The numbers behind North Queensland’s improved start to the 2022 NRL season

Prior to last weekend, the North Queensland Cowboys had quietly pushed their way into the 5th place, but few considered them among the ranks of the top teams in the NRL.

Their existence at the top end of the table could be put down to excuses like a soft draw or facing teams when they weren’t at full strength. All of these are valid reasons and it’s not unusual to see random teams appearing at the top of the table before regressing to the mean. This year we’ve also had the Knights start the season 2-0 before fading into obscurity, and the Dragons have been perennial March & April champions before being exposed and also drifting further south on the ladder.

For the Cowboys though, things may have changed in Round 8 with their 35-4 demolition of a highly favoured Parramatta Eels side in Darwin on Saturday night. They’re now firmly entrenched inside the top four with the third best margin in the NRL and a convincing win over one of the competition heavyweights. Even more importantly, for a team that hasn’t traveled well historically, they’re 3-1 away from Townsville. In the past two seasons they’ve won a total of four away games, although some of that is muddied by matches at alternate venues due to Covid. Still, it’s early days but the signs are encouraging.

You can argue that the Eels were under strength with Dylan Brown moved out of position, but it’s hard to see that a full strength Eels team would have fared much better. Parramatta fans are used to this sort of disappointment. The same team with the same star player playing out of position annihilated the Knights one week earlier, although maybe that says more about the Knights than the Eels. Regardless, the Cowboys played Parramatta off the park and their game suited the conditions much better. North Queensland may not be able to keep pace with the top two (honestly who can?) but the signs are there that they may be the relative pushovers everyone expected.

The turnaround for North Queensland has been remarkable. In 2021 they only won seven games in total, and just five in 2020, a number they’ve already matched this season with a 5-3 record. They were absolutely woeful at times in 2021, and their performance against expected points was 60% more than an average team would allow defending the same field position, by far the worst in the league. Basically, they let teams score points in situations that most teams would not. Their attack was only +11% as well, which was third worst in the NRL, indicating that they struggled to put points on the board with good or bad field position.

There’s plenty of time left for things to go pear shaped, and games against Melbourne and Penrith in Rounds 11 and 12 will give a better indication of where they stand. However by that point they may have matched last seasons win total if they get past the Knights and Tigers, which is a great platform for the side to push for their first finals berth since 2017.

So what has changed this season for the Cowboys?

On the surface there weren’t too many personnel changes from last season, and they still have the same coach. The biggest would be the addition of Chad Townsend and pairing him with Tom Dearden who most likely benefitted from a full preseason under coach Todd Payten. You could argue that the injection of Scott Drinkwater at fullback has been a catalyst for the turnaround, but the Cowboys were sitting in fifth spot after just four rounds before he had even set foot on the field. If anything, he’s enhanced their improved play, but is not the sole reason for it.

Given that the team is somewhat similar to 2021, with the same coach, if we look at the numbers behind their season, can we derive anything from them that may give us a better idea of why they’re succeeding?

The first thing that stands out is that the trajectory of their games in 2022 is almost the complete opposite of their 2021 campaign. Below is the minute by minute average margin of a North Queensland game for the past seven seasons from Round 1-8. As usual, all data used in this post is from Fox Sports Stats.

Last season (yellow line) they generally held their own for the first 10 minutes but from that moment on their inability to control contact metres hurt them (more on that later), as their average margin pushed out to -10.1 at half time. There was a slight fightback early in the second half before giving up some more points for an average margin of -11.4 per game after 80 minutes.

This season (purple line) the Cowboys have been competitive in games for a much longer period of time before breaking away late in games. Their average margin doesn’t dip below zero after the 25th minute but moves no higher than 2.63 until the 55th minute. In the second half, their average margin rises from the 45th minute but from the 55th minute onward their average margin picks up considerably and crosses the +10 points per game mark at the end of the game.

Their ability to defend a small positive margin and turn it into a considerably larger one by the end of the game shouldn’t be ignored, it’s what good teams usually do. And we’re getting to the point where the Cowboys should be considered one of the “good” teams.

This trend is very similar to their successful 2016 and 2017 seasons, indicating that Cowboys fans could be looking forward to some finals football this September.

If you take the minute by minute data and look at it over the course of a game to work out when teams were leading and trailing, the Cowboys season continues to look impressive.

North Queensland has trailed in just 28% of total minutes played this season, only behind the obvious top two of Melbourne and Penrith. They’ve led in nearly two third of their minutes, ahead of the Sharks, Eels and Rabbitohs. This again highlights the fact that they’ve been able to defend close leads.

This could be a sign that this seasons Cowboys are a much fitter team than last season and have accordingly adjusted to the change in pace of the game brought on by the introduction of the set restart rule. Some of the minute numbers from their starting pack suggests this (note the blank Round 13 in 2021 indicates a bye).

Their starting forwards are playing more minutes – 293 on average up from 285 last season – and in recent weeks they’ve been playing bigger minutes. Already this season their pack has played more than 300 minutes four times (with three of those in the last four rounds), something they only managed six times last season. It appears that Payten may have finally found the best rotation for his middles with Reece Robson playing the full 80 twice in the previous four rounds and Jason Taumalolo playing no fewer than 58 minutes in Rounds 4-8 after playing 51, 56, 51 and 59 in the first four.

