Is This Year’s NRL Lopsided?

NRL logoBy STEVE MASCORD

THIS year, more than any since the formation of the NRL in 1998, we’ve been hearing, reading and talking about whether we have “an even competition”.

Used to sitting on our couches on a Friday night and seeing contests which will go some way towards determining the make-up of the finals, we’ve been dismayed in bearing witness to some meaningless matches for the first 20 rounds, because of rigid scheduling. We’ve read 50-0, 68-4, 54-10, 62-6 in the paper some mornings.

But is the competition really lopsided this year, or are we just seeing less significant games on free-to-air television? It’s just the sort of question we like to think we have for breakfast here at Rugby League Week.

Or, put another way, it’s just the sort of question that we like to put to The Guru, David Middleton.

The only problem is, how do you measure such a thing? There are two types of evenness – within a game and over the course of a season.

If team A beats team B by 50 points, but when they next meet the result is exactly reversed, then you still have an even competition but two pretty bloody lopsided games! No matter if you have a draft, a salary cap or even force players to switch clubs on a daily basis, it’s still hard for an administrator to affect margins.

That comes down to players and referees.

Nevertheless, we got Middo to give us the average margin in all games since 1908 – because we thought it might be interesting and we can’t recall such a study ever being done before.

As for the mythical “level playing field” – over the course of a season – how do we measure that? “The ultimate even competition,” says Middo, “would be when every team wins 50 per cent of its games.

“Some people might consider that boring. It wouldn’t happen. But perhaps the number of teams that win 50 per cent or more of their games would be a starting point.”

We thought we’d spare him the agony of going back to 1908 with that stat, however, so we settled for the years covering only the salary cap era, post 1990.

Which brings us to another question: if we had no salary cap now, then how many teams would we be left with, and would the resulting inequalities be reflected in big scores, big gaps between the teams on the table, or both?

We’ll try to answer that one, too.

But first, Middo’s stats. At first glance, they don’t say much. They certainly don’t indicate that the competition is as hopelessly cock-eyed as it may appear from watching those late night Friday matches.

But here’s a few points:

· The margins in games this year are the “worst”, or biggest, in eight years. But the average winning margin has varied by just 1.4 points from the 1908 season! That’s right, all those administrators accused of stuffing the game over the past 105 years can feel vindicated. Very little has changed in the closeness of premiership matches despite rule changes, international transfer bans, residential rules, the cap, draft and, er, two world wars;

· The 1935 season had the biggest margins, with Canterbury not handling their debut season so well and Eastern Suburbs running up some big scores.

· While average margins suggest 1925 was the closest, Souths were so far out in front that the competition was abandoned early and the next year a mandatory finals series was introduced! So the season with the closest games was, in fact, so lopsided they invented the play-offs to keep people interested!

Middleton: “Of the last 20 seasons, 2011 is considered the closest based on these rankings (average winning margin, number of scores of 50+ and number of winning margins of 20+).

“That year the average winning margin was 13.3 points, there were only two scores of 50+ and only 48 games where the winning margin was 20+. This year is ranked currently seventh (of the last 20 years) although there are still four rounds to be played.”

Now to the second set of figures, the number of teams that won 50 per cent or more of their games. You still with us? Pay attention! “The thing with this is it still allows for stragglers – if it’s easier for more of the top teams to win more than half of their games, they have to have someone to beat,” Middleton warns.

The most even competition in the salary cap era by this criteria was the very first, 1990. Ten of 16 teams won half or more than half their games that year. The closest we’ve got to that since was 2006 – that’s right, when the average margin in games was even bigger than this year!

“What’s that saying? There’s lies, damn lies and statistics,” says South Sydney chief executive Shane Richardson.

Perhaps the answer lies elsewhere.

One year out of club coaching, Australia coach Tim Sheens thinks he knows what constitutes an even competition. RLW was told that when talks were first held about starting a “Super League” back in 1994, the definition of a superior competition was one where if you beat a team the first time you played them, it was no certainty you would do so the second time.

“I think people get carried away in saying the competition isn’t even,” Sheens tells us.

“An even competition to me is when you have 12 or more teams in the running for the final eight three weeks out from the finals. I think we’ll have that.

“It’s when the tipsters in the office competitions and in the papers are struggling.

“There’re only three sides (before round 23) out of the running for the finals. You never know, the cut-off could even be 26 points, that’s probably an indication of a close competition because it’s been 28 in recent years.”

Indeed, the best test of an even competition might be the score you need to win your office tipping competition; the lower the winning score, the more unpredictable the competition.

“I’ve been watching a lot of old videos of World Cup games,” Sheens concludes, “and sometimes I don’t think we appreciate how skillful, unpredictable and exciting the game is right now.”

Richardson, meanwhile, says people forget that until around a decade ago, the premiership had never experienced average crowds into five figures.

OK, so all the evidence we’ve so far gathered seems to indicate that regardless of salary caps, finals of four, five or eight teams or even breakaway leagues, the patterns of competitiveness within the premiership don’t alter too much.

So, why have a salary cap if clubs lose mainly because they are poorly run, not because of poor talent equalisation from above?

