Is Jack Wighton the least accurate general play kicker in the NRL? – NRL Round 7 2021 stats and trends

During the Raiders loss to the Cowboys on the weekend, Canberra five eighth and Dally M medal winner Jack Wighton did something he seems to do far more often than any other player in the NRL – kick a ball out on the full.

Andrew Voss mentioned it on commentary on Fox League as well, bringing up that according to the Fox Sports Lab he’d kicked out on the full 16 times since 2019. It’s something that appears to happen so frequently that NRL Twitter continually dunks on him for it.

This had me thinking, is Wighton the worst offender in this area? For this I’m looking at the kick error stat, which I’m using as a proxy for kicks out on the full. It may also be that kicks dead are included in kick errors. Apologies to those at the Fox Sports Lab in advance if that’s incorrect, but what can you expect from a time poor hobbyist analyst? But I digress.

Going back to the original question, is he the least accurate general play kicker in the National Rugby League? If you look at the raw totals Wighton is certainly up there.

Since 2020 (a delineation point for me as V’Landys era rugby league could very well be a different game), among players with at least 50 total kicks, Wighton has 14 kick errors. That’s equal third for that period with Daly Cherry-Evans, only behind Adam Reynolds (16) and Mitch Moses (19).

But as my faithful reader would know, here at the Eye Test we realise that raw counting numbers don’t tell the full story. It is worth mentioning that the players ahead of Wighton all had a minimum of 100 additional kicks over the Canbera #6.

Naturally, this led me to look at the percentage of their kicks that were errors, to see if his rate of kick errors was higher given that he had fewer kicks than the other playmakers. Looking at the data under this lens, Wighton certainly leads the way between those four names at 6.3%, ahead of Moses (5.4%), Reynolds (4.6%) and Cherry-Evans (3.8%).

Does that mean that Wighton is the least accurate kicker in the NRL? If you look at kick error in context of the whol leave, he sits in a slightly more favourable 10th position. Below is a visualization of the kick error percentage for every player since the start of 2020 with more than 50 kicks, showing where Wighton sits and who is above him.

Some of the data points overlap (Cameron Smtih and Ash Talyor) so I’ve marked each data point at the top of the chart. There are some names ahead of Wighton that wouldn’t shock most fans, like Brodie Croft and Taylor.

However, the thing that stands out is not only that Cody Walker is the least accurate kicker, with 12 of his 97 kicks categorised as an error, but that his kick error percentage is nearly double that of Wighton’s at 12.4%. It’s also at more than three percent higher than the second least accurate kicker, Clint Gutherson at 9.1%.

If you look at the same kick error percentage plotted against long kicks, it becomes a bit clearer that whilst Wighton does possess a wayward kick, he’s far from the worst offender in the league. Those above the trend line are generally less accurate than those below it.

Next time Wighton punts a ball over the sideline, feel free to have a laugh at his blunder but remember he’s barely in the top ten for kick error percentage in the NRL.

Set restarts mean fewer play the balls inside 20 metres

It’s well established now that set restarts are leading to more play through the middle of the field. But where does that play through the middle of the field occur?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the X/Y coordinate data to plot these play the balls, but there is data for tackled inside 50m and inside an opponent’s 20m area. So, we’ll use that aggregated play the ball data to look at any changes in location.

Looking at the first seven comparable rounds of the season since 2014 (3-9 for 2020), the percentage of play the balls inside an opponent’s 20 metre zone is 18.1%, the lowest point over the past seven seasons.

One of the reasons for this may be that a try can be scored from anywhere on the field, not just inside 20m, which is one of the great things about the game we love. Long range tries may have increased as well, but again that’s not data that I’m privy to as part of the great unwashed.

No surprises that this change in play the ball location corresponds with the percentage of play the balls in a team’s own half now approaching 58%, up from a low point of 51% in 2018.

You remember 2018, don’t you? It was a wistful time, referees were cracking down on negative play with penalties, scrums were plentiful and there was nary a set restart to be seen. This led to the usual crisis merchants piping up and said crackdown ended.

