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A Deep Dive in to the 2021 NRL season

You’ve read me wank on about the second Brisbane team, anti-siphoning legislation, Super League reform, the state of the international game, other sports, my usual critical schtick and award voting systems but now it’s time to talk about actual football. The numbers have been run, in largely the same fashion as last year, and the verdicts are in. This is the fourth annual deep pre-season dive and by the end of it, you’ll be as uncertain as I am about the year ahead.

What happened

2020 ended up being a fairly conventional season on the field with three obvious, screaming exceptions: the rise of the Penrith Panthers, the Brisbane Broncos’ spoon and the season interruption brought on by the pandemic. The mid-season rule changes, rather than causing chaos, cemented the standing of each of the teams, making outcomes more predictable than I personally care for. Melbourne were the best and the usual suspects plus Penrith were thereabouts. The Broncos gave up but the Bulldogs were probably marginally worse. I had more post-season takes in the The Year in Rugby League Football, 2020.

How it all works

These posts rely on a lot of jargon that I’ve made up which suits my analytics tools but is often dense and hard to parse, even for regular readers. If that’s you, please visit this updated guide on what each stat means. Also, there’s 1500 words of context around what statistics do and don’t mean at the end.

The main mechanism for assessment, in conjunction with the numbers, is to look at each club’s strengths, weaknesses and their opportunities for improvement and see what changes have been made in the off-season that might signal a move up or down the ladder. In 2021, there are three broad groups: the tête de la course (1st group), representing the four teams that will occupy somewhere between places one through six on the ladder; the peloton (2nd group), the meaty part of the league who are competing for the remaining finals places; and the arrière (3rd group), or teams who are unlikely to make the finals without significant twists of fate and luck.

Rosters are taken from the NRL website as of 25 February and the predicted 1-17 are based on League Unlimited’s season previews. The engines this year are a little different to the past. I’ve shown the top ten non-rookies by their projected TPR, as opposed to the eight players that contributed the most production. Players are ranked by WARG accumulated while listed in that position only and the best rank the player has is shown (e.g. if a player has played in the middle and off the bench, I’ve shown whichever had the higher ranking).

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

The Broncos aren’t going to get the spoon again. Sorry, it’s just not how football works. They probably will not make the finals but there is literally only a single direction that the sport’s biggest franchise can take coming off a 3-17 season that included a 59-0 flogging, somehow breaking the previous year’s record flogging.

Never mind. It looks like the Kevolution might take a little longer than initially anticipated.

While I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the Broncos, I thought they might improve somewhat on last year. The Taylors are way down but I figured that reflected a lack of effort moreso than a lack of talent. I am willing to admit I was too high on some of these players in the past. However, the most recent trial game against the Cowboys suggests that some of the mental trauma of the last two years under Seibold might take a little longer to expunge. A second half collapse and deflated egos were the hallmarks of the 2020 Broncos and the back end of that game.

So be it, although if Walters can’t get it sorted, the squad will have to be scattered to the four winds for their own good and Brisbane will have to start again with a bunch has-beens while the farm system replenishes. It could be a long road back. The alternative is teaching the younger players to play eighty minutes of football and winning some – it doesn’t even have to be a lot! – games.

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

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 for various reasons (e.g. they like Nick Campton) and then coming unstuck. Something something 2019 grand final something.

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. Realistically, if Canberra are to challenge for a premiership, they need to able to match it with the likes of the 2020 Storm and 2019 Roosters and beat them in the most intense games of the season. In a sample size of two, they haven’t done it. What have they done about it since? Their numbers aren’t on pace with Melbourne or Souths or even Penrith and the outlook signals another good, maybe even great, but not exceptional year.

I’m a big fan of the idea that if you put in place the right processes, eventually luck evens out and the results will fall your way. Canberra’s strategy for 2021 might be to get the right pieces and hope to get on a tear like the Panthers of last year. 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.

