Tag Archives: super league

It’s not just the six again

The move to do away with the ‘unlimited’ tackle rule that had been played in Australia for 59 seasons was the brainchild of the urbane secretary of the Rugby Football League in England, Bill Fallowfield. The move was designed to counter what Jack McNamara in the Manchester Evening News described as the ‘evils of the almost never-ending possession’. In both countries, a grinding, physical style of play had developed, with teams holding possession for long periods. Australian centre Bob Hagan… told of a game in which Huddersfield kicked off against Hull Kingston Rovers, and then touched the ball only twice in the first half. Hagan reckons it was this game that killed off the old rule.

Centenary of Rugby League (2008), Ian Heads and David Middleton

In the late 1950s, rugby league faced a problem. It was boring. Teams could hold the ball indefinitely and, using the favoured tactic of one out hit-ups, could maintain possession provided they didn’t make an error or do something silly like scoring.

The problem identified, a radical solution was borrowed from American football to introduce a ‘use it or lose it’ ethos to the game. Initially limiting possession to four tackles, and extended to six in 1971 in New South Wales (and later elsewhere), the new rule was trialled in pre-season competitions to test its impacts. The new rule had its detractors and the style of football it spawned was chaotic – dubbed “panic football” – but better than it had been. It forced teams to attack. Four tackles didn’t seem to provide enough time, so six tackles became the solution. The game was better for it.

The NRL website has every Sydney grand final from 1966 onwards and if you watch them like I have, you can see the evolution from unlimited possession to four tackle and then six tackles in the space of a few hours.

The key thing here is the process. A problem is identified. A solution is proposed. The solution is tested and evaluated outside of the main premiership. If successful at resolving the initial problem, the solution is implemented. The solution is adjusted as required in response to feedback

This is the basic framework of common sense decision making. Further, it is evidence that the sport of rugby league collectively and consciously decided it was not a game that valued possession of a football but one that valued attacking play and, as perhaps an unintended consequence, became a game of field position

Rugby league has a history of making these rule changes – introducing the play the ball and reducing from 15 to 13 a side in 1906, reducing the points value of goals in 1897 and increasing the points value of tries in 1983, introducing and then gradually increasing the offside rule over the years – to support the scoring of tries, considered the most interesting part of the game.

As it currently stands, the set restart will not be joining that pantheon of innovative rule changes.

The governing bodies for Queensland, NSW, French, PNG and British rugby leagues, as well as the international board, have all joined the Australian body in adopting the set restart. The rule sets still aren’t completely harmonised – the two point field goal remains an Australian-only feautre as far as I can tell, scrums are used at fewer points (or not at all) to restart play in England and the rules are different again for the women’s game for some reason – but largely everyone is now on the same page after Peter V’Landys, Project Apollo and the ARLC unilaterally changed the sport of rugby league during the 2020 covid off-season.

As more time passes, and the NRL bogs down into a mire of repeated blowout scorelines, it becomes clear what the sport has decided to sign itself up for. In a sense, it continues the tradition of attacking play but it appears to be decidedly one way. Concerningly, even as fewer six agains are called, the blowouts remain.

Worse still, the sport seems to have regressed more than half a century to being a matter of possession. Phil Lutton put together a fantastic piece in the SMH on the rule changes that, somewhat novelly, involved speaking to the actual players to see what they thought was happening, instead of merely regurgitating talking points from the administration. I believe this is called journalism.

The truly fascinating thing about is that these well-paid professional athletes cannot explain precisely what’s happening. This is not a reflection on them but rather reflects the complexity of the problem the NRL faces.

We can see the obvious. There are a lot of games decided in 2020 and moreso in 2021 by larger scorelines than we are used to. We can watch the games and see that if one team has a noticeable advantage after ten, fifteen, twenty minutes, then it won’t be long before they race out to a twenty point lead and it’s game by half time. The second forty minutes is effectively irrelevant. I’ve written about the subltety of the impact on the game before but do you really need any more evidence than this?

Previously, I compared the impacts of the rule changes to that of climate change. It’s small, it’s consistent and there are other things hapenning but it’s there. Some people’s complete inability to parse this reality – that several things can happen simultaneously to affect an outcome – leaves me baffled on a regular basis, however, if a substantial population seem to have an unbending love of simple, monocausal explanations for the complexities of the world, that does seem to explain much of history.

Not every game is a blowout, just as each day is not necessarily hotter than the last, but the data paints a picture of the overall situation that is as alarming as it is obvious. To repeat bullshit talking points about development, pathways, roster management and whatever else is insulting to the collective intelligence of the NRL fanbase. If anything, the complete absence of any thorough explanation of how the sport’s mechanics actually work on the field belies the idea that rugby league is a simple game for simple people (a subscription to Rugby League Writers will dispell that notion for you) and yet simple people insist on talking as if it were so.

Confounding this further is the abject refusal of the same blowouts afflicting the NRL to turn up in Super League, which adopted the six again after their own covid break in 2020, or either State Cup, which implemented the six again at the start of this season.

To unpack this, we’re going to have to go back to first principles.

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I wrote about how this all came about in June of 2020 and managed to reasonably well predict most of what’s happened since. I was wrong about the impact on margins (that only became clear later) but otherwise, the cliff notes follow.

The suspension of the 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic put the NRL in breach of contract with its free-to-air broadcast partner, Nine. Nine, a relic in a dying industry, felt that it had overpaid for the rights to the NRL and Origin and used this opportunity to make the NRL take a significant cut to its broadcast revenue while forcing the NRL to bring in changes that would make the game more entertaining, thereby increasing Nine’s ratings. Australian netball did somethinig similar at the behest of Nine.

The NRL introduced packages of rule changes between the 2019 and 2020 seasons, between the first two rounds and remainder of the 2020 season and then another between the 2020 and 2021 seasons. These changes tend to all be lumped together and include the captain’s challenge, reducing from two to one referee, the set restart for ruck infringements and later offside, a reduction in scrums but greater flexibility in how they are used, the 20/40 and the two point field goal for attempts beyond the 40m line.

The changes made under the V’Landys regime, most of the above, were sold on the basis that it would improve the pace of the game, the flow of the game, bring back fatigue to the game, which would allow the little man to flourish. All of this was deemed to be more entertaining, taking us back to a time of purer, less robotic football.

When the changes were first premiered, on 28 May as Parramatta defeated Brisbane 34-6, it was clear that panic football had returned after lying dormant for half a century. As the weeks progressed, it was not at all clear to me that the product was better but there was definitely more of it and I was told by the media, breathlessly and relentlessly, that it was better.

Ratings for the first two weeks of the resumed competition were record breaking. The dogshit defence of the Broncos was seen by more than 1.3 million people. But after a few weeks, ratings fell back into their usual rhythm and while the season seemed to finish with improved overall ratings, it was on fewer games and the big four matches of the grand final and State of Origin were well down on previous years.

This season, we’ve seen Origin bounce back a little, leading to suggestions that its ratings are up, which is true as long as you don’t look at what the ratings were five years ago. For the regular season, ratings seem to be down but not significantly enough that you wouldn’t be able to point to streaming and make up some stuff about historically bad teams to explain it. If the on-field product is leading to people turning off their TVs, it hasn’t been significant enough that the NRL won’t be able to duck and weave taking any responsibility for what’s happening.

All of this leads us to the inevitable question: what was the point?

I understand that one must occassionally suffer in the short term, in order to gain in the long term. The penalty crackdown in 2018 was a perfect example. In principle, we simply had to ensure a few months of penalty-ridden games to ensure that players and coaches understood that the “wrestle” would not be tolerated and the game would then speed up. Players and coaches knew that the administration did not have the stomach for it, nor for the fight in the media, and would buckle eventually. Sure enough, the administration did and we watched a lot of penalties get awarded for nothing.

This is the opposite. If there isn’t a clear goal to be achieved, as I suspect the current administration does not know what they’re doing or why they’re doing it, then why do we need to suffer? None of the rules supporters seem to be able to answer that question, preferring to deflect onto a Victorian bootstraps philosophy that every team simply must do better.

Ratings are, at best, flat and, at worst, down. That rather suggests that the rules haven’t had their intended impact. If the rules don’t serve their ostensible purpose – to entertain and to increase the audience – then there shouldn’t be anything that stops the NRL from rolling them back. There seems little point in “tweaking” the rule changes to mitigate the worst outcomes because the game is less entertaining and no more popular than it was previously.

As it stands, we have had to sit through a lot of terrible football for no gain.

The problem is how to unravel what’s been done. I don’t think it is as simple as getting rid of the set restart.

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I’ve got to say, even with the blow-outs the games are entertaining.

Before they were robotic, they were predictable. Now, they’re entertaining. Even the blowouts over the weekend were entertaining. For the viewer.

Peter V’Landys, 17 May 2021 (Poor roster management, not faster game, to blame for growing number of blowouts: V’landys, WWOS)

Teams that have adapted well to the new game don’t seem to mind where they start their sets. Using fast play-the-balls, a reliance on metre-eating backs gaining ground early in the set and a narrow passing game to add just enough variation to keep the defence guessing, they are able to keep their attacking line moving fast enough to regularly cover the best part of a length of the field in a set. The threat of the six again is enough to keep poorly organised defensive lines scrambling, unwilling to risk sitting in the ruck too long and extending the time that they have to defend. Ironically, this plays exactly into the better teams’ hands

Should the weaker team survive the set and regain possession, the well adapted teams are flying off the line and pinning down their opponents. This increases pressure on the team with the ball, forcing them to accept a paltry gain on their set or forcing them into an error, either from an ill-advised pass or from the sheer impact of defensive line.

Now the better team has field position and the ball. From there, any team with a competent halfback should be able to string together two or three repeat sets. Failing that, they can rely on their defensive linespeed to crush the opposition until they have had enough attacking opportunities to put points on the board. Then they get the ball back from kick-off.

And that’s it. Fifteen minutes of this and most teams crack – good and bad. Players do not have the aerobic engines to compete at that intensity for long and the poorer teams do not have the defensive structures to resist. Once the players are gassed, it’s trivial for the team with the upper hand to start running through and over teams no longer able to organise themselves or make tackles. Once they’re up by twenty, it’s game over but unfortunately, there’s often up to an hour still to go.

It gets worse later in the game when the fatigue causes handling errors, turning the ball back over and resulting in more energy-sapping defence, leading to a negative feedback loop whose destination is a blown out scoreline. On the rare occassions where the losing team manages to string a set or two together, they are too fatigued to run with any intensity. It becomes laughably easy to defend their insipid attacks. In desperation and running on empty, their fifth tackle options fall apart as players de-sychronise their timing, lose cohesion and begin to rely on individuals going it alone.

In short, once you are on the backfoot, you start to play a lot like the 2020 Brisbane Broncos. More often than not, you lose like them too.

What you may notice is that nowhere in that platonic ideal of the NRL in 2021 was the team with the upper hand awarded a set restart. Indeed, it was at most the threat of a set restart that got defensive teams scrambling. This, I think, explains why Penrith can have a positive set restart difference and Melbourne can have a negative difference and both can completely dominate the competition.

You might then be wondering what the difference is between 2019 and 2021. Isn’t this just a description of good rugby league gameplay? The answer is yes but also no. The differences are subtle and mostly rooted in the rule changes that have been brought in.

