Author Archives: thommo
With only a few hours to go until season 2013 kicks off… hang on, what day is it? Oh. Ok. Right.
So, with only a few hours to go until the 2nd match of Week 2 of the 2013 NRL season, I thought there was no time like the present to dish up the 2nd annual TRIJS NRL season preview.
The 2012 preview, (which was released on time) didn’t actually steer readers too badly in hindsight. I correctly tipped six of the eight eventual finalists. The two teams I underestimated were Souths and Cronulla. Souths in particular I had badly underrated, placing them in my group of sides that had no chance of making the 8. My only defence in this judgement is that in large part I had thought Souths’ chances were slim due to the fact they had a rookie filling the crucial number 7 jersey. Adam Reynolds amazing season was hard to predict and was a big reason for Souths’ success. Two sides I tipped for top 4 did not make the 8; Wests Tigers and Newcastle. And while I tipped the Dogs to make the 8, I had them scraping into 8th spot, not running away with the minor premiership.
The triumphs from my 2012 crystal ball were having Melbourne and Manly correctly in the top 4, the Cowboys and Broncos correctly in the bottom half of the 8, and the Raiders, whom few had tipped to taste finals, just one spot off perfect in 7th. Finally, for no real reason other than the hunch they may have a letdown, I had the Warriors in 9th, which proved to be on overestimation of their success, not an underestimation as might have appeared likely this time 12 months ago.
I would be happy to be as close again this year, though I should point out that none of the above correct predictions appeared to assist me in any way whatsoever when punting or tipping last year!
On to 2013. I can honestly claim that although this is written midway through round 2, I have not changed any teams predicted finishing position that I finalise prior to round 1. The early form of the Eels, Warriors and Tigers is already threatening to make this list seem comical.
Blow that whistle, ref.
Will not make the 8
16. Parramatta Eels
2012 Prediction – 10th
2012 Result – 16th (6 – 18)
Expert Consensus – 15th
Note: All ‘Expert Consensus’ rankings are derived as the average of Big League, 2012 NRL Punter’s Guide and Daily Telegraph season preview rankings.
To say that 2012 was a poor season for Parramatta would be an understatement. Any preseason optimism generated by the arrival of high priced recruit Chris Sandow was quickly dispelled by a horror start which saw the Eels enjoy just 1 win from their first 11 games. The attack was disjointed and the NRL’s worst defence rarely kept the Eels in the game long enough for them to apply pressure to the opposition. The one positive to be taken from 2012 for the Eels is that their performance can at least partially be blamed on the absence of their talismanic fullback Hayne, who managed only 12 matches in the blue and gold last season. Parramatta did show some ability to spring an upset, with 4 of their 6 victories coming against eventual top 8 sides with a highlight being their home victory over eventual premiers Melbourne.
Very little has changed on the paddock for the Eels, with the retirements of Hindmarsh and Burt offset against the arrival of Darcy Lussick. Supporter’s hopes rest instead on the arrival of Ricky Stuart in the coach’s box. Stuart promises to improve a defence that couldn’t conceivably become much worse; however his current popularity as a coach is belied by his recent NRL record that saw him achieve a 40% win record over his last 6 seasons at the Sharks and Roosters. Stuart has shown an ability to get the best out of strong squads such as NSW and the 2002-04 Roosters, but lifting the Eels out of the cellar is a much different task and one that I believe will prove beyond him in 2013.
15. Penrith Panthers
2012 Prediction – 16th
2012 Result – 15th (8 – 16)
Expert Consensus – 16th
The Ivan Cleary era at Penrith began promisingly enough, with early season wins over the Roosters and Eels leaving the Panthers 2-2 after 4 rounds. That was followed by 5 straight losses, including back to back 30-0 defeats to the Sea Eagles and Tigers, which effectively ended their finals prospects by midseason. Penrith’s squad lacked the quality of many of their rivals across the park, and depth was tested by the early season injury to Michael Gordon, who was restricted to only 7 matches in what proved his final season at the foot of the mountains. Stalwart Luke Lewis missed close to half the year, while origin reps Tim Grant and Michael Jennings were out for vital stages as well. The season was notable for the sudden and unexpected departure of Luke Lewis to Cronulla, following an earlier controversial loss of the captaincy. On the bright side, in Blake Austin and Josh Mansour the Panthers unearthed two young players who look set to feature in the NRL for years to come.
2013 OutlookThis season again shapes as one of rebuilding for Penrith. The overt strategy has been to clear the decks of any large contracts, and to build depth for this season with mid-tier veteran signings which do not jeopardise long term cap flexibility. Overall the top 17 looks decidedly weaker than last year, with Lewis, Jennings and Gordon all departing – though none of those 3 played a full season. Perhaps the less explicable departure was that of young half Harry Seijka to the Warriors. The local junior would’ve seemed to fit perfectly into Penrith’s plan to promote local youth. Depth has increased through the arrival of Lewis Brown, Sika Manu and Dean Whare. The fact that much of the pre season excitement has been focussed on a possible superstar signing for 2014 is an indication that this season is viewed as a stepping stone to future glory by the Penrith hierarchy. Penrith will cause problems on their day but should fall well short of finals football.
14. Gold Coast Titans
2012 Prediction – 15th
2012 Result – 11th (10 – 14)
Expert Consensus – 14th
The Titans can take several positives out of what was an encouraging finish to the 2012 campaign. Their first half of the year was a disaster both on and off the field, with the side winning only 2 of their first 11 matches (including 0/5 at home… take that Gold Coast Suns!) and teetering on the brink of financial ruin. Whether player performance was impacted by the instability in the front office is a question for the sports psychologists; what the record shows is that the 2nd half of the year was much more successful, as a revitalised Scott Prince led the Titans back into playoff contention. Their hopes were finally snuffed out following a disappointing loss to also rans Penrith in round 25. Major positives were the form of Prince, especially after a poor 2011, the emergence of Aiden Sezer in the halves and the good form of recruits Nate Myles and Luke Douglas. A poor record of 1-4 in close games (decided by less than 6 points) ultimately cost the side which finished 2 games out of the 8.
The Titans prospects in 2013 took a sharp dive following foundation recruit Scott Prince’s move to Red Hill. Since their last finals appearance in 2010, the Titans have lost Matt Rogers, Preston Campbell, Nathan Friend and now Prince from the crucial playmaking spine. Young guns Matt Srama and Aiden Sezer have bright futures, and Albert Kelly is talented, but they don’t appear to have the quality and experience to steer the club to finals this year. The acquisition of Dave Taylor continues the trend of the Titans constructing their side as if to succeed at NRL dream team circa 2011 – namely to stack the side with as many backrowers as possible. In Bird, Harrison, Myles and Taylor the Titans back row rotation forces an origin player to the bench (though many will argue that is the natural place for the high impact Taylor) and Jamal Idris to the centres, where he does not appear a natural fit. The strength in the forwards leaves the side weaker out wide and a lot rests upon the young halves and hooker if the titans are to make any impact in 2013.
13. St.George-Illawarra Dragons
2012 Prediction – 12th
2012 Result – 9th (11 – 13)
Expert Consensus – 12th
With a rookie coach and ageing lineup, the Dragons performed largely to expectation in 2012. Their defensive standards remained high, allowing 4th fewest points and 5th least missed tackles. At Kogarah and Wollongong the record was an impressive 8-3. On the negative side, the attack failed to fire and could not produce the points required to win consistently, and the away record, even in Sydney, was poor. The Dragons were the first team in 5 seasons to finish in the top 4 defences and still miss out on finals football. The form of Brett Morris at fullback was a relevation and for such a poor attacking side the back 3 was an area of strength. The continued regression of Jamie Soward from his premiership winning form was the primary concern. Losing Weymann half way through the season was a blow, and while the dragons remained in the finals race until the final weeks they never seriously threatened to impact the playoffs. Highlight of the season for fans was probably the remarkable comeback to win the ANZAC day game in front of a well lubricated crowd of 35,000. The match had seemed over with 5 minutes to go but back to back tries including one from a short kick off saw the Dragons home.
The Dragons appear to be stuck in the decline phase that afflicts nearly all premiership winning squads not coached by Craig Bellamy or Des Hasler. Gerard Beale is the main recruit who bolsters an area of strength. Getting a full season out of Weyman will help though this may be an optimistic hope given his injury history. The departure of veterans Scott, Young and Hornby reduces depth and opens opportunities for juniors to step up. Perhaps the most exciting development for the Dragons is the recruitment of Josh Drinkwater, a star in U20’s with huge wraps on him. We have seen in the last two years that it is certainly possible for a rookie half to lift a side significantly. The fact that Steve Price has opted to start the season with Nathan Fien instead does not auger well for Drinkwater’s chances of emulating Cherry Evans or Reynolds however. The Dragons will once again be competitive however they lack the attacking firepower to trouble the top sides and will miss the 8 again.
May Make the 8
12. Canberra Raiders
2012 Prediction – 7th
2012 Result – 6th (13 – 11)
Expert Consensus – 11th
In many ways, 2012 was a typical season for the Raiders under David Furner. For the 4th year in a row they started slowly and were out of the 8 at the 2/3 mark of the season. In similar fashion to 2010, they stormed home from nowhere to make the finals on the back of a huge winning streak. Continuing the groundhog day theme, 2012 again saw a much awaited return by Terry Campese and another season ending injury, while Josh Dugan again missed time through injury. This is team that is inconsistent and seems to rely heavily on momentum and confidence, both within matches and throughout seasons. At their best they were unstoppable, beating the Minor Premier Bulldogs 34-6, Premiers Melbourne 40-12 at Aami park, and Cronulla 36-4 at Shark Park. They also lost 40-0 at home to the West Tigers in the wet. Major positives were the emergence of Josh Papalii, Jack Wighton, Reece Robinson as more than effective injury cover for Dugan and Sam Williams and Josh McCrone seizing the playmaking duties in the absence of Campese.
