Are the Raiders’ second half struggles the worst in the NRL? Round 11 2021 stats and trends

We all know the Raiders have had some shocking second halves this season, and Round 11 was no different.

It’s been documented a number of times and it’s not any ground I’m going to attempt to cover. The Raiders are very, very bad in the second half, I can’t provide any new information here. This article on NRL.com goes into great detail of the changes in the Raiders stats after half time.

What I am going to look at is how their second half struggles compare to the rest of the league to see if there’s anything that stands out. Are they the only team having bad second halves or are there other teams suffering alongside them from the 41st minute onward?

To start, let’s look at the average margin by half and NRL team for 2021 after 11 Rounds. Quick reminder that I’m using Fox Sports stats which will have a very minor difference to the official NRL statistics.

The chart is below – green dot represents first half margin, red dot represents second half margin and the line between shows the size of the gap. The chart is sorted by second half margin (red dots).

As you’d expect it’s not a pretty sight for the green machine. They are next to last in average second half margin at -10.5, over fifteen points fewer than their first half margin. You can also see by the size of the bar between the red and green data points that it is the largest gap between halves this season, over double that of the next worst second half performer, the Gold Coast, at a difference of -7.2.

How does that rate in context of recent seasons? The worst second half margins since 2014 are in the chart below.

The previous worst second half teams by margin were the 2015 and 2017 Warriors. The Raiders are on track to beat that record handily. The Titans should be very happy the Raiders exist because otherwise we’d be talking about their second half capitulations instead.

Slightly concerning is the fact that that the worst two sides are from this season. It’s another data point highlighting the increasing inequality that rule changes in 2021 have caused.

Moving back to the 2021 chart, North Queensland might be faring a bit better on the ladder if they weren’t giving up so many first half leads, as they sport the biggest increase from first to second half margin. It should also surprise no one that Melbourne and Penrith are the top two teams in either half and their margin barely differs.

But back to the Raiders, let’s delve into some more statistics to see where they sit and try to get an understanding of just why their second halves are so putrid. First up is run metres by team.

Another woeful chart for Canberra, going from third overall for first half metres to dead last in the second half. Again the largest gap between points. And if you flip things around and look at teams playing the Raiders, it’s a similar story.

Second most metres given up in second halves, only ahead of the tragic Bulldogs. The sorting of this chart somewhat reflects the NRL ladder just inverted, with the top 5 giving up the fewest run metres per second halves. Again it would indicate the Cowboys could be playing in September if they sorted out the start of games.

Let’s move on to metres per run and see if Canberra is giving up more metres per carry in the second half.

They are, but not to the extent of other teams, at just an extra 0.3m per run. The Sharks fare the worst here, giving up an extra 0.7 metres per run after half time. If you flip the data to look at opponents, teams playing Canberra sit around mid-table.

The increase is smaller, from 8.9 to 9.1 but it’s still there although not as concerning as it would be for teams like Newcastle and Cronulla, who can’t hold on to attackers after the break.

There’s not a lot of change if you look at metres per set. Most teams in the NRL gain more metres per set in the second half, but the Raiders sit fourth from the bottom and have one of the smallest changes from first half to second half.

Flipping that chart to look at data by opponent tells the same tale, with Canberra sitting in the wrong half of the ladder and conceding more metres per set than in the first forty minutes, almost four extra metres per set, on par with Newcastle and St George and only ahead of Canterbury.

I’m sure you’re getting the idea now. The Raiders are giving up significantly more metres in second periods and can’t generate it themselves. The bigger issue is their inability to maintain possession and hold onto the ball, making them by far the worst performing club in the NRL for second halves. This last chart summarises their plight well, and it’s all about possession and their inability to complete sets.

After only trailing Penrith in first half complete sets at 17 per game, the Raiders drop to dead last in complete sets in the second stanza at under 13 per game. Penrith and Melbourne also suffer declines in complete sets, but they’re still in the top half of the competition for that stat in the second half.

You might argue that I’ve stated that complete sets don’t matter, to which I’d reply you’re half right. Completion rates don’t matter, but complete sets do. 90% of 10 is nine, but 70% of 20 is 14. If you can’t control the ball and field position (something I covered last week), you are always going to struggle.