Relieving penalties are a thing of the past, replaced by the set restart. Bad teams relied on these penalties being awarded, sometimes seemingly at random, as a means to get a lift down the field, an opportunity take a breath and reset their organisation or to score an easy two points with another possession to follow.

This shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. It’s how the game has been played for more than a hundred years. Importantly, it interrupts the otherwise continuous possession of the better team and offers a foothold for the weaker team to work their way back into the game. Otherwise, the better team knows it has the ability to move the ball as required to score points, they simply need to hold the ball until the lesser team cracks. As Phil Lutton put it:

This style of play, with its heavy emphasis on holding possession in lieu of gaining field position, wasn’t possible previously because the conditions that allow it to exist weren’t in place.

The reduction from two on-field referees to one has had huge and completely unexplored implications. Most of the discourse at the time of the change was about working rights. The ARLC gave some token concessions and since then, the referees have shut up and gotten on with it. The problem is that between halving the number of referees and the increased pace of play, the referees are now worse at their jobs.

This is the genesis of the debacle of the high shot crackdown. High shots that were obvious enough on TV were being missed on field because the referees, like the players, were gassed and looking for too many things. That crackdown, like all of its previous editions, was quietly shelved when it turned out it was poorly thought through and ruining the spectacle of the game even moreso than the blowouts. The solution seems to have been more Bunker involvement, which I’m fairly certain was decried by segments of the media a few years ago but goes unremarked in V’Landys’ NRL. If they haven’t already, the referees are going to reach overload.

Under a two referee system, one referee set the line and the other policed the ruck. Under a one referee system, one referee does both jobs but neither of them well. The better teams are able to get off the mark a few tenths of a second earlier because the referee’s attention is elsewhere and that’s enough to get to the opposition slightly sooner and hit slightly harder. The cumulative effect starts to hurt after a while.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ball, teams like the Panthers can simply lie in the ruck, either waiting for a signal from the referee or their teammates to get up. If the wrestle has been eliminated, it’s been replaced with an even more blatant ruck infringement, largely daring the referees to blow a penalty that will never come. Instead, a lesser punishment in the form of a set restart may come, and the Panthers will simply shrug their shoulders and set their line, confident in the knowledge that their defence can withstand the insipid, exhausted attack of their opposition.

Considering all of this, I believe any attempts to tweak the rules, to apply another band-aid, are misguided. The suggestions to date will not disrupt this paradigm. One common one is to re-adopt the Super League rule and let the scoring team kick off. This would prevent the scoring team from regaining possession immediately after scoring but merely delays the inevitable. If the better teams can move the ball 70 metres downfield in a set, more if they get a set restart, and can manipulate the other team to dominate possession for an extended period, then we are back to square one.

Giving penalties in your own half and giving set restarts while in the attacking half doesn’t help either. Penalty goals are a key means for lesser teams with weak attacks to keep within touching distance of their opposition. By effectively eliminating the penalty goal from the game, you force weaker teams to attack the line. Penrith, who currently have the best defensive record of any Australian club of the last twenty years, would simply laugh.

In a season with a record number of shutouts, this isn’t going to redress the balance. Weaker teams need tools to keep their opposition within reach and to be able to work themselves back into the game, as they did 1895 through 2019. Without that, the blowouts will continue.

While we’ve examined one factor in detail but there are many at play and it would take a thesis to unpack everything. Some of the teams currently playing are simply bad at football and could probably stand to improve. But the teams on the wrong end of pastings have included the pre-season favourites and the club that won two premierships in 2018 and 2019. At the other end of the ladder, the Bulldogs have already won more games than the 2016 Knights and aren’t conceding anywhere near as many points as the 1999 Magpies. There’s always been bad teams but there’s never been scorelines like this. Not against good and bad teams. Not in a wet La Niña year. Not in a salary capped, full-time professional league. Not when it’s been fourteen years since the last expansion team entered the competition.

However, like breaking the four minute mile, the ceiling of what’s possible in rugby league has been raised and, even if the old rule set was reinstated, elements of the new style of play would remain. Unless the game is slowed down, it may well remain a game of possession. While I’m normally in favour of pushing the barriers of what’s humanly possible, we can only speculate as to where this might lead the sport over the coming years.

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So why don’t we see these blowouts in other leagues?

Despite the margin heading higher but not exceeding previous year, there’s signs in the English game. The closest game in round 12 was a forfeit. Round 8 had the fourth highest margin in Super League history. St Helens are currently conceding points at just 7.6 points per game, better even than Penrith and the best in Europe since Wigan in the 1986-87 season. The league leading attack of Warrington is less impressive, merely being the best since the 2017 Tigers. Salford’s attack has only been good for 11.5 points per game, the least since 2-23 Swinton in 1991-92. Leigh’s 0-12 record speaks for itself and their 39.1 points conceded per game is the seventh worst in the entire history of English rugby league dating back to 1895, sitting behind six Super League teams who managed to combine for 15 wins and 2 draws from 155 matches.

In Queensland Cup, Wynnum’s 34.0 points scored per game and 18.2 points conceded per game are only 16th and 52nd best marks in that competition. The Capras’ 16.1 points scored per game and the Cutters’ 33.6 points conceded per game are 26th and 27th worst, respectively. In all, it seems rather balanced. Despite this, the two leading teams each have more competition points than the bottom five combined, which includes three unaffiliated clubs.

It may just be that not enough set restarts have been called for it to be a sufficiently significant threat to fluster teams even in the absence of the six again call.

But we see a similar decline in penalties awarded.

Albeit, in percentage terms, it’s less significant in state cups than the NRL. Comparing the average penalties across 2016 to 2019 to the number called in 2021, 52% of penalties have been eliminated in NRL, compared to only 33% in Queensland Cup and 44% in NSW Cup.

It may be that in these leagues, the players aren’t athletic or skilled or coached well enough to implement the strategies used by Melbourne and Penrith in the NRL. Most of the NRL – and the Queensland Maroons, for that matter – haven’t come to grips with it yet, so it’s questionable whether we would have expected reserve graders to have mastered the new game. It may be that the spread of talent across the leagues is greater than the NRL and the effects are concealed within the typically higher scoring. It could be that Super League never adopted the second referee and state cup did so only sporadically and so the “change” back to one ref has had comparatively less impact on those competitions.

It may, as in the NRL and Super League in 2020, take time for the changes to fully percolate through. It will be worth watching other leagues to see how they adapt to the play on a year’s delay. More data should help isolate what’s happening and prove or disprove any hypotheses.

It is, as I said, complicated.

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Rugby league is an entirely artificial space. There is no natural order. We can decide what we want to see and there is no reason why would should have implemented these rules. They do not serve their intended purpose and the second order impacts, unknown at the time of implementation due to a lack of trialling, have made the NRL demonstrably worse.

Any defence of the rule changes starts with the presumption that they need to remain and only require modification but this flies in the face of the common sense decision making framework used previous administrators to improve the game. We must ask ourselves what purpose the changes were meant to serve, if that’s been accomplished and if not and what reasoning there is to continue with it. If the goal was to punish teams for losing, then it’s mission accomplished but if the goal was to entertain, it’s been sadly lacking.

The concern is that in a World Cup year, assuming it goes ahead at all, will see minnows will face off against Australian and New Zealander sides principally comprising players from Penrith and Melbourne. If full time professionals get blown off the park by these players, what hope is there for nations whose teams are made up of part timers and amateurs? It could get ugly and it will be embarrassing and it will reflect the shortage of common sense decision making at all levels of rugby league adminstration.

But until someone smarter than me works out what’s really going on, the best we can hope is the World Cup is refereed as the lower tiers of the sport are and hope that the next round of band-aid solutions, rumoured to already be in the works, somehow fixes the problem by accident.

2021 Super League WIP Report

We’re about a third of the way through the Super League season (maybe? Depending on covid and weather, I suppose) and it’s time to review how each team and player are performing. We’ll be looking at this using the following analytical tools:

  • FormElo ratings that reflect short term performance.
  • Production – The accumulation of valuable work on field, as measured by statistics that correlate with winning. Production is measured in Rismans.
  • Disappointment Line – The minimum number of wins for the season to not be considered disappointing by fans, as calculated by the pre-season class (long term performance) Elo rating.
  • 1st order winsPythagorean expectation calculated by points for and against.
  • 2nd order wins – Pythagorean expectation calculated by SCWP.

There’s more detail at How It All Works.

I won’t be providing much analysis for individual teams or players, instead preferring to let you do the work for your favourite team or player with the context about how the tools work provided.

WIP graphs

Comparing win percentage of the Disappointment Line, actual wins (0th), Pythagorean wins (1st) and 2nd order wins.

Note that the zero to one scale for winning percentage can make significant differences look minor; a .100 change in winning percentage is worth up to 2.5 wins at season’s end.

Some of the games have no or incomplete stats, so the second order stats might not move in line with the first order or winning percentage. Some teams haven’t played all of their games between round 1 and 11, in which case the lines do not change through this round. Statistics do not include Castleford’s forefit to St Helens.

Significant divergences between actual and Pythagorean wins are usually indicative of mean regression in future. That is, teams underperforming will improve their actual win percentage and vice versa so that the two numbers tend to converge. However, there’s always one or two that manage to avoid this convergence. We call them lucky/unlucky, depending on the direction that they miss and the ladder is currently a mess.

The outlook for each team:

  • Actual wins understating year to date performance / potentially tending better – St Helens, Leeds, Huddersfield, Leigh
  • Actual wins overstating year to date performance / potentially tending worse – Catalans, Wigan
  • Actual wins reflective of year to date performance – Warrington, Hull FC, Hull KR, Castleford, Wakefield Trinity, Salford

For teams with less than .500 percentage, 2nd order wins is always better than actual wins and vice versa. The trick here is to not focus on this specific value per se but to look at it as a prediction for next year’s performance. The next season’s performance for most teams will fall within one standard deviation (plus/minus .130) of their 2nd order win percentage for this season.

Form

Form Elo ratings at the end of 2020 and the end of round 11

1st Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of actual points for and against

2nd Order Wins

Winning percentage estimated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP for and against

Player Leaderboards

Rismans

Rismans are the unit of measure for the amount of valuable work done (production), equivalent to Taylors in Australia. Due to the state of the dataset, not all games and appearances will have been captured.

The career leader (2017 – now) for total Rismans is Jermaine McGillvary with 4402. The single season record holder is Jackson Hastings in 2019 with 1768. 2020 was topped by Bevan French with 1114.

Rismans per game

As above but averaged per game (minimum 5 games)

The career leader (2017 – now) for Rismans per game is Peta Hiku with 74.1 (minimum 10 games). The single season record holder is (minimum 5 games) Craig Hall in 2018 with 76.7. 2020 was topped by Ash Handley with 68.0.

Primer – SCWP

People familiar with my philosophy will know that I put less stock in wins than most people. The binary nature – you either take everything or get nothing – means that a simple win-loss record is not a particularly nuanced and, unless you have a very long timeframe to work with, doesn’t necessarily reflect teams’ actual talent over shorter timeframes. Points difference and by extension, Pythagorean expectation, does a better job of reflecting true team ability but even that can be affected by luck or odd results. Does a 50-0 scoreline really tell you any more than a 30-0 scoreline about the relative disparity in talent? If a team scores more tries but loses the game, what does that tell you?

