NRL Finals – Keeping Tabs on Positions Five Through Eight (and Gus)

How vulnerable are the Knights to missing the finals as Gus Gould suggests? And will it get any easier for the Raiders?

For a bit of fun last week, the Dr attempted to quantify the strength of the draw facing the contenders for the bottom half of the NRL finals, just to see if what actually looked like common sense stacked up in some way.

The question is how can we get a rough approximation of the draw that is fair and reasonable, but which is also relatively simple to implement? After all, there are upsets, injuries, weather-affected matches, playing surfaces of variable quality, and the inevitable issues behind the scenes that influence preparation and performance, but which the public don’t get to see in real time.

I also tried adjusting for home and away matches, but the results were insignificantly different.

I don’t know about you, but I find that home advantage or, more particularly, away disadvantage seem to matter less as the finals approach for the simple reason that games are often in the must win category.

All of these factors mean that even if you wanted to devise a PhD thesis-quality model for the strength of the draw, you probably would get something close to what is shown below. But what’s the point?

Though you can try if you want 🙂

The Method

The values attributed to opposing teams are simply the reverse number of their current placing.

That is, the Eels are 16th, so are awarded a 1 (as the most beatable team, to put it euphemistically), while the leading Rabbitohs are given a 16 rating.

This is how the list of Top 8 contenders shaped up (chosen on the basis of being within a single match of each other) after Round 19:Draw from Round 19

There has been a adjustment to last week’s total number to make it a score per game (Draw Strength above). It’s much easier, then, to dynamically compare the path of the results as the weeks unfold.

Note also that opposition ratings will change marginally on a weekly basis as ladder positions shuffle about.

Other additions include the difference in Draw Strength between each team on the list, and a difference to the 3rd placing.

I have done it this way in order to tease out the 8th and last finalist (or 4th on this list), based on the idea that the Bulldogs, Sharks and Knights are placed well enough to take positions five through seven. Clearly, you have to make some assumptions!

And here’s how it looks after Round 20:Draw from Round 20

What do you notice? A few standouts.

First, the Knights swap places with the Bulldogs in terms of Draw Strength, having put the Roosters behind them last week (and who had a high value of 15), while the Bulldogs put the Eels behind them (with a value of just 1 – so of course their draw gets harder!).

Second, the Warriors maintain the 4th most favourable draw leading into the finals. And not only that, the gap in draw strength to the 3rd placed Sharks is far narrower. As mentioned way back, their destiny lays with themselves alone. Their current position and For & Against requires an almost perfect run to the finals, but they have the ability (and the draw) to do it.

In fact, based on the current NRL ladder (which will change after this week, admittedly), their draw ranking becomes more favourable again!Draw from Round 21

Third, the Panthers’ and Raiders’ draw actually becomes harder. The Panthers have collapsed at the first hurdle, and now face a higher one in the form of the Roosters this weekend. It’s a must win game, even if it is unlikely.

The 7th placed Raiders will struggle to hold that ranking from here onwards. Their Draw Strength number of 12.2 implies that their last six matches will be against opposition with an average quality of the Bulldogs, with a dash of Storm thrown in (given they have values of 12 and 13 respectively).

So when Gus Gould (who I love to listen to and read) says in his column that the Knights will do it tough (or implicitly tougher than other candidates) to reach the finals, I respectfully disagree, and suggest the Raiders are more likely to miss out altogether.

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The July Premiers Reprise – The Rabbitohs joined by the Roosters?

The July Premiers Reprise – The Rabbitohs joined by the Roosters?

As we draw to a close on round 20, there are two teams on clean streaks – the Roosters with an unbroken sequence of five green lights (wins), and Parramatta on red (losses). In all likelihood, both of those trends will continue with minor, if any, interruption.

As a result, the inevitable has happened amongst the information-lagging punters – they’ve bid the Roosters into premiership favouritism. Never mind they haven’t beaten the Storm or Rabbitohs yet, and are the true outsiders in the Top 4 this year. I wrote a blog way back when on ‘recency bias’, and this is what is going on here.

Now, they may well win both the minor and major titles this year (they are easily good enough), but at today’s prices, the risk/reward is poor. It doesn’t reflect the monster that is South Sydney adequately enough, meaning the Bunnies are actually a better priced if you want to take some premiership risk. And it doesn’t reflect some serious shortcomings at the Roosters.

