Fatigue and injuries caused by Condensed Rugby League Theory? NRL Round 3 2021 stats & trends

With three rounds and 24 games complete in season 2021, it’s becoming pretty clear what affect the new rule changes are having NRL this season. There are no dramatic shifts as we saw with the introduction of set restarts and reverting to one referee, but there are noticeable trends of what is (or isn’t happening).

The confirmation of Condensed Rugby League theory

I have mentioned condensed rugby league previously, where we’re seeing the same amount of rugby league shoehorned into a shorter period of time, and it’s looking increasingly apparent that is what we’re seeing in 2021. Whether or not you think that is a good thing is up for debate, but the fact it is happening is not.

Comparing rounds 1-3 in 2021 with rounds 3-5 in 2020, the following facts are becoming undeniable:

  • Time in possession hasn’t meaningfully changed, declining by 1% (55.9 minutes v 56.6 last season)
  • The pace of play hasn’t meaningfully changed either, increasing by 0.4% (5.9 runs/minute v 5.88 last season)

From the above we can surmise that the year on year change hasn’t shifted that much from last week with an additional eight games, which leads me to believe that we’ve hit a substantial sample size. Any further additional data points will only reinforce these trends. If there’s any changes that aren’t in line I’ll be sure to bring them up in future posts.

Below is an update to the visualisation I’ve been using to check how 2021 (yellow) compares with 2020 (green) for comparable rounds relating to time in play versus number of runs per game, with data point size representing total points scored (bigger = more). It’s all very similar to last year, and hopefully for you the reader, the last time you’ll see this plot this season.

Changes such as the removal of stoppages for scrums and turning offside penalties into set restarts has seen a decrease in the total time to complete a game, even if it hasn’t seen an increase in time on the field.

Comparing Rounds 1&2 2021 to full year 2020 it is apparent that elapsed time has decreased by 2% (95 minutes v 97 last season). Here’s the slide from Graham Annesley’s briefing following round 2 showing this data.

Could the game actually be faster though? I don’t know for sure and without player level GPS data I couldn’t make that call. The players are saying it is and I’ll defer to them since they’re the ones on the field.

That’s why I’m focused on the pace of play – how often things are occurring, not how fast they are. Runs are still occurring at the same rate as previous seasons, around 5.9 per minute. These runs may or may not be faster than previous seasons, but not fast enough to see a higher incidence of runs per minute.

Which brings me back to elapsed time and the fatigue issue. Evidently elapsed time data hasn’t changed significantly over the past week because Annesley didn’t even mention it in his briefing this week.

Yet this data on Elapsed Time is where I believe the feeling of “faster” comes in for those observing the game, as the gaps between “stuff” happening has decreased. We’ve shaved 2-3 minutes off the total time of a game so far in 2021. The same rate of “stuff” is just happening over a shorter period of time, giving the illusion of speed increasing.

My conclusions from this haven’t really changed over the past few weeks. There isn’t more on field rugby league this season, and things aren’t occurring on field at a higher rate, although they may be happening faster according to players. There are slight changes in these metrics but nothing meaningful.

What is meaningful though is the drop in elapsed time, even if it doesn’t look like it. The result is asking elite athletes to push their bodies to the limits for the same amount of time with a reduction in the opportunities to recover. Two to three minutes out of 90+ may not sound like a lot, but if you’re going at near full speed for 40 minutes as most players on the field are, every instance of an extra 10-15 seconds of rest makes a notable difference.

Round 3 felt like a tipping point around fatigue with the number of injuries and concussions, even if the injury numbers aren’t that different from previous seasons.

That doesn’t make those that did happen any less meaningful or important though. Regardless, there may be serious long term issues this season in having players expend the same amounts of energy over a shorter time with fewer opportunities to recover. There’s an aesthetic issue as well. One of the beautiful things about this game is that it provided opportunities to breathe and take in what we’ve just witnessed, which in turn built anticipation for what might be to come next. Instead we’re being shuffled from one set of six to another without having time to process what just happened. Maybe that’s the idea behind set restarts and removal of scrums?

