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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) South Sydney Rabbitohs (8-4)
2) Sydney Roosters (7-5)
3) St George-Illawarra Dragons (9-3)
4) Melbourne Storm (7-5)
5) Brisbane Broncos (7-5)
6) Canberra Raiders (5-7)
7) Cronulla Sharks (8-4)
8) Penrith Panthers (9-3)
9) Manly Sea Eagles (4-8)
10) Wests Tigers (7-5)
11) Newcastle Knights (5-7)
12) Canterbury Bulldogs (3-9)
13) New Zealand Warriors (8-4)
14) North Queensland Cowboys (3-9)
15) Parramatta Eels (2-10)
16) Gold Coast Titans (4-8)
At the halfway mark of the competition, we felt it might be a good time to take a look at the game’s biggest improvers and the game’s biggest decliners from last season, on both sides of the ball. When we dug up last year’s VOA numbers, one thing immediately stood out: how little has actually changed.
Yes, there are a number of teams who have moved significantly in one direction or another (and we’ll get to those next), but when you consider the unusual amount of player movement in the 2017/18 off-season, it strikes us as surprising how little change there’s been in most teams’ numbers.
Of the 16 NRL teams, 9 team’s numbers for Offense VOA are within 10% of their 2017 figure. If we expand that to be within 20%, we capture 11, or 69% of teams.
Likewise, when we look at the Defense VOA numbers, we find 6 within 10% – admittedly a decent drop compared to Offense – but when we expand that to within 20%, we find 12 teams, or three quarters of the competition (and a further 2 teams miss that by less than 0.1%).
So if most teams are producing relatively similar numbers to a year ago, who are these outliers, and what’s changed? Thanks for asking, we were just getting to that.
Biggest Improvers – South Sydney Rabbitohs +60.10% (53.99%): The biggest movers in any category, the Rabbitohs remarkable offensive transformation has shot them to the top of the True Ladder, and into the NRL’s Top 4. As for what’s changed from last year, two things stand out: their backline, and their coach.
The improvement to their outside backs in undeniable – the addition of Maroons winger Dane Gagai and the return of Queensland captain Greg Inglis from injury give the Rabbitohs’ three-quarters an obvious boost in class, compared to the rag-tag bunch they were forced to trot out a year ago. Inglis in particular has been exceptional in the centres, scoring 7 tries and adding 12 try involvements (1st in the NRL among centres) before returning to fullback in Round 12. Perhaps the biggest change to their backs though isn’t a change at all, but rather the continued development of Cody Walker; the Rabbitohs’ #6 leads all NRL five-eighths for tries (7), try contributions (12), and line breaks (8).
Which leads us to the other major difference in the Rabbitohs from a year earlier – their coach. The ability to unlock the potential of a talent like Walker is probably the most noticeable change in the Rabbitohs. The Rabbitohs’ gameplan continues to rely heavily on their forwards laying a platform – they’re just doing a better job of it this year. It’s easy to forget, but in matches last year where the Rabbitohs outgained their opponents, they actually averaged 4.5 tries per game – they just only managed it 10 times. This year’s squad has turned in some massive numbers already this year, including twice running for over 1400m with 46% or less of the footy. With a pack that’s largely unchanged from a year ago, the credit must at least partly go to Anthony Seibold.
Though we don’t necessarily think that they’ll continue to produce the staggeringly high numbers they’ve reached so far (for context, their Offense VOA of 53.99% is more than 10% better than last year’s best attacking team, the Storm, was), they’re obviously better, and are going to take a lot of stopping.
Biggest Decliners – Melbourne Storm -48.83% (-5.49%): You could probably argue that the Storm are partly just victims of their own success (they were so far better than everyone else last year, it was almost inevitable that they were going to regress somewhat), but it doesn’t make their sharp drop-off any less disappointing.
The major difference between the 2018 Storm and their earlier model is quite obviously the loss of halfback Cooper Cronk. While many have argued for a long time that the real mastermind of the Storm’s success was hooker Cameron Smith (and in some respects, that may be true), the loss of Cronk has badly crippled the Storm’s attacking output. That said, we’re inclined to argue that the real problem for Melbourne isn’t so much the absence of Cronk, but rather the absence of a serviceable replacement.
In a well-oiled machine like the Storm, you could reasonably expect their offense to keep ticking along with any replacement-level talent at halfback. Unfortunately, they haven’t gotten even replacement-level production from that spot. In a combined 13 matches (Ryley Jacks had an outing at five-eighth in Round 1), the Storm’s halfbacks have produced just 3 try assists all season. Three. That’s just one third of the production of Cronk at the Roosters, and is less than 17 other NRL halfbacks. How can that be when there’s only 15 other NRL teams? Because in some instances, they’ve also produced less than other teams’ back-ups – like Mason Lino, the Warriors’ back-up half, who’s produced 6 try assist in just 5 games.
It’s even worse if we were to compare them to the field in line break assists. It almost defies belief, but Jacks and Brodie Croft have somehow combined for just 1 line break assist in 13 games. One!? That’s less than such household names as Jack Cogger and Sam Williams, and places them (combined) at 107th among all NRL players.
The real mystery here is how the Storm have scored any tries at all, while getting absolutely no help whatsoever from one of the game’s most important positions (the answer to that question is Cameron Munster and Josh Addo-Carr, but that’s a discussion for another day). If they can just find a decent option to fill their #7 jersey, the Storm still have the pieces available to be successful. But as it stands, they may be watching their premiership window shut before their eyes.
Defense (remember, negative numbers are good)
Biggest Improvers – Wests Tigers -26.29% (-1.34%): We’ll be the first to admit that we’re not believers in the Tigers as a genuine top 8 side (indeed, this is the time of the month when we get lambasted from the Concord faithful for not giving their team the credit they “deserve”), but just because they’re not at an elite level yet doesn’t mean that they haven’t improved substantially from a year ago.