Just consider how the Rabbitohs annihilated the Titans over the weekend without genuine superstar, Greg Inglis. Of the 53 missed tackles by the Titans, 27 of them were Burgess-related. You see why street signs and cars are in so much danger. And that was only two of them. Don’t forget what happens when they get their hands on chooks!

Further, after announcing he was going to turn to a more running game from being the absolute low bar in the NRL stats for most of the season, look at what Adam Reynolds has done:NRL avg half runs

And as referred to in last week’s Rubdown where the Rabbitohs were advised to also engage in some succession planning, they’re already a step or two ahead. Suddenly, Luke Kheary is getting a whole lot more game time. This represents a further evolution in the Rabbitohs depth and cohesion, and is already trouble-shooting potential problems for the finals. I like the way these guys (ie. Madge) are thinking their way through the season. There can be no let down this year if Reynolds’ hammy plays up right when the Rabbitohs need it most!

If they somehow fail to win the Grand Final, it won’t be because they’ve left a pebble unturned somewhere. And it won’t be because they lack a single-minded ferocity. They are going to have to be beaten by someone other than themselves. The way I look at it, their only danger is being overcome by the emotion of a Grand Final …

The conclusion is pretty clear – they are a formidable unit that should be far and away the premiership favourites.

Blowing into the Top 4

As for the Roosters, they were always going to be a force from the moment James Maloney signed, even though they had to wait a further year for his services. He is a natural footballer (as evidenced by his doodles on the Footy Show), is well organised and has exceptional peripheral vision (possibly honed while barbequing …). Fairly vital attributes for a playmaker.

Adding the big names like Jennings and SBW to the roster meant they weren’t just going to be a Top 8 nuisance either, and the early season doubters were clearly way off the mark in their analysis. You only had to look at the ‘manner’ in which they were winning those early games to realise they were better than average.

For Roosters supporters, there is a fair bit to be cocky about, but also some signs that their premiership hopes may go the same way as the last three attempts.

I’ve been meaning to focus on the holes in their stats for some time. Having procrastinated even after Alan Katzman had provided a trigger with some in-depth Roosters-centric stats some weeks back via Twitter (sorry, no link), the 26 Rounds blog has encapsulated the many obstacles the Roosters face before being a true Premiership contender. And  has done so within the confines of a single post-match summary of yesterday’s victory over the Knights. I suggest you read it.

Some of these issues were dealt with in the Round 16 Rubdown, but let’s take it to a more graphical level to highlight a few points.

Possession

For a team with title ambitions, the Roosters allow the opposition far too much use of the ball, and it has been a feature all season. Sure, their defensive record is a clear standout (allowing less than 12 points on average per game against them), but each game has a tipping point, and you don’t want one of them to be a sudden death final.

The first eight rounds had them barely above 50%, thanks largely to the Eels and Panthers matches. Other than that, they had three horrific possession counts against the Rabbitohs, Broncos and Raiders, winning just one of them.

From rounds 9-17, possession was well under a 50% average, and it was only the Sharks match last week (nearly 61%) that hauled them back above the 50% level for the season.Roosters Possession

It’s lucky they can do this:Line breaks Difference

Low possession stats are mostly fine and manageable for vastly inferior teams, but not against the Top 4 in finals matches, all of whom have dominated possession.

As you can see below, the Roosters have spent far too much time without a fair share of the ball (and the other Top 4 teams have the best numbers):Games and 50pc Possession

Penalties, Completions and Work

Of course, many of these problems can be traced to lopsided penalty counts, unlucky or otherwise. Discipline still remains an issue, and as the piece in 26 Rounds noted, many of the mammoth 14 penalties blown against them against the Knights (as an example) were entirely justified.

The Roosters aren’t just the worst in this context, they are far and away the worst. The downside of this is, despite a reliable defence, opponents in finals matches stand a better chance of wearing them down like the Raiders did in round 5. Moreover, as we saw in State of Origin 2, big games can get away from you in an awful hurry when you’re fatigued.

It’s alright to be best, on average, during a full season, but the finals are a series of stand-alone matches with sudden death consequences.Penalty Ratio

Allowing the opposition more possession than is reasonable inevitably leads to less sets for you. It makes simple sense.

For a Top 4 side, the Roosters are well down on where they would like to be as far as actual Completions go:Completions per Match

… Which means they are asked to do way more work, on average, than their opposition:Work Ratio

For the Roosters, there are a great many things in their favour as the closing charts show, and which have combined to have them in the position they’re in.Total Metres DifferenceMetres Per Run Difference

Tries Difference 1

They also have a lot to work on before the next competition begins in seven weeks.