The Raiders second half struggles are mainly due to their inability to hold the ball, and they can’t compete against the increased possession. If it continues at this rate then they will be crowned the worst second half team in the NRL since 2014.

Are teams throwing the ball around more this season?

In looking into the Raiders struggles at holding the ball, I started looking into how often teams were passing and offloading this season compared to previous seasons. It turns out the rate of passing is up but very slightly but still below previous years compared to the same point in previous seasons.

The NRL average this season is 0.66 general passes per play the ball. That number doesn’t include dummy half passes, so just add a 1 in front for total passes. Still, that rate is down on 2018 and 2019 as you can see below.   

Offloads per play the ball are following the same trend of peaking in 2018 and dropping until a slight uptick this season to just over 0.06 per play the ball.

Given this increase, which teams are driving the changes? Here’ how the sixteen NRL clubs rank using the same rate of general play passes per play the ball.

Penrith take top spot with 0.77 passes per play the ball (remember to add +1 for total passes), slightly ahead of Cronulla and the Roosters. At the other end of the scale is North Queensland, passing just 0.49 times per play the ball.

Switching it to an opponent view below, there’s two things that stand out.

The first is that to no one’s surprise, Penrith and Parramatta allow the lowest pass rate against them this season, although there isn’t much separating second through thirteenth. It appears as if teams are playing extremely cautiously against the Eels and Panthers, with more one out running and trying to play mistake free.

The second part that is probably more surprising is Melbourne allowing 0.76 passes, by far the most in the NRL. Teams either believe they need to move the ball more to unsettle Melbourne’s defensive line, or the Storm are giving them opportunities to do so and are backing their defense.

The year on year change for offload rate tells another story.

Penrith have focused strongly on promoting the ball and are offloading at a rate 52% higher than last season. And North Queensland have tucked the ball away under Todd Payten, with 17% fewer passes, despite their coach letting the Warriors off the leash last season to promote second phase play, which the Eye Test picked up early on.

Bringing this together, how does it look when you compare passing rates to offload rates? Are teams that throw the ball around also likely to offload more? To check I’ve plotted both passing and offload rates for each club and broken them down into expansive and basic passing, and high and low second phase play. The size of each data point represents total margin for the season to show if it’s successful. Whether or not more passing is expansive or not is an assumption I’m making, and it may not reflect reality, but generally more passes indicates spreading the ball. Anyway here are the results.

Most of the top eight sides sit in the “Expansive & high second phase play” quadrant, with six of the current top eight dwelling here, indicating that if you’re willing to distribute the ball more and are able to offload then you’re most likely sitting among the more successful clubs. Or it may be that these clubs are the best at exploiting tired defenses and are pushing the ball wider and faster when they have an advantage.

Cronulla sit alone as a team that passes the ball regularly but doesn’t offload at a high rate, while the Warriors, Knights and Broncos all aim to promote second phase play but spread the ball less than the NRL average.

The bottom right quadrant with a basic passing game and low offload rates contains the safe and cautious approaches, which isn’t overly surprising that it is where Wayne Bennett’s Rabbitohs are placed. The risk adverse Bulldogs also reside here (I assure you that’s a data point and not a mark your screen), as do the Dragons and struggling Raiders.

Again, the Cowboys are an anomaly this year, playing an extremely safe brand of rugby league which goes against the free flowing attacking style of football that Payten encouraged at the Warriors last season. It’s a sign of a good coach that he’s modified his style to suit his players, and if it weren’t for some bad opening losses and giving up early leads they’d be firmly entrenched inside the top eight.

Error rate

As mentioned above the Raiders have had a terrible time holding the ball this season, and it shows when you look at individual error rates.

South’s Jed Cartwright sits in first place with three errors in just sixteen possessions, for a rate of one error every 5.33 touches. He’s followed by a pair of Warriors, Jack Murchie at 9.0 and Josh Curran at 9.14.

Next up is Raiders centre Jarrod Croker, who has committed 7 errors at a rate of one every 9.86 possessions. Four other Raiders also feature inside the Top 30, with three of them – Hudson Young, Elliott Whitehead and Jordan Rapana – sporting errors rates lower than 15 and raw error totals in double digits. Meaning not only are the Raiders committing errors at a higher rate, but they’re also being committed by players who touch the ball more frequently. A surefire recipe for disaster.

