Field position is the new NRL currency and the top three are dominating it – NRL Round 10 stats and trends

Nothing like a quiet week in rugby league.

Magic round has come and gone, and the game is further slipping into territory that could be best described with the “f” word – farce. The blowouts have continued as well, as shown by the wonderful charts from friends of the site NRLFanalytics and AndrewRLP at the conclusion of Round 10.

It was only four seasons ago that we had almost 40% of games decided by one score. Now it is almost half of that, with just 21% of this seasons 80 games decided by 6 points or fewer.

We know that the changes in rules are contributing to these scores, with the top teams exploiting their advantages in a number of ways. One way is by controlling field position at a rate that hasn’t been seen in years.

With rules designed to encourage fewer stoppages and increase time in play, we’ve seen more of the game played through the middle of the field with teams are running out of their own half more. In the era of penalties instead of set restarts, teams would spend more time in midfield as they’d get a free 20-30 metres of field position.

A few rounds back I showed the below chart, which breaks down the percentage of play the balls into three locations – inside own half, opponents’ midfield, and opponents 20m zone. I find it’s a great way of showing if there’s been any movement in where the game is being played, and over the past few seasons it has moved after a stable period from 2014-2017.

The percentage of play the balls inside a team’s own half has increased from 51% in 2018 (coincidentally the last “crackdown”) to 57% in 2021. Here’s the update after Round 10 and things haven’t changed much since the last update.

It also shows that most of this own half possession is coming at the expense of time spent in an opponents 20m zone, which dropped under 20% in 2020 and is down to just 18% this season. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as you don’t need to spend time inside the 20 metre area to score a try, which is one of the great things about our game. But it does point to safer football being played outside attacking areas.

I alluded to it earlier, but part of this is the contenders being able to dictate field position a lot easier with a miniscule punishment for slowing down the ruck or creeping offside. Here’s the breakdown if the above chart by team for 2021.

Penrith stands out here with only half of their play the balls coming from inside their own end of the field. Anyone who has been watching them play over the past two seasons knows it is a part of their game, and was something that the Eye Test noticed last season. North Queensland are next at 52% and have historically had a low own half percentage due to Jason Taumalolo picking up 10 metres every time he runs the ball.

At the top of the scale, the Dragons spend over 63% of their play the balls inside their own half, and just 14.6% inside their opponents 20 metre area. The Tigers spend the most time inside an opponent’s 20 metre area, with 23.4% of their play the balls coming from that part of the field but haven’t been able to capitalize as they sit ninth (cue laughter) in points scored.

Unfortunately, that chart doesn’t really convey the point I’m trying to make though, as Melbourne spend the fifth most time inside their own half at nearly 60% yet have the second best points differential in the NRL.

Where you do see it is when you change the perspective to opponents, as shown below.

The top three this season, Penrith, Parramatta, and Melbourne, are all keeping opponents inside their own half on at least 62% of play the balls and restricting them to 15% or fewer play the balls inside 20. Parramatta specifically are holding teams in their own half for nearly two thirds of total play the balls.

To put this in perspective, there has only been one team since 2014 that has held opponents to 60% of play the balls in their own half (we’ll get into that shortly). This season we have three. It’s yet another data point showing that the new rules of rugby league are contributing to some incredibly one sided results.

Souths aren’t too far behind the top three at 59.5%, while the Roosters buck the trend of the “big 5” teams for 2021, at nearly 10% lower than the top three, with just 53% of their opponent play the balls in their own half. This isn’t too surprising, because as discussed a few weeks ago, the Roosters usually have one of the worst completion rates in the NRL and regularly give up field position to opponents, relying on their strength in defense.

Another noteworthy point from this version is that Wests Tigers opponents spend the third most amount of time in their 20 metre area. If you combine that with the amount of time the Tigers spent attacking the try line, it would appear most of their games are played at either end of the field and much less than an average NRL game spent in between. Which probably explains their dysfunctional start to the season.

Staunch supporters of the NRL regime will claim that “there have always been teams blowing out other teams” I hear you say. And you’re right. But none of them are doing so with the vice like grip on field position that the Storm, Eels and Panthers are this season.

The chart below shows average margin of teams by opponent and season, plotted against the amount of time spent in their own half by percentage of play the balls from 2014 to 2021. Data points are coloured by season, with yellow representing 2021.

Here it’s even more obvious just how much of their performance this season are outliers and that the new rules are playing into this. As I alluded to earlier, only one other team has held opponents to more than 60% of play the balls in their own half since 2014, which was Penrith in 2020 (the green dot just below the Panthers 2021 data point).

The NRL average from 2014-2021 is 54% of play the balls in your own half, and every team this season other than the Roosters (who we identified above at 53%) are above this long term average. This chart also shows just how the 2021 average of 57.4% is skewed by the top three teams. Additionally, no other teams have been averaging more than 15-point margins of victory during this period either.

This trend towards controlling field position is even more apparent when you break these numbers down to halves, showing the Eels have a stunning command of field position in second halves.

Teams facing Parramatta spend almost 70% of their time in their own half, with less than 10% inside the Eels 20 metre zone.