Introducing Positions 5-8 for the NRL Semi Finals … I think

For supporters of the Top 4, you’re ridin’ high and sleepin’ easy. Apart from some possible jostling at the top for the Minor Premiership (and I expect the Roosters to go hard, preferring to play Manly in Week 1), the teams and order is pretty much settled.

For supporters of the Knights, Bulldogs, Sharks, Raiders, Panthers, Warriors and Titans (positions five through 11), there will be a few more anxious moments over the last seven rounds. Sleep will be harder to come by, stress levels will rise, and life will be a little bit less fun. You may even scream uncontrollably at the TV screen on occasion.

Don’t despair. This is why the Dr is here – to provide you with some literary stilnox to solve this problem (and I am aware how that reads …). Then again, I did pick the Cowboys for the Top 4 before the season began, so read on at your own risk!

Surprisingly, even though these seven teams are separated by a solitary game, positions 5-7 appear to be almost straight forward (yes, famous last words). The 8th finalist, however, is harder to pick than a broken nose. Let me tell you who, and why.

Using highly UNsophisticated modelling techniques that cover the form through Round 19 and the upcoming strength of each team’s draw, we can make a relatively simple, yet logical judgement about each team’s fortunes.

Ranking each team’s opposition over the final seven rounds using the Dr’s 11 secret herbs and spices, a distinct hierarchy emerges. Clearly, the Bulldogs have the ‘easiest’ draw, followed by the Knights etc. But look at the difference between the Bulldogs’ draw ranking and the Raiders! 49 vs 72 – that’s quite a hurdle for the Raiders to overcome.Race to the finals

The second column of numbers looks back at the way each team has performed at home and away, and actually how well they’ve performed as measured by their winning margin (1-12 or 13 plus, with losses scoring zero).

The rankings change marginally across the group, but the top two teams remain the Bulldogs and Knights, in that order. Looks like we know who will be hosting the first finals in this part of the draw!

The Sharks have done well enough to rank 3rd and 4th respectively, so on the balance of probabilities (ASADA effects aside), we may well have found our 3rd finalist. I’m assuming we don’t have a Jana Novotna-like collapse here in all cases!

The remaining spot is the one open to more conjecture.

At this stage, the teams most likely to battle out this remaining spot are the Panthers and Warriors. This hurts me to say, in a way, because I always love seeing the Raiders in the finals, but given their run home, it’s going to be nigh on impossible! Having said that, the Warriors and Panthers are just awesome to watch when they get it right, particularly the Warriors.

The Panthers are in an enviable position here with respect to For & Against. They are currently ahead of the Raiders by 91 points despite being a game behind. Further, they are 118 points ahead of the Warriors, meaning as long as they can keep their form up, they can shut them out of the finals.

As far as the Warriors are concerned, For & Against is currently their major obstacle as you can see in the graphic below. Whilst I place them 4th best in terms of their draw ahead of the finals (just pipping the Panthers), their form to this point is the equal worst of this group alongside the Raiders.

The good news for them is that they have hit a rich vein of form now that the ‘structure overload’ seems to have been removed from their game. They need to take advantage of this and simply keep winning to make up for lost time and points, and hopefully throw a huge margin in there somewhere to improve the For & Against, and therefore their chances of squeaking into the Top 8. Who doesn’t want to see the Warriors in the finals?

I noted after the earlier mauling by the Panthers that the Warriors were good enough to turn their season around, and that it was in their hands. Almost poetically, they play the Panthers at home before the finals, and must win that game. It really is in their hands!For and Against_Contenders

The Titans’ draw is almost equally as appalling as the one facing the Raiders, and includes the Warriors, Roosters and Storm on consecutive weekends to round out the season. Along with a performance record so far that is insignificantly different to both the Warriors and Raiders, the door is hardly even ajar for these guys.

So, while the mathematical ruler has already put a line through the Eels, and will soon do so for the Broncos, Dragons, Tigers and Cowboys, the Titans look to the be the first of this group of seven to face the same fate.

The NRL Round 19 Rubdown

Are the Bunnies too reliant on Greg Inglis?

Of course!

Are the Storm too reliant on Cameron Smith?

Of course!

With players of that quality, it simply comes with the territory.

Housing genuine superstars within your playing roster achieves a couple of noteworthy things.