Baseball and college football analysts have developed a metric called “second order wins“. The actual win-loss record are considered to be zeroth order wins (nomenclature that I use and probably no one else). Pythagorean wins, the number of wins expected based on the team’s Pythagorean expectation, are considered first order wins. Second order wins calculates a Pythagorean expectation, not based on actual points scored, but utilising advanced stats to calculate expected points. The idea is that these expected points are more repeatable, and less subject to good/bad luck, and provide a less wrong basis for estiamting teams’ true talent and forecasting teams’ performances on that basis.

For use in rugby league, I propose the following hierarchy:

  • 0th order wins – actual wins
  • 1st order wins – wins as calculated by Pythagorean expectation of points for and against
  • 2nd order wins – wins as calculated by Pythagorean expectation of SCWP (Should-a Could-a Would-a Points) for and against

Note that third order wins are second order wins adjusted for strength of schedule. I’m not really concerned with this right now, given that everyone in the NRL plays each other once and then mostly twice so it is of marginal value.

SCWP is not what I would call an advanced statistic because there’s only so much I can do with the data I have. I have taken two metrics for rugby league – metres gained, representing field position, and line breaks, representing playmaking – as our key statistics on which to estimate expected points. I briefly toyed with including tackle busts but it did not improve performance and I suspect we would get a similar result with other stats.

In a similar process to building up the Taylors system, I took every NRL game (2013 – 2021 rd10), QCup (2016 – 2021 rd 7), NSW Cup (2016 – 2021 rd 10) and Super League (2017 – 2021 rd 5) and calculated the running metres and line breaks for each team in each game. I put these games into buckets and then calculated the average score for the bucket with a minimum of five games. The net result is a near 1:1 relationship between metres/line breaks and points scored.

The trendline for these graphs allows us to calculate the Should-a Could-a Would-a Points (i.e. the expected points) that we would expect the team to have scored given the metres and breaks made. We take the (basically) average of the points expected by metres and the points expected by breaks, resulting in the SCWP for the game.

The question then might be, why? The 2nd order winning percentage, based on SCWP, has a lower mean absolute error (MAE) when compared to next year’s actual winning percentage than 0th or 1st order winning percentage. Over the 2013 to 2020 NRL, 2016 to 2019 state cup and 2017 to 2020 Super League seasons (n = 221), we find:

  • 0th order winning percentage has a MAE of .149 when compared to next season’s winning percentage (equivalent to 3.6 wins over a 24 game schedule)
  • 1st order winning percentage has a MAE of .132 (3.2 wins)
  • 2nd order winning percentage has a MAE of .122 (2.9 wins)

Each iteration lowers the error by 10% when forecasting. There’s an additional layer of linear regression that could be applied over the top and this might replace the now defunct Poisedon ratings in pre-season sims.

The decreasing error is partly due to an in-built regression to mean, as SCWP typically has a lower margin than actual points which reflects the fact that teams always put in some effort, even when they get shutout on the scoreboard, and partly because SCWP reflects repeatable statistics, whereas the scoring of actual points can be somewhat prone to randomness (“we would’ve won that if he hadn’t dropped the ball three times/missed those conversions”, hence the name).

The current state of SCWP in the NRL (round 11), compared to actual for-against:

For Super League (round 6):

For Queensland Cup (first part of round 8):

For NSW Cup (round 11):

There’s an additional layer of efficiency to consider. I don’t know if the ratio between actual points scored and SCWP will prove meaningful but if a team is consistently outscoring what we would expect considering the fundamentals, that might either give us a clue about their style of play or it might signal regression to mean. This is something to keep an eye on.

There’s every chance that a SCWP v2 might come forward in the future, based on actual advanced statistics. I of course reserve the right to tinker with my own systems but I’ll let you know when I do.

Primer – WCL

WCL is a means of estimating the probability of a team winning a rugby league match at a given point in the game.

The WCL system finds all instances of a given margin at a given point in the game in that league and calculates how often a team in that position won the game. For example, if 60% of teams who had a 6 point lead after 24 minutes, then we take that to mean that a team who has a 6 point lead after 24 minutes has a 60% chance of winning the game. From this we can build up in-game win probability charts, not unlike those you might have seen on Five Thirty Eight or similar.

It’s that simple. I have used some averaging to smooth out rough edges in the dataset (especially for odd-numbered margins) and where there are too few games in the sample that the model’s results do not make sense, I have edited some of these manually. For example, a one point lead from half time through 60 minutes into the game should not have a less than 50% win probability for the leading team but it apparently does in the NRL.

Note that 100% is only achieved at full time; the remainder of the game is never more than 99.9%. Even though this is not visible, it reflects the reality that our dataset does not cover all available possibilities.

While I could build a more sophisticated model that includes all sorts of other elements, I wanted a basic means to gauge the in-game win probability based on the scoreboard. I do not care what the pre-game odds are and I do not care about the “momentum” or other states of the game. The model is blind to the teams playing and is entirely dependent on the margin and time on clock.

WCL has no overall predictive power but it can graphically summarise a game quite well with a layer of information that simply plotting the margin does not. The sum of team’s win probability percentages at each minute of the game gives a WCL score, which is indicative of how dominant the team has been. A tight game will have each team’s score close to zero, while a perfectly dominant game will have the winning team’s score close to 50 and the loser’s close to -50.

There are separate WCL datasets for NRL, NSW Cup and Qld Cup, based on all matches from 2016 to date. There’s also a generalised men’s WCL set, which is the combination of all three that should be suitable for representative games that would otherwise have too small a sample size to work with or Super League should the need arise. I have been collecting NRLW and QRLW event data as well but there are too few games to form a proper dataset.

WCL stands for Worm Chess Lathe. Worm because the graphs resemble the worm from Australian TV political debates, which are meant to reflect audience responses live in real time. Chess and Lathe because the graphs sometimes resemble a chess piece in profile (bishops and queens, generally), as if it had been created with a wood lathe. The system needed a name and WCL is as good as any.

Generally speaking, this is for novelty purposes but it can also help us answer questions like the following –

Was Magic Round ruined by bins and send offs?

While we all enjoy the chaos of bins and send offs during live football, the fun does wear off somewhat after eight in two games, so yes. But were the game outcomes materially changed by the bins and send offs?

Ah! Well, nevertheless…

Some selected games of interest

Panthers vs Raiders, round 14, 2017

Raiders vs Warriors, round 3, 2018

Storm vs Panthers, grand final, 2020

Broncos vs Titans, round 8, 2021

Primer – Rismans

A big thank you to Lorna Brown (@_Lorna_Brown) who provided me with the dataset and whose ongoing updates to the same mean that we should be able to do some form of Super League player analysis. She has – presumably through some sort of black magic and/or competence with programming – managed to scrape a far more complete dataset out of the SL website than I managed to in previous attempts.

In short, a Risman is an English Super League equivalent to a Taylor. That is, it is a unit of measurement of rugby league production. Production is the accumulation of valuable work done on field as measured by traditional statistics.

The Risman, as a unit of production, is named for Gus Risman. He is a player whose name has largely stuck in my head due to Tony Collins’ podcast, Rugby Reloaded, wherein Collins makes the case that Risman is one of the all time great footballers of any code.

Gus Risman was one of the greatest of Cardiff’s rugby codebreakers. The son of immigrants who grew up in Tiger Bay, he played top-class rugby league for more than a quarter of a century, was a Championship and Challenge Cup winner with two clubs, and captained the 1946 Lions. Not only that, but he also captained the Wales in war-time rugby union internationals while a rugby league player.

Rugby Reloaded #138

As with Dave Taylor, the unit of production is named for a player who can do it all.

The Risman is derived by running linear regressions to confirm which statistics from the Super League dataset correlate with winning percentage. The stats get distributed in to buckets and we review the success of teams achieving those statistics (minimum ten games in the bucket). The result is that tries, try assists, missed tackles, tackle busts, metres, clean breaks and errors (negative) have significant correlations with winning. This is considerably less than the NRL dataset offers, which is why I’ve opted to give these production units a different name; Rismans don’t quite measure the same stuff as Taylors.

We multiply the stat by the slope of the trendline calculated in the regression and a weighting proportional to its correlation to winning (higher the correlation, the higher the weighting) and then by 1000.

Through this product of slope and weighting, we develop a series of equivalences between stats and can compare this across leagues. The following shows the quantity of each stat a player needs to accumulate to be equal to the same production as scoring one try for the 2021 season. The NRL’s values are calculated on the dataset of the five previous seasons, while the others are based on the three previous seasons (State Cups just roll over what the weightings should have been for 2020 to 2021, given they didn’t play last year).

For the record, a try is worth 8.7 Taylors in the NRL, 8.4 Ty in QCup, 7.5 Ty in NSW Cup but a whopping 17.3 Rismans in Super League. This, of course, doesn’t mean anything as Taylors and Rismans have no real world value.

Due to the limitations of the dataset, we can only calculate raw production. Without positional information or time on field, it is not possible to calculate more exotic ratings like an English TPR equivalent, Wins Above Reserve Grade or undertake pre-season projections.

Raw production is still somewhat useful and if nothing else, I think it will likely come in handy for assessing squad strength at the next World Cup. Teams with superior production, as calculated post-game, win 90% of their games.

The average player generates approximately 20 Rismans per game and for players with fewer than ten games, this figure is used until a reasonable sample size can be drawn upon for that player. Based on the actual 17 fielded, teams with the superior expected Rismans, as estimated pre-game by the sum of each player’s prior career average Rismans per game, has a 63.8% successful tipping rate (n=131). This is comparable to using Taylors in the NRL. Using the same formula for the NRL and the above, we can estimate a pre-game winning probability for a given line-up (re-deriving this formula based on the small SL sample meant that the team with more expected Rismans had a lower winning probability when teams were closely matched, which doesn’t make sense).

I posted a leaderboard of players by total Rismans up to round 5 of the Super League. As a not particularly close observer of that part of the game – I still perhaps have a better idea of what’s going in England than in NSW Cup – most of the top twenty at least rang bells as players I’d heard of.

I would have included an update for round 6 but the Super League website does not have any stats listed for the Leeds-Wakefield game, except for who scored the tries. So we must bear in mind that the dataset has some fairly significant limitations, not just in scope, but in completeness. For example, some of the Qualifiers games have been included but a lot, particularly those involving Championship teams, were not. Stats avilability for finals games seems to be hit and miss.

There’s also probably something to be said for different positions accumulating different typical quantities of production but without an independent arbiter of who plays what position, I’m choosing to be blind to this because I refuse to do this manually.

Nonetheless, here’s the all-time (2017 to 2021 round 6) Risman leaderboard.

As a couple of reference points, George Williams’ 43.1 Rs/gm has translated into a TPR of .119 at NRL level. This should be exciting for Tigers fans, as Oliver Gildart will presumably perform at a similar level when he joins Wests next year based on his 43.3 Rs/gm. Undermining that somewhat is Jackson Hastings’ 56.4 Rs/gm, the second highest of any player with at least 50 games, behind Greg Eden, compared to his career .052 TPR in the NRL and .080 TPR in NSW Cup. Hastings is also en route to the Tigers in 2022. Whether a real correspondence between different leagues’ ratings can be derived will probably depend on sourcing more information to bolster the dataset but it should be interesting to see how those signings pan out in the meantime.

