6 December 2015

Rugby League Competitive Balance In The Modern Era

Rugby League history didn't start in 1998, but two big parts of Rugby League history did start that year - the Super League Grand Final and the NRL. I think that's a good enough reason to use it as the starting point for this look at the recent history of the two major Rugby League leagues.

A subject I've written about before is competitive balance. The theory goes that if the outcome of individual games, the season's league standings and the year to year title winners is uncertain and unpredictable then the league will be more popular and successful. It's a pretty reasonable theory. Like all theories, it isn't faultless and there are exceptions (most major association football leagues!), but it's fairly logical and robust.

So how do the biggest two modern day Rugby League competitions compare when it comes to competitive balance? Well, we probably all know the answer to that questions, but I've already made some graphs and tables, so lets have a look anyway.

Individual game outcomes
The proper academic ways for analysing short-run competitive balance can be complicated and time-consuming. I have a much less sophisticated and scientific way of looking at how competitive individual games were...looking at the difference between the winning team's score and the losing team's score.
You'll see from the graph that in no season has Super League had a smaller average winning margin than the NRL. In fact, only five NRL seasons have had a worse average score difference between winners and losers than the lowest Super League average (14.9, 2007). Every NRL season has a figure lower than the Super League 18 year average. Every Super League season has a higher figure than the NRL average - only just in 2007's case. Pleasingly, 2015 was a good looking start for the #RLNewEra and the overall Super League trend is downwards in this number since 1998, although to the NRL's credit the downwards trend is even greater down-under.

When you look at the percentage of games that end with a one score or smaller winning margin, the picture is pretty much the same.
Here, the higher the number the closer things are. At least this time the Super League came out on top in some of the years, with a higher percentage of close score lines than the NRL in 2001, 2002, 2004 and 2008. What is strange here is how the two leagues mimic each other somewhat. I can't explain that. But it's again good to see both trending in the right direction, although again the trend is much stronger and clearer in the NRL.

Unsurprisingly, when you look at the other side of the coin and count up games with wider winning margins, the NRL comes out as more competitive again.
There are fewer games decided by a large score difference in the NRL than in Super League. An 18 point margin might not be a massive difference in the grand scheme of things, but you wouldn't think of a 16-34 score line as close, for example. Quite simply, there are more one-sided games in Super League than the NRL. 2007 was again the year with the most competitive games in Super League, and the only year to come in below the NRL average percentage of games decided by 18 points or more. 2008, though, was the only year to beat the NRL in this category. Worryingly, the Super League trend is for the percentage of such games to increase. However, this is heavily influenced by a couple of really bad years in 2010 and 2011. Happily, 2015 was the second lowest percentage of Super League blowouts we've seen.

A closing positive for Super League is that the playoff stage of the season has traditionally seen more close games and fewer blowouts than the same stage of the season in the NRL - when the top Super League teams play each other, the games are more competitive than the regular season. With an extended playoffs from the Super 8 format, we should see even more of this, which can only be good for the sport in the UK and Europe - as long as the Qualifier 8s doesn't detract from the Super League 8s too much as it did in 2015 on this score (see post from 26 November 2015).

Season outcomes
The traditional medium-run measure for competitive balance is win-percent ratio, where the standard deviation of win-percents is compared to the idealised figure for the number of games played in the league. Put simply, the closer the win-percent ratio is to zero, the closer and more unpredictable that season was.
Here we see the same sort of results as the graphs for individual game outcomes showed. The NRL is more competitively balanced than Super League, although both leagues appear to be getting more competitive as time moves on.

Like our first graph, no one year sees Super League be more competitive than the NRL, No NRL season has a worse win-percent ratio than than the Super League average win-percent ratio. 2007, again, is the most competitive of the Super League seasons. I've no explanation for why this is the case - the only notable difference for the 2007 season was the introduction of the Magic Weekend, which I can't see having any influence on competitive balance. One way this graph differs from the others is that the trends of both sets of figures shows Super League being on a stronger path to more balance, with the NRL also seeing a trend for falling win-percent ratios, but at a slower rate.

Once again, 2015 offers some promise of what the 12 team Super League can offer in terms of more equal competition - although we're yet to see what impact a promoted team might have to that, one way or the other.

Winning outcomes
Concentration of title wins is as good a way as any to assess long-run competitive balance. I don't a graph for this, I have a table.
You'll see from the table that only four teams have won the Super League Grand Final. Almost three times as many different teams have won the NRL Grand Final. As well as that, more than twice as many different teams have played in the big game down under than in Super League. St Helens played in six straight finals in one run, compared to the best run of final appearances in NRL being Melbourne at the height of their cheating the cap years.

At either end of the regular season standings you also see a bit more variation in the NRL than the Super League, more notably at the top than the bottom.

In Super League, the 'double' victory of leading the league and winning the final has happened 10 times in 18 seasons. In the NRL, it has happened six times. Huddersfield won a league leaders title after having picked up some wooden spoons in the past, but no Super League Grand Final winner has also finished bottom in the modern era. Six NRL sides have a wooden spoon along side a minor premiership in their trophy cabinet, and six have a spoon next to their Grand Final winning rings - seven if you allow the Western Suburbs part in the Wests Tigers joint-venture to count.

Has this post taught us anything? Maybe not, but at least its given us some evidence to support what we already thought - that the NRL is more competitive and unpredictable than Super League. But, hey, the trends show what is happening in Super League is moving us towards closer competition. That's good. Long may it continue.


P.s. Here's a table full of numbers, many of which informed the above graphs.

28 November 2015

The SLP Super League All-Time Table (2015)

Rugby AM recently shared their all-time Super League table and a few people shared it our way, which we appreciated, but don't be thinking we (well, Mark) didn't already have our (his) own one ticking along!

So here it is:

You'll maybe notice a difference to the one shared by Rugby AM. We see the Super 8s phase of the season as the play-off phase rather than the regular season, so those games aren't included just like old-style play-offs and finals aren't counted.

The table speaks for itself, but there is something I want to draw people's attention to. Only six sides have a better than 50% win success and only seven sides have a positive points differential - one of the sides in both lists is Gateshead Thunder!