First, there is the obvious benefit of their impact within any game in general, and particularly at the pivotal moments where they really earn their reputations and pay packets. Watching Inglis, for example, thrust into the line like an exocet missile is something of great rugby league beauty, and is often the difference between winning and losing matches.

Secondly, their presence lifts the players around them. In a sense, their presence is a natural performance enhancer.

Their absence, therefore, is also a bit of a downer, no matter how good the rest of the playing roster is. In the finals, this could mean the difference between playing an extra game or dressing up like a nurse.

Last night’s Rabbitohs-Dragons match was a case in point. The Rabbitohs, a superb team without doubt, were nowhere near as threatening and electrifying without the presence of Greg Inglis, and a workman-like performance wasn’t enough to subdue the 15th placed Dragons.

What teams are best equipped to handle the loss of key players?

Sticking with the Top 4 for now, the Rabbitohs are in serious trouble without Inglis and Reynolds. Lose one or both, and invitations to invoke 1989 are made.

Inglis’ presence is like Darth Vader to the opposition, who are much happier when he’s on the sideline! As for Reynolds, his absence in the major semi final last year underscored his value. On this latter point, the Rabbitohs could do a lot worse than trial an understudy half back during upcoming games, just in case that hammy decides it has another surprise.

The Storm becomes almost irrelevant in the finals without Cameron Smith. Losing Cronk, or Slater in particular, would be catastrophic losses, but cast your mind back to what happened when Cameron Smith wasn’t present at a Grand Final.

The Roosters and Manly seem best equipped to handle the loss of a key player because they are not as reliant on a single individual (or duo). The Roosters have had hardly any use of Sonny Bill Williams’ skills in the last two matches and have prevailed by a total 76-0. If one of the halves is out, Mortimer or SBW can fill in and completely disrupt the opposition game plan. Mortimer can even fill in for Jakey Friend in the worst case scenario that he is injured, and I say worst case because he is playing out of his skin and is an integral part of the Roosters’ success.

As for Manly, they are simply a team of thoroughbred footballers. They all seem to have a variety of skills, and possess a maniacal lust for winning. The absence of Daly Cherry-Evans during Origin hampered them only slightly, and like SBW, Jamie Lyon assumed more responsibility with direction and as play maker.

What is a safe buffer these days in the NRL? And how even is the competition?

As the Rabbitohs proved last night, even the top –placed side isn’t safe with an understated performance and a two try buffer with 10 minutes to go. Even against the 15th placed team!

Athletic ability and speed in the modern NRL are so ubiquitous that a momentary lapse of focus can result in an abrupt change to the scoreboard, and all of a sudden events are moving too quickly to reboot the defensive structure.

The Roosters had a similar lead against the Bulldogs a few weeks ago, and almost let the game slip. Never mind that it was an Origin-depleted round and that they had previously beaten the Doggies 38-0. No-one truly believes they will account for the Sharks by 40 points again in a month. It’s all about the team’s attitude on the day.

The next time someone bemoans how uneven the NRL competition is just because the Eels got thumped again, take a note from the Dr and tell them they’re in la-la land. There are always going to be standouts (like the Bulldogs and Storm last year), and taking one or two important players out of most teams brings them back to the field in a mighty hurry. Quadruple that for the teams that are rebuilding.

Once you account for the game changers like Inglis, Smith and Barba et al, the difference between most teams in the NRL is preparation and coaching .

Size and athletic ability are almost a wash these days. But give some of these behemoths a few skills drills (are you listening , Brenton Lawrence?), a bit of structure (but not too much, hey, Matt Elliot?), on top of a well –tapered preparation, and success is not going to be far away.

Referees on report

Mose Masoe, take a bow. You have just put the referees on report like the Dr did so many months ago (1, 2, 3, 4). I’ve been waiting for it. The performances are schizophrenic, their grasp of the rules is less than tenuous, and they keep making preventable, game changing mistakes on a weekly basis. According to Einstein, this is madness. According to most NRL fans, it’s just ludicrous.

Nobody is quite sure how Dean Whare was adjudged to have scored a fair try, but it does recall visions of the 2010 Grand Final where Brett Morris was at least a foot out of play without being called.

The problem is that this type of thing isn’t a one-off. What are they doing up there? Making music hot tub hip hop music videos? They’re certainly not paying any attention to the game.

Ticket Prices and crowds

The NRL say they have been underselling their game as an explanation for doubling Grand Final ticket prices. I say they are behaving as monopolistic rent seekers.