The blowouts will continue as long as the rules benefit those who flaunt them the most, expanding the gap between the very good and the very ordinary.

Let’s try that crackdown again

Looks like I was a bit premature in suggesting the crackdown wasn’t a crackdown last week, with 23 charges and a slew of penalties last weekend. The full rap sheet is below:

There were 86 penalties in Round 10, 10.8 per game, up from 60 in Round 9, and the most since Round 5 2020 when teams worked out how to game set restarts. That’s still a far cry away from the 16 per game we saw in the height of the penalty crackdown of 2018, but still a significant increase. If the NRL wanted to deliver a message about high shots, they certainly achieved that.

Unsurprisingly, when you combine that increase with the number of tries scored, Round 10 saw the lowest time in play since Round 13, 2019, coming in at 52.97 minutes. That’s the first time since the introduction of set restarts that time in play has dropped under 53 minutes.

Below you can see the relationship between tries scored and time in play. Generally the trend is that the more points scored, the lower time in play.

The other thing of note with this crackdown is that there was very little change in set restarts being called. In Round 10 there was slight increase in first halves (3.9 to 5.0), and an identical number in second halves (3.1). Below is the half breakdowns of set restarts and penalties awarded where you can see just how little changed with set restarts.

The big difference came in penalties awarded, jumping from 3.88 to 5.0 in the first half and nearly two whole penalties more blown in second halves, up from 3.63 to 5.75.

Part of that was due to two games – Tigers v Knight and Penrith v Titans – having a total of 17 penalties awarded in each game. Here’s the Round 10 split by timeslot.

Only one other match was in double digits, which was Friday evenings Brisbane v Manly game, and every other match had fewer than 10 penalties awarded. If you remove those 17 penalty outliers, the round average would be 8.6 and much closer to the season average.

It will be interesting to see how long this crackdown lasts, as mentioned above the 2018 didn’t last past the midpoint of the season. This one affects player welfare which is why I hope it does continue, even if it was atrociously implemented with little foresight just like the rest of the rules under our esteemed emperor.

I probably can’t sum it up much better than the tweet from my personal account on Friday evening at the conclusion of the Broncos/Sea Eagles game.

The main issue is that the root cause of these high shots isn’t being adressed by this crackdown. Someone in power will need to admit they were wrong by removing stoppages which have led to this situation. If player welfare is the main issue, then the logical conclusion would be to stop forcing them to compete under extreme fatigue which is exacerbating these issues.

What the Eye Test and Melbourne have in common

Overshadowed by the goings on in the Brisbane v Manly game was an article by Roy Masters on the Sydney Morning Herald site on Friday evening. The headline was a bit misleading, but there was some excellent insight in the article regarding the pace of the game.

Most of it will be common ground for regular Eye Test readers, but my favourite saying about analytics and data is that it is the “art of being less wrong”. The article is still worth a read, however, as it brings up some new data points and insights.

One of the new nuggets of information that I did find extremely interesting is that the Storm look at “work rate markers”:

“For example, the Storm calculate what they term “work rate markers”, counting a player’s total runs, tackles, support, and kick pressure, divided by the number of minutes the player is on the field.

Whenever former champion fullback Billy Slater recorded a score of 0.22, he walked off the field totally spent, while this year’s custodians, Ryan Papenhuyzen and Nicho Hynes, have averaged figures 30 percent higher than Slater.”

Demise of the robots: Why ad-lib football is king again, https://www.smh.com.au/sport/nrl/demise-of-the-robots-why-ad-lib-football-is-king-again-20210514-p57ry0.html

Regular Eye Test readers may know that the site was founded on needing somewhere to provide some context for the advanced stats I use – Tackle %, Run % and Involvement Rate. These were liberally cribbed from NBA advanced stats and I tried to apply similar thinking to rugby league. The aim was develop something that would show workrate but not favour those who played more minutes and filled up more statistical buckets, as the VB Hard Work index does.

I’d started calculating them sometime in late 2018 as a way to identify middle forwards work rate, which highlighted how big a motor Eye Test first ballot Hall of Famer Daniel Alvaro has. Below is the first time I could find that I posted them publicly, well before I had even thought about the Eye Test.

The largest difference between my advanced statistics and what the Storm are using is that I also adjust for possession, rather than just doing a pure per minute rate. If two players made 50 tackles in 80 minutes, but Player A faced 150 play the balls and Player B faced 100 play the balls, the second player is making the same amount of tackles at a higher rate. It’s a minor change that doesn’t penalise players who face a lower number of play the balls, since you can’t complete a tackle if your opponent doesn’t have the ball.

Back to the article, seeing that Melbourne is using something similar prompted me to check how some of my advanced stats compared to the Storm example in the above article. Was there a corresponding increase for Papenhuyzen and Hynes? I’ve used Run % as fullbacks don’t make a large number of tackles and I don’t have access to data for decoys or kick pressure, but the results for every Melbourne fullback that has played at least two games since 2014 are below.