The affect of these penalties were teams kicking themselves 20 to 30 metres into better field position, a far higher level of rugby league currency than a handful of extra tackles.

Below is the average number of penalties awarded per game by round since 2016. It’s incredibly easy to spot the point where negative voices were the loudest, around halfway through the 2018 season, resulting in things reverting to the way they were previously.

Back to the proliferation of own half play the balls, and it’s no surprise that teams exploiting the rules this season are to blame. Plenty of places have already documented it this season, including on this very site.

As teams regularly hold down players in the ruck or creep inside 10 metres, the only way for a side to advance the ball is to keep running it out of their own area. The previous bonus of field position has been removed.

Jack Snape penned a story on the weekend for the ABC that included a great visualization of where penalties were coming from, showing that a large amount of them are occurring early in tackle counts as teams run the ball off their own line. We’ve given teams a punishment that only incentivizes them to push the limits in order to maintain field position.

Again, no surprises that it has come to this and it’s clear from watching games that this is occurring far too regularly. But as I’ve mentioned before, one of the most important parts of analytics is being less wrong.

We’ve swug from one extreme (too much extra field position) to another (not enough). Whether or not you think this is a good or bad thing depends on what you value more – fewer stoppages or field position. Either way there’s probably a better mix than what we’re currently seeing.

A visualization that summarises Brisbane’s recent decline

Whilst looking at data for the above section, I also checked a few teams’ play the ball location profiles to see if there was anything of note. Some of them were nondescript, some looked quite random, and then I got to the Brisbane Broncos.

Over the first seven rounds of the season, they’ve increased from 52.9% of play the balls in their own half in 2018 when they finished sixth on the ladder, to 59.9% last season and a disastrous 63.7% this season. That’s nearly two thirds of their total play the balls, and just 13.8% inside opponent 20 metre zones.

Is it any wonder they are struggling to score points and their halves are always under extreme pressure?

The worst hands in the NRL thus far?

With seven rounds complete it’s a good time to check out which players have the highest error rate for the 2021 season. Previously, I’ve defined error rate as how often an error is committed measured by the number of possessions needed to produce one. Here’s the breakdown of error rate for the 2021 season thus far, for players who have played at least three games and committed at least three errors.

It’s grim reading for several fanbases. Somehow Kyle Feldt has managed to commit an error 11 times in 89 possessions, or one every 8.09 times he touches the ball. This may explain Todd Payten always looking so displeased. Anyone watching the Eels this season knows the lottery that is a ball passed to Shaun Lane, with the Eels edge making a mistake every 10.4 touches. His team mate Blake Ferguson is just as worrysome with his ball handling (12 total errors this season), but doesn’t rate as poorly as Lane on this list due to having almost double the touches (165 versus 89).

Raiders fans probably aren’t surprised with the number of players from their club in this list either, headed by Hudson Young (an error every 9.4 possessions). Jarrod Croker and Elliot Whitehead also commit an error inside every dozen touches. It’s hard to win football games when you’re unable to control the ball.

And that’s not even accounting for Jordan Rapana, who sits just outside this list with 13 errors at a rate of one every 13.9 possessions. He’s only saved by how many times he touches the ball, nearly double Feldt at 181 in seven games. Dunamis Lui also would sit inside this list with an error every 11 possessions, but he’s only committed two of them in his three games and hasn’t met the minimum.

The only positive thing in this list for consumers of green milk is to see Nick Cotric’s name in it.

Header image – “Jack Wighton chuffed with the win” by reepy_au is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The increasing importance of interchange – NRL Round 5 2021 stats and trends

Last week I mentioned one of the things that the new NRL rules has changed in 2021 is how often teams use their interchange bench. With fatigue playing an even larger part of the game this season due to the reduction of in game stoppages, players off the bench are spending nearly 10% more time on the field this season, up three minutes to 33.8 per game.

It’s not a huge change yet, but as middle forwards tire bench players are impacting the game even more and becoming more important. Not only are starting players tiring quicker and earlier in games as teams go all out early in halves, we’re also seeing clusters of head injury assessments and other injuries during games, which may or may not be related to the increased fatigue.

