17 April 2017

Man Down: Does Losing a Player Mean Losing on the Scoreboard?

This is something one of our listeners asked us about recently. I said I had the info but needed to put it all together, and now I have.

After the Salford v St Helens game, where the Red Devils hung on in the last ten minutes despite being a man down, Helen Hughes asked:
"Are there any (free) stats on which side does better during the ten minutes of sin binning in Super League matches? It seems to me that the side who has lost the player often score more during this period, or at least they are not disadvantaged by the sin binning from a points point of view. What do you reckon?"

I suggested the reality was probably that teams generally do better with the extra man, but there will be some memory bias at play, that we'll be more likely to remember the ones that go against the expected outcome. 

In actual fact, having an extra man for ten minutes does generally have a positive impact on the scoreboard. Having an extra man for more than the ten minutes a sin binning provides doesn't seem to give the expected impact on the scoreboard though. Then, when you look at the overall results of the period teams have an extra player, you actually see as many outcomes where a team down a man is equal of or better than their opponents, supporting Helen's supposition.

I looked at every card handed out in Super League from the start of the 2015 season through to and including Round 9 of 2017. I also broke these down specifically for televised games too, as we're more likely to recall games we've actually seen,
Over the period, there were 171 cards, with 120 occasions where this saw one team having any advantage of players on the field - 51 times, cards were either off-setting or came when opponents had already lost a player themselves.

In those 120 games, 60 saw the team that were a man up take advantage, although 60 also saw them fail to do so, with 36 occasions actually seeing it become a disadvantage. Amazingly, this has been more unexpected when a send off has occurred, so a team had a longer man advantage yet only took advantage 5 of 11 times.

Helen was right, and I was kind of right too - that memory can play tricks. You'll see that in televised games the same experience is even more pronounced, as more televised games with cards see a draw or negative result for the side with an extra man than see them take a scoreboard advantage of the numerical one.

The experience does differ a little by year however, as the below full table below shows. In 2015 teams were much better at taking advantage of having an extra man than they were in 2016, although in red card situations in 2015 it still seemed tough to finish off opponents. 
In 2017, the full experience is closer to 2015, with teams more likely to take advantage when they have an extra man. Despite that, in 2017 televised games we do see a greater failure to take advantage of the extra man. Up to Round 7, when Helen asked her question, the full 2016 experience was being seen in 2017. In certainly was a reasonable question to ask and her suspicions are not at all without foundation.

The 2016 information really is remarkable when faced up against the standard wisdom that having an extra man is a big advantage. Maybe this is just a quirk of the information sample I had available, who knows? If it isn't then the spirit of the Rourke's Drift Test is well alive and rugby league teams really can use adversity as a true motivator.

Thanks for reading and feel free to give your views on the explanation for the surprising results in the comments below.