15 November 2017

RLWC2017: Group Stage Emerging Stars

One of my favourite things about recent World Cups is seeing players you don't know much about emerge as possible stars with exciting futures ahead of them.

After the group stages of this years World Cup, I've picked out some of the players who weren't really on my radar before the tournament, but are now.

I've looked at players nearer the start than the end of their careers. I've overlooked players from the big 3 (Australia, England and New Zealand) and I've also swerved the other home nations, as I already know a fair bit about most of their squads.

Here's my selection of players who, for me, have emerged and could go on to be impressive NRL or Super League talents by the time the next World Cup rolls around in 2021.

Joey Tramontana - Italy & Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, 20 years old, Hooker
Listed at only 5 feet 7 inches, Tramontana is one of the little stars to emerge in this World Cup. The RLWC website had him 5th in total tackles at the end of the group stages, with 108. The Fiji game was his defensive stand out performance, with 43 tackles and no missed tackles counted by the stats men. The USA game was his best attacking display, seeing him score 2 tries in an all-round impressive display leading his team around the field.

One thing that does need to be said is his discipline needs work. He gave up 5 penalties in the World Cup, with a sin bin for throwing a bit of a cheap shot against Fiji a low point for him. However, what this did show is his fiery toughness and lack of fear. Being a small bloke, these are qualities you want to see, and you would hope he'll mature as he gets older to use his fire more constructively. The Bulldogs must see something in that, as he was one of the captains in their 2017 u20s side.

He hasn't made his first grade debut yet, but has been a mainstay in the Bulldogs u20s over the last couple of years. Although there was a u-turn over Michael Lichaa after the coaching change at Belmore, hooker isn't a position of great depth for them. Tramontana has definitely made sure people took notice of him at this World Cup and I expect him to become a part of their first grade plans in 2018, but if he doesn't I'm sure he'll attract some interest from elsewhere.

Ata Hingano - Tonga & New Zealand Warriors, 20 years old, Half back/Five eighth
I've seen Hingano play a bit for the Warriors in the NRL, he's played 15 times in total, but I've never seen him really impress enough to understand the faith they've put in him with his long term deal and letting a number of other halves leave in recent years. That was until Tonga played Samoa in week 2 of the 2017 RLWC.

He played well against Scotland, grabbing a try in a game his forwards dominated in reality. His forwards were great against Samoa too, but Hingano stood out as the best half on the pitch, controlling things for his side and leading them to victory with a lot of maturity. He took a back seat a little to his more experienced half partner Tui Lolohea against the Kiwis, but still put in a competent performance that bodes well for his future. Impressive stuff from the young half overall in this tournament so far.

Mason Cerruto - Italy & Penrith Panthers, 21 years old, Full back/wing
Cerruto is definitely more comfortable at full back. He started the 2017 World Cup campaign against Ireland on the wing, it was his least involved and least impressive performance of the tournament. He was tested defensively by a potent Ireland left edge and only made 76 metres carrying the ball. He then moved to full back against USA and Fiji, making 202 metres and 109 metres respectively, with 3 breaks and a try during those two impressive performances.

A look at his Wikipedia page shows he had spells at u20s level for Wests Tigers and Parramatta Eels, before moving to Penrith. His career highlights so far are mostly for Italy, with 7 tries in his 6 internationals - although all his tries have come against minor sides Serbia, Russia and USA. He also played a big role from full back in Penrith's 2017 NSW Cup Grand Final win, with a try assist and 192 metres on 20 carries.

He's tall and a promising ball carrier. Undoubtedly he needs to work on his defensive skills. He's unlikely to crack the first grade squad at Penrith any time soon, so some of the less financially privileged Super League clubs or upwards looking Championship clubs might want to take a look at him.

Ilias Bergal - France & Leigh Centurions, 21 years old, Wing
Bergal is the only player in my list that isn't signed to a NRL club. He's not even signed to a Super League club, but I think Leigh are lucky to pick him up after his very decent
spell at Swinton - 5 tries in 6 games to help them avoid relegation.

Although France were poor in this World Cup and failed to overcome Lebanon in the group stages, there were a couple of positives and Bergal was definitely one of those. He helped them get out of their own territory, listed as making 419 metres and a couple of breaks, second for France only to full back Mark Kheirrallah in those numbers.

Bergal is tougher and more physical than you might expect. He's hard working too and has reasonable positional sense from what I've seen. I definitely think he's an upgrade to what Leigh already have on the wings so I hope he'll get plenty of game time and should do well at a top Championship club.