Assessment: 3rd group / Recovering

I lamented in last year season’s preview that the Bulldogs needed to play catch-up as their squad was projected to be a long way behind the rest of the competition. Then, they were projected to average 328 Taylors per game, the lowest in the league and two fewer than the Penrith Panthers that were in fifteenth (so not really that far behind) and some 60 behind the contenders. This year, armed with new signings like Kyle Flanagan, Nick Cotric and Corey Allan, the Bulldogs aren’t last, having moved 14 projected Taylors clear of the last placed Broncos but they are 68 Taylors off the pace of the premiers and 20 behind the next-best Tigers.

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.

Assessment: 2nd group / Idling

Lots of people have advocated the Sharks moving to Adelaide or Perth, based on their hemmed-in geography, and handing their territory over to the Dragons to consolidate southern Sydney and Illawarra into a single franchise. However, based on the last few years of decision making, surely it should be the other way around? The Sharks have lost a lot of money but recent developments have given them cash in hand and a new hospitality venue. The Sharks have won a premiership. The Sharks haven’t made as many recruiting blunders (the Maloney/Moylan swap perhaps being the duddest) as the Dragons have in just this off-season. So I’ve changed my mind: the Sharks can stay and the Dragons can go to Perth.

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 and only Craig Bellamy has matched it over that time. This suggests he’s making a decent fist of the squad he has. While the Sharks have failed to impress in the post-season, I don’t think they’ve set themselves up to succeed. It seems unfair to boot Morris, only to bring back the ethically-bypassed Shane Flanagan, who will probably not get much further but at least he won them a premiership five years ago.

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 hope they don’t get done by ASADA, like Bronson Xerri or the Sharks themselves of a few years earlier) 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. I, for one, wish the Illawarra-Sutherland Sharks all the best.

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

Lots of people got excited about the Titans after a strong finish to 2020 and started extrapolating big things for the Gold Coast side in 2021. I rallied against that, citing the fact that the Titans had a terrible start to the season (they were 3-6 and below the Broncos on the ladder after round 9) and only started picking up momentum as other teams gave up under the crushing weight of pandemic-induced malaise. Moreover, their Pythagorean outlook is negative on a losing record. These are terrible omens and it is suggestive that the fundamentals might need a little more work before we start getting too ahead of ourselves and tipping premierships.

However, I am just about ready to flip on that position. Since 2020, the Titans have signed David Fifita and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui on big bucks and Patrick Herbert on presumably slightly lesser bucks. With those signings, strong seasons from Jamal Fogarty, Ash Taylor, Mo Fotuaika and AJ Brimson, then better things beckon. Looking down the team list, there’s a few weaker points but on the whole, looks quite good. The Titans have the strongest pack in the league and in overall Taylor terms, are on par with the Knights and Raiders.

Still, Holbrook had a bit of a dud season and that’s been glossed over thanks to a strong finish. A charitable interpretation is this is indicative of him getting his system sorted out mid-season and a less charitable one is that maybe he got lucky. Brimson has been somewhat injury prone. Fogarty can play but we need to see it again to know he’s reliably capable of reaching that level, instead of a one-hit wonder. Without Fogarty producing, Taylor is going to flail about ineffectively as we’ve seen so many times in recent years. If these pieces aren’t in place, then Fotuaika, Fifita and Fa’asuamaleaui don’t really matter.

I wouldn’t be surprised with a mid-table finish, somewhere in the range of seventh to tenth position with a 12-12 record plus or minus a win. They could surprise on the upside with a bit of luck, especially if Cameron Smith makes a miracle mid-season signing, in which case anything is possible. In that scenario and the Titans win the premiership, then my season review will be a long apology to Mal Meninga for ever doubting him.

Despite being a dreaded rival, my main motivation for wanting the Titans to do well is so we can end the unnecessary agonising about how sport on the Gold Coast doesn’t work and what the Titans need to do to fix their alleged problems. Pro sport goes to the Gold Coast because its the sixth largest city in the country. The Titans don’t work because they don’t win. When they do, everything else will become window dressing. It’s not rocket science.

