What to make of the NRL’s Western Derby?

Not much has been said about the sporting battle for Sydney’s west lately. Possibly because that A-League is over and the Wanderers have failed to deliver a trophy again (though the two Finals are fairly impressive). Perhaps it’s because the GWS Giants are failing to engage the area with sub-standard performances.

For whatever reason, the story of the year is the success of its western representatives after so many years in the collective wilderness. This was the reason AFL and Soccer were supposedly making inroads into Rugby league, right? And yet, the NRL has spectacularly failed to recognise, the celebrate and promote this fortuitous state of events.

From the NRL-leading Bulldogs to the Top 8-orbiting Tigers, greater inner and western Sydney is on a tear. Tonight we have the 3rd-placed Panthers at home to the in-form, and 4th-placed, Eels. It’s a westie extravaganza out Penrith way, and if I had the time, and the great man was playing, I’d have packed a solid lunch and taken the journey out there myself. Like the rich & famous feasting on ice cream topped with gold shavings, there’s something magnificent about those resplendent deep blue Eels jerseys, especially tinged with the scent of success!

Neither are my teams, but the Dr seems to recognise what the NRL doesn’t – this is an event that happens … when ..? Ever? When have these two teams been up in the Top 4 side-by-side? The NRL’s top brass should be there tonight, to a man, floating in on a promotion that would make you dizzy. Anyhoot …

Parramatta come to Sportingbet Stadium with a record that contradicts their two consecutive wooden spoons, and general poor standard of play since the 2009 Grand Final. They have been competitive even in their worst years, twice being edged by the Panthers by a point, and even winning the late 2010 match.

The 2014 incarnation of the Eels is something quite different altogether, and would rate themselves a tremendous chance of dominating a rather uninspiring Panthers in a similar way to Round 4 this year (32-16). Who would have thought that at this stage of the season, Parramatta would be the top point-scorer per match, lead line breaks, and head the list for tries scored too?

Points Scored per matchBoasting a 23.9-point average score is offset, however, by a second worst Missed Tackle Percentage, allowing the opposition to score 22.7 points themselves. Look who’s below them on this score, and you’re looking at the representatives of the bottom four:

Points Conceded per match

The result is that both Parramatta and the Panthers sit right next to each other when it comes to ‘net’ points per match, and have reached that point in markedly different ways. The Panthers have mixed a pedestrian attack with defence good enough to reach 3rd, but with a For & Against of only +23 points. The distribution of their wins and losses lay within 38 points. [update: after a 38-12 thumping tonight, it’s hard to call the Panthers’ attack pedestrian now!]

The Eels, on the other hand, have mixed big wins with large losses, and a spread of points of 88 points.

In any case, the accumulation of For & Against throughout both their seasons up until now suggests this one might be harder to pick than a broken nose:

Panthers vs EelsUnfortunately for all of us (but not Penrith), Jarryd Hayne will be resting a hamstring that is dogier than a 3am kebab, and has a history of popping under fatigue. It’s in NSW’s interests for Origin Mark II, but the Eels might miss his incursions into the backline.

An intriguing statistic mentioned today (by Fox) that the Eels have won just 3 matches from the last 23 without Jarryd Hayne becomes less intriguing by the minute when you consider their winning record has been abysmal up until this year – even with him.

Jarryd Hayne is a rare talent, and a rare beast. I say that because it seems as if he plays even better when Parramatta play well, rather than the reverse. The addition of quality players to the roster, including Peats and Origin-bound Hopoate, mean that the Eels can count on getting the best out of him more often than not. It also suggests they will be more than competitive tonight.

Their trump card, if it comes down to the wire, is that the Panthers tend to perform poorly into the end of matches – pretty much from the 50th minute, on average:

Panthers Point TrackerThe ace in the Panthers’ hand though, is that they have played six 6-point or less matches this year and won four of them – and they wield field-goal exponents that are probably the best (as a combination) in the NRL (Walsh & Soward).

The Eels have played three, winning just one. That’s not to say they can’t win a close one. Of course they can. Just that the odds are against them.

Panthers at home are a tough proposition, and I’m sure the pokie music from Panthers will be turned up loud to distract Sandow. But I think they can do it, led by a backline that is scintillating even without the Hayne Plane.


NRL Round 11 Rubdown meets Pre-Origin Lube-up

The Broncos and the Urban Sombrero … er, Salary Cap

SombreroI’m pretty late to this, so of course I’ll lead with it at short notice in my flippant, yet serious, yet flippant way!

I’m stunned that teams can get this so wrong. It is a simple spreadsheet entry. It’s also easily recordable on a napkin. The only conclusion I can possibly arrive at is that it is an intentional and cynical breach.

The ability to be underhanded when it comes to 3rd party payments is almost infinite, but the fact is that clubs cannot guarantee them, and therefore they should be made public (what sponsor doesn’t want publicity?). I covered it in the Round 5 Rubdown in the context of the Bulldogs offering Andrew Fifita a contract that was heavily overweight with 3rd party payments. The rules say (underlines mine):

Unlimited – Players can earn unlimited amounts from corporate sponsors who are not associated with the club and who do not use the game’s intellectual property (no club logos, jerseys or emblems) provided these are pre-approved. These agreements may not be negotiated by the club as an incentive for a player to sign a contract, nor can they be guaranteed by the club.

Sounds fairly straight forward to me, and I’m still scratching my head as to why the Bulldogs have not been investigated for this.