Tigers cult hero Zac Cini would actually top the chart with 7 errors this season from 34 touches, for a rate of 4.86. Unfortunately, or fortunately if you value the ball, he’s only played the two games and doesn’t meet the games played threshold.

Field position is the new NRL currency and the top three are dominating it – NRL Round 10 stats and trends

Nothing like a quiet week in rugby league.

Magic round has come and gone, and the game is further slipping into territory that could be best described with the “f” word – farce. The blowouts have continued as well, as shown by the wonderful charts from friends of the site NRLFanalytics and AndrewRLP at the conclusion of Round 10.

It was only four seasons ago that we had almost 40% of games decided by one score. Now it is almost half of that, with just 21% of this seasons 80 games decided by 6 points or fewer.

We know that the changes in rules are contributing to these scores, with the top teams exploiting their advantages in a number of ways. One way is by controlling field position at a rate that hasn’t been seen in years.

With rules designed to encourage fewer stoppages and increase time in play, we’ve seen more of the game played through the middle of the field with teams are running out of their own half more. In the era of penalties instead of set restarts, teams would spend more time in midfield as they’d get a free 20-30 metres of field position.

A few rounds back I showed the below chart, which breaks down the percentage of play the balls into three locations – inside own half, opponents’ midfield, and opponents 20m zone. I find it’s a great way of showing if there’s been any movement in where the game is being played, and over the past few seasons it has moved after a stable period from 2014-2017.

The percentage of play the balls inside a team’s own half has increased from 51% in 2018 (coincidentally the last “crackdown”) to 57% in 2021. Here’s the update after Round 10 and things haven’t changed much since the last update.

It also shows that most of this own half possession is coming at the expense of time spent in an opponents 20m zone, which dropped under 20% in 2020 and is down to just 18% this season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as you don’t need to spend time inside the 20 metre area to score a try, which is one of the great things about our game. But it does point to safer football being played outside attacking areas.

I alluded to it earlier, but part of this is the contenders being able to dictate field position a lot easier with a miniscule punishment for slowing down the ruck or creeping offside. Here’s the breakdown if the above chart by team for 2021.

Penrith stands out here with only half of their play the balls coming from inside their own end of the field. Anyone who has been watching them play over the past two seasons knows it is a part of their game, and was something that the Eye Test noticed last season. North Queensland are next at 52% and have historically had a low own half percentage due to Jason Taumalolo picking up 10 metres every time he runs the ball.

At the top of the scale, the Dragons spend over 63% of their play the balls inside their own half, and just 14.6% inside their opponents 20 metre area. The Tigers spend the most time inside an opponent’s 20 metre area, with 23.4% of their play the balls coming from that part of the field but haven’t been able to capitalize as they sit ninth (cue laughter) in points scored.

Unfortunately, that chart doesn’t really convey the point I’m trying to make though, as Melbourne spend the fifth most time inside their own half at nearly 60% yet have the second best points differential in the NRL.

Where you do see it is when you change the perspective to opponents, as shown below.

The top three this season, Penrith, Parramatta, and Melbourne, are all keeping opponents inside their own half on at least 62% of play the balls and restricting them to 15% or fewer play the balls inside 20. Parramatta specifically are holding teams in their own half for nearly two thirds of total play the balls.

To put this in perspective, there has only been one team since 2014 that has held opponents to 60% of play the balls in their own half (we’ll get into that shortly). This season we have three. It’s yet another data point showing that the new rules of rugby league are contributing to some incredibly one sided results.

Souths aren’t too far behind the top three at 59.5%, while the Roosters buck the trend of the “big 5” teams for 2021, at nearly 10% lower than the top three, with just 53% of their opponent play the balls in their own half. This isn’t too surprising, because as discussed a few weeks ago, the Roosters usually have one of the worst completion rates in the NRL and regularly give up field position to opponents, relying on their strength in defense.

Another noteworthy point from this version is that Wests Tigers opponents spend the third most amount of time in their 20 metre area. If you combine that with the amount of time the Tigers spent attacking the try line, it would appear most of their games are played at either end of the field and much less than an average NRL game spent in between. Which probably explains their dysfunctional start to the season.

