How Melbourne and Penrith differ on set restarts – NRL Round 15 stats and trends

After last week’s dalliance with the trivial subject of what brand of boots NRL players are wearing, it’s time for the Eye Test to get back to it’s bread and butter. That would be analysing set restarts and who is gaming the system to their advantage. The conclusion that the good teams don’t concede set restarts does hold true but with one very large exception.

The dominance of Melbourne and Penrith has been well documented this season, with both teams scoring and conceding points at historic rates and seeing some incredible momentum swings within games.

But one area where they differ is how often they’re conceding set restarts.

Last season I used a chart plotting set restart difference (awarded minus conceded) against margin after accidentally discovering that there was a negative relationship between set restarts and margin. That is, the more set restarts you conceded, the better your winning margin was, and the top four from 2020 all had a negative set restart difference.

Something changed this season though, as only one of the top four has a negative net set restart difference. The chart for plotting net set restarts against margin for 2021 is below, split into four quadrants – conceding and winning, not conceding and winning, conceding and losing, and finally not conceding and losing.

As mentioned, one team stands out from the rest of the league.

Back to set restarts, it is very clear to see that Melbourne have taken over the mantle of the biggest set restart offenders from the Panthers. The Storm have a -23 set restart difference, which clearly isn’t affecting their play as they’re scoring 300 points more than their opponents this season, and hit a new record in the process of trouncing the Tigers on Saturday evening. Penrith aren’t far behind either.

That -23 net set restart difference by Melbounre is by far the biggest disparity in the NRL, with the next worst being the Dragons at -18.

On the other end of the scale, the Panthers have a +18 set restart difference, quite a swing from 2020 when they were practically committing assault in the ruck and slowing down every play the ball. Their +18 only trails Parramatta (+22) for best set restart difference in the NRL this season. Looking at this you’d conclude that the theory that Penrith receive the most help from set restarts is true, and to an extent it is but not by receiving them. We’ll get to this more shortly.

You can also see from this chart that only six teams have a positive margin this season (those above the centre line), once again highlighting how lop sided the 2021 season has been. The bad teams have always been bad, but the rule changes have just widened the gap between the haves and the have nots. It’s not a binary thing, it’s a combination of events causing this seasons results.

Does this trend continue if you look at net penalties (awarded minus conceded)? The same chart showing penalties instead of set restarts plotted against margin is below.

Penrith still sit towards the top of the NRL in net penalties, second at +20 and only trailing Souths (+27). Meanwhile Melbourne is decidedly mid table here, with a penalty difference of -6, and one of just two teams with a positive margin and negative penalty difference, with the other being notorious penalty conceders the Sydney Roosters.

Up to now we’ve been looking at net set restarts and penalties. What about checking where Melbourne and Penrith rank for average infractions awarded and conceded?

The chart below shows the average set restarts awarded (blue) and conceded (orange) per game for each NRL club this season,with clubs sorted by their ladder position.

Again, the perception that the Panthers are awarded the most restarts doesn’t hold up, with Penrith sitting mid table for set restarts awarded. Where Penrith does benefit is that they are conceding the second fewest set restarts in the NRL this season at just 3.0 per game, only trailing the Sharks (2.8).

On the other hand, Melbourne is conceding the equal second most set restarts in the league, at 4.5 per game, tied with the Dragons and only trailing Canterbury (5.1).

When you combine that with the Storm receiving the second fewest set restarts this season at 3.0, it’s easy to see why their set restart difference is so large. It also makes their dominance this season even more impressive, considering the amount of possession and field position they’re yielding.

Again, does the same hold true for penalties? Below is the same chart as above, but substituting penalties awarded and conceded for set restarts.

For Penrith, they’re receiving the most penalties per game this season at 5.6, slightly ahead of South Sydney (5.57). That’s nearly two full penalties more per game than Melbourne are being awarded, and this may be where the perception that Penrith are benefitting from “leg ups” comes in.

Clearly being on the wrong end of set restart and penalty counts isn’t affecting the Storm, who are backing their defensive discipline to combat giving away extra possession. Penrith are riding the momentum wave of increased possession from set restarts and field position from extra penalties. Neither approach is better than the other, and it’s looking like the only outcome of this season is to see them collide at the end.

Cleary doing more with less

Talking about the excellent season Nathan Cleary is having isn’t any great revelation. Friend of the site Jason Oliver from the wonderful Rugby League Writers website has been demonstrating his greatness all season, most recently in his Round 15 Repeat Set post.

As a quick aside, if you’re not reading and subscribing to Rugby League Writers, you’re missing out on the best on field analysis of the NRL anywhere. Jason and Oscar deliver amazing content daily and offer a free newsletter as well as very affordable subscription option at just $5 a month.

Back on the topic of Cleary, unsurprisingly he leads the NRL in Net Points Responsible For (NPRF) this season, a statistic I use to assess playmakers involvement in points scoring (and conceding). The leader board for 2021 is below.

What’s also not surprising, given the rule changes and more ball in play with the introduction of the set restart rule last year, is that he’s also leading the NPRF table from 2014-2021 and holds third spot as well for his 2020 season, only split by Tom Trbjoevic’s incredible year.

The thing that stands out for me is that Cleary is averaging three fewer possessions than 2020, 71.5 down from 74.4 a year ago. It’s possibly a sign that Cleary is maturing as a playmaker, knowing when to inject himself, and also a nod to the continued improvement of Jarome Luai.

Despite the slight drop in possessions, he’s doubled his try scoring tally in just 12 games versus 18 games in 2020 and should easily pass his try assist and try contribution totals if he plays the rest of the season.

It’s also worth noting just how many players from 2021 are sitting at the top of the 2014-2021 leaderboard. Eight of the top 20 and three of the top five NPRF seasons have come in 2021, and four of the top 5 have come under the set restart era.

The top three NPRF seasons are from 2020-21, and the top 2 are almost two points per game higher than any other sason. Again it’s another data point about how the massive one sided scores this season are skewing statistics.

Set restart and referee update

Looking at set restarts and penalties awarded in Round 15, the crackdown seems to be well and truly over, other than the odd ridiculous sin binning. After peaking at 12 penalties a game in Round 12, we’re down to near pre crackdown levels with just 9.3 penalties called per game in Round 15.

The drop has been consistent across both halves for penalties, while nothing much has changed for set restarts since they’re rarely awarded in the second half anyway.           

As for referees, below is the breakdown of per game averages for set restarts and penalties awarded by official up to Round 15, sorted by the number of set restarts awarded.

Matt Noyen has only called two games this season, so his numbers don’t really mean much. Grant Atkins leads the way with nearly 9 set restarts called per game, with Chris Butler not far behind at 8.5. Last years #1, Adam Gee, has softened a bit this season and is only calling 8.2 per contest, the only other referee above 8. He’s still the king of first halves though, as you will see below.

As regular readers will know, one of the things I go on about regularly is the discrepancy between first and second half set restarts. Usually, I’d post averages by referee to show the gap, but this week I’m going to use raw totals to draw attention to the differences between halves, as shown below.

Here you can plainly see that there’s amazing consistency between halves in penalties awarded, but there’s huge variances in how many set restarts are awarded in second halves.

Another thing worth noting is that Grant Atkins has blown more second half penalties (86) than total penalties by Peter Gough (78) or Chris Butler (85).

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