Most rugby league articles these days can be categorised as simple diatribes, lacking any real analysis and objectivity. And God forbid a solution is offered. No, it is seen as best to harp on about the same thing (like ‘diving’) on a yearly basis. It’s madness. It’s rugby league.
It’s even worse when statistics are used to arrive at a conclusion, when the use of those statistics in the analysis is so irretrievably wrong.
Statistics are an important feature of modern life and sport. They can mean everything, or they can mean nothing. Wielding any set of numbers to support a case relies on careful consideration of causation, correlation and so on.
If you can’t support the conclusion with the full data set (only by cherry picking, and even then, not doing a very good job), it’s called having an agenda. Politicians and polemicists have mastered this technique, as you no doubt have witnessed throughout the election campaign so far.
This brings me to an ABC article that I came across over the weekend, which is another in a litany of poor thought processes, and conclusions borne of dubious analysis, particularly the misapplication of causation. It is proof that numbers and journalism do not always mix.
It was so poor and objectionable that I had to stew on it for a day just to make sure I hadn’t missed something of seminal importance and brilliant insight … And to let the Grant Burge Shiraz wear off.
Now that it has (mostly), I find my initial reaction to be unchanged.
You can see the discrepancy for yourself. It is an embarrassment to the NRL.
What it is implicitly saying is that the Roosters (and, to a lesser extent, Manly) are so poor at building pressure that they cannot earn penalties from offside or ruck infringements (I’ve been to live games of both, and I can attest to this being untrue). And yet, the Dragons and Cowboys are just so darned good at it!
They’re just woeful, right? Or maybe they’re just lucky?
In any case, recent remarks by the NRL hierarchy don’t betray any concern whatsoever, preferring to erect smokescreens to hide the game’s deficiencies. No one is being fooled. Further, the view has been expressed that penalty counts don’t influence games. I’m guessing millions of league followers would disagree.
Anyhow, onto the article, where the question posed was whether the Roosters’ (and Manly’s) defensive success is an outcome of the high penalty counts recorded against them. Say what? They’re successful because they give the opposition far more possession through penalties?
It’s preposterous on its face, and akin to surmising that David Boon was a magnificent opening batsman because he drank an awful lot of beer.
If the writer is arguing that the Roosters (and Manly) have become better defenders by doing more of it, then sure, they’re getting an awful lot of practice! Or if giving the opposition extra use of the ball means they have to make more tackles, then duh, of course.
But is it the basis for their success, as posited by the ABC? It’s hard to imagine that it is. After all, you don’t score without the ball, meaning it’s far harder to win games, particularly in the modern era where penalties (or just mistakes) often lead to tries within a couple of sets.
The fact is that the Roosters and Manly have had to post superhuman defensive efforts because of the lopsided penalty counts against them. They are successful in spite of them, in other words. If it were any other way, they would not be well entrenched in the Top 4, and they would not be credible contenders for the Premiership. You do what you gotta to do.The article goes on to say:
“Roosters coach Trent Robinson said recently he was concerned about his side’s high penalty count and that he intended to discuss it with referees boss Daniel Anderson.
Given his sides results it is hard to understand why Trent would be concerned. Anderson would probably tell Trent that the stats point out:
1. His side frequently is seen to hold down the tackled player;
2. His team is seen often to interfere with the play the ball; and
3. His players are frequently seen to be offside.
In short, it could be argued that the Roosters play a brand of football that consistently tries to slow down their opponents’ attack.”
Once again, an absurd assertion that implies the Roosters are more than happy to tire themselves out to slow down the opposition.
It strikes me that exhausting oneself tends to slow you down, and means that when you do actually have possession, you will be tired, on the back foot, ineffective, under increasing pressure and, more than likely, offside on the scoreboard.
The article has one thing right. James Maloney can hang on tighter than a Scotsman to his wallet at times, even when he really doesn’t need to.
But the Roosters’ coach, along with little Toovs, might ask different questions:
1. Why do we not attract more penalties for the opposition holding us down in the same we are found guilty, when there is clear evidence of them doing so? Not to mention similar incidents in other games played over the same weekend?
2. Ditto, but with respect to interfering in the play the ball.
3. Why is it that we work hard to play the ball quickly and catch the opposition offside, yet are not rewarded for it? Please explain how it is different to the penalties blown against us?
Asking in this way might be implicitly accusative, but not explicitly. These questions are designed to illicit detailed answers.
When I fail to see any major differences between teams in any particular match, it’s hard to understand penalty counts in favour of one team that are measured in multiples of two to three.
The article concludes, in true Yes, Prime Minister fashion:
“The stats show that Manly is not far behind the Roosters in all of these regards. You just need to look at the NRL ladder to see that there is no big downside for either team in conceding so many penalties.”
As Sir Humphrey might have put it when defining politicians’ logic:
“All cats have four legs. My dog has four legs. Therefore, my dog is a cat.”
And the evidence produced for such an embarrassing theory?
“The other sides in the top four – Melbourne and the Rabbitohs – score almost as many points as The Roosters. But both give away far fewer penalties and concede a fair few more points. A coincidence?
Sorry? What’s the coincidence here? Did it ever occur to our wayward and subjective writer that teams need to be demonstrably better to overcome the weight of penalties?
