The NRL’s over and under achievers of the first month of 2023 by expected points

The first month the 2023 NRL season is complete, and we’re starting to get a picture of where teams are sitting performance wise. Some teams have had easier runs with the draw, and others harder. Other teams have had terrible luck with injury and others have had some balls bounce their way.

And some teams are the Wests Tigers and will be forever doomed to ineptitude until changes are made.

Given this, how do we more accurately assess performance from all seventeen National Rugby League teams over the first month of the season?

The way we’re going to do this today is by looking at this site’s expected point model (ETxP), analysing their expected for and against from every game in the first five rounds, and compare that to their actual on field performance. To set the scene, here’s the average actual for and against thus far plotted against each other.

If you look at the ladder, most of these positions check out based on performances thus far.

Comparing the above to expected totals will allow us to see which teams are scoring or conceding more than their expected totals, and therefore over or under performing.

This early in the season it can indicate either a highly skilled side that can score from low value field position, or a lucky team that has had the ball bounce their way a few times. Later in the season it will tend to be the former rather than the latter, but we’re only four or five games into the competition so we’re still bound by some small sample sizes.

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Similarly, for teams that score less than their expected totals we would be looking at an unlucky team, or one that lacks execution inside 20 metres. And for both of these measures, we can flip it around and look at how a team’s defense rates compared to the amount of points they were expected to yield given field position and tackle number.

If you’re not familiar with my expected points model, there’s an in depth explainer on the site but as usual I’ll give you the quick rundown. Using the probability of scoring a try from any position on the field, we can assign a point “value” to starting possession from that location on a specific tackle number. Sum it all up over the course of a game and you get a teams expected total, which is the points an average team would score from the same amount of possession and field position.

To start off this week, I was going to post an expected ladder versus actual ladder but there’s not a lot to show with only 4 or 5 games played. Instead what I’ve decided to look at this early in the season is the number of actual wins versus expected wins. Are there any teams that are ahead of behind of where they should be?

Indeed there are, and there are three teams that are +2 on expected wins – the Warriors, Sydney Roosters and Brisbane. At the other end of the scale there’s three teams at -2, which probably won’t surprise anyone that those are Cronulla, Canberra and the Wests Tigers.

Now I could just end the post here and say “there’s your over and under achievers for the first month of the season”, but that’s not how we do things here. Instead, we’re going to look a bit deeper and find out why some of these teams are over and under performing expected results.

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First up we’re going to look at how many points teams are scoring and conceding over expected.

First here’s all seventeen NRL teams for the season thus far ranked by the percentage they’re scoring above expected (higher is better).

This should be pretty self explanatory here. Cronulla, Manly, Gold Coast and Brisbane are all scoring at at least 40% higher than their expected point totals this season. At the other end, again no surprises in seeing the Wests Tigers at 36% under their expected totals. It takes a special level of hopelessness to fail to score as often as they do given their field position.

And here’s the same chart but flipped by how many expected points they’re allowing from field position (lower is better).

Here we can see which teams are defending well (Penrith, Brisbane and South Sydney), whilst there look to be significant issues for the Dragons and Eels in containing their opponents.

One thing to keep in mind is that the percentage over expected relies heavily on what the expected number is. For a team like Newcastle, they’re only +9.7% over their expected points conceded, which sounds decent right? It would be if they weren’t conceding the highest number of expected points in the competition at over 24 per game.

Given that, let’s plot their expected values against their actuals points to see if we can glean any further insights.

And for these charts, I’ve split the following chart into four quadrants to cover the scenarios above. This is based on them being above or below the average expected and actual points per game for the season so far.

  • Dominant – high expected points, high actual points
  • Efficient/lucky – low expected points, high actual points
  • Inefficient/unlucky – high expected points, low actual points
  • Incompetent – low expected points, low actual points

As noted earlier, I’ve added the “lucky” and “unlucky” labels to the efficient and inefficient quadrants as one bad game or a few bombed tries could swing their position. The Warriors sit on the just off edge of “Dominant” for points scored right now, but a single extra try could push them into that quadrant from “Inefficient/Unlucky”. Again it’s very early in the season and the sample sizes aren’t sufficient enough.

But what we can see here is that Penrith, despite being 2-2 in their four games have been dominant with the ball. Outside of their loss to Parramatta, they’ve had expected point totals of 31.7, 29.0 and 29.6 in their other encounters. This puts them nearly 4 expected points per game ahead of their nearest rival, THE Dolphins at 22.38.