Whatever the reason, having a strong interchange bench and using it correctly is becoming an important part of successful NRL clubs.

Which teams are using it more this season? To start with let’s examine who is (and isn’t) using their bench. Below is a chart of the average minutes by all interchange players by NRL club for 2021.

North Queensland is leading the way, with nearly 162 minutes per game from their four bench players as they deal with injuries and discipline issues. With Josh McGuire in exile and Jason Taumalolo injured, their few big middles aren’t available resulting in a forward pack by committee, with usual dummy half Rueben Cotter lining up most weeks at lock. The Sharks are averaging 153 per game but that’s exaggerated by their disastrous second half against the Eels where they had no fit players to interchange. The Warriors aren’t far behind, as they had been running a four forward bench until round five when Paul Turner debuted.

On the other end of the scale, the lowest are the Broncos and Eels, at barely more than 100 minutes per game across their four bench players. The Eels usually don’t substitute their edge forwards, with Shaun Lane and (usually) Ryan Matterson playing 70-80 minutes and Nathan Brown typically in the 55-65 minute range, rotating their middles and holding Will Smith as a late utility replacement.

The Broncos tactic of leaving Tom Dearden or Brodie Croft on the bench isn’t that different from the Eels. Last season when Croft was on the bench he did come on as a dummy half and defended (well tried to) through the middle. An increase of just 1% in interchange minutes used in 2021 highlights just how little has changed from an overall view, even if it has changed somewhat at a micro level.  Here’s how the rest of the NRL has changed their bench usage this season compared to 2020.

Unsurprisingly with the reasons mentioned above North Queensland is going to their bench 41% more than 2020. Penrith is the other big mover, using nearly 30% more minutes on interchanges. On the other end of the scale, the Dragons are playing their reserves 17% fewer minutes, whilst Newcastle is also using 17% fewer minutes off the bench than last season, a number which stands out considering their shocking injury toll. Still, we’re seeing 11 of the 16 NRL clubs go to their bench more this season, and another three only 2% less, whether it be for fatigue, concussion, injury, or all three.

Going back to the low minutes that the Eels and Broncos use off their bench, it results in a similarly small percentage of their average running metres coming from their bench compared to their starting players. This can be seen below, at just 13% for Brisbane and 14% for Parramatta, the two lowest percentages of all 16 NRL clubs this season.

At the other end, Manly get 22% of run metres off their bench, slightly ahead of South Sydney whilst the Cowboys sit fourth at 21% despite running first for minutes off the bench. The average across the NRL is 18%.

Not all metres are created equal however. Below is a chart of run metres by interchange players, broken down by post contact and pre contact metres.

Souths get the best output from their bench, with 123 metres per game from their interchange and unsurprisingly Penrith are right behind them. The Warriors generate the fourth most post contact metres, but significantly fewer pre contact metres than those in the top half.

Only two teams produce less than 80 post contact metres per game from positions 14-17, one being Canterbury and the other being Brisbane. Even worse for the Broncos, they also get 20 pre contact metres fewer per game than the Bulldogs, and nearly 60 metres fewer than the NRL average.

This creates issues for teams like Brisbane, who have starting forwards that can generate metres, but as the game progresses with fewer stoppages, having one less forward to rotate is causing them to tire quicker.

If we look the previous pre/post contact metre chart but include starting forwards as well as interchange players, Brisbane are sitting mid table this season in post contact metres at 286 per game. Parramatta aren’t too far ahead at 290 per game. Both are ahead of the NRL average at 276 metres per game. Here’s the same chart from before but including starting forwards as well as interchange players.

The real concern for Brisbane is their pre-contact metres from starting forwards and interchange, which are 13th in the NRL at just 414 per game and nearly 50 metres per game below the NRL average. Injuries to Matt Lodge and the abscence of Payne Haas hasn’t helped, but they’re still not where they would expect to be. If we sort the above chart by pre-contact metres (the blue section), it becomes more apparent.

