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:
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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 …