The Raiders return with an almost identical side in 2013, so the judgement on whether they will reach the finals seems to rest upon the question of ‘who is the real Canberra Raiders?’ Is it the team that started the year 4-8, or the one that finished 9-3? Yet again, the return of Campese is cited as a positive, but he struggled in his 7 matches last season and the side played their best football without him. The Raiders have plenty of talent across the park and at their best are world beaters but they are too inconsistent and prone to form slumps to be confidently tipped for finals.
11. Sydney Roosters
2012 Prediction – 14th
2012 Result – 13th (8 – 1 – 15 )
Expert Consensus – 13th
2012 was a bit of a year to forget for the Bondi glamour club. Individual players shined on occasion, and in Tautau Moga, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Daniel Tupou some exciting outside backs were unearthed. Yet for a side with so many exciting attacking players they often appeared bereft of ideas and directionless in attack. This is despite having the NSW halfback steering the side. Pearce’s inability to drag the Roosters into the finals reflects poorly on him when you consider the NRL record of recent blues number 7’s such as Brett Kimmorley and Andrew Johns, and may indicate that it is his continued selection in the NSW team that is the aberration. One team the Roosters did not seem to have trouble scoring against was the Tigers, whom they thrashed 42-28 and 44-20. The season was also notable for the amount of exciting and devastating finishes they were involved in. In round 1 they stunned arch Rivals South Sydney with two late tries. The tables were turned in similar fashion by the Dragons on ANZAC day, and Souths had their revenge later in the season in similar circumstances. All three finishes had to be seen to be believed.
The hype is huge for 2013 and on paper the Roosters have an enviable top 17. The NRL, not swayed by handshake agreements, has recently ratified and confirmed the return of Sonny Bill Williams to the NRL, a story which has dominated headlines in the offseason. Sonny Bill was a force of nature in his previous spell at the bulldogs, one of the most physically damaging players ever to play the sport. He will take time to settle in 2013 and expectations as to his impact may be too high. Malcontent Michael Jennings has arrived at Moore park and wasted no time belittling his former teammates. Jennings is a top class finisher and an upgrade over the departed BJ Leilua. The key to the Roosters though will once again be playmaking which is where James Maloney is expected to help. Maloney was ordinary last year at the Warriors after a strong 2011 season, and how much of his form slump was due to his already having signed for the Roosters is a question we should see answered this season (and is a question AFL fans sceptical of the NRL’s mercenary attitude with such dealings would no doubt believe is already settled). The Roosters are one of the most talented sides in the comp however major concerns remain in the areas in which they struggled last year – attacking structure and organisation and defence. Who do they go to on the 4th and 5th tackles in the red zone? SBW or Jennings? Pearce or Maloney? It is an advantage to have so many options but I wonder if at times this year the chooks will be running around headless. A lot depends on new mentor Trent Robinson. If he is as good as Michael Macguire he has the troops to achieve similar success to Souths last year, but with so many question marks I see the roosters missing the 8.
10. Wests Tigers
2012 Prediction – 4th
2012 Result – 10th (11 – 13)
Expert Consensus – 10th
About 30 minutes into last season James Tedesco’s knee went and it is tempting to declare the Tigers season never really recovered. While that would be overstating Teddy’s importance to the side, it was followed by an injury to key forward Keith Galloway and then a suspension to Robbie Farah, and by the time the captain was back the Tigers were in full crisis mode with a 1-4 record off the back of a devastating (yet somewhat familiar) golden point loss to Souths. A mid season seven game win streak pulled the side back into the 8 and they were in contention going into the final round against Melbourne, but in reality the Tigers never hit the heights expected. The Tigers were heavily hit by injuries. Gareth Ellis managed only 11 games in his final NRL season, Galloway missed 6 matches and Farah missed 8. The Tigers were not competitive without Galloway and Farah, the absence of the hooker in particular led to some gaping holes up the middle and huge opposition scorelines. The Tigers struggled to find a replacement for Robert Lui at halfback. Moltzen was ineffective, Miller was given minimal chance and the stop gaps trialled out of position did not provide support to Marshall who was left trying to do too much. The Tigers good patch of form coincided with Curtis Sironen partnering Marshall in the halves, before his season was ended by shoulder problems. Another positive was the superb form of Aaron Woods who stamped himself as a representative star of the future with his strong performances each week. Big name signing Adam Blair was hugely disappointing, further supporting the theory that Craig Bellamy coached forwards underachieve once they leave Melbourne. He has a lot of work to do in 2013 to regain the love of the Tigers faithful.
The Tigers side which contains NSW hooker Farah, NZ captain.. wait, former NZ captain Marshall, Galloway, Woods and Chris Lawrence still has enough talent to make the finals. The key issues are at Fullback and Halfback. Jacob Miller will be given a chance at half and the Tigers success this season will be closely correlated with Miller’s. Marshall is most effective when partnered with an organising half and it is here that Miller’s success (or failure) will manifest itself. Tim Moltzen had a poor 2012 and is the worst number 1 for kick returns in the league. Looking at the custodians for the top 4 sides last year it is clear the Tigers need more from this position and fans will be hoping James Tedesco is the answer. The backrow still seems undersized and understrength following the exit of Ellis and Heighington. A lot rests on the ability of Eddy Pettybourne to prove that he is deserving of a starting spot. The Tigers have potential for much better, but there are too many unknowns to tip them for finals.
9. New Zealand Warriors
2012 Prediction – 9th
2012 Result – 14th (8 – 16)
Expert Consensus – 9th
The Grand Final curse struck the Warriors hard last year. Like the Eels and Roosters before them, the Grand Final hangover was long and painful. What had been a poor season turned disastrous in the final 3rd of the year. The Warriors enter 2013 on the back of an 8 game losing streak, which included them throwing away three match winning leads against the Knights, Sea Eagles and Raiders and being thrashed by 40 points in back to back weeks against the Sharks and Cowboys. Alarmingly, commitment appeared to be missing and the reputation of the club and players took a battering due to their meek capitulation.
Hopes for 2013 largely rest upon the vast room for improvement available. The squad is not dissimilar to that which nearly went all the way in 2011. The Warriors are stacked with young talent all across the park – all that is required is for new coach Matthew Elliott to get the best out of them. Kevin Locke played a large part in the 2011 campaign and if fully fit this year he will provide a boost. Thomas Leiluai returns from the UK and should provide a steadying presence to complement the extravagance of Shaun Johnson. The Warriors were an abysmal 1-7 in close games last season. History shows that those results even out over time, so even a marginal improvement in overall performance will see the warriors hovering around the 50% win mark and the playoffs.
8. Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
2012 Prediction – 2nd
2012 Result – 4th (16 – 8) – Eliminated Preliminary Final
Expert Consensus – 8th
At times during Manly’s injury interrupted 2012 campaign they looked the team to beat for the premiership. Many picked them to be the dark horse contenders entering the playoffs. However the strain of defending the premiership against motivated opponents week in week out proved too much, as it has for every premier since Brisbane in the 1990’s. (1998 or 1993, depending on your opinion of Super League). Manly hovered around the 50% win rate for much of the season with key players Glenn and Brett Stewart, Tony and David Williams and the oft suspended Steve Matai all missed chunks of time. Once the key players returned later in the year, the Sea Eagles hit their straps and entered the playoffs on a 6 match winning streak which had included impressive wins over the Rabbitohs, Cowboys and a thrashing of the Knights in which T-Rex was at his unstoppable best. For the 3rd time of the season they faced off against former coach Des Hasler’s Bulldogs, and that narrow loss effectively ended their season, by forcing them into a tough knock out semi against the Cowboys with a battered squad. The Sea Eagles were about to win that week, but were no match for a fresh and clinical Storm outfit in the preliminary final. Thus ended the best premiership defence since 2008, when the Storm made if all the way back to the Grand Final after winning in 2007.
Manly appear to be undergoing a period of decline that usually follows in the years after a premiership is achieved. While Tony Williams is the only top line star to depart this offseason, the additional loss of Lussick, Mauro, Oldfield and Whare leaves the 2013 squad thinner in depth than in 2012. At full strength, their top 17 is a match for any in the competition, halves Foran and Cherry Evans have their best football in front of them, and most of the key players from 2011 are still in place. The attack is very dependent on a healthy Glenn and Brett Stewart, and given history it seems unlikely both will get through a season unscathed. Glenn being out for round 1 is not a good start on that score. Manly’s success this season will be heavily correlated with the top 17 staying injury free. An average run with injuries should see them finish toward the bottom of the 8.
7. Cronulla Sharks
2012 Prediction – 11th
2012 Result – 7th (12 – 1 – 11) – Eliminated Finals Week 1
Expert Consensus – 7th
2012 was the best Cronulla season since 2008. New recruits Todd Carney, Jeff Robson, Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fafita, Ben Ross and Isaac De Gois all justified their moves with strong seasons, complementing the existing core of Gallen, Graham and Jeremy Smith. Few in Cronulla missed the recently departed Douglas and Snowden. An early 6 game winning streak had them entrenched in the top 4, a recently unfamiliar position that they stayed in for most of the season. The Sharks were the first team to defeat the storm in 2012, and also tasted success against Manly and Souths. The season faded a little in the 2nd half as the inspirational Gallen struggled with injury post Origin, and a loss in their final home game of the season to North Queensland condemned them to a week 1 trip to Canberra to face the red hot Raiders. Despite the early finals exit, 2012 was a big step in the right direction for a club which had struggled in recent seasons. Shane Flanagan has built the squad nicely and their strong defence ensured the Sharks for competitive week in week out in 2012.
