind Mahoney, the Eels had Tom Opacic looking like a world beater for about six weeks. Bryce Cartwright had his shit sorted out. Keegan Hipgrave still sucks but everyone has swings and misses. Those are just the signings I derided pre-season. Isaiah Papali’i was a masterstroke, one of the club’s most productive with Gutherson and Mahoney.

Still, unlike Newcastle and the Gold Coast, they don’t seem to have much unrealised potential or perhaps cap space. While the Eels have been a team comfortably lodged in positions three to six for four of the last five years, they’ve never looked like threatening the dual golden age of the Storm and the Roosters, not in the way the Panthers have ridden the Vlandoball wave. In many respects, they resemble the Raiders. They’re a team that has mountaineered to the utmost but find the peak unclimbable.

That suggests something has to change. I don’t know what it is. It could be Moses, it could be Arthur, it could be Ferguson’s bad juju, it could be the turf at Bankwest for all I know. Maybe they should think about signing Izaia Perese or Jonathan Reuben or Tom Davies to punch up the backline? Or just get Maika Sivo back on the field. I do know, however, that if Parramatta continue to do the same thing, then they will likely yield the same results. While being in the second tier of teams is noticeably better than finishing last or close to every year, at some point that’s not enough. The gap to the top tier has to be closed because if the plan is to wait for one of perennially dominant franchises to fall over, better teams than Parramatta have died waiting for it to happen.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Cronulla Sharks

The Sharks, like the Raiders and Titans, won ten games and lost fourteen in 2021. They finished with a points difference of -36, landed at ninth on the ladder (needing just 34 more points to overhaul the Titans for eighth) and their Pythagorean expectation had them winning 11.2 games, 1.2 more than they actually did. We might normally chalk that up to bad luck but given the Sharks booted their own coach early in the year, we might instead chalk this underperformance up to that.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

John Morris is under pressure at Cronulla. I’m not sure why that is. On the two coaching metrics, yes, the class rating fell more than 50 points during his tenure – normally a sign of an imminent firing – but it was coming off a very high and, for the Sharks, unsustainable level. His coach factor has been positive two years running… This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has…

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

People might have forgotten that it was John Morris, not Josh Hannay, that started the season as Sharks coach. Morris seemed to have done ok in 2020 with a below average roster yielding an exactly average 10-10 record with a zero points difference. The counter-argument was that the Sharks didn’t beat any of the teams above them. By contrast in 2021, the Sharks won two games against teams above them (against the Titans and another Origin depleted Panthers that the Tigers also beat) and lost a stack to teams below them, including embarrassing losses to two of the bottom three. It was not an improvement on the year before.

What happened

Morris’ 2020 and early 2021 performances were deemed not good enough and the board signed up Craig Fitzgibbon to take over next year. Morris and the club disagreed on how to handle the remainder of the season, so Morris resigned, initiating a week or two of Discourse.

Hannay has filled in as a temporary coach for both the Cowboys in 2020 and Sharks in 2021 but doesn’t appear to be in the running for any of the permanent roles that will almost ertainly become available over the next twelve months. In that sense, he is the replacement level coach; good enough to fill a hole but not good enough to start.

We don’t have any real data on how Fitzgibbon might perform. There are too many variables – personalities, state of the roster, luck – with no data to make an educated guess as to how the Sharks go under his tutelage. We do have some data that we can compare Hannay and Morris, which will let us establish a baseline comparison. If Morris is not significantly better than Hannay, then the club might have been right to punt him. If Morris is better than Hannay, then the club gave up on a finals appearance and, possibly more in the future, for a roll of the dice with Fitzgibbon.

Coaching metrics are a bit rubbery but my view is a good coach will leave the place in a better state than when he arrived and a good coach will get more out of his players than expected. We can measure these two components by looking at the change class Elo rating of a club during a coach’s tenure (coaching career points) and the difference between player TPR projections and their actual performance (coach factor), respectively.

Note that actual coach factor usually has a few more calculation steps but we did not need them for this analysis. The above shows the average across all players of the difference between the projection and the actual performance, as measured in TPR.