Slater owns four of the bottom eight results for the 17 fullbacks Melbourne have used since 2014 who have played at least two games. In seasons where Slater played more than seven games, his Run % was in the 8% range. You can see that Papenhuyzen, Hynes (in 2020) and Munster, all have a Run % higher than 10%, with Papenhuyzen at 10.62% for 2021, which is slightly under 30% higher than Slater’s peak. Even for 2021 Hynes is still ahead of Slater’s best season during this period. That does show that Melbourne fullbacks are getting invovled more in recent years than during Slater’s era.

Apologies for the navel gazing, but I felt it’s worth pointing out that someone with very limited time due to full time work and family commitments independently came up with a similar internal metric to used at an NRL club, using only publicly available data. Imagine what the wider NRL community could come up with and advanced the acceptance of data within the game if more information was easily accessible?

What was the result of the set restart “crackdown”? – NRL Round 9 20201 stats and trends

Last week the NRL noted that there would be a “crackdown” on deliberate infringements on early tackles that lead to set restarts, as it has become more obvious that teams are gaming them for reasons that myself and many others have mentioned before. Basically, it comes down to field position, as giving away one or two extra tackles is far outweighed by conceding an extra 20-30 metres down field as well as a fresh set of six.

What was the result of this set restart “crackdown”? Fewer penalties than Round 8 and slightly more set restarts. Not a lot of changes at first glance.

When you look at them broken down by half, a few variations can be seen. Penalties in the first half were identical to Round 8 and right near the year-to-date average. Second half penalties though were down by nearly one full penalty, and the lowest since Round 4.

Where it gets interesting is that first half set restarts were also down, at just 4.5 per first 40 minutes, also the lowest since Round 4. Not only did we have fewer penalties, but we also had fewer set restarts in the opening period. As mentioned before second half penalties were down by nearly 1.0, which looks to be offset but the increase in second half resets of 1.0, which makes perfect sense. Infractions that were being called penalties in previous rounds were being given as set restarts.

Back to the first half decrease, there are a number of reasons this could be happening, ranging from teams being wary of the crackdown and behaving themselves (unlikely) and referees not calling as many first half restarts (more likely). As mentioned every week, I’m just using publicly available data, and the larger dataset the NRL and clubs have may show something about which tackles restarts were being conceded on, but for now this is the best we can use for analysis.

There’s also the number of one side games resulting in less ball in play, since you can’t concede a penalty or set restart if watching someone take a conversion. It doesn’t look like that had an affect as the rate of these violations being called was constant with previous rounds.

One of the other metrics I look at to gauge how they’re occuring is the number of play the balls per total infringement. Below is that metric broken down by halves.

Overall, it’s about one penalty or set restart every 20 play the balls, or roughly once every three sets of six. Round 9 was one every 18.8 play the balls, right around the average. And by half it was about the same as well – right on the first half average of 18 and slightly under the second half average of 23.

In the end it seems like the set restart “crackdown” this week was a bit of a nothingburger. It was significantly overshadowed by the NRL’s unsafe working environment, which is something that absolutely needs a “crackdown”.

Team breakdown of set restarts and penalties

One of the more common requests I get through the Eye Test social media accounts is which teams are giving up or receiving the most set restarts. The reason for this seems to be that the NRL and Fox Sports (which I use as they’re the NRL Supercoach currency) don’t have them included on either of the stats pages. That’s not overly surprising as it took about six rounds for the NRL to even include them on their match stats pages.

Moving on, here’s the breakdown of set restarts awarded by team for the first nine rounds of the competition, split by halves. First halves are in blue, second halves are in orange with a total number at the end of each row.

The Wests Tigers have had the most set restarts go their way this season, with 44 in their nine games this season, just ahead of a trio on 41 (South Sydney, Parramatta, and Canterbury). Across the league there’s a pretty constant trend of teams receiving more set restarts in the first half than second half, with the notable exception being the Bulldogs who are the only club to receive more than 20 restarts in the second half this season.

Flipping things around, who are the worst teams at conceding set restarts?

It’s a landslide here with the hapless Bulldogs conceding 51 set restarts this season, eight ahead of second placed Melbourne with 43. In fact, the Dogs have conceded more first half set restarts (40) than the total restarts conceded of all but one other NRL club.

Let’s move on to the same charts for penalties awarded and conceded.

South Sydney have been by far the biggest beneficiary of penalties this season, with 50 in their nine games, 11 more than the next closest teams (Manly and Wests Tigers). Souths have had more second half penalties awarded (26) than Brisbane have had all season (24), which a considerable amount of extra possession for the Bunnies.

Now on to penalties conceded by team this season.

The Titans, Bulldogs and Roosters leading the way, all with more than 40 penalties conceded this season. Newcastle is by far the most disciplined team in this regard, giving up only 22 total penalties and just six in the second half, fewer than one per game. No other team has a half in single figures.

Now we’ve established who is benefiting and suffering from these infringements, let’s look and see how it relates to winning, which is why the games are played. Before we look at 2021, it is worth checking where things were last season. Below is a chart of net set restarts (awarded minus conceded) plotted against net margin for Rounds 3-9 2020.