“The Storm in fact concede the second fewest penalties in the NRL after the Sharks. What reward – apart from a lower ladder position – do the Storm and the Sharks get for having such good discipline?”
So, he’s trying to make his penalties/ladder case based on teams coming first and third. I see ….
On this logic, the Roosters have been monumental underperformers. They should have been in the Grand Final for the last decade, along with Manly (or whichever team had achieved the feat of being penalised into near extinction).
Because, really, success in sport has very little to do with work ethic, talent and desire, does it?. Clearly the secret lays in erecting what most rational people would consider to be insurmountable barriers out of sheer bloodymindedness, then somehow overcoming them.
But like Demtel, there’s always more. We are then treated to what can only be interpreted as designed to prod referees into penalising these two teams further:
“In spite of these two teams appalling rate of penalties conceded, neither has had a player sin binned in 2013.”
No, though (the Roosters’) Jared Warea-Hargreave managed to be the only player sent from the field for an act that was preceded and followed by far graver incidents. And the Melbourne Storm continue to be shepherded through the competition by referees who cannot seem to bring themselves to penalise them for blatant fouls. The so-called Big 3 have been culpable on several occasions this year without sanction, the latest being an obvious sin-binning infringement by Cooper Cronk against the Knights on Sunday that … well … wasn’t.
Why? Nobody knows, but everyone suspects.
Why was Billy Slater not sin-binned when knocking out Antonio Winterstein in an earlier round with an obvious high shoulder charge? Clearly, referees logic extends to ‘two wrongs actually do make a right!’
But it gets better:
“Daniel Anderson must instruct his refs to use the sin bin for repeat infringers. Any player who concedes three penalties in a match should go to the sideline for 10 minutes.
The refs should have even less tolerance for known regular offenders who should go to the bin after conceding two penalties.”
Ahh, the three strike policy, in combination with targeting and profiling. That’s served society pretty well, hasn’t it?
Now, I’m all for solutions as opposed to some of the drivel served up my mainstream media outlets that are purely a yearly rehash of a persistent issue (like the topical diving as alluded to above) without a single idea as to how to counter it. This is what I mean when referring to the ability of rugby league to ‘naval gaze’. A narrative or commentary without some creative foresight, is just a waste of time.
But at least this is an idea, if I were to be charitable. And yet, how can we have a rule such as ‘three times and you’re in the bin’ when the referee is the sole arbiter of who he penalises? They can’t even bring themselves to sin bin Cooper Cronk, or Josh Reynolds for ‘clear as day’ professional fouls. They can’t even bring themselves to sin bin Krisnan Inu for a spear tackle on (arguably) the game’s most important player. Or Richie Fa’aoso for two spear tackles on the same player in the same game!
And yet, the brilliant prescription is to sin bin a player because the referee penalises them for, say, slowing the play the ball a couple of times, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he has called ‘held’ midway through a bunch of grown men in mid fall toward the ground. What would he have them do? Circumvent the force of gravity? Clearly they are unaware of the theory of gravity as made famous by Clint Newton and Albert Kelly.
We can’t even get a sin bin for leg twists and testicle grabbing, two of the grubbiest acts a player can commit without springing for dinner. And which only attracted single week suspensions (Burgess had loading), which means the ABC author pretty much equates all these things with a few penalties.
I cannot take issue with the easily identifiable examples. Penalise them, no problem. But once again, I’ve sat through games where a defender has been penalised due to the superb theatrics of the man playing the ball, often including walking up to two metres off the mark in order to do so. Rather than give the attacking team the penalty, this is a clear example of referees not applying the rules (not knowing them if you ask me). If the man with the ball walks off the mark, penalise him … Or, in the spirit of the flow of the game, don’t penalise the marker for being offside. Simple stuff. Low hanging fruit. Reckon they can get it right?
Phil Gould has even brought up the idea that the Storm gave away penalties on purpose on the weekend in order to disrupt the Knights’ attack, and that he will be watching it in coming weeks. Seems to me the Knights would be considered poor exponents of their craft if they got worse with more opportunity. I suspect it’s the other way around.
Give me a break.
Other than achieving the feat of noticing the fact the Storm won the match with less than 50% ball (for a change) and failing to notice the Roosters have done it all year, the idea that the best teams will consistently give away penalties (and therefore ground and possession) as some sort of lifestyle tactic is without foundation.
It’s hard to believe he would instruct his own team to do this (and didn’t).
And just ask the NSW State of Origin team how Origin 2 felt after 20 minutes this year. The answer would have been ‘exhausted’, I’m sure. The game was effectively over at that early point. But let’s not dwell on the facts …
For any team to be instructed to do this in a finals series when they face sudden death is prima facie evidence for incompetence of the coaching staff, and grounds for dismissal, which is why they don’t do it. Teams will back themselves to withstand extra pressure to be sure, but they certainly do not seek it.
So my message to Manly and Toovs is this – keep calling the referees out for incompetence. Ricky did it earlier in the year and accepted the fine, which was a mistake. The fine is there for implying bias, not for unveiling the referee clown show for what it is.
Keep calling out the grading system relating to suspensions for leniency, and the NRL for double standards and inconsistency.
And when the former referees boss, Bill Harrigan, can single out Jeff Lima for a 10 week suspension for an obvious attack on the structure of another man’s leg, why can’t a coach mention it in passing? The MRC aren’t that malleable and easily influenced, are they?
Oh, right …