That’s great but what does it all mean? I take a few things away from these graphs:

  • Morris inherited a very high class rating from Shane Flanagan but not necessarily the squad to back it up. Over 2019 and 2020, he lost the 50 ratings points that indicate that someone will imminently lose their job. Having said that, he lost points at a slower rate than Hannay did.
  • While Morris was in charge, players consistently, and sometime significantly, outperformed their expectations in a way that Hannay’s tenures did not show.
  • Hannay can do a job but he’s not going make things better than you would have expected.

In summary, Morris is better than the replacement level coach and should probably be a target for any clubs looking for stabilisation and a fresh direction. Whether he is better than Fitzgibbon, only time will tell. It still seems strange to me to have punted Morris, and given up a finals appearance for a 10-14 season, without giving Morris a squad that was actually capable of contending to see if he had legitimate chops. If the expectation is that Morris would keep the club in the same rareified air as the Storm and Roosters, despite the Sharks showing no capacity to do that long term in their entire history and with nowhere near the supporting infrastructure or roster, then that seems grossly unfair.

There’s always next year

Fitzgibbon might be the second coming of Bennett and Bellamy – it seems unlikely that this is the case and the club has no real way of knowing that, which begs questions about how decisions are made – but you can only polish the proverbial so much. Fitzgibbon must be wondering what the board considers acceptable performance under these circumstances. At a minimum, to have justified this course of action, he would need to be making the preliminary finals every year. If he just manages repeat middling finals appearances, then that’s what they already had so the de-stabilisation was a waste of time. If Fitzgibbon can’t even manage that, then the board needs to look at themselves.

In the meantime, the Sharks managed to offload both Shaun Johnson (back to the Warriors) and Chad Townsend (off to the Cowboys, via the Warriors). They gain Nicho Hynes, because someone outside of QCup perverts and the Melbourne Storm noticed that he can play ball, Cam McInnes, fresh off an ACL rehab, and Dale Finucane.

The obvious comment to make on these signings is that Storm players famously do not perform to the same level once outside of the Storm system. So there’s two specific tests for Fitzgibbon:

  • Can he make Hynes into a certified, standalone stud instead of his current role of pinch hitting spine positions for the NRL’s best team?
  • Can he get Dale Finucane to maintain or improve on his career TPR of .106?

The rest of the roster is much the same from 2021 to 2022. Depending on how closely you watch the Sharks, that could be a roster full of promising youngsters who will continue their development trajectory but perhaps more importantly, it will be a roster that no longer reserves cap space for Aaron Woods, Bronson Xerri or Nene McDonald.

There are far too many unknowns for me to make a definitive statement of the future but it beats doing the same shit over and over again for no gain.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canberra Raiders

We’ve gotten through the truly awful teams, so now we can focus on teams that underwhelmed but weren’t disgusting. First cab off the rank is the Canberra Raiders, finishing the 2021 season with a 10-14 record with a -97 points difference. That means the Raiders were only four points per game worse than the average team in the NRL (with a Pythagorean expectation of 9.9 wins), although we need to temper that by recognising that the average NRL team this year would’ve been a spoon contender in other, more competitive seasons.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

By the time you read this, you’ll have read or heard a thousand justifications for Canberra being right in the premiership race. I don’t disagree with any of them but note that the projected Taylors have them wedged firmly between Manly and Cronulla, which seems low for a premiership contender. That seems primarily due to a weak back five and strangely mediocre starting rotation, given the names therein. This might be the numbers being off or we could be in for a big case of everyone talking themselves into the Raiders…

The primary concern surely has to be receiving a flogging at the hands of the Storm, which abruptly ended the Raiders’ 2020 campaign in about ten minutes. The secondary concern is whether the team has really improved since the 2019 grand final…

The Raiders have been knocking on the door since 2016 now, so at what point do we conclude that their processes aren’t right? Perhaps it will be at the end of this year if they come home without the Provan-Summons again, having hit their ceiling once more in week three of the finals.

