When are set restarts awarded? NRL Round 18 2021 stats and trends

I’ve been covering set restarts on the Eye Test now for over a year and have been wanting to look at restarts in a few different ways. What minute they’re called, the margin when they’re called, which referee is awarding them, where on the field they’re called and which tackle the infringement occurs on. Some of this I can’t do with public data unfortunately, so they will have to be put on the back burner.

Thanks to the Origin break and no need to post any content during the shortened NRL Rounds, I can finally tick off the first three. I’ve now charted every set restart by minute, margin, and referee since their inception in Round 3, 2020. Again a big thanks to friend of the site Liam of PythagoNRL fame for sharing the initial minute dataset that I’ve used to compile this. All data is presented as is and I take no responsibility for any errors.

The positive part of this analysis is that it confirms a lot of suspicions I’d held about when six agains were being awarded. That’s not a bad thing. I always reference Seth Partnow, former Milwaukee Bucks Director of Basketball Research and current NBA analyst at The Athletic, who stated that the art of analytics is “being less wrong

I’ve written previously about the fact that there’s a huge drop in set restarts in the second half, especially compared to penalties which are actually being called more in the second half this season. That can be seen in the chart below, up to Round 18.

The general flow of restarts within an NRL game appears to move like this. There is a flurry of them in the first half, evenly split between both teams. This slows down after the break and then towards the end of the game you see a few token restarts to the trailing team once the game is truly decided.

Below is the total number of set restarts broken down by minute. Apologies for the next few charts being hard on the eyes, it’s difficult to fit the full 80 minutes in without losing detail.

You can see a number of peaks, between the 5th and 10th minutes, between 20th-25th and then again from 35th to 39th minutes. It dries up again as the second half starts, picking up slightly until the minutes hit the mid-50s and then it starts a steady decline until the game ends.

As an aside, in an Eye Test trainspotting moment only I will care about, before this weekend there had not been a set restart given in the 73rd minute of any game this season.

If you look at the same chart for 2020 there’s a similar trend, but it’s a more gradual decline and spread more evenly. Although that 73th minute looks conspicuously like the 73rd minute in 2020.

Do either type of set restart, either 10 metre or ruck infringement variety, get awarded differently throughout the game? Turns out they do. Here’s the above chart with a split for 10 metre infringements (blue) and ruck infringements (orange).

Overall it’s mostly ruck infringements as you’d expect, but early in the first half there’s a decent proportion of 10 metre infringements, possibly as teams are testing referees to see what they can get away with. As the game progresses, offside set restarts start to fade and ruck infringements are the vast majority of those called. It’s a subtler increase though, masked by declining volumes as you can see below.

In another trainspotting moment, there are also three minutes so far this season, the 39th, 49th and 73rd minutes where no 10 metre infringements have been given.

Now that we’ve seen the cadence of what type and when restarts are awarded, are they being awarded more to the leading or trailing teams? Here’s the same chart with restarts coloured by whether the awarded team was even with (blue), leading (orange) or trailing (red) their opponent.

The trends start to become a bit clearer now, even if this chart is difficult to read, fitting in all 80 minutes doesn’t make for a pretty picture. Don’t worry I’ll make it more palatable shortly. What stood out for me was that the trailing/leading split was relatively constant in the first half, but in the second half swung in favour of the trailing team and in the final quarter of the game it is extremely rare for a side leading to be awarded a set restart.

Has this trend changed with the introduction of inside 10 metre infringements? If we group those 80 minutes into ten eight minute buckets compare them to 2020, the results are below.

There isn’t too much difference in the decline in 2021 compared to 2020, other than the first eight minutes after the break dropping sharply this season.

It’s easier to see the overall trend here, and the somewhat even split of restarts between trailing and leading teams, leaning slightly to the team ahead on the scoreboard. Once you hit the 50th minute that flips around with the trailing team having a significant advantage in receiving set restarts, even at a ratio of over two to one in the final eight minutes.

Here’s the same chart as above, just for 2021 but showing percentage of margin type and restart type, which further highlights the swing towards trailing teams as the match progresses.

Inside 10 metre infringements hit 50% by the 25th-32nd minute group, and from early in the second half are given to trailing teams almost two thirds of the time. The last eight minutes of a game sees 92% – yes 92%! – of 10 metre infringements given to the trailing side. As shown above those are on low volumes though. There’s only been 13 offside set restarts given this season, and just one has gone to a team leading the match.

Ruck infringements are slightly more even throughout the course of game, until again at about the 50th minute when the trailing side gets a bit more attention. Again the final minutes of the game sees the losing side get almost two thirds of restarts.

What about looking at this data by teams? Surely there are some teams doing this differently? Why yes there are, and there’s no prizes for guessing who, although I won’t reveal everything straight away. First we’ll look at the type of restart by team for 2021.

If you need any indication of how poorly the Bulldogs are going, this is great example. A whopping 38 restarts for being offside this season, 16 more than the next placed teams (Souths and Manly). To be that much worse at a fundamental part of the game is ridiculous, if players are consistently unable to remain onside then there are some big problems that I’m not even sure Gus could help. For ruck infringements, the Gold Coast take top spot, conceding 61 ahead of the Bulldogs (57) and Dragons (57).

As we saw above though, there are proportionately more set restarts awarded early in games. What if we only looked at say, the first three eight minute buckets and saw which teams were conceding the most restarts before the 25th minute?

One thing stands out here to me, and it’s not the Bulldogs. It’s the Gold Coast and Melbourne, who have conceded 26 and 24 ruck infringements early, first and second in the NRL. Both have conceded just three offside set restarts over the same period.

If you look at the other sides at the top of the ladder, they’re either no conceding restarts entirely (Penrith), or conceding them at a 60/40 or 70/30 rate like Souths or Parramatta. So why is Melbourne’s trend more like a bottom half of the table team?

Because it appears to be their strategy, which might be clearer if you look at their split of restarts by percentage across all 8 minute buckets throughout a game.