Also, before anyone brings it up, the ill-fated Shuddersfield merger is included in the Giants numbers. Not because we forgot it happened, but because we haven't forgot that they played their home games at Huddersfield in Huddersfield colours and were quickly just Huddersfield again after just one year.


26 November 2015

After Eights - Mark's Season Review

This year was the birth of the new era. The dawn of the eights. So I thought the most fitting way for me to wrap up 2015 would be to have a stats run-down of the Super 8s.

The two things I'll be looking at in detail are the match stats compared between the Super League 8s (SL8s) and Qualifiers 8s (Q8s), and the results of games across the whole of the season.
You would expect to see something in the numbers to highlight the difference in quality between the sides in the SL8s and the Q8s. Maybe not in attacking stats so much, but certainly in defensive and negative numbers (errors and penalties). 

What you actually see are remarkably similar numbers when looking at the averages from the 28 weekly round games in these competitions. So what observations, if any, can we make?
  • small differences in points per game and the metres numbers that maybe hint at what you would expect - a little more space for open play in Q8s than SL8s.
  • small difference in offloads that hint at a little higher skill level in SL8s than Q8s
  • small difference in errors and penalties do hint at lower fitness and skill levels in Q8s than SL8s
These just hint at things though, they certainly don't evidence a big gap between the top teams and the mid-ranking teams.

The most surprising numbers for me come when you look at missed tackles and tackle success. This is where I'd expect to see the intensity and fitness of the SL8s to show through, but there is no difference in these numbers.
It's when you look at the end results of the games though that you can pull out some more interesting observations.

  • Across the board, the 8s stage of the season sees more points per game - roughly an extra try per game - than the regular season does. A likely explanation for this is the games are played in the summer months, with drier weather and faster fields to run on. Whatever the stage of the season though, points scored each game is broadly similar across the top two levels of the game in the UK.
  • Top level games are generally closer on the final scoreboard than at the level down, whether this is the SL regular season or the SL8s. The biggest average gap in scores between the sides on the field was seen in Q8s.
  • As you move down the hierarchy, the amount of close games falls and the number of blow-out score lines increase. This does suggest that SL, with higher and more equal funding that assists a full cap spend, sees a more even spread of talent. Further down the hierarchy you see a more significant 'haves and have-nots' factor. You get full-time teams playing part-time teams. You see teams with active academies play those with no talent producing structure. You see those with full central funding play those who barely get a quarter million pounds funding. 
  • The big stand-out figure is undoubtedly the 61% of Q8s games that ended with a 18 point or more margin. It's a number that's significantly more than any of the others in this category. Tie that in with the average winning margin and you start to see a different picture than the match stats paint of the competitiveness and intensity of games in that middle 8. Making closer games in this Q8s phase is likely to be a factor that has motivated the change in salary cap at the Championship level - that, and only 2 wins by Championship clubs over SL clubs in the 16 opportunities for that to happen in the Q8s, and one of those was a game with nothing riding on it.
  • The breakdown of winning margins is where there is the most support for saying that Super League is the most intense, most competitive and most exciting level of the game in our country, especially at the SL8s stage when the best play the best each week. A high mark in the percentage of games with close finishes and the lowest figure for blow-out scores is complemented by the highest percentage of games in the balance at half time (14% drawn at half-time).
  • In the Championship, where we see some suggestion of disparity between the top and bottom sides, you see much less significance of home field advantage. This is probably an outcome of that disparity - the best teams will win whether they are home or away. Whilst the changes in the cap might help the top Championship clubs in the Q8s, it's not going to help the bottom Championship clubs beat them home or away in the regular season, so you'd expect this position to continue.
  • A lot has been made of earning that extra home game for the 8s from your regular season final placing. In actual fact, at the top level, home advantage dips a little in the SL8s compared to the SL regular season. In general though, where sides are more evenly matched (SL and the three 8s), home advantage is a significant factor in helping teams win a game. 
  • Another sign that the funding gap in the Championship doesn't make for a competitive regular season is when you look at how many games are effectively over at half-time - 77%, the high figure across the competitions. You wouldn't expect the salary cap changes to help remedy this, and all of a sudden John Kear's shortened Championship season idea is looking better. In fairness, a similar picture is seen across the board, with at least 71% of games going to the half-time leader in all the different competitions. That indicates first half performance and the way you start games is very important in rugby league. 
  • An interesting twist on from the half-time/full-time results is that Q8s is tied for the highest percentage of second half turnarounds. Given that the most one-sided games happen in the Q8s, this seems a contradiction. Without going into a game-by-game analysis, one possible explanation is that part-time or Championship sides can stick with the full-time or Super League sides for at least half a game, before the better fitness and conditioning of the better trained sides takes over after half-time. 
What we know is the 8s have brought some excitement. What we also know is they will keep being tweaked because more than being about 'Every Minute Matters', it seems to be about trying to please everyone. 

The cap changes announced already for the Championship should benefit the Q8s at the detriment of the Championship regular season. It might also put a bit more pressure on those SL clubs that are in the mix at the end of the regular season for falling into those Q8s spots. 

Whether these are good or bad things its hard to say at this stage, but I'm sure we'll all enjoy finding out in 2016 and beyond. And I hope you've enjoyed this post as well as the rest of the SLP output in 2015. I'm off to see how the NRL and League 1 fit into all this...see you next year! (and at Christmas...and on Twitter...and on Facebook!)


p.s. like us on Facebook gang, let's catch up to our great Twitter following yeah!?!