*Includes Northern Eagles

Assessment: 3rd group / Upside

Depending on which number you want to listen to, Manly’s cattle either look as good as the Raiders and the Knights (projected Taylors) or are looking fairly average (roster and composition simpscore). Des Hasler had his worst coach factor since it started being calculated in 2016. While Pythagorean expectation has a better outlook for Manly in 2021, that’s coming off a lack lustre 7-13 and the Sea Eagles performed more or less at expectation. Even a couple of extra wins wouldn’t make for a winning record. Most of the indicators suggest a pretty average year ahead.

Then why do the projected Taylors suggest the Sea Eagles could be in the finals mix? Daly Cherry-Evans had an extremely productive 2020, finishing with the third best TPR in the league (.222) behind Cameron Smith (.229) and Nathan Cleary (.224). This is largely due to being the only moderately effective player on the field for Manly for much of the season and he shouldered a disproportionate share of the burden. Off the back of that, he is projected to have a similarly productive 2021 (.179). Kieran Foran comes to Brookvale from the Bulldogs from a similar position, albeit much less productive with considerably more time spent on the side lines, and he has a projection of .130 for 2021. Put them together and it looks like a super-productive duo. In reality, how successful this pairing is (provided Foran stays fit) will depend heavily on how willing Cherry-Evans is to share the workload. They are unlikely to have the opportunity to produce as much in total as the projections suggest, given there is only so much one can do in the time available, so I think their Taylors may look inflated. Moreover, at some point, someone needs to score tries.

Outside of an already injured Tom Trbojevic, Martin Taupau and Taniela Paseka, there’s very little to recommend Manly. They certainly do not have the look of a team looking to play finals. Still, I think Hasler might bounce back this season, his 2019 strategy of taping together reserve graders having run out of adhesive strength in 2020. Put that with a good year from Josh Aloiai, Taupau and Paseka, Foran and Cherry-Evans working together seamlessly, Jason Saab pushing one of the other backs out of the lineup and some desperately needed luck on the injury front, the Sea Eagles might surprise a few but that’s a lot of ifs that need to go right.

And they need a hooker. It’s like they forgot to sign one.

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

Last year, I compared the Storm to the Roman Empire. To continue that metaphor, we’re reaching the end of Augustus’ reign (Augustus being a composite of the big three plus Bellamy). After the early, unstable years of the Republic and the preceding monarchy, which united the disparate lands of South Queensland, Perth, Adelaide and the Hunter Valley under a new royal purple banner, the Augustan epoch has been marked by regular trips to the finals, punctuated by premierships. Even without the salary cap breached premierships, the Storm have won as many men’s NRL titles as any club.

And just like Rome at the end of Augustus’ reign, we’ve reached the peak but there’s another couple of centuries ahead before Rome really bottoms out as a power. Still longer, if you count the Byzantines and really continuing to today if you want to stretch and include Romania. In other words, it seems unlikely that this is the year that the Goths sack Melbourne. They’ll be around for a while yet.

The roster remains one of the best in the league, as measured in projected Taylors. The Storm have the most successful coach of the last twenty years. That just doesn’t disappear over night because the best player of the NRL era retires and/or moves to the Gold Coast. The club doesn’t need the GOAT to win the premiership, the team merely needs to be very good. The Storm will be, once again, and barring a distraction like Bellamy’s future and replacement having a surprisingly damanging impact on the team’s psyche, they will be in the running.

Assessment: 2nd group / Upside

If South Sydney do go one further this year, imagine your club being in so deep a hole that Wayne Bennett couldn’t coach you to a grand final. It would be the first such instance since he was at Brothers in the early 1980s. That’s a full four decades ago for those playing at home. Couldn’t be Southern Suburbs, Canberra, Brisbane, St George Illawarra or (probably) South Sydney. For the record, Brothers folded in the 1990s. Not sure why I thought of that.

