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

How is increased fatigue affecting the NRL this season? – Round 4 2021 stats and trends

This week I’ll be skipping any analysis of the pace of the game, for a few reasons. The first is something I alluded to last week, which is that we’ve hit a decent threshold of data points, the affect of the new rules is relatively clear and the impact of fatigue is still obvious.

The second is that friend of the site Liam of PythagoNRL fame has put together the best summary to date of the impact of the new rule changes on margin and form. It’s well worth your time to read through it. And I’m not just saying that because he’s cited some of my data.

Instead we’ve got two ways that the game has changed again under these new rules. It might not be faster overall, but sections within halves appear to be, but it’s definitely changed and fatigue is playing a huge part.

“Faster” may be a myth, but increased fatigue isn’t

Again, if you haven’t read the article posted above from PythagoNRL or last week’s post here on the Eye Test, I’d recommend reading them first to get a picture of where the game is at currently under the new rules. It may not be faster but we know that fatigue is playing a larger part due to the reduction of stoppages where players would typically recover.

Last week’s post also introduces the “fatigue indicators” that I’ve been keeping an eye on to see what impact fatigue may be having on whatever passes for rugby league this season. Here’s that table update after Round 4.

Scoring in first halves has evened up slightly, but we’re still seeing nearly 2 points per game more scored in the second half this season, which is illustrated beautifully by Tim Newans here:

The other things that stand out from the “fatigue indicators” include fewer runs and sets in both halves but increases in errors and missed tackles, both of which can be affected by poor decision making influenced by fatigue.

And it’s that last one I mentioned, the missed tackles, that has intrigued me quite a bit. Missed tackles is always a tricky stat to interpret at a player level because you have to be in a position to attempt a tackle to miss one, but looking at an aggregated league wide level that sort of ambiguity should be removed.

So I looked at the percentage change year on year for those stats to see just how much they had changed. And that missed tackles number stands out even more as you can see below.

It amounts to +27% in missed tackles this season, despite -4% in tackles completed. Errors are also up by 11.6% which isn’t an insignificant number either and contributing to the lower completion rates, but to have a quarter more missed tackles is a sure sign there’s been a dramatic shift in the game.

Obviously these numbers are being skewed by the increase in lopsided results right? Canterbury, Manly and North Queensland all have conceded 100 points more than they’ve scored so the increase must be due to them, while Brisbane’s only positive result this season is beating up on the aforementioned Bulldogs. Given this, I filtered out any game that included those teams and checked the percentage change again.

The change for missed tackles is still +26%. But I thought we’ve always had bad teams and the rule changes have just highlighted that? Whatever the case, the increase in missed tackles is clearly not just due to some games between good and bad sides with large margins of victory.

The kicker for all of the data I’ve just posted? It’s from first halves only, when you’d expect there to be less impact from fatigue on performance. These rule changes appear to have affected players fatigue so dramatically that they’re gassed in the first half and missing a quarter more tackles than they had in the previous year.

I know the intention with this seasons rule changes was to further decrease the advantage defenses had, but reducing them to the point of exhaustion and unable to complete a tackle may not be the optimal way of doing it. Then again, I’m not running a national sporting competition on the whims of a select few who wish to return to their salad days.

Getting back on track, for second halves the numbers are still high but a bit more muted. Below is the above chart with the same teams excluded.

Errors are actually down in the second half when you take out the four bad teams, by 6.9%, which makes . Missed tackles are up nearly 13%, whilst completed tackles are down 12%. Given that second half points are also up 18%, that may be because teams are spending more time under the posts watching a conversion than running or tackling. You could also surmise that fatigue is becoming such a determining factor that some players aren’t even in position to attempt a tackle let alone miss one.

The affect of fatigue can be seen when you look at which positions are missing more tackles this season. Below is the year on year change in missed tackles by position.

Given that middle forwards defend the majority of runs, it’s not surprising to see them missing more than the edges. The one that stands out for me is interchange players, who are one of just two positions playing more minutes in 2020 (I’ll get to this later). They’re missing tackles at 20%, which is lower than the overall missed tackle increase of 26%. It’s not a sample size issue either, we’re looking at the same number of games (32) from four comparable rounds – 3 through 6 in 2020 and 1 through 4 in 2021.

The fact they are under indexing on the increase missed tackles also indicates that fatigue is the culprit here. If it weren’t and purely a factor of defenses being on the back foot due to the rule changes, they’d be missing tackles more tackles at a rate similar to starting middle forwards. Yet the increase for interchange players is about half of locks and hookers, and one third fewer than front rowers. They’re not missing as many tackles because they’re not as fatigued, despite being predominately middle forwards or middle utility players.