A Shallow Dive into the minor rugby leagues in 2021

Regular readers will know that I like to keep up with all the developments in world football, not just the top level. Because so many second and third class comps were cancelled last year, we aren’t able to do a serious season preview for each one in 2021 (if I even had the time). Many of the players have been on the sidelines for simply too long and, where we have data, it is too old to be of real use.

Nonetheless, there were still movements in the off-season that are worth keeping an eye on and if you missed The Year in Rugby League Football, we’ll cover some old ground to provide context for the season ahead.

Queensland Cup / Intrust Super Cup

If this is your first foray to the QCup, welcome. This is, without hyperbole, the world’s greatest rugby football league (Digicel Cup runs a close second). One game on Sunday will be available for streaming through the QRL website, as well as a few other outlets, with a Saturday game on Kayo Freebies. While its frustrating to lose the free-to-air slot that’s been made available the last few years (which presumably happened because Phil Gould tells Peter V’Landys what to do and Gould couldn’t find Queensland on a map, much less acknowledge the value that the Queensland Cup does and could have), this theoretically makes the competition much more accessible. At some point, we hope the QRL can go its own way with its own broadcast rights and reduce its dependence on the clueless Sydney-based parasites.

The biggest change for this season is Redcliffe’s switch from being the Broncos’ primary feeder to the Warriors’, which I wrote about last year. As usual, unless a transcedent talent emerges (e.g. Harry Grant in 2019, Cameron Munster and Jason Taumalolo in 2013, etc), the main front runners will be the clubs that get the best players from their NRL affiliates. Typically this will be Redcliffe (Warriors), Wynnum-Manly (Broncos, maybe Souths Logan or Norths), Townsville (Cowboys, although their assignments are relatively balanced), two-year defending champions Burleigh (Titans) and either Sunshine Coast or Easts (Storm).

My money is on the latter, given most of the first-rate Storm talents have been assigned to the Falcons but won’t generally be available. Easts Tigers have also rebranded as the Brisbane Tigers and signed former Souths Logan coach, Jon Buchanan, to replace Terry Matterson, who has taken up a role at the Broncos. They also pinched Darren Nicholson from the Magpies and have snaffled up Mitch Frei and former Jet Michael Purcell. I’d say they are having a serious tilt at ending their premiership drought which extends back to 1991 (post-Broncos BRL), 1989 (post-Broncos Winfield State League), 1983 (pre-Broncos BRL but season split with the Winfield State League) and/or 1978 (legit BRL title), depending on your perspective. Either way, like Parramatta, they’ve never won a title that matters despite five QCup grand final appearances since 1996.

Souths have signed up Steven Bretherton to coach for 2021 and 2022 and Karmichael Hunt and Kevin Locke will be appearing for the black-and-whites (and-blue-and-golds) with Tom Dearden if the Broncos decide they don’t want him for some insane reason.

Even after watching the Digicel Cup highlights from last year, it’s difficult to say whether the Hunters will materially improve on 2019’s wooden spoon as part of their post-2017 rebuild, citing a mix of new and old players, including the immortal Ase Boas and the temporary services of Watson Boas, who is unable to rejoin Doncaster. I fully expect the Capras, who currently do not have a coach, to be bringing up the rear as usual. Norths have signed Danny Levi, the perfect replacement level NRL player.

For 2020, I did do a deep dive season preview which was made redundant within about two weeks thanks to this thing you might have heard of called the Novel Coronavirus. A year on, with no play in between, a lot of the information I have from the 2019 season is redundant now. On top of that, the rule changes brought in last year have only just filtered through to State Cup (no word on whether 2021 rules will also be adopted this year). The reality is that we will not know how clubs and players have come through until we have some games in the books.

QRLW / BHP Premiership

We didn’t get much of a chance to get to know the new QRLW competition, suspended after one round in 2020. The BHP Premiership will kick off on April 10 2021, a few weeks after the men’s competition. Eight teams, largely the same as last year, will compete: Brisbane Tigers, Burleigh Bears, Wests Panthers, Central Queensland Capras, North Queensland Gold Stars, Valleys Diehards, Tweed Heads Seagulls and Souths Logan Magpies. It is great to see two heritage clubs returning to second class football, as neither Wests nor Valleys have played in the Queensland Cup since 2003 and 2004, respectively, and the latter was part of a short-lived joint venture with Brothers.

Ali Brigginshaw has gone from Brothers Ipswich to Valleys, after Brothers declined to enter this year’s competition, where she will be coached by Scott Prince. Brigginshaw played for Souths Logan in the Holcim Cup last year. Tamika Upton has also moved on from Souths Logan, and previously the Capras, to Burleigh. Tarryn Aiken will suit up again for Tweed Heads. The rebalancing of the competition’s talent should narrow the gap between Burleigh and Souths Logan at one end, and Wests and Tweed at the other that was experienced during last year’s Holcim Cup.

It is genuinely difficult to know who will be good in the BHP Premiership. One of the most enjoyable aspects of watching this competition will be seeing who comes out on top and learning some new names along the way. The Bears and Magpies already had strong programmes. Valleys aren’t messing around. The Tigers have invested in theirs. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Gold Stars, taking talent from Townsville, Cairns and Mackay, also field a competitive team. We’ll have to wait and see.

NSW Cup / Knock-on Effect Cup

Coincidentally, the Raiders made a last second decision to rejoin the NSW Cup shortly after Peter V’Landys announced he wanted all three grades back. For them, it’s probably a much smarter decision than the previous idea of using the Canberra Raiders Cup, i.e. local footy in Canberra, as reserve grade but has meant their withdrawal from some junior competitions.

With the exit of the Warriors, this brings the NSW Cup up to a beefy eleven teams, of which there are several heritage clubs – Newtown (Sharks), North Sydney (Roosters), Western Suburbs (Tigers) – and a couple of the bigger western Sydney clubs – Mounties (Bulldogs) and Blacktown (Sea Eagles) – and Canberra, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith, St George Illawarra and South Sydney just running straight reserve grade sides. For those playing at home, that’s five teams with distinct identities and six running with the “like the NRL but a bit shit” marketing angle.

The Cup is now sponsored by the Knock-on Effect which, depending on what mood I’m in, either sounds like a competition to make the most handling errors or raising awareness for CTE.

Trodden said it was fitting to extend the partnership with Transport for NSW after the success of The Knock-On Effect campaign, which aims to reduce road deaths and serious injuries on NSW roads.

Source

The strength of teams runs on how well their senior side goes. The Dragons were minor premiers in 2019 with a 13-6-3 record (Souths won more games but also lost more and finished one point behind) but the Jets won the grand final from seventh place thanks to reinforcements becoming available after the Sharks were knocked out of the NRL finals. I’d expect some of the deeper NRL teams, e.g. Raiders, Sharks and Rabbitohs, to be able to keep relatively talented players in the second tier, setting their sides up for strong seasons barring a crisis in first grade. The top eight (from eleven or twelve) finals system makes for total chaos so I won’t even pretend to know who might win the title.

Super League

Super League spent most of 2020 lurching from disaster to disaster, covering its blemishes and saving its graces with a blistering grand final. Not only did the league cut its brightest hope for a wider and more commercially viable future, it retreated further into its own backyard. Super League refused to cast a net as far as York, let alone London or Toulouse, and instead opted for Leigh, a club whose Super League record is 8-42-1 and is only a twenty minute drive to not one but three other Super League clubs.

Between the TV deal going down 25%, sponsorship paid in pizza and £750,000 reportedly spent on a private equity deal rejected by four clubs and the RFL, I’m not sure if Super League is a metaphor for Brexit or vice versa. A wider, Atlantic vision is just not happening because Rob Elstone is about as competent as Boris Johnson but without the sociopathic charisma.

Then again, he’s off, so we’ll see what his replacement brings. It is 2021 and a chance for the Northern Union to think about how to remake itself for the 21st century. They will absolutely not do that, instead preferring to focus on grimly holding on for dear life. In the meantime, there’s liable to be a football competition break out at any second. The start of the season has already been delayed, primarily due to the UK government’s Super League-esque handling of the pandemic, to March 11. Unlike in the lower divisions, Super League has a TV contract to fulfill, so will play with or without fans (expected to return sometime in May or June). Someone will eventually work out what to do with Catalans (and Toulouse), given current travel restrictions. Charter flights should solve the problem but one wonders how much money Bernard Gausch really has.

I briefly toyed with making this into a deep dive but unlike other editions, we don’t have player data to work with for Super League (the player stats on the SL website are an absolute mess) and I only track Elo ratings. The maths work out pretty much the same each season in any case. St Helens, Wigan and Warrington will lead the way, with one of the first two probably winning the grand final, although Wire are long overdue. There’s a constantly shuffling middle pack, comprising Leeds, Catalans, Salford, Hull FC, Castleford and Huddersfield whose fortunes will swing on how far they can get into the Challenge Cup as much as anything. The Rhinos should be aiming to rejoin the top tier clubs this year. At the end of the field, Wakefield Trinity, Hull KR and the re-branded Wolfpack / Leigh Centurions, will be struggling to avoid the drop.

Challenge Cup

The Challenge Cup is designed to be a bit of a crap-shoot but will likely be dominated by Super League teams in the latter stages, as it almost inevitably is. If a team falls out of contention in one comp but remains in the running in the other, they will swing resources to maximise their chances of winning something. 2021 could be a good year for a lesser light to break through at Wembley, a few teams in the middle tier have done in recent years. The RFL is using this opportunity to see what demand there is for streaming via Our League charging what are, quite frankly, outrageous prices.

£20, or about AU$36 at time of writing, would buy you two months of a basic Kayo sub, which is not limited to lower division rugby league football, while the QRL and NSWRL will broadcast games for free, as did the NRL with its pre-season trials in lieu of charging, wait for it,

$18 just to watch a pre season trial.

If the RFL’s and Super League’s audience buy into this en masse, they’re dumber than I thought. Our League will either be a roaring commercial success, built on extracting ever more shillings out of their C2DE audience, or a catastrophic failure, having priced out some of the biggest victims of Tory austerity. I’m sure it’ll be fine though.

Championship

Crowds will return in the near-ish future, which is good news for the Championship and League 1. They will not be forced to play behind closed doors for no revenue for long. The Championship will commence at the beginning of April with crowds returning sometime in May. Without much of a season played in 2020, we won’t know for sure how the teams will sort themselves out but all eyes will be on the promotion race out of the Championship.

It will be fiercely contested between London Broncos, Tolouse Olympique, York City Knights and perennial challenges, Featherstone Rovers. Out of those four, I don’t really care which one gets ahead as long as the promotion doesn’t stretch the club past its breaking point. Likely the best overall outcome for the game would be the ascension of Toulouse or, to a lesser extent, London, or a greater extent if they move to Plough Lane. The scenario of Featherstone being promoted at the expense of, say, Catalans would have sent me into an apoplectic fit not too long ago but I have decided to accept English football for what it is, especially after Rovers’ chairman blasted Super League for their handling of the Wolfpack fiasco.

Newcastle Thunder have been promoted to the Championship in the off-season, which with the aforementioned and Sheffield, gives the Championship a big city twist on the northern game. Hopefully, the Thunder can avoid the drop. A few signings should see them through, leaving the smaller traditional clubs to fight out the relegation battle. Halifax have adopted a new Panthers moniker and branding.