The 2013 Sharks outfit is the strongest on paper since the halcyon days of ET, Peach and the immortal Martin Lang. Gallen and Lewis are two of the strongest backrowers in the competition, Michael Gordon (when healthy) offers attacking class from fullback and Todd Carney is one of the key difference makers in the league. Goal line defence was much improved last year. Where the Sharks are lacking relative to the top sides is in attacking strikepower, especially in the centres. This was reflected in poor red zone conversion last year – the sharks were ranked 1st in metres gained but only 13th in points scored. Michael Gordon should help with this aspect of the game, but major improvement in attack is required if the Sharks are to be serious contenders come September, rather than in autumn.
6. Brisbane Broncos
2012 Prediction – 5th
2012 Result – 8th (12 – 12) – Eliminated Finals Week 1
Expert Consensus – 6th
The first season post Lockyer was a tale of two halves for the Broncos. After 8 rounds they were 7-1, and having finished 2011 with a 20-7 record, a return to super power status seemed imminent. Then, as it often has in the past, the representative period hit and hit hard. The Broncos won only 5 matches out of their remaining 17, and were blown away by the Cowboys in week 1 of the finals. When on song early in the year the talented and young side seemed to outskill their opponents all across the park, with everyone in the 17 playing their part. When struggling they appeared to really lack leadership, direction and that one superstar to step up and take control when the game was there to be one. In short, they missed Lockyer badly. After a strong start to the year the Wallace and Norman combination could not get the job done for the broncos and they were short of ideas and points as they slipped down the ladder.
Recruitment focussed on addressing the playmaking issues by bringing back to the club the familiar face of Scott Prince. When Prince ended his injury plagued Broncos stint by signing for Wests Tigers in 2003, you’d have received long odds that he would win as many premierships as the Broncos would over the next 10 seasons. Even at this late stage in his career, Prince will represent the best Broncos halfback since Langer if he can match his 2012 Titans form. Brisbane have lost some forward punch with Civoniceva retiring and Teo following the Dave Taylor route to South Sydney, however the pack remains an area of strength. This side has a habit of starting the year well and with Prince steering the side they should avoid last year’s fade out to make the finals. The level of improvement throughout the season of the younger brigade such as Hoffman, Norman, McCulloch, Gillett and Glenn will determine how deep the Broncos will play into September. Motivation should not be an issue after a poor finish to 2012 during which some reputations were damaged. This shapes as a crucial season in the careers of many Brisbane players.
5. South Sydney Rabbitohs
2012 Prediction – 13th
2012 Result – 3rd (16 – 8) – Eliminated Preliminary Final
Expert Consensus – 3rd
In 2012, Souths achieved their highest ladder position, only 2nd finals appearance and 1st finals win since the days when Mario Fenech was captain and George Piggins was coach. Coach Michael MacGuire proved an instant hit in the NRL. He made two critical selection decisions early in the year – Rookie Adam Reynolds would get first crack at the halfback spot vacated by Chris Sandow, and Greg Inglis would shift back to fullback. These two players rewarded the coach with monster seasons. Reynolds in particular was a revelation, as the playmaking area which had seemed a critical weakness for Souths turned into a strength. Inglis was destructive from fullback on a weekly basis, after a 2011 season which saw him too often isolated out wide while Sandow and Sutton monopolised the ball. MacGuire achieved drastic improvements in South’s defence and attitude and the results were plain to see. From 14th in points conceded and 16th in missed tackles in 2011 to 4th in points conceded and 1st in missed tackles. A side which was notoriously inconsistent and easy to put points on is now capable of playing tough football and grinding out results.
The stage is set for Souths to give the premiership a huge shake in 2013. The squad is as strong as last year, with the losses of bench forwards Taylor and Pettybourne offset by the arrival of Ben Teo from Brisbane and Jeff Lima from Wigan. Greg Inglis comes into the season fully fit for the first time in years and he is capable of exceeding the heights of last year. The forward pack remains menacing with 4 Burgesses, Asotasi and Crocker. The pack consistently sets a platform for Luke, Sutton and Reynolds to exploit. The one note of caution would be to note that in many ways the bounce of the ball favoured Souths last year, to an extent that may not repeat itself. Of 8 close games they contested in the home and away rounds they won 6, which indicates composure under pressure but also may hint that their 16-8 record was slightly inflated. Regardless, expect them to be thereabouts in the 2nd, 3rd and possibly 4th weeks of September 2013.
4. Newcastle Knights
2012 Prediction – 3rd
2012 Result – 12th (10 – 14)
Expert Consensus – 4th
2012 ReviewThe Knights were tipped for big things in 2012 with the arrival of Darius Boyd, Kade Snowden, Timana Tahu and the supercoach Wayne Bennett. Bennett had achieved instant success at St.George-Illawarra and most had expected similar dramatic improvement immediately for Newcastle. The fact that the Knights actually went backwards on the ladder was perhaps one of the biggest shocks of the season. A disjointed start saw them win just 4 of the first 13 games, essentially ruling out finals by midseason. Newcastle’s struggles in attack, particularly in utilising Boyd effectively, were much less surprising than their flimsiness in defence. At the Dragons Bennett’s coaching produced an immediate stark improvement in defensive structure and intensity, which did not occur at the knights. The cause was not helped by the mid season loss of captain Kurt Gidley. Nonetheless, the Knights did revive somewhat in the 2nd half of the year, winning 5 of their last 11, as they picked up two valuable mid season recruits at opposite ends of their careers. Willie Mason was thrown a lifeline by Bennett, one of the few coaches who could realistically deal with such a personality, and Big Willie rewarded him with strong play which belied the terrible form of his previous NRL stint with North Queensland. Dane Gagai was released by Brisbane due to off field issues. His on field form at the Knights could likely to have the Broncos regretting that decision in coming years.
The transformation of the Knights into a Wayne Bennett team is much closer to completion now that two more key players from the 2010 Dragons, Beau Scott and Jeremy Smith have arrived. They will add defensive starch up the middle. If the toughened forward pack can get on top up the middle, the Knights have oodles of pace and skill out wide to punish teams – Uate, Gagai, Boyd and Macmanus. A fit Gidley, possibly an optimistic hope, will also provide a big boost. The expectations of improvement in Newcastle this year are based on the improvements to the roster, the better form displayed over the 2nd half of 2012, and the belief that Bennett has now had time to fully implement his teachings. Before last year Bennett hadn’t missed the finals in 20 straight seasons – odds are against him making it two disappointing campaigns in a row.
3. Canterbury Bankstown Bulldogs
2012 Prediction – 8th
2012 Result – 1st (18 – 6)
Expert Consensus – 1st
Despite falling at the final hurdle, the Bulldogs were the Rugby League story of 2012. The Minor Premiers dazzled the competition with an exciting attacking style of football on their way to 18 regular season victories, 16 of those wins being by 7 or more, and were undefeated from late May until early August. They achieved these results with unique style of attack which is likely to be much imitated in 2013. Lacking a dominant playmaking half, Canterbury’s structure utilised ball playing forwards James Graham, Sam Kasiano, Aidan Tolman and even Frank Pritchard to instigate the attack and create room for their speedy outside backs. This interchange passing and variation within the forwards also neutralised the gang tackling and wrestling that has become omnipresent in the modern game, allowing the Dogs forwards to get one on one with defenders and achieve extra yardage and quicker play the balls than they otherwise would have. Once the space was created, Canterbury had the speed out wide to punish defences. The Dogs led the league in tries scored from within their own half, and in the average number of passes. These Bulldogs were the heirs to Ted Glossop’s Entertainers, with a dash of the defensive ability of Warren Ryan’s Dogs of War. Their achievements were a testament to the coaching ability of Des Hasler. The side which struggled in 2010 and 2011 was transformed in 2012 with minimal personal change. Frank Pritchard and James Graham were the key pre season signings, while Sam Perrett and Krisnan Inu were added for next to nothing during the season, moves that paid off handsomely for Hasler. The improvement in the remainder of the squad was huge. Ben Barba went from talented but unreliable to the undisputed Dally M winner. Josh Reynolds emerged as a contender for a NSW halves spot while Josh Morris reclaimed his place as the top left centre in NSW. Pritchard and Greg Eastwood both had career years, while Inu found a consistency of performance that had eluded him (to say the least!) at Parramatta and New Zealand.
2013 OutlookOn paper the squad is stronger than in 2012. On his day Tony Williams can tear defences apart, and Hasler will be expecting to get the best out of an enigmatic player. The likely return of Trent Hodkinson provides additional options in the halves. The key risks for the Bulldogs are the loss of James Graham for 9 weeks, the uncertainty over Ben Barba’s return date, the possibility of several of the stars of 2012 being unable to replicate their form in 2013, or that opposition defences will start to figure out the bulldogs attacking style. These concerns are minimised by the presence of Hasler, who to date has a proven ability to stay one step ahead of the pack and to keep his players highly motivated and focussed. Over the past 6 seasons Hasler has achieved 6 finals appearances, 4 Grand Final appearances and 2 premierships. It would be a brave man to bet against him adding a third in 2013. The Bulldogs could easily be premiership favourites, however due to the personnel who are out of action at the start of the season and the increased focus and expectation on them in 2013, I expect them to finish slightly behind the regular season pace setters.
2. North Queensland Cowboys
2012 Prediction – 6th
2012 Result – 5th (15 – 9) – Eliminated Finals Week 2
Expert Consensus – 5th
The Cowboys took a further step in the right direction in 2012, however ultimately the season finished on an unsatisfactory note. There were 5 strong clubs in last year’s competition, each vying for the top 4 and the 2nd chance in the finals system. By missing out on that chance, the Cowboys road to the grand final was made significantly harder, and the trip to Sydney in week 2 for a 2nd week of knockout football proved too great an obstacle to overcome. The fact that a week 2 finals exit was considered a major disappointment indicates how strong the season had been and how justifiably high hopes were that NQ could make the 2nd grand final in their history (a direct contrast to the other side who exited in week 2, Canberra, who were happy just to be there). Once again, co captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott led from the front, ably supported by a resurgent Matty Bowen and James Tamou, whose meteoric rise was capped with Kangaroos and Blues jerseys (to accompany the junior kiwis kit already in his closet). Perhaps the highlight for Cowboys fans was the rare 3-0 season whitewash of big brothers Brisbane, including a comfortable first week finals victory at Dairy Farmers stadium. Wins against the Broncos have been rare for much of the Cowboys history, so to best them three times in a year, and in the process extend their finals record against the Broncos to 2-0 marks 2012 as a banner Cowboys year in the history of the rivalry.