Here we can clearly see that for the first 25 minutes of a game the Storm are giving away 90% of the restarts as ruck infringements, likely from continually attempting to slow down the play the ball and control the speed of the game. As soon as the 25th minute hits that drops back to the 70/30 and 60/40 splits mentioned above and remains there for the rest of the game. During this period, it looks as if Melbourne no longer attempting to slow the pace of the game down. Their aim appears to be to control field position, jump off the line quickly and give opponents as little time as possible to advance the ball.

Why would this work? I’ve already shown that offside set restarts are less likely to be called later in games. If you know that 10 metre infringements are less likely to be called as the game progresses, it makes sense to wait until later in the game to push the boundaries regarding defensive line speed, as there’s a smaller chance you’ll actually be punished for it. And by the time Melbourne start doing it, they’re usually leading games quite comfortably, when they can afford to give away an extra tackle or two. The penalty doesn’t fit the crime.

Finally let’s look at a few charts showing how each referee awards their restarts over the course of a game. With this chart I’m using volumes, and I would focus only on the shape and trend of the chart and not the actual numbers. The main reason for this is that Adam Gee has officiated 19 games so far this season, and no other referee has controlled more than 16. Again, focus on the shape of the chart rather than the numbers.

Regular readers might expect Gee to stand out here, given his propensity to hand out restarts early in games. Accordingly, his 9-16 minute bucket is the highest, much higher than any other bucket, and once the game hits 50 minutes his set restarts dry up considerably. Gerard Sutton and to a lesser extent Chris Sutton also have a higher early proportion of set restarts awarded. Ashley Klein also favours the first half but his second half drop is less obvious. Ben Cummins looks to put away his whistle at the end of games, as does Matt Cecchin and Grant Atkins.

Let’s look at the breakdown of each referee and the type of restarts they’re calling, sorted by average ruck infringements (orange) called with inside 10 metre shaded blue.

Aktins calls the fewest inside 10 metres, at just 14% of all set restarts, which is incredible considering he’s calling the most of them this season. Klein isn’t far behind at 16%, while Peter Gough is the most likely to call for inside 10 metres with 42% of his restarts called for teams being offside.

To tie this up, the last chart we’re going to look at is whether referees award restarts to teams leading or trailing.

There’s a far bigger difference here than I’d expected, although a lot of that will come down to the abilities of the teams that referees are controlling. Atkins and Cecchin give half of their restarts to trailing teams, whilst on the other end of the scale, the Suttons – Chris and Gerard – give 46% and 44% respectively to leading teams, the highest in the NRL.

Matt Noyen has the lowest percentage of trailing or leading restarts awarded in the competition, but that is due to him officiating more even games than any other referee at nearly 36%.

Has there been an increase in set restarts?

Graham Annesley stated the following statement during his briefing this week, the transcript provided by friend of the site Jason Oliver on his excellent twitter account.

 “We have seen an increase in six agains. We’ve seen an increase in six agains early in the tackle count & in particular field positions. So, referees are being reminded, & will continue to be reminded, that they have that [sin bin] as an option.”

I can’t refute the tackle count or field position points, and again, unless some kind soul wants to hook me up with some data. But I can refute there being an “increase” in set restarts. Here’s the same chart from earlier in this post with second halves removed.

We can clearly see there’s no increase in restarts awarded. And shockingly there’s been a decrease in penalties awarded since the ill fated crackdown.

This is a hot topic again due to State of Origin game three featuring fourteen (yes fourteen) set restarts. Gerard Sutton called 10 in the first half and 12 by the 58th minute. Over half (8) were for offside infringements, including one in the 79th minute of a two-point game.

To put this in perspective there were nine restarts in game one, and 11 in game two. That 14 has only been beaten a handful of times in over 250 in NRL game since the rule was implemented. That’s what was so out of the ordinary on Wednesday evening. But as I’ve shown there haven’t been “more” of them lately.

My theory is that the hyperbolic media people are claiming there are more of them lately is due to observer bias.

It wasn’t just the volume of set restarts that dominated Origin game three, but the cadence of them. Four of those restarts came within one minute of another restart. Only five NRL games have featured at least four back to back set restarts within one minute. This number was the equal with the highest in NRL history.

That is until the Roosters played the Cowboys on Saturday and it happened five times, two by the Cowboys and three by the Roosters including three in half a minute.

The reason for the recent uproar is due to there being two games in the past week that had the most instances of near back to back set restarts that we’ve ever seen. Not more restarts, actually fewer, but they’re bunched together so you’re more likely to remember them. The repeated infringements are more likely to stick in someone’s head and appear to provide easy evidence that there’s more of them happening.

Classic observer bias.

The beatdowns are starting earlier and lasting longer – NRL Round 16 2021 stats and trends

Another quiet week for rugby league.

I’m not going to use any time trying to explain the numerous factors what was behind the one sided results during Round 16. Friend of the site Liam of PythagoNRL fame has already penned an amazing post on the subject, and everyone should read it, if you haven’t already. I’ll be here when you’re finished. It’s a far more nuanced situation with multiple factors at play than the myopic argument that either rule changes or bad teams being the root cause alone, and Liam summarises it with his usual brilliance.

There’s also been some great analysis and stats disseminated over the weekend on records being broken for most points and the number of lopsided results, and I’m not going to tread that ground either. But the amount of “firsts” and “outliers” occuring this season continues unabated.

The results are bad, but a possibly bigger issue is the huge margins during those games. The “it’s not the rules” side claims there’s always bad teams, they’re not showing up or they need to try harder. Those things are true. Saying “these rules didn’t change the result today” can also be true.

I don’t think any set of rules would have given Canterbury a chance against Manly. The game was effectively over after 24 minutes. What these rules are changing is the flow of the game, causing the bad teams to be run off the park earlier in games under a gush of momentum that is nearly impossible to stop. It might be the difference between the Dogs losing 36-0 and 66-0.

