The on field location of set restarts – NRL Round 21 stats and trends

After spending the last few weeks looking at the timing, margins and tackles where set restarts occur, this week the Eye Test is continuing to break down those numbers on a team-by-team basis to look at where these infractions are occurring on the field and which tackle teams are conceding them.

Before we get into the team breakdowns, I want to revisit the analysis from the last post on the site concerning which tackle restarts were conceded on. In noting that the average restart awarded 2.3 more tackles because so many of them occurred on tackle one, r/NRL Reddit user Abbabaloney raised a great point about first tackle restarts. Their point was that there should be more first tackle set restarts because there are more first tackles. This makes sense and they’re right, there are more first tackles. They suggested the best way to look at them is the rate of restarts per tackle.

Are there more restarts on tackle zero or one because they occur more often? Zero or first tackles account for just under a quarter of all play the balls so far in 2021. Second tackles are almost equal at 23.5%, dropping to 21% for third tackles and then another 30% for tackles four and five combined. Holding possession through to the sixth tackle happens about 1% of the time.

What is the rate of restarts per tackle then? For first tackles, they occur about 3.4% of the time. That drops to 3.1% on second tackles and 2.6% on third tackles. If you’re paying attention, there’s less than 2% drop in instances of first and second tackles occurring, but set restarts transpire 8% more frequently on first tackles than they do on second tackles.

This continues as you move through the tackle count. There’s nearly 12% fewer third tackles than there are second tackles, but they’re happening nearly 20% less regularly on those tackles. Again we’ve proven that set restarts are predominately occurring on first and second tackles, not just by volume but also by rate.

We’ve firmly established the occurrences of set restarts early in the tackle count, let’s move on to when and where each team are conceding them. First up, on which tackle are teams giving up a restart? The percentage of each tackle when a restart is called by team for 2021 are below, ranked by the percentage occurring on first tackles. There’s also a league wide average column on the right.

It should hardly be surprising to see the Panthers leading the way, with over 43% of their set restarts occurring on the first tackle. Another 26% of their restarts occur on the second tackle, meaning nearly 70% of their six agains conceded are on the first or second tackle. The reason it isn’t surprising is that we showed last week that the Panthers were only giving up 2 extra tackles per game on average. When you see the visualisation of their restarts conceded later, it will be come clear just how much they’re gaming this system.

You’d probably expect to see the Storm not for behind, but shockingly their first tackle % is fifth lowest in the NRL. Where they make up for it is on second tackles, where they concede 34% of them, second in the competition behind the Warriors (40%!). When you combine those numbers, it makes 66%, only slightly behind the Panthers at 69%. More proof of the use of set restarts as a way of controller field position early in sets, which you’ll see in the Storm’s visualisation later in the post.

The Roosters have been doing their own thing this season, only giving up 20% of their six agains at the start of a set. You’ll see later that they appear to be using them primarily as a way of holding defenses at their line, rather than limiting their early metre gains.

The worst late tackle offenders are the Tigers, who give up 21% of their restarts on fourth tackles (ouch). No other team is above 20% for fourth tackles, with the next highest being the Warriors at 16.7%.

What about location of restarts by team? The eye test (not this one, that one) would indicate that a lot of them are happening inside teams’ own halves as they return the ball after a kick, allowing the defending team to control their momentum and prevent high metre gains.

Here’s how each team splits their restarts conceded in their own and opponents halves, sorted by percentage in opposition half.

Penrith are top spot, with nearly two thirds of their restarts called in an opponent’s halves. Not only are they using them early in tackle sets, but they’re also using them more in opponent’s halves. Other top four teams are using them more in their opponents’ halves as well, with Parramatta, Souths and Melbourne all over 50%.

The Roosters buck the trend as well, giving up just 40% of their restarts in opponents halves, only bested by Manly who give up just 38% inside their rivals 50. When we get to visiualising these numbers later, these two teams really stand out.

Interestingly, there’s a 50/50 split in both halves for set restarts. This means even with the suggested rule change to penalties in your own half and set restarts in the attacking half, you’d only be eliminating half of these restarts. On the positive side, it would be eliminating the most cynical ones, but for most it probably wouldn’t be going far enough. But I digress.

Getting back on track, if you break that field position down even further, are teams using restarts as a method of control more inside the 20 metre area of an opponent’s half, or midfield? Here’s the same chart again with each half broken out to 0-20m and 20-50m zones, sorted the same as the previous chart.

Yet another example of Penrith leading the way, with 50% – yes HALF – of their set restarts conceded coming between their opponents 20-50m zone.

The Sharks raise an interesting profile as well. They concede nearly 60% of their restarts in an opponent’s half, third in the NRL, but are the worst at giving them up inside their midfield (20-50m) area, at 33%. That number is even worse than notorious six again offenders Canterbury at 29.6%. This would indicate that the Sharks game plan is to try to use set restarts to contain teams in their own area, and if that fails to try to keep them from reaching their own red zone.