Elite 1

The Elite 1 season, which kicked off at the end of October in 2020, has continued through the pandemic, as a professional sport exempt from France’s ban. Quite how the clubs are generating revenue with no crowds and a minimal TV deal remains to be seen. Still, the Canaries, the Babys Dracs and the Sangliers lead the way after approximately eleven matchdays. There have been numerous cancellations/postponements due to positive tests, so it remains to be seen in what shape the season finishes.

The good news is that Elite 1 is apparently looking to expand from ten to twelve teams, promoting two out of Elite 2. It seems a little strange to me, given Palau, the last promoted team in 2013, and Toulouse Olympique’s reserve side, the former Toulouse Jules-Julien taken over in 2016, have struggled to compete in Elite 1. One questions whether the new clubs might similarly struggle. I also wonder if this weakens Elite 2 too much but perhaps it’s preferable for the FFR to put its eggs in the Elite 1 basket in hopes of breaking out of their rut and perhaps attracting a broadcaster.

Lyon and Toulon are baselessly speculated upon as being the best candidates for promotion, even as they languished at the bottom of the ladder in the previous shortened season and were not much better in the full season prior. Lyon, a large city well outside the French rugby league heartlands, and Toulon, a big rugby (of the Nazi kind) town, is perhaps indicative of the direction the new FFR President wants to take the game, even if the sporting merits aren’t there.

In the meantime, if you need a primer on French football, you can read this season preview I wrote pre-covid or listen to actual French or French-adjacent people explain it:

Elsewhere

  • Commencing in May, League 1 has been condensed down to just ten teams. Unless there’s been a miracle, West Wales and Coventry will continue to struggle, although one hopes the Raiders and Bears can win a few games each this year. The best rated teams are Doncaster, Workington Town and Barrow, although recent investment in Rochdale might turn them into competitors.
  • The Digicel Cup will return in 2021 with the same teams as in 2020. There were several expressions of interest to create new franchises but none were accepted by the PNGRFL. With the Hunters returning to the Queensland Cup and based in Queensland for the foreseeable future, some competitive balance should be restored, although I would expect Lae, Port Moresby and Hela to be the main contenders again. We can only hope it is this year that a broadcast deal is struck for Australia.
  • France’s Elite 2 2020-21 season was put on hold due to «la deuxieme vague» after only two rounds, with les Loups de US Entraigues XIII leading 2-0. It will presumably return when the ban on amateur sport is lifted in France.
  • The success of last season’s President’s Cup sees the NSWRL trying something similar again in 2021. It appears that some mix of Sydney Shield and Ron Massey will form a central conference, with the Newcastle RL to the north in another conference and Illawarra RL in the south. This surprisingly innovative format from the hidebound Blues has some potential and will be worth keeping an eye on, especially with the participation of the Kaiviti Silktails, who are basing themselves in New South Wales for this season. After it becomes clear no one has any meaningful interest in NSW Cup/NRL reserve grade, it’s possible this becomes NSW’s answer to the Queensland Cup, which would be a good thing.
  • BRL A-grade was the second tier of Queensland football below the NRL, after the QCup was cancelled for 2020. It was the first season under the “new” system of having affiliations with the Brisbane-based QCup clubs. Eight teams completed the season (down from the mooted nine after Beenleigh dropped out and the originally planned for ten). Wynnum Manly ran out premiers again, defeating Wests in the final after minor premiers Valleys stumbled earlier in the finals. I assume we’re running out this way again with Pine Rivers and Brighton (Dolphins), Carina and Bulimba (Tigers), Normanby (Magpies), Wests and Valleys (Devils) and Wynnum Juniors or maybe Beenleigh (Seagulls). Marmin Barba has nominally retired from Cup and has been spotted at Wests. Hopefully Scott Prince can suit up for Valleys again.
  • The USARL looks primed to kick off in May with twelve clubs, the most since 2017 (and slightly down on the 14 that participated in 2015-16). This is good news considering I wasn’t sure it’d be back at all.

Hopefully, we will be able to complete a GRLFC ranking with a women’s equivalent for 2021.

Big brain essay #2: Growing trees or growing grass

It’s BiG bRaIn EsSaY week on pythagonrl.com. I’ve written a series of approximately 75% thought-out, unpolished essays about somewhat obvious and/or somewhat unhinged things that probably belong on The Roar but I’ve decided to use my own platform to get off my chest.

When talking about how they’d like the sport to look, rugby league nerds, including yours truly, like to put pins in the map. The thinking is that if you put enough teams in big cities then the rest will take care of itself. In reality, most of those teams would fail. There’s few or no fans in those places, there’s barely any strategic considerations given, other than the need to be a player in big media markets, nor any meaningful thoughts as to how the new team will engage with the local population on a sustainable and lasting basis. The best case scenario is that each new team would cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to establish, as the Melbourne Storm did and the Toronto Wolfpack tried to do. It should go without saying that rugby league does not have that kind of cash to effectively buy new fans.

What’s interesting is how infrequently we discuss the structure of the club game – everyone has their preferred format for international tournaments between World Cups – and usually people just vary who is in Super League or the NRL with little thought put into how the different rugby leagues relate to each other or how their structure reflects an understanding of what these competitions, and rugby league, are for.

If you were to start FIFA (the video game, not the governing body) right now and create a customised competition, you’d have a choice of league, group stage then knockout, or straight knockout. Almost all sports use these frameworks to structure their competitions and there’s obviously only so many ways you can arrange head to head matches for a group of teams contesting a title.

At a higher level, you have the ultra-Darwinist domestic European soccer competitions, which are either round robin leagues with promotion and relegation or knockout formats and the two don’t mix. In contrast are the socialist American big four sports leagues, which have a league phase, usually with an unbalanced schedule and some sort of regionalisation, followed by a post season knockout. Pretty much every other team sport takes their cues from these two. I will concede that after a century and a half of experimentation, we’ve probably landed on the optimal outcome but I’m still interested in exploring this a little.

I find it somewhat puzzling that after so long, we can only imagine a couple of different ways for teams to play each other. This kind of thinking has even leaked into multi-competitor-sports, like NASCAR’s Playoffs, where it makes little sense but presumably someone thought it was a good idea for a late-season ratings boost. The recently retooled European soccer competitions – the Champion’s League, the Europa League and the Europa Conference League, as well as the UEFA Nations League – offer some alternatives, with complex qualification arrangements being employed to serve higher purposes. These competitions don’t just decide the best clubs in Europe but are purposely designed to give all participants some meaningful chance of winning a trophy and prize money.

***

Promotion and relegation has always sounded great in theory but relegation (and, indeed, sometimes promotion) can create existential crises that are otherwise not necessary. Sport’s rules don’t arise from some sense of natural law. Almost all aspects of sport have been arbitrarily decided in the past but we forget this with the convenient fog of time and tradition. Indeed, most traditions now are used as weapons to maintain the status quo in lieu of pursuing change and growth. So why persist?

What keeps the idea afloat in soccer is that even if relegation kills a club or two, there’s dozens ready to step up and take their place. In fact, in a twist of Victorian victim blaming, it’s the club’s fault for not being better prepared, which is ameliorated by parachute payments and leaves clubs on the bubble of leagues to bouncing back and forth. Moreover, pro-rel propagates the myth that any club can rise to the top if they just work hard enough, even though any talk of the long term prospects for a club is almost always couched in how much money can be invested. There is no realistic way to start a new club and use hard work alone to find a way to the top, especially through the last couple of leagues, and certainly not in a human lifespan. While the club works their way through levels nine and ten, the wealth of the top echelon of the top league grows faster still.

Given that, what is the point of promotion and relegation if it’s solely a function of how much money some lunatic is willing to put in? That hardly seems to be about sporting fairness. This kind of cognitive dissonance will eventually result in its elimination, which will very likely be in the favour of capital and closed leagues.

Pro-rel can work in international competitions, because the team exists because the country exists and countries generally don’t fold because of a sporting result, and in amateur competitions, where there’s no need to pay players and so revenue streams are substantially less critical to the existence of the club. Where the competitors are businesses, the change in revenue is often disastrous and the risks make planning and investment more difficult than they would otherwise need to be. The only benefit – which does not accrue to the relegated teams but instead the league they are being ejected from – is if there’s a ratings boost for potential relegation battles at the season’s end which would otherwise be ignored.

For rugby league, there are not the vast resources available to be allowed to waste on promotion and relegation. In the UK, there are 36 “professional” clubs. The loss of any one would be devastating – the money and effort and time invested becomes worthless – and risks dragging down the survivors. Further, the idea that pro-rel is some entrenched tradition is laughable. The RFL only introduced it in the early 70s. Prior to that, every club sat in the same, unwieldy 30-odd club league. There are people alive today who would remember a pre-pro-rel rugby league.

***

As I’ve suggested, Super League is at a crossroads. Crisis looms at every corner and it is crisis that is when the hard questions get asked and answered. The results of the Super League experiment since 1996 have been dismal, with only the switch from winter to summer being potentially worth salvaging to keep in sync with the sport’s other major league, and no other real, permanent gains to speak of. London, Crusaders, Paris, Sheffield and Toronto have failed to retain their place in the top flight for varying reasons. The separation of Super League from the RFL has only served to create a fiefdom of equally incompetent administrators and a duplication of infrastructure with no discernible purpose that looks almost certain to be undone after just two years. Crowds and the TV deal have seemingly peaked.

Now would seem like an opportune time to consider the competition’s place in rugby league, its place in British culture and how it might structure itself to reflect these and its own values. To do so, it would be worthwhile to consider how rugby league might move out of the shadow of soccer and union and whether it makes sense to try to replicate what they do or try something different.

I would like to make two suggestions, which will require some relatively radical departures from the norm.

Growing trees

The overall goal of expansion, growth and the rest of the lefty rugby league agenda seems to be to grow trees. That is, large and imposing clubs that can stand tall by themselves as markers of the existence of rugby league. Naturally, the most fertile ground for new life is big media markets, where a small sliver of attention from a large group of people can nourish a Wolfpack or a Storm.

However, there is a substantial disconnect between this vision of the future and the existing trees, who are afraid that the sun will be blotted out and aggressively fight new growth. To address this, we need to acknowledge the separate natures of the existing heritage clubs and modern expansion clubs. To that end, I suggest creating two separate streams for rugby league football clubs, a modernist Super League and a heritage Northern Union.

Super League would effectively become the championship of Europe. Run by the RFL, thanks to its marginally more progressive outlook than the clubs that currently run the professional game in England, the focus would be on teams in large markets to be the building blocks of a wide audience that would attract huge ratings or a committed subscriber base, coupled with vision, planning and the capability to implement it. Super League would aim to reach parity with the NRL, in terms of calendar, reach, wealth, structure, regulations and playing ability, so that the sport can have two legitimate major leagues.

The Northern Union then embraces the traditions of the game. The Northern Union can base its marketing around being the northern game, with its teams drawn from a very small geographical range, and in the extremely unlikely event that the northern half of England secedes, rugby league will have a purpose made professional sport for the new country before anyone else. The Northern Union could be run as Super League is now, for and by its member clubs, and they can set regulations and a fixture schedule that best suits their commercial outlook (e.g. 29 round season, primarily attracting away fans, other stereotypes, etc) and initially, with their own broadcast deal. Being a lower tier, its unlikely that an overly long season will compromise major representative teams. The Union would also have no need for expansion, that path being via Super League 2, suiting the more inward looking nature of many clubs and fans.

