A statistical look at some of the NRL’s most improved players of 2020

The 2020 regular season is winding down and there has been some talk about the most improved player in the NRL. It’s a great talking point for these later rounds as most games are dead rubbers. Are you really interested to watch the Queensland Toilet Bowl this Thursday evening?

The problem with examining players who have improved in the traditional way of looking at who scored more tries or who’s averaging more running metres this year is that it falls into the counting statistics trap. You have a number of statistical buckets. Every time you do something, a bucket fills up. If your bucket is filled with more “stuff”. If you have more “stuff” than last year, then you’re more improved!

But is that the case? The above approach only rewards players who play more games, or spend more time on the field, or have a change in role. What about players who are doing more with less, there by being more efficient?

One way we can do this is by looking at a players output on a per possession basis rather than just their raw volume. This way we can if they’re doing more or less with the ball every time they touch it, rather than just looking at the end result which may have come from twice as many handles of the ball.

Regular readers may remember that earlier this season I’d made a comparison between Shaun Johnson and Nathan Cleary, based on the fact that Johnson only touches the ball about 50 times per game, whilst Cleary averages about 75 possessions per game. By taking their per possession statistics and then normalising them by the same number of possessions, their per game output was remarkably similar.

Speaking of Cleary, he’s been bandied about as one of the more improved players this season. But if you look at his possession stats year on year, he’s doing more but not more efficiently. This year he’s averaged 75 touches, up nearly one third from 2019 (57 per game). As a result, other than line break and try assists, and kicking stats, almost every other statistic is down on a per possession basis for Cleary.

That’s not a knock either, as it’s obviously working for the minor premiers and only a fool would suggest Cleary isn’t anything other than the NRL’s best halfback for 2020. But if we’re talking per possession, then becoming “less efficient” isn’t an improvement. Is he doing more? Undoubtedly, just look at where the Panthers sit on the ladder. But more isn’t always more efficient and can falsely be equated with improvement.

So, for this exercise, we’re going to expand on the previous analysis and look at normalised (by position) per possession statistics for some players that I’ve identified who have had a marked increase in their output in 2020. By doing so we can see just how much their performance has changed by giving them the same level of possession as a baseline.

To use this method to look at who has improved, I’ve narrowed down a pool of NRL players who played in both 2019 and 2020 (sorry Jamal Fogarty), which ends up around 370 players. I’ve left out another 90 players who played fewer than 200 minutes in 2019 (sorry Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Harry Grant), as their previous sample size was likely too small to draw any conclusions from. For clarity, I’m using publicly available data from Fox Sports.

Below is a table of just how many times per game certain positions touch the ball, broken down for 2019 and 2020 with a % change. This helps to show just how many times different positions get their hands on the ball, but also to highlights the increase in possession due to the set restart rule change.

Average possession per game by position, 2019 v 2020 seasons

One thing that needs to be considered is the increase in time in play due to the set restart change. Time in play is up by at least 5%, possessions are up 6%, runs are up 5% and run metres are up 4%. Interestingly average metres per run are down 1.6%. Everyone is running more but overall, not as far.

Given this, most players will likely see an increase in runs and run metres thanks to the ball being in play more often. If you’re seeing anyone with a “career high” average in runs or metres or the like, that isn’t higher than the percentages above it is most likely not an increased output.

There are also some players who’ve put up ridiculous increases in some statistics this year due to a change in role. Cameron McInnes is a great example. He played almost exclusively at hooker in 2019, but for 2020 has adapted to more of a running forward role in conjunction with time at dummy half. As a result, his runs per possession are up 330%, and his run metres are up 248%. Not improved, just a change in role.

This is more an indictment of how little hookers are running the ball than necessarily any improvement in McInnes’ game.  As a result, players like McInnes who have moved between positions that dramatically alter their statistical output have so been excluded. Jarome Luai would be another, who spent most of 2019 as an interchange player before graduating to a full time five eight in 2020, with his minutes and possessions each increasing by over 100%. It’s not like for like so he’s unfortunately excluded from this list.

The one downside is that normalising players output on a per possession basis takes any defensive performance out of the equation. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as there’s fewer defensive As a statistics available and it’s not an aspect of the game that can easily be quantified by treating player individually. After all, you can’t miss a tackle if you’re so far out of position that you can’t attempt one. So, for this exercise I’ve used the Eye Testtm to rule out a few players from the most improved list since I can’t quantify it easily (sorry Matt Dufty and Kotoni Staggs).