A lot of Raiders fans read pessimism into my words and were deflated. Everyone else had been building them up for a premiership tilt. Then George Williams left and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad got hurt. The Raiders started falling over and then they fell over. Not only did they not make week three of the finals, they didn’t make the finals at all.

The 10-14 record is more reminiscient of 2017 and 2018, than 2019 and 2020. It’s up to you to decide which one is reflective of the true level of the Canberra Raiders.

What happened

The backs and forwards appear to be there or thereabouts but their total production seems to be being eroded, just a little, each year. The bench actually increased their contribution. But, as in 2017 and 2018, the Raiders were let down by their playmaking. It wasn’t as dire as those seasons but Vlandoball has also inflated every team’s production. 10 WARG in 2021 doesn’t go as far as it did a few years ago.

Williams, George was never as productive as the elite tier halves in the league but he was better than the alternative. Wighton would go on to have a shocker, considering he was judged to the best player in the game last year (his .180 TPR would return to around his long term average of .115 this season). Williams, Sam joined the Defintion of Replacement Level club, currently chaired by Danny Levi. It was the failure to have someone to replace Williams, George that was better than Williams, Sam that was the difference between finals and an early Mad Monday for the Raiders. Alternatively, had Wighton played up to the level that the NSW selectors believe him to be capable of, the question of who occupies the halfback position would have been redundant.

Williams apparently wanted to see out the season but had been agitating for a release. The Raiders granted an early release mid-season. I don’t know the truth of it but it looks a lot like the Raiders shot themselves in the foot. We can speculate on the why.

Perhaps that could have been covered for. The Raiders played well in 2016 with a lesser contribution from the playmakers. While the backs and bench improved their production from 2020 to 2021, some the key forwards went backwards.

Specifically, Josh Papali’i, Dunamis Lui and Elliott Whitehead all took significant steps towards mean, losing about 20 pips of TPR each. While numbers won’t tell you the whole story, if the plan was to hope everyone could redline all season to cover for Englishmen returning home, then that wasn’t ever going to be sustainable.

I also think the team hasn’t really reconciled with the loss of John Bateman and probably need to think about finding someone of his calibre and attitude (except for the preference for Wigan over Canberra) to fill the void.

There’s always next year

Plenty of Raiders fans will tell you Ricky Stuart has earned the right to dig the club out of this hole, again, but he has to dig the club out of a hole that he and the administration have dug. It’s been evident that not all is right at Raiders-land and for there to be frequent and regular expressions of frustration via both the traditional and social media, suggests a lack of cohesion that is going to undermine any future plans. Perhaps it is this and not mean regression that explains the performance of the forwards?

Provided that can be rectified – and that’s a big if now – the question is what happens to the roster. They were a half step off the pace when they were good and they are now several steps behind. Even if Stuart can squeeze the best out of everyone, I would suggest Canberra need reinforcements, especially in the halves. Aidan Sezer won’t ever come back, Jackson Hastings is going to the Tigers and James Maloney would rather slip into retirement for Lezignan than return to the NRL. Super League starts to look pretty thin after that, so it might be time to revise the recruiting strategy of the last few years.

Is it time to roll the dice on Luke Brooks? Perhaps but that patches the hole, it doesn’t solve the problem. I don’t know if there are any real Moneyball signings out there that the club could make – perhaps make an offer for one of the Cowboys’ surplus halves? – and without a talent pipeline, hampered by two consecutive cancellations of the NSW Cup, the Raiders can’t draw down on the farm system like other clubs. Even the Queensland Cup cupboard looks bereft of options (former Raiders under 20, Jack Ahearn? Sam Scarlett? Cam Cullen?).

People smarter than me who know the organisation better will come up with a solution. One is to move Josh Hodgson to 7 to open up the 9 jumper for Tom Starling. That seems as good a plan as any but if it doesn’t work, don’t be surprised to see the Raiders in a similar position next season.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 St George Illawarra Dragons

The St George Illawarra Dragons finished the 2021 NRL season in eleventh place, with a 8-16 record and a -142 points difference. Thus ends the facts.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

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

Somehow they had an even worse season than that and yet won more games than I expected.