Last season at this time, Penrith had conceded 23 more set restarts than they were awarded, which obviously worked for them. And it’s a great reminder for those who believe that this gaming of set restarts might be a new thing in 2021, it isn’t’. After just seven rounds of set restarts purely for ruck infringements in 2020, it was pretty clear that the top four sides at the time (Penrith, Sydney, Melbourne, and Parramatta) had worked out how to game them.

If we look at things for the 2021 season, with more infringements able to be called for a set restart, things are quite different. Here’s the same chart as above for 2021.

Melbourne are the Panthers of season 2021, conceding 14 more restarts than they’ve been awarded. The Roosters are the only other team in that “conceding and winning” quadrant. They’re both still using set restarts as a way to manage field position, confident in their defense to hold opponents out.

The other significant change is that the remaining major contenders for this season aren’t conceding more set restarts than they’re awarded, with Parramatta +5, Penrith +7, and Souths +11. These teams are looking more at maintaining position and pushing the ball through the middle and not letting opponents get settled defensively.

The rest of the competition can be grouped mostly into the other two quadrants, “conceding and losing”, containing the Bulldogs and slow starters like the Cowboys and Sea Eagles, and the “not conceding and losing” quadrant, which has most of the mid ladder teams who’ve given up a big score to one or more of the top five sides.

The last thing I wanted to look at was if there was any relationship between net set restarts and net penalties. Do teams only concede set restarts? As you might expect, there is some relationship.

Teams that generally concede more set restarts than they’re awarded also concede more penalties. The Roosters are -5 on set restarts and -13 on penalties, whilst Melbourne are -14 on set restarts and -1 on penalties. As we saw before, Souths are +11 on set restarts, but they’re also a whopping +20 on penalties. Manly is the only real outlier in this view, sitting at -7 on set restarts and +13 on penalties.

It’s not as clear cut this season that managing your restart counts is helping contending teams, but it’s still a case that possession and field position are as important as ever.

Matt Dufty tightening up his defense

The Dragons are currently sitting in sixth place on the ladder, and Matt Dufty has been one their keys as you would expect. He’s been as elusive as always with the ball, but it’s the other side of the game that has impressed me this season.

In 2020 Dufty gave up 21 try causes in 18 games, around 1.2 per game. Thus far he has just six in 9 games, around 0.7 per game. When you combine try causes with line break causes, in 2020 he was in the 54th percentile of all outside backs, meaning that 46% of all outside backs gave up fewer line breaks and tries than Dufty. Not exactly the sort of defensive effort you’d expect from a starting fullback on a team with top eight aspirations.

In 2021 that percentile rank has crept up to the 73rd percentile, which still isn’t in the elite tier but still an impressive improvement to go from sitting in the middle of the NRL to almost top quarter. Dufty’s percentile ranks this season compare favorably with James Tedesco, who may not be having his best season behind a crippled Roosters pack, but he’s still one of the biggest gamebreakers in the competition.

Dufty has always been one of the better attacking fullbacks but his defensive lapses were always a talking point. If this improvement continues, he could be on the heels of the big four NSW fullbacks.

The completion rate myth – NRL Round 8 2021 stats and trends

There was a lot of talk in Round 6 after the Warriors beat the Dragons around completion rates, as it looked like the New Zealand had finished the game with a 100% completion rate, a rare occurrence. The NRL later downgraded them to 40/41, although Fox Sports still has them at 40/40 for that game.

Either way it was the highest completion rate in a game since at least 2014 and probably earlier, a mark that used to be held by North Queensland (we’ll come back to this later). Commentators will often talk about high completion rates during games as a barometer of success.

This got me thinking, is there a relationship between completion rate and margin of victory? Are teams that complete a high number of sets more likely to win, and if so, do they win by a larger number of points? Is it a myth that you’ll win more games if you maintain possession?

My starting point was to look at completion rate plotted against margin in every game since the start of the 2014 season. The results of this are below, with the data points shaded for completion rate – red is 50% and green is 100%. The chart is also divided into four areas by either high/low completion and positive/negative margin to make it easier to identify who is winning with high or low completion rates.

From the chart you can see that there’s an even spread between all four quadrants, with a trend line through the middle which shows that the correlation between completion rates and margin isn’t that strong, although still positive. The strength of correlation (on a scale from 0 to 1) is about 0.13, which is pretty weak. To put that number into context, the strongest correlation with winning are tries (0.61) and run metres (0.4).

To highlight just how little a high completion rate can mean on a game-by-game basis, you can see that I’ve singled out three matches on that chart. The first is the Sydney Roosters in Round 1, 2015, who completed less than 53% of their sets in a 28-4 victory over North Queensland. The other, was the previous high mark that I mentioned before held by the Cowboys, coincidentally also in a loss to the Roosters, where they completed 35/36 sets before losing 26-20.

By now you can see that there’s a weak positive relationship between completion rates and winning, and that results in individual games can vary wildly in both directions with a high completion rate. Another example I’ve drawn attention to is in Round 10, 2016, where Newcastle completed 85% of their sets, but still lost by 62 points.