Staunch supporters of the NRL regime will claim that “there have always been teams blowing out other teams” I hear you say. And you’re right. But none of them are doing so with the vice like grip on field position that the Storm, Eels and Panthers are this season.

The chart below shows average margin of teams by opponent and season, plotted against the amount of time spent in their own half by percentage of play the balls from 2014 to 2021. Data points are coloured by season, with yellow representing 2021.

Here it’s even more obvious just how much of their performance this season are outliers and that the new rules are playing into this. As I alluded to earlier, only one other team has held opponents to more than 60% of play the balls in their own half since 2014, which was Penrith in 2020 (the green dot just below the Panthers 2021 data point).

The NRL average from 2014-2021 is 54% of play the balls in your own half, and every team this season other than the Roosters (who we identified above at 53%) are above this long term average. This chart also shows just how the 2021 average of 57.4% is skewed by the top three teams. Additionally, no other teams have been averaging more than 15-point margins of victory during this period either.

This trend towards controlling field position is even more apparent when you break these numbers down to halves, showing the Eels have a stunning command of field position in second halves.

Teams facing Parramatta spend almost 70% of their time in their own half, with less than 10% inside the Eels 20 metre zone.

The blowouts will continue as long as the rules benefit those who flaunt them the most, expanding the gap between the very good and the very ordinary.

Let’s try that crackdown again

Looks like I was a bit premature in suggesting the crackdown wasn’t a crackdown last week, with 23 charges and a slew of penalties last weekend. The full rap sheet is below:

There were 86 penalties in Round 10, 10.8 per game, up from 60 in Round 9, and the most since Round 5 2020 when teams worked out how to game set restarts. That’s still a far cry away from the 16 per game we saw in the height of the penalty crackdown of 2018, but still a significant increase. If the NRL wanted to deliver a message about high shots, they certainly achieved that.

Unsurprisingly, when you combine that increase with the number of tries scored, Round 10 saw the lowest time in play since Round 13, 2019, coming in at 52.97 minutes. That’s the first time since the introduction of set restarts that time in play has dropped under 53 minutes.

Below you can see the relationship between tries scored and time in play. Generally the trend is that the more points scored, the lower time in play.

The other thing of note with this crackdown is that there was very little change in set restarts being called. In Round 10 there was slight increase in first halves (3.9 to 5.0), and an identical number in second halves (3.1). Below is the half breakdowns of set restarts and penalties awarded where you can see just how little changed with set restarts.

The big difference came in penalties awarded, jumping from 3.88 to 5.0 in the first half and nearly two whole penalties more blown in second halves, up from 3.63 to 5.75.

Part of that was due to two games – Tigers v Knight and Penrith v Titans – having a total of 17 penalties awarded in each game. Here’s the Round 10 split by timeslot.

Only one other match was in double digits, which was Friday evenings Brisbane v Manly game, and every other match had fewer than 10 penalties awarded. If you remove those 17 penalty outliers, the round average would be 8.6 and much closer to the season average.

It will be interesting to see how long this crackdown lasts, as mentioned above the 2018 didn’t last past the midpoint of the season. This one affects player welfare which is why I hope it does continue, even if it was atrociously implemented with little foresight just like the rest of the rules under our esteemed emperor.

I probably can’t sum it up much better than the tweet from my personal account on Friday evening at the conclusion of the Broncos/Sea Eagles game.

The main issue is that the root cause of these high shots isn’t being adressed by this crackdown. Someone in power will need to admit they were wrong by removing stoppages which have led to this situation. If player welfare is the main issue, then the logical conclusion would be to stop forcing them to compete under extreme fatigue which is exacerbating these issues.

What the Eye Test and Melbourne have in common

Overshadowed by the goings on in the Brisbane v Manly game was an article by Roy Masters on the Sydney Morning Herald site on Friday evening. The headline was a bit misleading, but there was some excellent insight in the article regarding the pace of the game.

Most of it will be common ground for regular Eye Test readers, but my favourite saying about analytics and data is that it is the “art of being less wrong”. The article is still worth a read, however, as it brings up some new data points and insights.

One of the new nuggets of information that I did find extremely interesting is that the Storm look at “work rate markers”:

“For example, the Storm calculate what they term “work rate markers”, counting a player’s total runs, tackles, support, and kick pressure, divided by the number of minutes the player is on the field.

