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The Obstruction Rule‘s True Ladder™
The Obstruction Rule’s True Ladder™ is our take on the popular “Power Rankings” found on other sites. Unlike the arbitrary rankings of those however, our True Ladder™ ranks the teams by their expected performance against a league average opponent. It’s calculated by deducting the projected tries conceded against a league average opponent from the projected tries scored. So yes, the selection of the ranking system is equally as arbitrary. But ours uses maths!
1) St George Illawarra Dragons (4-0)
2) Melbourne Storm (2-2)
3) Sydney Roosters (2-2)
4) Manly Sea Eagles (2-2)
5) South Sydney Rabbitohs (2-2)
6) Brisbane Broncos (2-2)
7) Canterbury Bulldogs (1-3)
8) Canberra Raiders (0-4)
9) Penrith Panthers (3-1)
10) Cronulla Sharks (2-2)
11) Wests Tigers (3-1)
12) New Zealand Warriors (4-0)
13) Newcastle Knights (2-2)
14) North Queensland Cowboys (1-3)
15) Parramatta Eels (0-4)
16) Gold Coast Titans (2-2)
Four weeks are long enough for the ladder to begin to shake out, but also short enough to be a very limited sample, and difficult to read much into. So, with one month in the books, and four surprise teams in the NRL top eight, which of these of these unexpected performances are we buying into, and which do we think are just a mirage?
St George-Illawarra – Buying
Please don’t point to the Dragons’ 2017 implosion as a reason to doubt their 2018 model. We may only be a month into the season, and there’s still a lot of football to be played, but this squad is the real deal. Despite losing key 2017 players Josh Dugan and Russell Packer, Paul McGregor has somehow managed to turn those changes into strengths – replacing Packer with grizzled veteran James Graham (who’s provided exactly the sort of relentless competitiveness this side needed), and the loss of Dugan facilitating the emergence of Matt Dufty.
Dufty is a throw-back to the 90s style of fullbacks, when the position was known for speedsters like Brett Mullins and Tim Brasher, rather than the extra half we’re accustomed to seeing today. In last year’s squad, where the Dragons tolerated a replacement-level halfback in Josh McCrone, playing a fullback like Dufty left them light-on for playmaking options, and it showed – the Dragons won just 3 of the 7 matches Dufty started. In this year’s squad however, he’s the perfect compliment to a halves pairing that boasts ample playmaking talent in Gareth Widdop and Ben Hunt.
We’re not saying they’ll win the competition – it’s far too early to make silly statements like that. However, we are saying that the Dragons are at least a legitimate contender.
New Zealand Warriors – Not Buying
The Warriors might be the flavour of the month, and it’s become sexy to proclaim that the Warriors have apparently “arrived”. Spare us. If the Warriors ‘arrive’ to the finals with a defense as poor as the one they’ve been rolling out through the opening month, they’ll be very quickly ‘departing’ straight out the back door.
Let’s take a closer look at the Warriors’ four matches so far. Against the Rabbitohs and Raiders, the Warriors conceded an appalling 8 and 7 line breaks respectively, roughly double the league average of 3.8 per game. Sure, they contained the Titans to just 2, but the Titans only average 2.2 per game themselves, making that less a spectacular defensive effort, and more like par for the course. And finally, their magnum opus – keeping the Roosters to just 6 points. That’d be quite impressive – if it weren’t for the fact the Roosters’ combination of 14 penalties conceded and 11 errors combined to hand the Warriors an unbelievable 62-38 possession advantage. With more than 50% more football than their opponents, it was a formality that the Warriors would restrict their opponents to a small total, and makes the 3 line breaks they did concede actually look a bit ordinary (no other team has had as much possession as the Warriors did against the Roosters; and of the six occasions this year a team has had 57% possession or more, only the laughably bad Titans have conceded more than 3 line breaks).
We’re inclined to think that the Warriors are probably destined for the playoffs (the 4 wins they already have in their back pockets are a good start). However, it’s hard to take them seriously as a contender if they can’t stop their opposition scoring. If they’re able to tighten their defense up, they may yet prove to be the real deal. But until then, we’re not buying.
Wests Tigers – Not Buying
Like the Warriors above, our issue with the Tigers is that they’re obviously lacking on one side of the ball; and in the Tigers’ case, it’s their offense.