Based on the clubs currently in play, a realistic starting point might be to award a dual Super League/Northern Union licence to the relatively big market and/or well established clubs, such as Leeds, Warrington, St Helens, Wigan, Hull, Salford and Bradford (taking into account the various intangibles involved, which is still mostly sticking pins in a map, although Salford may not be suitable to be the Manchester team and my impressions of Bradford could be 10 years behind reality). This would allow these teams to run a first team in SL1 and an affiliated second team, either a reserves or juniors team or a revived alternative marque, in the Northern Union (e.g. Wigan could resurrect Wigan Highfield/Liverpool Stanley as a second team or the Devils would run as Manchester in SL1 and Salford in NU). There would be a further four Super League-only licences awarded to London, Catalans, Toulouse and York. The Super League licence gives the team immunity from relegation and for the dual licencees, prevents the second team from being promoted.

With eleven teams, the best Northern Union club would be promoted to take the league to twelve. Said club would be relegated for the champion of the Northern Union if they should finish in the bottom two or three places. Despite my personal distaste for pro-rel, it’d be politically difficult to remove and there are just not enough big clubs in Europe to sustain a reasonable sized Super League without it.

Underneath Super League is Super League 2, separate to the Northern Union. The purpose of Super League 2 is not to entertain or represent or anything but to create a space in which new clubs can get themselves set up. The make up of the league would be constantly changing, as clubs either graduate to SL1 or fail quietly in a place no one cares about. Clubs would be required to submit plans so that the institution of rugby league as a whole can help development of the clubs in a way that aligns with their vision and the SL/RFL can provide feedback, based on previous experience or their own masterplan, and the parties can work together for mutual benefit.

Not every team that enters Super League 2 will graduate or fail. Coventry or West Wales, for example, might choose to remain mainstays, preferring to focus on creating grassroots in their community, develop local talent and passing the talented up the chain to an affiliated SL1 club. Toronto, on the other hand, might have come in with a plan to be promoted to SL1 in two years, outlining the steps and targets they see as being necessary to get ready for the big time.

There would be far fewer regulations in order to facilitate the rapid growth of clubs as needed, perhaps just the same as those as govern the upper end of SL1, which will probably result in significant disparity across what is likely to be a small league (in the event there aren’t enough teams, the league should switch the SL/NU second teams across to pad out SL2). This is just the price we pay for this structure, unless there is a surprising uptake of new clubs in SL2. The initial SL2 clubs would be North Wales, West Wales, Coventry, London Skolars, Newcastle, Sheffield and Ottawa (if they ever make it on to the field), leaving seventeen clubs plus up to seven second teams (possibly one or two would be required in SL2) to contest the Northern Union.

The short term focus of SL1 would be maintaining some sort of commercial and sporting parity between the clubs, preferably by taking from the rich and investing in the poor. There are myriad vehicles for doing this. The key will be maintaining a ceiling (possibly the same ceiling for all professional clubs) but also having a relatively close floor to maintain standards. If a club cannot stand on the floor, it has no business being in the room and a salary cap is useless as a mechanism for parity without a salary floor. Some clubs are not currently configured for this but have the potential to be, with some work.

The medium term focus – over the next decade or so – would be to focus on preparing Sheffield and Newcastle to join SL1 from SL2 and investing now, laying the ground work with the locals, to give them a place in the top flight in the future. The long term focus – over the next twenty or more years – would be identifying the next candidates to follow them. Twenty years should be enough time to build up a London Skolars or North Wales Crusaders to be ready for the big time or even creating teams from scratch in Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France (perhaps another tilt at Paris) or elsewhere in Europe in a shorter timeframe. Private investment will be required and the SL/RFL needs to have development officers for rich people to funnel the money into the correct places. The growing footprint of the game should result in a greater audience, improving sponsorship prospects and broadcast deals (or, more likely, an increase in subscribers).

If we must keep the knockout competitions, the Challenge Cup would become the equivalent of the League Cup in English soccer. It would only be open to the professional SL1, SL2 and NU clubs. The 1895 Cup would then be open only to Northern Union and amateur clubs. The purpose of both is clear: the Challenge Cup is inevitably dominated by the top flight professional clubs, so the biggest knockout competition is only open to the biggest clubs (the draw could also be engineered to ensure a NU or SL2 team makes the semis), which would have the dual benefit of reducing the number of rounds required. The 1895 Cup, recently introduced by the RFL to make the Challenge Cup final into a double header, can build its brand around being the competition open only to the “real” rugby league clubs, even though the final is likely to be still dominated by the top end of the Northern Union, at least the amateur clubs have a cost effective avenue for participation. You could swap the names on the competitions, it wouldn’t really matter.

The very long term plan would be ensuring new teams get added to Super League on a regular basis. As the future of rugby league is secured by its presence in big sporting markets, the number of Northern Union places in Super League could be increased to give greater heritage representation but one would hope that the gap between the Super League and Northern Union would grow to be so great over time, those clubs would simply not be able to compete and pro/rel would necessarily have to be eliminated. This should be considered a desirable outcome.

If NU clubs have the investment behind them, the demand is there and there is value to be added, then promoting a team can be decided in the board room, although I would expect it to be pretty rare that a NU could display that kind of value. The sport does not and is unlikely to ever have the resources required to support the flippancy of pro/rel. Super League simply cannot risk losing a big market team because they had a bad year, particularly considering the sunk investment and the total lack of value for big market teams in the second division, nor can it find the resources to ensure the gap between the first and second divisions remains bridgeable. It is already too great between Super League and the Championship and any actual growth is likely to exercebate it, rather than close it.

The barriers to this proposal are numerous. Clubs and fans aren’t going to want to be cut off from the top tier. Super League 2 is going to be expensive to run and very unlikely to attract a broadcast deal or much viewership. The Northern Union might actually be more popular than Super League, having more clubs in places where fans already exist, in which case, I don’t know if we can declare SL1 to be the top tier, especially if NU clubs can capitalise on this and out-spend the SL1 clubs. The Northern Union has been buried for a very long time and bringing back that brand now is extremely dubious. It’s not clear how squads can be managed shifting from a very low level SL2 to an elite SL1 without total disruption.

Still, the three leagues each would have a purpose and the framework would exist to offer Super League the opportunity to build itself into a position to compete as the complementary major league in Europe to the Asia-Pacific’s NRL.

Growing grass

The Football Bowl Subdivison is the top 130 or so college football teams in the US. Despite being the perfect candidate for a promotion and relegation setup, all the competing schools sit on ostensibly the same level. Almost all are divided into eleven conferences of differing sizes, which are broadly geographical and reflective of the status of the member schools, with some having regional divisions underneath. Notionally at least, all schools have a shot at the National Championship, although in reality, because of the somewhat subjective selection process for the final four teams, there is a limited subset of schools that are actually in the running, even before a game is played. For mine, the tension between the ridiculous structure of the sport, the ranking systems, the selection for the National Championship and the insane commitments to tradition and amateurism, makes college football interesting, even if the product is lacking.

One of rugby league’s strengths is its hyper-localisation. It elevates small places, that would otherwise have no right to be there, to the national stage in a way other sports can’t or won’t. While I am extremely dubious about this being a long term survival strategy, there’s no doubting this unique aspect of rugby league culture has value. Maintaining a local feel to the sport, compared to having well paid athletes flying all over the place, at least reduces the sport’s carbon footprint.

A hyper-local rugby leauge would look something like the college football landscape. Clubs would be divided into loosely defined conferences, with the winners qualifying to a round of play-offs to determine the champion. All 36 current RFL and SL clubs would be on the same level, spread across four conferences, each with a winner (or a winner and runner-up) qualifying for the post-season. There might even be some scope for clubs to set some of their own non-conference fixtures.

Players would be paid but to maintain some parity and prevent big places from having an advantage over small places, the commercial ceiling for clubs would have to be set very low, possibly so low that a floor is not needed. Rugby league will lose its talents to better paid opportunities elsewhere but that’s the price we would have to pay to maintain locality, especially if places like Palau and Featherstone are expected to be able to maintain competitive professional sports teams. If individual clubs’ cups run over, then they would be encouraged to set up distinct teams in other places. The alternative, to deregulate entirely, is a great way to ensure there are only half a dozen clubs are left standing.

The big advantage is then that it doesn’t cost a lot to set up a new rugby league team and there is a known ceiling on how much can be spent or lost. This should appeal to wealthy people who want to own a sports team but cannot afford a soccer, union or whatever franchise. There are numerous villages, suburbs and towns that could host a new team and with low costs, there’s plenty of time to build up a fanbase and take a long term view. It also offers the opportunity for alternative ownership models – especially fan and community owned – as the barrier to entry is much lower. Crucially, the new team enters at the top (only) level with an almost immediate shot at the title.

The other advantage is that its easy to facilitate expansion and easy to add leagues whole cloth. If, as perhaps should be the case, Elite One and Two were folded into the RFL system, we’d have fifty-four clubs that could be divied into five or six conferences. Think something along the lines of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northumbria, South England, Elite East and Elite West (or adopting the equivalent American-style names, e.g. “The Big Yorkie”) conferences. The winner of each would progress to the post-season, probably with an additional round for the runners-up to fight it out for the remaining slots.

New teams would have to provide very little evidence that they are sustainable, so would be able to go through a basic tick box exericse and find a conference to join. If it seems unimpressive now, this system could be expanded indefinitely, provided enough owners can be found, perhaps with two or three hundred clubs across Europe divided into twenty or thirty conferences and creating a monster round-of-32 post-season bracket. Big cities would simply house lots of clubs, as Sydney and London do now, and diffuse themselves across different conferences.

It’s difficult to see how that wouldn’t attract a mass audience eventually, albeit none of the individual clubs would have large followings and indeed, probably very small followings but with similarly small revenues, costs and debts. Soccer fans complain about money ruining the game and the divorce between the clubs and their communities. This structure is purpose-built to keep clubs small and close to their communities, while engaging with a larger geographical area because rugby league doesn’t have to choose to be bound by national borders, as soccer has chosen to do.

Under this regime, if kept, the Challenge Cup serves a new purpose to put teams in competition with teams they would not normally play against and perhaps this would be utilised in lieu of clubs setting their own fixture list. The 1895 Cup would serve no purpose, just as it does now, so can be put in the bin.

The champions of the European Rugby League conferences wouldn’t necessarily be able to compete with the champions of the NRL (assuming it maintains its current format), being far smaller and far less wealthy, but the competition as a whole might be able to generate interest just through its sheer scale.

***

The English game needs to make a decision about what it wants to be. Is it licencing or pro-rel? Alternating between the two suits no one but because there’s such a disparity between the top end of town and the rest, the system not in use looks more appealling than the one in use. This time it’ll be different. It’s this change that’ll resolve the unaddressed problems somehow but I don’t know how that can be if no one confronts what the problem is in the first place. My suggestions are that the dead weight is carved off into its competition to (mostly) let the rest of rugby league get on with it or that all clubs are cut to the same size and spec.

People will hate these suggestions and not just because its change but because they fundamentally disagree that this is how the sport should be configured. That’s fine, although if you cite tradition, I’ll just point out that is the peer pressure of dead people and I don’t care what they think. But the current system doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, so why not try something new*?

