What statistic do you regard as the most important to a rugby league team? I’m sure you will have a favourite. Which one stands out as the consistent and definitive marker of a successful team? Apart from the big ‘W’, that is. But even that is an outcome, not an underlying statistic. What we’re looking for is what leads to the ‘W’. Hint: it’s the halves. And if Shakira is to be believed, the stats don’t lie baby!
While I can afford to be quite objective and agnostic on this topic, there is the complicating factor that rugby league is a game of countless moving parts. Well, not actually countless, though it might appear that way to the Roosters’ right side defence, who clearly didn’t major in number theory. But still, there are so many moving parts, in fact, that one particular statistic is unable to dominate all others all the time. So maybe my, and your, view on the most important stat is really quite subjective after all.
Take the numbers we are besieged by on a weekly basis: Completion Rates; Possession; Offloads; Errors and Defence; all of which are the foundations of useful of analysis. But what story do they really tell? Not much in isolation as alluded to above. It’s the combination that counts, much like Manly’s amazing Metres Gained (in total or per run) compared with a so-so number of Completions and an even worse Completion Rate. Looking at the latter would never lead you to the former, yet there it is.
If you looked at Errors, for example, you would find both Manly and the Storm up at 4th and 5th, while the top 3 teams just scrape into the top 8 for Offloads.
Possession is more positive for the top 3, and what they do with that possession (Metres Gained) has been a distinguishing factor so far this year. The Rabbitohs in particular need to control possession the way they do (3rd) if they are going to offset a relatively high Missed Tackle percentage (4th highest at over 9%).
So you can see that there are stats … and there are stats … sometimes they corroborate one another, sometimes they just offset. It makes sense in a topsy tury way – if you’re falling down in one area (no obstruction jokes!), then you’d better be making it up elsewhere.
But the stat that the top teams all share is the defensive work rate of their halves.
Far from being a weak link, halves that are adept and willing in defence contribute meaningfully to the team’s performance. Adam Reynolds faced his personal Darth Vader in the form of Manu Vatavei on the weekend, made a total of more than 30 tackles, and has now earned his Jedi status. They tried to run over him, but if there’s a person you’re not going to run over it’s someone with their name plastered all over themselves. Along with Sutton, the Rabbitohs halves contribute fully 1/7th of the defensive work.
If you want to see the top echelon of the top 8, you’ll see it in this stat – and you do!
Notwithstanding the roles the halves already play kicking and directing play, they take pressure off the larger men, allowing them to be fresher and more effective in attack. Most of the top teams rank highly in this area, though the Titans and Knights are 9th and 10th. This could be an issue for them through the season as far as challenging the top teams, especially in the finals where the intensity builds.