The most inconsequential Eye Test statistics ever? NRL Round 14 2021 boot brand and colour analysis

If there’s one word to describe the period during State of Origin where NRL clubs are missing multiple players due to representative duties, it’s illegitimate inconsequential. Results don’t have much meaning, some fanbases have been telling me.

Given the lack of significance of on field action, this week is the perfect time for what may be the most inconsequential set of statistics on the Eye Test today. The Rugby League Eye Test was founded on inconsequential statistics. It’s right there under the site name, I wouldn’t lie to you, would I?

For Round 14 we’re looking at the distribution of colours of brands of boots worn by NRL players. I warned you it was inconsequential. After seeing the fantastic player exclusive designs for indigenous round recently, it had me thinking about what boot brands were the most popular among NRL players and who had the highest share.

For Round 14 we’re looking at the distribution of colours of brands of boots worn by NRL players. I warned you it was inconsequential. After seeing the fantastic player exclusive designs across multiple brands for indigenous round recently, it had me thinking about what boot brands were the most popular among NRL players and who had the highest share.

First up, the methodology. I went through every game from Round 14  and coded every player for the brand and general colourway of their boots. In some cases, I was able to get the 18th man for teams, whether they played or not, such as seeing Kyle Flanagan in the Bulldogs dressing room sporting a pair of black Adidas.

For colourways I’ve grouped them as predominately white, predominately black, and other. If I had unlimited time, I’d have put the actual majority colour down in the other field, but given they’re mostly tied to what colourway the manufacturer is releasing this season – Nike has some pink and orange models, while Asics has blue and neon green, for example – it wouldn’t be much more of an extension of brand of boot. Unfortunately for the outraged Boomers who read this site and wanted to know how many players you need to complain about because they wear pink boots, you might be disappointed.

Finally, a general disclaimer, there may (and probably are) mistakes in this data collection. The largest issue was trying to spot the brand of all black boots during day games as cameras adjusted between light and shaded parts of the pitch.

On to the brands. There were 277 players whose boots I could identify in Round 14, with six brands on field during Round 14 – Adidas, Asics, Puma, Nike, X-Blades and Concave.

Of those 277, just three players wore something other than the big four brands – Ben Hunt and Jake Granville in Concave, and Luciano Leilua in X-Blades.That means that those big four brands had 99% share of players last weekend. Here’s the share of NRL players by brand for Round 14.

Asics takes first place with nearly 43% of players wearing their boots, ahead of Nike (26%), Puma (19%) and Adidas (12%). No sign of New Balance or Under Armor, not that I expected them to have much of a showing.

As mentioned above, X-Blades had just the one player on field, Luciano Leilua. They do claim to have five players on board currently, with Luciano’s brother Joseph, Ben Hunt, Jake Trbojevic and Tyson Frizell also listed. Hunt as noted above wore Concave against the Bulldogs, Trbojevic wore Asics, which indicates that page might be out of date.

From a larger brand perspective, how does the NRL spread of brands compare globally? I’m already time poor, so manually capturing Super League data is out of the question. Luckily, French football site Footpack did a study in March-April of 2020 of 2,500+ football players to see which brands were the most popular. Obviously, there are differences between football and rugby league, but these brands play in the same place, and you would think there would be some similarities.

Across the five big European football leagues, Nike takes the top spot in all of them. Their share ranges from 56% in La Liga (Spain) down to 47% in Ligue 1 (France). Adidas was generally second with about 37-40% share, with Puma third in single figures. Every other brand sat under 1%, including Asics, Under Armor and New Balance.

90% of football players in those five leagues wore Nike or Adidas, and 98% wore Nike, Adidas, or Puma. The NRL comparatively isn’t as strong for the swoosh and three stripes, with only 38% share. If you add in the cat, those three brands add up to 57%. The big difference being the dominance of Asics here, with 43% share compared to less than 1% in Europe. That’s some sort of market inefficiency.

There are a few trends though when you delve into these numbers a bit closer. When breaking down players by their position, forwards still overwhelmingly prefer Asics (57%), while backs tend to wear Nike (41%). Only 25% of backs wear Asics, while just 13% of forwards wear Nike.

Puma has a much more even split, with 16% of forwards and 20% of backs wearing their boots. Adidas is also more likely to be worn by forwards, with 17% wearing the three stripes opposed to just 8% of backs.

Looking at colour distribution, it was a clear victory for predominately white boots at 51%, ahead of Other (36%) and traditional black boots being worn by just 13% of the NRL.

If you split out colourways by position as well, there’s not as much variation between forwards and backs. Both groups sat around 50% of players wearing white, while forwards were slightly more likely to wear majority black boots, and backs had a higher tendency to wear a non-traditional coloured boot.  

Does this data look any different by team? Here’s the brand share breakdown by NRL clubs for Round 14.

Asics takes the top spot for most clubs, with as high as 60% of players at the Warriors. Only five clubs have the majority of their players wearing a brand other than Asics. South Sydney and Melbourne players are more likely to be wearing Puma, while the Gold Coast, St George, and Cronulla wear Nike more than any other brand.

Adidas has the higher affinity with Bulldogs players, where they have a 29% share of players, the highest in the league. They’ve got a bit of work to do with the Gold Coast, Parramatta, and the Warriors, where no player was sporting the three stripes in Round 14.

Looking at colour distribution by team, most are wearing white with a few exceptions.

Penrith have just a quarter of their team wearing white boots, with South Sydney, Wests Tigers, Canterbury, and Canberra the only other clubs with less than 50% wearing white. The Rabbitoh and Titans are the only clubs who have the majority of players wearing something other than predominately white or black boots.

The final thing to look is if age affects boot brand or colour choice?

For brand, Asics looks to be less popular as players age, with Puma a strong preference for players in their late 20s. Nike has a stronger connection with younger players than Puma though.

For colour choice, white tends to be a more popular pick for those in their late 20s, while black interestingly declines as players age, which would go against people becoming more traditional and conservative as they age.

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.