As one journalist told me, clubs can deliver on 3rd party payments, but it is a grey area. It’s not grey to me – if a club pays the money, it’s a salary cap event.

Looking forward to a few more investigative stories on this topic in coming days.

Monday Night … Foot …Ball ….

Sorry … nodded off there …

Even in a truncated abomination of a week, Round 11 of the NRL had more than enough soap opera and controversy. It also further highlighted the flawed logic in weakening the NRL in the middle of the season, simultaneously reducing the quality of matches that are actually played. So not only do we get less football, we get less for our money in each game. Enough people are onto this now to refrain from flogging a dead horse – again – and besides, it’s been said here before anyway.

But as an example of what NRL fans are being asked to endure, the Sharks vs Rabbitohs scored an 11 on a scale of 1-10 on the Soporific Scale on Monday night. The only thing saving it was that the soccer international was even worse, and not by a small margin. Some of the footwork by the Socceroos in front of goal would have had the Spaniards thinking the match was Australia’s Funniest Home Videos, not to mention making me feel better about my insipid dribbling. Not being able to beat a second string South Africa at home was a fairly pedestrian effort, but at least they scored a solitary point, which can’t be said of the gummy Sharks.

I’m sure I heard an audible sigh of relief from Laurie Daley, however, suddenly feeling more relaxed about not giving the Bunnies halves a chance at Origin. His halves selections of Hodkinson (no ‘g’ people) and Josh Reynolds will have to deal with a more even forward battle in State of Origin that will test their creativity and resolve, but are likely to surprise many people on Wednesday night.

The Rabbitohs halves against the Sharks, on the other hand, didn’t execute well or provide the type of direction and spark required of an Origin pairing. Offered the chance of taking apart a depleted Sharks outfit (the media definition of those who lose, despite the victors also being ‘depleted’), the Rabbitohs halves looked like they’d have trouble organising a Ronnie Coote in a brothel.

Reynolds made the solitary run, rendering him almost useless in attack other than as a pure distributor (which the opposition likes – a lot). The NRL average for Half Back Runs is 4.8 per match, and Adam Reynolds’ average is 4 (the last 6 weeks being 3), so the hand isn’t exactly being thrust skyward for Origin duty. And ole Johnny Sutton, despite being well above the NRL average for 5/8 Runs, which I love to see, is off the pace too.

Quite frankly, the game was embarrassingly poor, and almost like watching a reserve grade side play Amco Cup many years ago. This is what planning around State of Origin is delivering us.

State of Concussion

Andrew Webster wrote an interesting article overnight about the respective trainers for NSW and Queensland being under a different type of pressure to the players – the pressure to announce concussion, even if it harms their team’s chances.

Love yer work, Ronnie!

Love yer work, Ronnie!

As Andrew rightly notes, 15 minutes can decide a series, let alone a game, so there is the temptation for the cougar, Ronnie Palmer (NSW) and his Queensland counterpart (Troy Thompson) to look the other way tomorrow night if a key player cops a knock. That’s not to say they will, but the latter has been implicated in the use of smelling salts last year. Then again, go back 5 years, and you’d probably struggle to name a trainer who hadn’t used them.

Here’s the thing that the article doesn’t conclude, but I think needs to be discussed …

If the incidence of concussion is so great in the super-charged arena of State of Origin (which it is given the way bodies are thrust into action, and I’m not sure Dallas Johnson ever finished a game on the right side of right way up), and given the fact that no longer will concussed players be tolerated on the field, does it not make sense to have an extended bench for such matches? No increase in interchanges mind you, just an increase in the available players to cover the possibility of concussion depleting a team of player numbers, and to reduce the temptation for trainers as noted above.

We all saw what appalling refereeing did to the 2nd Origin match last year, and effectively handing the game to the Queenslanders after 25 minutes. The last thing we want to see is a team lose half to all of its bench due to concussion. The teams have 19 men – use them.

What’s with Klemmer and feet?

I wouldn’t be surprised if David Klemmer has a foot fetish. They seem to follow him and hunt him down, and while I’d prefer mine in a lacy high-heel, all evidence points to the fact that David likes the hairy variety covered in studded leather. That didn’t come out right …

David Klemmer 'on the burst'

David Klemmer ‘on the burst’

If it’s not planting a kiss on Billy Slater’s boots, he’s now trying to make Frank Paul Nuisala do the same with his. His ungainly and inexplicable barge into the Roosters’ line on Friday night was worthy of at least a week on the sideline. There are some things that just aren’t done in rugby league. Given that squirrel grips have made an almighty comeback, you’d be correct in asking exactly what is not allowed! Eye gouging is one. Kicks to the face are another.

Earlier on, Klemmer had sparked a melee by hitting Jared Warea-Hargreaves in the chops with the type of tackle that had JWH suspended last year. The game was tough and engrossing, even if lacking a bit of panache (dare I say ‘depleted again?), and the physicality added to the drama. At the same time, the NRL can’t be sending people off and not charging others for the same offence.

For Roosters fans, though, they should be thanking David Klemmer for waking up the JWH beast. Up until his manhood was challenged by Klemmer, he had the appearance so far in 2014 of having just fallen out of bed. This could be a turning point.

The Kasiano Bodyslam

It’s all seems a bit anti-Bulldogs, doesn’t it? It’s unintentional, I assure you.

