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:
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.
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:
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!
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.