Set restarts remain consistently inconsistent – NRL Round 19 2020 notes and trends

Regular followers and readers will know I’m a bit of a stickler for consistency with set restarts. I’d pointed out recently that there had been a number of games over the past two months that had zero ruck infringements in the second half. The theory that referees were setting the standards early holds some merit, although I still refuse to believe fatigued players were that well behaved after misbehaving early on.

The good news is that Round 18 was the first time since Round 13 that we didn’t have a second half where zero set restarts were called, and the first time since Round 9 where every game had at least two set restarts called in the second half. Is this progress?

The bad news is that things have swung completely in the opposite direction. Round 19 featured three of the four highest second half set restart counts this season, as you can see below.

That’s a considerable shift in second half interpretations of ruck infringements, going from multiple games with zero to three of the four highest second halves this season. And one of them was by Ben Cummins, who has the lowest average for set restarts called per game. This round in particular had some wildly different numbers of transgressions, as you can see below with each referee’s breakdown in Round 19.

We have three games where five set restarts were called in total, and four that were in double figures. Penalties were much more consistent, with six falling in the 7-10 range with two other outliers.

Let’s not even get into the fact that one game this weekend is going to be giving set restarts for what were penalties for offside. The kicker is that the referee for this game is Adam Gee. Reality is often far better at comedy than any team of writers. But I digress.

The interesting thing is that penalties have been called far more consistently, as you can see from the chart below showing the number of penalties called per half since Round 3. The reference lines for each pane show the average per half.

The difference between halves is around 8% for penalties and 31% for set restarts. That’s a pretty big disparity between periods, compounded as seen above by the wild swings between games.

The historic drop in between penalties between halveshas been about 21%. The decline in total penalties in 2020 (regular penalties plus set restarts) is around 18%. This would indicate that there has been slightly more consistency this season. Although if you look at the drops this year for penalties (-8%) and set restarts (-31%), you could assume that the drop in previous years was entirely from ruck infringements. That’s a long bow to draw though.

Whatever the reason, the inconsistency of application for set restarts is extremely obvious to most fans. Overall, I think the change has been a success but needs some fine tuning for 2021. Just not the type of fine tuning we’re seeing in dead rubbers for Round 20 however.

Penalty goal attempt analysis

Another update from earlier in the season, this time on penalty goal attempts as a proportion of total goal attempts. One of the things I like about this chart is that you can see how a team has performed in attack over time, as the lightly shaded area represents conversion attempts (and therefore tries).

It also shows where teams have made changes to their strategy in taking penalty goal attempts – the sharp increase in penalty goal attempts for the Rabbitohs as soon as Wayne Bennett joined was noted last time.

Below is the update for Rounds 1-19 from 2014-2020, with conversion attempts in the light shade and penalty goal attempts in the darker shade.

It’s extremely easy to see the Panthers rise this season from their panel, and it looks almost as if 2019 was an anomaly. Generally the more successful teams have a higher number of penalty goal attempts, either from trying to extend a lead or being able to generate penalties in favourable areas.

The steady decline of the Broncos since Bennett left is also exceptionally apparent, and whilst the Tigers haven’t improved much on the ladder their attack has picked up with the coaching change to Michael McGuire.

Advanced statistics for middle forwards season leaders

One of the things I’ve been interested in tracking for a while is the performance of middle forwards. I know I’m not the only one who enjoys watching the likes of Christian Welch, Daniel Alvaro or Toby Rudolf putting in the hard work.

The issue is that generally middle forwards don’t play big minutes or put up big numbers and go unnoticed besides the odd comment about how much of an impact they make. To do so I created a three advanced statistics for rugby league – Tackle %, Run % and Involvement Rate.

Tackle % estimates the percentage of opponent plays whilst on field where a player completed a tackle.

Run % estimates the percentage of team plays where a player completed a run during their time on field.

Involvement Rate combines Run % and Tackle % to estimate the percentage of total plays a player completed a run or tackle whilst on the field.

If you want to read more about them, I’ve linked the explanations of them from the site. I also post weekly updates for each statistic after each round. The aim isn’t to show the quality of a middle forwards performance, but to quantify it and identify players with large motor who put in consistently high levels of effort.

To give you an idea of the average rates for each statistic, the below chart shows them broken down by position.

Now we know how the average player performs, the table below shows the 2020 season leader board for Tackle % with one round to go. From the chart above, you can see that anyone with a tackle rate above 25-26% has an above average workload. I’ve also put a minimum of 250 minutes played which ensures a decent sample size to work with as individual games can have significant volatility.

The top three for Tackle % has been relatively consistent over the past month, with a pair of Titans, Nathan Peats (34.08%) and Mitch Rein (33.22%), as well as the Tigers Elijah Taylor (32.28%) sitting in the same spots as last week and unlikely to change with one game remaining. A tackle rate of 30% would indicate that a player is making a tackle on 3 out of every 10 defensive plays whilst they are on the field.

One of the reasons you usually only see hookers on the Tackle % chart is that their role in modern rugby league is that of defense and distribution. They’re tackling through the middle of the field and passing from dummy half, rarely running with the ball. That can also be seen from the above chart by position, showing hookers with a Run % of just 3 %, only ahead of halfbacks at 2.9%.

Two more Titans sit inside the top six for Tackle %, with Jaimin Jolliffe (31.61%) and Jarrod Wallace (31.35%) taking up fifth and sixth spots. The presence of so many Titans at the top of this list is due to the incredible amounts of defense they were required to do earlier in the season as they were routinely getting pumped.

The other notable name in this list is the Panthers Moses Leota, who I’d noted as one of the most improved players in the NRL this season in another post this week.

Next, we’ll take a look at the 2020 season leaders for Run %. Again, from the chart above, any middle forward with a run rate of over 12-13% is putting in greater than average effort.

Andrew Fifita is the season leader and looks like going unchallenged for the remainder of the 2020 as he sits with a 2020 Run % of 18.12%. The lingering knee issues have forced him to change his game and he’s used for an impact in short bursts on the field with the ball, rather than conserving his energy and spacing out his efforts. This run percentage indicates that Fifita is makign a run on nearly 1 out of every five plays for the Sharks whilst he is on the field, or basically a hit up every set of six they have.

Melbourne’s Nelson Asofa-Solomona has been a strong runner of the ball this season and occupies second place at 16.50% but is too far behind to close the gap with one game remaining. The Eels Kane Evans maintains third spot with a run rate for the season of 16.24%.

There’s a huge gap of nearly 1.5% then to fourth place, which is Jason Taumalolo (14.87%) of the Cowboys who returned on the weekend in limited minutes.

Finally, we have the leaders for Involvement Rate this season. The chart above shows that an Involvement Rate above 20% would be considered elite.

Titans rookie prop Jaimin Jolliffe sits first at 21.93% and that won’t change with the front rower out with an injury. New Zealand’s Jazz Tevaga not far behind at 21.69% but has been named at lock this week and may drop slightly if he plays big minutes.

Usually Involvement Rate declines as time increases as workloads have to be managed, as shown below.

The Titans Jarrod Wallace sits in third spot at 21.39% but has Blake Lawrie from the Dragons breathing down neck, just 0.03% behind at 21.36%. There are another five players sitting just behind Lawrie between 21.24% and 21.13%, and any one of them could move into the podium with a high workload game in Round 20.

Involvement Rates over 20% indicate that these players are macking a tackle or completing a run on one in every five plays whilst on field, which is a huge effort when you consider some of the minutes they are playing.