It’s time for the North Queensland Cowboys. Johnathan Thurston, arguably the best player in the game, is at the peak of his powers at age 30. He will remain at the club until 2017 however his window of opportunity must start closing in the next 2-3 seasons. The Cowboys squad is powerful across the park and has I believe the greatest depth of any in the premiership. Of their 25 man squad, only 2 players have less than 20 games NRL experience, and one of those is England international and NRL newcomer Scott Moore (The other is Joel Riethmuller). In contrast the Bulldogs have 7 players and the Storm have 5 with less than 20 games experience in their top 25. This means that the Cowboys are capable of fielding a strong and experienced team even on weeks when injuries hit during the season, and all players in the 17 have pressure on them to keep their spots. Players who did not make the cut for Round 1 2013 include Scott Bolton, Kalifa Fai Fai Loa, Clint Greenshields, Robert Lui, Anthony Mitchell, Michael Morgan (broken jaw) and Ricky Thorby. After their exit last year, the Cowboys must realise that securing a top 4 spot or ideally a top 2 spot is essential to them having any serious chance of advancing to the Grand Final. They have the squad to do it.
1. Melbourne Storm
2012 Prediction – 1st
2012 Result – 2nd (17 – 7) – Premiers
Expert Consensus – 2nd
After the devastation of 2010 and the disappointment of 2011’s preliminary final exit, the Storm could’ve been expected to enter 2012 somewhat dispirited and thinking their best chance at a title was behind them. Not a bit of it. Once again the formula of Slater, Cronk, Smith and coach Bellamy went about their work with a minimum of fuss, racking up wins with the usual blend of rock solid defence, excellent discipline and an increasingly slick and expansive attack. Over recent years there has been speculation of the Storm slipping as the likes of Greg Inglis, Israel Folau and Adam Blair have left for greener pastures. 2012 was the ultimate proof that the Storm’s player retention strategy has been aimed correctly, at the spine that has now seen them make 5 Grand Finals in 7 seasons and win 3 of them. The storm won their first 9 matches and 12 of their first 14 to essentially wrap up a finals spot by mid season. A slump coinciding with the representative season and an injury to Slater was arrested with a win over Penrith in Round 22. The Storm then went on to win their final 8 games to wrap up the premiership. Their dominance is perhaps best expressed by the fact that with a healthy Slater, Smith and Cronk on the park, their record last season was 19-2. Their defence was the stingiest in the league for the 4th time in 5 seasons (In the 2010 season, when they were playing for nothing, their defence slipped all the way to 2nd best in the league). Attack improved to 2nd in the league as the Storm attempted to blow sides away more quickly rather than grind them out. What a luxury! To adapt a playing style which was previously amazingly successful merely to improve the ease of victories and reduce the grind of the season on the players. Many other teams in the premiership attempt to reproduce the formula, but at this stage the Storm simply do it better than all of them.
Predictable as it may be, it is impossible to go past the Storm as favourites for season 2013. As long as the big 3 are fit and firing they have earned the right to enter the season on top. Some depth has again been lost over the off season with Lowrie, Sika Manu and Qld origin rep Dane Neilsen leaving, but reflecting on history there is little doubt that Bellamy will get the best out of new recruits Junior Sau, Lagi Setu and Junior Moors. Spinning gold from yarn is his specialty. Loyal soldiers Hinchcliffe, Hoffman, Finch, Widdop and Chambers should ensure there is minimal let down when any of the big guns miss through injury or representative duty. Canterbury, North Queensland, Souths and Newcastle have all reloaded for serous shots at the title, but once again the road to the premiership has to go through Melbourne.
My pre season NRL gambling manifesto delivered two key recommendations
- To make above average returns, back the big outsiders
- Away teams paying 3.80 or more
- Home teams paying 2.95 or more
- Back outsiders early in the season, before the bookies have an accurate read on the form, and later in the season once performance becomes more predictable, look more towards the favourites
These conclusions were based entirely on data from the 2011 season. So, have they held up after 13 rounds in 2012? Did I steer the punters right, or has the manifesto sent its loyal disciples broke?
First let’s examine point 2 – the trends in returns over time. From 2011, we saw that
– Total Winning returns declined over the year
– Return from backing all underdogs declined over the year
– Returns from backing all favourites increased over the year
Each of these trends indicates that bookies ability to frame the markets accurately improves over the year, so that there are less upsets, less return from backing underdogs, and less returns on offer in general. It does also mean though that there is money to be made from backing favourites later on in the year.
Each of these trends has again been witnessed in 2012. The best opportunity to make money still appears to be by backing outsiders early in the year.
The above charts show that in each of the first 5 rounds of the year, you would have made money overall in each week had you backed the outsider in every match. In the last 8 rounds, only once would backing all outsiders have left you ahead for the week. On the other side of the equation, backing all favourites would have made you money in 5 of the last 8 weeks and none of the first 5 weeks.
So point 2 of the manifesto has been proven correct so far in 2012 – back outsiders early and favourites later in the season.
Onto the first point – has backing the big outsiders made money so far this year?
Partially. As the table below shows, backing the home teams that were big underdogs has turned a huge profit of 122%. There have been 6 matches so far in which home teams were paying 2.95 or more, and in four of these matches the big outsider won.
The victorious outsiders were
– Eels at 3.25 over Sea Eagles
– Sharks at 3.40 over Storm
– Panthers at 3.40 over Dragons
– Panthers at 3.05 over Sea Eagles
Plenty of joy there for loyal Panthers fans!
On two other occasions the big home outsider was beaten
– Titans at 3.15 lost to the Tigers (in golden point!)
– Panthers at 4.90 lost to the Storm
However, backing the big away outsiders would not have yielded a profit. Out of the 6 matches in which an away team was paying more than 3.80, only once did the outsider salute, and that was when the Titans defeated the Sea Eagles at Brookvale paying 4.10.
Overall, if you had backed the large home and away outsiders, the returns would have been 45%, so the manifesto has been proven correct on that point as well. The caveat is that you would’ve been even better off if you’d only backed the big home outsiders, and steered clear of the Away outsiders.
So far the experience of 2011 has held true into 2012. The implication then for the rest of the season is that as the season wears on, the returns from backing favourites will improve and there will be less value from the underdogs. Once again though, it seems that to make serious returns from NRL, you are best to wait till the start of 2013 and go hard at the rank outsiders who are consistently proving good value in this very even competition.
With the 2012 NRL season only hours away, I thought it was high time to commit my thoughts on the season to the internet for posterity. If nothing else they should provide a good laugh in about six months time.
Increasingly, predicting the top 8 sides at the start of the season is an impossible task. Who would have thought 12 months ago that the Roosters, Titans and Raiders would figure amongst the also rans in 2011, or that Manly Warringah, a team which had fallen over the line into 8th place the previous season before losing their young halfback to Canterbury, would finish 2nd on their way to winning the premiership?
Despite this, I have stuck my neck out and predicted the finishing position of all 16 teams. Further, I have separated the teams into four groups
– Will not make the 8
– May make the 8
– Should make the 8
– Will make the 8
When I am wrong about sides in the middle two groups, I will claim that those reading were given fair warning about the uncertain nature of the prediction.
For each team, I am providing a summary of some vital statistics before getting into the rationale behind my prediction. This includes their 2011 finishing position, an ‘expert’ consensus in the form of aggregated predictions from the Rugby League journalists at the Sydney Morning Herald and the Daily Telegraph, as well as the percentage chance each team has of winning the premiership and making the finals, as implied by Betfair’s odds on the 29th February.
The ‘Expert Consensus’ finishing position was calculated by scoring each of the expert top 8 predictions (8 pts for 1st place, 7 points for 2nd place and so on) and then ranking the total points for each team, and the ‘Chance of Finals’ is simply what proportion of the experts tipped that team to make the 8.
For each team I have separately discussed the changes to the roster and my prediction for 2012. The Roster analysis section aims to highlight not just the major offseason signings, but also teams which were missing key players for a significant amount of time in 2011, with the implication being that having these players fully fit for 2012 can provide a similar boost to signing a new face.
A quick analysis of the betfair odds illustrates the difficulty of my task – even those teams ranked at the bottom of the league are felt to have a roughly 30% chance of making the 8! It is this uncertainty that makes every fan approach each season with such hope and expectation.
I will offer no prediction for the eventual premier, other than to say that I think they will definitely come from my ‘Will make the finals’ group.
Without further ado, onto the predictions
Will not make the 8
16. Penrith Panthers
Expert Consensus – 15th (14% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 31% chance of finals, 3% chance of premiership
Penrith have lost significant experience and quality from their pack with Petero Civoniceva, 2003 premiership winner Trent Waterhouse and Matthew Bell all departing. Off season recruitment has focussed on partially replenishing the depth of the forwards; however Clint Newton, Chris Armit, Cameron Ciraldo and Danny Galea all seem to lack the quality of the key departures. Sam Mckendry and Tim Grant will be given the opportunity to step up and become leaders of the pack. A fully fit Michael Gordon (played only 9 matches in 2011), Luke Lewis (14) and Michael Jennings (15) are expected to provide a boost.