With that out of the way, let’s look at a a number of players that have made significant statistical improvements on a per possession basis, normalised by the average possessions at the position they play.

Dylan Brown, Parramatta

It’s not much of a coincidence that the Eels struggles this season traced back to when Brown suffered his season ending injury. He was an integral part of the Eels attack this season, touching the ball 25% more than he did in 2019 as Parramatta favoured his left side of the field. The increase in possessions weren’t used to increase his playmaking role (both passes and offloads were down per possession on 2019), but to showcase his damaging running game.

Even with the increase in possession, Brown sported double figure increases in runs and run metres, with a breathtaking 170% increase in tackle busts per possession. Unsurprisingly this led to significant jumps in tries per possession (+30%) and line breaks per possession (+95%). He also took on more of a kicking role as well, increasing by 55% through both long kicks (+114%) and attacking kicks (+37%). All this shows just how vital he was to the Eels game plan this season and his presence has been sorely missed. And that’s not even taking into account one of his overlooked abilities, usually underdeveloped in young half – his defense. But as stated we’re not able to quantify that as easily so we only have the Eye Testtm to use there, and he’s definitely above a passing grade.

Taniela Paseka, Manly

With both Manly starting front rowers missing time this season and the Sea Eagles sporting a thin interchange bench, Paseka has been required to increase his time on field in 2020 (28 minutes per game to over 34). He’s also getting more involved, with a 32% increase in touches per game, from 8.3 to 10.9. This increase in role has seen his numbers explode across the board as you can see from the above table.

Runs (+6%), run metres (12.1%) metres per run (5.7%) and tackle busts (+35%) are the bread and butter of a middle forward and Paseka has seen steady increases in those statistics. But it’s the improvement of other aspects of his game that have made him stand out. He’s become more of a passer and creator for the Sea Eagles, with a 360% increase in offloads per possession and triple digit increase in general passing. The most pleasing part of this is that it hasn’t come at the expense of his ball security, with Paseka’s per possession error rate down 75%. As the club prepares for current starting prop Addin Fonua-Blake to depart, Paseka has shown he can more than handle the load.

AJ Brimson, Gold Coast

After a nasty back injury, Brimson has made a full time move to the #1 jersey in 2020 and he’s been an integral part of their late season improvement. He’s played the full eighty minutes in every game this season after averaging 68 per game last year, and his involvement has increased slightly as well from 26.1 touches to 30.4 per game. With less time spent in the halves, he’s distributing the ball less but running more, with runs (+3%), metres (+30%) and metres per run (+26%) all showing dramatic improvement over 2019.

His ability to break the line and set up for others has been another marked expansion of his game with an 182% increase in tries per possession, and triple figure increases in try and line break assists. He’s also taking on some of the hard work this season, as his one pass runs have increased by 26%, and he’s busting tackles at a significantly higher rate as well (+35%). With two new star signings and having Brimson and Fogarty at the start of the season the Titans look to be one of the darlings of the 2021 season.

Sione Katoa, Cronulla

The Sharks are headed to the finals this season, and Katoa has been one of the few constants in a backline ravaged by injuries. With wingers usually playing the full 80 minutes his time on field hasn’t changed a lot, and his possessions per game are only up 10% on 2019, from 15.2 to 17. It’s what he’s doing with them though that is making a difference for Cronulla.

Katoa is running the ball 10% more per possession and producing almost 4% more run metres on the back of runs  with a distance of 8 metres or more increasing by 13%. He’s also taking a lot more basic hitups, with one pass runs up 30% per possession, and also offloading the ball slightly more (+5%) even though his general passing is marginally down. It seems like Katoa is picking his spots better as well, with errors declining by 26% despite offloading more, which usually leads to an increase in errors.

The biggest change in his game this year though is the ability to get over the line. Sure, it helps when you have Shaun Johnson playing inside of you whilst having one of his best seasons as well, but Katoa has emerged as one of the best finishers in the NRL. He’s scored 15 tries in his 17 games this season, which is an increase of 39% on a per possession basis. Line breaks are up by 33% too as they tend to go hand in hand with tries. How he’ll fare in 2021 will be interesting to watch as Johnson will likely out the entire season (or at best the majority of it) due to a devastating Achilles injury.  