Thus far we’ve looked at individual games. Does this low correlation also extend over a longer period of time? If anything, it’s an even weaker positive correlation. Below is the season completion rate and margin for each team since 2014.

I’ve highlighted each grand final winner over the past seven seasons as well to further demonstrate the disconnect between completion rate and wining. Both Sydney Roosters titles in 2018-19 were won with below average completion rates, both in the 72-73% range, well under the NRL average of 76.5%.

Four of the seven grand final winners had a lower than league average completion rate, and Melbourne in 2016 were only 0.3% above it. Only Melbourne in 2017 and North Queensland in 2015 had what you could classify as a high completion rate.

It is also worth noting that the 2014 Roosters hold the lowest completion rate over this same period at 69.2%, in a season where they were one win away from a grand final berth. Here’s the same chart again with only the Roosters seasons highlighted, showing how they’ve historically been a low completion rate club, something that friend of the site Jason Oliver has noted previously.

This highlights that completion rates are more a factor of coaching philosphy than abiltiy. High completion rates are a sign of discipline but also a sign of avoiding risk. The Roosters have been happy to spread the ball, push extra passes and take risks because they understand the reward available, but also back their defense if they do give up field position from an error.

The conservative approach is epitomized by the last few seasons from Canterbury, who (especially under Dean Pay) played a very safe brand of football, trying to minimse their errors and prevent teams from having easy field position off a turnover. Here’s the chart of their last seven seasons showing their completion rates and margins.

As we all know, it hasn’t really worked. In fact, the last four seasons they’ve been completing at least 78% of their sets, much higher than the NRL average. And each of those seasons has resulted in them finishing with a negative point differential and teams that stuggled to put points on the board.

Given the above analysis, what does completion rate demonstrate then? Other than committing fewer errors and the ability to hold the ball, not a lot else. Field position is far more important than possession, which we’ve seen this season with the plethora of set restarts on the first tackle.

One statistic completion rate correlates best with is kick metres (0.21), which again shows that a high completion rate doesn’t necessarily equate to positive rugby league. If you’re consistently gaining more kick metres, you’re most likely sitting in your own half.

The other thing to keep in mind, especially with the Warriors high completion rate in Round 6, is that completion rates have trending up since 2014. Here’s the last seven years for the opening eight rounds (comparable rounds for 2020).

Completion rates in a set restart world are higher for two reasons. The first is that a set restart being awarded means the previous set is marked as “complete”, the same way it would be for a penalty. The second is that as we’ve discussed many times before, the restarting of tackle counts means teams continue to run basic hitups through the middle, a run type that bears little risk.

There are obviously in game situations where completing sets is a priority, such as protecting a one or two score lead with the clock winding down, or during the opening minutes of a match to ensure you don’t start on the back foot. However a broad “must complete sets at all cost” approcach isn’t likely to result in more or larger victories, just fewer risks taken.

Set restart update

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve looked at how set restarts have been called this season, and with one third of 2021 complete it’s a good time to look at it again. Here’s the split of infringements called this season by round, split for regular penalties and set restarts.

The number of set penalties has been relatively constant over the past three rounds (68, 65, 67) at around eight per game. There has been a drop in set restarts though, from 77 in Round 7 to 57 in Round 8, which is a substantial drop from 9.6 to 7.1 per game.

When you break it down by half, there’s also a new trend emerging. Set restarts awarded are declining in the second half, with the equal lowest average of the season at 2.1 per second half, down from over 3 per half in the previous two rounds. During that time, penalties awarded in the second half are up to over 4 per half.

What happened in Round 8 to cause this drop in set restarts awarded? The below graph shows why.

The first reason is that Chris Butler didn’t call one in the second half in the Warriors v Cowboys clash. The next is that Chris Sutton and Ashley Klein contributed as well, calling just one each in the second half after three and six respectively in the first half.

It is interesting that with the barking from the usual suspects for referees to call more penalties and there’s too many six again calls, they’re already doing it.

The most prolific offloader no one talks about

Regular readers will know that it doesn’t take much for me to talk about the output of Eye Test first ballot Hall of Famers Christian Welch or Daniel Alvaro. I’ve mentioned numerous times how Welch is one of the hardest working players in the game, but over the past few seasons it’s another aspect of his game that has drawn my attention.

Welch is in the 99th percentile for forward offloads in 2021 so far, with 22 offloads and every one of them effective. This is up from sitting in the 93rd percentile in 2020 and 85th percentile in 2019. Here’s his radar chart for 2021 compared to the best offloader in the NRL from the past few seasons, Brisbane’s Tevita Pangai.

Welch isn’t the the offload king (yet), but out of 176 forwards who have played so far in 2021 only Pangai (24 offloads, 22 effective) sits just above him on a per game average.

Is Jack Wighton the least accurate general play kicker in the NRL? – NRL Round 7 2021 stats and trends

During the Raiders loss to the Cowboys on the weekend, Canberra five eighth and Dally M medal winner Jack Wighton did something he seems to do far more often than any other player in the NRL – kick a ball out on the full.