Manly and Cronulla are also faring well here, both scoring around 27 points a game over expected totals of just 18. This indicates they’re doing so from further out from the try line or using fewer tackles inside 20 to generate points.

This chart also shows how much Souths have struggled with scoring, sitting on their own in the “Incompetent” quadrant, with field position worth 18.2 points per game and only scoring 15.6 themselves. They should have picked up the victory over Melbourne on Saturday evening but just couldn’t capitalise on their possession. Here’s the ETxP chart by minute for that game, showing just how much possession Souths had late (about 8 points worth) but were unable to convert it.

I noted the Rabbitohs second half issues earlier in the season, but that time it was the fact they couldn’t generate field position late in games. At least this week they fixed that part of it, but frustratingly couldn’t trouble the scorer after the 59th minute.

The 5-0 Brisbane Broncos also occupy this “Dominant” quadrant but are close to the line that would put them into “Efficient”. Scoring at 44% over expected points with a near league average for ETxP indicates they’ve done well scoring from low value possession this season.

Which is indeed the case – their 46 points against the Tigers on the weekend came from possession and field position worth just 13.8 expected points. This was in part due to the Broncos seeing just 18 play the balls inside 20 metres (9 in each half). The Tigers meanwhile had 20 in total, yet still only managed to cross the line twice. Another example of why play the balls inside 20 aren’t a leading indicator of attacking prowess.

If we flip things to the defensive side, we get a better understanding of why some teams are struggling.

Canberra, Newcastle, and the Gold Coast make sense sitting in this “Incompetent” quadrant, as clearly the three worst defensive sides in the league thus far.

You could argue that the “Incompetent” and “Infefficient” quadrants could be swapped here, as you’d expect teams with poor field position to be leaking points. Whilst teams that don’t concede as many expected points shouldn’t be letting in as many as teams like the Eels, Dragons and Tigers are.

But at least those in that “Inefficient” quadrant could improve if they stopped allowing points from low value areas. That’s probably more achievable than stopping teams strolling downfield unchallenged as they do against the Raiders, Knights and Titans.

Either way, those six teams have obvious issues early and will need to remedy them if they expect to still be playing in September.

Which brings me to the other team in the “Incompetent” quadrant – Cronulla. We saw before they’re allowing nearly 13% more points than expected this season, they’re sixth worst in the NRL expected points conceded signifying that why they’re susceptible to the type of comeback the allowed to the Warriors on Sunday.

We established before that they’re one of the best in the competition in terms of scoring efficiency, but allowing not only the points they have but also the field position isn’t a sustainable foundation.

South Sydney (22.1) and North Queensland (22.0) allow more expected points per game than the Sharks, but both of them concede fewer than that number per game. The Sharks meanwhile are conceding 23.4 per game, 13% higher than the 20.9 an average team would be expected to allow given the same opponent possession. It’s something the Sharks will need to work on if they want to follow up on last years successes.

The other thing to point out from this chart is that the Dolphins have done well at limiting opponents field position, which from a Wayne Bennett coached side shouldn’t be surprising. The Dolphins concede the second fewest expected points in the competition, only 0.1 ahead of the floundering Eels, who are probably the biggest under achievers this season.

Their problem has been conceding from that strong field position, giving up more than 36% over expected. Still, they’re 8th in points conceded and for an expansion team with a number players who have well known defensive issues this has to be seen as a success.

Back to the Eels, last year’s grand finalists are conceding significantly more points than an average team would given the same opponent field position, and they’re also struggling to score their own. It’s a stark contrast to a team that used to dominate field position last season and accumulate points by wearing their opponents down. It’s hard to see where the turn around comes from, with their edge defense looking even shakier than usual.

We touched on the Bunnies issues crossing the line above, but their defensive is what is keeping them in games this season. As noted above they’re one of the worst in allowing high value field position to their opponents, but they post 24% fewer points than expected. It’s this reason alone that they’re likely to turn things around this season. It’s far easier to fix a broken attack than it is to plug up a leaky defense, and Souths already have the latter part sorted.

Penrith’s time as a defensive juggernaut is still now given the numbers on this chart, with the stingiest goal line protection in the competition alongside a low expected points conceded.

That the Warriors sit in this quadrant defensively is a huge testament to Andrew Webster. Their expected points conceded sits at 19.4 per game, and they’re only allowing 17.6. Usually the Warriors have been the type of team to not only allow a lot of high value field position, but also to concede far more points than an average team would in similar circumstances.

Their turnaround this season given their gains and losses has been truly remarkable and something I’ll be looking at closely over the coming weeks. Long suffering Warriors fans should enjoy the ride and hope it continues.