What happened

We didn’t get the spoon I expected. Griffin had them moving in the right direction for a while. Then this all happened:

These incidents are gross, moronic and pathetic, respectively and in equal measures. What a club.

There’s always next year

Ben Hunt deserves better. Christ, Matt Dufty deserves better. Josh McGuire isn’t the biggest cunt on this team. Speaking of the biggest cunt on this team, Jack de Belin was average and not worth the bad karma (to put it mildly). They will waste the best years of Junior Amone and Mikaele Ravalawa. Why are there so many ex-Broncos?

The Dragons are an embarrassment to an already embarrassing league and I’m sickened thinking about what depths they will plumb next year. We, and I include their fans in this, would probably all be better off if they didn’t exist.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 New Zealand Warriors

What a season for the Warriors. A top twelve finish gave them something to write home about. The New Zealand franchise won just as many games (8) as basket case club, the Wests Tigers, but with a slightly less disastrous points difference (-171). The second season on the road was probably just as tough as the first, except it was about 50% longer and this year the Warriors had to play under Nathan Brown. Nonetheless, the Titans now have more finals appearances in the last decade, so that’s something for everyone to think about.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

…[T]he Warriors (along with the Dragons) are one of my favourites for the wooden spoon in 2021. I had them pegged in a similar position last season but, despite the difficult circumstances in which they played, their coaching got them through with enough wins and panache to avoid the bottom four… the Warriors are [now] being led by the man who has the worst coaching factor of the last five years, including the all-time worst NRL season… I have little confidence in Brown’s ability to unite the squad and motivate them while they live away from home for another year. Under normal circumstances and a better coach, there’s enough potential production for the Warriors to look good for a top eight finish.

If you need to understand the level of savvy Phil Gould brings to the boardroom, one only need look at how much better Penrith are running without him and that Roger Tuivasa-Scheck has already decided to go to union next year. Cameron George, a NRL club CEO, is a refsfaulter and seems to get most of his ideas from talkback radio.

I really wondered if I’d gone too far on this at several points in the season. Then the Warriors were in fourteenth with a 5-13 record after round 19, the worst performance to that point in the season since 1999 (5-12 by round 19, also in fourteenth place). There were seasons in between where the Warriors were running dead last and still had more wins than they did this year. They were, by their own standards, terrible.

There were three reasons no one noticed. The first being that no one wants to pile on a bunch of guys living away from home for an extended period, making sacrifices in the popular parlance. The second is that these are the New Zealand Warriors and I’m convinced the average NRL pundit and the average NRL punter are not aware that there is a team based in New Zealand in this competition. The third is that there were at least two teams, and probably several more, that were somehow worse.

What happened

The Warriors started the season with the sixth best roster by pre-season projections. Don’t believe me? Here’s a graph.

Now let’s check in with how the team actually performed against those expectations.

That doesn’t look good. If only there were some warning about a gross under performance.

(The above graph should read 2016 – 2021, my apologies)

Oh. Well, I’m sure this is Wayne Bennett’s fault somehow. Phil Gould can help get things on the right track.

Oh. Well, at least Cameron George has his eye on the ball.

Oh.

There’s always next year

Phil Gould couldn’t even be bothered seeing out the season and took a more lucrative offer at the Bulldogs. Nathan Brown is still doing Nathan Brown things. Cameron George is the proverbial immovable barncale on the ass of this franchise. Matt Lodge is the face of your club now. Accept it, Warriors fans. I had to boo through it for sixty-five games, now its your turn. At least he can play the role of Keegan Hipgrave from the opening metaphor.

