What Webster’s Wahs have improved on this season

As passionate as the Warriors faithful are, I don’t think many of them in their wildest dreams could have envisioned a start to the season like this.

With all due respect to THE Dolphins (and somewhat the Raiders), the Warriors have always been the people’s team. If you don’t enjoy watching Shaun Johnson play, then I wonder if you have the ability to feel anything at all. Up the Wahs.

The media weren’t particularly high on them either in the pre-season, with quite a number of outlets picking them to finish up either 16th or with the wooden spoon. Even the most optomistic of Warriors fans probably thought a top half of the bottom eight was their ceiling for 2023.

Losing Reece Walsh was obviously a big item and outside of Eliesa Katoa I don’t think many Wahs supporters would have been too sad about the other departures.

In the place there weren’t any high profile signings however they did add a some quality though through Mitch Barnett, Te Maire Martin, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad with Marata Niukore and Dylan Walker providing some depth and experience.

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They’ve also been missing some of those 2023 additions, with Barnett and Martin missing extended time and Luke Metcalf yet to set foot on the field. Niukore has also missed games serving a suspension, and they’ve also seen key forwards Tohu Harris and Wayde Egan unavailable due to knee and concussion issues.

That’s hardly the sort of cohesion you’d assume with a side sitting in third place. What it speaks to is just how quickly the players have embraced new coach Andrew Webster’s approach, and they’re currently far more likely to be playing finals football than securing the wooden spoon.

And not only are the Warriors sitting third after seven rounds, you could also argue they should be second. Penrith sits above them due to a +78 margin difference, but their 4-2 record is bolstered by receiving a bye in Round 3. The Warriors have a record of 5-2, one win more than the Panthers and only behind the 6-1 Broncos.

There’s also the absurdity of their upcoming schedule starting on ANZAC Day which I noted a month ago:

“But the most appalling of all of these is the stretch of games the Warriors have in late April/early May. Starting on ANZAC day they face the Storm in Melbourne. Five days later they’re back in New Zealand to meet the Roosters at Mt Smart. Six days later they’re playing Penrith in Brisbane as part of Magic Round. That caps off their two games in 11 days.


Another six days later they’re back in Sydney to play the Bulldogs on May 12. That’s four games in 18 days and backing up the ANZAC day clash with three in 17, with a significant amount of travel in between. They do end up with the bye for Round 12 and don’t play again until May 27, but it’s a brutal stretch of travel and matches that should have been avoided.”

Utter insanity for a club that gave so much selflessly to the league during the pandemic. And it’s probably stretch that will make or break their season.

But we’re not here to complain about the ridiculous schedule they’ve been dealt, we’re here to explore why they’re travelling so well.

Having a more consistent schedule and being able to spend time at home is probably a huge relief for the playing squad. Some will claim it’s a soft draw, given that they’ve played the Knights and Cowboys twice as well as Canterbury, but like I mentioned last season when analysing North Queensland’s fast start, you can only play who is in front of you.

Yet they have three wins over two of the top three sides in 2022, including critical away victories in Sydney and Townsville. The Warriors are making the most of this and have already eclipsed last season’s road record (1-11) with those two wins. Clearly the Cowboys aren’t last seasons Cowboys, but they were still predicted to finish ahead of the Warriors.

So what has changed from last season? Let’s start by looking at how they’re performing over the 80 minutes. All numbers are from Fox Sports Stats unless noted otherwise.

Before we get into the usual margin by minute chart, I wanted to look at the overall trend of their games. One of the interesting things about their performances this season is that they’re chasing down leads to win some of these games, with the Sharks victory being the most memorable. Below is the percentage of minutes spent trailing, leading or with the scores tied this season.

After seven rounds the Warriors are spending 61 % of minutes played trailing on the scoreboard. That is second highest in the NRL only ahead of the dumpster fire at Leichhardt, where the Tigers have led for just 10 minutes all season. Those 10 minutes all came in their first game of the season, when an Adam Doueihi penalty goal put them up 2-0 in the 3rd minute, and from the 13th minute when Philip Sami scored the Tigers have not been in front again all season.

Back to the subject at hand, the 61% for the Warriors is up from 49% twelve months ago so they’re spending more time behind on the scoreboard.

With that in mind here’s the minute by minute breakdown of margins in their seven games this season, with the pink line (highlighted) representing 2023.

The first 25 minutes of a game have been some of the worst for the Warriors since 2016, falling behind on the scoreboard by an average of 8 points after 20 minutes. It’s usually the Warriors giving up a lead, not running one down. How bizarre.

