Tag Archives: season review

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.

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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.

A Shallow Dive into the 2020 Canterbury Bulldogs

At the start of the year, before the coronavirus pandemic and indeed time itself, I wrote

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

That turned out to be a relatively prescient summation of the 2020 Bulldogs season. Had it not been for Seibold’s Broncos, Canterbury absolutely would have finished last. Considering that this season featured a team on a permanent road trip, that is a damning indictment.

Summary

Canterbury didn’t win very many games on account of not being very good at football. They tried for a while, did not deliver results and like a number of clubs this season, fired their coach.

What happened

Despite finishing eleventh with a 10-14 record in 2017, the club’s situation off-field was something of a disaster. A clean out ensued in 2018, which delivered a 8-16 season that was above expectations. 2019 saw consolidation at 10-14 and many had the Dogs primed to take the next step in 2020 towards a winning record. Instead, they went backwards.

I think it’s worth taking a closer look at this narrative, partly because there’s little to be gained from an in-depth analysis of their on-field performance this year (it was not good, 1 to 17) and partly because it’s what set expectations for this and next season.

Pythagorean expectation does a reasonable job of estimating a team’s win-loss record using for and against. The advantage of using Pythag is that it has a finer resolution on team performance than the binary of win-loss records. Typically, actual wins and wins as estimated by Pythagorean expectation are expected to be close over the course of the season, as shown between 2004 and 2012 in the above.

When the two diverge, we usually attribute this to luck and say teams are either over- or under-performing their Pythagorean expectation. This is important to note because lucky seasons, where teams outperform, tend to be followed by unlucky seasons, where teams underperform, and vice versa. The actual win-loss record can mask the team’s underlying quality and set unrealistic expectations moving forward.

2017 was bang on: 10 actual wins with 9.4 Pythagorean wins. In 2018, the team underperformed (8 actual, 10.8 Pythag) followed by an outperformance in 2019 (10 actual, 7.8 Pythag) and then underperformance again in 2020 (3 actual, 5.0 Pythag). In other words, the Bulldogs actually got worse, declining from 10.8 to 5.0 Pythag wins from 2018 to 2020. When people talk about Canterbury not improving under Dean Pay, this is what they mean.

Pay managed to get the team fired up to win some games at the back end of 2018. This gave the playing group self-belief and the club some media hype going in to the next season. Further belief/hype was generated off the back of more wins in garbage time in 2019 but this time, the performance was based on shaky fundamentals. By this season, the playing group sensed that Pay was not able to drive them to new heights and did not commit like they had in previous years, leading to an absence of the plucky wins that had defined the previous two seasons and underperforming their Pythag.

With Pay now gone, we may well see a bounce back in 2021 with an outperformance, but it seems unlikely we’ll see a recovery like 2009.

What’s next

At some point, someone is going to point out that the post-Castle board continue to make very bad decisions on behalf of the Bulldogs. God only knows what Trent Barrett said in his interview with the club to be given a second chance as a head coach after one of the most disastrous tenures in the NRL era at Manly. Signing Nick Cotric on big bucks doesn’t solve any of the team’s fundamental problems. The players that have been linked with the club do not inspire confidence.

We’re not that long removed from a Bulldogs premiership in the NSW Cup. The junior lights of the 2018 campaign – Renouf Toomaga, Reimis Smith, Jayden Okunbor, Ofahiki Ogden, Rhyse Martin and Lachlan Lewis – have all made it to first grade and where an impression has been made, it’s only because there was nothing else to distract viewers. Morgan Harper, their best player by WARG in the 2019 reserve squad, has now played more first grade games for Manly than Canterbury. Among other things, the club needs to consider how to better secure brighter talents or better develop the talents that they do have. Dean Pay clearly wasn’t the man to ensure that happened as players did not appear to improve under his leadership. I don’t have a lot of confidence that Trent Barrett can do any better but I’ve been wrong before.

The club then has few options to improve its genuinely lack lustre roster. The Bulldogs currently occupy a space on the market where they will be regularly linked with fringe-rep players who are seeking a pay rise from their current employers. Despite this being a patently obvious bargaining tactic, some talented players will inevitably come across to seek their filthy lucre. But it has been demonstrated time and time again that this is not a strategy for building a premiership contending roster. Until something breaks their way, that leaves Canterbury in something of a holding pattern.

Longer term, the Bulldogs have to start thinking about how many fans they actually have. In 2015, just five years ago, the Dogs had the second best attendances in the league, at over 20,000 per game. Now, their TV ratings are in the toilet, last year’s attendances were less than 13,000 per game and Roy Morgan has them as the twelfth most popular team in the league.

Several years of plucky but mediocre results has eroded a once large legion of fans. For mine, based on their decision making, the future is not bright at Belmore. If it continues, will the Bulldogs end up with Manly and Cronulla as perennial candidates for relocation?

PythagoNRL’s 3/4 NRL Season Review

Why a three-quarter season review? We could ask Penrith the very same question but for me, it’s because I was too busy with life around round 12 and I will be on holidays and away from the computer by round 25, so this is the only real opportunity I get to pull together a post reviewing the season that’s been until sometime in late October. I think now is a good time to do it anyway because the narratives are established and we’re just close enough to peak over the fence into how the conclusion to the 2018 NRL campagin might play out.

I’m going to try and limit my word usage and let the graph and/or table do the talking. Feel free to use the contents page to jump around:

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