What I am going to look at this week is the margins within games this season and why it is a huge cause of concern for a sport that is primarily a television product. Before we get started, I wanted to say a huge thanks to Liam for providing the data for this analysis. He truly is a gift to the NRL community. If there are any errors with the data, please blame me.

Not only are these games being decided by larger margins, that these huge margins are occurring more often, happening earlier in games and lasting for longer, which is a triple whammy for the game’s broadcasters. Games like Manly v Canterbury are often over in the first half, leading to viewers paying less attention or even tuning out completely.

Why does the margin matter? Because a team leading by three converted tries (18 points) at half time has 92% chance of winning, per Liam’s WCL metric which estimates win probabilities during the course of a game given the scoreline and minutes played. A team leading by 18 points after 20 minutes should win 95% of the time. If you’re conceding a large lead early, as clubs are doing regularly in this new era of rugby league, the chances for a comeback are incredibly slim. Again, not a pretty picture for a media organisation paying hundreds of millions of dollars for a two hour game that is essentially being decided within the first half hour.

Moving onto the margins, and it’s no surprise that this weekend had one of the highest margin differences in NRL history (1998 onwards), which was on the cards after the slate of Saturday games. Even just over the past seven seasons the difference between 2021 and what preceded it is stark as can be seen below.

There has been an average winning margin of 19 points per game so far in 2021, up from 15.2 last season, both of which are ominously higher than any of the previous seven seasons which hovered between 11.5 and 13.6 per game from Rounds 1-16. 2021 already had five rounds with an average margin of over 20 points, including 26.1 (Round 4) and 26.9 (Round 16). Prior to this year, there had only been three of them in the last seven seasons, two in 2014 and one in 2020.

On the lower end, the “closest” round this season was Round 2 with an average margin of 13.1. TO put that in perspective, each of the previous seven seasons had at least one round with an average margin of less than 10 points per game, even the often maligned 2020 season, which had two of them up to this point. Thus far in 2021? Zero rounds with an average margin fewer than thirteen.

The weight of the change in margins becomes even more apparent when you look at margins by half.

Each of the prior seven seasons had an average first half margin under 10 points per game. Then came 2021, which has seen that pumped up to 11.6 per game, meaning a team lading at the half does so with a lead of almost two converted tries.

And it’s not just the margin itself. There’s been 51 games so far this season with a margin greater than two converted tries (13+) at the break. That is an increase of more than 50% on 2020, when there were 33 such games. Not only are these giant leads getting larger, but they’re also happening more frequently.

Things get even more one sided when you look at margins over the course of a game. Below is a chart of the average margin at every minute of an NRL game for the past six seasons up to Round 16. I’m sure you can see what sticks out here and you can pick which colour is 2021, and those of us nostaligic for better days will notice the closer margins during the 2017-2019 period.

From about the 25th minute onwards, the yellow line for 2021 starts to diverge from the same path that 2020 and 2016 were taking. It actually jumps ahead of them at about 15 minutes, most likely when the starting forwards are becoming gassed. There’s also a jump of nearly one full point in the closing stages of games, from the 76th minute to the 78th where the average margin jumps from just over 18 to nearly 19 points.

Back to the yellow line for 2021, if you look at the average margin of 11.5 at half time this season, that level of margin wasn’t seen until the 55th minute of games during the 2020 or 2016 seasons, and not until after the 65th minute for seasons 2017-2019.

Round 16 was a particular outlier in a season full of them. Games don’t necessarily start out this slanted, but as fatigue kicks in and one team gets the upper hand, around the 20th minute, the margin line shoots up until just before half time with a plethora of points being scored in a short period of time.

We’ve not seen another round like this. From the 34th minute onwards, no round in the past eight seasons has seen an average margin this high, and from the 30th minute Round 16 was only beaten by Round 4, 2021. Again, huge early leads before half time, which must be making it incredibly hard for broadcasters to retain viewers through their analysis during the break and into the second period. As mentioned earlier, the Manly v Canterbury game on the weekend was basically over in by the 25th minute, meaning some fans aren’t even making it to the main break.

It’s not just the number of matches with huge margins and how early they’re becoming formalities, but also the duration of each game being played in what amounts to garbage time. Below is the number of minutes played in each season where the margin was 19 points or more (more than three converted tries).

]Here is the huge issue for broadcasters. Over 1,900 minutes have been played this season with a 19 point or more margin, which is a 50% increase on 2020, and a 100%+ increase on 2019. If we’ve always had bad teams, as the “it’s not the rules” movement says, why are they suddenly now as bad as they were two years ago and 50% as bad as they were last season?

Let’s put this number into context. That 1,940 minutes equates to almost 16 minutes of every game thus far this season played with a margin greater than 18 points. 16 minutes is 20% of an NRL game. Yes, 20% of a game this season is being played where there is more than three converted tries between both teams. Is it any wonder people are claiming to be switching off?

This can be broken down even further by looking at the percentage of minutes played by each score difference, which can be seen broken down below by season.

Assuming every score is converted (6 points), 2021 is seeing around one third of the game played at one score difference, and another third at two scores difference. This 67% is a dramatic decline from the mid 2010s where that number was nearly 80%, and the 34% of time within one score is down from the peak of 2018 where it was over 42%.

As mentioned above, nearly 20% of game time is played under an 18+ margin. If you look at how much is played where the score difference is three tries or more that jumps up to almost one third.

The games are becoming more one sided and happening at a far greater frequency, and the periods of dominance are lasting longer which means fewer competitive periods within a match let alone competitive games.

People are so desperate for quality, competitive rugby league games that they talked themselves into both Friday games being classics because they were won by one point. That conveniently ignores the first game having all the strategic underpinnings of an under sevens trial game and the second game being riddled with errors and Mitchell Moses missing a relatively easy penalty goal to win the game.

For a sport that lives and dies by television revenue, having a product that is allowing fans to tune out earlier a every week is a huge cause of concern. A band aid solution like receiving a penalty instead of a set restart inside your own half isn’t going to provide instant relief. There was no problem to solve, yet we were presented with a solution no one asked for.