The side which finished 2nd in the 2011 home and away rounds struggled to get out of the blocks in 2012, and never really threatened to reach the finals. The kicking game which had led to so many tries in 2011 did not prove as effective in 2012 which often led to the Panthers struggling to score points, and injuries to key personal did not help. The roster appears to have gone backwards since last year, and their does seem to be a sense out Penrith way that this will be a rebuilding year under new coach Ivan Cleary, with football boss Phil Gould recently stating that the teams goal for the year was to train hard, play hard, and compete every week. Penrith’s hopes of making the 8 this season rely on the fitness of the key outside backs and Luke Walsh’s ability to spark them – significant improvement is required in this area from 2011. They may not come last, but it is hard to see them figuring in the finals of what looks to be an exceptionally even competition.
15. Gold Coast Titans
2011 Season – 16th (6 – 18)
Expert Consensus – 16th(0% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 38% chance of finals, 2% chance of premiership
The Titans were constantly in the news last season as they signed several of the biggest free agent names. Jamal Idris and Beau Champion arrive to bolster a backline that looked undersized and short of strike power last season, while Nate Myles and Luke Douglas will be welcome additions to the ageing pack. Myles should be a like for like replacement for the departing Anthony Laffranchi, while the inspirational Preston Campbell will leave a hole in the Titans playmaking ranks that has struggled since the departure of Matt Rogers. The loss of Nathan Friend will not be felt given he was restricted to 4 matches last season. A full year from Ashley Harrison (played 13 matches in 2011) and winger Kevin Gordon (2) would provide a boost.
From an early point last season the focus for the Titans seemed to be more recruitment for 2012 rather than performance in 2011. On paper, the team closely resembled the highly successful outfit of 2009-10, however several of the older stars who had been integral to that success seemed to noticeably slow in 2011, and the younger players of the Gold Coast were unable to pick up the load. The Coast has recruited well and on paper are a side that could easily trouble the top 8. Concerns surround the lack of a 2nd playmaking option to support Scott Prince, and the downturn in Prince’s form last year. The former Tigers playmaker was consistently excellent throughout his three seasons with the joint venture club, and was the key player in the Titan’s first four seasons. At 32 (Happy Birthday for Monday, Scott!) it seems unlikely that Prince will rediscover top form, and without that, I don’t see the titans making the 8.
14. Sydney Roosters
2011 Season – 16th (10 – 14)
Expert Consensus – 12th (10% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 37% chance of finals, 3% chance of premiership
The key departures of Todd Carney, Nate Myles and Jason Ryles have not been matched by the quality of the arrivals, but some may consider it a case of addition by subtraction with Carney and Myles (rightly or wrongly) blamed for much of the unrest at the club last season. Young prop Martin Kennedy sparked origin talk after several damaging performances early last season, however injury cut his contribution to just 8 games last year. A full season from him will go a long way to offsetting the losses in the forwards. Young centre Tautau Moga is expected to make an impact during his first season in first grade. A lot more playmaking weight will fall on the shoulders of blues half Mitchell Pearce in the absence of Carney.
The Roosters season fell apart after round 4 last year, and it did not take long before all the journos who had praised Carney and Brian Smith came to bury them with relish. This is a huge season for Mitchell Pearce. His predecessors in the NSW number 7 jersey, Brett Kimmorley and Andrew Johns, made a habit of leading their teams into September each season. Pearce will have his hands full getting this squad to the finals, but if he is able to it will be the coming of age of him as a player. The Roosters finished last season in great style winning their last four matches, and will be hoping to continue that roll early in 2012.
13. South Sydney Rabittohs
2011 Season – 10th (11 – 13)
Expert Consensus – 8th (57% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 47% chance of finals, 5% chance of premiership
The major off season addition was Matt King, whom the red and green will be hoping has a bit more left in the tank than Matt Orford did upon his return from England. Sam Burgess and Roy Asotasi played a combined 12 matches last year so expect the bunnies pack to be even stronger in 2012 if those two take the field regularly, though an injury free season may seem an optimistic expectation for Roy given his history at the Rabbitohs. The task of replacing Chris Sandow will fall to rookie Adam Reynolds and it is here that Souths appear significantly weaker than last season. Reynolds will need to produce a Cherry – Evans type debut season to adequately replicate the impact Sandow had upon the club during 2011.
Each of the last four seasons has commenced with high hopes for the Rabbitohs, but they are yet to add to their one finals appearance since reinstatement to the competition. Chris Sandow was immense for the bunnies last year and his absence will be keenly felt. Daly Cherry-Evans has raised the bar for rookie halfbacks coming into the league and Adam Reynolds will certainly be feeling the pressure to perform. The Rabbitohs have enough class in the pack and strikepower in the backs to cause problems for any team on their day. Service to the outside men has been a problem in the past, with Greg Inglis underutilised last season, and unless the bunnies can fix this they are unlikely to make the 8. That they will be relying on a rookie to address this leads me to conclude they will not be playing in September this season.
12. St.George-Illawarra Dragons
2011 Season – 5th (14 – 1 – 9)
Expert Consensus – 10th (38% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 52% chance of finals, 5% chance of premiership
The Dragons backline has lost a lot of strikepower due to the departure of Darius Boyd and the retirement of Mark Gasnier. Those gaps are expected to be filled by the locally produced Stanley brothers, Chase and Kyle. The loss of several bench forwards should be ably filled if youngsters Mitch Rein and Jack De Belin flourish.
Following an incredible two and a half season run at the top of the league, during which they amassed a 44 – 15 record, the Dragons came right back to the pack over the 2nd half of last season. The 2012 side is not hugely weaker than the previous edition, but it is weaker all the same. Throughout their dominant run the Dragons built their victories methodically, by playing risk free football, taking the points on offer, and relying upon their superior defensive ability to hold the lead. I expect their defensive standards to be maintained under new coach Steve Price, but their reduced ability to put points on the board without Boyd and Gasnier will put too much pressure on the defence to restrict opponents to low scores. The Dragons won only 4 of their last 14 matches last season (including finals) and while I expect their win % to be better than that in 2012, it won’t be sufficient to get them into the 8.
May make the 8
11. Cronulla Sharks
2011 Season – 13th (7 – 17)
Expert Consensus – 13th (14% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 38% chance of finals, 3% chance of premiership
Todd Carney is the biggest name in an impressive recruiting class that includes Isaac De Gois, Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita and Ben Ross. Fifita, Gibbs and Ross provide readymade replacements for the two key offseason departures, Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden.
The Sharks have pinned their hopes on the undeniable talent and questionable commitment of Todd Carney who has been shown the road by his previous team due to behavioural issues. The last time that happened, his new team reached the Grand Final, and Carney won the Dally M medal. So it is understandable that the hopes of Sharks fans are sky high this preseason. I certainly expect an improved performance from both the Sharks this season, as Carney will bring the flair and playmaking ability that the Sharks have lacked in recent years. The forward pack is strong and they will be in the match most weeks, but ultimately they lack the strike power out wide and will rely too much on Carney in the playmaking area to make the finals.
10. Parramatta Eels
2011 Season – 14th (6 – 1 – 17)
Expert Consensus – 14th (24% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 39% chance of finals, 4% chance of premiership
It says a lot about Parramatta’s recent halfbacks that new number 7 Chris Sandow is being touted as a replacement for a man who retired 22 years ago, rather than Jeff Robson. Overshadowed by the Sandow hype are the arrivals of fellow backs Willie Tonga, Esi Tonga and Ben Roberts. Justin Poore can essentially be regarded as a new recruit given his
negligible number of matches played since his arrival at the club. None of the departing players had any significant impact on the 2011 campaign.
Stephen Kearney’s second season in charge finds him better equipped for success than in 2011. The Eels have recruited well and the arrival of Sandow will ensure that Jarryd Hayne will not have to take over the roles of both ballplayer and ball runner, which he attempted to do all too often last season. The Eels showed impressive fight last season, and were well in the contest for the majority of their losses. The arrival of Sandow should convert several of those close losses into wins this season, however I’m predicting that while they will remain in the finals race until the closing stages, they will fall just short. Sandow played the season of his life last year and could not get Souths to September. He’ll need to produce a similar effort this year if the Eels are to make it.
9. New Zealand Warriors
2011 Season – 6th (14 – 10)
Expert Consensus – 6th (62% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 60% chance of finals, 10% chance of premiership
The Warriors return with a very similar 17 to that which contested last year’s Grand Final, with Lance Hohaia and Aaron Heremaia the only departures. The gap at the hooking spot is expected to be filled by Nathan Friend. Several graduates of the premiership winning Under 20’s side are expected to press for spots in first grade throughout the year, with damaging centre Konrad Hurrell the one most likely to impress.
The Warrior’s talent and roster is certainly capable of seeing finals action for what would be the 3rd straight year. However, I feel that this team is the most likely of the favourites to drop out of the 8. James Maloney’s impending departure has the potential to be a distraction. Shaun Johnson has tremendous talent but will it will likely take a few seasons of maturation before finding the week to week consistency that is required. The victory over hot favourites the Storm in the preliminary final last year showed the heights that the Warriors are capable of scaling, yet two weeks previous they were humbled by 40 in Brisbane, and they were seconds away from exiting the finals in straight sets before Inu’s miraculous try vs the Tigers. At their best the Warriors are a definite top 4 side and premiership contender, however I am predicting their campaign will reach those heights infrequently enough to see them finish just outside the 8.
Should make the 8
8. Canterbury Bulldogs
2011 Season – 9th (12 – 12)
Expert Consensus – 9th (57% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 52% chance of finals, 5% chance of premiership
The Dogs high profile recruit for 2012, James Graham, arrives with a workhorse reputation forged during an exceptional career in the English super league. He will have justified his fee if he can replicate the impact of recent English arrivals Gareth Ellis and Sam Burgess. Jamal Idris took his extreme raw talent and questionable work rate to the Titans in the offseason which along with the retirement of captain Andrew Ryan were the notable losses from the roster which finished 9th last year. New captain Michael Ennis was restricted to only 12 matches during 2011 and you would have to think that if available during the closing weeks of the season he would’ve made the difference between making the finals and missing out.