The Broncos only sit ahead of North Queensland, Canterbury and the Warriors, which isn’t a pretty place to be in 2021. Parramatta are able to get away with stowing a utility on their bench because they gain around 100 metres more per match than Brisbane in pre contact metres. Which means they’re getting to contact later, where Brisbane forwards are getting hit early and are needing to push through contact to generate a smaller number of metres.

Kevin Walters wasting an interchange position on Croft or Dearden may be one of the reasons why the Broncos forwards are able to hold up early but fade late in games. Adding another big man on the bench and rotating their starting pack more often may alleviate that in this seasons fatigue riddled NRL.

The Wests Tigers are in a similar position to the Broncos with their low pre contact metres, but that is more due to their forwards inability to push through contact which was something I covered in 2020 and Tigers fans know too well.

Round 5 Interchange impact players

In Round 1 I highlighted Isaiah Papali’i’s huge impact off the bench for the Eels with nearly 200 metres gained. That was the highest run metre total by an interchange player since the start of 2020.

In Round 5 we had two similar performances, which I’ve additionally highlighted below.

Despite infuriating everyone with his grubbiness and inability to remain available, especially Roosters fans, Jared Warea-Hargreaves eclipsed Papali’I’s mark in Round 1 on the way to over 200 metres gained in just 43 minutes from 21 runs. The platform laid by him enabled the Roosters to stay in and ultimately win the game through some brilliance from Sam Walker.  

That effort from the Roosters prop took a lot of the attention away from another huge effort though the middle by Panthers forward Spencer Leniu. He couldn’t match the other two for total metres gained with 183, but he smashed out 14 runs in just 26 minutes as Penrith ran through the Raiders.

If you’ve been following the Eye Test on Twitter (and you should be), you may have noticed that Leniu has been posting some huge Run % numbers all season. If you don’t know what Run % is, there’s a post on the site explaining it, but in short it’s an advanced statistic that shows the rate at which a player completes runs whilst they’re on the field. Leniu’s rate for 2021 so far is 19.98%, which means he’s completing a run one in every five plays whilst on the field. Further, it means every full set the Panthers have, Leniu is running the ball at once during that set. And his season run rate is 2% higher than anyone else in the NRL, seen in the below table of season leaders for Run %.

That 14 runs in 26 minutes resulted in a Run % of 24.76%, meaning he was running the ball on one in four Panthers possessions. Occasionally you may see that sort of rate for a player playing fewer than 20 minutes, but rarely above it. It’s no wonder than Leniu is becoming one of the premier bench players in the NRL.

Brian To’o continues his domination with the ball

Keeping with the Panthers theme this week, and it’s hard not to with their continued dominance of the competition, is more Brian To’o run domination.

Last week I shared a visualisation of his run attempts and tackle busts, where he’s sitting among the most dangerous in the NRL. This week it’s breaking down the length of his runs.

Below is a plot of the average number of long runs (greater than 8 metres) against the average number of short runs (fewer than 8 metres). Gold data points represent interchange players, whilst blue points represent starting players.

The Panthers winger sits atop the NRL at nearly 16 runs per game of 8 metres or more, with only David Klemmer (14 per game) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (13.8 per game) approaching him. Three quarters of his runs are 8 metres or more, which is a considerable percentage when you are running nearly 21 times per game for over 200 metres.

To’o wasn’t a slouch last season either, sitting only behind Jason Taumalolo, Klemmer and Tuivasa-Sheck.

I’ve also noted Marcelo Montoya’s performance on this chart as well as he’s been a huge outlier in two straight seasons now and is almost the antithesis of To’o, with twice as many runs under 8 metres as over it.

How is increased fatigue affecting the NRL this season? – Round 4 2021 stats and trends

This week I’ll be skipping any analysis of the pace of the game, for a few reasons. The first is something I alluded to last week, which is that we’ve hit a decent threshold of data points, the affect of the new rules is relatively clear and the impact of fatigue is still obvious.

The second is that friend of the site Liam of PythagoNRL fame has put together the best summary to date of the impact of the new rule changes on margin and form. It’s well worth your time to read through it. And I’m not just saying that because he’s cited some of my data.