Hopefully, they have a solution for the problem they’ve created when Nine and Fox Sports ask what is going on, and why are they paying for a product that people are switching off of earlier every week.

Melbourne continue adapting to the new normal

Our supreme leader has been all over the media this week and one set of comments caught my eye.

“I do concede and acknowledge the six-again has caused a shift in momentum because the teams can no longer slow down the ruck or have a stop-start game.

“Clubs were hiring jujitsu coaches to slow down the ruck and do the wrestle, which is not what rugby league is.

“The good teams have certainly adapted to the new rules. They have adapted to them and the coaches have.

“The ones who were relying on slowing down the ruck, they can’t rely on that any more. … like everything, it will take time for the others to adapt.”

It was this last two comments particularly that raised my eyebrows.

https://www.canberratimes.com.au/story/7325625/nrl-battlers-must-adapt-to-rules-vlandys/?cs=14238

Regular Eye Test readers will know that Melbourne have the worst set restart difference in the NRL and are lapping the competition. They may not be doing it through slowing down the ruck, but as seen above they’re adapting to the new rules by continually shortening the defensive line.

The chart updated for Round 16 is below, and they still have the worst differential in the competition, not that it matters when you’re winning by 40+ every week. It’s getting into ridiculous territory now.

Friend of the site Death Row Rugby League posted some great stats to support the Storm situation over the weekend to show just how much they’ve “adapted” to the rule changes.

We know Melbourne has the worst net set restart difference in the NRL, and that is mainly because they’re conceding most of their set restarts on tackle tackles 0-2 inside an opponents area at a rate of 2.25 per game compared to 1.55 for the rest of the league. Where teams are in an attacking position, Melbourne concede right on the league average at 1.38 per game.

As Death Row Rugby League stated, it’s clearly a tactic and something the Storm are doing much better than the rest of the NRL.

But as Graham Annesley says, “It’s not like it’s having a massive impact on the game”. Judge for yourself…

Another sneaky Storm recruit?

Continuing on with the Melbourne theme, whether you agree or disagree with their stretching of the rules, one thing everyone can agree on is that their recruiting and development is light years ahead of the rest of the league.

This year they added Reimis Smith from the Bulldogs and George Jennings from the Eels, the latter of whom was so highly valued that he was loaned out the Warriors. And now they’ve signed another Canterbury back, Nick Meaney for 2022.

Smith’s turnaround has been incredible, even more so when you look at how this season compares to last season. The Bulldogs were using him mainly to gain metres early in a set after a kick, with Smith in the 89th percentile of all backs since 2014 in one pass runs. His runs per game average was nearing the 80th percentile as well.

Fast forward to 2021 and he’s hovering near the game’s elite – 84th percentile in tries per game, 81st percentile in line break assists per game.

The change for Smith also shows how a lot of rugby league defense is intertwined and impacted by those around you. Last season he was in the 20th percentile for try and line breaks caused per game, surrounded by a very ordinary dogs side. In 2021 that has flipped to see Smith in the 88th percentile for try and line breaks caused, an elite number.

Jennings form has been similarly impressive, having scored just 13 tries in 30 games in three seasons with the Eels and Warriors. This season he has already crossed the stripe nine times in 14 outings. That difference can be seen in his radar chart comparison of 2020 and 2021, where his other statistics were very similar.

The main difference between this year and last year was Craig Bellamy’s ability to have his side in a position for Jennings to attack the line or put someone else over it.

Meaney arguably has shown more than either of the two players had before joining the Storm in his short time in the NRL, and it will be very interesting to see what improvements he makes under Bellamy next season. It helps when you can identify young talent before they’ve peaked and not pay overs for them, leaving larger parts of your salary cap for genuine star talent in the prime of their careers.

Late edit: In the whirlwind that was the last week in rugby league, I’d also neglected to mention that the Storm have also signed Xavier Coates, who may end up destroying some try scoring records next season. Again, one team knows how to recruit and the rest are playing catchup.

What age do rugby league players peak statistically?

Now that the State of Origin distraction is over, we’re reaching a point in the NRL season where finals hopes are well and truly dashed for some teams, and they turn their attention full time to next season and player recruitment or retention.

As usual in the NRL media cycle, there’s been plenty of speculation about players moving on and teams trying to shore up their weaknesses. There was even a leaked report on how a 17th team would affect all aspects of the league including recruitment. Answer: it would mean they have to work harder. Friend of the site Liam at PythagoNRL has broken down this brilliantly here and is worth a read.

Circling back to recruitment, one of the bigger stories last week was the Tigers looking to “go all in” to sign 29 year old Dale Finucane, who would be 30 by the time the 2021 finals series arrives. This comes a year after bringing in 32 year old James Tamou and 25 year old Joe Ofahengaue to offset the loss of 25 year old Josh Aloiai.

In another move, across the ditch, the Warriors let 26 year old Ken Maumalo go, replacing him with almost four years (!) of soon to be 26 year old Dallin Watene-Zelezniak.

Given the ages of some of these players, this led me to look into some numbers to determine at what age do rugby league players actually peak statistically.

Is there a point in a players career where they are no longer developing statistically and from that point on they are what they are? Just how long should a team expect a 26 year old winger to be productive? Would or should this have any impact on recruitment?

There’s a tendency for clubs to assume players are finished products around 20-22, with players either leaving the game, heading to England or fighting for their career in second tier competitions. For some that is true, but for most positions it appears that their development peak may be later.

To undertake this analysis, we’re going to look at a group of running or attacking metrics by age to determine at what point do players hit their apex as a player. I’ve grouped games played by all players from 2014-2021 into one year age buckets from 18-34, based on the age when a game was played, rather than their starting age during the season.

For example, Latrell Mitchell turned 24 on June 16. His games before that date from 2021 would be in the 23 year old age bucket, whilst games after that date would be in the 24 year old age bucket.