Whenever former champion fullback Billy Slater recorded a score of 0.22, he walked off the field totally spent, while this year’s custodians, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Nicho Hynes, have averaged figures 30 percent higher than Slater.”

Demise of the robots: Why ad-lib football is king again, https://www.smh.com.au/sport/nrl/demise-of-the-robots-why-ad-lib-football-is-king-again-20210514-p57ry0.html

Regular Eye Test readers may know that the site was founded on needing somewhere to provide some context for the advanced stats I use – Tackle %, Run % and Involvement Rate. These were liberally cribbed from NBA advanced stats and I tried to apply similar thinking to rugby league. The aim was develop something that would show workrate but not favour those who played more minutes and filled up more statistical buckets, as the VB Hard Work index does.

I’d started calculating them sometime in late 2018 as a way to identify middle forwards work rate, which highlighted how big a motor Eye Test first ballot Hall of Famer Daniel Alvaro has. Below is the first time I could find that I posted them publicly, well before I had even thought about the Eye Test.

The largest difference between my advanced statistics and what the Storm are using is that I also adjust for possession, rather than just doing a pure per minute rate. If two players made 50 tackles in 80 minutes, but Player A faced 150 play the balls and Player B faced 100 play the balls, the second player is making the same amount of tackles at a higher rate. It’s a minor change that doesn’t penalise players who face a lower number of play the balls, since you can’t complete a tackle if your opponent doesn’t have the ball.

Back to the article, seeing that Melbourne is using something similar prompted me to check how some of my advanced stats compared to the Storm example in the above article. Was there a corresponding increase for Papenhuyzen and Hynes? I’ve used Run % as fullbacks don’t make a large number of tackles and I don’t have access to data for decoys or kick pressure, but the results for every Melbourne fullback that has played at least two games since 2014 are below.

Slater owns four of the bottom eight results for the 17 fullbacks Melbourne have used since 2014 who have played at least two games. In seasons where Slater played more than seven games, his Run % was in the 8% range. You can see that Papenhuyzen, Hynes (in 2020) and Munster, all have a Run % higher than 10%, with Papenhuyzen at 10.62% for 2021, which is slightly under 30% higher than Slater’s peak. Even for 2021 Hynes is still ahead of Slater’s best season during this period. That does show that Melbourne fullbacks are getting invovled more in recent years than during Slater’s era.

Apologies for the navel gazing, but I felt it’s worth pointing out that someone with very limited time due to full time work and family commitments independently came up with a similar internal metric to used at an NRL club, using only publicly available data. Imagine what the wider NRL community could come up with and advanced the acceptance of data within the game if more information was easily accessible?

What was the result of the set restart “crackdown”? – NRL Round 9 20201 stats and trends

Last week the NRL noted that there would be a “crackdown” on deliberate infringements on early tackles that lead to set restarts, as it has become more obvious that teams are gaming them for reasons that myself and many others have mentioned before. Basically, it comes down to field position, as giving away one or two extra tackles is far outweighed by conceding an extra 20-30 metres down field as well as a fresh set of six.

What was the result of this set restart “crackdown”? Fewer penalties than Round 8 and slightly more set restarts. Not a lot of changes at first glance.

When you look at them broken down by half, a few variations can be seen. Penalties in the first half were identical to Round 8 and right near the year-to-date average. Second half penalties though were down by nearly one full penalty, and the lowest since Round 4.

Where it gets interesting is that first half set restarts were also down, at just 4.5 per first 40 minutes, also the lowest since Round 4. Not only did we have fewer penalties, but we also had fewer set restarts in the opening period. As mentioned before second half penalties were down by nearly 1.0, which looks to be offset but the increase in second half resets of 1.0, which makes perfect sense. Infractions that were being called penalties in previous rounds were being given as set restarts.

Back to the first half decrease, there are a number of reasons this could be happening, ranging from teams being wary of the crackdown and behaving themselves (unlikely) and referees not calling as many first half restarts (more likely). As mentioned every week, I’m just using publicly available data, and the larger dataset the NRL and clubs have may show something about which tackles restarts were being conceded on, but for now this is the best we can use for analysis.