I’ve mentioned the Cumberland throw, or use of the leg in tackles before. It’s a type of tackle I’ve detested for a long time because of the possibility of serious injury. You won’t see it often, like the McKinnon injury, but when it happens, well, you get the picture.

The very same JWH who was clobbered by Klemmer on Friday was finished off by Kasiano when his head hit the ground as fast as I can remember any other when thrown over the supporting fulcrum of Kasiano’s leg. I’m sure he didn’t mean for injury to occur, but I don’t like the leg being used as a fulcrum in a tackle, even with a single defender. It accelerates the ball carrier with centrifugal force toward the ground. But using it with two or more defenders is a recipe for disaster. Remember what a fulcrum actually is – a way of increasing force by using a support. Does there need to be a broken leg for the NRL to outlaw a completely unnecessary tackle?

Cut Price D-D-Dragons

I had to laugh at this article which led with the header The News Came Quickly for Dragons Coach Steve Price

Which part of the end came quickly?

This has been a saga from Round 1 2013. And even though Price’s contract was extended to cover 2014 on Anzac Day that year, it was clear that it was only buying time for a 2015 coach to be found. That’s what the club’s option on his services for 2015 is all about. It’s an option that was undervalued, as it is in Rugby League all the time.

In the financial world, you pay to buy an option because it has value – in this case, a put option (right to sell) on Steve Price. Was Steve Price paid for granting that option? Doubt he even thought to ask. All of us have put options on our houses – that’s what the insurance premium is – it’s not free!

Anyway, the heat was on from Round 1 again, and only early victories kept him in the job this long. Powerful forces were aligned against him from Day 1, which must be an awful environment in which to work. So must an environment of incompetent recruitment. Does the Dragons management just sit in corners counting chromosomes and staring at walls or something? Whatever management does, it doesn’t seem to have a forward-looking element at all, and then they have the hide to blame their unsupported coach, a man who supported so many players through the years, only to have them turn their back on him (I wrote that prior to the reported chatter on The Back Page, which I can’t wait to watch a bit later).

The Dragons need a good dose of discipline!

The Dragons need a good dose of discipline!

I’m pretty unimpressed with the idea of player power amassing behind a coach (unless he’s a right so-and-so), particularly when they are paid to play. If you look at the structure of rugby league matches, it is fairly difficult to discern one game plan from another. There are player targets and instructions around aggression in certain matches to be sure, but completing sets, playing for territory with a good kicking game, all the way through dummy half settlers and identical block plays are observable in all teams. Where Steve Price has failed is not so much in his tactical nous, but in his ability to motivate the team, a subject dabbled in previously with respect to Matt Elliot.

Given the impediments he has faced, it’s hard to know whether he’s a good coach or not. What a disgrace.

Interesting Stats for Round 11

The Knights a nd Wayne Bennett’s future (or folly) will have to wait given the time and length of this Rubdown already, so let’s just finish with a few tidbits:

  • Missed tackles – What a week for defence! 6 of the 10 teams playing Round 11 congregated in the 3.1% to 5.2% range for Missed Tackle Percentage. That’s abnormally low, and the Raiders missed only 7.6% into the bargain. The Bulldogs (9.1%) and the Titans and Cowboys (just over 10%) rounded out a pretty solid defensive week.
  • The Warriors’ Missed Tackle % of only 3.6% was by far their best performance, contrasting with a prior average of 8.2%
  • The Warriors’ Possession was up almost 10 percentage points on their average to 57.2%
  • How much did the Cowboys miss their origin stars? Well, they recorded their lowest Metres reading all season of 1127m (well down on a prior average of 1417m). They’ve only had a metres deficit twice this season, and been flogged both times. The Cowboys’ 3 prior matches were all victories averaging a positive Net Metres of 357m. Round 11 was negative 494m, and a 1188m turnaround from last week indicates they struggle more than most without Origin players available.
  • The Tigers finally recorded a match where their Metres were roughly shared. It only took 11 rounds, but the result was within what you’d expect from them.Tigers Scatter
  • How influential are the Titans halves, Kelly and Sezer? You’d expect the answer to be ‘quite a lot’ given their running stats. Their game is built around it. Half Runs

Their absence has been a massive disruption, and their tumble out of the Top 8 is no surprise (it was less than 2 weeks ago where I pointed out they were within 2 weeks of dipping out of the Top 8).They have given up Metres in 3 consecutive games now (at an average rate of 429m), and predictably lost the points battle as well (by an average 15 points).

Half Back runs have plummeted from an average 11.3 per match to 2 in the last 2 weeks. And 5/8 Runs have dropped from an average 6.5 to 1.5 in that time. See what I mean?

  • The Raiders followed 2 weeks of giving up 54 points to the opposition by then recording 2 consecutive weeks of 54% possession! But they only won one of those games. They’ll 54% and more on Saturday against the Roosters.
  • Thanks to the Bye, it was the first week in the last 5 that the Knights’ For & Against hasn’t deteriorated!

Breaking down NRL scoring patterns – where does your team score, or fade?

Right, I promised you punks a short blog breaking each team’s scoring patterns into 20-minute segments, and what better way to do it than to squeeze it in between dinner and the kick-off of Friday Night Football.