Andrew Voss mentioned it on commentary on Fox League as well, bringing up that according to the Fox Sports Lab he’d kicked out on the full 16 times since 2019. It’s something that appears to happen so frequently that NRL Twitter continually dunks on him for it.

This had me thinking, is Wighton the worst offender in this area? For this I’m looking at the kick error stat, which I’m using as a proxy for kicks out on the full. It may also be that kicks dead are included in kick errors. Apologies to those at the Fox Sports Lab in advance if that’s incorrect, but what can you expect from a time poor hobbyist analyst? But I digress.

Going back to the original question, is he the least accurate general play kicker in the National Rugby League? If you look at the raw totals Wighton is certainly up there.

Since 2020 (a delineation point for me as V’Landys era rugby league could very well be a different game), among players with at least 50 total kicks, Wighton has 14 kick errors. That’s equal third for that period with Daly Cherry-Evans, only behind Adam Reynolds (16) and Mitch Moses (19).

But as my faithful reader would know, here at the Eye Test we realise that raw counting numbers don’t tell the full story. It is worth mentioning that the players ahead of Wighton all had a minimum of 100 additional kicks over the Canbera #6.

Naturally, this led me to look at the percentage of their kicks that were errors, to see if his rate of kick errors was higher given that he had fewer kicks than the other playmakers. Looking at the data under this lens, Wighton certainly leads the way between those four names at 6.3%, ahead of Moses (5.4%), Reynolds (4.6%) and Cherry-Evans (3.8%).

Does that mean that Wighton is the least accurate kicker in the NRL? If you look at kick error in context of the whol leave, he sits in a slightly more favourable 10th position. Below is a visualization of the kick error percentage for every player since the start of 2020 with more than 50 kicks, showing where Wighton sits and who is above him.

Some of the data points overlap (Cameron Smtih and Ash Talyor) so I’ve marked each data point at the top of the chart. There are some names ahead of Wighton that wouldn’t shock most fans, like Brodie Croft and Taylor.

However, the thing that stands out is not only that Cody Walker is the least accurate kicker, with 12 of his 97 kicks categorised as an error, but that his kick error percentage is nearly double that of Wighton’s at 12.4%. It’s also at more than three percent higher than the second least accurate kicker, Clint Gutherson at 9.1%.

If you look at the same kick error percentage plotted against long kicks, it becomes a bit clearer that whilst Wighton does possess a wayward kick, he’s far from the worst offender in the league. Those above the trend line are generally less accurate than those below it.

Next time Wighton punts a ball over the sideline, feel free to have a laugh at his blunder but remember he’s barely in the top ten for kick error percentage in the NRL.

Set restarts mean fewer play the balls inside 20 metres

It’s well established now that set restarts are leading to more play through the middle of the field. But where does that play through the middle of the field occur?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the X/Y coordinate data to plot these play the balls, but there is data for tackled inside 50m and inside an opponent’s 20m area. So, we’ll use that aggregated play the ball data to look at any changes in location.

Looking at the first seven comparable rounds of the season since 2014 (3-9 for 2020), the percentage of play the balls inside an opponent’s 20 metre zone is 18.1%, the lowest point over the past seven seasons.

One of the reasons for this may be that a try can be scored from anywhere on the field, not just inside 20m, which is one of the great things about the game we love. Long range tries may have increased as well, but again that’s not data that I’m privy to as part of the great unwashed.

No surprises that this change in play the ball location corresponds with the percentage of play the balls in a team’s own half now approaching 58%, up from a low point of 51% in 2018.

You remember 2018, don’t you? It was a wistful time, referees were cracking down on negative play with penalties, scrums were plentiful and there was nary a set restart to be seen. This led to the usual crisis merchants piping up and said crackdown ended.

The affect of these penalties were teams kicking themselves 20 to 30 metres into better field position, a far higher level of rugby league currency than a handful of extra tackles.

Below is the average number of penalties awarded per game by round since 2016. It’s incredibly easy to spot the point where negative voices were the loudest, around halfway through the 2018 season, resulting in things reverting to the way they were previously.

Back to the proliferation of own half play the balls, and it’s no surprise that teams exploiting the rules this season are to blame. Plenty of places have already documented it this season, including on this very site.

As teams regularly hold down players in the ruck or creep inside 10 metres, the only way for a side to advance the ball is to keep running it out of their own area. The previous bonus of field position has been removed.

Jack Snape penned a story on the weekend for the ABC that included a great visualization of where penalties were coming from, showing that a large amount of them are occurring early in tackle counts as teams run the ball off their own line. We’ve given teams a punishment that only incentivizes them to push the limits in order to maintain field position.

Again, no surprises that it has come to this and it’s clear from watching games that this is occurring far too regularly. But as I’ve mentioned before, one of the most important parts of analytics is being less wrong.

We’ve swug from one extreme (too much extra field position) to another (not enough). Whether or not you think this is a good or bad thing depends on what you value more – fewer stoppages or field position. Either way there’s probably a better mix than what we’re currently seeing.

A visualization that summarises Brisbane’s recent decline

Whilst looking at data for the above section, I also checked a few teams’ play the ball location profiles to see if there was anything of note. Some of them were nondescript, some looked quite random, and then I got to the Brisbane Broncos.