2011 was a tumultuous year for the Dogs off the field, as the club sacked their coach mid-season for the first time in their history, before achieving the unlikely coup of attracting premiership coach Des Hasler to Belmore. On field, Canterbury started brightly and lead the competition early behind the brilliant form of Jamal Idris, before fading over the 2nd half of the year. New captain Michael Ennis is the key to everything the dogs produce in attack and I’m expecting that an injury free year from him combined with the positive influence of Hasler and new recruit Graham will see the dogs sneak into the 8 in 2012.
7. Canberra Raiders
2011 Season – 15th (6 – 18)
Expert Consensus – 11th (24% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 33% chance of finals, 4% chance of premiership
With Shaun Berrigan the only significant newcomer, the improvement in the Raider’s line-up is almost entirely due to the prospect of their stars having better luck with injury in 2012. Terry Campese’s 8 minute long season has been well documented, but in addition Josh Dugan managed only 13 matches for the lime green in 2011 and Tom Learoyd Lahrs played only 12. The retirement of inspirational captain Allan Tongue will leave a hole in the dressing room.
I am tipping the Raiders to be the big improvers of 2012. The combination of huge forwards, a great ball running and ball playing half and fast backs proved impossible to handle for the majority of sides over the back half of 2010. 2011 started in similar fashion with a thrashing of the Sharks but after round 1 the Raiders went on to win only 5 of the next 23 matches to only narrowly avoid the wooden spoon on for and against. As the losses snowballed, confidence drained out of the young side and several of their defeats were more self-inflicted than due to great play by the opposition. If Campese can return to the form of 2010 and Dugan can stay on the paddock for the full season, I’m tipping a return to the finals for the Green Machine. A strong start to the season will be crucial to regain confidence from the horrors of 2011.
6. North Queensland Cowboys
2011 Season – 7th (14 – 10)
Expert Consensus – 7th (38% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 52% chance of finals, 6% chance of premiership
The roster is largely unchanged from 2011. Willie Tonga has left for Parramatta, and his centre spot will be filled by either new arrival Kane Linnett or Antonia Winterstein, whose promising 2011 season was reduced cut short at 9 matches due to injury. If Robert Lui can overcome his off field problems, he will challenge the incumbent Ray Thompson for the right to partner Johnathon Thurston in the halves. Toyota Cup cannonball Jason Taumalolo has huge potential and should play a major role in the Cowboys season.
The Cowboys rediscovered their mojo in 2011, after cutting loose a lot of the dead wood that had dragged down the 2010 campaign. They have the best halfback and best prop in the game, and Dairy Farmers Stadium is once again a fortress after the Cowboys won 9 of 12 there last season. There is significant upside for the club if Tariq Sims continues to emerge as one of the most damaging backrowers in the league, if Jason Taumalolo can have the expected impact and if Robert Lui can form a dangerous partnership with JT. The roster is strong enough to ensure a return to the finals. Concerns will arise if Willie Tonga’s finishing is unable to be replaced or if Thurston’s domination of the ball stunts the development of his young halves partners – it is not for no reason that the cowboys have been unable to find a permanent halves partner for Thurston since his arrival in 2005.
Will make the 8
5. Brisbane Broncos
2011 Season – 3rd (18 – 6)
Expert Consensus – 5th (76% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 60% chance of finals, 9% chance of premiership
A 34 yr old departs, a 36 yr old arrives. Petero Civoniceva is well known to Bronco’s fans, and he will add depth and experience to an already impressive pack. Corey Norman will be given the unenviable task of filling Lockyer’s enormous shoes at five eighth.
Ordinarily, a club which won 18 matches with a young exceptionally talented line-up, and which was retaining every player except a 34 yr old would be raging premiership favourites. But when that player is future immortal Darren Lockyer the equation is not that simple. The Broncos have divided opinion this off season like few teams I can remember – some think that they will miss the finals, some expect them to win the premiership. The potential is there for both. I think that Lockyer’s absence will be felt most in the big games, and that the team will not quite reach the heights of 2011. However given they were 6 wins ahead of 9th place last season, they can afford to slip a little and still comfortably make the finals.
4. Newcastle Knights
2011 Season – 8th (12 – 12)
Expert Consensus – 3rd (100% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 67% chance of finals, 10% chance of premiership
Nathan Tinkler and Wayne Bennett wasted no time in attracting some big names to the Knights cause. Darius Boyd and up and coming star Alex McKinnon have followed their mentor up the F3, while Tahu, Buderus and Snowden have all been persuaded to return home. The Knights roster is undoubtedly stronger than in 2011, with Isaac De Gois Cameron Ciraldo and Adam Macdougall the key losses.
It’s a new day in Newcastle. One of the poorest clubs in the league became one of the wealthiest overnight upon Nathan Tinkler’s wildly popular takeover of the club. Along with a decidedly stronger squad came supercoach Wayne Bennett. Bennett’s impact on St.George-Illawarra cannot be overstated. He took essentially the same squad that had scraped into 7th in 2008 and led them to back to back minor premierships and a first premiership in 31 years by instilling a strong defensive mentality and disciplined attacking system. He arguably has more to work with talent wise than he did at the Dragons and accordingly expectations are high of a return to the glory days. This could be a huge year for Kurt Gidley, who often has seemed guilty of trying to do too much in recent seasons. If Bennett can bring some direction and focus to the Knights the squad is strong enough for top 4 honours.
3. Wests Tigers
2011 Season – 4th (15 – 9)
Expert Consensus – 1st (95% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 71% chance of finals, 12% chance of premiership
The signing of Adam Blair and resultant departures of Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita appeared to cause major disruption to the Tiger’s 2011 campaign. The club will be expecting that the NZ vice-captain will repay them during 2012 with his distinctive mix of strength and skill. Robert Lui’s halfback spot will be (at least initially) filled by Tim Moltzen, with 19 yr old James Tedesco taking over at fullback. Chris Lawrence and Lote Tuqiri played only 9 matches each during 2011 and their return to full fitness will be a big boost to what was already one of the NRL’s most potent backlines.
The Tigers looked premiership winners at times during their 9 game winning streak last year, however for the 2nd consecutive year were unable to hold a halftime lead in a finals game, exiting to a 79th minute Krisnan Inu try that was as heartbreaking in both its unorthodox nature and the ease to which it could have been prevented. The deep gloom hanging over Tigers fans was partially lifted by the news that crowd favourite Tim Moltzen would be remaining for at least one more season. At their best, the Tigers have the squad to win the premiership, with an international studded pack that rivals the fearsome Balmain 6 of the late 80’s, and a potent backline sparked by Benji Marshall and Chris Lawrence. They can also be maddeningly inconsistent – it is worth remembering that prior to the 9 game streak they sat at 7 – 9 and looked unlikely to make the finals. The key determinant of the Tigers success this year appears to be the halves partnership. If Tim Moltzen can make a success of it and reduce the pressure on Marshall the Tigers should expect top 4.
2. Manly Sea Eagles
2011 Season – 2nd (18 – 6)
Expert Consensus – 4th (90% chance of finals)
The bulk of the premier’s squad returns to defend the title, with wingers William Hopoate and Michael Robertson the only departures. Their spots will be taken by the fit again David Williams and Michael Oldfield. Jason King missed the back end of the premiership season through injury and his return will boost the forward pack.
Manly’s 2012 season will offer fascinating empirical evidence on the question “How important is a coach to the team’s success?” If Hasler were still taking the reins at Narrabeen, the defending premiers would expect to be on the front line of premiership betting. As it is, after a disruptive off season, the side containing all the key players from last year’s triumph is only rated 5th favourites on Betfair. Key performers Brett and Glenn Stewart, Watmough and Lyon are all in the prime of their careers, while young stars Daly Cherry Evans, Kieran Foran and Tony Williams figure to reach greater heights as they gain experience. DCE plays like a veteran and would not seem to be a prime candidate to suffer the dreaded 2nd year syndrome that has effected other playmakers in recent years (Ahem.. Tim Smith.. cough cough). It would take a major premiership hangover to see the Sea Eagles miss the top 4.
1. Melbourne Storm
2011 Season – 1st (19 – 5)
Expert Consensus – 2nd (100% chance of finals)
Betfair Odds – 67% chance of finals, 11% chance of premiership
Another big name from the glory days departs in the form of Adam Blair, while recent arrival Beau Champion has left for the sunnier climate of the Gold Coast. Two veteran forwards, Jason Ryles and Ryan Hoffman, arrive to be rejuvenated by the Bellamy methods.
The storm roster appears slightly weaker than in 2011, but as long as they retain the best ‘spine’ in the league they are a strong chance of being thereabouts in September. Last year was the 4th time in the last 6 seasons that the Storm have finished on top after the premiership rounds, and they won the grand final in one of those other two seasons. Some felt that they overachieved to finish first in 2011 however with a stable playing roster, imposing home record and a Craig Bellamy inspired consistency of effort and performance that is the envy of the league, I’m tipping them to repeat the does in 2012.
With less than two weeks to go until the first kickoff of the 2012 NRL season, many fans are eagerly anticipating not just following their team from week to week, but also punting on the footy and winning a little extra cash on the side. Due to its even nature, the NRL is an unpredictable competition and while this makes picking winners difficult, it also means the opportunity is there for the astute gambler to make some money at good odds.
To (hopefully) assist in that process, I’ve taken a look at the results of the 2011 NRL season from a gambling perspective, to highlight where some value might be found during 2012.