I’ve also put in a minimum game limit of 30 appearances for each age bracket. In doing so I checked how these numbers would change if I dropped the threshold to 10 games or increased it to 80. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until I dropped below 10 or moved over 90 that any of the numbers changed even slightly as you were capturing fewer players. That said we’re keeping it at thirty because that’s a robust enough sample size to keep things significant and ensure a wide spread of players captured.

And since most positions on a rugby league field have different roles, we’re going to use different sets of metrics for them. For middle forwards we’ll mostly look at runs and metres. For edge forwards the stats are runs, line breaks, and tackle busts. When looking at centres and wings, the stats are runs, line breaks and tries and finally for fullbacks and halves runs and playmaking (line break and try assists).

Keep in mind this is not necessarily meant to show a players physical peak or their high point from an impact perspective, just their statistical peak when their numbers stop improving. Many players will continue to be extremely effective players past these age groups, all that changes is how often they can do it or being able to pick the right spot to do so. Knowing is half the battle.

The point is that by pinpointing the age when players in certain positions peak, you can understand when the development of a player is likely to end, and they’ve moved onto a maturity phase. At a certain age, a player is what they will be and there’s no point expecting or hoping for further improvement. And that age doesn’t always line up with the point when players are moved on from clubs.

It is also worth keeping in mind that the later year players (30+) are more likely to be of higher quality and potentially mudding the stats in those age brackets. Players like Brett Morris, Cameron Smith and Paul Gallen played well into their 30s and the declines for ages over 30 are clouded by those players.

Let’s begin with middle forwards.

Middle forwards

Looking across the most of these statistics middle forwards are peaking at 25-27. At those ages, they’re playing the most minutes, taking the most runs and completing the most tackles. This makes sense as middles mature and move from interchange players to starting forwards. The drop offs from 27 onwards aren’t too severe either until you hit 30.

Middles do tend to start off more as damaging runners of the ball, with higher metres per run and tackle bust % (percentage of runs with a broken tackle), which starts to decline at 23. This is probably due to an increased workload and needing to manage effort with intensity, shown by their run rate (how frequently they complete a run) reaching its highest between 25-27.

Some of this is natural as they play increased minutes as they age. Yet some of the metrics shown like metres per run, Run % and Tackle Bust % aren’t pure volume statistics and aren’t affected by minutes played. Which again indicates why they would decline as minutes increase. It’s hard for players to sustain the same effort in 50 minutes that they were playing at 30 minutes.

An area that does improve later in their careers is the ability to offload. As middles hit 26, they offload the ball more than average until 30 when that drops off to below average.

One thing that doesn’t change much is defensively. I didn’t include the advanced statistic Tackle Rate for middles because it doesn’t change much – around 25-26% each year. So, whilst the number of tackles made per game ebbs and flows as minutes do, the rate at which players are making tackles is steady as players age.

Locks have slightly different profile to props and are much more consistent over time. Like front rowers, their runs per metre drops once they hit their mid-20s, as does their tackle bust %. However, they are running the ball at a lower rate from 27 years old and they’re less likely to be ball players until very late in their careers. Again, keep in mind that these post 30 buckets are affected by a small number of players so those 32-34 offload rates are skewed by likely one or two players.

Penrith recently extended James Fisher-Harris for another four years, and with him currently sitting at 25 it’s the perfect time to lock up one of the best middle forwards in the game as he hits his peak statistical years.

Returning to the Finucane and Tamou examples at Wests, whilst they’re reaching the tail end of their career, there is value in bringing in experienced heads to also assist in developing younger middles like Thomas Mikaele, Stefano Utoikamanu and Alex Seyfarth. Tamou had bucked the trend somewhat in his last year at Penrith, but players finding another level at 30 is the exception not the norm.

It looks though that there may be a market inefficiency in early 20s middles, who may have been discarded earlier by teams expecting them to progress quicker. Instead of bringing in late career middles, it might be better to cast a wider and deeper net looking for young players discarded too soon.

Not only is their output likely to increase as they age, but they would also provide similar production to older players at a cheaper salary. If you can find a bunch of young low cost, high work rate middles, that leaves a lot of salary cap space left to splash around on more impactful players.

Second row

Second rowers share some similarities with middle forwards in that their running involvement inreases in their early 20s and peaks at 26 years old. However their metres per run metric is slightly more consistent over their career and only decline marginally in their late 20s.

Backrowers also tend to be more dynamic earlier in their careers, with line breaks per game and percentage of runs with a tackle bust also hitting their high points in their early 20s. Later in careers, they’re running the ball less and take on more of a defensive role.

Hookers

Running involvement for a dummy half peaks between 24-27, as does metres per run which maxes at 29 years old. As you would expect, hookers run the ball less frequently as they pass 27, not only on an overall basis but at a lower rate as well.

The danger of their running game comes a little earlier, from 22-26, when they peak in line breaks and line break assists per game.

Defensively, hookers are making a similar number of tackles no matter how old they are, at about 35 per game. Minutes played is similarly very consistent and actually increases post 30 (mostly due to Cameron Smith), and for this reason I’ve not included it in the chart above.

Halves

The halves are a position where age plays a big part in statistical peaks, although it is quite different to when forwards peak and also tends to develop key skills later.

Like other positions, running involvement maxes out at 26 and drops sharply from there. This is probably an indication of players maturing and knowing when to run the ball than any physical decline. Metres per run peaks at 24, whilst runs and run rate is relatively steady until 27 when it declines below average, and it is no coincidence that line breaks per game drops at that point as well. It is in these running statistics where the difference between a five eighth and a halfback occurs, with #6s lasting a year or two longer than 7s for their running peak.

The other big change for halves is that around age 24, they start to really hone their playmaking skills. Passes per game increases as they get more involved in attack, leading to big jumps in try and line break assists per game. It isn’t until they hit their early 30s that these numbers start to tail off. It’s another reason why the Warriors bringing Shaun Johnson home to finish his career makes sense, he’s been in sublime form as a playmaker even if his physical skills have started to decline.

Another reminder that when you’re writing off players in their early 20s, not all of them have finished developing or found their niche.

