No one expected Souths to match their performance from last year and appear in another NRL grand final. With the key losses of Wayne Bennett, Adam Reynolds and Dane Gagai, they weren’t going to be premiership favourites, but they still had enough talent across the park to have a successful season.
Few also would have predicted them to be struggling the way they are currently
Last week on the Eye Test we looked at the rise of the North Queensland Cowboys, who had a great start to the season and continued their march into the top four with a win over Newcastle on Saturday. The Cowboys weren’t expected to amount to much this season yet are defying expectations. That label could also be applied to South Sydney, with a 4-5 record and winless away from home. The Bunnies are sitting in 9th place after being defeated twice by the Broncos and a one-point loss to the Tigers.
Where have things gone wrong for Souths and new coach Jason Demetriou this season? Let’s break their season down, as always using statistics from Fox Sports Stats.
First, we’ll check out the average margin of a Rabbitohs game over the course of 80 minutes. After nine rounds this season, the numbers show that they’re making things difficult for themselves early. After just 25 minutes of games in 2022, the average margin in their games is -4.2, the worst since 2016 and below their 2017 season where they finished 12th.
That’s not unusual for them though, as previous seasons have also shown a drop in margin as the first half progresses. What is different is that it’s much than prior seasons as noted above, and Souths just cannot put points on the board early this season.
The average points scored by Souths after 27 minutes is just 3.78 points, again the lowest for the club since 2016. By half time they’re sitting just under 10 points per game at 9.3, second lowest since 2016. In 2019 they had that amount of points on the board after little more than 20 minutes.
Their second halves are significantly better for scoring points, but it highlights their problem in 2022. In previous seasons they backed their ability to score points and overcome an early deficit. This season they are digging themselves a hole their attack can’t get them out of.
When looking at the Cowboys turnaround last week, we identified that they had turned around their net post contact metres (post contact metres gained minus post contact metres conceded). Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) for Bunnies fans, they’re already winning post contact metre battles.
South Sydney is averaging 60.6 post contact metres more than their opposition, trailing only North Queensland at +78 per game. Which points to their problem being somewhere other than the contest in the middle of the field, an area they seem to haven’t taken a step backwards in.
What is concerning for Souths is their inability to convert field position into points. We touched on their low scoring this season, but the Rabbitohs have seen nearly one quarter of their play the balls occur inside an opponent’s 20 metre area, the highest percentage in the NRL. It has only returned then 192 points, which is equal sixth in the competition. That is tied with Manly, who’ve only spent 22% of their play the balls inside their opponents 20 metre zone.
Just like winning the battle of contact through the middle of the field, strong field position is not always a good correlation with scoring points. The expected points model for the NRL I developed (but sadly have had to put on hiatus for now) showed this, Melbourne is also a great example of it this season, as they have scored nearly 400 points but spend just 16% of time inside 20 metres.
With Reynolds gone you might think that Souths would be struggling to maintain field position without his kicking game, but the numbers don’t necessarily show this. The Bunnies are using just 48.4% of their play the balls inside their own half, the lowest in the league.
It’s also Souths’ lowest number since 2014. Their previous lowest was 50.7% in 2017 which can be seen below.
Their time spent in an opponent’s midfield (50-20m area) is still high but not near its highest (28.4% in 2017).
Defensively the Rabbitohs field position isn’t terrible, as their opponents are spending nearly 60% of their play the balls inside their own half, trailing only Penrith and Parramatta. They’re also only giving up 16% of play the balls inside 20 metres, the best rate in the NRL.
It’s worth noting that the number of play the balls inside 20 metres is a meaningless statistic in isolation. But if a team is struggling to score then the number of play the balls inside 20 metres will increase dramatically and linking the two together is where the value in those stats comes from. It’s something that would have been easier to show if I was still able to calculate ETxP, but let’s not open that wound for now.
Why might Souths be spending so much time on in an opponent’s half and not being able to score? One reason might the number of errors they are making, which was hidden in plain sight in last weeks post about the Cowboys stellar opening to 2022. Here’s the number average possessions each team has before committing an error after Round 9
The Bunnies are last in the league this season, giving up an error every 29.7 touches of the ball, which compared to the Panthers and Eels sitting around 49 per error is a huge difference. They’re four touches clear at the bottom of the lowly Warriors. It’s not a death knell for their season – the 2014 Bunnies had the worst team error rate after nine rounds since 2014 which we can see below.
But if you look at the company in this list with multiple Gold Coast and Newcastle sides, it’s not an area you want to be unless your defense is elite. And this time they’re doing it with 66% fewer Burgess’.