ZoolanderAs always with someone as full of it as the Dr, there will be a quick digression prior to the content I promised. The reason is that it is partly a follow-on from yesterday’s analysis, and partly because it has to do with tonight’s game, which I shall call the Zoolander Cup come to think of it. Both sides have lost their regular left sides as Origin takes its toll and muddies the tipping waters. The Roosters are more affected I think – the loss of Cordner (injury), Jennings and Tupou probably trumps a half and Josh Morris. Still, both teams might have as much trouble going left as poor young Derek himself, meaning the odds are with a 0-12 result (not sure which way, though).

But recall the Net metres Difference explained yesterday. Large differentials usually dictate the result of the game, and while the Roosters have made a habit of winning with a lower percentage of ball and Metres, it was mostly last year. Here is the average over the first 10 rounds.

Average Metres per Match to Rd 10

Clearly, even with an Origin-weakened team, the Bulldogs, with an almost imtact forward pack, will be hard to beat. Based on 2014 performances, the averages suggest they will accumulate 200 metres more than the Roosters. The Roosters have one the single match this season from this position, while the Bulldogs have not lost one.

Add to this their ability to Offloads, whivh gives them even more of an advantage than they already enjoy in terms of Sets (37 to 34) and Completions (77% to 71%, more or less). Think of it this way: on top of the 29 Sets, on average, the Bulldogs complete, they’re getting an extra tackle in nearly half of them.


Breakin’ the Game Down

it was no surprise to the Dr (nor to anyone eles, probably) that the Knights couldn’t put the Sea Eagles away last week. Why? Because Manly’s record in the final 20 minutes of a match in terms of net points scored is one of the best, while the Knights’ record is one of the worst. If any team was going to run them down, it was Manly.

Check it out:


There’s an awful lot of predictive information in there, and you can see the Knights’ 2nd half fade-outs in sharp relief. The Raiders aren’t much better, nor are the usual suspects. The Storm have a pretty poor middle-40, the Cowboys do their finest work in the first 60, while the Tigers need to be in front by that time if they are to win. Knock yourself out …

As far as tonight’s game goes, here it is in a neat little table, suggesting a faster start in general by the Roosters, but the Bulldogs methodically taking over from there. You can’t really conclude this in a disrupted match like this … or can you?Roosters v Bulldogs

I might add to this after flicking on the box now, but if you want to see when your team scores points (vis0a0vis the opposition, or are interested in using the information for a flutter, it’s extremely useful!


NRL Stats Central meets the Round 10 Rubdown

Now that the NRL season has entered its yearly Origin-inspired debauchment of under strength matches and Bye Rounds (see here for the Dr’s thoughts from last year for a way around this), let’s step to the side and take the pulse of the competition to this point.

We’ve had a full 10 rounds of NRL now, and even though some of those rounds included ‘repeat’ match ups, we still have enough form and data to draw some interesting conclusions. So settle back with a chilled glass of peptides, fill your pipe, spark the fire and relax with a diverse set of whacky stats that you’ve come to expect here.

We’ll be looking at how Possession translates into points and wins, and the increased amount of close matches this year.

Possession is 9/10ths of the Law

The Bulldogs’ demolition of Saints two weeks ago got me thinking about Possession dominance and Metres gained. Specifically, the 699-metre difference between the two teams (1812 vs 1113). I can’t remember seeing anything quite like it, and it’s hardly any wonder they won by 32 points. Some teams have struggled to actually make much more than 700 metres during a game, let alone give up that much again to the opposition!

The most recent weekend almost repeated the dose – twice. The Cowboys made 694 metres more than the Roosters (for a 32-point win), and the Broncos had a 651-metre advantage over the Titans for a 14-point win. It makes Parramatta’s 469-metre surplus over the hapless Dragons (and 36-point win) look pedestrian by comparison.

Surely Round 10 had to have the largest total of Net Metres difference across the league? Well it sure did. The gap between teams across the 8 matches was 2,744 metres. The 3 games above totalled over 1,800 metres alone. Bear in mind the average round this year is a net difference of 2,063 metres (and 1,987 metres up to the end of Round 9), and only 3 weeks ago the total of metres differences was only 1,135 metres.

You don’t have to be Norman Einstein to work out that if a team controls Possession, they are more likely to win the match. Not always, mind you, particularly where the difference is small enough to be considered equal, but mostly.

Now, Possession in this context is taken to mean Metres gained by a team relative to the opposition, not the Runs percentage for each team. The idea of a team having 52% possession, or 60%, or somewhere in between or either side (based on Runs), has informational content in a broad sense – for example, noting the Roosters had a meagre 38.8% possession tells you they had a tough night on Saturday – but the difference in Metres is possibly more informative.

The reasoning, quite simply, is that in a fast, tough contact sport such as the NRL, endurance and fatigue are significant factors in determining the result, and they are cumulative over the match (when you’re knackered, you’re knackered!). I wish it were more so (by reducing interchanges), but there’s no denying the game is hard enough.

Nor can there be any doubt that dominating the Metres game and forcing the opposition to cover more ground defensively (especially the continual up & back routine) forces them to burn up more explosive energy and makes them less effective in attack.

The interesting thing about Possession translating to score lines is that each team does it so differently. Let’s look at the top four teams, then a couple of other interesting team relationships.