The other key thing is that it’s not just the bad teams who are missing significantly more tackles. Looking where these sizable increases have come from, it’s mostly a league wide trend. Below is the chart showing % change year on year for every team.

There’s only two teams (Newcastle and the Gold Coast) who have fewer missed tackles in 2021 compared to 2020. The team with the largest increase from last season is the Wests Tigers, jumping from 79 to 143, an eye watering 81% increase over just four rounds.

It’s not a pretty sight as even the stronger defensive teams like Melbourne and Canberra are missing 20% more tackles than they did a year ago. Brisbane are only missing 5% more than last season, but when you’re already missing a significant amount of tackles even a single digit percentage increase can be substantial. Nonetheless it shows that the jump in missed tackles is not purely the domain of the downtrodden and poorly administered, and most likely showing the impact fatigue is having across the board.

Speaking of missed tackles, NRL Physio posted some of his typically great analysis on HIA and injuries in tackles, which also noted tackling technique tends to dip under fatigue.

This certainly reflects the data I’ve posted above showing a significant increase in missed tackles being a factor of fatigue. But hey how good are fewer stoppages?

Centres are the new middle forwards?

Another smaller impact of the rule changes this season has been a slight change in distribution of workloads for NRL teams. Long-time readers will know I’m a keen observer of work rate for middle forwards and seeing who is (and isn’t) contributing.

And as I usually do, I had a check to see which positions taking their runs off a single pass from dummy half (your standard one out hit up), which makes up about 48-50% of all runs in a set restart world. The results are below, comparing 2020 with 2021.

This season, Interchange players and surprisingly centres are the only ones that have increased their number of one pass runs. Every other position, including wingers who previously took top spot, have declined.

Why is this happening? Again, it’s most likely fatigue. Front rowers are spending slightly more on time field (+1.7%), but as seen above they’re running the ball less, around 2 times fewer per game. This might indicate they’re tired and possibly even not getting back on side soon enough, requiring centres to step in after wingers and help return the ball out of their own area following a kick. This lower involvement by starting forwards explains why interchange players spending an extra three minutes on the field this season, while locks and second rowers are spending less time on field.

When you look at it by share of hit ups then you can see the change a bit more obvious.

Wingers have dropped under 20% of hit ups, whilst interchange players have moved to nearly 22% from 19.7% a year ago. Centres now make up 15.3% of all one pass runs, up from 13.5% last season. Clearly the workload is being distributed more evenly.

It should be noted that we’re looking totals per position, not per player, meaning these numbers are for 2 wingers, two front rowers, two centres, one lock and four interchange players. It still shows that fatigue is having an impact, with hit ups now being spread further across teams rather than just being the domain of middle forwards and wingers bringing the ball out of their own areas after kicks.

Brian To’o breaking out this season

Prior to last Thursday night’s Penrith v Manly game, I posted a chart on Twitter showing just how much damage Panthers winger Brian To’o was doing when he ran the ball. At the time he was sitting first in runs per game and equal first (with James Tedesco and David Fifita) for tackles broken per game. Here’s the update after four games, and To’o is still leading the way in tackle busts per game at 7.75. The size of the data point indicates average run metres.

He’s been unsurprisingly overtaken by Ryan Papenhuyzen for runs per game after he almost single-handedly demolished Brisbane, but To’o is still one of only three players running the ball at least 20 times per outing and breaking tackles at a higher rather than either of them, while also leading the way in run metres and post contact run metres.

Speaking of Papenhuyzen, it was a similar visualisation I had posted to Twitter (pre Eye Test) that highlighted how strong he was in the back of the 2019 season when he started six games at fullback, leading to him securing the position full time in 2020.

I’m not suggesting To’o is going to end up as impactful as Tedesco or Papenhuyzen have been, but it’s clearly an indicator that he’s developed into one of the most damaging runners in the competition.

Fatigue and injuries caused by Condensed Rugby League Theory? NRL Round 3 2021 stats & trends

With three rounds and 24 games complete in season 2021, it’s becoming pretty clear what affect the new rule changes are having NRL this season. There are no dramatic shifts as we saw with the introduction of set restarts and reverting to one referee, but there are noticeable trends of what is (or isn’t happening).

The confirmation of Condensed Rugby League theory

I have mentioned condensed rugby league previously, where we’re seeing the same amount of rugby league shoehorned into a shorter period of time, and it’s looking increasingly apparent that is what we’re seeing in 2021. Whether or not you think that is a good thing is up for debate, but the fact it is happening is not.