Not content to rake in a billion dollars for the broadcast rights deal, they feel it is fair to charge a family of four $1,380 to attend the Grand Final (against $580 last year). Just imagine if we have the two clowns who refereed the 2nd Origin match, where the match is effectively over after 20 minutes because of abject incompetence. Is that fair? What can soften the blow to the hip pocket? The cold chips at inflated prices? Maybe the 4km-long line for a beer?

More than doubling tickets behind the goal posts is bad enough, but we’re talking ANZ Stadium here, not the SFS, where the fans are actually closer to the game as opposed to the next suburb.

Economic theory says that a monopoly (or even a duopoly, oligopoly or cartel) can decide unilaterally (or collectively) what to charge its customers without fear (filled the tank lately?). As long as the customers are sold a story that is effective enough, it seems they will part with their hard earned cash.

Apple has made this abundantly clear, just in case anyone was wondering. As the late Steve Jobs said, don’t give people what they need, give them what they didn’t know they needed. And price accordingly.

With an economy that is increasingly looking shaky and greater numbers of underemployed people, I regard the price hike as a cynical cash grab that might have two effects. The first is a fall in demand for Grand Final tickets in subsequent years (which the NRL may try to offset by lowering them, but raising semi final tickets).

The second is that fans will save money for the Grand Final splash, but attend less NRL matches.

If only they would consider some common sense such as that which the Dr peddles from time to time.

Here’s how 2013 crowds look right now. Notice a trend?NRL Crowds

 Mathematics and the Top 8

We’re at the point of the season where we can start putting a hard line through teams for the finals.

Nobody believes teams like the Tigers and Eels can make the finals a in a pink fit anyway, but mathematically they can. Actually, the Eels are ten-toes-up already.

But after this week, assuming the Top 8 requires a minimum 30 points, the rest of the bottom 5 that include the Broncos, Cowboys, Dragons and Tigers will be planning Mad Monday with more vigour than they study their game plans, assured that they cannot make the finals. This is the point where things happen like crowd interest wanes even further than the attendance numbers already suggest, and Benji is cut loose early.

Outside the Top 4, positions 5 through 11 are just 2pts apart and anything is possible. It will be a few more weeks yet before mathematics completely rules out the next contender.

When we see a logjam like this, For and Against points are crucial, and any team could well rue a win in Golden Point where they are not allowed to convert a try … what a joke that is.

Here’s how the all-important For & Against stacks up for this cohort.For and Against_Contenders

Solving under strength NRL matches during Origin

How on earth do we solve the weekends of under strength NRL during Origin? Can we even do it? And will the broadcasters play ball?

Well intentioned theories are emanating with abandon from an increasingly broad-minded NRL community that State of Origin should follow the Lions Tests model.

If you think about it, it would solve a couple of problems such as under strength teams fielded during the Origin period, and assist with player workload and burnout. But does it really solve the problem in the context of a billion dollar business, where that ‘business’ (ie. Broadcaster) might see very little problem at all because it’s all about revenue to them?

Let’s assume fans have something to do with this for while …

I like the fact that cherry-picking the best processes from other sports is catching on, even if we do still have a running clock when the ball goes out, or restart at the 20m line after a kick from half way goes dead in goal. Baby steps, I guess …

But if you’re like me, you’re already mourning the impending passing of the State of Origin series. I can already feel a sense foreboding about this last match (being  NSW supporter) that usually precedes a deep disappointment that will last for weeks. I can’t be sure, but it has happened the last seven years at any rate.

On top of that, the NRL season has already passed its half way mark and we are on the downhill slide to the finals.

Now, the finals are a hoot, and always have the adrenalin flying. However, the first Monday without football, followed by dropping the Friday match, culminating in only a couple of games on the weekend, is enough to drive me into the understanding and compassionate  arms of the nearest Mojito.

Simply put, NRL fans like more, not less. And since we don’t get nearly enough, we never even remotely approach the law of diminishing returns!

So, talking about standalone weekends for Origin leaves me a little flat, and three weekends in a row with no NRL sucks the air out of me completely. So what are the options?

The Current system – 3 week Origin gap, players unavailable for NRL

This system is the whole reason we’re having this debate, so clearly it isn’t quite what everybody wants. Under strength matches take away a certain edge from games, and can often affect a team’s run to the finals when the absence of key personnel are the difference between a win and a loss.