We’ve established which tackle and the rough location of where each team is conceding their restarts, it’s time to look at exactly where on the field each of these restarts are occurring.

Last week I posted an animated gif of the location of every set restart by tackle, but felt it didn’t show the intensity of restarts inside a team’s own half. To get around this I’ve changed to heat maps which show more clearly. Below is a gallery of the heat maps of the location of every restart by tackle up to Round 21.

As talked about in the previous post there’s some obvious tendencies here and I’ll recap again for those who missed it. First tackle restarts are yielded well within an opponent’s half, mostly inside the 10-40 metre zone, and somewhat by teams defending their own line in the middle of the field. Second tackle restarts are primarily between the 20-50 metre area, again with some from teams defending their own line. Tackle three restarts are mostly midfield, whilst tackle four restarts are rarer and more likely to be about 10 metres out from the line. Fifth tackle restarts rarely occur but if they do its usually inside the last 10m near the try line on the left side of the field.

Now that we’ve seen the overall trends by tackle, below is a gallery of a heat map of every team’s set restarts conceded this season. The top left-hand corner shows the which team is displayed as well as below in the gallery.

There’s definitely some interesting trends here with the intensity of the heat maps and you can see the tendencies I pointed out earlier in the post. It’s very clear to see that Melbourne and Penrith are conceding them strategically in their opponents’ halves, especially in the 20-50 metre zones.

Penrith in particular have a huge gap in the attacking midfield (50m-20m) where they aren’t giving away set restarts, something no other club in the competition is doing. Other clubs may have less occurances of them in parts of the field, but still concede them. Only one club has a blank part of the field and that’s Penrith.

The Roosters and Manly are eschewing the trend of giving away a high number of six agains in an opponent’s half, with both sides tending to concede them more on their own line as way of stifling attack.  

Gold Coast tend to concede a large number of them in the middle of their field defending their own line, as do Newcastle but closer to 5m out than on the line itself.

Teams who have been performing poorly this season don’t share a specific profile for restart locations. Brisbane, Wests and North Queensland tend to give them up all over the field, although there is still likely to be more of them inside an opponents’ half. The Bulldogs in particular give away a ridiculous amount around the halfway mark, while the Dragons prefer to use theirs in midfield or on their own line.

Six again? More like 2.3 again – NRL Round 19 stats and trends

Another week, another set restart post here on the Eye Test. If nothing else, I know my brand and how to stay in my lane.

Last week I mentioned my holy grail would be pinpointing what tackle and where on the field each set restart was occurring. Thanks to some of the finest minds on NRL Twitter helping me out, that is now possible (for 2021 at least) by combining it with the set restart data I’d put together for last week’s post. We now have the tackle when each restart has occured and an approximate location of where the restart was awarded.

I’ll spare you the details on what type of witchcraft and sorcery led me to collating these numbers, other than again being grateful for some advice and crowdsourcing from some great minds. I’ll also throw out the disclaimer that there are likely some mistakes in this set, as we’re looking at over 1100 set restarts so far this season. All data is presented as is and I take no responsibility for any errors, although the impact of such errors within a sufficiently large data set like this shouldn’t significantly impact any results.

Now that I have this data, what exactly should we be looking for? We know from last week’s post that set restarts are awarded at a lower rate as the game progresses, and as games approach the 80th minute more restarts are awarded to the trailing team. Is it tackle number or location a good place to start?

Friend of the site (and real hooper) James Mack suggested a way of analysing who is gaining the most out of set restarts by looking at the extra tackles generated by a set restart.

The idea is that no team is giving up “six more tackles” because they’re conceding about one third of them on the first tackle. I’m not going to go over this for State of Origin as suggested, but it’s a good starting point for the NRL this season. For simplicity sake I’m counting any restarts awarded on the zero tackle as a “first” tackle. It’s a great idea to see who has benefited the most. But first I’m going to look at who has been conceding the most.

Now that we have the data, we can find out what the average tackle is when a set restart is awarded. Just how many extra play the balls are teams facing when they hold down in the ruck or jump offside?

2.26. Or 2.3 if you’re being generous and rounding up.

Yes, the deterrent for holding down in the play the ball or straying offside during a play the ball is just 2.3 tackles. Most teams could easily withstand an extra one or two tackles, and it’s no wonder that they’re doing it consistently. The consequence for giving away a six 2.3 again is minuscule for the modern NRL team that backs itself defensively. Who needs an extra 20-30 metres of field position anyway?

Looking back at teams conceding, how does that 2.3 split out if you look at the restarts by tackle number and half? The answer is below, showing the % of restarts occurring on each tackle.

Overall it’s about one third of restarts committed on the zero or first tackle, and another 30% on tackle 2. Almost two thirds of restarts are giving away just one or two extra tackles. I’ve beaten this point to death over the past year but the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. You’re almost disadvantaging yourself by not using them tactically to gain an advantage.