My method has been to examine the different returns that would have been achieved in 2011, from alternatively backing:
– Heavy favourites/outsiders vs Slight favourites/outsiders
– Favourites or outsiders at different times during the season
– Individual teams over the season
Returns by Odds Category
The below table splits the 2011 season into four categories
- Matches between a Heavy Home Team Favourite and Away Underdog
- Matches between a Slight Home Team Favourite and Away Underdog
- Matches between a Slight Away Team Favourite and Home Underdog
- Matches between a Heavy Away Team Favourite and Home Underdog
and presents the results of these matches, and the return on outlay over the season for someone who’d bet on every match in that category.
The lesson here is to avoid the heavy favourites, and back the big outsiders.
In the 22 matches during 2011 in which the Away team was paying 3.80 or higher, the long shot away team underdogs won 7 times. While this may not seem a successful result, because the Away teams were at such long odds, backing all 22 of them (with equal stakes) would have returned a 53% profit. By comparison, backing all the heavy home team favourites would have returned an 18% loss.
Similarly, in the 9 matches where the home team was paying $2.95 or more, the home side underdog won on 4 occasions, yielding a 55% profit, compared to a 28% loss from backing the heavily favoured away sides.
It seems that the chances of a long shot underdog winning the match was underestimated by betting agencies – either that or they were deliberately underpricing the heavy favourites to discourage punters from backing them. The goal of betting agencies is to have an even payout for either result. This way they make their commission regardless of the result and minimise risk. Winding in the prices of heavier favourites can on occasion be a deliberate ploy aimed at achieving this goal, which may explain why the returns from backing the underdogs was so high.
The second conclusion to draw is that in matches when the odds are more even, look towards the home favourites for best value – the return of 15% is clearly superior to that from backing the slight away favourites, or either the slight home or away underdogs.
There is a large opportunity to bet on slight home favourites (ie home favourites paying more than 1.28), with over half the matches in the NRL last year fitting this description. While a 15% return may not seem large on an individual bet basis, it is a considerable achievement over the length of a season, especially in light of the fact that betting agencies frame markets in order to achieve a 5% return, meaning the expected result for the average punter is a 5% loss.
Returns at different stages of the season
It makes sense that the largest opportunities are going to be found early in the season, before betting agencies or punters have had a chance to properly evaluate the teams. This theory is borne out by the 2011 experience.
The first chart shows the returns achieved over the season if you had backed every winner individually each week. Clearly this is not a realistic scenario (and if you achieved this, you’d hardly be concerned with any trends in the amount of cash you were winning), however it does provide a good measure of the ability of the betting agencies to frame their markets accurately. If more favourites win, the ‘Winning Teams % Return’ will naturally be lower, and if heavier favourites win the returns will also be lower.
The decreasing trend indicates that as the season wore on, more favourites and shorter priced favourites were winning, meaning less value available for the punter. This result is expected, and is no doubt due to the betting agencies and fans in general getting a better read on teams ability and form as the season rolls on.
This trend is further illustrated when we examine the returns from backing every favourite vs backing all the underdogs over the season.
The best returns from backing favourites came late in the season, and the best returns on underdogs came in the early rounds.
We have already seen that backing the heavy underdogs yielded the best returns, and now we see that backing underdogs early in the year is recommended. The combination of these findings is also true. The heavy away outsiders won 7 of 22 matches in total, and that record stood at 4 win out of 5 in the first 10 rounds, and then 3 from 17 over the remainder of the season. Likewise the heavy home outsiders won 4 of 9 in total, with the record in the first ten rounds being 2 out of 3, and 2 out of 6 post round 10.
The NRL gambling manifesto based on the 2011 NRL season is essentially
– Back heavy outsiders early in the season
– Back slight home favourites, especially later in the season
Returns by Individual Team
The reliability of the betting performance of each team in 2011 as an indicator of how to invest in 2012 is limited for two obvious reasons:
– The teams themselves have changed and will no doubt perform differently
– The betting agencies views of the teams will have changed
Regardless, there are still some interesting results to highlight in the above table
As seen above, the Wests Tigers had the worst return as favourites of any team in the top 10, the best return of any team as underdogs, and were the team that the betting agencies found most difficult to predict, with a ‘Total Accuracy’ of only 54% (Total Accuracy is defined as the Number of times a team won as favourites, plus the number of times it lost as underdog, divided by the total number of matches played)
The Tigers have been pegged by most agencies as the favourites for the 2012 title, but their recent history has shown them to be unreliable favourites. I’d be cautious in backing the tigers too often when they are favourites to win.
It is no surprise to see that 20%+ returns achieved from backing the Storm, Sea Eagles and Broncos when they were favourites. All three clubs were reliable performers which remained in the top 4 nearly all season.
Two other clubs lower down the ladder were also reliable when favourites. The Cowboys won 9 of the 11 games they were favoured in, while the Knights claimed 7 of 9 when favoured. For both these regional one team town clubs, this reliability was built on a strong home record. All 9 of the matches that the Knights started favourite in were played in Newcastle. Of the 9 matches that the Cowboys started favourite in at Dairy Farmers Stadium, they won 8. Both of these clubs are likely to receive more respect from the betting agencies this season, and should be favoured more often. Getting on them when they’re favourite to win and at home should be a fairly safe bet in 2012 as well.
Overachiever and proud of it
The Storm, Broncos and Sea Eagles were all tipped to finish outside the top 6 by betting agencies at the start of last season. It’s easier said than done, but if you can identify a team which is under rated by the betting agencies at the outset and jump aboard them early, the returns are sure to be healthy.
In Round 2 2011, eventual premiers Manly started 4.00 outsiders against the soon to be also ran Roosters. That sort of value will again be available in early 2012, for those who are perceptive enough to understand the true quality of the teams before the betting agencies and the media catch on.
 The seven upsets – Sea Eagles def Roosters R2, Titans def Raiders R4, Warriors def Storm R7, Raiders def Storm R10, Cowboys def Knights R18, Rabbitohs def Dragons R21, Roosters def Dragons R23
 The four upsets – Sharks def Dragons R2, Rabbitohs def Tigers R10, Raiders def Dragons R20, Roosters def Storm R26
 For the statistically inclined, I calculated that if the betting agency prices were correct, the probability of 11 or more upsets occurring out of those 31 matches is only 6.5%. That is pretty strong evidence to suggest that the agency prices were not correct, and that they’d underestimated the underdog’s chances of victory
For over 20 years it has been an integral part of the Australian Christmas experience – settling in to watch Day 1 of the test on Boxing Day. Around the country in thousands of backyards, kids will be emulating their heroes and dreaming of one day getting the chance to perform on Cricket’s biggest stage.
Over the history of the Boxing Day test, there have been many memorable moments. Here follows my selection of the five greatest performances by an Australian on the 26th December.
5. Ricky Ponting’s captain’s tonne
26 December 2005
Ricky Ponting 117
Boxing Day 2005 saw the start of the 2nd Test of the series vs South Africa. The proteas had escaped Perth with a draw in the 1st test by surviving 126 overs from Warne, McGrath and co over the 4th and 5th days. Ponting’s bowling tactics and conservative declaration (setting the Proteas 491 for victory) had both been critisised in light of the result, and his captaincy was under pressure.
In his 2nd Boxing day test as captain, Ponting won the toss, chose to bat, and was almost immediately out in the middle himself as Phil Jaques departed in the 3rd over with the score on 2.
Ponting was given an early life on 17, and then proceeded to ruthlessly punish the South African attack, hitting 6 boundaries on his way to 50 of just 73 balls. Hayden and Ponting put on 152 runs to swing the match decisively in Australia’s favour.
Ponting’s century was his first at the ground as Captain, and his 6th for the 2005 calendar year during which he averaged 61.
South Africa fought back late on day 1, but Ponting’s captain’s knock had shown again that while doubts would linger about his captaincy credentials, his ability as a batsmen would be enough to lead his country to victory on many occasions. Australia went on to win the test by 184 runs and would wrap up a 2-0 series win in Sydney.
26 December 2002
Matthew Hayden 102
Justin Langer 146*
These two great openers, so often spoken of as a partnership rather than as individuals, cannot have their efforts on Boxing Day 2002 separated.
Australia had already retained the ashes by the time the series moved to Melbourne in 2002, and both openers took the opportunity to pile on the runs against a depleted and demoralised English attack.
The pair went on to compile a 195 run partnership, smashing the previous record for highest opening stand in an ashes test of 126 by Monty Noble and Victor Trumper.
Hayden’s century was his 6th of the calendar year and 3rd of the ashes series. He was out shortly after reaching the milestone for 102. Soon afterwards Langer brought up his century with a 4 and a 6 on consecutive balls. He finished the day on 146 not out, and went on to score a mammoth 250 as Australia would compile 551/6 on the way to a 4-0 series lead.
3. Thommo rips through the West Indies top order
26 December 1975
West Indies 224
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust…” – on Boxing Day 1975, the West Indies discovered that if Lillee don’t get ya, Thommo must! In front of a crowd of close to 86,000, the fearsome Australian pair took 9 wickets between them on day 1 to essentially win the test for Australia.
On this occasion, Thommo (no relation of the author) was the more deadly of the pair. In a spell which Wisden described as being “as fast as one could imagine a human being propelling a cricket ball”, Thomson decimated the Windies top order, dismissing Greenidge, Rowe, Kallicharran, Fredericks and their Captain Clive Lloyd to leave the tourists 5/108. The West Indies received a lesson in hostile fast bowling, one which they would take great pleasure in handing down to opposition sides over the next 15 years.
Thomson finished with 5/62 as Lillee cleaned up the tail to have the West Indies all out for 224. Australia was 0/38 in reply at stumps, and well on their way to victory and a 2-1 series lead.
26 December 1981
Kim Hughes 100*
West Indies 4/10
In 1981 the West Indies returned to the MCG, this time bringing with them a 15 test unbeaten run, and a fearsome pace attack of their own – Holding, Garner, Roberts and Croft.
