Are NRL teams starting to play wider? All the Round 1 advanced stats

Round 1 of the 2024 season was full of upsets that stumped many tipsters, and with some low scoring games it was a stressful fortnight for NRL Fantasy and Supercoach players alike. Thankfully the Eye Test is here to get to the bottom of some of the numbers from Round 1 and try to make sense of it.

Let’s take a look at how close the games were to start with. The average margin after 80 minutes for round 1 was 14.6 points, which is very similar to the opening of the 2019 season where the margin was 14.4 points, as shown below, with the 2024 line is highlighted.

We’re still thankfully below the peak insanity of 2021 where the average margin was almost three converted tries (17.9 points). But we’re also a converted try ahead of last season where the gap between the two teams was just 8.25 points after 80 minutes.

The difference in 2024 is that the average margin was relatively tight at half time. After 40 minutes in 2023 the average margin was just 5.5 points, and in 2024 it was 6.4 at the break. Things stayed relatively close until the 46th minute where the margins started to explode, and continued to do so for the remainder of the second half.

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Looking at where it sits among all rounds since 2016, it’s still mid pack after 80 minutes after trending lower at half time.

A very average round by the end. And looking at total points scored it’s a similar story, very average after a slow start.

36.6 points were scored on average per game this round, slightly below the start of the six again era but ahead of the pre pandemic years. Opening round margins are usually more an indication of relative strength of opponents rather than any larger trend but it’s still something to keep an eye on.

Next let’s take a look at the average metres out each team played the ball on tackle one. It’s a useful proxy for seeing how deep down the field a team starts their sets, or how difficult a position a side has to work their way out of.

Surprisingly the Gold Coast top the list here, starting their sets from 46.2 meters out from their own goal line, the Warriors were second at 45.5 metres out, with the Eels in third at 45.3 metres from their own goal line for their first play the ball.

That number has to be extremely disappointing for the Titans, considering they only scored four points against the Dragons. And indeed their expected point total from that game indicates they had enough field position to generate 30 points.

And for the Eels it helped them sustain an obscene amount of possession on the Dogs goal line, which you can see from their heat map of play the balls.

At the other end of the scale, the Storm had the worst starting position for the Round at just 28.8 metres from their own line. Compare that with Penrith’s starting spot (44.6) and there’s a sixteen metre gap between them. Considering the mountain of strong field position Penrith had, it’s a fantastic showing by Melbourne, which the expected point chart from that game corroborates.

Penrith had enough high quality possession and field position to generate nearly 29 points, but came up scoreless. Melbourne themselves were also inefficient, scoring just eight points from nearly 16 points worth of possession, but their defense won them this game.

To compare these starting positions, last year in Round we had eight teams start on average past the 40 metre line, and two inside their own 30 metres. In 2024, we had six sides start past the 40 metre line, and two inside their own 30 metres. Not a lot of change there.

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Where we do see the change is by taking out sets started inside 20 metres. If we remove those, the list becomes quite different, as shown below.

The Warriors end up in first starting sets 39.6 metres out from their line, ahead of Penrith at 38.8 metres. Interestingly both teams lost in games they were favoured to win. Brisbane and Canterbury ended up at the bottom of this list, playing the ball on tackle one just 23 metres out from their own goal lines. One of those teams has the forward pack to combat that starting point, the other has 15 utilities.

And it’s not just on a team level there are differences. In 2023, nine teams commenced their sets (excluding those started inside 20 metres) on average at least 30 metres from their own goal line. This year that number was just five, and Parramatta barely made it (30.1 metres).

It also means that eleven teams started their sets inside their own thirty, up from just seven teams twelve months ago. It’s a sign of teams playing more ball in their own half, something I brought up in last week’s post on the Las Vegas games. On the whole, there were 2% more play the balls inside 50 metres this year compared to last year, and those came at the expense of 10-30 metres out which were down by a similar amount.

Why is this happening? Excluding metres made on tackle one, which are influenced by kick returns, teams are making about 30 cm per run fewer through the middle of the field than they were last year.

