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A Shallow Dive into the 2021 South Sydney Rabbitohs

The South Sydney Rabbitohs finished the season in third on the ladder, with a 20-4 record that would be worthy of recognition had not one, but two, other teams gone one better. With 775 points scored and 453 conceded, the Rabbitohs were only good for 17.6 Pythagorean wins, meaning the 20 actual wins accrued is a gross overperformance. We could ascribe some of that to excessively bad losses in the first half of the season but all results have equal weighting and the 50 point “rule” continues to hold, which is probably the most disappointing thing about this whole season.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

I admire the cockiness of ordering 10,000 “South Sydney 2021 Premiers” t-shirts in March in a now deleted tweet. It’s the kind of big dick energy that comes with winning one premiership that matters and a bunch more that don’t against labourers and dockers.

Last year’s question marks are gone. The narrative power of sending the all-time GOAT rugby league coach out a winner is simply too powerful. We are beyond statistics and numbers and deep into primal rugby league territory. The 2021 premiership awaits.

That was all I wrote and I was one intercept pass away from being right.

What happened

People slept on the Bunnies, even though they had worked their way into the mix of the top three teams. I tweeted about them being the top rated team in late August for zero likes.

As the chips fell where they did, Souths found themselves in a 50-50 grand final without their star fullback. Given they had beaten Penrith just three weeks earlier without said fullback, there was no reason Souths couldn’t win this.

But they didn’t. Would the Rabbitohs have beaten the Panthers with Latrell Mitchell?

To find out, let’s break down the four meetings these two teams had during the 2021 season.

The interesting thing here is that Mitchell played in the two games that the Rabbitohs were out-Taylored, noticeably in the Dicking in Dubbo, but did not play in the two games Souths had the ostensible advantage, including the only game out of the four that Souths actually won.

If we isolate the back three, it’s a different story.

The gap is only eight Taylors – basically nothing – in a 44 point loss and narrows to four in a 13 point loss, before blowing out to 20 Taylors in a win and then, ultimately, 38 in a narrow loss.

By comparing to the other platoons, it’s clear that Souths needed more from their back three.

The forwards out-gunned Penrith in the grand final but weren’t able to do it with the dominance they did in the week one final. That dominance had previously covered for the outside backs’ blemishes. When Penrith’s pack matched up to Souths’, or close enough to, it was time for the wingers and fullback to stand up. Taaffe and Paulo didn’t.

Taaffe put up a TPR of .077 in the grand final, compared to Mitchell’s season average of .120. Obviously, there are no guarantees that Mitchell would have performed at his usual level. After all, Taaffe’s average as starting fullback prior to the grand final was .143 (from a much smaller sample size). However, I think it’s a safe bet that Mitchell would have been more reliably better than Taaffe actually was. Mitchell’s presence probably could have been counted on to add another 15 Taylors. It wouldn’t have eliminated the gap but would have put the game within reach of the Rabbitohs and perhaps minimised the damage done by Paulo.

This isn’t to blow it out of proportion: Souths were a missed conversion and a field goal away from the title. The disparity in the end result couldn’t be greater – the Panthers’ one premiership claimed this year is infinitely greater than Souths’ zero – but this does not reflect how close it was on the field.

There’s always next year

Losing the greatest coach to, presumably, the Moreton Bay Dolphins doesn’t help. Losing their star halfback to the Broncos and their Origin centre to the Knights doesn’t either. That 2.5 wins of outperformance of Pythagorean expectation is probably going to demand a significant regression to mean next season.

The return of Latrell Mitchell will be welcome. Jason Demetriou’s biggest task is to get the best out of him while keeping his emotions in check. Cody Walker, one of the finest halves in the game, is still there, coming off a 1.8 WARG season. The incumbent Blues hooker, finally having figured out how to turn up in big games, will be helpful.

There’s still a lot to like about Souths. They’re a move or two away from maintaining their place in the upper echelon of the league, although Anthony Milford coming in is a dicey start to the reload. But there will be definite headwinds in 2022 and how they respond will tell us whether their premiership window is closing or if its permanently jammed open.

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.

The Renaissance of South Sydney

On their return to the competition in 2002, South Sydney sucked. A lot. The 2003 and 2006 Rabbitohs were among the worst all-time NRL sides, winning just three games a piece. In 2007, the tide turned with a moderately successful recruitment drive, lifting Souths to a .500 win percentage. Souths would be just on the cusp of finals places for the next few years before securing Michael Maguire as coach and turning into a powerhouse (powerhouse Maguire years marked in cardinal).

souths wins.PNG

In 2012, the Rabbitohs played their first finals series since 2007, appearing in a run of three preliminary finals in a row before winning the grand final in 2014 and breaking a 43 year premiership drought. In 2015, the club was bundled out in the first week of the post-season. Two very average seasons followed.

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Club Report – South Sydney Rabbitohs

ssr-badgeBackground

In the tumult of the instigation of the National Rugby League, one of Sydney’s oldest and most successful clubs was on the chopping block after years of below average performance on and off the field. Needing to rationalise the competition to fourteen teams in 2000, the NRL took the decisive step of excluding South Sydney from the competition. This led to years of court action, unprecedented protests and investment from movie stars before the Rabbitohs were returned to the NRL in 2002.

The Bunnies’ return to the NRL was not met with success. Spared the wooden spoon in 2002 thanks to the Bulldogs‘ salary cap rorting, Souths would take the spoon in three of the next four seasons before starting the long march back to the top. Souths first finals appearance in 2007 was the club’s first since 1989. A shallow few years passed before it clicked into place with three consecutive top four finishes and a premiership in 2014.

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