13 November 2015

2015 SLP Awards: The Results

Listener Voted Awards:

1) SLP Player of the Year
Winner: Adam Cuthbertson (40% of the vote)
Runner Up: Zak Hardaker (12%) 
Other vote earners: Danny McGuire, Jermaine McGillvary, Luke Gale, Jamie Peacock, Alex Walmsley, John Bateman, Adrian Morley, Tony Gigot, Luke Dorn, Kallum Watkins

2) SLP Young Player of the Year (must have been aged 21 or under on 4 February 2015)
Winner: George Williams (70%)
Runner Up: Niall Evalds, Andre Savelio & Jordan Abdull (5% each)
Other vote earners: Ben Currie, Mark Percival, Fouad Yaha, Theo Fages, Stevie Ward, Kruise Leeming, Joe Burgess

3) Best Import 
Winner: Adam Cuthbertson (66%)
Runner Up: Albert Kelly (13%)
Other vote earners: Josh Mantellato, Ben Roberts, Todd Carney, Adam Quinlan, Mark Minichiello
(2 ineligible votes)

4) Worst Import
Winner: Chris Sandow (63%)
Runner Up: Todd Carney (22%)
Other vote earners: Willie Tonga, Terry Campese, Dane Tilse, Ashton Sims
(18 ineligible votes)

5) Most Underrated Player
Winner: Carl Ablett (9%)
Runner Up: Ukuma Ta'ai, Stefan Ratchford, Scott Taylor, Luke Gale, Danny Houghton, Andy Lynch, Adam Swift, Adam Milner, Aaron Murphy (4% each)
Other vote earners: Zeb Taia, Tony Gigot, Scott Grix, Paddy Flynn, Oliver Holmes, Nathan Massey, Mitch Garbutt, Mike McMeekan, Mike Lawrence, Mark Percival, Liam Watts, Kevin Penny, Kallum Watkins, Josh Mantellato, John Bateman, Joel Moon, Joe Mellor, Dom Manfredi, Jamie Ellis, Grant Millington, Dom Crosby, Ben Roberts, Alex Walmsley

6) Most Overrated Player
Winner: Carl Ablett, Matty Smith, Kevin Locke, Chris Sandow (9%)
Runner Up: Stefan Ratchford, Sean O'Loughlin, Rangi Chase, Jon Wilkin, Daryl Clark, Danny Brough, Ashton Sims (4%)
Other vote earners: Travis Burns, Todd Carney, Scott Grix, Ryan Hall, Michael McIlorum, Mason Caton-Brown, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Justin Carney, Joel Tomkins, Joel Monaghan, Gareth Hock, Ben Westwood, Alex Walmsley, Albert Kelly, Adam Cuthbertson

7) Rugby League Beard of the Year
Winner: Kyle Amor (27%)
Runner Up: Craig Huby (24%)
Other vote earners: Jamie Jones-Buchanan, Tyrone McCarthy, Adam Cuthbertson, Alex Walmsley, Dave Hadfield, James Child, Patrick Ah Van, Roy Asotasi, Mark Illingworth, Tom Crook

8) Clown of the Year Award for funniest/daftest/most entertaining/craziest player this season
Winner: Anthony Gelling (43%)
Runner Up: Ashton Sims & James Child (7% each)
Other vote earners: Kevin Penny, Justin Carney, Danny Brough, Tony Clubb, Phil Clarke, Phil Bentham, Micky Higham, Marwan Koukash, Louie McCarthy-Scarsbrook, Kevin Locke, Jamie Peacock, Fui Fui Moi Moi, Eorl Crabtree, Derek Beaumont, Ben Roberts, Adam Swift

9) The 'See You Next Tuesday' Award for general prickish behaviour in Rugby League
Winner: Marwan Koukash (20%)
Runner Up: Tim Smith (16%)
Other vote earners: Justin Carney, Danny Brough, Derek Beaumont, Jon Wilkin, Gareth Hock, Zak Hardaker, RFL Rules Committee, Racist Wakefield fans, Phil Clarke, Paul Anderson, Mose Masoe, John Bateman, Joel Tomkins, James Lowes, Darrell Griffin, Danny McGuire 

10) The 'Dr Bob Phillips' Award for Listener's Listener of the Year
Winner: Dr Bob Phillips (34%)
Runner Up: Tyler CasFan (31%)
Other vote earners: Diane LBW, Tim Griffiths, Dan Fowler, Wally Frogmore, Richard Wilkinson, Paul Lewis, Oliver Smith, Brian Davies

Host Chosen Awards: (named after the inaugural winners)

The 'Diane LBW' Award for Tweeter of the Year: Colin Render

The 'Scott Lister' Award for Facebooker of the Year: Brian Davies

The 'Paul Campbell' Award for Fan of the Year: Richard Wilkinson

The 'Dar Garner' SLP International Listener of the Year Award: Paul Michael Craig

The 'Andy Barden' SLP Listener of the Year Award: Tim Griffiths


7 October 2015

2015 SLP Awards Voting Information

The season is coming to an end and plenty of awards have already been handed out.

Now its time to get your votes in for the most sought-after awards of them all - it's time for the 2nd Annual SLP Awards Season to get under way.

The 2014 "SLPies" were great fun and a great success. The 2015 instalment promises to do just the same, with some small changes to the awards from year one.

Full details on the awards on offer and how to get your votes in is given below. We hope that you all take the time to get involved.

There are no short lists, just tell us who you think deserves the award and we'll count all the votes received to name a winner.

Listener Voted Awards:

1) SLP Player of the Year
Previous winner:
2014 - Chris Hill

2) SLP Young Player of the Year (must have been aged 21 or under on 4 February 2015)
Previous winner:
2014 - Daryl Clark

3) Best Import 
Previous winner:
2014 - Luke Walsh

4) Worst Import
Previous 'winner':
2014 - Roy Asotasi

5) Most Underrated Player
Previous winner:
2014 - Oliver Holmes

6) Most Overrated Player
Previous 'winner':
2014 - Rangi Chase

7) Rugby League Beard of the Year
New Award for 2015

8) Clown of the Year Award for funniest/daftest/most entertaining/craziest player this season
New Award for 2015

9) The 'See You Next Tuesday' Award for general prickish behaviour in Rugby League
Previous 'winner':
2014 - Zak Hardaker

10) The 'Dr Bob Phillips' Award for Listener's Listener of the Year
(previously know as Twitter Follow of the Year, voted for by listeners in 2014)
Previous winner:
2014 - Dr Bob Phillips

How to Vote:

Listeners can vote for the 10 awards listed above simply by getting in touch with us using any of the normal methods.

You can comment below on this post. You can visit our Facebook page and comment on the post there. You can send us an email to superleaguepod@gmail.com. You can tweet your votes to @SuperLeaguePod. The choice is yours, but only one vote will be counted per listener, whatever platform you chose to vote on.

Host Chosen Awards: (named after the inaugural winners)

The 'Diane LBW' Award for Tweeter of the Year

The 'Scott Lister' Award for Facebooker of the Year

The 'Paul Campbell' Award for Fan of the Year

The 'Dar Garner' SLP International Listener of the Year Award

The 'Andy Barden' SLP Listener of the Year Award

Other ways to get involved in our 2015 Season Review:

Sick of just hearing our voices? Want your chance to be heard on SLP? This is your time to shine. 