The only other time they’ve been able to move back to a positive margin after 80 minutes was in 2016, with most other seasons seeing a negative margin continue the same trajectory as the game progressed.

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Their +2.29 margin after 80 minutes is the second highest since 2016 as well, only behind the Warriors 2018 campaign where they were ahead by 8.29 at the end of regulation, when they finished the season in 8th spot. All good signs so far if they can continue this path.

They’re winning the games they’re expected to as well. Below is the chart of their expected wins based on the Eye Test Expected Point (ETxP) model that I use. This metric gives a point value to field position based on the probability of scoring form that position on each tackle number. Their point for is just +4.5% over expected, whilst their points conceded are -11% on expected, both middle of the pack numbers across the 17 teams. Below is how the league is traveling for wins over expected.

The Warriors are only +1 when looking at net actual wins over expected wins, which emphasises they’re winning when they’re controlling possession and field position. They’ve picked up two games that they wouldn’t have won on expected points (Newcastle round 1, North Queensland round 7. They also dropped a game they should have won in Round 6 to the Knights.

They’re not doing anything different for starts of sets versus the rest of the league this season. Their average first tackle play the ball starts 39 metres out, 7th in the NRL.

And defensively they’re letting teams start their sets even higher, with Warriors opponents starting at 40.5 metres out, sixth worst in the competition.

One thing they are doing slightly differently to the rest of the competition is having fewer play the balls on the extreme edges of the field, and are primarily playing the ball middle left when working it out of their own area.

They have the second fewest play the balls on the right edge of any team in the league, another part of Webster’s game plan to set up space for Johnson to work in. You can see this from the heat map above with just how few of the data points fall on or to the right of the field numbers, especially around halfway.

This year’s Warriors are also spending more time in opponents’ 20 metre areas, at 21.3% which is their highest percentage of total play the balls in that zone since 2014. They’re also getting to that zone more efficiently, with just 22.9% of time spent int their oppositions midfield (50-20m area).

From a defensive perspective, they’re incredibly stingy on metres gained from late tackles. As noted in last weeks post, the Warriors have the lowest amount of metres conceded between play the balls (not run metres) on play the balls 3, 4 and 5.

Their distance on second tackle is only behind the Sharks a 5.77 as well, and they’re the only two teams to concede on average fewer than six metres between the position of the first and second play the balls within a set.

The 8.02 metres the Warriors allow between tackles 4 and 5 is lower than most teams from tackles 2 to 3. Strong defensive teams start with the right attitude and again Webster appears to have instilled that in his squad already.

This is evident when you see how they’re also limiting the amount of time teams are spending inside the Warriors own midfield (20-50m zone) at just 20.2%, well below the NRL average this season of 23.9%.

They are allowing more time than league average inside their own red zone at 23.4%, which is another reason for the Wahs having to chase down leads. Why is this happening?

Part of this is a safer game plan. Errors are down 18%, but play the balls are up 10% and total sets are up 6%, which is translating to about a 6% jump in completion rates. Some of the drop in errors can be attributed to a less expansive game, with offloads declining by 5% over the same period last year.

Their improvement in controlling the ball is dramatic. Last season after seven rounds the Warriors had the 5th worst error rate (possessions per error) in the NRL at one every 36.3 touches.

This year they’re second in the NRL, only trailing Penrith by 0.4 with an error every 48.03 touches.

They also have the second lowest errors per set in the second half at just 0.22, which is almost identical to their first half number, something that almost no other team in the league can claim.

Yes, the Warriors are now the second safest team in the competition with the ball. What a time to be alive.

This improvement in ball security has led to their ability to get downfield has improved, with a 20% increase in pre contact run metres and 10% in post contact, fueled by an incredible 38% jump in tackle busts over the same rounds last season. Fewer errors means longer possessions and actually getting to their attacking plays at the back end of a set.

Their improvement can also be found defensively from a fall in missed tackles, down a staggering 22%, along with an improvement in discipline with 11% fewer penalties being called against them. Another testament to Webster getting the players to buy in.

It would be an incredible turn of events for the Warriors to finish the season in the top four, especially considering their run of upcoming opponents. A more likely goal would be to be playing in September.

With thirteen wins usually being the baseline to secure a place in the finals, the Warriors may be able to clinch that spot with an 8-9 record to finish the season. Given their start to the season and the commitment the players are showing, that’s far from the pipe dream it would have been in February and Andrew Webster should be commended for such a rapid turnaround.