Anyway, Adam O’Brien. For reasons I can’t quite articulate – perhaps it’s that Newcastle has become the sole Isaac Moses FC and hired Anthony Seibold as an assistant coach – I’m not 100% sold on him. It could simply be a lack of sample size. O’Brien is clearly a better coach than Nathan Brown and has taken the Knights from the arrière into the peloton. My question is then can he take them to the front of the race?

The roster actually looks good. Like Canberra and the Gold Coast, Newcastle have assembled a talented cast for their starting line up. TPR has most of the forward pack sitting around average, but that in itself is an above average result (average players are rarer than you think) and in the same ballpark as the Raiders. The playmaking positions – likely to be Mann, Pearce and Brailey, according to League Unlimited – isn’t too bad but hardly scintillating stuff. We might see more out of Brailey this year, provided he stays on the field, and less out of Pearce but their combined production isn’t expected to be much more than the Broncos can muster. The difference is in the backs, specifically Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best, who need little introduction if you’re the kind of person reading this.

The pieces are there. There’s a good squad, a promising coach and a stable club. It wouldn’t surprise me to see the Knights do well this year but their late season fade-outs of the last couple years, and some other things I can’t quite put my finger on (I could be conflating an injury toll last year with actual performance if we’re being honest), mean that putting them in the second group is a safer bet, with an acknowledgement that they have the ingredients, if not the demonstrated proof, that they could be – perhaps should be – in the first.

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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.

Nonetheless, like many people, the 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. They don’t have that this season, after Todd Payten declined the job, preferring Townsville. Instead, the Warriors are being led by the man who has the worst coaching factor of the last five years, including the all-time worst NRL season (1-22-1 with the 2016 Knights) which would also be the worst single season coach factor if Anthony Seibold hadn’t gone 3-17 with a much better team. Suffice to say, 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. In fact, if one thing unites these three men, it’s a love of being in the media: Brown’s credibility was decimated with the Knights squad because of his frequent TV appearances, the only reason I know Cameron George’s name is because he says shit so stupid on the radio in New Zealand that it crosses the Tasman and Phil Gould should have retired from commentary at least a decade ago.

Last year, I highlighted that the Bulldogs board had done them no favours and now they’re all gone. This year, I hope the Warriors will be re-bristling their brooms to push this triumvirate out the door before next season. In doing so, if they keep their relatively talented roster together, it won’t be long before the Warriors are a factor again.

Assessment: 2nd group / Recovering

For a long time, the Cowboys looked good on paper but struggled to deliver under previous coach, Paul Green. Now, we have a Cowboys team that doesn’t look too crash hot on paper with the potential to deliver under new coach, Todd Payten.

The actual names in the North Queensland roster should inspire some hope: Drinkwater, Morgan, Holmes, Clifford, Robson, Taumalolo. Having the best forward and the once best winger in the game should do that. Payten demonstrated his chops last year, keeping a Warriors squad united in trying circumstances and moving in the right direction. What that means is that even though the Cowboys have mediocre projections, that reflects the mediocre results they’ve had under a coach that the game passed by. By that logic, under a new dynamic coach, one able to get the best out his men, should see the team out-perform expectations.

The Cowboys will have to push themselves to make the top eight but I am far from ruling it out. Taumalolo lost a little of his punch last season, albeit still finished as the top middle, but has been overtaken as the career WARG leader by James Tedesco. The revival begins there, ably assisted by Francis Molo and needing more effort or bigger seasons out of Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Tom Gilbert. After that, some combination of Drinkwater, Morgan and Clifford needs to gel, even though Clifford is departing for Newcastle next season. Points will follow with even the most dubious outside backs in that scenario and a finals appearance thereafter.

Then again, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

If I look at my watch, I think the Eels are due for an imminent collapse and a wooden spoon. It could be something in the vein of their 2018 campaign, in which the team completely fell apart for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear and bookended by fourth place in 2017 and fifth place in 2019. Parra stepped up their game again to third in 2020 but the squad is looking decidedly less dialled in, having lost Kane Evans, Daniel Alvaro and George Jennings, and replaced them with Keegan Hipgrave, Bryce Cartwright and Tom Opacic.