Alex Twal - Lebanon & Wests Tigers, 21 years old, Prop
Although he's featured for a Lebanon side that I've found to be set on spoiling tactics in their World Cup underdogs role, Twal is clearly a star in the making.

He doesn't appear to be flashy but he definitely has an impressive work rate. The RLWC website has him top of the tackle counts of all players in the group stages. He leads his side in tackles and carries so far. He made over 100 metres in the win over France, was Lebanon's top metre maker and tackler against England - 52 tackles with no missed tackles - and was top tackler against Australia - 45 tackles, although 1 missed tackle upsetting his record.

A Parramatta junior who earned NSW and Australia junior rep honours, he signed for Wests Tigers midway through 2017 and they gave him his NRL debut in Round 17 of 2017. He played from the bench for each of their last 9 games, averaging almost 100 metres and 28 tackles a game, with one of the best tackle success rates in the NRL for 2017. It's just, by that stage Wests were irrelevant, so I didn't catch much of their action!

It's no surprise that he's signed up to 2020 and I expect him to ease the loss of Aaron Woods a little bit for the joint venture.

Viliame Kikau - Fiji & Penrith Panthers, 22 years old, Back Row/Prop
Listed as a prop, Kikau start each of the group stage games in the 2nd row for Fiji. He scored 3 tries, had 1 try assist, came close to 500 metres (491m) with over 10 metres for every carry. He made 4 line breaks, which from what I can tell is the most of any forward during the 2017 RLWC group stages. The only negative number is his 8 handling errors. It does have to be qualified by pointing out Fiji have enjoyed arguably the easiest run of fixtures, playing USA, Wales and Italy.

His stats look great. He passes the eye test too, listed at 195cm and 119kg, he's tall and muscular with plenty of athleticism. He looks strong, powerful and pretty quick.

Fiji born and raised, he got his break in the u20s with North Queensland and won 2015 honours as prop of the year and RLPA NYC Player of the Year. He debuted for Fiji in 2015 and then moved to Penrith, making his NRL debut earlier in 2017, marking the game with a try. He's played 9 times in the NRL now, all coming off the bench for the Panthers. He was also part of their NSW Cup Grand Final winning side, playing the full 80 and making over 100 metres. He's signed up for 2018 at Penrith.

I've not watched much Penrith footy in 2017, so he hasn't stood out to me before the World Cup. The wider running role that Mick Potter has been giving him is showing more of what he might be capable of. If he doesn't get more play at Penrith, other clubs in NRL or Super League should come calling.

Taane Milne - Fiji & Wests Tigers, 22 years old, Centre
Although he only has 1 NRL try and 1 try assist, Milne has found himself playing 18 times so far in the NRL over the past two seasons. He's made over 100 metres in all but one of his starts, but he's mostly only appeared from the bench to grab a few minutes here or there. Maybe that will change now he's left the Dragons to join Wests Tigers.

If his World Cup form so far is anything to go by, they'd be making a mistake by not giving him more game time. He has 4 ties, 7 try assists, 5 breaks and 11 offloads from the three group stage games. Admittedly, playing for Fiji means he's had the easiest run of group stage opponents he could have faced, but that shouldn't take too much away from what has been an exciting and skillful display so far from the player Benji Marshall said had one of the best flick passes he's seen. He's certainly made me take notice of his skills.

Kato Ottio - Papua New Guinea & Canberra Raiders, 23 years old, Centre/Wing
Ottio's stats from the World Cup group stages are okay, although not as impressive as some of the others in my list - still a try, 2 breaks, 6 offloads and 338 metres aren't bad. It's just that I find him really exciting to watch, like the entire PNG back-line have been in this World Cup so far.

He's not quite the youngest of that back-line, but I know more about centre-partner Nene McDonald from his 60+ NRL games despite him being a couple of months younger than Ottio. He's yet to make his NRL debut for Canberra, but probably wound have if it wasn't for serious injury towards the end of 2016 that ruled him out until a few months into 2017. When fit, he has been a stand out on the wing for the Raiders NSW Cup feeder team the Mount Pritchard Mounties, scoring 29 tries in 23 games in 2016, making the NSW Cup Team of the Year at wing.

Tall, fast, skillful and powerful, Canberra have him signed up through 2019. He looks the part and I think he'll be a big NRL weapon on the wing once he gets a chance.