There is also a minor problem associated with For & Against. Clearly, losing a match you would ordinarily win were you at full strength means your For & Against drops instead of climbs. I discount results like the Storm’s capitulation on the weekend, because even an under strength side shouldn’t have lost by 39 points, but for teams fighting to reach the top eight, it could be material.

Current system variation – 2 week Origin gap, players unavailable for NRL

The current system, along with its existing drawbacks, is also quite extended. A full seven weeks between games 1 & 3 is regarded by many as too long. Is this why the Game 3 build up was lower key, I wonder?

More importantly, it spreads the under strength matches over too long a period.

So perhaps we can shorten it to 1-week on, 1-week off?

This way, the series is over in five weeks, the passion is never allowed to fall from fever-pitch, and the NRL season can resume at full strength sooner.

Both teams can have their extended camp prior to Game 1, and rejoin camp immediately after their club matches in between Origins.

In both these cases, the NRL must be careful with its draw. It simply cannot make the schoolboy error again of last year’s Grand Finalists playing a match without their best players.

Suspending the NRL for Origin

There are a couple of variations of this model.

The first is that the NRL competition is suspended for a 3-week period and Origin is played on three consecutive standalone weekends. This is the Lions model alluded to above, which also saw the Super 15 rugby season suspended to accommodate it. Importantly, this happens only once every 12 years rather than yearly, placing far less burden on the normal progress of a season.

The variation to this is the Bellamy system, a 10-day gap between Origin matches (two Wednesdays and a middle Sunday game), also with NRL suspended.

The problem with the Bellamy method over the Lions method is that, while it still covers three weekends without any NRL, there is a weakened round prior to Game 1, and a short turn around after Game 3.

And the problem with both models is that the season will need to be lengthened by three weeks to accommodate Origin. Starting the season even earlier runs into the back of the cricket season and is too hot, while ending later runs into the beginning of the cricket season. Neither is ideal.

Broadcasting rights and ‘make up’ games

Now that the NRL has signed its soul over to a billion dollar broadcasting rights agreement, there is very little wiggle room to pull the NRL competition to a shuddering halt for three weeks, Origin or no Origin.

TV and radio would be aghast at having the plug pulled from their NRL coverage for such a length of time, particularly channel 9 who are severely in debt as it is, and who have budgeted for the increased revenues and exposure that the NRL and Origin series collectively bring them.

Both parties could come to an arrangement like responsible adults, but what are their options?

‘Filler’ games like City-Country, or International games between Tonga and Samoa, and possibly including New Zealand as a tri-series, don’t have the same drawing and viewer power as the regular NRL, and more importantly, aren’t as friendly to the networks in terms of the advertising and sponsorship dollar. They also cannot hope to fill the void in terms of numbers of matches.

Then again, if we are having 4-game NRL rounds already, is it worth considering?

Further, Great Britain (a poor option I’ve heard floated) is unlikely to want to make a yearly tour around the world for a couple of matches that don’t include Australia, and which weaken the Super League at the same time.

Playing a couple of Tests against Australia would sweeten this option (for them), but not only are we back where we started with players unavailable for NRL games, but it’s hard to see them doing this every year. It could become very boring, very quickly – for everyone.

For broadcasters, it’s a case of ‘show me the money’ to make up for lost revenues (as Steve Mascord has noted) or moving forward with the NRL which, even in a weakened state for a short time, still pays the bills.

Any other options?  Bueller…?

There is a general distaste for Monday Night Football (MNF), but what if MNF were to be State of Origin? I think that would change the equation.

And not on a 3-week schedule, but played fornightly?

The advantages of a system like this are that it is somewhat more compressed than the current 3-week gap, and that a full round of NRL could be played the week prior to Origin.

Of course, we will still have some teams weakened during the NRL round immediately preceding the Monday Origin match, but it also allows Origin players the best part of a full week to recover for the next weekend’s club schedule.

If player burnout is part of any equation to advance the game, as it should be, then this seems a far more sensible approach.

Amending the Bye system

Because standalone weekends require a suspension of the NRL season, and therefore a longer season (we don’t want NRL teams playing less than 24 games, we actually prefer more), the option in this case is simply to eradicate the two Bye rounds.

Given we still have the antiquated and quite useless system of providing two competition points for each Bye (meaning constant adjustments need to be made to gauge the true progress of a team),  maybe this amendment will prove too difficult. I hope not.

The three Origin weekends would therefore require just the one extra round to be created (now that the Byes have been taken out).

Or, only the first two State of Origin matches could be scheduled as standalone fixtures, with the 3rd incorporating the resumption of the NRL season proper.