Mitch Moses was productive even if he didn’t pass the eye test while Blake Ferguson had an outright shocker last season. Brad Arthur is going to have put a jolt into those two if they want to maintain their momentum up the ladder. Dyaln Brown doesn’t look too bad and put up a decent average TPR last year but seven of his sixteen regular season appearances for the Eels were absolute nothings. My internal jury is still out on the Moses-Brown combination and this year will see a verdict rendered. The likely outcome is that they do okay, maybe even above average, but get chucked in the bin anyway by a fanbase demanding success that they’ve never had.

I doubt we’ll be all that surprised to reviewing the Eels’ season in October and wondering why Parramatta, at best, went out in straight sets again. The answer is that they haven’t improved on last year’s team and that side was at least one, if not multiple, steps off the premiership pace. In many respects, they’ve gone backwards since then. In the absence of being able to use luck as an excuse – which having out-performed their Pythagorean expectation, they cannot – then the only reasonable conclusion is that the Eels are headed down the ladder.

Assessment: 2nd group / Regression

If Melbourne are the Roman Empire, then Penrith is Macedonia in the late fourth century BC. A group of young and extremely motivated men took advantage of the specific time and place that the gods had provided them and as a result, almost conquered the world. The 2020 grand final was their Hyphasis, a long campaign finally ended by reaching the absolute limits of their capability. The 2021 season will then be their march back to Persia to consolidate their gains. As students of history will know, that didn’t go particularly well for the Macedonian aristocrats. Will Jarome Luai catch typhoid and die after eating poultry and drinking wine? Will Nathan Cleary also die of typhoid? Will Matt Burton flee to Egypt to create his own kingdom, which I guess might be the Bulldogs? Who will play the roles of the other Diadochi? Ivan Cleary as Seleucus or Philip II? Who can say.

There are many questions, mostly revolving around the safety of western Sydney’s drinking water, but I think that the Panthers will regress hard. There are three reasons for this:

  1. Ivan Cleary can’t maintain the same standard
  2. The Panthers lost players
  3. Penrith got lucky

It’s a little baffling to watch Ivan Cleary, a man with a club coaching record of 170-168-4, suddenly turn into a superstar. A little too baffling for my taste. The 2020 Panthers outperformed their projections so thoroughly that it is literally unprecedented. Craig Bellamy was rated +7 in 2019, the previous best coach factor. Cleary was rated +12 in 2020. He was as good as Seibold was bad. That simply makes no sense.

It is incredibly rare to see everything go so right for a team and it is similarly impossible to imagine it happening again. While the Panthers might be one of the top rated teams by projected Taylors, if we wipe 10% off that to account for the rigors of reality hitting home, they come right back into the pack. Their Pythagorean expectation was outperformed by more than two wins in the regular season and Pythagoras will demand his tribute this year, perhaps with an equal overreaction in the other direction.

Compounding this, the squad that made it to Hyphasis has already started to drift apart. Matt Burton has one foot out the door. James Tamou, captain and commander, has gone to Leichhardt/Campbelltown/Tamworth. Zane Tetevano, who has rated few mentions in the aftermath of the campaign, is taking his .152 TPR (36th best in the league) to Leeds. A number of lesser lights, including Caleb Aekins, Josh Mansour, Kaide Ellis and another half dozen names, have departed Penrith. That kind of turnover is bad for cohesion at the best of times and worse to eliminate all of the depth that would help the Panthers ride out any potential crises this year.

A big deal was famously made of wanting to keep the squad together but when it came down to a choice between divying up the spoils of war and continuing the campaign together, the lads (justifiably) took the former. Good for them but Gedrosia lies ahead. The Macedonians survived the desert crossing but they weren’t expected to play finals footy after.

Assessment: 3rd group / Systemic ineptitude

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.