First up, the competition-leading Bulldogs are an interesting case study in themselves. It is well documented that they have taken part in a disproportionate number of close matches this year already (defined as margins within 6-points). The relationship between their Metres differential and Points differential looks like this:

Bulldogs Scatter

The tight games are immediately obvious when you look at the chart above, as is the fact that there has been a distribution of matches where the net difference in metres between the Bulldogs and their adversaries has been relatively even (defined as within 200 metres). Where the Bulldogs have managed to outrun the other team, they have managed to prevail in all cases. All of them. It’s useful to note that the two losses within this 200-metre-range were early in the season when they were still finding their feet. I doubt they would lose those now.

The second point of interest is that a large metres-deficit won’t necessarfily derail their chances of winning the match. The Knights had a 270-metre advantage in Round 8, but still couldn’t win, though that probably says something more about the Knights.

The third striking element of the chart is that while the Bulldogs’ strict, no frills style and forward-dominated game plan serves them well in tight matches, if any team allows them excessive running space (such as the Sharks, Storm and Dragons), they have the strike power across the park to take full advantage. They aren’t the number 1 team and competition favourites (to my mind, at least) for no reason.

The current no. 2 side, Manly, have a very similar record to the Bulldogs, particularly in those matches where possession is relatively square, and you can see that below. Granted enough space to outrun the opponents by 400-500 metres, they will not pass up the chance to win large. Like most other teams, though, they have shown that a metres-deficit of that magnitude is too hard to overcome – even for them.

Manly Scatter

We could be looking at the two Grand Finalists already!

The Panthers have snuck up into 3rd place almost out of nowhere. Matches they’ve been involved in haven’t been quite as expansive as those of the top 2 teams, but it’s notable they’ve had the better of the running game in 7 out of 10 matches nonetheless.

That’s not to say their record is as good as the top 2, because as you can see, their domination, or lack of it at times, has been a little schizophrenic – a couple of games where the metres gained were essentially shared, a brace of games where they eked out a small surplus (and won a couple, lost a couple), and a couple of blow-outs in either direction with predictable results. Being able to win while being dominated in the metres game is also a feather in their cap, though like the Bulldogs against the Knights, it was against a low-ranked team (Raiders).

Panthers Scatter

Also blasting into the top 4 is the Parramatta Eels, who also have their own distinct set of results. Now, there is something grand about watching the pristine deep-blue jersey running out onto the field and being competitive, and I can’t pretend I’m not delighted to see it. It’s been a while.

Even more enjoyable is the brand of football they have been playing. Their attack has been pulsating and dangerous, leading to them being the top point and try-scorer in the NRL and, unsurprisingly, topping the Line Break count. They remind me a lot of last year’s Roosters at this point, scoring points with abandon and being generally under rated.

Where they differ from (last year’s version of) the Premiers is their defence. They are 2nd in Missed Tackle Percentage, let in the 4th highest amount of tries, and concede the 6th most Line Breaks. It’s a good thing they score so many points themselves! Fixing their defence will be the difference between remaining deep in the Top 8, or struggling to stay in there at all.

Given this introduction, you can almost imagine the way their chart looks – it’s very linear, suggesting their hopes rest or fall on their Net Metres Gained.

Parramatta Scatter

The Cowboys are the ultimate enigma of the NRL. They scatter performances of complete ineptitude amongst flashes of irresistible fluency and genius. Fans are left wondering at some points why they aren’t leading the competition, only to be shown why the very next week. Their chart is also somewhat of an enigma.

Only once have they given up metres over the first 10 rounds. That was a solid 448 metres, yet they only lost by 12 points against the Tigers in Round 6. Otherwise, they’ve held their own, but only winning 5 against losing 4.

In a sense, they are the anti-Bulldogs (or Storm) – their record in close matches is 1 from 5, which explains why they aren’t comfortably in 2nd place where they belong. Their defence is a complete reversal from last year (3rd best in terms of Missed Tackle Percentage), and you sense they will be right up there come Semi Final time.

Cowboys Scatter

Most of the other NRL teams have Metres vs Points plots that aren’t indifferent to the variations shown above, though the following 3 have issues all of their own.

The Tigers have been having a good year, but still remain on the precipice of slipping a handful of places should they lose a game or two. Their performances can be summed up succinctly – the metres game for them has either been well won or lost, and so has each game, with no in-between. It really is quite remarkable.

Tigers Scatter

The Sharks and Raiders have hardly managed to dominate Possession at all, let alone win when they have allowed the opposition more room to move. The Sharks have had just the single match out of 10 where they had a Metres surplus.

Ther Raiders have had two, but almost comically in the current circumstances, the game they dominated withiut question, they lost!

Sharks Scatter

Raiders Scatter

As you can see, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to scoring points and winning games based on the amount of Possession or Metres enjoyed.

One thing the top teams do have in common, though, is the resilience to be able to win matches when they aren’t at their best and are seemingly on the back foot. That defines a Semi Final team right there. So watch your team’s progress in this area and take confidence from these types of wins.

A Season of Close Matches

The 2013 Dragons didn’t have a great season, but it could have been a lot better had they converted some of their close matches. All up, 12 (50%) of their Minor Premiership games were decided by 0-6 points, so they weren’t as uncompetitive as their ladder position indicated.

This year, The Storm and Bulldogs have played in 7 matches finishing within a 0-6 point margin – and it’s only Round 10! The difference between them and the Dragons of last year is their winning ratio.

Look at the table below, ranked in terms of close matches played, then look across at their winning ratio. If you’re looking for a team that will do well in the Finals, you will get a good sense by noting how they perform under pressure.