Moses Leota, Penrith

Leota has been an important factor in Penrith’s ability to push through the middle this season. His minutes are up only slightly (an extra 2 minutes per game), and his possessions are actually down this season (-3.2%). His impact off the bench has been notable, with 15% fewer runs that were shorted than 7 metres, and 30% more that were longer than 8 metres.

He has seen double digit increases in runs per possession (+11%), run metres (+24%) and metres per run (+12%). His passes and offloads are down, as he’s playing a more basic game through the middle now. This has resulted in offloads and passes declining (-73% and -55% respectively), but it’s also meant the errors have come out of his game (-53%).

Jordan Pereira, St George Illawarra

Whilst he hasn’t had the same highlight season as the Dragons other winger, Pereira has been one of the most consistent Dragons all season. And he’s done all of this without being able to cross the line, with just one try this season and none since Round 6. He’s still been an excellent contributor, only seeing a 1% increase in touches this season and pumping out an additional 18% more metres per possession than last year.

And it’s not just short runs either – his metres per run are up 16% and runs longer than 8 metres have increased by more than 24%. He’s one of the hardest working wingers in the NRL, sitting 6th among all backs (including fullbacks) for total one pass hit ups, constantly helping the Dragons return the ball out of their own area. If he’d only been able to cross the line a few times this season he’d be snaring more headlines.

Sitili Tupouniua, Sydney Roosters

He’s reaped the benefits of playing on the best side in the NRL (ladder position notwithstanding), and whilst you could use that to refute his improvement, you’re not going to post increases like Tupouniua has without effort. With the injury toll the Roosters have suffered, he’s had to play an increased role, jumping up from nearly 30 minutes per game up to over 57, with a related 55% increase in touches (6.4 per game up to 9.7)

It has affected his running stats, with runs (-15.5%), run metres (-23.9% and metres per run (–9.9%) all suffering on a per possession basis but in doing so he’s become a much more damaging situational ball carrier. When you consider how many metres the Roosters get from their backs, James Tedesco especially, it’s less of a reflection on Tupouniua than how the Roosters play.

His offloads are up nearly 24%, and tackle busts have improved a similar increase (+29%), showing he’s moved from a one-dimensional meter gaining runner of the ball. Tupouniua has had a knack for finding the line this season (+209% per possession) but only has a 3% increase in line breaks, indicating that the Roosters may have found that the best situation to use him in is close to the line where he can crash over and not further out.

Luciano Leilua, Wests Tigers

The younger Leilua joined the Tigers this season from the Dragons and has developed into a damaging 80-minute edge forward. His minutes have shot up from 41 per game to 78, but hasn’t seen a corresponding increase in touches, going from 11.7 to 13.8 per game. Yet on a per possession basis, he has expanded his running game.

Runs per possession are up 20%, with run metres up 11%. His metres per run have declined slightly, down to 8.2% form 9.2%, which is also shown by a sizable 64% increase in his runs of less than 7 metres. It’s a Tigers wide problem as I’ve noted twice previously. He’s also been one of the few Wests players that has shown the ability to break through the line, as he’s nearly doubled his try scoring output per possession. With some additions to their middle forward rotation in 2021, the Tigers might have the go forward required to create more space for Leilua to cause more havoc down the left edge.   

Sam Stone, Gold Coast

Another player who hasn’t been playing the full season for the Titans but given his improvements over 2019 he could be playing a larger role in 2021. Stone hasn’t seen a substantial increase in minutes (68 to 71) and his per game possessions have dropped 20%. Yet almost all of his per possession statistics have seen growth on last season. He’s running the ball 7% more, resulting in 29 % more metres and an increase of 20% on his run per metre average (7.3 metres per carry to 8.8).

Stone is also busting tackles at an incredible rate compared to last season (+106%) which is leading to longer runs, with those greater than 8 metres up 9%. He’s not a stimulating choice from a marketing point of view, but the Titans and their fans should be very happy with his progress after joining the club from Newcastle.

Honourable mentions – Peta Hiku, Brian To’o, Dylan Edwards, Brett Morris, Regan Campbell-Gillard, Thomas Burgess, Daniel Saifiti, Jahrome Hughes, Blake Lawrie, Jack Wighton.