Comparing rounds 1-3 in 2021 with rounds 3-5 in 2020, the following facts are becoming undeniable:

  • Time in possession hasn’t meaningfully changed, declining by 1% (55.9 minutes v 56.6 last season)
  • The pace of play hasn’t meaningfully changed either, increasing by 0.4% (5.9 runs/minute v 5.88 last season)

From the above we can surmise that the year on year change hasn’t shifted that much from last week with an additional eight games, which leads me to believe that we’ve hit a substantial sample size. Any further additional data points will only reinforce these trends. If there’s any changes that aren’t in line I’ll be sure to bring them up in future posts.

Below is an update to the visualisation I’ve been using to check how 2021 (yellow) compares with 2020 (green) for comparable rounds relating to time in play versus number of runs per game, with data point size representing total points scored (bigger = more). It’s all very similar to last year, and hopefully for you the reader, the last time you’ll see this plot this season.

Changes such as the removal of stoppages for scrums and turning offside penalties into set restarts has seen a decrease in the total time to complete a game, even if it hasn’t seen an increase in time on the field.

Comparing Rounds 1&2 2021 to full year 2020 it is apparent that elapsed time has decreased by 2% (95 minutes v 97 last season). Here’s the slide from Graham Annesley’s briefing following round 2 showing this data.

Could the game actually be faster though? I don’t know for sure and without player level GPS data I couldn’t make that call. The players are saying it is and I’ll defer to them since they’re the ones on the field.

That’s why I’m focused on the pace of play – how often things are occurring, not how fast they are. Runs are still occurring at the same rate as previous seasons, around 5.9 per minute. These runs may or may not be faster than previous seasons, but not fast enough to see a higher incidence of runs per minute.

Which brings me back to elapsed time and the fatigue issue. Evidently elapsed time data hasn’t changed significantly over the past week because Annesley didn’t even mention it in his briefing this week.

Yet this data on Elapsed Time is where I believe the feeling of “faster” comes in for those observing the game, as the gaps between “stuff” happening has decreased. We’ve shaved 2-3 minutes off the total time of a game so far in 2021. The same rate of “stuff” is just happening over a shorter period of time, giving the illusion of speed increasing.

My conclusions from this haven’t really changed over the past few weeks. There isn’t more on field rugby league this season, and things aren’t occurring on field at a higher rate, although they may be happening faster according to players. There are slight changes in these metrics but nothing meaningful.

What is meaningful though is the drop in elapsed time, even if it doesn’t look like it. The result is asking elite athletes to push their bodies to the limits for the same amount of time with a reduction in the opportunities to recover. Two to three minutes out of 90+ may not sound like a lot, but if you’re going at near full speed for 40 minutes as most players on the field are, every instance of an extra 10-15 seconds of rest makes a notable difference.

Round 3 felt like a tipping point around fatigue with the number of injuries and concussions, even if the injury numbers aren’t that different from previous seasons.

That doesn’t make those that did happen any less meaningful or important though. Regardless, there may be serious long term issues this season in having players expend the same amounts of energy over a shorter time with fewer opportunities to recover. There’s an aesthetic issue as well. One of the beautiful things about this game is that it provided opportunities to breathe and take in what we’ve just witnessed, which in turn built anticipation for what might be to come next. Instead we’re being shuffled from one set of six to another without having time to process what just happened. Maybe that’s the idea behind set restarts and removal of scrums?

The NRL in 2021 feels like the players are being performance managed, having to perform at the same elite level whilst having their breaks removed and working through lunch. Was anyone really asking for Condensed Rugby League?

Is fatigue showing statistically?

On the back of the above observation, there’s a number of statistics this season I’ve been paying close attention to in order to gauge how much fatigue might be influencing the game. These are the obvious ones that are affected decision making and reaction times, things that usually would suffer under extreme fatigue.

Firstly, I’ve included some of the more basic statistics like runs and tackles to provide context for these averages, as something like missed tackles increasing could be a factor of more tackles being made. It also shows that we’re not getting more football, with total sets and runs per half declining this year, further confirming Condensed Rugby League theory.

Below are the per game averages for some statistics that might indicate fatigue, compared year on year broken down by half.

Looking at the numbers in more detail, some of these statistics have dropped in 2021, interestingly more so in the first half than the second half. Errors for example, have increased by 1.5 in the first half but less than 0.4 in the second half where you would assume fatigue plays a greater role. This is echoed with completion rates, which have dropped from 79.2% to 76.6% in the first half and 77.9% to 76.27% in the second half.

Missed tackles are up quite significantly, with an extra 5.7 in the first half and 4.6 in the second half for a total of more than 10 extra missed tackles per game in 2021 so far, despite similar numbers of runs.