It’s strange in a way. In a competition where a team is not beaten when 8-points down and 5-minutes to play, it really says a lot about a team’s resolve to either be that team who scores twice to win, or who has the resolve to hold on. If you can be both, even better.

10 rounds, 80 matches, and 36 of them decided by a 0-6 point margin. Amazing.

Close Games

Tomorrow I’ll do a quickie on how teams accumulate their points, breaking up their games into 20-minute segments. It’ll be a hoot. You won’t want to miss it. No, really …

NRL Stats Central Part 1: Roosters vs Tigers

The long gap between Rounds 8 and 9 of the NRL hasn’t been uneventful by any description. There’s been enough to keep us all busy and entertained, and it has very little to do with representative football, though there were some gripping contests in that arena too. Whether it was players getting themselves into strife on and off the field, the NRL announcing marquee player allowances and other initiatives, or just commentators drawing targets on themselves, Rugby League has proved once again there are no quiet periods – ever. (For a more humurous coverage of this aspect, along with a preview of this match, take a look at 26rounds).

But there can be such thing as too much of a good thing, can’t there? So, while this round of controversy and headlines take a break before morphing into another set of (as yet) unforeseen replacements, let’s shake off the cobwebs and squeeze in a bit of football. You know, that stuff that goes on at the fringes of the Soap Opera we call Rugby League.

I’ve picked three matches across Round 9 that promise to be engaging, high quality contests, and ladder position isn’t the sole determinant. Each has its own brand, history and unique atmosphere, and one of them isn’t Manly vs Storm, which is always a gripping contest in itself!

Beginning with Friday night’s Top 8 clash between the Roosters and Tigers, we have the 4th and 5th-placed teams facing off in what promises to be yet another extravaganza of free-flowing footy. It doesn’t seem to matter where these two teams reside on the ladder, a pulsating contest seems to be the default result, and don’t let the fact that the Roosters have held the upper hand in recent years fool you.

Both teams have shown extreme volatility and inconsistency in recent years, but there is an added gravitas to this year’s match-up. The Premiership-winning Roosters have come back to the field somewhat and are attempting to rediscover their 2013 form, yet still have shown enough class to lay 5th.

The Tigers, on the other hand, fresh from a full tilt at the wooden spoon in 2013, have surprised everyone (except possibly themselves) by not only notching victories against two of last year’s heavyweights, the Rabbitohs and Manly, but have mixed a new-found focus into their laissez faire style. This is what I like to see – repeatable performances based on solid structure. The results have been positive, and they will be keen to account for not just another of 2013’s Top 4, but the reigning Premiers.

There is no doubt that the match will be fiery given the recent snubbing of Roosters’ Kiwi stars for the Anzac Test and, as it happens, the elevation of the Tigers’ Marty Taupau to replace Jared Warea-Hargreaves in that game. Add to that a very average start to the season from some Roosters players, particularly SBW, and the presence of Blocker Roach in the Tigers dressing room ensuring the angry pills are on drip-feed, and this game promises a contest that even the imagination couldn’t script.

Of course, there are injuries on both sides, particularly in the 5/8th position, where James Maloney is not not fully fit, and Braith Anasta is available at all. The absence of James Tedesco and Robbie Farah means that the Tigers are more unsettled than the Roosters, and recent performances prove it.

The Stats so far …

The Roosters have missed last year’s early season spark, but now appear to be settling into their business. This is a must-win match for them if they have ambitions of staying in touch with the Top 4. Origin season means they will have an important block of players unavailable, making it a less than ideal period to make up lost ground, which only serves to increase pressure in the countdown to the Finals. As you can see below, there is a lot of red in the comparison to last year (final column):

Roosters vs OppositionIt hardly seems possible that they could be a in a less favourable position than last years with repect to Penalties, yet the numbers don’t lie. Penalties received are down 15% on this time last year, and their Penalty Ratio stands at 0.75 (per opposition penalty). On the flipside, the opposition is being awarded 2.3 Penalties for every one received. This shows up in their Metres, Possession and Work Ratios (based on Tackles made), which are relatively similar to last year, but still ceding ground to their adversaries.

An area of some concern must be the Missed Tackle Percentage – it is up over 50% on last year, which isn’t ideal when you’re habitually surviving on less ball than your opponents.

Offloads are down (against allowing the opposition more), line breaks are down (while, again, the opposition’s are higher), and Tries are down – and not insignificantly.

The Tigers, on the other hand, have an envious set of stats:

Tigers vs Opposition

The comparisons to last year are almost uniformly positive, and those that are negative are precisely the ones the Tigers would wish to be that way – less Tackles made, lower Work Ratio, and less Errors (though that is not a good predictor of success).

The Tigers are making an average 283 Tackles vs their opposition’s 321 (the almost exact opposite of the Roosters so far), though the fact that they concede as many Penalties as the Roosters means that they cannot rely on such a lopsided count this time. This is potentially quite dangerous, because if season 2014 has shown anything, it has been the Tigers’ susceptibility when Possession is against them. In short, if they don’t control Possession, they don’t come close to winning, a problem the Roosters simpy don’t have. The plots below show clearly that the Tigers will struggle of their net Metres gained is negative.