It appears as though the majority of the league may have worked out how to tighten up the middle of the field defensively and their opponents are now looking to exploit faster players through width early rather than earning it with some go forward early in their structure before spreading it wide.

Friend of the site Liam of the Maroon Observer touched on this in his Brisbane Broncos preview, where he suggestged that Brisbane were playing a different version of Rugby League.

“I’m not even convinced Brisbane believe in the concept of traditional running metres anymore. They’ve gone avant garde because sure, you can compile them eight metres and one tackle at a time but isn’t it much easier to blow the defence apart and run 60 metres in one go?

From the numbers in this round it certainly seems that teams are trying to exploit their speed early by going wide. Last week I pointed out that Manly had deviated from this with their third tackle play the ball occurring about 11 metres wider than the other three teams that played in Vegas, specifically targeting the right hand side where Richard Kennar was defending. They’ve certainly got the speed to match Brisbane in playing this style.

Penrith appear to have done something similar this round, as seen below, even if it didn’t result in any points.

Their average tackle three play the ball happening almost eight metres to the left, possibly from targeting Nick Meaney in the centres before bringing the ball back to the middle of the field on later tackles.

Did coaches suddenly discover there’s a horizontal axis as well as a vertical one? Players are fit and agile enough now that can regularly cover more distance across the field, and goal line defenses are becoming even stronger. Routinely forcing them to make a decision midfield at speed about which player to cover is harder to train for. Even the best defenders are going to make the occasional mental mistake.

From these numbers, my assumption would be that the game plan now is to try to constantly move defenders left and right from tackle one, and force them to make decisions and tire from lateral movement. This is opposed to the old thinking of tiring defenders out by pushing them backwards before spreading it wide on later tackles.

Here’s another update from last weeks post showing the percentage of play the balls down each channel of the field.

The trend from Vegas has continued, with more ball being played out towards the tram tracks than last year, and even out to the wing on the right side of the field in search of yardage. There’s less play the balls happening in the middle 30 metres of the field, which made up 67.5% of play the balls in 2023. They now comprise 62.4%, a drop of just over 5%. In particular on tackle three, 13.7% of play the balls are occurring near the right inner tram track, up from 9.3% last year. And the right wing percentage has increased as well.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where it is happening but there’s a few trends that are showing some indication.

Line engagements from the halves positions are up 46% on Round 1, 2023 and general play passes from halfbacks and five eighths have increased by 23%. One pass runs by props and locks, your standard hit up, are down by 25%, but those types of runs are up by 25% for centres. There were more runs by centres this weekend than prop forwards, which would probably blow the minds of some old boys. These numbers align with the change in field position usage I’ve examined above.

Are we seeing the NRL’s version of the NBA working out that 3 was greater than 2? Chasing width early instead of late? Something has certainly changed in the way the game is being played this season and I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.

This change in play also flows on to my expected metres model. Not one side in round one made more metres than expected, although some were only close misses. The results from Round 1 are below, show as Run Metres Over Expected per run (RMOE/run). There’s been rounds previously where only 2-3 teams have run fewer metres than expected, but this was the first I’ve noticed where every team did so.

The Warriors were the closest to positive at -0.20 RMOE/run, with the Roosters not far behind at -0.31, followed by the Dolphins, Knights and Cowboys all in the -0.4 RMOE/run range.

The Eels were the worst here at -1.42 RMOE/run, which would have been troublesome if they didn’t monopolise possession for the first three quarters of their game against the Dogs, who themselves were -1.40 for RMOE/run. That’s not too unusual for Parra though, last year they were -1.16 RMOE/run in their opening round golden point loss to Melbourne.

In addition, the Eels had just 30.8% of runs above expected length, the lowest in the NRL, while Newcastle led the way at 47% for Round 1. That 47% would have ranked just 13th in Round 1, 2023, and 6th in Round 1, 2022, again a further indication of how difficult generating yards through the middle was this round and that teams might be chasing big returns wider on the field.

Even though team RMOE/run was down, there were still individual players beating their expected gains. Here’s the top 20 players from Round 1, from a minimum of seven completed runs with the ball.

