The Obstruction Rule discusses the week’s most surprising upset – the hapless Dragons defeating the 2nd-placed Sharks.
Setting the Scene
|VOA Rating||Ranking||VOA Rating||Ranking|
(If this is your first visit to the site, you can learn about our VOA-based NRL statistics here)
Four weeks ago, The Obstruction Rule explained why the Sharks and Dragons were among the luckiest teams in the NRL, and that their ladder positions were somewhat inflated. So, it comes as no surprise to us that in the four weeks since, they’ve combined for just 2 wins between them. What did come as a surprise however, was that the Dragons’ first win occurred on the weekend, with a shocking upset of the 2nd-placed Sharks.
When we compare the two sides’ VOA Ratings so far, the match looks like a bloodbath. Cronulla’s attack is above average, while their defense ranks among the game’s elite. St George Illawarra, in contrast, feature the 2nd-worst offense in the league, and their defense has been almost as poor. This was not the way the match would play out however, as the Dragons ran in 5 tries to 3 on their way to their first 13+ win of the season, to claim one of the season’s biggest scalps.
Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s September 5th, 2015
Perhaps more shocking than the fact that the Dragons beat one of the competition’s big guns is the fact that in doing so, they scored 32 points. To put that in perspective, that was almost 1/5th of their points for the entire season up to that point, and the most they’d scored since they snuck home against the Tigers’ swiss cheese defense in Round 26 last year. The Dragons’ offense has been not only bad, but embarrassingly bad, scoring less points than every other team bar Newcastle, who are enduring the worst season in NRL history. This was not the case on Saturday night though, as the Dragons ran riot against the league’s 3rd best defense. How?
Comparing the two teams’ performances in the match, we see that for the most part, both teams performed similarly with one obvious exception – tackle breaks. Indeed, when we look at the Dragons’ tries we see that tackle breaks specifically were the difference between the two sides. The Dragons scored two tries from kicks (which we’ve established previously as an unreliable means of scoring tries), and the rest were the direct result of Cronulla’s missed tackles. The Dragon’s second try followed Tariq Sims steamrolling James Maloney, before offloading to create an overlap on the right edge. Sims himself scored their 3rd try, strolling through a weak attempted tackle from Joseph Paulo. Finally, Gareth Widdop put the match beyond doubt when he brushed off Jack Bird on his way to the try line.
Though the Dragons have lacked points throughout their recent losing run, they certainly haven’t lacked effort. Their forward pack has competed hard, typically matching it with other, more highly regarded sides. The issue that they’ve had is that they’re typically unable to convert field position into points, largely due to the ineffectiveness of their set plays.
Looking closely at the actual construction of their tries this week rather than just the box score, it appears that unfortunately the Dragons are still struggling with the same offensive issues that they have all season long – they didn’t create tries, but rather they dominated possession (courtesy of extraordinarily good discipline and a low error count) and then hoped for their opponent to make defensive lapses. And, surprisingly, Cronulla obliged.
Cronulla are running on old knees
It may well be the case these days that life begins at 40, but in the modern NRL, 30 is the beginning of the end, and players continuing into their 30s are increasingly rare. In fact, there are just 9 players aged 34 or higher who’ve played first grade in 2016, and two of them (Paul Gallen and Chris Heighnington) are in Cronulla’s forward pack. If we move the bar to look at players aged 32 and older, Cronulla’s forwards make up 4 of 29. The average age of Cronulla’s starting forward pack is 29.83 years old, and it’s only that low thanks to the inclusion of the comparatively cherub-like Wade Graham, who’s 25. Including their typical bench (Tagataese, Heighnington, Bukuya and Paulo) makes little difference either, bringing the Sharks’ forwards’ average age to 29.7. The point of this collection of numbers isn’t to ponder how much more the Sharks spend on creche services than other clubs, but rather to hypothesize why the Sharks might be running out of steam. (SPOILER ALERT: They’re old.)
There are many downsides to getting a little older in life. Your hair gets a little greyer, your nose hairs grow a little longer (and ear hairs for that matter), and at some point, everyone you know starts dying (apologies for the suddenly morbid turn). This isn’t intended to be cruel, it’s merely a fact of life. One of the early signs of aging however, is that the human body simply doesn’t recover as quickly as it once did, and this is true as early as 30. For this reason, with the speed of the modern game, few players continue into their 30s, and those who do typically don’t play a lot. Looking at players aged 32 or older in 2016, the group averages just 13 games each. This would appear to illustrate some combination of increased injury risk and fading skills. With this in mind, it’s something of a minor miracle that the Sharks have largely kept the same playing group together all season (they’ve used just 24 players all year, the lowest in the league). However, age can manifest itself in different ways, and it may well be that as we near the end of a long NRL season, it’s taking its toll on the Sharks more than others.
|Cronulla Defense (season)||-28.22%||-6.96%||-1.44%|
|Cronulla Defense (Rd21-23)||8.42%||2.68%||24.74%|
The table above shows the Sharks’ defensive VOA Ratings for the season so far, contrasted against their performance in the last three weeks. It’s immediately obvious that their defense is not performing up to their typically high standards, which is of particular concern to Cronulla, whose identity is built on their defense (remember from earlier that they rank just 7th in the league for offense). Cronulla lean on their defense to win matches, however that defense is starting to look tired. Not only are they no longer dominating, they’re actually below average across their defensive measurables. These problems could be the result of fatigue on an aging roster.
The Sharks defense has been so dominant largely because of their incredible line speed, which has contained opposition forward packs all season long. Until now. They’re no longer dominating field position with their defense, and without that it places more pressure on their offense to win them games, something they’re less likely to do with any consistency. Similarly, the rate that the Sharks are falling off tackles of late must be concerning. In the Dragons’ game alone, the Sims and Widdop tries were directly the result of lazy missed tackles. These sorts of defensive lapses simply didn’t happen a month ago.
We’re not saying that the Sharks can’t turn this mini-slump around. They’re all but guaranteed a top 2 finish, and if they win in Week 1 of the finals, they’ll be just two wins away from their maiden premiership. However, it may be a little harder for the Sharks than the other Top 4 sides, and if they don’t win this year this squad’s window of success may quickly snap shut.