Roosters Tigers Scatter

The main reason for this is that the Tigers still have a very high Missed Tackle Percentage:

Missed Tackle Percentage

One area the Roosters are sure to target is the Tigers’ halves, and not just because of Luke Brooks’ match-winning ability. Last year I noted that the most successful teams had something in common – their halves pulled their weight in defence. This meant less fatigue for the bigger men and ball runners. If 2014 is a guide, the Tigers’ halves are not doing this, and shoud therefore expect wave after wave of large edge runners zeroing in on them, forcing them to. This is where the battle for Metres will be won, and likely the match.

Halves Tackle Percentage

I’m tipping the Roosters to have a comfortable win on Friday, and there are a couple of standout reasons.

First, they are running into form at the same time the Tigers are flatlining (even regressing) without Robbie Farah and James Tedesco. While the Tigers score an average 23 points per game, they also let in an average 22 points, which is too high for a Top 4 side. The past three weeks, however, has returned an average score of 14-22, and they are going to need more than 14 points to defeat the Roosters.

The Roosters, on the other hand, have averaged a 22-15 scoreline over the opening eight rounds, and even improved slightly on it in the last three matches (23-15).

The second reason is that the Roosters team is a juggernaut. Points are scored regularly, just like last year, and there are no distinct, habitual drop offs in defence (see charts below). This is not something that can be said for the Tigers, whose Points Difference (blue) line are unlike that of any other team.

Check it out:

Roosters Tigers Point Tracker

When you put the two together in the context of this game, the short history of the current season’s performances looks like this:

Roosters Point Difference

The Tigers will need to find a way to address their poor performance in the last quarter of matches if they are to win on Friday as the table below shows. The path to being a credible Finals contender, and perhaps even a heavyweight themselves, depends upon it. I’m confident they are up to the challenge, nut a lot has to go right for them, and this week is unlikely to be their week. Further, I still want to see how they cope with the inevitable adversity after a promising start to the season. We may well be in that period.

Roosters Tigers Segment




The Salary Cap: The NRL’s Final Frontier Breached

The NRL announced sweeping changes to the salary cap structure last night, which are scheduled to take effect as soon as the clock rolls over to 2015.

In part, it is a long overdue adjustment to the way clubs can be disadvantaged at times, particularly when developing local talent and retaining that talent over extended periods, as well as paying money still included under the salary cap to players no longer at the club.

Mostly, however, it is a recognition that if Rugby League wants to clearly be recognised the pre-eminent footballing code in the country, it has to work harder to retain the most precocious and thrilling talents it possesses. In a world where competition doesn’t merely exist between clubs intra-code, but is increasingly being felt inter-code, fan entertainment and engagement are of paramount importance.

And it’s not just the tidal wave of player professionalism seeking higher compensation and return on effort that has engulfed Rugby League and other codes (with which many clubs and commentators continue to struggle). The audience is far more wide-ranging than the fans. It is a competition to attract new devotees, as well as ringfence the corporate dollar as effectively as possible. Maximising memberships and game-day spectators, along with attracting lucrative sponsorship deals, are the game’s new bread and butter. More than ever, Rugby league is a business.

For these reasons, yesterday’s announcements are to be greeted enthusiastically, and with a sense of optimism for future years. Sure, there will be the inevitable niggles, details and loopholes, but with any luck, the NRL can build on this initiative (the type the Dr has been agitating for over a long period) and waterproof the policy to a relatively high degree.

What is of utmost importance is to have the new policies actually reflect the spirit in which they were created.

The most obvious change relates to the retention of marquee players. At this early stage, there is not a lot of detail to wade through, but the idea is a sound one. Leaving aside the fact that the NRL made an enormous mess of capturing Israel Folau in 2012, and could easily have done so without contravening any rules, money should not be the singularly defining factor for a player to sign a contract. We know that those who have joined the Rugby and AFL ranks went for this very reason, and the new policy means that this is unlikely to happen again. Essentially, the richness of a rugby league contract for the super-elite should now be equal to competitors, or at least close enough for them to think more than twice about what sport they actually want to play.

It is also crucial that the new power David Smith wields in topping up a players’ contract is seen to be fair and equitable. No-one I know wants to see favourites being picked, or even the appearance of certain clubs being favoured. Rugby League has enough internally-generated controversy without introducing more! Some will quite rightly question why the NRL doesn’t simply increase the cap for all clubs.

And the last thing we want to see is a club mismanage their salary cap under the assumption they were to have a player payment topped up, only for them to join another club (with similar top up).

There are quite a few hairs on this policy that need a shave, and we will need to see more detail before engaging in a definitive critique.

The downside of paying the super-elite to play is that the level below them will inevitably be targetted by other codes. Unless the money pool deepens yet again, this cannot really be avoided in the short term under this policy. Noting is perfect. Fortunately, there are ways to think about combatting this.

Developing the representative culture further, particularly internationally, is one way to keep money flowing into Rugby League. It is an area where AFL and Soccer can’t really compete at this point, and Rugby in its Super Form is now franchise-based rather than represntative-based. This is why fixtures such as City-Country need to be retained.

Another area is tightening the rules around player behaviour, to the point where they cannot help but realise they are all in this together. Reputational risk is as much a clear and present danger to the NRL as it is to banks, corporations, governments and so on.  Nobody realistically expects Rugby League players to be statesmen and beyond reproach (many of the list above fail this metric anyway – badly), but when there is competition for hearts and mind (and dollars), there is an incentive to be providing more reason to stay within, or join, the fold. And where people go, sponsors go …

The NRL has its own role to play in this respect. For far too long it has been lazy in formulating common sense rules, and in enforcing those relating to illegal and dangerous play, almost to the point of negligence (the Alex McKinnon lifetime job shows that they recognise this now). The NRL’s management needs to be focussed as much on the next generation as it is on the current sponsorship and broadcast arrangements. After all, a large shift of kids towards alternative sports now (and away from Rugby League) means a smaller pool of players and fans in the future.