The NRL in 2021 feels like the players are being performance managed, having to perform at the same elite level whilst having their breaks removed and working through lunch. Was anyone really asking for Condensed Rugby League?

Is fatigue showing statistically?

On the back of the above observation, there’s a number of statistics this season I’ve been paying close attention to in order to gauge how much fatigue might be influencing the game. These are the obvious ones that are affected decision making and reaction times, things that usually would suffer under extreme fatigue.

Firstly, I’ve included some of the more basic statistics like runs and tackles to provide context for these averages, as something like missed tackles increasing could be a factor of more tackles being made. It also shows that we’re not getting more football, with total sets and runs per half declining this year, further confirming Condensed Rugby League theory.

Below are the per game averages for some statistics that might indicate fatigue, compared year on year broken down by half.

Looking at the numbers in more detail, some of these statistics have dropped in 2021, interestingly more so in the first half than the second half. Errors for example, have increased by 1.5 in the first half but less than 0.4 in the second half where you would assume fatigue plays a greater role. This is echoed with completion rates, which have dropped from 79.2% to 76.6% in the first half and 77.9% to 76.27% in the second half.

Missed tackles are up quite significantly, with an extra 5.7 in the first half and 4.6 in the second half for a total of more than 10 extra missed tackles per game in 2021 so far, despite similar numbers of runs.

This results in Tackle Efficiency dropping as well from nearly 94% in the first half to 92%, and 92.5% in the second half to under 91%. Tackle Efficiency isn’t the best statistic to determine defensive ability, as it doesn’t take into account defensive positioning (you have to be attempting to make a tackle to miss one, the Bryce Carwright rule), but it does show that players attempting to make tackles are missing a greater percentage of them.

It’s early days but most of the above statistics are showing changes this season that could be indications of fatigue affecting performance, and it would be interesting to see if that was happening at the back ends of halves or was consistent throughout, but as I’m just using public data that question will have to remain unanswered for now.

Where did the penalties go?

I mentioned Graham Annesley’s post round briefings before, and one of the more interesting tables he showed was one concerning penalties per game, which can be seen below from Round 2.

If you’re of the “stoppages are evil” school of rugby league thinking, you’ll probably like these numbers. What I was more interested in was the changes in penalty and set restart counts.

We’ve moved from ten penalties and seven restarts per game last season (at total of 17), to 6.7 penalties and 7.1 set restarts per game this season (a total of just under 14). Of those 7 restarts per game, just under 2 of them are for 10 metre infringements. That 1.8 per game makes up almost half of the 3.3 per game drop in penalties called, but it has made me wonder about the other half.

Given these numbers, and that we have additional penalties in 2021 for breaking early from a scrum, am I to believe that players, suffering more from fatigue than ever, are infringing less in the ruck and offside less?

When I’ve suggested that restarts aren’t called consistently, one of the retorts has been that some referees are calling more in the first half as a way to set a tone early of what would be expected.

This season however we’re seeing fewer penalties and set restarts, despite the fatigued players. There were just 30 set restarts in first halves this weekend, and just 17 in second halves. That total of 47 is the second lowest round total since set restarts were introduced, only ahead of Round 4 last season before coaches worked out how to exploit these new rules. The rounds following rounds that total of 46 saw 75 and 83 restarts called.

Again, we’re seeing the lowest totals of set restarts despite them being awarded for more types of infringements. I don’t want to use the dreaded M word, but even Adam Gee this round called just two set restarts, both in the first half. Surely that is a sign that not all is well?

Condensed Rugby League Theory – NRL Round 2 2021 stats and trends

Two rounds of the 2021 National Rugby League season are in the books, and I don’t have a witty opening this week because my kids are sick. Let’s get right into it.

Time in play is stable for now

There was a slight increase in time in play for Round 2, which may have been brought on by the torrential rain seen across most of the eastern seaboard. The average time in possession hit 56.6 minutes, up 2% from 55.5 in Round 1, which as I mentioned last week was down almost 2% from Round 3, 2020.