This results in Tackle Efficiency dropping as well from nearly 94% in the first half to 92%, and 92.5% in the second half to under 91%. Tackle Efficiency isn’t the best statistic to determine defensive ability, as it doesn’t take into account defensive positioning (you have to be attempting to make a tackle to miss one, the Bryce Carwright rule), but it does show that players attempting to make tackles are missing a greater percentage of them.

It’s early days but most of the above statistics are showing changes this season that could be indications of fatigue affecting performance, and it would be interesting to see if that was happening at the back ends of halves or was consistent throughout, but as I’m just using public data that question will have to remain unanswered for now.

Where did the penalties go?

I mentioned Graham Annesley’s post round briefings before, and one of the more interesting tables he showed was one concerning penalties per game, which can be seen below from Round 2.

If you’re of the “stoppages are evil” school of rugby league thinking, you’ll probably like these numbers. What I was more interested in was the changes in penalty and set restart counts.

We’ve moved from ten penalties and seven restarts per game last season (at total of 17), to 6.7 penalties and 7.1 set restarts per game this season (a total of just under 14). Of those 7 restarts per game, just under 2 of them are for 10 metre infringements. That 1.8 per game makes up almost half of the 3.3 per game drop in penalties called, but it has made me wonder about the other half.

Given these numbers, and that we have additional penalties in 2021 for breaking early from a scrum, am I to believe that players, suffering more from fatigue than ever, are infringing less in the ruck and offside less?

When I’ve suggested that restarts aren’t called consistently, one of the retorts has been that some referees are calling more in the first half as a way to set a tone early of what would be expected.

This season however we’re seeing fewer penalties and set restarts, despite the fatigued players. There were just 30 set restarts in first halves this weekend, and just 17 in second halves. That total of 47 is the second lowest round total since set restarts were introduced, only ahead of Round 4 last season before coaches worked out how to exploit these new rules. The rounds following rounds that total of 46 saw 75 and 83 restarts called.

Again, we’re seeing the lowest totals of set restarts despite them being awarded for more types of infringements. I don’t want to use the dreaded M word, but even Adam Gee this round called just two set restarts, both in the first half. Surely that is a sign that not all is well?

Condensed Rugby League Theory – NRL Round 2 2021 stats and trends

Two rounds of the 2021 National Rugby League season are in the books, and I don’t have a witty opening this week because my kids are sick. Let’s get right into it.

Time in play is stable for now

There was a slight increase in time in play for Round 2, which may have been brought on by the torrential rain seen across most of the eastern seaboard. The average time in possession hit 56.6 minutes, up 2% from 55.5 in Round 1, which as I mentioned last week was down almost 2% from Round 3, 2020.

How does that Round 2 number line up with the corresponding round from 2020 (Round 4)? It’s down again, but only by 0.3% this time. Below is the visualisation of Time in Play plotted against Total Runs for Rounds 1 & 2, 2021 (yellow) and Rounds 3 & 4, 2020 (green). Most of the 2020 games are sitting below 57 minutes on field.

If we expand that out again to all of 2019, 2020 and 2021, you can see that 2021 is falling between 2019 and 2020. Still early days but there’s definitely not more football being played.

The other metric I was looking at last week as a proxy for pace was runs per minute. That hasn’t changed much either, sitting at 5.93 this round, an increase of 1%. Again compared to Round 4 last year it’s virtually the same – a change of just +0.2%. Things aren’t being played faster as we’re seeing the same rate of runs per minute as previous seasons, even if it appears that way to the naked eye.

Given these numbers, I’m again leaning to the condensed rugby league theory where the same amount of the game is being crammed into a shorter elapsed time, and the only thing being removed is the chance for players to recover. Fewer stoppages, more fatigue, more errors.

Below is a chart of errors per run from 2014-2021, comparing the number of errors per run for Rounds 1&2 (3&4 for 2020).

2020 had the fewest errors per run since 2014, whilst this year we’re up to 0.73 per run which is an increase of 9% and the highest number since 2016. Some of that may be due to the wet weather, but total errors for the round were down this week (average of 25 to just under 23). There’s that fatigue issue again.

The devolution of style might be continuing

If you didn’t read my post on the devolution of style in the NRL, I’d recommend going back and giving a quick look. In summary, the trends we saw last season – more one out running, less expansive passing and more conservative play – was already creeping into the game over the past 5-6 seasons and the drastic changes introduced in Round 3 just accelerated them.

With that in mind how do they look after two rounds? Like last week we’re looking at small sample sizes against previous seasons, so I’ve restricted them to just Rounds 1 and 2 (or 3 and 4 for 2020) to ensure like for like comparisons.