Justin Olam - Papua New Guinea & Melbourne Storm, 23 years old, Wing
With 4 tries and 458 metres, Olam has been a star for PNG in the group stages. It's true that he has an error in him, he isn't the polished performer quite yet, despite being the oldest of the emerging stars in my shortlist, but he's a hugely exciting watch.

He isn't the biggest winger at the World Cup but he's one of the most powerful and exciting ball runners. He hasn't been massively tested with his Word Cup opponents yet, although did face the impressive Ireland left side attack and saw them go scoreless.

He's yet to make his NRL debut for the Storm after moving to them from the PNG Hunters for 2017, but he has made the extended bench on occasion. Most of his work since his move has been backing the Queensland Cup for the Sunshine Coast Falcons, where he faced his former side the Hunters in the 2017 Grand Final, coming out on the losing side.

Thanks for reading. Look out for our special podcast episodes during the off season. For iTunes users, head HERE. For the rest of you, you'll find us HERE.


7 November 2017

How to win in Super League

Listeners to the show will know that we do what we can with the free stats available on the Super League website. One thing that I've been looking at in the off season so far is which of these stats seems to be most important to winning games in Super League.

In a simple breakdown, I've looked at every winning result over the time that the show has been running (so, from 2014-2017). I've counted up when the winning team had the most a particular stat count, when the count was equal between the sides, and when the winning team had less in a stat count than their opponents - then turned these into percentages of the games with a winning result (i.e. not a draw).

The below two charts show the results of the simple process.
The first chart is the basic stats: Tries (T), Tackles (TK), Marker Tackles (MT), Missed Tackles (MI), Tackle Busts (TB), Attacking Kicks (AT), Carries (C), Metres (M), Average Gain per carry (AG), Clean Breaks (CB), Runs From Dummy Half (DR), Errors (E), Goals (G), Missed Goals (MG), Offloads (OF) and Penalties Conceded (P).
The second chart has four stats adapted from those basic ones: Tackle Success Rate (TK%), Goal Success Rate (G%), Positive Impact Plays (TB+CB+OF) and Negative Impact Plays (MI+E+P).

Chart 1
Most of the headline results are fairly obvious - the team with the most tries and goals wins almost all the time. You'd also expect the team making the most metres, the most tackle busts (so also the fewer missed tackles) and most clean breaks to win much more often than lose.
  • 86% of games are won by the team who scores the most tries - only 12 of the 684 games in the period were lost by the team who scored the most tries.
  • 85% of games are won by the team who kicks the most goals (although 52% are also won by the team who misses the most goals!).
  • 79% of games are won by the team who makes the most metres, and 71% by the team who makes those metres at the best average gain.
  • 71% of games are won by the team who makes the most tackle busts (and, as a complementary number, 71% are won by the team with the fewer missed tackles).
  • 70% of games are won by the team who makes the most clean breaks.

It's also clear that using your energy with the ball rather than without the ball is fairly important for success - the team with the most carries and making fewest tackles has a much better win rate than the other way round.
  • The team with the most carries wins 69% of the time.
  • The team with the fewest tackles wins 71% of the time, the 5th highest indicator of all these stats.

What is interesting is that errors, and in particular, offloads and penalties aren't as decisive as we might think.
  • The team who makes fewer errors has won 61% of the time, so it's still an important factor in winning, but it's only the 11th most decisive stat of the 16 shown in Chart 1.
  • The team who makes the most successful offloads only wins half the time.
  • Similarly, when a team concedes fewer penalties they only win half the time.

 Chart 2
These results are a little more interesting still.

This shows having an overall better tackle success rate is very useful, but not as important as not having to make as many tackles in total.

It also shows that kicking at a better success rate than your opponent isn't that important, as long as you're taking more kicks at goal like Chart 1 shows.

Finally, it shows that whilst positive and negative plays are both important, it's more important that you don't make the bad plays, as making more of those has a greater impact on whether you win or not. Now, from Chart 1 we know that it's probably the missed tackles part of this that will hurt your chances most, so this shouldn't mean teams can't take risks in attack - it just means any mistakes in attack have to be backed up by a strong and secure defensive line.

Whilst this isn't the most sophisticated analysis you'll ever see, it is still somewhat informative. In games between evenly matched sides, take a look at who leads the way in the stats that count most when picking a winner.

Thanks for reading. Look out for our special podcast episodes during the off season. For iTunes users, head HERE. For the rest of you, you'll find us HERE.