Over the first seven rounds of the season, they’ve increased from 52.9% of play the balls in their own half in 2018 when they finished sixth on the ladder, to 59.9% last season and a disastrous 63.7% this season. That’s nearly two thirds of their total play the balls, and just 13.8% inside opponent 20 metre zones.

Is it any wonder they are struggling to score points and their halves are always under extreme pressure?

The worst hands in the NRL thus far?

With seven rounds complete it’s a good time to check out which players have the highest error rate for the 2021 season. Previously, I’ve defined error rate as how often an error is committed measured by the number of possessions needed to produce one. Here’s the breakdown of error rate for the 2021 season thus far, for players who have played at least three games and committed at least three errors.

It’s grim reading for several fanbases. Somehow Kyle Feldt has managed to commit an error 11 times in 89 possessions, or one every 8.09 times he touches the ball. This may explain Todd Payten always looking so displeased. Anyone watching the Eels this season knows the lottery that is a ball passed to Shaun Lane, with the Eels edge making a mistake every 10.4 touches. His team mate Blake Ferguson is just as worrysome with his ball handling (12 total errors this season), but doesn’t rate as poorly as Lane on this list due to having almost double the touches (165 versus 89).

Raiders fans probably aren’t surprised with the number of players from their club in this list either, headed by Hudson Young (an error every 9.4 possessions). Jarrod Croker and Elliot Whitehead also commit an error inside every dozen touches. It’s hard to win football games when you’re unable to control the ball.

And that’s not even accounting for Jordan Rapana, who sits just outside this list with 13 errors at a rate of one every 13.9 possessions. He’s only saved by how many times he touches the ball, nearly double Feldt at 181 in seven games. Dunamis Lui also would sit inside this list with an error every 11 possessions, but he’s only committed two of them in his three games and hasn’t met the minimum.

The only positive thing in this list for consumers of green milk is to see Nick Cotric’s name in it.

Header image – “Jack Wighton chuffed with the win” by reepy_au is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

The increasing importance of interchange – NRL Round 5 2021 stats and trends

Last week I mentioned one of the things that the new NRL rules has changed in 2021 is how often teams use their interchange bench. With fatigue playing an even larger part of the game this season due to the reduction of in game stoppages, players off the bench are spending nearly 10% more time on the field this season, up three minutes to 33.8 per game.

It’s not a huge change yet, but as middle forwards tire bench players are impacting the game even more and becoming more important. Not only are starting players tiring quicker and earlier in games as teams go all out early in halves, we’re also seeing clusters of head injury assessments and other injuries during games, which may or may not be related to the increased fatigue.

Whatever the reason, having a strong interchange bench and using it correctly is becoming an important part of successful NRL clubs.

Which teams are using it more this season? To start with let’s examine who is (and isn’t) using their bench. Below is a chart of the average minutes by all interchange players by NRL club for 2021.

North Queensland is leading the way, with nearly 162 minutes per game from their four bench players as they deal with injuries and discipline issues. With Josh McGuire in exile and Jason Taumalolo injured, their few big middles aren’t available resulting in a forward pack by committee, with usual dummy half Rueben Cotter lining up most weeks at lock. The Sharks are averaging 153 per game but that’s exaggerated by their disastrous second half against the Eels where they had no fit players to interchange. The Warriors aren’t far behind, as they had been running a four forward bench until round five when Paul Turner debuted.

On the other end of the scale, the lowest are the Broncos and Eels, at barely more than 100 minutes per game across their four bench players. The Eels usually don’t substitute their edge forwards, with Shaun Lane and (usually) Ryan Matterson playing 70-80 minutes and Nathan Brown typically in the 55-65 minute range, rotating their middles and holding Will Smith as a late utility replacement.

The Broncos tactic of leaving Tom Dearden or Brodie Croft on the bench isn’t that different from the Eels. Last season when Croft was on the bench he did come on as a dummy half and defended (well tried to) through the middle. An increase of just 1% in interchange minutes used in 2021 highlights just how little has changed from an overall view, even if it has changed somewhat at a micro level.  Here’s how the rest of the NRL has changed their bench usage this season compared to 2020.

Unsurprisingly with the reasons mentioned above North Queensland is going to their bench 41% more than 2020. Penrith is the other big mover, using nearly 30% more minutes on interchanges. On the other end of the scale, the Dragons are playing their reserves 17% fewer minutes, whilst Newcastle is also using 17% fewer minutes off the bench than last season, a number which stands out considering their shocking injury toll. Still, we’re seeing 11 of the 16 NRL clubs go to their bench more this season, and another three only 2% less, whether it be for fatigue, concussion, injury, or all three.

Going back to the low minutes that the Eels and Broncos use off their bench, it results in a similarly small percentage of their average running metres coming from their bench compared to their starting players. This can be seen below, at just 13% for Brisbane and 14% for Parramatta, the two lowest percentages of all 16 NRL clubs this season.

At the other end, Manly get 22% of run metres off their bench, slightly ahead of South Sydney whilst the Cowboys sit fourth at 21% despite running first for minutes off the bench. The average across the NRL is 18%.