We want you to send in reviews of your club's season in 2015. We want at least one from each of the 12 Super League clubs, but we'd also love to get one for each Championship and League 1 club as well if we can.

Your review should try to include your best player and young player, your favourite game or moment from the season as well as the high and low point of your club's year, but you can include anything you want to - it's your review of your club, so make it your own!

Pretty much any audio format is acceptable as we can convert if needed - the voice recorder on your phone or tablet will be more than adequate we expect. 

Try and keep them to around 3 minutes long and email it to us at superleaguepod@gmail.com by 24 October 2015. 

We can't wait to hear from you as well as count up your votes for the 2nd Annual SLPies.

Cheers for your continued interaction and support.
Mark & Tom

24 September 2015

A Vision for the Future

We haven't posted a blog piece for a while but a recent tweet to the show sort of reminded me of an idea I had a few years ago on how I would look to adapt the league structure for Super League, and it's possibly even more suited to the NRL.

Here is the tweet:

My idea, which came as part of a blog post in 2013, is to get the Super League in a position where it could have at least 16 teams, that were split into two conferences of 8 teams each. It would be an extension of Paul's suggestion to split the Super League Super 8 into two groups of four.

Each team would play their own conference home and away - 14 fixtures. They would also play each team from the opposing conference once, rotating the home game each year - to make it 22 fixtures.

Magic Weekend would be a 23rd fixture and this would involve each side playing against the same ranked side from the other conference of the previous season's competition.

The League Leaders Shield / Minor Premiership, if retained, would go to the team with the best 23 game regular season record.

The play-offs would then be 1v4 and 2v3 of each conference, the winners of which will play off for the conference title. The two conference winners would then meet in the Grand Final - a maximum total of 26 Super League fixtures for the two best sides.

This leaves ample room for the World Club Series, the Challenge Cup in England, State of Origin in Australia and a possible mid-season international window, or old-style tours in the end the season international window.

The World Club Challenge would be between the two Grand Final winners and the World Club Series could have a four game total slate, with the remaining six conference finalists filling those fixtures that could run from Thursday to Sunday over one weekend, or be done as two double headers.

If the English/European obsession with promotion and relegation needed to be retained that would also be possible through having the bottom club of each conference play-off and be replaced by the top club from the league below.

There is the opportunity for expansion too, if some sort of franchise system is preferred but others want access down the line. Adding two more teams to the league can mean an increase of only two more games - you'd have 18 intra-conference games and 9 inter-conference games, with Magic Weekend now not an additional fixture but one of those 9. Further expansion could see conferences split into divisions and teams earning play-off spots over their divisional rivals, then ranked against the records of their conference rivals.

I would make it clear that this isn't being written as a challenge to the current structure (Super 8s is in its infancy after all). It's just an idea, that I have, for a structure I believe would allow us to be able to get more from than what we've seen in the past.

It's not revolutionary - it's basically the American Model. It's one that works well, commercially and for sporting competition.

I know it's a little fanciful for now, especially for Super League. It will need more funding, and more equal sharing of that funding, because in Super League in particular there is a disparity in finances, facilities and playing strengths that needs to be closed between the top 16 sides to make it meaningful competition most weeks of the season. But I don't think it's light years away from being a realistic proposition either - I mean, there will already be 16 full-time clubs in the European competitions in 2016. And to be honest, the NRL could do it now, if they wanted.

Here's an example of how it could look:
Sydney Conference
Sea Eagles

National Conference

Obviously, with expansion, teams can move conferences to where they might have originally preferred to be, and this is just one idea of how to work it. Based on 2015, though, those happen to be quite well balanced though, with four Top 8 sides in each conference.

Anyway, it's all just thoughts in my head because I doubt this would happen, even though I think it could revitalise things in a way that wouldn't need to be changed again and that everyone can be happy with. Of course, it's rugby league, so we'll never find something that everyone can be happy with.

Thanks for reading. And don't forget to listen to the show.


31 May 2015

GUEST BLOG - A Ref's Eye View

We're lucky to have some great listeners of SLP and we're always keen for your unique input on the greatest game. 

We're really lucky to have a former North West Counties Referee of the Year who frequently gets in touch with the show, and that man Paul O'Brien has got in touch with a view from the middle. 

From the pressure of the job, the highs and lows of a refereeing career that ran into three decades and a vision for the future, Paul gives his take on it all in this great little piece. 

We thank Paul for taking the time to share this with us and we hope that you enjoy his insight as we have done.


Why would anyone want to referee? You spend 80 minutes being abused by all sections of the community for what? Well the love of the game, that's why. No matter what anyone says the referee does not want to be the centre of attention, far from it. The best referees are never seen. Yes there will be decisions that are unpopular but you are not there to be liked. No matter what we all think referees are not biased. They don't hate your team or have a hidden agenda.  They are there to apply the laws of the game and do it in a professional manner. 

It's not easy being the referee. The top referees in our sport have put in many hours of training. Refereeing games all over the country and spending their weekends sacrificing time with friends and family to officiate at games. 

A referee on a Saturday in the local leagues will referee the game without the help of touch judges, in goal judges or video referee and will still want to perform as if they are refereeing a Super League game. Often this is done whilst being verbally abused or even threatened by fans of these team. It can be very intimidating especially if your there on your own (it's not like this at all clubs but even once is too many). I'm not saying it's easy at the top. The Super League referees are under enormous pressure. With replays and live feed onto big screens every decision is scrutinised and after several views the commentary team and the fans still argue about it. The referee gets a split decision to decide or a call from the touch judge.  

Refereeing needs to be invested in lower down the pyramid to help develop the future Super League Referees. Is is starting to happen but has a long way to go. With only a hand full of Super League referees this pool has to be bigger but it can't happen over night. They have to be the best and if they make mistakes they have to be accountable. Unfortunately at the moment this doesn't happen because there is not enough depth at the top. 

I started refereeing in 1989 aged 14. I had great support from the Widnes RLRS. Positives during my career was refereeing in Russia as part of a North West Counties Tour and North West Counties Referee of the Year. I only have one low point and that was retiring. But with a young family and a full time job that  I do shifts and weekends something had to give and unfortunately it was refereeing. 