*I also accept that there’s nothing really new under the sun. As reported by Rugby League Digest, pretty much every time I think I’ve come up with something clever, I found it was considered and discarded during the Super League war. I don’t think this reflects the merits of a given idea, given that no side seemed really interested in compromise, and the status quo looks great simply because we’ve doing it for a while.

Super League 2.0 is not coming

Take half an hour and watch this.

The interesting thing about the debate is what’s missing. There’s no discussion about the purpose or meaning of Super League. There’s a large pile of cash on the table. The bigger clubs and RFL have plainly decided to accept this because they need the money more than anything else, and the deal supposedly comes with a ticking clock. That the RFL were reportedly prepared to accept the first offer without negotiating is extremely telling of the desperation involved.

On the other side, there’s the smaller clubs who feel owed something but are likely to be left in the cold or forced into shotgun marriages. Keighley had secured promotion and looked to be denied it by the creation of the Super League. Their insistence that their new grounds – capacity 10,000 – would set them up as a big club would be laughably small-minded if most Super League clubs didn’t operate along the same lines twenty-five years later. Featherstone Rovers, we are told, are the heart of a community ruined by industrial closures. Quite how such an economically disadvantaged community of 15,000 is meant to sustain a professional sports team in to the twenty-first century is not clear.

Instead, the RFL should have insisted that they needed more time to get stakeholders on board, develop a feasible structure for the sport and decide how to best invest the money. Off the cuff, all Maurice Lindsay can offer for the money’s ultimate destination is grassroots, developing the game and stadium upgrades with the influx of TV money – basically, following the Premier League’s lead a few years earlier – and it’s easy to see that being an enormous waste of money. Surely there isn’t a significant number of people who could be converted to rugby league, if only it were played in nicer stadiums.

Lindsay, however, was right that thirty-five does not go into fourteen. That there was ever an idea that that many fully professional clubs could be supported over such a small area is mystifying in retrospect. The intention, to merge existing clubs into new entities that would have a significant enough geographical and commercial reach to support a fully professional franchise, was sound in principle, as long as you didn’t look too much at details, like history, meaning and the defensive-borderline-paranoid psyche of the northern English.

The idea that a number of small English clubs with a hundred years of rivalry and basically nothing to show for it, would come together on an even footing to run a professional sports team is the kind of coked-up thinking that only the Super League war could throw up.

The mergers were dropped, Super League went ahead, the RFL got the money and not much else has changed for the English game in the next twenty years. The arrival of Canadian teams in 2017 and 2021 and a French club winning the Challenge Cup in 2018, signals the dawn of a new era – unplanned, unanticipated and somewhat unwelcome – that may well have been curtailed by the pandemic.

The golden opportunity provided by the virus to wipe the slate clean and begin anew has been wasted by the powers that be in both hemispheres. In all likelihood, the public bail-outs in England will only send more good money after bad and further entrench the status quo, not remove and replace it with something better. Defects in the game’s structure, writ large with the millions of dollars at stake and the attention of millions more, will remain, unaddressed.

In short, a Super League 2.0 is not coming.

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Ironically, the renegotiation of the broadcast deal in Australia has only served to highlight how badly Super League 2.0 is needed. The executives at Nine can read the writing on the wall as well as the rest of us. The virus should have created a large socially isolated captive audience for television. Instead, it is accelerating the trends that were in place beforehand. People prefer to watch what’s available online, which is orders of magnitude better than free-to-air and the good stuff on pay TV can be pirated or streamed or VPNed for far less than Foxtel are asking. The economic uncertainty is resulting in slashed marketing budgets, meaning that even if anyone was watching TV, advertisers can’t afford the ad time anyway.

The acquisition of the Fairfax stable of newspapers in 2018 has only made the pressure worse. It remains to be seen if there’s a long term future for traditional mastheads in a digital age. Repeated slashing of quality and staff in the face of repeated poor corporate performance is eroding what’s left of the major dailies’ brands.

In either case, newspapers and free-to-air television are relics of an ecosystem that has been irreparably altered by the Chicxulub impactor that is the internet. The traditional media is on life support and, at the right price, rugby league is one of the machines that go ‘ping’.

* * * *

I’ve long been suspicious of Peter V’Landys.

It wasn’t so much what V’Landys stood for because we didn’t know what that was in 2018. An unnamed someone decided to get the Andrew Webster to write and the Sydney Morning Herald to publish a puff piece and that rang alarm bells. The article was a hybrid of soft interview juxtaposed with “concerns”, which were unfounded and unattributed. It smacked of the same treatment lifelong deadshit politicians get before they challenge for the party leadership and become Prime Minister.

Journalists are meant to be smart, worldly and experienced but prove through their work that they do not deserve this reputation. You could argue that there is a higher game at play, and you’d be right, and that journalists are expected to walk a tight rope between speaking truth to power and maintaining access to the same power to do their jobs. But it seems here on the sidelines that the criticism of the powerful only ever comes when it serves the purpose of another power and almost never in the public interest.

Some have given up pretences entirely. Most would be better off re-positioning themselves as public relations officers for Newscorp or Nine and their interests and be done with it. It would at least be more honest and earn less public scorn.

It never ceases to amaze me how the media can whip up a frenzy apropos of nothing and, simply by whipping up the frenzy, make otherwise powerful and smart people do things that they’d rather not. It’s a damning indictment on the spinelessness of our leadership class that in the age of social media, the powerful aren’t able to completely bypass the traditional media, whose public trust is roughly on par with used car salesmen and real estate agents.

So it was, first with Peter Beattie and then later with Todd Greenberg. Beattie had stated that he hadn’t planned to be chairman of the ARLC for a long time but he obviously came in with a plan to shake things up quickly and decisively. He and Greenberg managed to get the international calendar to take some shape, had governments building new stadiums in Sydney to keep the grand final, had other governments paying for events like State of Origin and Magic Round, kicked off a profitable digital strategy and clubs and players were benefiting from a generous centralised grant and increased salary cap instituted by Beattie’s predecessor.

In short, they managed to make the NRL more reliant on itself and less reliant on the anonymous and not-so-anonymous bottom-feeders that have stifled the game’s progress for the last forty years lest it threaten their suburban fiefdom.

Then, in 2019, the drums started beating and like a self-fulfilling prophecy, Beattie had resigned and V’Landys ascended to the throne. Whether Beattie did not have the will to stave off the media’s inanity for another six months or simply had run out of political capital is not clear but it does seem like his work is unfinished. That Beattie’s legacy hasn’t been hugely tarnished by the same media suggests that he went quickly and willingly.

Once the chosen one had been crowned, he deigned to let us know what he stood for during his acceptance speech:

  • Suburban stadium redevelopments in Sydney
  • Tribalism, bringing it back
  • Getting referees in line, maybe going back to one
  • A nod to families
  • Getting more out of gambling companies
  • No mention of the international game or expansion

I’m not sure V’Landys even bothered to do a token reference to grassroots or bush footy. When pressed, we discovered that Brisbane still needed to be secured for rugby league, even though it has been played here since 1909, and that Western Australia was already a lost cause, a rusted-on AFL state. Much like the Melbourne Storm in Victoria, I guess.

The agenda strikes me as the perfect enapsulation of the Sydney boomer nostalgia bubble. I assume this is driven by faceless men behind the scenes, pining for a time when the footy was “better” and standing on a suburban hill with 2,000 other men was the pinnacle of the rugby league experience. With the passage of time, those who ache for the past forget the drawbacks but I suppose the authentic experience is regularly recreated at Leichhardt Oval. We are offerred the inferior product we know in lieu of a brighter but uncharted future.

Then, it was Greenberg’s turn. The knives were out and the cliches were flogged mercilessly. It was financial mismanagement supposedly. A huge head office and a white elephant digital strategy. Or maybe it was the response to the pandemic. Being reactionary? “Concerns” within clubland, possibly about the successful and necessary no-fault stand down.

Buzz Rothfield tried his best to gotcha and got absolutely banged in response.

It didn’t matter.

Everyone stuck to their lines, which for the professional communicators among them were incredibly muddled. I was suffering from cognitive dissonance, that itchy feeling in your brain when you try to process contradictory information before you realise what’s wrong. It wasn’t true. It wasn’t even a shade of grey, it was clear cut. The game was profitable and growing. Everyone was getting paid. What the fuck was the actual problem? Am I really being gaslit by the rugby league media?

Even now, journalists, commentators and other people whose opinion we know only because they are paid to fill airtime and column inches, are unable to write or speak about Todd Greenberg’s legacy without referencing financial mismanagement. Traditionally, when one is accused of something like mismanagement, examples are proffered and yet, cursory glances at the facts reveal something completely different.

If something gets repeated often enough, it becomes true. The history books will record that head office costs were “bloated” and that he had to go.

We’re left to speculate what actually is going on because the people whose job it is to tell us won’t or can’t. Seemingly, the closest anyone came to the truth was that V’Landys doesn’t play nice, which is insanely childish.

Meanwhile, Peter V’Landys is treated with the same reverence as the second coming of Christ because apparently, the rugby league media’s main takeaway from watching world events of the last five years is that a strong man with a penchant for action, or at least being seen as imposing his will, and no respect for consultation is a good thing.

The current situation has placed existential pressure on the broadcasters. The NRL may be in breach of contract, even though suspending play is the right thing to do in the face of a deadly pandemic. This gives the broadcasters leverage to negotiate down a big expense in the form of NRL broadcast rights. The NRL doesn’t have enough ammunition to put up much of a fight and it seems that V’Landys isn’t interested in doing so. The broadcast deal has been (or maybe still is being?) extended for reduced value. It was then revealed that Nine, not so much as hating the digital strategy, actually coveted it.

V’Landys sits at the nexus of a major power play, from clubs and broadcasters threatened by a brave new world that might get by without them. I don’t claim a conspiracy because its laughable these people could have planned anything two years in advance. The irony is that if the clubs could be trusted to cooperate like this, they could form a cartel to protect themselves and we might actually be better for it.

Quite who did what and what the ends are still isn’t clear. I’d speculate that V’Landys is treated as the messiah because he will lead the game back in time to a golden age that only exists in the mind of some powerbrokers. It could be the much more likely and grubbier alternative that people who take big dollars out of the game want to continue to take big dollars out of the game. Or both.

The full picture will be drip fed through selected journalists over time and we will see it when it will be too late to do anything meaningful about it, if we could even do anything about it now.

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Rugby began as a means to turn schoolboys into men. Rugby and the Muscular Christian ideology mirrored each other in the mid-to-late 19th century. When the Northern Union went its own way in 1895 and the Rugby Football Union another, the RFU doubled down on its elitism, deliberately avoiding the mass spectacle and the associated rougher element, creating a game to instil the same moral education that a boy would receive at Eton.

The idea that the private schooling system can produce moral individuals is laughable. Take a quick glance at the leadership class’ performance, from Gallipoli to Brexit, and report back on the results. The rich are always happy to sacrifice the poor to protect the rich and hate them for reminding them that their wealth is often unjust.

If you needed further evidence of rugby-as-morality’s failings, the collaboration between rugby union and the Nazi-aligned Vichy government in France during World War II and tours to apartheid South Africa in the 1980s should seal the deal.

After 1895, rugby league needed to appeal to the masses. Professional sport has to be entertaining to get people through the gate and, later, to turn on the TV. Its working class roots in the northern industrial towns of England and the suburbs and regional areas of New South Wales, Queensland and Auckland imbued a sense of meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are, just how well you can play.