Instead we’ve got two ways that the game has changed again under these new rules. It might not be faster overall, but sections within halves appear to be, but it’s definitely changed and fatigue is playing a huge part.

“Faster” may be a myth, but increased fatigue isn’t

Again, if you haven’t read the article posted above from PythagoNRL or last week’s post here on the Eye Test, I’d recommend reading them first to get a picture of where the game is at currently under the new rules. It may not be faster but we know that fatigue is playing a larger part due to the reduction of stoppages where players would typically recover.

Last week’s post also introduces the “fatigue indicators” that I’ve been keeping an eye on to see what impact fatigue may be having on whatever passes for rugby league this season. Here’s that table update after Round 4.

Scoring in first halves has evened up slightly, but we’re still seeing nearly 2 points per game more scored in the second half this season, which is illustrated beautifully by Tim Newans here:

The other things that stand out from the “fatigue indicators” include fewer runs and sets in both halves but increases in errors and missed tackles, both of which can be affected by poor decision making influenced by fatigue.

And it’s that last one I mentioned, the missed tackles, that has intrigued me quite a bit. Missed tackles is always a tricky stat to interpret at a player level because you have to be in a position to attempt a tackle to miss one, but looking at an aggregated league wide level that sort of ambiguity should be removed.

So I looked at the percentage change year on year for those stats to see just how much they had changed. And that missed tackles number stands out even more as you can see below.

It amounts to +27% in missed tackles this season, despite -4% in tackles completed. Errors are also up by 11.6% which isn’t an insignificant number either and contributing to the lower completion rates, but to have a quarter more missed tackles is a sure sign there’s been a dramatic shift in the game.

Obviously these numbers are being skewed by the increase in lopsided results right? Canterbury, Manly and North Queensland all have conceded 100 points more than they’ve scored so the increase must be due to them, while Brisbane’s only positive result this season is beating up on the aforementioned Bulldogs. Given this, I filtered out any game that included those teams and checked the percentage change again.

The change for missed tackles is still +26%. But I thought we’ve always had bad teams and the rule changes have just highlighted that? Whatever the case, the increase in missed tackles is clearly not just due to some games between good and bad sides with large margins of victory.

The kicker for all of the data I’ve just posted? It’s from first halves only, when you’d expect there to be less impact from fatigue on performance. These rule changes appear to have affected players fatigue so dramatically that they’re gassed in the first half and missing a quarter more tackles than they had in the previous year.

I know the intention with this seasons rule changes was to further decrease the advantage defenses had, but reducing them to the point of exhaustion and unable to complete a tackle may not be the optimal way of doing it. Then again, I’m not running a national sporting competition on the whims of a select few who wish to return to their salad days.

Getting back on track, for second halves the numbers are still high but a bit more muted. Below is the above chart with the same teams excluded.

Errors are actually down in the second half when you take out the four bad teams, by 6.9%, which makes . Missed tackles are up nearly 13%, whilst completed tackles are down 12%. Given that second half points are also up 18%, that may be because teams are spending more time under the posts watching a conversion than running or tackling. You could also surmise that fatigue is becoming such a determining factor that some players aren’t even in position to attempt a tackle let alone miss one.

The affect of fatigue can be seen when you look at which positions are missing more tackles this season. Below is the year on year change in missed tackles by position.

Given that middle forwards defend the majority of runs, it’s not surprising to see them missing more than the edges. The one that stands out for me is interchange players, who are one of just two positions playing more minutes in 2020 (I’ll get to this later). They’re missing tackles at 20%, which is lower than the overall missed tackle increase of 26%. It’s not a sample size issue either, we’re looking at the same number of games (32) from four comparable rounds – 3 through 6 in 2020 and 1 through 4 in 2021.

The fact they are under indexing on the increase missed tackles also indicates that fatigue is the culprit here. If it weren’t and purely a factor of defenses being on the back foot due to the rule changes, they’d be missing tackles more tackles at a rate similar to starting middle forwards. Yet the increase for interchange players is about half of locks and hookers, and one third fewer than front rowers. They’re not missing as many tackles because they’re not as fatigued, despite being predominately middle forwards or middle utility players.