So next time you're watching a game, take the rose tinted glasses off and remember the referee is not there to cheat or help the other team win. Yes they will make mistakes but at the end of the day if there's no referee there's no game 

For more information on becoming a referee visithttp://www.therfl.co.uk/more/match_officials/becoming_a_match_official


30 May 2015

Referees and Penalties

The men with the whistles are talked about far too often in our great game these days - so lets talk about them some more!

The officials make hundreds of decisions every game, and we at SLP haven't the time to go over them all. But there are a couple of things we can pull out from the numbers we already collate each week, and we've decided to do that.

Appointments of referees is one thing we can look at. Another is penalties - of all the easily available stats, this is the most controlled by the officials, as they have to give them (other than kick offs out on the full, which give themselves). The other one is cards handed out.

What follows will be a load of tables with a few comments. We hope you find them interesting.

Referee appointments
The above table shows the distribution of refereeing appointments across the first 15 rounds of Super League XX (minus the two missing games from round 11).

One clear take away from this is that experience isn't deemed necessary to take charge of Wakefield games, games which are obviously below our higher profile referees. Phil Bentham and Ben Thaler haven't looked after any Wakefield Super League games and Richard Silverwood has only done one. In contrast, Robert Hicks - the newest full time ref on the panel - and the part time refs elevated from the Championship have done 11 of the Wildcats 14 games so far. More than half the part time ref's games have featured Wakefield.

With Wakefield taking most of the part time ref games, it hasn't left any opportunity for them to control games featuring Warrington at all.

No one ref has had any side more than four times though, so there has been a fair bit of spreading them around. The teams and refs that see each other most are worth keeping an eye on - Silverwood having three sides he has seen four times in Hull FC, Leeds and Wigan.

The above shows how many penalties have been given against home teams and away teams.

It doesn't come as a great surprise that away teams tend to be penalised more heavily than home sides, on average having one more penalty blown on visiting sides than on home sides. The conventional wisdom in much writing on the topic is that one of the main driving factors of home advantage is pressure on referees.

What is interesting to note is the more experienced refs that have more Super League games under their belts are more likely to favour the home side in the penalty count than the away side. Hicks is the only full time ref to give more penalties for the away side than against them. Matt Thomason is the only part time ref that doesn't average the away side being on the wrong end of the penalties.

Something to take from this is that there tends to be more home fans at games than away fans. When home fans are on the wrong end of the count they tend to be more critical of the referee, or make more accusations of some invented bias. The up and coming refs might be putting more pressure on themselves by getting the home fans against them. Then again, they might be showing the strength of their convictions. Of course, its also a smaller sample size from them to draw meaningful conclusions from.
The above table shows penalties each ref gives against each team, per game they've taken.

There are a few takeaways here. You can almost pick out one in each column and row.
  • What do Leeds know about James Child's interpretations that no one else appears to, and wouldn't St Helens love to know it too!
  • What are Salford getting so wrong when Bentham is in town? He averages 5.6 penalties per side, per game but blew 10 on Salford in one game - nearly double his average.
  • Silverwood is the games happiest whistle blower in 2015. He averages over 15 per game. But Warrington seem to have got the hang of him in their three games under his watch.
  • Hicks isn't afraid to get the whistle out, but Huddersfield must really not want to see him, whereas Leeds have the hang of him too.
  • Salford will be happiest to not have to see Tim Roby any more.
  • Catalan will be much happier to see Thaler in town than St Helens.
  • Thomason is pretty consitstent across all the teams he's reffed.
  • Catalan in general appear to have a better handle on their discipline this year, but especially so when Thaler is in the middle.
  • Huddersfield are the only team than get 11 penalties per game from two refs, but they seem to manage better when Child is in town.
  • Bentham must have a soft spot for (or fear of) Hull because both the city clubs do a bit better on the count when he is in charge than they generally do.
  • The average per team per game is 6.9 penalties, but Leeds are managing to avoid this from all refs but Silverwood - the ref they've had the most, but 7.5 is still below his per team per game average. They are the only team to have more than two refs blow under 5 penalties per game on them. They've got their discipline and understanding of the interpretations down better than most others.
  • Salford and St Helens are as consistent as Leeds but the other way round, both giving away generally above average penalties, no matter the ref.
  • Saints are the league's worst offenders for giving away penalties but it isn't helping that the three refs they've seen the most also have given the most penalties against them. Interestingly as they are second to Leeds but each have an entirely different penalty record.
  • Warrington, like Leeds, appear to have got it right no matter who the ref is, as the generally give away below average penalties.
  • What is Bentham seeing in Widnes and Wigan that the others aren't. His per game counts on them are the two lowest around for two teams that otherwise are very much average at conceding penalties in 2015. Maybe Bentham is trying to make up for the penalties he gave Brisbane in Wigan's World Club Series game eh?

The table above shows what cards have been handed out by each referee and the table below shows which teams have been on the end of their sin-binnings.

Just as with penalties, Silverwood, Hicks and Child are the dishing out the most punishments. The refs making the jump from the Championship ranks haven't handed out a single card in their Super League games - they must have worn them out on Leigh!

Wigan have been the worst offenders for yellow cards so far and they make up four of Silverwood's twelve. They need to sharpen up their discipline in games he refs as he's shown his willingness to dish out the punishments. Salford have upset the widest range of refs, with four different officials showing their players cards.
Of the 41 cards handed out in Super League XX, 13 came in the opening two rounds. 21 have been given in televised games.

We hope this has given you some insight into what has gone on around the referees. These guys do a difficult job and without them we wouldn't have a game.

Give them what you've got from the terraces, but stop and think before you resort to social media to have a go at them - they're all fairly consistent in what they're giving against all teams and I bet you they make less mistakes per involvement in the game than every single player in every single game.

As always, thanks for reading and feel free to leave your comments - and don''t forget, give our show a listen!


5 April 2015

Shooting high

We've had loads of talk about high shots this season, particularly after it all kicked off with Patrick Ah Van's opening night send off.