Outside backs

Centres have similar production as they age, peaking at 26. Their running statistics are very similar in late teens to mid 20s, with younger players having a slightly higher metres per run and older players running the ball slightly more.

The biggest drop occurs in attacking stats once they hit 27 when tries, line breaks and line break assists per game all fall off at a fast rate. As mentioned previously, this doesn’t mean that players \are leaving less of an impression on a game, they’re just doing so less frequently.

Wingers have a similar profile to centres but appear to peak a little later at around 27-28, as their run rate increases as they near 30 years old. Their try scoring rate doesn’t drop below average until 29 either, a year later than centres. But as we saw from Brett Morris this season, they can still be very effective into their 30s in the right situation.  

Returning to the Warriors example, they may have been right to let Maumalo walk and replacing him Watene-Zelezniak as they output similar numbers. However, Watene-Zelezniak will be almost 30 by the time his deal expires, and the above chart shows that his productivity is likely to decline over the coming seasons.

Fullbacks

Fullbacks have an age profile that overlaps between outside backs and halves. Similar to outside backs, their running involvement and output is reasonably consistent from their early 20s until their late 20s, only starting to decline around 28 years of age.

Their attacking impact is more visible early in their careers, with tries and line breaks per game all climaxing before they hit 24. And just like halves, once this drop in pure attacking statistics doesn’t mean a player has hit their peak, it just highlights when they transition from an attacking weapon running the ball to more of a third playmaker role supporting both halves.

How Melbourne and Penrith differ on set restarts – NRL Round 15 stats and trends

After last week’s dalliance with the trivial subject of what brand of boots NRL players are wearing, it’s time for the Eye Test to get back to it’s bread and butter. That would be analysing set restarts and who is gaming the system to their advantage. The conclusion that the good teams don’t concede set restarts does hold true but with one very large exception.

The dominance of Melbourne and Penrith has been well documented this season, with both teams scoring and conceding points at historic rates and seeing some incredible momentum swings within games.

But one area where they differ is how often they’re conceding set restarts.

Last season I used a chart plotting set restart difference (awarded minus conceded) against margin after accidentally discovering that there was a negative relationship between set restarts and margin. That is, the more set restarts you conceded, the better your winning margin was, and the top four from 2020 all had a negative set restart difference.

Something changed this season though, as only one of the top four has a negative net set restart difference. The chart for plotting net set restarts against margin for 2021 is below, split into four quadrants – conceding and winning, not conceding and winning, conceding and losing, and finally not conceding and losing.

As mentioned, one team stands out from the rest of the league.

Back to set restarts, it is very clear to see that Melbourne have taken over the mantle of the biggest set restart offenders from the Panthers. The Storm have a -23 set restart difference, which clearly isn’t affecting their play as they’re scoring 300 points more than their opponents this season, and hit a new record in the process of trouncing the Tigers on Saturday evening. Penrith aren’t far behind either.

That -23 net set restart difference by Melbounre is by far the biggest disparity in the NRL, with the next worst being the Dragons at -18.

On the other end of the scale, the Panthers have a +18 set restart difference, quite a swing from 2020 when they were practically committing assault in the ruck and slowing down every play the ball. Their +18 only trails Parramatta (+22) for best set restart difference in the NRL this season. Looking at this you’d conclude that the theory that Penrith receive the most help from set restarts is true, and to an extent it is but not by receiving them. We’ll get to this more shortly.

You can also see from this chart that only six teams have a positive margin this season (those above the centre line), once again highlighting how lop sided the 2021 season has been. The bad teams have always been bad, but the rule changes have just widened the gap between the haves and the have nots. It’s not a binary thing, it’s a combination of events causing this seasons results.

Does this trend continue if you look at net penalties (awarded minus conceded)? The same chart showing penalties instead of set restarts plotted against margin is below.

Penrith still sit towards the top of the NRL in net penalties, second at +20 and only trailing Souths (+27). Meanwhile Melbourne is decidedly mid table here, with a penalty difference of -6, and one of just two teams with a positive margin and negative penalty difference, with the other being notorious penalty conceders the Sydney Roosters.

Up to now we’ve been looking at net set restarts and penalties. What about checking where Melbourne and Penrith rank for average infractions awarded and conceded?

The chart below shows the average set restarts awarded (blue) and conceded (orange) per game for each NRL club this season,with clubs sorted by their ladder position.

Again, the perception that the Panthers are awarded the most restarts doesn’t hold up, with Penrith sitting mid table for set restarts awarded. Where Penrith does benefit is that they are conceding the second fewest set restarts in the NRL this season at just 3.0 per game, only trailing the Sharks (2.8).

On the other hand, Melbourne is conceding the equal second most set restarts in the league, at 4.5 per game, tied with the Dragons and only trailing Canterbury (5.1).

When you combine that with the Storm receiving the second fewest set restarts this season at 3.0, it’s easy to see why their set restart difference is so large. It also makes their dominance this season even more impressive, considering the amount of possession and field position they’re yielding.

Again, does the same hold true for penalties? Below is the same chart as above, but substituting penalties awarded and conceded for set restarts.

For Penrith, they’re receiving the most penalties per game this season at 5.6, slightly ahead of South Sydney (5.57). That’s nearly two full penalties more per game than Melbourne are being awarded, and this may be where the perception that Penrith are benefitting from “leg ups” comes in.

Clearly being on the wrong end of set restart and penalty counts isn’t affecting the Storm, who are backing their defensive discipline to combat giving away extra possession. Penrith are riding the momentum wave of increased possession from set restarts and field position from extra penalties. Neither approach is better than the other, and it’s looking like the only outcome of this season is to see them collide at the end.

Cleary doing more with less

Talking about the excellent season Nathan Cleary is having isn’t any great revelation. Friend of the site Jason Oliver from the wonderful Rugby League Writers website has been demonstrating his greatness all season, most recently in his Round 15 Repeat Set post.