If your club finished twelfth, do you think you’d improve by lowering the quality of your roster? Probably not. If your team had a 7-13 record, do you think that hiring a mediocre coach that’s never gotten more than expected out of his players would help improve that record? Probably not. The Dragons’ best projected player is stat padder Corey Norman, and even so only the sixteenth best half in the NRL last year. The Dragons’ starting halfback finished seventh of all hookers. Matt Dufty had a good 2020 and he might not be able to repeat that and realistically, he’s the best player in their spine.

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.

Assessment: 1st group / Contenders

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.

Assessment: 1st group / Perennials

60-8. That was the end of the Roosters in 2020. In a year where the Broncos completely shit the bed, conceding 59 points to the reigning premiers and getting the wooden spoon, the same reigning premiers went one worse and gave up 60 to Souths.

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.

Assessment: 3rd group / Waiting

I often tip bad things for the Tigers but they always manage to avoid the absolute worst case scenario. Still, it’ll be a decade this year since they last made the finals, which I will remind you would be a 50-50 shot if it was awarded by random chance (and roughly a one-in-a-thousand chance of missing ten times consecutively).

Despite this, there’s nothing to really recommend the Tigers this year. They’re pinning their hopes on Luke Brooks, a player I have time for, especially based on his 2019 production, but who struggled last year and the club doesn’t seem to be particularly setting him up for glory in 2021. James Tamou is a good signing but Wests need so much more. Maguire might be the man to steer the ship in current circumstances and has a reasonable record of extracting the best out of what he’s been given.

There’s just so much nothing in the roster – all the serious talents have gravitated elsewhere, not least Harry Grant – that it’s difficult to see how the Tigers plan to break out of the rut. Perhaps Edene Gebbie or Joey Leilua will get his head in the game. Maybe Daine Laurie will deliver earlier. Maybe, perhaps and it’s all relying on potential, not proven performance. Fundamentally, they were a bottom half team last season, they’ve lost their best player and during the off-season, they haven’t improved as much as the teams around them or even some of the teams below them.

Irrespective of the results on the field this year, coming to the end of the run of big, dud contracts they signed will be a relief. Wests might be unearthing a core of young players to build around but the they have been here before and stuffed it up, so I won’t be hanging my hat on that. That narrative (the young core, not the stuffing it up) and the cap space could attract the kind of talent that gets Wests back in the running. I won’t believe until I see it.

Diving into State of Origin 2020

We’re unusually late in the year to be talking Origin but to understate it completely, 2020 has been an unusual year.

I’ve tried analysing Origin using my slate of analytical tools in previous years (2018 and 2019) with mixed success. Taking those lessons on board, I’ve reworked some of the tools and we’ll look at this year’s series through these lenses:

  • Elo ratings
  • Venue records
  • Taylors

If you just want to cut to the chase, my tips are the Blues for the men’s and Maroons for the women’s. Further, I expect that the ratings dip we saw through the finals will continue through the Origin series and we’ll be back to mid-week games by next winter. To keep broadcasters happy and make up for this year’s underperformance, any talk of standalone weekends will be quashed. It’ll be just like in the 80s, so that will keep the Daily Telegraph readers and ARLC chairman happy until they realise the futility of nostalgia, which will probably only happen on their deathbeds, if at all. It’s not like anyone wants to see New Zealand versus Tonga anyway.

Form guide

I always said it would be stupid to do an Elo rating system for a three game per year series with only two teams contesting it but here we are.

New South Wales’ current rating is 1516 and Queensland’s 1483. On neutral ground, as in Adelaide, the Blues have a 55% probability of winning (equivalent to a one point margin). In Sydney for game 2, the Blues’ chances improve to 64% (3 points) and in Brisbane for game 3, the Maroons’ would be 54% favourites (1 point). Obviously, this will change as the games are played and ratings updated.

For the nerds, this system is margin-based (like Form Elo, we set a line based on pregame ratings and after the game, ratings go up for the team that beats the line) but with a low K-value (50) to make the series relatively slow moving. To maximise tips would require setting K at 225, which turns the ratings into chaos. As is, Elo has tipped the correct winner 53% of the time in the Origin era, which rises to 60% if we crank the K value up to 225. You could just tip against the winner of the last game or flip a coin for a similar success rate. We’re being descriptive, rather than predictive.