This may also lead into another area the Cowboys have completely turned around in 2022, which is post contact metres, both gained and conceded.

In 2021 the Cowboys averaged 453 post contact metres over the first eight rounds, one of the lowest numbers in the league. They were routinely giving up more than they gained as well, conceding an average of 81.3 post contact meres more than their opponents, only better than the Bulldogs who were giving up 107 more post contact metres to their opponents. During this period as well, the Cowboys never won a post contact metre battle as you can see below – every single round they were behind or almost even.

Fast forward to 2022 and it’s a completely different story. They’re now averaging 500.5 post contact metres per game, which is leading the NRL over the first eight rounds.

And not only are they dominating with the ball, but they’ve also tightened up their tackling and are winning contact battles as well, as you can see below.

A +62.4 net post contact metres per game is second in the NRL, only behind the Dragons (+68.3). I’ve stated previously that looking at net post contact metres alone isn’t a perfect barometer for success (look at Melbourne’s chart for instance), but it’s usually a good indicator of how a team is traveling if you look at the Knights.

Another area of note is that Payten has the team playing a conservative passing style, which was even noted on commentary during Saturday night’s win (ironically right before a trick play). During the 2020 season I’d highlighted how Payten had the Warriors offloading the ball more than they had under Stephen Kearney. Payten had the Warriors offloading at a rate of 12% (12% of general play passes – not including ones from dummy half – were an offload), third in the NRL at the time and much higher than Kearney at 8.2%, one of the lowest rates in the league. Let’s check the offload rates by team for the 2022 NRL season and see if Payten has maintained that free flowing style.

Payten’s tenure in Townsville has reversed that tendency with the Cowboys ranking 12th for offload rate this season at 7.3%. The Raiders are first at 14.2% and the Bulldogs are second (12.2%), if you want to know how little offloads correlate with winning. Everything matters in context, and the Cowboys are making their safe style work for them as they control field position and are making very few errors, which can be seen in the Error Rate (average number of possessions that generate an error) chart below.

North Queensland are only making an error every 47 touches of the ball, third in the NRL behind Penrith (one every 49 touches) and Parramatta (one every 48). That is a huge turn around form 2021 where they were committing an error every 30 possessions, easily the worst rate in the competition last season. Payten has them playing more smarter and more composed which is paying off.

The strength of their field position I mentioned before can be seen below in this chart which looks at a teams share of play the balls inside their own half, opponents’ midfield (50-20m zone) and inside opponents 20 metres.

The Cowboys sit 5th, with only 51.5% of play the balls inside their own half, below league average of 54%. However, they are a clear first for the percentage of play the balls inside an opponents 50-20 metre zone at 29.1% again above league average of 26%. Again, this points to safer football, fewer turnovers and more control of where the ball is played, the hallmarks that Payten has stamped on this side.

On a side note, please note how ridiculous it is that Melbourne have scored the most points in the NRL this season by far yet have seen 60% – yes 60% – of their own play the balls inside their own half. That didn’t even happen during the cooked 2021 season. It’s just a shame I don’t have the data needed to calculate their ETxP and % over expected this season, I have a feeling it would be shattering all records.

The Cowboys have a chance to continue this run with a home game against the woeful Knights on Saturday evening, and if results go their way, they could be in sole possession of a spot in third or fourth place. I’m not sure even the most arduous Cowboys fan would have predicted that.

Yes they’ve benefited from a soft draw and some luck but you can only play who is in front of you. The same was said about Manly last season and they finished in fourth spot on the ladder. That would be vastly exceeding expectations if it were to be where North Queensland end up after 25 rounds, and following the atrocious 2020 and 2021 seasons just making the finals would be seen as a positive step.

Before we finish up, there’s one Cowboys player I wanted to highlight that has developed this season under Payten and deserves a separate mention. That player is Tom Gilbert, who is playing big minutes in the middle and has seen a marked improvement defensively. Here’s how stacks up compared to another forward having a breakout year, Eye Test favourite and Storm middle Josh King.

Gilbert only placed above the 80th percentile among all forwards in one statistic last season, which was tackles where he at sat in the 82nd percentile. This season his minutes are up and he’s still above the 80th percentile for tackles but is making an impact with the ball. He ranks above the 80th percentile in runs (83rd), run metres (83rd), pre contact metres (85th) and is in the 77th percentile for post contact metres as well.

He’s been playing bigger minutes, but his negative play hasn’t increased commensurately. Last season he was in the 12th percentile for missed tackles per game among all forwards, this season it’s improved remarkably to the 35th percentile. He’s making a similar number of tackles (28 per contest) but has cut down his missed tackles by 50% (2.5 per game to 1.8). You would expect middle forwards playing longer minutes to make more fatigue related mistakes like missing tackles, but that hasn’t been the case for Gilbert and is a sign of his growth.

Unfortunately for Cowboys fans he’ll be moving on play for the Dolphins next season (a very astute signing), but he’s been a key part of their improved forward rotation thus far in 2022 and will be sorely missed.

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