I've discussed a list of offences that would be penalties up to send offs. It's going to be difficult to illustrate them with examples so feel free to put examples forward. (*I note that this intentionally fails to cover other striking offences like punching or shoulder charges which I see as separate to high tackles)

There are a number of factors that tend to be referred to in the disciplinary write ups or if you hear the on field officials justifying a decision:
Open hand or closed fist
Reaching/grabbing or swinging arm
Direct head contact or secondary contact off the ball/shoulder/chest
Full body to aim tackle at or opponent dipping or stepping in to contact

These have to be the types of things you look at when coming up with a list, as well as the 'careless, reckless or intentional' classifications.

Rarely do we see a high shot considered to be intentional. When it does happen these have to be punished by a send off. Often it's fair to say most are careless. It's not really fair to punish these with anything more than a penalty and maybe a caution or Grade A charge from the MRP from time to time. Most of the red or yellow offences below would fall into the 'reckless' group of trying to make a tackle but being reckless about the outcome.

So how would my list look for on field incidents?

Direct head contact, swinging arm, closed fist, full body to aim at

Direct head contact, swinging arm, open hand, full body to aim at
Secondary contact, swinging arm, closed fist, full body to aim at
Direct head contact, swinging arm, closed fist, opponent dipping or stepping
Direct head contact, reaching/grabbing, closed fist, full body to aim at

Penalty only
Direct head contact, reaching/grabbing, open hand, opponent dipping or stepping
Secondary contact, swinging arm, open hand, opponent dipping/stepping
Secondary contact, reaching/grabbing, open hand, full body to aim at

A simple way of looking at it is anything incidental but high is a penalty, anything forceful and high is a sin bin and anything high and nasty is a send off. My justification for having such a narrow send off category is a red card can be a massive moment in a fixture and the game is so fast and so tough that it's hard for clear cut decisions to be made by officials on the fly. We have a review process that can pay more attention to any incidents that deserve more scrutiny.

I would be more inclined to see bigger bans across the piece to players guilty of head shots than necessarily more send offs in pressure situations. The bar for grading punches or shoulder charges is set higher than high shots. I understand why as one is more rare and often a deliberate act and the other happens plenty and is often incidental, but we do need to start at Grade B for more head shots so that bans are handed out more and it forces players and coaches to rethink their methods.

Let me know what you think? Am I being too soft on the red card front? Are there other ways of defining them that I've missed?

As always, thanks for reading and we love hearing from you so do get in touch. Any good comments will also get coverage on the show.


18 March 2015

No Place Like Home

In Episode 51 of Super League Pod we discussed the varying degree that sides in Super League enjoy a home field advantage.

This came off the back of a suggestion that Widnes enjoy a special edge over other sides because of their artificial surface, which they are more accustomed to than their opponents. It's also been said for sometime that Catalan rely on their home form to get them through to the playoffs.

These and other points of interest were addressed in the fairly basic analysis I carried out of the relative impact being at home or away has on the sides in Super League.

I looked at the last three fully completed year's regular season action so that all the teams had an equal number of home and away games to consider. It also gives a large enough sample to make some reasonable conclusions from, whilst not being too long a timespan for the range of other influencing factors to have too much impact on these conclusions. The analysis therefore includes the now relegated London and Bradford sides along with the 12 Super League clubs.

Some of the outcomes are surprising, some are what we might expect. Here is a table showing my findings. It gives all the key numbers, the rank of each team in those numbers and a bit of a breakdown on what the numbers show.

I'll pick out the headlines, so I'll be talking about the right hand side on the table above. Home advantage has had the biggest impact on the fortunes of the Castleford Tigers between 2012 and 2014. Their boost from the home surroundings was narrowly higher than the Catalan Dragons, who as expected ranked high. These were the only two teams who were twice as likely to win at home than away from home. In third, not far behind, came Hull FC with Widnes ranking fourth, 95% more likely to win at home rather than away from home. 

St Helens saw a remarkably small change between home and away success. Wigan were similarly less affected than most by their surroundings with the second smallest change between home and away win percentage. Leeds were the closest to an average performer in this field with their 7th ranked 41.5% percentage change being closest to the league win-percent averages change of 42.7%.

In real terms, Catalan saw the biggest absolute difference between their home win percent and away win percent. Hull FC, Castleford and Widnes still made up the top four, but in a different order than percentage change. This is mostly because Catalan have been more successful overall during the last three seasons than the other three, who were less consistent.

Similarly and unsurprisingly again, St Helens and Wigan were pretty consistent home and away, as were Bradford Bulls - consistently bad you could argue, but there was a playoff performing team in that stretch (albeit missing out due to points deductions).

The other margin to look at is the points difference. Again, it isn't a surprise that we have the same candidates at the top and bottom of the rankings. The points swing in their favour at home compared to away is over 20 points per game for Widnes and Catalan, emphasising how much of a difference to these sides it makes to play at home rather than away. Castleford and Hull FC round out the top four, with Huddersfield not far behind in 5th. 

Where they play again has little impact on the points Wigan can post - they also had the best total points difference at home and away from home, twice as big an away margin than any other side.

One take away that is clear is home field definitely matters in Super League. All the teams are better at home than they are away from home. On average, playing at home sees your win success be 17.6% higher than your success away and being at home is worth a 9 point start.

As always, thanks for reading, I hope you found it interesting. Don't forget to listen in to our shows, all the useful links are in the sidebar.


4 February 2015

How about a Super League 9s?

The second annual instalment of the NRL Auckland 9s has been deemed a success. We saw big crowds, wide coverage and great on field excitement and entertainment.

This has inevitably got keyboards tapping over here about whether we should get in on the 9s action. The biggest thinker in modern day Rugby League, Marwan Koukash, is known to be keen on the idea and it's one of the regular questions he puts to fans in his Twitter polls. Plenty of fans are also up on the idea, many thinking it should replace the Magic Weekend.

I don't want to be Mr Negative but I've run this idea in my mind a bit and I'm not convinced it would work for us.

Although there is interest in taking it elsewhere now it's proved popular, the Auckland base for the 9s in my mind was integral in its inception. A major rugby league event was needed for New Zealand to help grow the sport and the NRL brand. This bite size version of the game is ideal for new audiences because you can showcase the speed, athleticism and skill offered up without having to get too held up in the rules and intricacies of full game - and crucially, not delaying everything with constant video ref referrals.