The chart above shows there isn’t much difference between halves, with just over 60% occurring on tackles 1 or 2 in the second half compared to nearly 64% on the same tackles in the first half. The one thing that does change is that there are slightly more third tackle restarts (22.6% vs 19.8%) and fifth tackle restarts (5.1% vs 4.0%) in the second period.

Has the average tackle when a restart is conceded increased or decreased during the season? Again I take you back to Graham Annesley’s quote I used last week that was transcribed by Jason Oliver at the always wonderful Rugby League Writers:

“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.”

If you took this at face value you’d expect to see an increase in six agains early in tackle count. What does the data show though? Here’s the average tackle that a set restart was conceded by round this season.

It looks pretty consistent, mostly between the 2.1 and 2.3 range. If anything, the rounds preceding and following Annesely’s statement that there were more six agains early in the tackle count showed the highest averages since Round 3 at 2.5 and 2.4 for Rounds 17 and 18 before dropping back to the usual range of 2.1 in Round 19.

From this I would again assume that the six agains aren’t happening more frequently, or earlier, but observer bias is making people think they are. Most rounds are falling within 0.1-0.2 of the season average, or somewhere between a 5% and 10% variance which is nothing out of the ordinary.

Back to the season average, does that 2.3 tackle differ by team? If you’ve been reading the Eye Test long enough you’ll know that it does AND I’m going to show you.

Unsurprisingly the Panthers are giving away set restarts the earliest, conceding them on average just before the second tackle, the only side in the NRL to do so in fewer than two tackles. The Storm aren’t far behind at 2.13, just ahead of the other top four sides in Parramatta and Souths. Again, giving restarts away early and in a safe location is a strategy.

At the other end of the scale, the Roosters give them away on average more than half a tackle later than the Panthers. The Roosters location for restarts conceded differs from the likes of Melbourne and Penrith, who are happy to commit these infringements inside an opponent’s half. They are more likely to give them away defending in their own area, a Roosters trait that has been carried over from conceding penalties in the same way.

Are there any differences if we split that team average by halves? Again, if you’re a long time reader you know there are and they’re below, sorted by first half average.

Looking at each half individually shows a few trends. The first is that the Panthers forfeit the extra 2.3 tackles even earlier, on average after 1.83 tackles, and slower in the second half at 2.13. It’s no wonder they’re getting off to fast starts, being incredibly willing to slow the ruck down very early in games to maintain control of a game.

Newcastle manages to dip under 2 in the first half but commit them much later in the second half, at 2.3. The Dragons second half issues might stem from here, where they are allowing a set restart at 2.88, nearly three tackles into a set.

Souths are one of the few who manage to buck the trend and commit these transgressions earlier, going from 2.38 in the first half to 1.82 in the second half, which is the lowest of any team in either half. Melbourne are their consistent best, conceded at 2.13 tackles in the first half and 2.14 in the second half.

Now that we’ve analysed who is conceding them and on what tackle, what teams are benefiting the most from set restarts? Who is getting them later? The chart is below.

There are five teams whose average tackle for set restarts being awarded is approaching 2.5 – the Roosters, Broncos, Eels, Knights and Panthers. Given their ladder position it’s no surprise that Penrith and Parramatta rate highly here. Melbourne are decidedly mid table whilst the Cowboys and the Sharks are both seeing restarts awarded earlier, with their average under the 2nd tackle at 1.84 and 1.97 respectively.

The breakdown of tackle locations for restarts is as you would expect as well, which you can see in the animated gif below. If you’re unsure which tackle you’re looking at check the top left corner, and all teams are assumed to be running left to right.

Locations of set restarts by tackle, 2021 season

The majority of tackle one (including zero) or two restarts are inside 40 metres. Tackle two restarts tend to occur between the 20-50 metre area. Tackle three restarts are mostly between 30m to the opponents 40 metre line. Fourth tackle restarts occur in two places – around the opponents 40 metre line and on the goal line. And the rarest of all, the last tackle restart, is rarely given outside of an opponent’s tryline.

One thing that stands out from this animation is that the proposed change to award penalties in a team’s own half but restarts in the attacking half will only solve part of the problem. There’s still going to be excessive holding down or jumping early by teams desperate to hold out an attacking team close to their line. It is almost as if penalties were the perfect solution and the game removed them to appease nobody.

Surprisingly there’s not a lot of deviation from the distribution of tackles when restarts are awarded when looking at referees. Most of them fall in the one third awarded on tackle one, and another roughly 30% on tackle two, with three notable exceptions.

Adam Gee awards a restart 24% of the time on the first tackle, with 31% on tackle to and 29% on the third tackle, the highest of any NRL referee. He is the only regular official not to have his highest percentage of restarts occur on the first tackle.

Ben Cummins still has about one third of restarts awarded on the first, but his second tackle percentage is just 23% with 30% coming on tackle three. Finally, Grant Atkins has a lower first tackle percentage but the drop from his second to fourth tackle is much lower than the rest of the field.

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.