Yes, we only have the Tigers’ defense as solidly average, but you need to remember just how bad they were, in order to appreciate how much better they are. Last year, the Tigers conceded over 20 points in two-thirds of their matches (in contrast, that’s dropped to just a quarter of their games in 2018). For the Tigers, defense is pretty much everything, because their offense remains pretty ordinary (it was a below average -5.46% in 2017, and is even worse this year at -9.45%). Without much in the way of attacking talent, conceding more than 20 points puts them into what’s essentially an unwinnable position – in the last two seasons combined, the Tigers have won just 1 of 19 matches in which they’ve conceded over 20 points. But with a tight defense, the Tigers are now giving themselves a chance, and it’s a chance they’ve frequently taken in 2018, winning 4 of their 7 matches despite scoring 14 points of less.
In many ways, the Tigers early season success looks a little bit fluky, with their numbers badly dropping off from the wuthering heights of the season’s opening month. However, in comparison to other teams’ recent rebuilds (like the Knights, for example, who featured the game’s worst defense for two years in a row, on their way to a hat-trick of wooden spoons), the Tigers’ turnaround has been extraordinary, and Ivan Cleary deserves to be commended.
Biggest Decliners – Canterbury Bulldogs 20.09% (0.96%): The mention of Cleary seems appropriate as a lead-in to the discussion of the Bulldogs, as the change in coaching at the Bulldogs has had an obvious effect on the Bulldogs’ defense. As horribly bad as the Dogs’ offense was in 2017 (you likely need no reminding that it was the worst in the NRL), their defense remained excellent, as it was for the entire duration of Des Hasler’s tenure. Hasler was terminated following the Bulldogs’ 2017 campaign, and replaced by Dean Pay, presumably to improve the side’s offense.
In that respect, the move was a success – the Bulldogs’ offense has improved by 21.36% in 2018. They’re still terrible, and are ranked 4th last in Offense VOA, but they have improved from a year ago. The problem, though, is at what cost? While their offense has improved, their defense has declined almost equally, dropping by 20.09% to see them now ranked 9th on that side of the ball. So, instead of being a phenomenal defense with a god-awful offense, they’re now a pedestrian offense with an average defense. We suppose that’s sort of a success in a roundabout kind of way, but to be honest, we’d fancy they were probably better off before (the Bulldogs have featured boring, Des Hasler offenses for years, but still managed to make the finals in the prior five consecutive seasons; it’s amazing what an elite defense can do).
- Before you ask, yes, we agree that the Panthers appear to be ranked surprisingly low on the True Ladder. Remember, the True Ladder isn’t intended as a snapshot of how teams are playing at this minute, but rather is intended to give a more accurate impression of the season so far. As it happens, the Panthers have been missing a bunch of troops for an extended period, and though they were winning games, they actually weren’t playing especially well in a lot of them (we’d argue that in the absence of Nathan Cleary, the Panthers were just opportunistically beating a string of bad teams, with their highest win coming against the Knights, who we have ranked 11th). That said, with Cleary playing, they have knocked over the teams ranked 1st and 3rd on the True Ladder, and their numbers with Cleary would place them comfortably in the True Ladder Top 4. We’re expecting them to move upwards over the coming months (pending Origin injuries), even if that period sees them drop on the official NRL ladder (there’s nowhere to go but down, so we ought to at least acknowledge the possibility).
- The Sea Eagles have rebounded back up the True Ladder this month, due to a series of improved efforts against teams we have ranked in the top 6. To win half of those games is an achievement in itself, and the Eagles could easily have won all 4, were it not for Daly Cherry-Evans’ goalkicking, and Joey Leilua’s Hand of God. For Manly to have any hope of making the finals, they need to win their next two games, against an under-strength Cowboys and the inconsistent Warriors, as they then have 7 of their final 10 matches against teams in the True Ladder Top 8, and can only afford to lose 4 at the absolute most. That’s a tough ask, and we’d steer clear.
- We told you back in March that the Sharks were likely to be the big movers up the ladder, and in April we picked them as ending May on a six-week winning streak. Needless to say, we’ve found backing the Sharks to be very profitable so far. Their defense remains elite, and their offense is quietly improving, from -45.97% (last) in early April, to be -10.64% (12th) today. They scored 4 tries per game against some mediocre defenses for three weeks running, before breaking out last week for 9 tries against the forlorn Knights. Now, they get an Origin-affected Souths team (conveniently, the Sharks have been left alone), followed by the Tigers, Broncos and Warriors – with Brisbane the only team in our Top 8 at 5th. We liked the Sharks two months ago, and we still like them now.
- If you’re looking for a low-profile game that’ll have huge implications on the final make-up of the NRL ladder, keep an eye out for the Round 15 clash between the Raiders and the Tigers. Of all the teams outside the current NRL Top 8 with a sneaky shot of making the finals (with the obvious exception of the Broncos, who are only out on for-and-against), Canberra would be it. They probably need to win 7 of their remaining 12 matches to get there, and have 8 games in the back half of the season against teams currently below them on the True Ladder. However, for them to qualify, someone else would have to drop out, with the Tigers being our top choice. Interestingly, the Raiders play them twice – in Round 15, and again in Round 22. Should the Tigers win those outings, they’d just about put the nails into the Raiders’ season, while going a long way to booking their own playoff berth. On the other hand, should the Raiders win, the Tigers would be under enormous pressure to find the last 5 wins they need to qualify, with only 4 games remaining against teams in the True Ladder bottom 8 (the Titans, Bulldogs, Knights and Sea Eagles). Both teams should be circling Round 15 at Campbelltown Stadium as a finals match come early.