There’s also the number of one side games resulting in less ball in play, since you can’t concede a penalty or set restart if watching someone take a conversion. It doesn’t look like that had an affect as the rate of these violations being called was constant with previous rounds.

One of the other metrics I look at to gauge how they’re occuring is the number of play the balls per total infringement. Below is that metric broken down by halves.

Overall, it’s about one penalty or set restart every 20 play the balls, or roughly once every three sets of six. Round 9 was one every 18.8 play the balls, right around the average. And by half it was about the same as well – right on the first half average of 18 and slightly under the second half average of 23.

In the end it seems like the set restart “crackdown” this week was a bit of a nothingburger. It was significantly overshadowed by the NRL’s unsafe working environment, which is something that absolutely needs a “crackdown”.

Team breakdown of set restarts and penalties

One of the more common requests I get through the Eye Test social media accounts is which teams are giving up or receiving the most set restarts. The reason for this seems to be that the NRL and Fox Sports (which I use as they’re the NRL Supercoach currency) don’t have them included on either of the stats pages. That’s not overly surprising as it took about six rounds for the NRL to even include them on their match stats pages.

Moving on, here’s the breakdown of set restarts awarded by team for the first nine rounds of the competition, split by halves. First halves are in blue, second halves are in orange with a total number at the end of each row.

The Wests Tigers have had the most set restarts go their way this season, with 44 in their nine games this season, just ahead of a trio on 41 (South Sydney, Parramatta, and Canterbury). Across the league there’s a pretty constant trend of teams receiving more set restarts in the first half than second half, with the notable exception being the Bulldogs who are the only club to receive more than 20 restarts in the second half this season.

Flipping things around, who are the worst teams at conceding set restarts?

It’s a landslide here with the hapless Bulldogs conceding 51 set restarts this season, eight ahead of second placed Melbourne with 43. In fact, the Dogs have conceded more first half set restarts (40) than the total restarts conceded of all but one other NRL club.

Let’s move on to the same charts for penalties awarded and conceded.

South Sydney have been by far the biggest beneficiary of penalties this season, with 50 in their nine games, 11 more than the next closest teams (Manly and Wests Tigers). Souths have had more second half penalties awarded (26) than Brisbane have had all season (24), which a considerable amount of extra possession for the Bunnies.

Now on to penalties conceded by team this season.

The Titans, Bulldogs and Roosters leading the way, all with more than 40 penalties conceded this season. Newcastle is by far the most disciplined team in this regard, giving up only 22 total penalties and just six in the second half, fewer than one per game. No other team has a half in single figures.

Now we’ve established who is benefiting and suffering from these infringements, let’s look and see how it relates to winning, which is why the games are played. Before we look at 2021, it is worth checking where things were last season. Below is a chart of net set restarts (awarded minus conceded) plotted against net margin for Rounds 3-9 2020.

Last season at this time, Penrith had conceded 23 more set restarts than they were awarded, which obviously worked for them. And it’s a great reminder for those who believe that this gaming of set restarts might be a new thing in 2021, it isn’t’. After just seven rounds of set restarts purely for ruck infringements in 2020, it was pretty clear that the top four sides at the time (Penrith, Sydney, Melbourne, and Parramatta) had worked out how to game them.

If we look at things for the 2021 season, with more infringements able to be called for a set restart, things are quite different. Here’s the same chart as above for 2021.

Melbourne are the Panthers of season 2021, conceding 14 more restarts than they’ve been awarded. The Roosters are the only other team in that “conceding and winning” quadrant. They’re both still using set restarts as a way to manage field position, confident in their defense to hold opponents out.

The other significant change is that the remaining major contenders for this season aren’t conceding more set restarts than they’re awarded, with Parramatta +5, Penrith +7, and Souths +11. These teams are looking more at maintaining position and pushing the ball through the middle and not letting opponents get settled defensively.

The rest of the competition can be grouped mostly into the other two quadrants, “conceding and losing”, containing the Bulldogs and slow starters like the Cowboys and Sea Eagles, and the “not conceding and losing” quadrant, which has most of the mid ladder teams who’ve given up a big score to one or more of the top five sides.

The last thing I wanted to look at was if there was any relationship between net set restarts and net penalties. Do teams only concede set restarts? As you might expect, there is some relationship.

