Who’s Got the Luck of the Draw? Quantifying Early Season Draw Strength

As the new season begins, we are all well aware of the importance of a good start for our team. It can be a long way back with little margin for error if momentum isn’t established early. A little buffer of wins goes a long way to determining the Top 8 in September, particularly given representative disruptions. Most of it is up the team, to be sure, but the actual draw is a live player in the equation.

The idea of attributing some sort of value to the draw an individual team faces isn’t new. The problem has always been where subjective opinion leaves the building and objectivity takes over. But on what basis?

The race to last year’s Semi Finals led me to make some sort of rough estimation based on the opposition’s place on the ladder, and I’ll repeat it here for the first two months leading up to Easter.

If you saw that blog last year, you will know that the Warriors had the world at their feet six weeks prior to the Finals, yet came up short. Their draw strength was consistently easier than the other contenders (yes I’m aware NRL isn’t easy, this is measuring relatively), but pressure is a funny thing. They failed to take advantage of their good fortune, missing the Top 8 by the barest of margins. You would also know that I wrote the Raiders off from the outset of that analysis, even though they were still in the Top 8 at the time, purely based on their closing draw.

The best laid plans are tossed aside in sports when a team doesn’t rise to the challenge or perform to their known ability, so it’s not an exact science, and I would never treat it that way. We are dealing with human beings, after all, and groups of them at that!

Then there are the unquantifiables – things such as weather, injuries, suspensions, internal relationships, pressure relating to form and media scrutiny, personal and even family issues that can seriously affect performance.

What about home ground advantage and the benefit it provides to a team? Is it measurable? Sure, in a rough way. Punters use just this type of analysis to skew probabilities in their favour. A useful resource in this sense is The Punters Guide to the 2014 NRL Season. If you are so inclined, there is a wealth of statistics in there.

However, home ground advantage is itself elusive to capture exactly. For instance, are the Tigers equally better at home when playing at Leichhardt, Campbelltown or Allianz Stadium? I would argue that of course they aren’t. Are they better at Leichhart the week after playing the Roosters, or at Allianz after playing the Dragons the week before? Who knows? There are different grades of home ground advantage, so best not to get too caught up in precision that doesn’t exist.

I’m more interested in the bigger picture and ramifications. For example, this NRL season begins with more pressure on a handful of coaches than I can remember for a long time. They’re always under pressure, but I’ll bet you the newspaper articles outlining the job security of certain coaches will begin in earnest the very moment the Bulldogs/Broncos and Dragons/Tigers matches end.

Mick Potter may well have a guardian angel on his shoulder in this case, for the Tigers’ draw in the first two months is very kind (relatively). This could be what he, and the team, need in order to reduce the intense pressure on their results and allow them to settle into the season.

On the other hand, making a mess of the first two months despite a favourable draw likely means, well …you get the picture.

So who has the luck of the draw in the two months leading up to Easter?Draw

Using the same method as last year, but using the 2013 Minor Premiership ladder as the basis, the above chart shows the Cowboys in Barrier 1. If they were going to finally pull their collective finger out and utilise their potential, they couldnt have dreamed of a better start to the season. Paul Green would be quietly delighted, I’m sure.

Once again, though, the Raiders have drawn the short straw, similar to the close of last year’s season. Unless they can overcome this, expect journalists and fans to have Ricky Stuart in their crosshairs. In the Raiders’ case, they couldn’t have expected a worse opening to the season!

But this is all raw data with no mitigation for home & Away matches. It’s purely based on the most recent example of quality of opposition that we we can use. To adjust for this shortcoming, I’ve made a simple assumption that teams are about +\- 20% better or worse when playing at Home or Away. We’ve all done it, and intuitively we understand the difference made playing at home. Some may argue with the %, but as mentioned its best to get the vibe. It’s never going to be exact.

once we make the adjustment, we see that the Tigers do indeed have something to cheer. With four games each at Home and Away, and a draw that pits them against only two of the top sides from last year (Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles), they are a clear 2nd on the ‘table of fortune’.

The Sea Eagles barely budge in the middle of the table because, despite six out of eight Home games (hello?), four of them are against Top 8 teams.

At the back of the pack, the Raiders have still ben smashed by the draw. Five Top 8 teams, and just three Home matches.
Draw with HA Adj

A lot will change in subsequent months as representative duties draw down on club depth, but as far as a helping hand goes, it favours the Cowboys, Tigers, Titans, Warriors and last year’s Top 4 quite nicely.

Let’s see where we are at Easter!

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