We would have to do something similar to get the idea off the ground and fully capitalise on its potential, but that was the concept with Magic Weekend and that part of its purpose has fallen away somewhat after limited success. The places you'd think of would be London or Cardiff with any real similarity for the reasons for taking it to Auckland. That would be by and large rejected by the commonly introspective and regionally protective rugby league core audience.

The plus that Auckland has is an already large audience who support the local NRL team. A team which represents the nation so can draw some patriotism and support from the curious audience members. Neither London or Cardiff can really offer that. Auckland also has a core rugby audience, which Cardiff can offer, but London sits on questionable ground with. I'm not sure we have a location like Auckland that can so suitably fit the bill.

The NRL is big business down under. It's the major sports league in terms of media coverage, television deals and sponsorship revenues. Dick Smith has stumped up major money to get the 9s going, with each team picking up a handsome chunk of money for just being in the event before you think of the price money for winning the thing.

A total pot of around £1.2 million is dished out to the sides competing over the weekend. Put another way, that is more than the fantastic new Challenge Cup sponsorship deal brings in per year of Ladbrokes three year contract.

Quite simply, I'm not sure there is the audience or television interest on this side of the world to have such a commercially successful product as they have developed down under.

In the end that will result in a lesser standard of professionalism surrounding the whole event, which could leave the organisers with egg on its face. Lower prize money would also mean a lesser incentive to put out your best players for what is a sideshow event, but I'll move on to that later.

Another thing that is so great about the Auckland 9s is that it comes as the starting point of the NRL preseason. League fans have had a long wait between meals so they are ready to eat it up.

The bonus in this down under is that it comes as summer is winding down. OK, it rained a bit during the second instalment after 2014's sun saturated weekend, but it didn't exactly look cold with everyone who wasn't in fancy dress wearing shorts and singlets. There was definitely no chance of a frozen or waterlogged pitch calling off the action like you might get in England in preseason.

Two 'solutions' to this come to mind. Both of which I have reservations about. Firstly, have it in the preseason but move it away from the north of England. That could give you the weather that guarantees games will be played but would have issues in terms of generating an audience.

The second, more commonly mentioned and endorsed, is play it in May in place of the Magic Weekend. The best strength of the Magic Weekend is that it means something, so teams turn up with something important at stake, league points. Swap that for something that is effectively a festival that is likely to provide little incentive to really win and you won't get the same commitment to playing with the top players on show as you get at the Magic Weekend.

The final major issue that challenges the potential success is one of the criticisms that has been made of the NRL 9s - the absence of a number of major stars.

This year most of the Australian big hitters were missing, and this for a preseason event rather than an event in the middle of a packed season.

What happens by and large in the NRL 9s is you get a few first team players in the early or middle stages of their career. You get a group of reserve graders or young players that might be stepping up in age group this time around. Then, for fun, you get the odd side featuring a former player coming out of retirement for the event.

No matter how any Super League 9s was put together, I can't imagine much difference in squad make up. There will not be more star names, and if you put it in the middle of an every minute matters season I would guess there could be even less, as we've seen in the midweek 9s series that were ran a few years ago that were effectively under 19s tournaments with a sprint on finals day.

My point is, you don't get wall to wall best of the best players at the 9s. The thing is, their back up players down under are better than ours. Their top clubs have a bigger pool of talent to call upon for a tournament like the 9s. What we could see is teams mostly made up of squad players, which are nowadays usually limited to academy products.

The fans
My last doubt would be how many fans are realistically going to turn up, potentially having to travel and pay for overnight accommodation, to watch teams largely made up of squad players and likely missing a number of stars. Probably not enough to support the idea and bring the desired attention and sponsorship I would fear.

Sorry to be all doom and gloom but when we sit watching the Auckland 9s and get excited about the same thing happening over here, we need to remember that other than the shape of the ball and the size of the pitch, there are a lot of differences to the place our great sport sits in the order of things.

I'm not saying it couldn't happen. Like anything these days, money talks. If someone stumps up enough money it could become worthwhile for the clubs to take it seriously. From that the rest could follow. If we do get a 9s, lets hope we get it right!


1 February 2015

The Halfback Problem

The biggest problem our flagship national side - be it England or Great Britain - has faced in the last decade or so is filling the halfback positions.

There have been a number of issues - inconsistency in selections, a lack of quality talent or depth, a saturation of players who come from a land down under. On the dawn of the New Era I don't want to be negative, but I'm a little concerned that this problem might be perpetuated by some of the changes we've seen.

Credit where its due, the prompt for this blog was a piece by Rugby League Latest and a subsequent Twitter chat with Bobbie Goulding. The piece covered Rugby League Latest's top number 7s for the 2015 Super League season. The top three, and four of the five noted, were from Australia. Bobbie highlighted the problem with players effectively not good enough for NRL first grade taking up spots in our sides and suggested limiting the number of overseas players in the key play-making positions. That was a interesting idea but not one I'm going to explore here.

Inconsistent selection
Steve McNamara has coached the England side since 2010. In the 26 games he has overseen there have been 8 different halfback pairings - if you only count the Sinfield-Chase pairing once (they have lined up both ways round). Tellingly England have never entered an Autumn series with the same starting pair as the previous series under McNamara.

England halfback pairings under McNamara
v France, 12/06/2010 - Brown, Tomkins
v NZ Maori, 16/10/2010 - Brown, Tomkins
v New Zealand, 23/10/2010 - Brown, Tomkins
v Australia, 31/10/2010 - O'Loughlin, Robinson
v PNG, 06/11/2010 - Brown, Robinson
v Exiles, 10/06/2011 - Sinfield, Myler
v France, 21/10/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Wales, 29/10/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Australia, 05/11/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v New Zealand, 12/11/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Australia, 19/11/2011 - Sinfield, Chase
v Exiles, 16/06/2012 - Sinfield, Chase
v Exiles, 04/07/2012 - Smith, Brough
v Wales, 27/10/2012 - Sinfield, Myler
v France, 03/11/2012 - Sinfield, Myler
v France, 11/11/2012 - Sinfield, Chase
v Exiles, 14/06/2013 - Sinfield, Myler
v Italy, 19/10/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v Australia, 26/10/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v Ireland, 02/11/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v Fiji, 09/11/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v France, 16/11/2013 - Chase, Sinfield
v New Zealand, 23/11/2013 - Widdop, Sinfield
v Samoa, 25/10/2014 - Widdop, Smith
v Australia, 02/11/2014 - Widdop, Smith
v New Zealand, 08/11/2014 - Widdop, Smith

You can go back even further if you want to find a pair that started the first game of consecutive series for either England or Great Britain in the same 6 and 7 jerseys - it was the 2004 Tri-Nations, where Paul Sculthorpe and Sean Long repeated their staring pair from the 2003 Ashes series. Harris, Deacon, McGuire, Burrow, Horne, Pryce, Gleeson and Eastmond have all joined those listed already above in having a go in various combinations since 2004.