As a result, rugby league clubs and leagues tend to be more inclusive and representative than the prevailing cultural mainstream. If you’re reading this, you will probably be able to rattle off a litanical list of milestones. That’s not to say league hasn’t had its moments. The reception of Olsen Filipaina and other Polynesians to Sydney rugby league and the naming of the Edwin Brown grandstand in Toowoomba strike me as two particularly gross examples. Still, it’s clear the culture of league is usually better than the culture around it.

Once the virus is over, fees for broadcast rights will remain critically important for both rugby codes. That union was a generally unappealing game did not matter for most of its history. If you don’t pay your players, then there’s no need to chase broadcast dollars by tidying up your product. Once professionalism was officially legalised in 1995, and it was clear that the world had moved beyond union’s notions of how society should operate, union became subject to the same market forces as league. The result is that union is following league’s evolutionary path to keep the ball in play for as long as possible, minimising scrums and technical penalties. It would not surprise me to discover that they are considering abolishing the lineout, dropping two players from each side and a means to limit possession.

As the two codes converge, already very similar to the uninitiated and now subject to the same selective pressures, we start to wonder what rugby league, the somewhat smaller and significantly less powerful of the two codes, will do to make its mark in the world. If people don’t know the whole story, then there is little hope for league’s long term survival. Moreover, in a globalised, kleptocratic, winner-takes-all economic system, we don’t know whether rugby will be able to find breathing room in the face of North America’s big four and European soccer becoming world-spanning sporting behemoths.

On rugby’s new frontiers, people will tell you both codes of rugby get along and there’s no code wars. The same people will contribute “why can’t we all just get along?” to the political discourse, seemingly unaware that some are campaigning for their very lives in the face of prejudice, inequality and fascism. It is the same attitude but, it should go without saying, the stakes are many orders of magnitude less significant in sports than politics.

Still, if there were no stakes, then the rugby codes would merge and we could get on with working out how to co-exist with other sports. That will never happen because there are stakes and wounds and history that have not been resolved. It is not an irrational take that union is the embodiment of late 19th century aristocracy, elitist and exploitative, cosy with fascism and league should never reconcile with that world view. The irrational take is that these things don’t matter, they’re in the past and you’re being childish by having feelings about them.

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You might wonder why I’ve bothered to tell you these stories and what brings together these disparate thoughts. Over the off-season, I wrote approximately this same piece but it was lengthier, unedited and all-around insane. It will remain unpublished.

But there’s a lot of Big Stuff happening right now. It helps to talk about it and helps fill the time until rugby league’s imminent return. It’s also interesting to me at least to consider how the past and the present might inform the future.

Rugby league in the time of coronavirus

Did you know the world is in the grip of a pandemic? I’m not sure how you could have missed it, given that it’s all I’ve been thinking about for the past week.

The vibe, right here and now on 17 March 2020, is absolutely unprecedented in my lifetime. The only two parallels I can think of, in terms of generalised fear and life-or-death consequences, are the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the peak years of the 2007-10 global financial meltdown. It’s the unknown unknowns that get you.

Rugby league, a sport that didn’t stop for either world war, hasn’t faced a pandemic since 1919. In Australia, the game continued and blithely ignored the Spanish Flu, a disease that claimed 12,000 at home and millions more abroad. In Brisbane, games were moved from the Exhibition grounds to Davies Park when the former was requisitioned as a camp for flu victims. That should have been a clue.

With that long in the rear view mirror, we find ourselves in another global stress test and we get to see if rugby league is up to it.

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Before we go too far down the rabbit hole, my actual belief is that Super League and the NRL will return in 2021 in pretty much the same shape as they started 2020. It will be like the year never happened. There’s an outside chance one or more of the less secure clubs goes bust in England but I think there will be enough cash to keep the circus on the road.

This is borne out of my belief that the English speaking world is dominated by rent-seekers. You will see otherwise healthy organisations begging for payouts, rather than draw down on their own resources, because they can and are constantly rewarded for it.

Further, our political leadership is cowardly and they will be bailing out banks in six months with no examination of the conditions that led to this situation, so bailing out rugby league will be a no brainer by comparison. The RBA is already preparing to buy government bonds in a process that is generally called “quantitive easing” by wonks but normal people, if they understood, would call it “printing money”.

This is fine, says the dog in a house on fire, especially if you only look at rugby league and ignore the wider moral hazard. But in the true spirit of the apocalytpic nightmare that 2020 is rapidly descending in to, let’s baselessly and pessimistically speculate (my area of expertise after electrical engineering and before football stats) about what might happen to help fill the time as the world’s economy slowly grinds to a halt.

The worst case scenario, and one journalists are incapable of articulating because they cannot separate commercial structures from cultural institutions, is that the NRL and Super League both fold due to a lack of cash flow, taking the professional clubs with them. In this situation, rugby league will still be played in 2021 and professional rugby league will return no later than 2022 but it may be under very different circumstances to what we’ve seen over the last two and a half decades.

That might be a good thing. Both the Super League and NRL have been aware for thirty or more years that their competitions are too geographically concentrated. Mergers, relegations, relocations, licencing and liquidations have come in and out of fashion but rarely enacted.

It’s interesting to watch people new to the sport make these extremely common sense recommendations (something I did before I became too online) and then be shot down because it’s simply too hard to make it work with the kind of fanbase rugby league has under normal circumstances. Here’s some impetus to get it over the line.

In England, Super League might be left with fewer than a dozen full time professional clubs and perhaps only Wigan and St Helens might still be alive when all this is over. The Championship might then be forced to go part-time and League 1 amateur in the absence of any capital injections or an amazingly generous broadcast deal. This would necessitate the ceassation of promotion and relegation and, in many respects, simply accelerate a process that is already underway.

Suggestions that are commercially sensible but culturally ludicirous will come under great scrutiny. Will the half dozen clubs in Greater Manchester finally realise that combining their resources to create a single Mancunian professional club makes a lot more sense with far greater potential than solely representing a small village with no viable future and competing against the same? Same question but Lancashire. Same question but Cumbria. Same question but Yorkshire.

The results of the most recent general election indicate that this is probably not the case, with northerners preferring strict parochialism in the face of tough times, but times are about to get a lot tougher. A lot of those people might die and their clubs might follow suit before attitudes change.

In Australia, Cronulla announced a $3 million loss just a few weeks ago. They also indicated that they have $16 million in the bank. The NRL has already distributed emergency funds. All of that money might be gone by the end of 2020 but the Sharks will have survived. It’s hard to see which club would have a worse financial position. If they do, they’re probably done.

Still, with nothing in the bank, Cronulla would have no resources to facilitate a move – again, commercially sensible but culturally ludicrous – and the NRL won’t be able to help either. Rather than facilitating a much-needed rationalisation, the crisis might further entrench the status quo, especially if the entrenchment is publicly funded. ScoMo isn’t going to put $10 million into the Sharks only for them to leave his electorate.

It is likely that Politis will keep the Roosters going, as Murdoch will keep the Broncos alive and the consortium at the Storm will do likewise. Clubs owned by leagues clubs (Newcastle, North Queensland, Wests, etc) might struggle. There won’t be much of a grant if the clubs are forced to close and I can’t see how that won’t happen.

Indeed, if the worst case scenario does come to pass, and we only have a few clubs left standing and no league, then it will be as if the Super League war suceeded. The successor competition will be free of the NSWRFL’s baggage to create a new league from scratch, preferably one based on 2021’s demographics and not 1908’s. That will at least give us something to talk about while football isn’t being played and offers the prospect of rugby league becoming a profitable enterprise in the future. We can then endure subsequent decades of “bring back the Sea Eagles/Tigers/Sharks/Eels” chatter.

The real ‘victim’ is the international game. The momentum of the last three years is going to go to waste as there will be no spare cash to pay for its continued growth. Travel restrictions, a fact of life for the next six to twelve months at a minimum, make going anywhere a dicey proposition, let alone for something as trivial as a football game. It’s a shame but that’s life, especially in rugby league.

State of Origin will return as soon as logistically and politically feasible. Broadcasters, players and the rugby league bodies will be dying for the cash injection. They may find Australia in recession at that point, which begs the question of who is going to buy the ad time that generates the income.

Relying on Harvey Norman, a giant collateralised debt obligation that “owns” most of the commercial land that the stores sit on and whose business model is selling overpriced durable non-essential consumer goods to boomers, is risky in the absence of the federal government distributing gift cards on behalf of Gerry Harvey as economic stimulus.

Holden’s already gone. How much more money does Intrust Super have in a market crash? Beer is relatively recession-proof, so the XXXX Dry Maroons taking on the Tooheys New Blues in the VB State of Origin might be the go but not necessarily a river of gold.

Somebody’s going to ask John Singleton what we should do – looking at you, Roy Masters – and I’m going to absolutely lose it.

Ultimately, pandemics aren’t there to “clean up society” as one extremely ill-informed but fortunately anonymous Super League chairman put it. There will be far reaching and extreme consequences of coronavirus that grossly outweigh the minutiae of a sport at the margins of world culture.

Continuing with business-as-usual in the face of a literal pandemic is simply baffling. That this is even a position that is up for debate shows how just how frayed social cohesion has become after decades of globalist neoliberalism. Nonetheless, here we are with no alternatives but to keep calm and carry on because our political and economic structures aren’t up to the task. See also: climate change.

Both leagues, supposedly worth millions of pounds and billions of dollars, should have been better prepared.

It’s not that they should have predicted a global pandemic (although why not because there’s been plenty down through history and it is never different this time around) but they should have been at least be aware that something with this magnitude of risk – very low probability but extremely catastrophic consequences – can occur and protected the organisations accordingly.

Nicholas Nassim Taleb wrote several bestsellers about this after the GFC. It’s not a secret and I really won’t care if clubs or leagues fall over due to mismanagement in the face of entirely foreseeable economic conditions. What is a season cancellation due to mutant influenza but an extreme reduction in cash flow? How do you not have a plan for that? If your plan is “we’re boned”, well then, guess what?

It’s clear that neither league can self-insure against the worst possible outcomes so they should have mitigated the risk by putting it on insurers. That’s what insurers are there for. These are the basic elements of management and it’s a test that rugby league fails time and time again.

The coaches that fucked up your club

When a coach arrives at a major league club, fresh and excited to make his own mark in the history books, you’d have to think that, as a minimum threshold for success, he’d want to leave the place in better shape than when he arrived. Sometimes, the vagaries of reality make it difficult to assess a coach’s legacy but we can definitely ignore nuance and simplify things down to a nice looking line on a graph.

For this, we use Class Elo ratings. Over this kind of time frame, you can think of the rating as a glorified win-loss stock ticker. It goes up when the team wins and it goes down when the team loses. The rating goes up more for unexpected wins and goes down more for unexpected losses. Grand finals are weighted the heaviest, then finals and then regular season games. Challenge Cup results are included for Super League teams. You can see each team’s class Elo rating history for NRL and Super League.

This post compares different coaches at each club and see how they improved the club’s rating from their first game. I’ve included most, but not all of, the coaches for each club over the last two decades. Caretakers have generally been excluded. I used rugbyleagueproject.org (DONATE TO THE PATREON) to determine the extents of careers but it may not be 100% complete for coaching details and career lengths may be out by a few games. It is very hard to find out which round a coach was sacked from a club in 2003 if it’s not on RLP. 

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