We’ll start with the percentage of all runs that are one pass runs (basic hit ups). It’s a good way to see if the game is being played in a simple and conservative manner.

A slight decline from last year, but still hovering at around half of all runs being a hit up which was a huge feature of the NRL in a set restart world. Not the most attractive style of rugby league unfortunately unless you’re a big middle forward fan like myself (how good was seeing Daniel Alvaro run the ball in the open field on Saturday evening?)

Next up let’s examine the number of general play passes per run, to see if teams are spreading the ball instead of just smashing it up the middle of the park.

Passes per run continues to drop, down to the lowest level since 2014 of just .535. As mentioned in the article linked above these are general play passes and don’t include dummy half passes, so you can just add a 1 in front for total passes per run.

And as you’d expect with passing down, offloads per run continues to drop as you can see below.

2021 is currently only ahead of 2016 at 0.0533 offloads per run, which is a 25% decline in offloads in four years. Score another point for conservative one out rugby league. We don’t need to bring back the little man, we need to bring back the offload.

One of the reasons passing may be down in 2021 is that kicks are up from 15.9 per game to 20.4 per game. The problem is they’re all long kicks, which have grown from 15.9 to 20.4 and metres per kick is up 24.5 to 26.3. Kicks dead and forced drop outs are also down year on year. This data would suggest we’re getting more midfield rugby league and fewer plays in attacking zones, but again it’s early days and the sample size isn’t sufficient.

The only metric that seemed to have an increase this season was the percentage of dummy half runs, which improved slightly to 5.3% but still sits well below what it was in 2014.

A few other minor stats to note after two rounds. Play the balls per set has dropped from 3.83 in 2020 to 3.76. This makes perfect sense when you see there’s been more errors per game made (22.8 to 24.1) and completion rates have dropped from 77.2% to 76.4%. Simply put, we’re seeing an extra set per game but fewer overall runs due to extra errors.

Set restart & referee update

One thing I looked at in 2020 was the number of play the balls per “total penalty” (set restart or traditional penalty), to see how often they were being called. This year has seen that number go from 18 play the balls per penalty in first halves of Round 1, to 20 in second halves of Round 1, 24 in first halves of Round 2 and up to 29 in second halves of Round 2.

That’s nearly one every five full sets, up from three full sets in the first half of the opening round. Last year the highest first half rate was a penalty or set restart every 19 play the balls. There wasn’t a single first half above 20 play the balls per infringement called, and we’ve already breached that mark in 2021.

Is that a good or bad thing? Depends on how much influence you want whistle blowers to have. Some like a tightly controlled contest while others like it to be more free flowing. Here at the Eye Test, all we like is consistency. If it’s a penalty or set restart 2 minutes in, it should be with 2 minutes to go no matter the margin. But it isn’t.

The chart below shows big drops in infringements called by half, larger than we’ve seen previously.

Penalties aren’t dropping that much – 3.6 to 3.1 from first half to second half. The biggest drop is for set restarts, which go from 4.4 to just 2.6 in second halves. We’ve all seen it happen – a rush of set restarts in the opening 20 minutes before a period where you can lie all over the ruck and not get called, followed but a scattering of them in the second half.

And you can see from the below table showing half splits per referee it’s happening largely across the board this season.

Only Matt Cecchin with a 0.5 difference in restarts per half bucks the trend, maybe he didn’t get the memo? I’m also very concerned that Adam Gee isn’t calling the most set restarts per game anymore, hopefully this is another thing I can attribute to small sample size.

Luke Keary doing Luke Keary things

Whilst I hold no interest in the outcome of the Dally M awards, it’s becoming increasingly noticeable that there are players being awarded votes who have no business receiving them. Voters are trying to play the smartest person in the room card by handing out one vote to a player who did well on a team that got thumped, even if they were the 14th best player on the field.

Case in point is Luke Keary, who sits on zero Dally M points after two rounds, despite adding +20 Net Points per game when looking at average Net Points Responsible For (NPRF). Players who have more votes than Keary include Matt Moylan, Benji Marshall and Jack Bird. I’m not suggesting they didn’t deserve points, but for Keary to fail to register any votes highlights the flaws in the current system.

I don’t like looking at individual player stats after just two games because it’s such a small body of work, and opponent strength can play into it significantly. That said, Keary is in a class of his own so far as you can see from the table below showing average NPRF from the two rounds played in 2021.

The amazing thing is that Keary did the exact same thing last season after the return from the Covid 19 lockdown, adding +19 per game in Rounds 3 & 4.

There’s no perfect system to fix the voting issue, but the only thing I’m sure of is that the current system doesn’t work.