The other key thing is that it’s not just the bad teams who are missing significantly more tackles. Looking where these sizable increases have come from, it’s mostly a league wide trend. Below is the chart showing % change year on year for every team.

There’s only two teams (Newcastle and the Gold Coast) who have fewer missed tackles in 2021 compared to 2020. The team with the largest increase from last season is the Wests Tigers, jumping from 79 to 143, an eye watering 81% increase over just four rounds.

It’s not a pretty sight as even the stronger defensive teams like Melbourne and Canberra are missing 20% more tackles than they did a year ago. Brisbane are only missing 5% more than last season, but when you’re already missing a significant amount of tackles even a single digit percentage increase can be substantial. Nonetheless it shows that the jump in missed tackles is not purely the domain of the downtrodden and poorly administered, and most likely showing the impact fatigue is having across the board.

Speaking of missed tackles, NRL Physio posted some of his typically great analysis on HIA and injuries in tackles, which also noted tackling technique tends to dip under fatigue.

This certainly reflects the data I’ve posted above showing a significant increase in missed tackles being a factor of fatigue. But hey how good are fewer stoppages?

Centres are the new middle forwards?

Another smaller impact of the rule changes this season has been a slight change in distribution of workloads for NRL teams. Long-time readers will know I’m a keen observer of work rate for middle forwards and seeing who is (and isn’t) contributing.

And as I usually do, I had a check to see which positions taking their runs off a single pass from dummy half (your standard one out hit up), which makes up about 48-50% of all runs in a set restart world. The results are below, comparing 2020 with 2021.

This season, Interchange players and surprisingly centres are the only ones that have increased their number of one pass runs. Every other position, including wingers who previously took top spot, have declined.

Why is this happening? Again, it’s most likely fatigue. Front rowers are spending slightly more on time field (+1.7%), but as seen above they’re running the ball less, around 2 times fewer per game. This might indicate they’re tired and possibly even not getting back on side soon enough, requiring centres to step in after wingers and help return the ball out of their own area following a kick. This lower involvement by starting forwards explains why interchange players spending an extra three minutes on the field this season, while locks and second rowers are spending less time on field.

When you look at it by share of hit ups then you can see the change a bit more obvious.

Wingers have dropped under 20% of hit ups, whilst interchange players have moved to nearly 22% from 19.7% a year ago. Centres now make up 15.3% of all one pass runs, up from 13.5% last season. Clearly the workload is being distributed more evenly.

It should be noted that we’re looking totals per position, not per player, meaning these numbers are for 2 wingers, two front rowers, two centres, one lock and four interchange players. It still shows that fatigue is having an impact, with hit ups now being spread further across teams rather than just being the domain of middle forwards and wingers bringing the ball out of their own areas after kicks.

Brian To’o breaking out this season

Prior to last Thursday night’s Penrith v Manly game, I posted a chart on Twitter showing just how much damage Panthers winger Brian To’o was doing when he ran the ball. At the time he was sitting first in runs per game and equal first (with James Tedesco and David Fifita) for tackles broken per game. Here’s the update after four games, and To’o is still leading the way in tackle busts per game at 7.75. The size of the data point indicates average run metres.

He’s been unsurprisingly overtaken by Ryan Papenhuyzen for runs per game after he almost single-handedly demolished Brisbane, but To’o is still one of only three players running the ball at least 20 times per outing and breaking tackles at a higher rather than either of them, while also leading the way in run metres and post contact run metres.

Speaking of Papenhuyzen, it was a similar visualisation I had posted to Twitter (pre Eye Test) that highlighted how strong he was in the back of the 2019 season when he started six games at fullback, leading to him securing the position full time in 2020.

I’m not suggesting To’o is going to end up as impactful as Tedesco or Papenhuyzen have been, but it’s clearly an indicator that he’s developed into one of the most damaging runners in the competition.