I ask the veteran Souths boss how many truly competitive clubs there would be, in his opinion, if there was no salary cap at all.

“Four to six,” he says. “Brisbane, Canterbury, the Warriors … the wealthy Sydney clubs.”

And would happen to the rest? They’d be competitive among each other, he says, but fans and sponsors who are used to parity would find it hard to keep faith.

“But, you know, look at England – they find a way to survive,” he said. “Then again, if the poker machine money continued to dry up, maybe not.”

What David Middleton’s stats do tell us is that if a similar story to this one is written (or beamed directly into brains) in 2118, chances are the margins of NRL games won’t be that different and the competition points separating teams on the table will have fluctuated but not changed in any permanent way.

Call them footy constants – things that no one with a laptop or a whistle can permanently alter. There’s something about what started at Birchgrove Oval all those years ago, and in the rule book, which keep scoring patterns in our sport on an even keel regardless of what we mere mortals do.

It’s intriguing, inscrutable, like DNA strands passed down from one generation to the next.

“John Lang used to have a saying,” says Richardson. “Each year, a third of the teams aren’t good enough and a third will implode during the season.

“So there’s only what’s left that you have to worry about.”

Teams Winning 50% or more games in a season in the Salary Cap Era 1990-2013

 Year >50% Winning Record Total Teams % of Total

1990 10 16 62.5

1991 9 16 56.3

1992 7 16 43.8

1993 8 16 50.0

1994 7 16 43.8

1995 11 20 55.0

1996 10 20 50.0

1997* 10 22 45.5

1998 11 20 55.0

1999 9 17 52.9

2000 8 14 57.1

2001 6 14 42.9

2002 6 15 40.0

2003 8 15 53.3

2004 7 15 46.7

2005 8 15 53.3

2006 9 15 60.0

2007 7 16 43.8

2008 9 16 56.3

2009 9 16 56.3

2010 9 16 56.3

2011 9 16 56.3

2012 8 16 50.0

2013 9 16 56.3

Source: League Information Services

Close competitions 1908-2013

Year Avg Win Margin Scores 50+ Margin >20

1908 14.0 – 11

1909 12.3 – 10

1910 14.5 2 15

1911 11.0 – 8

1912 10.7 – 11

1913 9.5 – 6

1914 9.3 – 6

1915 12.9 1 13

1916 9.5 1 5

1917 11.4 – 12

1918 10.7 – 9

1919 12.5 1 8

1920 17.9 3 22

1921 13.1 2 7

1922 11.5 – 10

1923 10.0 – 10

1924 9.0 – 2

1925 6.7 – 1

1926 9.6 – 5

1927 10.0 – 9

1928 8.2 – 5

1929 9.8 – 8

1930 11.3 – 9

1931 9.7 1 7

1932 12.9 – 13

1933 9.8 – 4

1934 12.0 – 12

1935 19.5 8 27

1936 15.1 1 15

1937 15.1 3 7

1938 13.4 1 10

1939 12.5 1 11

1940 10.2 – 8

1941 8.9 – 6

1942 9.1 – 6

1943 10.3 – 7

1944 13.9 4 12

1945 10.3 – 4

1946 10.6 – 8

1947 10.9 1 13

1948 9.7 – 11

1949 10.8 – 16

1950 9.5 – 10

1951 11.6 2 19

1952 11.4 2 20

1953 12.0 2 13

1954 14.1 1 22

1955 12.4 1 19

1956 11.1 – 19

1957 13.0 2 22

1958 11.8 3 18

1959 11.9 2 19

1960 11.0 2 15

1961 11.5 1 23

1962 9.4 – 13

1963 11.2 2 17

1964 11.6 – 18

1965 10.7 – 13

1966 10.3 1 12

1967 10.0 – 16

1968 9.7 – 16

1969 10.0 – 20

1970 10.7 – 16

1971 11.2 1 21

1972 12.3 2 29

1973 11.4 2 23

1974 12.0 1 24

1975 10.9 2 17

1976 11.3 1 23

1977 12.5 1 22

1978 12.7 3 26

1979 11.1 – 21

1980 11.4 1 26

1981 10.7 1 14

1982 12.3 5 38

1983 14.2 4 53

1984 12.3 3 28

1985 13.4 3 38

1986 12.3 3 34

1987 11.3 – 25

1988 13.5 2 48

1989 13.1 – 46

1990 14.1 1 48

1991 13.0 – 40

1992 11.6 2 32

1993 14.2 4 46

1994 16.7 5 62

1995 17.8 16 85

1996 15.4 12 67

1997 13.8 7 62

1998 15.6 16 75

1999 16.2 12 70

2000 15.1 10 57

2001 16.8 17 62

2002 17.3 14 64

2003 14.5 13 61

2004 16.4 17 65

2005 16.0 11 59

2006 14.2 8 55

2007 14.5 13 55

2008 15.1 6 66

2009 14.6 5 59

2010 13.9 8 56

2011 13.3 2 48

2012 14.0 5 55

2013 15.4 6 49

*source: League Information Services

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

1 Comment

  1. There are other variables as well. Weather. Refereeing standards. Economic conditions. Professional v amateur training standards. Does my head in how these numbers remain fairly consistent.

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