How does that Round 2 number line up with the corresponding round from 2020 (Round 4)? It’s down again, but only by 0.3% this time. Below is the visualisation of Time in Play plotted against Total Runs for Rounds 1 & 2, 2021 (yellow) and Rounds 3 & 4, 2020 (green). Most of the 2020 games are sitting below 57 minutes on field.

If we expand that out again to all of 2019, 2020 and 2021, you can see that 2021 is falling between 2019 and 2020. Still early days but there’s definitely not more football being played.

The other metric I was looking at last week as a proxy for pace was runs per minute. That hasn’t changed much either, sitting at 5.93 this round, an increase of 1%. Again compared to Round 4 last year it’s virtually the same – a change of just +0.2%. Things aren’t being played faster as we’re seeing the same rate of runs per minute as previous seasons, even if it appears that way to the naked eye.

Given these numbers, I’m again leaning to the condensed rugby league theory where the same amount of the game is being crammed into a shorter elapsed time, and the only thing being removed is the chance for players to recover. Fewer stoppages, more fatigue, more errors.

Below is a chart of errors per run from 2014-2021, comparing the number of errors per run for Rounds 1&2 (3&4 for 2020).

2020 had the fewest errors per run since 2014, whilst this year we’re up to 0.73 per run which is an increase of 9% and the highest number since 2016. Some of that may be due to the wet weather, but total errors for the round were down this week (average of 25 to just under 23). There’s that fatigue issue again.

The devolution of style might be continuing

If you didn’t read my post on the devolution of style in the NRL, I’d recommend going back and giving a quick look. In summary, the trends we saw last season – more one out running, less expansive passing and more conservative play – was already creeping into the game over the past 5-6 seasons and the drastic changes introduced in Round 3 just accelerated them.

With that in mind how do they look after two rounds? Like last week we’re looking at small sample sizes against previous seasons, so I’ve restricted them to just Rounds 1 and 2 (or 3 and 4 for 2020) to ensure like for like comparisons.

We’ll start with the percentage of all runs that are one pass runs (basic hit ups). It’s a good way to see if the game is being played in a simple and conservative manner.

A slight decline from last year, but still hovering at around half of all runs being a hit up which was a huge feature of the NRL in a set restart world. Not the most attractive style of rugby league unfortunately unless you’re a big middle forward fan like myself (how good was seeing Daniel Alvaro run the ball in the open field on Saturday evening?)

Next up let’s examine the number of general play passes per run, to see if teams are spreading the ball instead of just smashing it up the middle of the park.

Passes per run continues to drop, down to the lowest level since 2014 of just .535. As mentioned in the article linked above these are general play passes and don’t include dummy half passes, so you can just add a 1 in front for total passes per run.

And as you’d expect with passing down, offloads per run continues to drop as you can see below.

2021 is currently only ahead of 2016 at 0.0533 offloads per run, which is a 25% decline in offloads in four years. Score another point for conservative one out rugby league. We don’t need to bring back the little man, we need to bring back the offload.

One of the reasons passing may be down in 2021 is that kicks are up from 15.9 per game to 20.4 per game. The problem is they’re all long kicks, which have grown from 15.9 to 20.4 and metres per kick is up 24.5 to 26.3. Kicks dead and forced drop outs are also down year on year. This data would suggest we’re getting more midfield rugby league and fewer plays in attacking zones, but again it’s early days and the sample size isn’t sufficient.

The only metric that seemed to have an increase this season was the percentage of dummy half runs, which improved slightly to 5.3% but still sits well below what it was in 2014.

A few other minor stats to note after two rounds. Play the balls per set has dropped from 3.83 in 2020 to 3.76. This makes perfect sense when you see there’s been more errors per game made (22.8 to 24.1) and completion rates have dropped from 77.2% to 76.4%. Simply put, we’re seeing an extra set per game but fewer overall runs due to extra errors.

Set restart & referee update

One thing I looked at in 2020 was the number of play the balls per “total penalty” (set restart or traditional penalty), to see how often they were being called. This year has seen that number go from 18 play the balls per penalty in first halves of Round 1, to 20 in second halves of Round 1, 24 in first halves of Round 2 and up to 29 in second halves of Round 2.