Any conclusions?

Commercial realities mean that we are likely to have to accept under strength matches some of the time. It’s not ideal, but it’s not the worst option in the world, and it’s not like players aren’t rested prior to the finals anyway. It’s probably best not to get too dogmatic about football matches.

My own preferred option in this case is to move Origin to Monday nights to crown the week of NRL and allow players sufficient time to recover before backing up.

The second best option (in my view) is to have two standalone weekends (covering Brisbane and Sydney on rotation) with the NRL suspended and Byes eradicated (Ed. moved to common weekends rather than spread out, just to be clear). The 3rd game in Melbourne (neutral territory) would then sit at the back end of a full NRL round.

I’m sure I’ve missed something ….

State of Origin 3: The Ghosts of 2008

Prior to the 2nd State of Origin, the analogy with 2008 was drawn as a warning for what was to be expected up at Suncorp Stadium. Unfortunately, it happened again.

The parallels with 2008 appeared to have been set in motion with a NSW victory in Game 1, the first time NSW had won the opener since 2008.

The prospect of a Queensland ambush and a super-fast start (just like Game 2, 2008) were highlighted as ‘givens’, particularly in light of the odd performance served up by the Maroons in that first match.

There was really no other script, and it was therefore somewhat surprising that NSW began the game without a matching intensity. It lost them the match, allowing the Maroons to dictate the flow of play.

Sure, NSW had a disrupted preparation, and were not well served by poor refereeing which ended the match as a contest after 20 minutes. But history will show that history rhymed very well with 2008, and for similar reason.

But will it continue to do so in Game 3?

Referees are a popular(?) bunch

Just like the preamble to Game 2 a few weeks back, the media has been swamped with jawboning about referees to the point where former greats are milling around the periphery joining the fray.

Surely, media content focusing solely on the game of rugby league would probably be a better approach. It is a showpiece event, after all.

It’s difficult to know what to expect from the referees given how susceptible to Jedi mind tricks many referees seem to be.

All anyone really wants is an adequate standard of refereeing that removes officials from the flow of the game. This didn’t happen in Game 2, and let’s hope Game 3 is not a reprise – in either direction. Keep a good 10 metres and hands off the ball in the ruck and the referees go a long way toward ensuring a captivating match.

Round 18 of the NRL seems to suggest that markers standing side-by-side is now ‘OK’, so I presume both teams will be doing that tomorrow night. In that sense, nothing will have changed from the first two matches. As long as they don’t affect the next attacking play, I don’t care either. But if they do …

And it also appears that the sin bin radar has gone berserk if Josh Reynolds’ try-denying tackle without the ball on the weekend is any guide.

Based on what I have observed recently in the NRL leads to the (somewhat hopeful?) conclusion that the penalty count will be low.Penalties

Preparation

Like Origin 2, the Blues’ preparations have been interrupted by injury and form.

Losing Paul Gallen will have an effect, no doubt. But will it be a let-down for the Blues, or will they react similarly to the Sharks when Gallen has been unavailable?

The Sharks have shown that, far from being a negative, losing Gallen can be made into a distinct positive. By sharing the workload and allowing others to assume greater responsibility, they have managed to remain competitive and potent.

As mentioned previously, Gallen was probably misused to some extent in both matches so far. Instead of playing 80 minutes and making 250 metres in Game 1, for instance, more incisive ball-runners such as James Tamou could have bettered his own tally of seven hit ups, and Andrew Fifita could also have spent more time on the field. Damaging runners like these two with offloads at pace make one hell of a difference.

It’s a moot point now, but a better option would have been to start and finish with Gallen, with Fifita playing the middle 40 minutes separated by half-time.

The replacement for Gallen is a masterstroke. Boyd Cordner is young, fast, aggressive, and if Willie Mason calls him an animal, then it’s good enough for me too. His workrate is phenomenal, and I suspect he will slot into Origin in a very similar way to Fifita.

One area of concern for NSW remains the right wing. Given the considerable problems experienced on that side of the field over multiple series, it would have made far more sense to choose from a selection of right wingers, as opposed to a left winger who had recently scored a brace of tries that not only were almost scored already, but which also required a right hand fend at various points.

This sounds strange, but it’s not. Players are assigned to one side of the field these days as a matter of course, and changing isn’t easy, especially in a game of such importance where split second decisions need to be made. I am somewhat wary of what may happen here …

Game 3, 2008 – Queensland 16-10

Once again, the eerie similarities take shape.