This failure to hang on the ball is negating their ability to push through contact and somewhat control field position. It also highlights why the loss of Reynolds hits hard – without his pinpoint kicking on the last tackle in attack the Rabbitohs are relying far too heavily on Cody walking to make something happen.
Forcing everything, including the kicking, through Walker was always going to have diminishing returns. Focusing on the kicking aspect, it’s something I’ve looked at before, and the results were that he is one of the least accurate kickers in the NRL. Here’s a breakdown of players with at least 50 kicks through the first nine rounds of every season since 2014.
From the above list, Walker has one of the worst kick error rates of eligible players since 2014. This season he’s kicked the ball, 7.3 times per game and committed 0.7 kick errors, a rate of one every 11 kicks. This would place him sixth worst in the NRL from all qualified players over the past eight seasons.
Meanwhile this season Reynolds is having the sixth best kick error rate season since 2014, only committing a kick error every 43 kicks. And if you’ll scroll back to the chart for kick errors by Souths players, Reynolds best season for kick error rate was around 22 kicks per error in 2020. He’s nearly doubled that this season for Brisbane, and nearly tripled his 2021 rate of 16.5.
There’s still plenty of time for Souths to turn things around. They conceded 50 points against the Storm in Round 9, 2021 and then 56 against the Panthers two rounds later, yet still made the grand final. However, they don’t appear to have the same potent attack this season and without the ability to cross the line they will continue to struggle to overcome any early deficits.
Souths fans will (rightly) say they knew Reynolds would be a high-level player this season and it was the third season that was the dealbreaker for his contract. The club may have made the right decision in 2024 but they’ve possibly squandered any title hopes for 2022 and 2023.
Farewell to the original Eye Test hall of famer
It was a solemn day at Eye Test HQ this week when Eye Test hall of famer Daniel Alvaro announced he was leaving the Dragons and heading over to Super League for a stint with Toulouse.
I’ll often refer to Alvaro and Christian Welch as “Eye Test hall of famers” because of their dominance of the advanced statistics the site uses. And with good reason. Alvaro holds the top three Involvement Rate seasons since 2014, plus positions #18 & #22. Welch is up there as well with multiple seasons but injuries limited his presence.
Simply put, Alvaro was involved – either by making a run or completing a tackle in one of every four plays whlist he was on the field. As you can see from the above list, there aren’t many players above 23%, and most of them only did it for 6-12 games in a season. Alvaro did it in multiple seasons, and four of them in at least 17 games. In 2018 he did playing 46 minutes, which is unheard of.
Usually for these rate based metrics, the rate usually starts to decline as a player plays more than 30-35 minutes a game. Alvaro’s output was flat across minutes played. It didn’t matter if he played high or low minutes, he usually gave the same consistent effort.
He also possesses three of the top four seasons for Tackle %, as well as the 19th best season.
Again, there’s few players with 35%+ (completing a tackle on 3.5 of every 10 opponent plays) in a season, let alone multiple seasons in 17+ games. And Welch is one of a few others to have multiple seasons in this chart.
He might not have been the best NRL forward at any point of his career, or even a starting first grader for more than a season or two at the Eels. But there’s no doubting his huge work rate and motor, especially on the defensive end. Sadly, they weren’t enough to overcome other shortcomings in his game and a longer NRL career, and I’ll miss watching his no frills play every week. Especially when it was in the blue and gold.
I hinted at this on social media as well, but the Rugby League Eye Test may not have even existed without Alvaro. In 2018-19 I was messing around with creating some advanced statistics similar to those you’d see in other sport. I wanted to understand which forwards were tackling or running at a high rate since most NRL statistics were based on pure volume and rewarded players who played more minutes and just filled up statistical buckets. There’s explainers on the site if you want to read the genesis of them.
The theory I wanted to confirm was that certain players or types of players made more tackles and runs in short stints, and therefore could be more valuable than the average player. And surprisingly there was one player who dominated these numbers – Alvaro. Add in Christian Welch faring particularly well in these numbers, and it was enough to convince me that these statistics had some value.
Those statistics are now an integral part of the site and whilst there may only be a handful of people other than me interested in them currently, without Alvaro and Welch’s numbers stacking up and passing the other “eye test” it’s very likely that I’d have not got any further with these statistics and you’d not be reading this right now.
And whilst we’ve lost Alvaro, we’ve still got Welch. And after this NRLW season Millie Boyle must join them as the third unofficial Eye Test Hall of Fame.
Maybe one day I’ll get round to documenting the hall of fame, or even giving out the Alvaro and Welch awards for top spot in some of the advanced statistical categories. But for now, I’ll just wish Alvaro the best and remember his strong efforts for the Eels in the late 2010s.
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