That’s nearly one every five full sets, up from three full sets in the first half of the opening round. Last year the highest first half rate was a penalty or set restart every 19 play the balls. There wasn’t a single first half above 20 play the balls per infringement called, and we’ve already breached that mark in 2021.

Is that a good or bad thing? Depends on how much influence you want whistle blowers to have. Some like a tightly controlled contest while others like it to be more free flowing. Here at the Eye Test, all we like is consistency. If it’s a penalty or set restart 2 minutes in, it should be with 2 minutes to go no matter the margin. But it isn’t.

The chart below shows big drops in infringements called by half, larger than we’ve seen previously.

Penalties aren’t dropping that much – 3.6 to 3.1 from first half to second half. The biggest drop is for set restarts, which go from 4.4 to just 2.6 in second halves. We’ve all seen it happen – a rush of set restarts in the opening 20 minutes before a period where you can lie all over the ruck and not get called, followed but a scattering of them in the second half.

And you can see from the below table showing half splits per referee it’s happening largely across the board this season.

Only Matt Cecchin with a 0.5 difference in restarts per half bucks the trend, maybe he didn’t get the memo? I’m also very concerned that Adam Gee isn’t calling the most set restarts per game anymore, hopefully this is another thing I can attribute to small sample size.

Luke Keary doing Luke Keary things

Whilst I hold no interest in the outcome of the Dally M awards, it’s becoming increasingly noticeable that there are players being awarded votes who have no business receiving them. Voters are trying to play the smartest person in the room card by handing out one vote to a player who did well on a team that got thumped, even if they were the 14th best player on the field.

Case in point is Luke Keary, who sits on zero Dally M points after two rounds, despite adding +20 Net Points per game when looking at average Net Points Responsible For (NPRF). Players who have more votes than Keary include Matt Moylan, Benji Marshall and Jack Bird. I’m not suggesting they didn’t deserve points, but for Keary to fail to register any votes highlights the flaws in the current system.

I don’t like looking at individual player stats after just two games because it’s such a small body of work, and opponent strength can play into it significantly. That said, Keary is in a class of his own so far as you can see from the table below showing average NPRF from the two rounds played in 2021.

The amazing thing is that Keary did the exact same thing last season after the return from the Covid 19 lockdown, adding +19 per game in Rounds 3 & 4.

There’s no perfect system to fix the voting issue, but the only thing I’m sure of is that the current system doesn’t work.

What impact are the new rules having already? NRL Round 1 2021 stats and trends

Rugby League is back for 2021 and so is the Eye Test. Hopefully I’ll avoid the sophmore slump that follows many rookie seasons, but I can’t promise anything other than a lot of talk about Daniel Alvaro, Chrsitian Welch, and if Friday is anything to go by, Isaiah Papali’i.

Round 1 of the NRL season featured a lot of talk about how the was game marred by six again calls and that matches were too fast, but they were hardly the worst thing on the field this weekend, which would go to the Parramatta Eels horrific away jerseys. But I digress.

Let’s have a quick look at some key metrics to see if anything had changed this season given the amount of (unnecessary and untrialed) rule changes this season.

A few things to keep in mind – we’re looking at just 8 games and 16 halves of football which is an incredibly small sample size . For the first month of the season, I’ll keep harping on this until we hit about 30 games played which gives a more robust set of games to work with. Until then the changes we’re seeing in the NRL and identifying here are more indicative than representative.

The other important thing to remember is that comparisons with Round 1 2020 are pointless from most perspectives as it was nearly a different game under two referees and no set restarts. Round 3 2020 should be the direct comparison since it more closely follows whatever vision of rugby league Lord V’Landys has concocted this season. I’ll still do some direct round comparisons where I think they’re valid, but Round 3 will be the default.

Time in play has declined

The eight games in round one produced 55.5 minutes per game, up about 1.2% from 54.83 minutes for Round 1, 2020 but down 2% from Round 3, 2021 where the average time in possession was 56.5 minutes (excluding the Penrith v Newcastle golden point game, which the NRL seemed to include in their analysis).

