While browsing the paper a couple of weeks ago, I came across this interesting little article in the Sydney Morning Herald about the impending selection of Adam Reynolds, and why specifically he should be selected.
In it, the author argues that Reynolds’ league-leading try assists per match, and more particularly his league leading total tries from kicks, “are the statistics which show why” Adam Reynolds was to be selected by New South Wales. The argument sounds very convincing. Unfortunately, it’s also baloney.
For starters, kick try assists are almost entirely out of the hands of the kicker, and are more dependent on the quality of the kick chase. Even the most inch perfect kick is completely useless without a decent kick chase, and conversely, a terrible kick can be made effective by an especially good kick chase.
Secondly, scoring tries from kicks is an unreliable proposition. Tries from kicks are dependent on a variety of factors outside of the control of the kicker – field position (few tries are scored from kicks from outside an opponent’s red zone), the kick chaser (an elite kick chaser like James Tedesco can turn an otherwise average kick into a try scoring opportunity), the kick defense (the anticipation of the back three, or lack thereof), the weather, blockers and so on. Indeed even the player’s own ability can work against him. A player who sends a teammate over for a try with a well executed line break assist is simultaneously denied an opportunity to create a kick try assist later in the set. Conversely, a player without an ounce of creativity with ball in hand will get an opportunity at the conclusion of almost every attacking set to roll the dice for a potential kick try assist.
While it is certainly possible to have a purple patch of tries from kicks (the 2010 Panthers led the league in tries courtesy of a whopping 45 tries from kicks), the enormous amount of luck involved makes depending on them unreliable (The Panthers bowed out of the finals with consecutive losses, and in 2011 regressed to 3rd last in tries scored, largely due to the regression of their kick tries back toward the mean. This despite still featuring Luke Walsh at halfback, who had kicked the majority of those try assists the year prior).
So if kick try assists can’t be depended upon as a guide to scoring tries, what can? The answer is line break assists. The relationship between tries and line breaks is indisputable. Using the last two years as examples, in 2015 tries and line breaks league-wide had a correlation coefficient of 0.74, and so far in 2016 that number is 0.76 (For those of you who have long forgotten high school statistics, suffice it to say that the closer that number is to 1, the tighter the relationship. Accordingly, 0.75 is considered a high correlation). Further, regardless of the ability of teams to score tries from kicks, teams don’t vary particularly far from the league average in the direct relationship between tries and line breaks. Across the NRL, teams score on average 10% less tries than they make line breaks. Of the 16 teams in the NRL, at the time of writing only 3 fall outside of a range of 5-15% less tries (those teams are Brisbane (-19%), New Zealand (-22%) and the Gold Coast (who have scored 8% more tries than line breaks, which is likely an aberration that will move closer to the average as the season progresses). Souths sit at -8%, despite Adam Reynolds apparent talent for kick try assists. Evidently, it makes very little difference.
None of this is to say that Adam Reynolds shouldn’t be selected – he offers a lot more than just try assists. His kicking game is terrific (both long and short), he’s a tough defender for his size, and he’s a great organizer of the attack. It’s just that kick try assists should not be the leading argument for his selection. If it were, then New South Wales might be better suited sending an SOS to somewhere in England for Luke Walsh to come back and save the series.