As noted last week, Manly’s Jason Saab led the way with +8.22 RMOE/run, on the back of his intercept run against the Rabbitohs. He’ll be hard to replace for the Sea Eagles for the next month. Second place went to Newcastle’s Enari Tuala with +3.72 RMOE/run from eight carries, with the Cowboys impressive centre Zac Laybutt in third with +3.45 RMOE/run from 16 carries in their demolition of the Dolphins.

Raiders fans will no doubt notice Matt Timoko in fifth place at +2.78. He also had the second highest percentage of runs above expected this round at 78% (11 of 14), only trailing Penrith’s Izack Tago at 87% (13 of 15). Jacob Liddle was the best forward in this chart, at +2.38 RMOE/run thanks to some easy metres from dummy half against the woeful Titans defense.

Next up we’re going to look at the top and bottom 20 players by the sites Player Contribution Rating (ETPCR), which is a possession normalised metric that weights statistics based on how highly the correlate with winning games and higher margins of victory. If you want to read up which statistics are included and the methodology, the explainer is available here.

Below are the top 20 players for Round 1.

Murray Taulagi from North Queensland took top place for Round 1 with an ETPCR of +4.160, which means he contributed +4.160 points more than the average NRL player  would in this game, adjusted for possession (normalised to 270 play the balls, 135 in attack and 135 in defense). Second place was Dragons fullback Tyrell Sloan with +3.499 and Manly backrower Haumole Olakau’atu in third place at +3.472.

And now the bottom 20 players for the round.

It shouldn’t shock anyone to see this list full of Dolphins, Dogs and Titans players, as all three were terrible in defense and gave up plenty of easy possession and points. The worst of which was Ray Stone at -6.351, ahead of South’s Isaiah Tass (-4.924) and Jaemon Salmon of the Dogs (-3.761).

Also I want to give a quick congrats to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow who was ranked the eighth lowest of the 270+ players who played in Round 1, yet still managed to pick up a Dally M vote despite some of the worst mistakes you’ll see on a rugby league field.

It’s hard to tell what is more broken, the system or the people casting these votes.

To finish up this week, a few quick hits.

There were 25 line drop outs this weekend, 18 of which were deemed “short”. Of those 18 short dropouts, 7 were retained and 11 went to the opposing side. That’s a 39% recovery rate, but from a very small sample.  

Of the 18 kicked short, 12 were taken by the team leading. The Roosters had the best rate, retaining 2 of 2 short dropouts, while the Titans were 0/3 on their short attempts. Let’s revisit this in a few weeks when we have more data to see if the rule change is doing anything.

And finally, a look at the average age of each team this round. I did this last season and found out the Bulldogs had one of the youngest Round 1 sides in recent history. It even resulted in Phil Gould seeking clarification from the Twitter masses, even though my username was clearly in the image.

Readers would know I’m quite easy to find if you want to ask me a question, via email or @LeagueEyeTest on social media.

Anyway, for Gus and everyone else interested, here’s the average ages of each team selected this year for Round 1 compared with 2023.

South Sydney had the highest average at 27.9 this year, up from 26.6 in 2023, while the Gold Coast had the lowest of teams playing this round at 25.3 years old.

You can see most teams have naturally advanced in age by about one year, as player turnover isn’t that much to cause big changes. Manly saw the biggest change, with the addition of Luke Brooks and Nathan Brown. And for the Dogs (and Gus), that has been the case, with Canterbury’s average age increasing by just over one year from where it was in 2023, but still having the third youngest team this round.

The Cowboys and Raiders were two teams to buck that trend. North Queensland had two big changes age wise. James Tamou and Peta Hiku in their 17 man side last year, and have replaced them 22 year old with Zac Laybutt and 20 year old Kulikefu Finefeuiaki.

Canberra also had two major age changes, with Jack Wighton departing and Elliot Whitehead missing Round 1 this season due to injury. Into the side came 19 year old Ethan Strange and 22 year old Morgan Smithies.

Brisbane also had a slightly younger side, which was already one of the youngest in the NRL. With Corey Oates and Kurt Capewell out of the 17, they moved in 21 year old Brendan Piakura and 20 year old Deine Mariner.