As a quick aside, if you’re not reading and subscribing to Rugby League Writers, you’re missing out on the best on field analysis of the NRL anywhere. Jason and Oscar deliver amazing content daily and offer a free newsletter as well as very affordable subscription option at just $5 a month.

Back on the topic of Cleary, unsurprisingly he leads the NRL in Net Points Responsible For (NPRF) this season, a statistic I use to assess playmakers involvement in points scoring (and conceding). The leader board for 2021 is below.

What’s also not surprising, given the rule changes and more ball in play with the introduction of the set restart rule last year, is that he’s also leading the NPRF table from 2014-2021 and holds third spot as well for his 2020 season, only split by Tom Trbjoevic’s incredible year.

The thing that stands out for me is that Cleary is averaging three fewer possessions than 2020, 71.5 down from 74.4 a year ago. It’s possibly a sign that Cleary is maturing as a playmaker, knowing when to inject himself, and also a nod to the continued improvement of Jarome Luai.

Despite the slight drop in possessions, he’s doubled his try scoring tally in just 12 games versus 18 games in 2020 and should easily pass his try assist and try contribution totals if he plays the rest of the season.

It’s also worth noting just how many players from 2021 are sitting at the top of the 2014-2021 leaderboard. Eight of the top 20 and three of the top five NPRF seasons have come in 2021, and four of the top 5 have come under the set restart era.

The top three NPRF seasons are from 2020-21, and the top 2 are almost two points per game higher than any other sason. Again it’s another data point about how the massive one sided scores this season are skewing statistics.

Set restart and referee update

Looking at set restarts and penalties awarded in Round 15, the crackdown seems to be well and truly over, other than the odd ridiculous sin binning. After peaking at 12 penalties a game in Round 12, we’re down to near pre crackdown levels with just 9.3 penalties called per game in Round 15.

The drop has been consistent across both halves for penalties, while nothing much has changed for set restarts since they’re rarely awarded in the second half anyway.           

As for referees, below is the breakdown of per game averages for set restarts and penalties awarded by official up to Round 15, sorted by the number of set restarts awarded.

Matt Noyen has only called two games this season, so his numbers don’t really mean much. Grant Atkins leads the way with nearly 9 set restarts called per game, with Chris Butler not far behind at 8.5. Last years #1, Adam Gee, has softened a bit this season and is only calling 8.2 per contest, the only other referee above 8. He’s still the king of first halves though, as you will see below.

As regular readers will know, one of the things I go on about regularly is the discrepancy between first and second half set restarts. Usually, I’d post averages by referee to show the gap, but this week I’m going to use raw totals to draw attention to the differences between halves, as shown below.

Here you can plainly see that there’s amazing consistency between halves in penalties awarded, but there’s huge variances in how many set restarts are awarded in second halves.

Another thing worth noting is that Grant Atkins has blown more second half penalties (86) than total penalties by Peter Gough (78) or Chris Butler (85).

First half 2021 NRL advanced statistic leaders

The NRL season has hit the slow period of the season to accomodate for State of Origin, meaning it’s a good time to continue the Eye Test’s review of the first half of the season. Last week we looked at the decline of 80-minute players. This week we’re diving into the advanced statistic leaders for the season up to Round 12.

If you’re unfamiliar with the advanced stats used here at the Eye Test, I’d recommend checking out the glossary page on the site to get up to speed. If you want a longer run down, there are longer posts on Tackle %, Run % and Involvement Rate that talk about how they are calculated and how they should be used.

If you want an even quicker rundown than the Glossary page, here’s the cliff notes. Tackle % and Run % show the % of completed tackles or run made by a player whilst on field, adjusted for minutes played and possession. Involvement Rate combines both Tackle % and Run %, and all three are “work rate” metrics to gauge the contributions of players (typically middle forwards) who don’t play big minutes.

The average rate for each of these metrics can be seen in the chart below. Generally middle forwards (front row, hooker, lock and most interchagne players) make tackles at a rate in the 25% range, have a run rate in the 10-12% range and their Involvement Rate sits between 14-19%. As you move further out to the edges and outside back positions those numbers continue to drop as they are doing less of the grunt work.

One thing worth mentioning is that the Melbourne Storm use a similar metric for “work rate markers”, calculating runs, tackles, supports and kick pressure on a per minute basis. Great minds etc…

Net Points Responsible For (NPRF) is a metric to show the contributions of players beyond the typical try and try assist statistics. And finally, Error Rate is a measurement to identify players who are committing errors more frequently.

For the first three advanced stats, I’ve implemented a minimum of three games played and 120 minutes (playing at least three full halves) to filter out any players with a low sample size. For Net Points Responsible For, I’ve increased the threshold to give games played, as one or two blowouts can skew the data. For Error Rate, the limits are four errors committed and three games played, again to remove any small sample biases.

These statistics are for the first half of the season (Rounds 1-12), and don’t include the recently completed Round 13. And as usual I’m using Fox Sports NRL statistics.

Now the formalities are out of the way, let’s move on to look at the season leaders for the first half of

Tackle % leaders

North Queensland forward Reuben Cotter leads the way with a tackle % of 34.85% in his four games this season. Unfortunately, as he is out for a lengthy period due to Lisfranc surgery and probably won’t make the end of year minute qualification, which is usually between 150-250 minutes played, and is something I gradually increase as the season progresses.

Still his tackle % is almost 10% higher than the average middle forward, with props (25.1%), locks (25.1%), interchange (24.9%) and hookers (25.9%) all sitting in the 25% range, or completing a tackle on one in four possessions.

Coming in behind Cotter is the Sharks interchange forward Billy Magoulias with a tackle rate of 34.0%, followed by promising Tigers middle Alex Seyfarth at 32.74%.

Eye Test first ballot Hall of Famer Daniel Alvaro comes in at 7th with a rate of 30.87%, his seventh season with a tackle rate over 30%, meaning he completes a tackle in three out of every ten opponent plays whilst on the field. Alvaro owns three of the top four end of season tackle rates and can usually be spotted in the top 10-20 players on a weekly basis.