It’s an interesting dichotomy given that the rule changes were meant to create more time in play and more attacking football. Any serious fan will tell that those two are mutually exclusive as scoring points creates stoppages. You can’t have both.

Regardless, the fact is that the ball was on the field for fewer minutes in round one. Putting that in perspective, from over 300 games since the start of 2019, only one game from the weekend (Warriors/Titans) ranked inside the top 100 for time in play, and only two of them had more than 55 minutes in play.

The above chart shows all rounds from 2019-2021 for Time in Play plotted against Total Runs. Red data points are 2019, green are 2020 and the few yellow ones you can see are 2021. It shows just that most of the weekends games fall right in the middle or lower half of total ball in play time for the past two seasons, and again that the more points in a game, the lower the time in play.

This is one that will be worth keeping an eye on as the season progresses and really does need a larger set of data to be statistically significant. But the reduction of penalties for ten metre infringements hasn’t resulted in an increase in possession on the field like many predicted.

Things are faster?

We’ve clarified that there’s less time in play so far this season, but is more “stuff” being done? One of my big pet peeves last season was people claiming the game was “faster”, when all that happened was more things were happening because the ball was in play more (about 6%).

This season we have the same claim that the game is “faster”, yet the time in play is down. How do we determine if it’s faster?

Unfortunately, as a layman doing this as a hobby in my spare time with whatever little public data is available, it’s hard to say. I don’t have access to the GPS tracking data or more detailed statistics that might show authoritatively that more things are being done and they’re being done quicker.

Then how can we check if it is faster? Well, If things are happening faster then you’d expect them to be happening more frequently. With that in mind, I’m going to look at the number of runs per minute. If the game is faster, there would be more “stuff” happening per minute in a game.

Looking at round one this season, there were around 5.81 runs per minute. The same number for Round 1 2020 was 5.71 and for Round 3 of that season, the true comparison as mentioned above, it was also 5.81. This would indicate that the opening round this season was operating at a similar “pace” of play to the return after the Covid 19 lock down last season.

As you’d expect there was some variation between games this round for runs versus time in play, with the Warriors v Titans game the only match to have more than 58 minutes on the field.

Above is the same visualisation from before showing Time in Play plotted against Total Runs from Round 1 2021 (yellow) and Round 3 2020 (green). t’s pretty clear that most of the games from Round 1 this season were higher scoring and resulted in lower time in play, which was what I referred to earlier about them being mutually exclusive.

One thing I did note from looking at this is that the rate of runs per minute increased over the course of the season. From 5.81 in Round 3, to 5.86 in Round 15 and 5.92 in Round 17 and 5.95 in Round 20. This could point to players match fitness coming along as the season progressed, as even the most arduous pre-season campaign probably cannot match the rigorous intensity of an actual competitive game of rugby league.

The other noteworthy thing that popped from trying to analyse this “faster” debate is that Round 1, 2019 had 5.97 runs per minute, higher than any rate in the 2020 season. Weren’t these rule changes trying to increase the amount of football, not decrease it?  (I should note that runs per minute also declined over the course of that season with Round 24 down to 5.58 runs per minute, but that doesn’t fit my narrative so let’s forget about it for now)

That’s not to say the game isn’t faster, because at times the Eye Test seems to indicate it is and players are definitely tiring quicker. However, the time of ball in play could be classed as nearly irrelevant, as friend of the site Aaron Wallace from Fox Sports put it better than I ever could:

The game being “faster” isn’t the issue, the reduction of opportunities to recover is. With fewer stoppages the duration of a half of football is most likely appreciably shorter than it has been. Especially if you don’t count the Sharks/Dragons second half with Wade Graham’s captains challenge that would make Shane Watson blush.

Graham Annesley’s weekly review seemed to indicate this as well, as they’ve started to talk about Elapsed Time and the percentage Ball in Play of Elapsed Time. As alluded to above, the total elapsed time or total ball in play time isn’t overly relevant, what is relevant is time between whistles where players are putting in maximum effort. That is most likely longer, and the gaps between them are shorter.