Roger Tuivasa-Scheck is gone and he’s not coming back. He saw the writing on the wall early and bailed for union. Smart. The Warriors organisation took this as a personal slight and instead of trying to win games and make the finals in the easiest season in living memory, they punted a Dally M winner to the wing to make room for a precocious child who had not shown any real promise in an actual football game to that point. Walsh’s marginally above average .123 in QCup was perhaps not indicative of the shit hot five weeks of form he hit while smothering what was left of Tuivasa-Scheck’s NRL career (TPR .224). It was, however, definitely indicative of the mediocre .109 Walsh put up from round 12 onwards. People tried to argue with me that moving Walsh to fullback was a bad idea. The numbers don’t lie.

Shaun Johnson returns to Auckland-on-Moreton-Bay for a two year contract to revive the good old days of 2011, when the Warriors were relevant enough to lose a grand final. I’m sure the Warriors will look good on paper in 2022, just as I’m certain they will under-deliver.

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 Canterbury Bulldogs

The Bulldogs finished season 2021 in last place with a pathetic 3-21 record and a points difference of -370. Scoring just 14.2 points per game in the Vlandoball era, a number inflated by a last round thumping of a hapless Tigers, puts a strong case for the Doggies to be one of the worst attacking sides of the NRL era. It was, in fact, the eleventh worst of the NRL era on a points scored per game basis but, shockingly, a marginal improvement on last year (ninth worst in NRL era).

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

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

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

That was, it turns out, unnecessarily optimistic. The signings for this season were more or less useless. Kyle Flanagan’s NRL future hinges on the breakout of an epsilon, or possibly zeta, variant (a doctor mentioned a mu variant to me the other day, so it is possible that this joke is already out of date). Cotric (.095 TPR) and Allan (.069) went from Origin to anonymity, even before injury.

Perhaps the worst offender was head coach Trent Barrett, who seemed to bring even less than his predecessors to the role. Absent were the garbage time wins we’ve come to expect, exchanging them for losses of varying magnitudes (hapless Tigers aside) and finally extinguishing that diehard spirit that had previously kept Canterbury off the bottom of the ladder.

What happened

I came into this expecting to blame the forwards but the numbers tell a different story.

It wasn’t a great year for anyone involved with the Canterbury-Bankstown organisation but the forward platoon (the players listed at prop, second row and lock) managed to produce 83.3% of the average NRL team. The bench did marginally better at 83.8% but the playmakers and especially the backs were lacking (76.2%).

That’s not particularly surprising though. If a team doesn’t score enough points, that suggests an absence of tries which traditionally are a large component of the production of the back five. In this case, their lack of production might reflect a lack of opportunity, probably from a combination of a lack of territory, a lack of possession and a lack of playmaking.

Lachlan Lewis was still productive through limited game time but he’s done that in previous years and it hasn’t meant he’s been good but rather that he has a boot on him. Jake Averillo might be marginally more promising long term but might serve the club better as first backup. Corey Horsburgh was a welcome reinforcement. Luke Thompson was perhaps the best all round performer and after that, it gets decidedly average quickly before dropping off quicker still to demonstrate a profound lack of depth. This is a long term problem to be solved, perhaps once the team’s results aren’t so dire.

There’s always next year

The arrival of Josh Addo-Carr, Matt Burton, Tevita Pangai Junior and other legitimate studs, including the 2+ WARG Josh Stuckey from the Queensland Cup’s Northern Pride, should be a turning point for the club. There’s some concerning noises about the lack of cap space that would require the Bulldogs to let go of Luke Thompson, which would be disastrous but could equally be media bullshit.

There’s probably not enough in the new blood to get the club to the top of the ladder, so it remains to be seen where the additional talent is going to come from, in which case the club might find itself floating in purgatory for a while until a juniors conveyor belt can be built, but better purgatory than the seventh circle of hell or lower. There also likely needs to be a coaching change in the near future, perhaps when a more obvious candidate emerges after the Trent Barrett experiment can be conclusively said to have failed.

We’ll have to wait and see how the current regime – occupying the space created by my previous, devastating season review – cope with these challenges to judge whether they should stay in their positions or if the Bulldogs require another teardown re-build before returning to something like their historical competence.

Hmmm.

Also, Lachlan Lewis allegedly stole some speakers and that’s what gets you fired from the NRL? Go figure.

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.

« Older Entries