2014 Four Nations
We do have one ace in the hole. Former NRL winner Gareth Widdop was finally brought in as a starter for the 2014 Four Nations along side 2013 Lance Todd trophy winner Matty Smith. Backing them up was Stefan Ratchford.

The England pair did show some flashes of getting it together. Smith's kicking game was a positive, Widdop's goal kicking was strong, and there were a few inspired moments leading tries, but not many. Ultimately it was the sides with the better halfback combinations that won through to the final, Australia particularly showing their depth with star man Johnathan Thurston missing the tournament.

The 2015 trend
Seven of the twelve Super League sides have revamped their halfback options by making a signing or two. Eight of the eleven players signed are of Australian origin - including the permanent re-singing of Tim Smith at Wakefield. Five have arrived directly from NRL sides for this year.

2015 halfback signings - likely starters
Castleford - Ben Roberts, Luke Gale
Catalan - Todd Carney
Hull FC - Leon Pryce, Marc Sneyd
Hull KR - Terry Campese, Albert Kelly
Salford - Michael Dobson
St Helens - Travis Burns
Wakefield - Jacob Miller, Tim Smith

Three sides are definitely going to be running out with a first choice pair of overseas players - Hull KR, St Helens and Wakefield - for all of these, the third choice half is also from down under. Catalan are probably going to a be part of that group too, and depending on how you see the nationality of Rangi Chase you could put Salford in that group.

The five that have come in from NRL sides for the 2015 season feels like a high number to me. On a quick count back off the top of my head I came up with nine halves that came in directly from the NRL during the second licensing period (2012-2014). That's an average of three a year, and that includes two short term stop gap signings in Liam Foran at Salford and Sam Williams at Catalan, so its a jump up in this number for 2015.

Halves signed straight from NRL sides - 2012, 2013 and 2014 seasons
Lance Hohaia - St Helens, 2012
Tim Smith - Wakefield, 2012
Brett Seymour - Hull FC, 2012
Jacob Miller - Hull FC, 2013
Liam Foran - Salford, 2013
Travis Burns - Hull KR, 2013
Luke Walsh - St Helens, 2014
Kris Keating - Hull KR, 2014
Sam Williams - Catalan, 2014

I have a couple of explanations why this is the case. Firstly, the increase in central funding from the new TV deal means that all teams should be able to spend to the full salary cap. That will mean back up NRL halves would likely be able to better their salary by moving over as a starting half in Super League - you don't expect many NRL back ups will be on AUS$150,000-AUS$200,000, but you do think the average starting halfback salary is £80,000-£100,000 in Super League. The second, possibly more significant, explanation is the reintroduction of possible relegation. With the risk of dropping out of Super League and the impact that will have on a club again a real possibility there will be a willingness to put a bit more money on an experienced overseas signing than risk an inexperienced young prospect.

All of this is worrying for me, as it will likely stunt the first grade development and opportunities for British (and French) halves. One the immediately jumps out as being unfortunate is young Theo Fages at Salford. He made plenty of progress in the second half of 2014 only to now likely be knocked down the pecking order for a player clearly not good enough for the NRL. I look at the talented youngster Ben Reynolds and wonder if his departure from Castleford was related to the signings they made. Similarly, Matty Wildie at Wakefield is another who has had to drop down a league in search of first team opportunities. You also have to wonder if Gary Wheeler thought he might get more opportunities to play as a British half in a Warrington side than a St Helens side with three overseas halves at the front of the queue. And then what must you be thinking as a young British half in the Hull KR system? Rovers have signed three antipodean halves for 2015, as part of a run of signing halfbacks direct from NRL sides.

Reasons for optimism
Its not all doom and gloom though for the prospects of British halfbacks. We have the aforementioned Gareth Widdop, a genuine star who has can lead us around for some time to come given the opportunity and luck with injury.

Also, whilst more sides than you would like have no home grown halfback, half the Super League sides will be running with an all British combo in 2015 - Huddersfield, Hull FC, Leeds, Warrington, Widnes and Wigan - only Hull FC of those even having an overseas half in their back up options.

The days of playing for England are behind Danny Brough and Kevin Sinfield now. You can fairly confidently add Leon Pryce, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow to that list, and probably Luke Robinson and possibly Kevin Brown after his 2014 non-selection. Even with that being the case, these players are still there with their masses of experience to help bring others through, and others are there, if maybe not in the numbers we want.

Marc Sneyd at Hull FC was a revelation for Castleford in 2014 and hopefully can kick on after a couple of disappointing displays in the big games he played. Liam Sutcliffe is already starting to make an impact for Leeds, his last minute winning goal kick against Catalan in 2014 showing that he might have what it takes to be Sinfield's successor. Warrington trio Ratchford, Myler and O'Brien are all players with time still on their side and plenty of quality along with big game experience. Joe Mellor for me is one of the most underrated halfbacks in Super League, who at 24 is approaching his best years and in 2014 Widnes actually had a better win percentage for games he played in than they did for games Kevin Brown played. As well as Smith, who has turned into a champion player at Wigan, the Warriors have put faith in their young players with Blake Green moving back to the NRL. George Williams and Sam Powell are both on long term deals and had plenty of game time in 2014, with Ryan Hampshire and Jake Shorrocks waiting behind them to get a chance to show off their great skills.

Lets hope for this group of players to be a success in 2015 and beyond for their clubs, so it shows what having a home grown domestic half back pairing can do for your club. Maybe then the trend will be to sign British or promote from within, in turn strengthening our international options.

As always, thanks for reading and don't forget to check out our show!