Does that make it “faster”? Probably not. But it does condense a similar amount of rugby league into a smaller period of time, which is what is contributing to the increased player fatigue and resulting in something barely resembling the greatest game of all at times.

Is anything changing in the second half?

If we’ve decided that fatigue plays a part over the course of an entire game, then another way of looking at the impact of a “faster” game is how are performances in the second half this season compared to last season?

In Round 3 last year, there was a general drop in the amount of “stuff” happening from the second half to the first half, with most statistical categories declining. Average points dropped from 19 to 15.8, runs dropped from 173 per first half to 163 per second half, total metres dropped from 1,547 to 1,453 and metres per run dropped from 8.95 to 8.9.

The opposite is actually true in Round 1 2021. The majority of statistics saw an increase in the second half. Teams were scoring more points (17.8 to 22.6) in the second half, there were more run metres gained (1,389 to 1,429), metres per run increased (8.5 to 8.9). There’s also more running up the middle – dummy half runs and one pass runs (hitups) increased in the second half this season.

Completion rates increased from 74.54% to 75.87%. This led to play the balls per set increasing from 3.65 to 3.72, whilst last season they dropped after the break, from 3.88 to 3.81.

What does this mean? Again, the sample sizes are tiny but it may mean that teams are pushing the ball through the middle even more in the second half trying to wear down already fatigued opponents. And it seemed to work with scoring increasing to 22 points per game in the second half, up from 15.8 in second halves last season.

Another thing to keep an eye on.

Set restarts and penalties.

Finally, this week everyone’s favourite part of the Eye Test – referee analysis. Here’s the breakdown of set restarts and penalties awarded by referees from Round 1.

You can see from the above chart that there were three types of games in Round 1 – the ones where they “let the boys play” (Gough and Chris Sutton), the ones where the referees wanted to stamp their authority on the game (Klein and Gerard Sutton) and then the rest. Although Matt Cecchin gets points for trying to differentiate him self from the pack by blowing twice as many penalties as set restarts.

We also had the issue of inconsistent interpretations of set restarts rearing it’s head again. Chris Sutton called four set restarts in the first half but zero in the second half. Klein blew nine six agains in the first period but just two in the second. This was a bugbear of many fans last season and the change in the calendar year hasn’t appeared to make much of a difference.  

However, the real damage from set restarts now being awarded on penalties doesn’t show up the numbers above. With set restarts now awarded when players aren’t back 10 metres, defensive teams now have the most minor of deterrents for deliberately being offside when a team is running the ball off their own line.

Is defending for a few extra tackles for a chance of fielding the ball inside your opponent’s half or even force a line drop out a sufficient penalty? Most coaches would (and will) be trying to push their luck with it this season. Like I said last season, if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

There was an instance of this in the second half on Friday evening where the Eels were clearly jumping early in an attempt to keep the Broncos either pinned down or driven back into their in-goal area. Conceding extra tackles aren’t enough of a disincentive to maintain field position.

Teams in the Broncos situation are no longer receive relieving penalties allowing them to gain 20-30 metres from a penalty for an offside infringement. The smart coaches will (or already have) adapted, and as we saw last season the pushing of boundaries is often a key to success.

The depressing thing is that yet again, we have a consequence of a rule change that any regular league watcher would was able to identify well before the season had started. But that’s business as usual under PVL.

Big bench contributions

Isaiah Papali’i was a huge factor off the bench for Parramatta on Friday in their win over the Broncos. It was such a strong performance that many were wondering how he was let go from the Warriors, and replaced by Kane Evans, who didn’t even make their 21 for the opening round.

Just how impressive was Papali’i? Let’s have a look at all all interchange players minutes plotted against run metres since the start of 2020. Blue data points are from 2020 and orange data points are from 2021.

Papali’i smashed out nearly 200 metres in 56 minutes from just 18 runs, the seventh highest run metre total from an interchange player since the start of last season.

Another new signing worth noting was Jai Arrow, who also had a very strong debut for Souths as well off the bench, notching 162 metres in just 45 minutes from 19 runs.