Broadly speaking, if we had to choose a team who are only good at one thing, we’d tend to favour the better defensive team; however, in this instance, we’re not sure that’s the case. As good as the Tigers’ defense has been (and you can’t argue that they haven’t been very impressive), it’s hard to buy into their performance until we see a bit more of it. This is a team that have been appallingly bad at defending for as long as we can remember, so a brief, month-long stint of excellence could plausibly just be an aberration of a small sample-size. And it hasn’t even lasted a whole month – in Week 4, they were gashed for 4 line breaks by a Parramatta team who had to that point made just 4 line breaks in their first three matches combined. It’s entirely possible that the Tigers just took their foot off the gas in garbage time, but considering their historical defensive ineptitude, you can understand why we want to see them continue their defensive improvement before we buy in.
And that’s before we even mention their heinous offense. It took them four weeks and a meeting with the league’s 2nd worst defense for them to finally score more than 1 try in a match. Sure, they faced three of the competition’s better defenses in those first outings, but those are the very standard of defenses they’d be facing if they were to make the finals, and this sort of inability to score points would put their defense under enormous pressure.
Whereas we do hold out some optimism that the Warriors’ defense might improve, it’s hard to say the same of the Tigers’ attack. They’re an over-performing squad that’s light on cattle, and the only notable reinforcement on the horizon is five-eighth Josh Reynolds, who arrives from being a key cog in the worst offense of 2017. We love the Tigers’ spirit, but winning games with an offense like theirs (and a defense for whom the jury’s still out) is simply unsustainable.
South Sydney Rabbitohs – Buying?
When it comes to the Rabbitohs, they’re really more of a firm ‘maybe’, but for the purpose of this exercise, we’ll tentatively slot them in as a ‘buy’, for two reasons.
Firstly, their numbers have been very good. They feel a little but suspicious – their offensive numbers against Manly seemed badly skewed by the pathetic effort the Sea Eagles put in, and in their win over the Bulldogs, they looked totally void of ideas until their late run home. In short, while the numbers are good, they don’t really pass the eye test, so we’d ideally like to see more from the Bunnies before we embrace them. That said, it’s difficult to ignore the fact that they’ve now put up three strong offensive performances in four outings, and the one team to contain them – the Panthers – feature a forward pack capable of matching it with the Rabbitohs, something South Sydney shouldn’t have to contend with too often.
Secondly, it’s worth pointing out that the hype for the Rabbitohs is virtually non-existent, probably due to their winless opening fortnight. They’ve slipped into the top 8 on for-and-against, but with very little fanfare; so, relative to the other three teams mentioned, the level of performance required by South Sydney to match the hype is significantly lower, and a level which they could reasonably achieve.
The next month will be telling for the Rabbitohs – they face four teams in the True Ladder top 8 over their next four games (the Dragons, Roosters, Raiders and Broncos), and it’s hard to see them remaining in the 8 by the end of it. However, we’re more interested in how their offense fares against these kinds of defenses than their actual results, and if they somehow win a few of those games, people might actually start noticing them. Until then, consider them a team with potential, sliding under the radar.
- Of the teams outside the True Ladder Top 8, the Sharks stick out as the team that’s clearly a victim of a small sample size. Their ranking is so low due their abysmal offense, however there’s plenty of reasons to expect that to improve. Their Week 1 effort was a mulligan after Shane Flanagan got his 1-7 selections completely wrong, and since then, they’ve variously battled away without their best attacking players, Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan. Both players have imminent returns on the horizon, and when they do, the Sharks will surely improve (and given the standard of their defense, they don’t need to be much better to suddenly become a serious contender).
- Though the Panthers dominated a struggling Cowboys side last weekend without their star halfback Nathan Cleary, they still suffered a downturn in offensive output, notably making just 2 line breaks against a soft Cowboys defense (the equal least the Cowboys have conceded all year, along with the aforementioned struggling Sharks offense). Fortunately for Penrith though, their next month without Cleary sees them play the Eels, Titans, Sharks and Bulldogs – no team ranked higher than 7th on the True Ladder, and a group who’ve combined for just 5 wins between them so far this year. Penrith’s offense is likely to look a lot more conservative in Cleary’s absence (they made just 4 offloads against the Cowboys, after averaging over 9 per game in the three weeks prior), but this is a schedule that the Panthers should still be able to compete with regardless.
- Like 2017, the Raiders have once again made a habit of playing good football on their way to racking up losses, heaping pressure onto coach Ricky Stuart. The good news for Canberra is that the next month sees them play teams 13, 14, and 16 on the NRL ladder; so if the Raiders’ issue is that they’ve forgotten how to win, at least their upcoming opponents won’t have an advantage in that regard. This looks like the perfect opportunity for Canberra to build confidence and turn their season around – though it also has the potential to end Stuart’s tenure in Canberra if they somehow manage to keep failing.