Teams that generally concede more set restarts than they’re awarded also concede more penalties. The Roosters are -5 on set restarts and -13 on penalties, whilst Melbourne are -14 on set restarts and -1 on penalties. As we saw before, Souths are +11 on set restarts, but they’re also a whopping +20 on penalties. Manly is the only real outlier in this view, sitting at -7 on set restarts and +13 on penalties.

It’s not as clear cut this season that managing your restart counts is helping contending teams, but it’s still a case that possession and field position are as important as ever.

Matt Dufty tightening up his defense

The Dragons are currently sitting in sixth place on the ladder, and Matt Dufty has been one their keys as you would expect. He’s been as elusive as always with the ball, but it’s the other side of the game that has impressed me this season.

In 2020 Dufty gave up 21 try causes in 18 games, around 1.2 per game. Thus far he has just six in 9 games, around 0.7 per game. When you combine try causes with line break causes, in 2020 he was in the 54th percentile of all outside backs, meaning that 46% of all outside backs gave up fewer line breaks and tries than Dufty. Not exactly the sort of defensive effort you’d expect from a starting fullback on a team with top eight aspirations.

In 2021 that percentile rank has crept up to the 73rd percentile, which still isn’t in the elite tier but still an impressive improvement to go from sitting in the middle of the NRL to almost top quarter. Dufty’s percentile ranks this season compare favorably with James Tedesco, who may not be having his best season behind a crippled Roosters pack, but he’s still one of the biggest gamebreakers in the competition.

Dufty has always been one of the better attacking fullbacks but his defensive lapses were always a talking point. If this improvement continues, he could be on the heels of the big four NSW fullbacks.

The completion rate myth – NRL Round 8 2021 stats and trends

There was a lot of talk in Round 6 after the Warriors beat the Dragons around completion rates, as it looked like the New Zealand had finished the game with a 100% completion rate, a rare occurrence. The NRL later downgraded them to 40/41, although Fox Sports still has them at 40/40 for that game.

Either way it was the highest completion rate in a game since at least 2014 and probably earlier, a mark that used to be held by North Queensland (we’ll come back to this later). Commentators will often talk about high completion rates during games as a barometer of success.

This got me thinking, is there a relationship between completion rate and margin of victory? Are teams that complete a high number of sets more likely to win, and if so, do they win by a larger number of points? Is it a myth that you’ll win more games if you maintain possession?

My starting point was to look at completion rate plotted against margin in every game since the start of the 2014 season. The results of this are below, with the data points shaded for completion rate – red is 50% and green is 100%. The chart is also divided into four areas by either high/low completion and positive/negative margin to make it easier to identify who is winning with high or low completion rates.

From the chart you can see that there’s an even spread between all four quadrants, with a trend line through the middle which shows that the correlation between completion rates and margin isn’t that strong, although still positive. The strength of correlation (on a scale from 0 to 1) is about 0.13, which is pretty weak. To put that number into context, the strongest correlation with winning are tries (0.61) and run metres (0.4).

To highlight just how little a high completion rate can mean on a game-by-game basis, you can see that I’ve singled out three matches on that chart. The first is the Sydney Roosters in Round 1, 2015, who completed less than 53% of their sets in a 28-4 victory over North Queensland. The other, was the previous high mark that I mentioned before held by the Cowboys, coincidentally also in a loss to the Roosters, where they completed 35/36 sets before losing 26-20.

By now you can see that there’s a weak positive relationship between completion rates and winning, and that results in individual games can vary wildly in both directions with a high completion rate. Another example I’ve drawn attention to is in Round 10, 2016, where Newcastle completed 85% of their sets, but still lost by 62 points.

Thus far we’ve looked at individual games. Does this low correlation also extend over a longer period of time? If anything, it’s an even weaker positive correlation. Below is the season completion rate and margin for each team since 2014.

I’ve highlighted each grand final winner over the past seven seasons as well to further demonstrate the disconnect between completion rate and wining. Both Sydney Roosters titles in 2018-19 were won with below average completion rates, both in the 72-73% range, well under the NRL average of 76.5%.