Another welcome addition to the policy suite is the (Dr-endorsed – repeatedly!) sliding scale for veteran players under the salary cap. Loyalty in a professional sporting world is somewhat of a quaint concept, but rewarding loyalty, particularly extending back to the junior ranks, is long overdue.

We are yet to see the scale, but it shouldn’t be linear (clubs should get more offset for longer term players, who will also be older). Another issue I have with this idea is that it is capped at $250,00 next year. Other than mother-henning clubs into spending within their means, I’m struggling to see the benefit of this cap. It is a fraction of the total cap, and is still restrictive. If clubs want to retain 10-year veterans, they should be allowed to under the salary cap. The allowance should either be increased (preferably) or open-ended, in my view. Each club will have to weigh the pros and cons of having a certain number of older stalwarts against cap mitigation.

Allowing salary cap exemption for terminated player payments is an excellent move, but one that should apply immediately, as is the allowance for extra replacements to cover concussed players. Concussed players have played on in the past (and even this season, to the shame of those involved), and the possible long term effects of doing this mean they have to be protected with resolve. Injuries are quite different in this sense because they usually mean the player cannot physically continue, saving them from further complications.

There are a few more initiatives in the attached article relating to transfer fees, rookie players and more which I’ll leave for now. Suffice it to say, the battle lines have been drawn in the competition for talent, making it a far easier proposition to retain and attract the type ot talent the game of Rugby League is built to showcase.



Have new rules made the game faster in 2014?

Watching Round 1 back in early March, I didn’t really get the feeling much had changed.

Sure, there were less canonball tackles and so on, and a few quick taps here and there (refereed inconsistently), but it didn’t really appear faster than 2013. Yet, there was a general feeling amongst the players that it was indeed faster.

Did they feel that way just because it was the first NRL match of the season, and their bodies were unaccustomed to the pace after a long off-season? That might explain a lot. The body tends to forget pain and exhaustion, probably explaining why we engage in activities that result in them repeatedly. I’ll tell you now, if you asked a new mother during childbirth if she’d be up for another, you’d get a Johnathan Thurston-like tirade!

Since I wasn’t out there in the middle, I decided to take the claim at face value, while resolving to keep a beady eye on it. With two months gone, we should really now have the evidence to either prove or disprove the idea that the game is faster this year (for whatever reason). Intuitively, the game doesn’t appear faster than the 2013 version, and having compiled the key metrics, I’m certain of it.

If the game were faster, what would you expect to see – more Sets and Runs? Definitely, and therefore more aggregate Metres, Line Breaks and Tackles (and a higher Missed Tackle percentage explained by higher levels of fatigue). As you can see below, the evidence doesn’t particularly point to a faster NRL this year. It does highlight a few other interesting things, however:

NRL stats 2014 vs 2013

Judging by Runs and Sets, the 2014 NRL has increased just 0.5% and 1.9% respectively, which isn’t even close to being statistically significant.

Tackles made are down by nearly a full percent (-0.85%), and Metres are down marginally (-0.29%). Pfft!

Missed Tackles are slightly higher at just over 3.5%, but the more interesting results are Offloads (+10.4%) and Points (+4.8%), even though line breaks are down (-3.4%).

Offloads are a tremendous way of eking seven or eight tackles out of a team’s set by effectively beginning that play again, and keeping the defence’s legs moving in short bursts that accumulate to really test endurance. Perhaps that is why the game appears quicker to the players, in a sense, and not so much to the viewer (or it could just be me!).

I don’t have the yearly comparison for Dummy Half Runs (and nrl.com is of little assistance either * ), but I can imagine they have increased ,which might explain less Half Back (-6.6%) and Five Eighth Runs (-2.9%).

Breaking the numbers down

More interesting to me is how the statistics have changed per team, and which highlight their relative level of success over the first eight rounds. For example, the Tigers feature highly in Sets, Metres, Metres per Run, Line Breaks and Tries. Parramatta have improved markely in some areas as well (Metres, Offloads, Tries), and the ladder position of both teams is far superior in 2014 as a result.

Team Stats Metres

Last year’s Premiers, the Roosters have essentially stood still on ‘ball control’ metrics (Sets, Metres and Metres per Run), and have moved backwards in the end result – ie. Line Breaks and Tries. They have also failed to keep their high standard of defence, and not by a small margin:

2014 Comparison Tackles

The big improvers in attack (Tigers and Parramatta) have also had reduced defensive effectiveness, but it is both a testament to their attack and an example of where one, or a group, of statistics don’t always tell the whole story. In any case, because they are controlling the ball so much better, they are making less Tackles, and that always helps a team’s Attack!

Here are a few more stats of interest. Can you believe the Roosters’ Penalty situation is actually worse than 2013? Or that the Titans Halves are making even more Runs this year? Astounding!2014 Comparison Half Runs

Anyhow, have some fun with those, while remembering the moral of the story – the NRL is no faster this year than it was last year, which is what the numbers suggest.

*  The NRL team stats page has some serious problems, so be advised NOT to rely on them as they stand.