The 2016 Newcastle Knights are bad. Real bad. As in, historically bad. In fact, if they fail to win 2 more games over the remainder of the season, they’ll surpass the 2003 & 2006 Rabbitohs for having the worst season record in NRL history. But, does that make the Knights the worst team of the modern era? And how can we measure the levels of ineptitude delivered by some of the game’s most awful teams?
Losing isn’t a sometime thing, it’s an all the time thing
To misquote the great NFL coach, Vince Lombardi, “Losing isn’t a sometime thing, it’s an all the time thing”. Real losers don’t lose once in a while, they lose consistently, week after week, year after year. This is what separates the teams who are merely unlucky from those who are truly miserable. So, any system designed to measure losing must give fair weight to not only the magnitude of specific losing seasons, but also to the duration of the losing.
To this end, inspired by the great baseball writer Bill James’ “Loser Score”, I’ve re-interpreted this concept to fit the shorter seasons and more level playing field of the NRL. The system is as follows:
For each season below .500 (that is, an equal number of wins and losses), teams accrue Loser Points. They receive:
- 2 Loser Points per win below .500;
- 1 Loser Point for receiving the Wooden Spoon; and
- For each consecutive losing season, 1, 2, 4, 8, or 16 Loser Points for the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th or 5th season of losing (and a further 16 Loser Points for every losing season thereafter).
For seasons of .500 or higher they lose:
- 2 Loser Points per win above .500;
- 10% of their Loser Score per consecutive season above .500 (up to 100% for the 10th consecutive season);
- Rounded to the nearest whole number; and
- Winning the Premiership reduces a teams’ Loser Score to zero.
To illustrate how this works, we’ll look at the 2001 Panthers. They entered the season with 8 Loser Points from years prior. In 2001 they finished the season with 7 wins and 19 losses, which is 12 wins below .500, so they receive 24 Loser Points, bringing their total to 32. They also ‘won’ the Wooden Spoon, which adds a further point, and this was their first losing season in the sequence, which adds another point, taking their Loser Score to 34.
For a second example, consider the 2001 Warriors. They entered the season with 43 Loser Points. Their 2001 record was 12 wins and 12 losses (with 2 draws), so their record was exactly .500. For their first winning season in sequence they receive a 10% Loser Score reduction, leaving them with 39 Loser Points.
Now that we’ve established a method for measuring losers, let’s take a trip down memory lane, and struggle to remember the various whipping boys of NRL history.
The Formative Years
When the ARL and Super League merged and formed the NRL in 1998, the competition featured 20 teams. This number was soon to be reduced to 14 in the year 2000, and with the rapid elimination of many of the league’s weakest teams, few remaining teams had much of a Loser Score at all. Only the Cowboys and Warriors remained of the 90s’ regular losers, and in 2001 the Warriors themselves entered a period of relative success, including a Grand Final appearance in 2002. However, the Rabbitohs would re-enter the league in 2002 and immediately re-establish their losing ways, and by 2004 the NRL had 3 clear teams atop the loser rankings.
The 1998-2003 Cowboys
The NRL’s first perennial doormat, the North Queensland Cowboys built their losing foundations on the same time-tested formula of many of sports’ great losers – a team stacked with washed-up former stars, with a supporting cast of anonymous plodders. Virtually every player of rep calibre in the 98 Cowboys side was over 30, and most hadn’t been relevant for years by that point. In 1999 many of these familiar names retired, leaving behind a truly forgettable side who didn’t finish higher than 2nd last until 2002. No doubt many years from now, rugby league historians will argue over who on earth Kyle Warren was, and how he played 87 matches in the NRL. The answer to both those questions of course, is that he played for the North Queensland Cowboys.
The 2002-2006 Rabbitohs
Regular easybeats of the 1990s, the Rabbitohs had successive losing seasons in 1998-99 before being expelled from the NRL. They then spent the following two seasons in limbo before winning readmittance to the competition for season 2002 and really commencing their losing in earnest. Due to their late admittance to the competition, the 2002 Rabbitohs were hastily put together out of whatever players were available at the time, and the resulting weak roster would be a burden around their necks for years to come. To make matters worse, their marquee signing, Australian Test centre Russell Richardson, was so bad that he spent much of the duration of his contract collecting cheques in reserve grade. The 2002-2006 period brought the Rabbitohs 3 Wooden Spoons, 4 coaches, and the 2 worst seasons in NRL history to date, 2003 and 2006 (3 wins and 21 losses, a record shared with the 1999 Magpies). Given that the NRL’s salary cap is designed specifically to prevent extended periods of success (and by extension, extended periods of failure), the Rabbitohs performance in not only losing, but losing so spectacularly and consistently over a 5-year period remains the benchmark that all other losers are measured against.
The 2000-2004 Tigers
The turn-of-the-century Tigers stand out from the other terrible teams on this list in that they (in theory) didn’t have that bad a roster. Formed by the merger of strugglers Balmain and Western Suburbs, the 2000 Wests Tigers had the opportunity to blend the best pieces of both sides into a competitive squad. Instead, the Tigers decided to go in a different direction. Despite a squad boasting representative stars like Terry Hill, Tyran Smith, John Hopoate and Matt Seers, the Tigers missed the Top 8 in 2000, before slumping to 3rd last the following year, the position they would finish in for 3 consecutive seasons. This era in Tigers history is best remembered for John Hopoate infamously inserting his finger into the anus of opposition players. Looking back, this was probably much less painful than having to watch the Tigers play.
The 2005 season saw North Queensland make the Grand Final, and in 2007 the addition of the Titans brought the competition to 16 teams. Check back for Part 2 where we’ll track the Loser Rankings from 2005-2015, and see who the Cowboys pass the baton to!