Four of the seven grand final winners had a lower than league average completion rate, and Melbourne in 2016 were only 0.3% above it. Only Melbourne in 2017 and North Queensland in 2015 had what you could classify as a high completion rate.

It is also worth noting that the 2014 Roosters hold the lowest completion rate over this same period at 69.2%, in a season where they were one win away from a grand final berth. Here’s the same chart again with only the Roosters seasons highlighted, showing how they’ve historically been a low completion rate club, something that friend of the site Jason Oliver has noted previously.

This highlights that completion rates are more a factor of coaching philosphy than abiltiy. High completion rates are a sign of discipline but also a sign of avoiding risk. The Roosters have been happy to spread the ball, push extra passes and take risks because they understand the reward available, but also back their defense if they do give up field position from an error.

The conservative approach is epitomized by the last few seasons from Canterbury, who (especially under Dean Pay) played a very safe brand of football, trying to minimse their errors and prevent teams from having easy field position off a turnover. Here’s the chart of their last seven seasons showing their completion rates and margins.

As we all know, it hasn’t really worked. In fact, the last four seasons they’ve been completing at least 78% of their sets, much higher than the NRL average. And each of those seasons has resulted in them finishing with a negative point differential and teams that stuggled to put points on the board.

Given the above analysis, what does completion rate demonstrate then? Other than committing fewer errors and the ability to hold the ball, not a lot else. Field position is far more important than possession, which we’ve seen this season with the plethora of set restarts on the first tackle.

One statistic completion rate correlates best with is kick metres (0.21), which again shows that a high completion rate doesn’t necessarily equate to positive rugby league. If you’re consistently gaining more kick metres, you’re most likely sitting in your own half.

The other thing to keep in mind, especially with the Warriors high completion rate in Round 6, is that completion rates have trending up since 2014. Here’s the last seven years for the opening eight rounds (comparable rounds for 2020).

Completion rates in a set restart world are higher for two reasons. The first is that a set restart being awarded means the previous set is marked as “complete”, the same way it would be for a penalty. The second is that as we’ve discussed many times before, the restarting of tackle counts means teams continue to run basic hitups through the middle, a run type that bears little risk.

There are obviously in game situations where completing sets is a priority, such as protecting a one or two score lead with the clock winding down, or during the opening minutes of a match to ensure you don’t start on the back foot. However a broad “must complete sets at all cost” approcach isn’t likely to result in more or larger victories, just fewer risks taken.

Set restart update

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve looked at how set restarts have been called this season, and with one third of 2021 complete it’s a good time to look at it again. Here’s the split of infringements called this season by round, split for regular penalties and set restarts.

The number of set penalties has been relatively constant over the past three rounds (68, 65, 67) at around eight per game. There has been a drop in set restarts though, from 77 in Round 7 to 57 in Round 8, which is a substantial drop from 9.6 to 7.1 per game.

When you break it down by half, there’s also a new trend emerging. Set restarts awarded are declining in the second half, with the equal lowest average of the season at 2.1 per second half, down from over 3 per half in the previous two rounds. During that time, penalties awarded in the second half are up to over 4 per half.

What happened in Round 8 to cause this drop in set restarts awarded? The below graph shows why.

The first reason is that Chris Butler didn’t call one in the second half in the Warriors v Cowboys clash. The next is that Chris Sutton and Ashley Klein contributed as well, calling just one each in the second half after three and six respectively in the first half.

It is interesting that with the barking from the usual suspects for referees to call more penalties and there’s too many six again calls, they’re already doing it.

The most prolific offloader no one talks about

Regular readers will know that it doesn’t take much for me to talk about the output of Eye Test first ballot Hall of Famers Christian Welch or Daniel Alvaro. I’ve mentioned numerous times how Welch is one of the hardest working players in the game, but over the past few seasons it’s another aspect of his game that has drawn my attention.

Welch is in the 99th percentile for forward offloads in 2021 so far, with 22 offloads and every one of them effective. This is up from sitting in the 93rd percentile in 2020 and 85th percentile in 2019. Here’s his radar chart for 2021 compared to the best offloader in the NRL from the past few seasons, Brisbane’s Tevita Pangai.

Welch isn’t the the offload king (yet), but out of 176 forwards who have played so far in 2021 only Pangai (24 offloads, 22 effective) sits just above him on a per game average.