After giving NSW a hiding in Game 2, Queensland maintained the exact same squad for the deciding match, as they have done for this week.

NSW, on the other hand, made seven changes. Tomorrow’s game is only half that, but the direction is still there.

It took the Maroons until the 67th minute in 2008 to subdue the Blues in a tight and brutal game that had brawls and an incident that would result in Nate Myles being subsequently suspended for six matches.

Queensland is sure to begin aggressively again, and given the poor discipline shown by the Blues in the first two matches, they will set the niggle-o-meter to Defcon 5 as well. Justin Hodges’ one goes to Defcon 6 in true Spinal Tap style.

Subduing is all it will take, like 2008. They don’t need a Game 2 margin all over again.

Without doubt, NSW are up against it given another sub-optimal preparation. All we can do is tune in, hold on tight, and hope the series moves away from the 2008 script.

A quick look at the NRL Form Tracker for Round 17

Back to the full complement of eight games this week – hallelujah!

Before drawing on the (imprecise, but interesting) predictive powers of the Form Tracker for each of the weekend’s matches, the latter season NRL draw was announced yesterday, and has drawn some comment.

The Draw

Much of the commentary was reserved for the fact that the Broncos continue to snag the Friday night games.

Is this a real issue? It has annoyed me in the past, and I have some sympathy for the idea that they do receive a favourable draw in this regard.

For example, would the Cowboys-Titans game not be a better Friday night spectacle than Broncos-Eels in Round 23? Or Titans-Warriors the very next week rather than Panthers-Broncos? You get the picture …

Clearly, there is an advantage to having the regularity of knowing you have seven days to recuperate and prepare for the next match. Further, this kind of repeated ‘spacing’ accumulates in a beneficial way.

Having a series of shorter term turnarounds, on the other hand, might mean the difference between an injury healing sufficiently, or being prone to further deterioration, particularly with consecutive short turnarounds.

But here’s the thing – looking at the draw, there are a mixture of 5-9 day turnarounds, and while the Broncos do have this seven-day regularity, they miss out on the longer gaps too. So, while the last 10 rounds have delivered the Broncos gaps of at least seven days on seven occasions, only one of those is longer. Other teams have a mixture of seven, eight and nine-day turnarounds.

The point is, it’s not significant … just annoying.

If any teams had a gripe, at the margin I would nominate Manly and the Roosters as having a slightly worse schedule than the Rabbitohs and Storm, and if I were the Roosters, I’d ask about the 5-day turnaround before the last game of the season against the Rabbitohs in what could be the playoff for the minor premiership.

Afternoon Games

As noted in a previous post, NRL CEO David Smith has been moving in the right direction with his management team, banning the biff and so on, and I like what I’m beginning to see.

The announcement of the reintroduction of Saturday afternoon matches within yesterday’s announcement is another excellent development. Most seem to appreciate this time slot – it’s family friendly and the ball movement isn’t affected by dew. It’s a better contest all round. Hopefully it is a precursor to an earlier Grand Final as well!

Now he can move onto reintroducing the shoulder charge which, as mentioned oh so long ago (and here too), was always fraught with danger once it became banned. The sooner head contact is dealt with appropriately, the sooner we can do away with ‘dud’ rules.

Form Tracker

Now that we’re more than halfway through the season and armed with a better sample of data, how does each team’s record stack up for Round 17?

Note that the Form Tracker takes into account when each scores points and is scored against. There is no adjustment for home or away games or particular rivalries (that’s far too much work, though possibly not where the Raiders are concerned). Just the cold, hard numbers as put up by each club. See if you agree.

Storm-BroncosStorm Tracker

Sharks-TigersSharks Tracker

Dragons-Roosters

If the Dragons stay within 15 they should count it as a ‘win’.

 

Dragons Tracker

Titans-Panthers

Without the Fresh Prince in the centres, the Titans could really struggle in this one, evewi considering the more humid conditions and home-like advantage.

Titans Tracker

Raider-Cowboys

The Raiders can’t possibly lose at home can they? And vice versa …

Raiders tracker

Bulldogs-Knights

The Knights have struggled to back up this year, so I have no hesitation favouring the Bulldog, possibly by plenty.

 

Bulldogs Tracker

Rabbitohs-Warriors

I have a feeling this is the week the Warriors come back to earth after 5 straight wins and a loooooong trip to an away game.

Rabbitohs Tracker

Manly-ParramattaManly Tracker