An interesting thing to note is that there are only seven players with a tackle rate of 30% or above. Last season by Round 12 there were 21. In 2019 there were 26. Is this another data point suggesting fatigue is an issue?  

Run % leaders

Penrith’s middle forward machine Spencer Leniu of Penrith takes first place with a run rate of 17.11%, indicating he is completing a run on nearly two out of every five plays for the Panthers. As noted above, the average front rower Run Rate is 12.6%, with Leniu nearly 50% above that number at over 17%.

Leniu was on fire early in the season getting through a huge amount of work in his limited minutes, ranking 1st, 1st, 6th, 80th and 1st in his first five rounds of the season. He’s also the only player with a run rate above 17% this season.

Second place is taken by Roosters prop Jared Warea-Hargreaves at 16.26%, with the Tigers Zane Musgrove rounding out the top three at 15.91%, ahead of former Tiger Josh Aloiai at 15.28%

This year we have seven players with a run rate above 15%, and unlike Tackle % that number is in the same range as 2020 (eight players with 15% or more) and 2019 (five).

Involvement Rate leaders

Given that Involvement Rate is a combination of Tackle % and Run %, it’s no surprise that Reuben Cotter sits at the top of the Involvement Rate chart, with a rate of 22.75%. This means he is either completing a run or tackle on more than one in five plays whilst on the field. The average middle forward has an involvement rate in the 14-19% range, with Cotter sitting at least 3% higher than front rowers and 4% higher than locks.

Second place goes to the Raiders Corey Horsburgh at 22.17%, with that man again Daniel Alvaro snaring third place at 21.96%.

This season there are 20 players with an Involvement Rate of 20% or higher, compared with 29 in 2020 and 48(!) in 2019. To me this is a clear indication that fatigue is having a huge impact on the game.

When looking at 80-minute numbers, the totals and averages may be the same or very similar, which could indicate there’s no change in the speed or pace of the game. However, if fewer players are completing a run or tackle at a high rate, that would indicate that they’re unable to keep up a high workload over the similar periods of time.

Remember that these advanced statistics are not only minute adjusted, but possession adjusted. This means that they are comparable regardless of any raw increase or decrease in minutes played or ball in play.

Net Points Responsible For leaders

Net Points Responsible For (NPRF) is a metric for a player’s overall contribution to a team’s scoring or defense. It is not a measure of overall performance, since it only uses points scored, contributed towards, or allowed. If you do want to put a number on a players overall production, Liam at PythgoNRL has a fantastic overall player performance metric.

Returning to NPRF, this the way it is calculated. Each score by a player is valued as it is on the scoreboard (try – 4, goal – 2, field goal – 1 or 2), plus 4 points for every try assist and try contribution. Four points are removed for every try cause a player concedes as a way of quantifying their defensive contribution. This total is then divided by the number of games played to get a plus or minus total points per game that a player is “responsible” for.

It is a great way of valuing a playmakers influence if they aren’t directly scoring tries or throwing passes that are deemed try assists. By adding in Try Contributions, something like the famed a “hockey assist” (the pass that least to the pass that sets up a score), you can more accurately judge the impact of a player whose involvement may not show up in regular statistics.

With that out of the way, here’s the top players for 2021 thus far.

No one should be surprised with Nathan Cleary topping the list, and at 11.82 NPRF/game, he’s directly adding almost 12 net points per game to the Panthers this season. To put that in perspective, the Bulldogs are averaging just over 11 points scored per game as a team. Given Cleary is touching the ball over 70 times per game, more than any other half in the competition, it’s not surprising his impact on a game is so immense.

Tom Trbojevic is adding +10.29 NPRF/game for the Sea Eagles this season, and his mere presence on the field has turned them from wooden spoon contenders to a legitimate finals football team.

Third and fourth places are taken by a pair of Storm fullbacks, Ryan Papenhuyzen (+8.67) and Nicho Hynes (+7.60). The Storm have four players inside the top 10, with Harry Grant (+6.4) and Jahrome Hughes (+6.18) also having strong seasons.

It’s also worth noting just how good Brett Morris was playing this season at 34, with the fifth best NPRF average this season. The Eye Test would like to wish him the best in retirement, he will be missed.

This chart also indicates how important defense is. Cody Walker is having a great season with the ball, scoring nine tries, handing out 11 try assists and contributing seven more, playing him second in the NRL for total try involvements. But with 11 try causes for the season (meaning he was deemed responsible for conceding a try) his NPRF per game is only +5.89. Without those try causes his points responsible for would be +9.81 per game, well inside the top five.

Error Rate leaders

The last advanced statistic we’re looking at this week is Error Rate, which is the number of possessions it takes for a player to commit an error. As a rough guide, anything less than 10 is terrible, and between 10-15 is bad, and 15-30 is not good.

Dragons winger Jordan Pereira takes top (or should that be bottom?) spot with an error every seven possessions in his three games. That equates to nearly three errors per 80 minutes, which you don’t need me to tell you is not good.

Second place is Warriors backrower Josh Curran, who is committing an error every 9.14 possessions, with Titans edge Beau Fermor at 9.33 making up the top three. Canberra veteran Jarrod Croker is the only other player with an Error Rate under 10 at 9.86.

Pereira is unlucky that I haven’t set the minimum games played threshold for Error Rate at two games played, as Wests Tigers winger Zac Cinto has committed seven errors in just 34 possessions this season for a rate of one error every 4.86 possessions. But as he has only played the two games, he’s currently excluded from this list.

On the positive side of things, Jayden Brailey has the best error rate in the NRL, with just one error in 1,419 possessions. Given hookers are usually just moving the ball from dummy half 150 times a game, it’s understandable they’re not committing too many mistakes.

A special shout out goes to NRL Physio’s favourite and grilled chicken connoisseur Alex Twal, who has played 653 minutes this season, touched the ball 171 times and is yet to commit an error. He’s the only player with at least 500 minutes played yet to commit one.