Home ground advantage and margin prediction factor is based on the whole history of interstate games, which the home team (excluding games at neutral venues) won 59% of the time by an average of 4.5 points. I had intended to generate these values on a decade-by-decade basis but there are several points in history where the away team had the advantage, which ruins the whole system. I say keep it simple.

Home ground advantage

You could do pretty well tipping Origin by simply tipping the home team. That strategy would have returned a 58% success rate over the last ten series.

Suncorp has long been a fortress for Queensland. Since 2010, the home ground advantage has been worth over ten points to the Maroons. Equally, but with far fewer games, the neutral venues have been considerably more accommodating to the Blues. Go figure. The Blues have an advantage of less than two points at ANZ Stadium but as the memory of Queensland’s golden age fades from memory, I would expect it to return to its long term advantage of approximately four points.

The advantage should be with New South Wales for games 1 and 2 and with Queensland in game 3.

Historical Taylors

I want to preface this section by saying that this is not really what the Taylor system for player ratings was designed for and that rugby league isn’t a sport where you could plug and play players and get 2 + 2 = 4, especially when you take a surplus of fullbacks and drop them into other parts of the back line. I get it, I really do, but we have to use the tools we have at our disposal.

With that in mind, I went back a looked at how the lineups from 2014 onwards would have been rated by Taylors.

For these charts, I have calculated each player’s TPR to that point in the season that the game was played and estimated the number of Taylors (xTy) they would produce at their listed position. I have also included the actual Taylors (Ty) generated by the player during the game. If you’re not interested in the detail, here’s a table summarising these charts.

The most obvious issue is that this method almost always tips New South Wales. The last six series have been split 9-9, so this may not be a great means of guessing who will win. However, the average projected Taylors per game is 865 Taylors and the average actual Taylors produced is also 865. This shows there is at least some internal consistency but we may be suffering at the hands of rugby league chaos which does not allow for nice, neat mathematical projections.

In reality, what happens is that the best players are selected from their club teams and, as there is considerable overlap between talent and production, we end up with a lot of highly productive players in too small a space. The way rugby league is actually played means that only so much can be done in a game and some players will not be as productive as they would in a club situation. Similarly, many players will be out of position and adjusting on the fly, rather than playing at their best.

Having said that, Origin produced 116 Taylors more than the typical NRL game did over the same period (749 Taylors per game). Origin means more football.

Interestingly, the Maroons have typically outperformed their projection by 20 Taylors per game. Mal Meninga was able to coax an additional 39 Taylors per game over the projections in 2014 and 2015, while Kevin Walters has only managed 13 from 2016 to 2019. New South Wales underperformed by 59 Taylors during Laurie Daley’s reign (2014 to 2017) but have outperformed by an average of 54 Taylors under Brad Fittler’s tenure (2018 and 2019). Some of those differences will be squad composition, self-belief and motivation and some of it will be coaching, although I wouldn’t care to speculate on the precise mix.

This all provides context for when we look at this fairly damning chart for game 1 of this year’s series.

[Correction: The tip should have read “New South Wales by 66%” but didn’t due to a calculation error. Still a big gap though.]

Irrespective of the merits of the tips, we haven’t seen on paper advantage like this in recent times and you would very likely have to go back to 1995 to find a similar chasm between the two sides. Famously, Queensland won that series in a clean sweep, which just goes to show that anything is possible, especially if your opposition thinks they’ve already got it won.

The most productive game in NRL history by Taylors was Souths stomping on the Roosters at the end of the 2020 regular season, which generated 1042 Taylors. Only game 1 of 2019 in Origin has exceeded that with 1049 Taylors. We are projecting 1023 Taylors for game 1 of 2020, the highest aggregate projection. Even with Vlandoball, that doesn’t leave a lot of room to exceed expectations. If one were to clutch at straws, it would be that Queensland have a lot more room to outperform, even if this is the highest projected output of a Maroons side since game 3, 2014.

