The difference between contenders and also-rans is that contenders always find a way to win the close ones. This is a commonly held belief of commentators and fans alike and has been perpetuated year after year without challenge. But is it true? And if it’s not, what is the defining trait of dominant teams, or is there even one at all?
To begin, we first need to define what we’re calling contenders. For our purposes, we’ll be calling Minor Premiers, Premiers and Runners Up contenders. Next, we must decide what constitutes a ‘close game’. For this study, we’re going to work with games that finish with a margin of 1-7 (essentially single score games, plus a field goal). To challenge the hypothesis, we’ll begin by looking at all regular season results of these teams, within this margin, in the last five years from 2011.
Elite teams in close games (1-7)
Looking at the table, it’s difficult to find any sort of pattern whatsoever. From the five teams who won the competition, we find two were among the three best performing, one was second worst, and the others are right around average. Speaking of average, the group as a whole averages 55% in close matches, barely higher than 50/50. This is despite the group selected being the most dominant sides of their respective seasons, who necessarily won more games than the majority of their opponents. If it were true that elite teams “find a way to win the tight ones”, then surely these teams would perform better than only winning roughly half these matches. But they don’t. Why?
A rugby league ball is a funny shape
A rugby league match is made up of a huge collection of moments. Tackles, tackle breaks, errors, refereeing decisions, a bounce of the ball and so on. In a single score game, the result can turn on one single moment, making the result of such a game roughly 50/50, or essentially chance. Referee missed a forward pass? Bad luck. Awkward bounce? Game over. Ben Hunt drops the kick off? Premiership gone. However, this isn’t the case in games with large margins. If the Storm are burying their opposition by 30 points and they leak a try due to a defensive blunder, it doesn’t affect the outcome of the match. So, in theory, the better team should more often than not win in blowouts. To test the theory, we’ll look at the results of the same dominant teams, this time in matches decided by margins of 13 or more (3 score games).
Elite teams in blowout games (13+)
Looking at this data, we can see that of the five premiers, three won over 90% of games decided by 13 or more, and only two teams won less than 75%. The group collectively averages 83% in such games. Put simply, dominant teams dominate teams.
It’s also worth noting one other thing from these two tables. Notice that collectively, the elite teams play in almost 50% more matches decided by 13+ than they do close games. This is particularly important, since we now know that they perform far better in blowout matches than they do in nail-biters. So, the other takeaway from this discussion is that whilst dominant teams do not in fact perform especially well in close matches, they also don’t put themselves in those situations as much in the first place.
Postscript: So, what about 2016?
|TEAM||1-7 W||1-7 L||1-7%||13+W||13+L||13+%|
By looking at the margin data gathered so far this year we can make several inferences:
- The sides that best characterise dominant teams are Melbourne, North Queensland and, to a lesser extent, Cronulla (who, despite a 100 percent success rate in games with large margins, have only dominated 4 matches all year). The other teams who look likely to join this category are Canterbury and Brisbane (if they can turn around their current form slump).
- Though Cronulla, Melbourne and North Queensland all appear to be the most dominant sides at present, the former two sides currently sit six points clear of the Cowboys on the NRL ladder. This is no reason for North Queensland fans to be alarmed, as the extra wins can be immediately traced to the unusually high close game win percentage (85.71%) of the top two sides. In essence, at this point in the season two of the best sides are also the luckiest.
- St George Illawarra perfectly illustrate however, that winning close games is more a result of good fortune than talent. The Dragons, despite being on the receiving end of no less than seven floggings (and not having dominated anybody themselves) somehow find themselves in equal seventh, courtesy of a run of particularly good luck in tight contests. This can be considered an anomaly, and it’s the opinion of the author that the Dragons’ inflated ladder position will drop soon enough.