Not all metres are created equal however. Below is a chart of run metres by interchange players, broken down by post contact and pre contact metres.

Souths get the best output from their bench, with 123 metres per game from their interchange and unsurprisingly Penrith are right behind them. The Warriors generate the fourth most post contact metres, but significantly fewer pre contact metres than those in the top half.

Only two teams produce less than 80 post contact metres per game from positions 14-17, one being Canterbury and the other being Brisbane. Even worse for the Broncos, they also get 20 pre contact metres fewer per game than the Bulldogs, and nearly 60 metres fewer than the NRL average.

This creates issues for teams like Brisbane, who have starting forwards that can generate metres, but as the game progresses with fewer stoppages, having one less forward to rotate is causing them to tire quicker.

If we look the previous pre/post contact metre chart but include starting forwards as well as interchange players, Brisbane are sitting mid table this season in post contact metres at 286 per game. Parramatta aren’t too far ahead at 290 per game. Both are ahead of the NRL average at 276 metres per game. Here’s the same chart from before but including starting forwards as well as interchange players.

The real concern for Brisbane is their pre-contact metres from starting forwards and interchange, which are 13th in the NRL at just 414 per game and nearly 50 metres per game below the NRL average. Injuries to Matt Lodge and the abscence of Payne Haas hasn’t helped, but they’re still not where they would expect to be. If we sort the above chart by pre-contact metres (the blue section), it becomes more apparent.

The Broncos only sit ahead of North Queensland, Canterbury and the Warriors, which isn’t a pretty place to be in 2021. Parramatta are able to get away with stowing a utility on their bench because they gain around 100 metres more per match than Brisbane in pre contact metres. Which means they’re getting to contact later, where Brisbane forwards are getting hit early and are needing to push through contact to generate a smaller number of metres.

Kevin Walters wasting an interchange position on Croft or Dearden may be one of the reasons why the Broncos forwards are able to hold up early but fade late in games. Adding another big man on the bench and rotating their starting pack more often may alleviate that in this seasons fatigue riddled NRL.

The Wests Tigers are in a similar position to the Broncos with their low pre contact metres, but that is more due to their forwards inability to push through contact which was something I covered in 2020 and Tigers fans know too well.

Round 5 Interchange impact players

In Round 1 I highlighted Isaiah Papali’i’s huge impact off the bench for the Eels with nearly 200 metres gained. That was the highest run metre total by an interchange player since the start of 2020.

In Round 5 we had two similar performances, which I’ve additionally highlighted below.

Despite infuriating everyone with his grubbiness and inability to remain available, especially Roosters fans, Jared Warea-Hargreaves eclipsed Papali’I’s mark in Round 1 on the way to over 200 metres gained in just 43 minutes from 21 runs. The platform laid by him enabled the Roosters to stay in and ultimately win the game through some brilliance from Sam Walker.  

That effort from the Roosters prop took a lot of the attention away from another huge effort though the middle by Panthers forward Spencer Leniu. He couldn’t match the other two for total metres gained with 183, but he smashed out 14 runs in just 26 minutes as Penrith ran through the Raiders.

If you’ve been following the Eye Test on Twitter (and you should be), you may have noticed that Leniu has been posting some huge Run % numbers all season. If you don’t know what Run % is, there’s a post on the site explaining it, but in short it’s an advanced statistic that shows the rate at which a player completes runs whilst they’re on the field. Leniu’s rate for 2021 so far is 19.98%, which means he’s completing a run one in every five plays whilst on the field. Further, it means every full set the Panthers have, Leniu is running the ball at once during that set. And his season run rate is 2% higher than anyone else in the NRL, seen in the below table of season leaders for Run %.

That 14 runs in 26 minutes resulted in a Run % of 24.76%, meaning he was running the ball on one in four Panthers possessions. Occasionally you may see that sort of rate for a player playing fewer than 20 minutes, but rarely above it. It’s no wonder than Leniu is becoming one of the premier bench players in the NRL.

Brian To’o continues his domination with the ball

Keeping with the Panthers theme this week, and it’s hard not to with their continued dominance of the competition, is more Brian To’o run domination.

Last week I shared a visualisation of his run attempts and tackle busts, where he’s sitting among the most dangerous in the NRL. This week it’s breaking down the length of his runs.

Below is a plot of the average number of long runs (greater than 8 metres) against the average number of short runs (fewer than 8 metres). Gold data points represent interchange players, whilst blue points represent starting players.

The Panthers winger sits atop the NRL at nearly 16 runs per game of 8 metres or more, with only David Klemmer (14 per game) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (13.8 per game) approaching him. Three quarters of his runs are 8 metres or more, which is a considerable percentage when you are running nearly 21 times per game for over 200 metres.

To’o wasn’t a slouch last season either, sitting only behind Jason Taumalolo, Klemmer and Tuivasa-Sheck.


I’ve also noted Marcelo Montoya’s performance on this chart as well as he’s been a huge outlier in two straight seasons now and is almost the antithesis of To’o, with twice as many runs under 8 metres as over it.