Queensland may well alter this line-up before game day. Personally, I would have preferred to see Harry Grant at hooker. His .174 TPR would have added an additional 13 Taylors and closed 14% of the gap between the two states. However, the Maroons appear to be in big trouble with the wingers and centres chosen. In a normal year, a functional Corey Oates would add another 6 Taylors over Xavier Coates but unfortunately, Corey is broken. Valentine Holmes’ addition on the other side would be a similar improvement. Nonetheless, these changes would close the gap a little but does not eliminate it.

For New South Wales, it’s hard to imagine a better squad. Brad Fittler will get a lot of credit for his coaching genius when, in reality, he has a sizeable talent advantage to work with. Clint Gutherson, one of the better fullbacks in the game, does not seem suited to his responsibilities at centre, which could be an avenue that Origin Gagai exploits. Some of the forward selections seem a bit doughy, especially Jake Trbojevic at lock after the season he has had, but their Queensland counterparts aren’t rated much better.

Tipping 2020

We’ve already established that the Taylors lean NSW and Elo, until recently, loved Queensland, so we’re really only left with home ground advantage to separate the teams. It’s hardly a good or useful or robust system but since someone will inevitably ask for it, here’s what an Origin jury would have tipped.

Despite this, I’m inclined to agree with the Jury’s recommendation of the Blues. In fact, I voted that the Blues would clean sweep the series in the end of season fan poll. It would take an exceptional turnaround, not beyond the realms of possibility but very close to a miracle, for it to be any other way. Truly, this would be a fitting end for 2020.

Women’s Game

At the risk of this being seen as a tack-on, the reality is that records of women’s interstate games is spotty and that 21 NRLW games over three years does not give us the kind of statistical sample size that suits the kind of analysis I want to do. We are, unfortunately, left with the eye test.

Idiots will tell you that women’s Origin should have been moved from North Sydney Oval to Bankwest for this year’s edition because, somehow in a series of only two teams, most commentators forgot about the second team. Fortunately, the NRL is not that silly and has forced the coward Blues to face a hostile crowd on the Sunshine Coast. That said, bigger idiots think the women’s game should be a curtain raiser to the men’s, ensuring the women never play in front of a decent crowd.

If Queensland win this, it would be their first official Origin win and first interstate win since 2014 (2015 was a draw, after winning fourteen in a row prior according to Wikipedia). The Maroons have closed the gap that existed in previous Origins. Ali Brigginshaw, rather than being slowed by age, has had her best season yet and with Tarryn Aitken serving in the halves and Tamika Upton at fullback, Queensland have a dynamic playmaking combination. Broncos trio Tallisha Harden, Annette Brander and shot putter Chelsea Lenarduzzi will run it up the middle to lay a platform. Letting go of the pre-NRLW stalwarts and focussing on the younger talent that has come through is going to help immensely. The key ingredients are there.

The Blues’ stars, particularly those at the Dragons, looked extremely lack lustre during the NRLW season. Maddie Studdon has been dropped, Sam Bremner has other commitments and Isabelle Kelly and Kezie Apps will carry injuries in to this game. As usual, keeping a lid on Jess Sergis will be key to getting the upper hand. Hannah Southwell and Millie Boyle are a strong pair to underpin the pack. Kylie Hilder didn’t play NRLW this year or last year and is 44 years old, so I’m not sure if her naming isn’t an error. In contrast, a stack of Roosters have been named and if they can retain their cohesion from the NRLW, they may well overcome any talent deficit.

If nothing else, the women’s game will be much closer than the men’s series and should be considerably more compelling. I’m tipping the Maroons.

Like the NRLW, women’s Origin is coming along in leaps and bounds. The end goal – however long it takes – will be to have a women’s competition and representative season that is equal to and independent of the men’s side of the game. That means not having women’s games as curtain raisers but as standalone events. It will take time for the audience to grow, and women’s standalone games will likely be at smaller venues in the immediate future, but the audience will come if the product remains entertaining and is given the nourishment it needs to grow.

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.

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