Australia was in dire straights when Kim Hughes came to the crease. Laird, Wood and Captain Greg Chappell had all fallen cheaply to Roberts and Holding – Chappell for a golden duck. Australia was 3/8 as the West Australian took guard, and then slumped to 4/26 as Allan Border was unable to provide the resistance he would become famed for later in his career, departing for 4. An embarrassingly low score beckoned on a challenging pitch against arguably the greatest 4 pronged pace attack of all time.
Hughes’s response was to go on the attack. He carried his bat through the innings, finishing on 100 not out as Australia were bowled out for 198. That total had looked unachievable earlier in the day, and was reached largely due to a 43 run last wicket partnership with noted bunny Terry Alderman.
Hughes gutsy innings had lifted the side and given Australia’s bowlers something to aim at when they had their chance on the lively pitch late on day 1. Lillee and Alderman responded to the challenge, picking up the wickets of Haynes, Bacchus, night watchman Croft and then Viv Richards off the last ball of the day to leave the West Indies at 4/10 in reply.
Hughes innings had saved the match for Australia on day 1, and would lay the platform for the Aussies to inflict the Windies first test defeat in over a year. His lone stand innings in front of nearly 40,000 was the stuff dreams are made of.
1. Warnie’s 700th
26 December 2006
Shane Warne 5/39
The number 1 selection is not a tale of heroic resistance or triumph against the odds. The ashes were retained and England was looking well beaten by the time the series came to the MCG in 2006. But in terms of great Boxing Day performances, who can go past Victoria’s favourite son’s day out in 2006?
The crowd of nearly 90,000 were anticipating being witness to Warne’s 700th test wicket from the time Andrew Flintoff had decided to bat first in the overcast conditions. Despite constant urging chants of ‘Warnie, warnie” from the crowd, Ponting was to make them wait until the 41st over before bringing Shane into the attack.
On the 2nd ball of his 4th over, the wait was over. Strauss was bowled, the crowd roared and no one could catch the blond master as he wheeled away in celebration.
The rest of the day felt like an anticlimax, but often forgotten is that Warne proceeded to take his 37th test match 5 wicket haul to have England all but beaten by the end of day 1.
No doubt the attendance at Boxing Day 2006 will grow exponentially as time passes, as every cricket loving Australian male stakes a claim to having been there on the great day.
Qld and Australia are well served at full back
When newly crowned golden boot winner Billy Slater headed to the Wembley sidelines nursing a broken collarbone, England could have viewed his early exit from the tournament as opening up a major opportunity to expose Australia at the back. This did not prove to be the case. Darius Boyd was one of Australia’s strongest performers over the remainder of the tournament, emphasising the depth Australia (and Queensland) have in the number 1 jersey. In the final, Boyd was flawless under the high ball (zero errors), while running for 104 m, and contributing 1 line break, 1 line break assist and 1 try assist via throwing the last pass for the Jharal Yow Yeh try that put Australia ahead for good. Boyd was a constant threat to the England defence, chiming into the backline as the 2nd man option and using his pace and passing ability to create overlaps for his outside men.
By reproducing his excellent club form in his first opportunity to play fullback at representative level, Darius Boyd showed that the eventual departure of Billy Slater will not be felt as keenly by Queensland and Australia as might have been expected.
Tackling low can still be effective
The classic ‘copybook’ tackle around the legs has largely disappeared from the modern game. Players are coached to go high in order to wrap up the ball, stop 2nd phase play, and then begin the wrestle to slow the play the ball. Going low allows the ball carrier to get to their feet too quickly.
I’ve long been an advocate of players tackling low in certain situations, such as when close to their line or when one on one with an attacker out wide. England’s outside men used this tactic effectively to contain Uate, Yow Yeh, Lawrence and Inglis when isolated out wide. It was noticeable that Australia’s outside men struggled to break free of the defence, particularly when compared to the field day they had enjoyed a few weeks earlier against New Zealand in Newcastle. Willie Tonga in particular was able to brush off several ineffective efforts on his way to a double that day. The Australian outside backs did eventually get the better of their opposite numbers, but the tries they scored were due to hole running and the creation of overlaps rather than from missed tackles. In fact, the most memorable defensive lapse of the tournament was committed by the NRL trained Chris Heighinton, who went high on Tony Williams close to the line with embarassing results.
When England’s backs got to grips with the Aussies they brought them down – typically from the hips and below. A lesson for the NRL?
England struggle to compete for the full 80 minutes
It is judgement that must seem patronising to English listeners – “England has got the talent, but they aren’t used to the week in week out grind of the NRL. They don’t compete for the full 80 minutes”
Yet 40 years of dominance allows Aussie commentators to adopt this tone with good reason, and the last two four nations finals between these nations bear out the theory. In 2009, Australia led 18-16 after 58 minutes of the final, and this year the scores were locked at 8-8 after 56 minutes. On both occasions the Aussies sealed the win and then blew out the scoreline in the final 20 minutes, scoring 28 unanswered points in 2009 and 22 in 2011. England had been hugely impressive in the 2009 final (highlighted by Sam Burgess’s amazing solo try) and looked to have the beating of the kangaroos, yet fell apart when the blowtorch was applied. In 2011 it was more a case of the scoreboard not reflecting the kangaroos dominance in the first half – once they hit the front with 20 to go the strain told and the floodgates opened.
Is the solution for more of England’s top players to head down under to the NRL?
NRL clubs will be coming back for more English talent
The NRL is an increasingly attractive proposition for top Super League stars, offering not only a higher level of competition and prestige, but also financial rewards given the current strong $AUD. James Graham is heading to the Bulldogs for 2012, and NRL clubs will be taking an interest in several other England stars, in particular Sam Tomkins and Rangi Chase.
Tomkins is the leading light in the English game. The Wigan star’s light stepping elusive running game would no doubt be well suited to the firmer Australian conditions, and he impressed against the toughest of oppositions in the test match at Wembley, with his flick pass to set up the 2nd of Ryan Hall’s tries the highlight. Tomkins has recently re-signed with Wigan until 2016, however with contracts meaning little once a player’s head has been turned, a godfather like NRL offer may have him down under sooner than that.
Rangi Chase of course started his career in Australia with the Wests Tigers and the Dragons. Since moving to Super League he has moved a long way towards filling his always evident potential. His style draws comparisons to former high school team mate Benji Marshall, and while he is not yet at the level of the Kiwi captain, his first half display at Wembley showed enough to indicate he would be a success in the NRL, particularly given the dearth of natural playmakers in the modern game.
The Lockyer/Thurston combination reigns supreme
The old adage ‘forwards win the big matches’ has long been held up as a self evident truth. Without taking away from the efforts of the Kangaroos pack, once again Darren Lockyer and Johnathan Thurston seemed determined to prove that at the top level, it is the halves that hold the key to victory.
Thurston had a quiet finish to the NRL season, ineffective in the Cowboys embarrassing 40-8 finals loss to Manly, and was generally unable to hit top form following his perhaps precipitous return from a serious knee injury suffered in State of Origin 3. He was back to his best in the four nations, having a hand in every roos attack, virtually flawless with the boot, and deservedly took out the MOM award in both games against England. In his finale in the sport, Lockyer played the understated, steadying role that he has perfected in the latter period of his career.
The four nations final victory brought this halves combination’s record in the green and gold to 16 wins, 1 draw, 1 loss. Combine that with their impressive 12-6 State of Origin win-loss record and it is clear this pairing have laid claim to being the best representative halves combination in the history of the sport. England and New Zealand will be glad to see the last of them.
 2008 World Cup Final
“Disgraceful”, “Horrible”, “Unnaceptable”, were the terms used by Australian Captain Michael Clarke to describe the 2nd innings capitulation in Cape Town on Thursday.
Australian cricket supporters could perhaps describe it in other terms – “all too familiar”.
While the shameful scoreline of all out for 47 represents a nadir for Australian “batsmanship”, it is also the 3rd time in 18 months that Australia have failed to reach 100 in an innings.
The scale of the decline in Australian batting over the past 4 years is illustrated below – the blue line shows average runs per wicket on an innings basis, while the orange shows the 10 innings rolling average runs per wicket.
At the end of the 2006/07 Ashes, the 10 innings rolling average stood at a mammoth 59 runs per wicket. By the time Australia was touring the West Indies in mid 2008, the average had fallen to 40 runs per wicket. It remained at around this level until Mid 2010. Since then, series defeat in India and annihilation in the Ashes have seen the average fall to the high 20’s.
The occasional amazing collapse can be tolerated, and the humilation soon forgotten, if the usual performance is huge scores and winning totals. But to suffer three such performances in 18 months speaks of a larger malaise, and hints at a lack of mental toughness in the current aussie top 6.
For a nation who until very recently joked that ‘English batting collapse” was somewhat of a tautology, these are concerning times indeed.
Of the 23 previous World Cup quarter finals in which an undefeated team has faced a team which had already suffered a loss, the undefeated Group Winner has won on 20 occasions (87%).
This makes good reading for England, Ireland, South Africa and New Zealand. To further preview the quarter finals, we examine the team’s previous World Cup records and which side has generally had the advantage throughout history, before making some fearless predictions as to the outcomes of what should be a great weekend of Rugby.
England vs France
France is the 1st team in World Cup history to make the quarter finals having been defeated twice in the pool stages.
This match represents the 7th straight quarter final appearance for both England and France. France has won 5/6 to date, England 4/6. England’s record in all World Cup knockout matches is slightly superior at 8/13 compared to France’s 7/13.
These sides have met on three previous occasions in World Cup history, with all three matches occurring in the knockout stages, and all three going to England. England has knocked France out of the last two World Cups.
England lead the all time record 51 to 36 (7 draws), and have won 4 of their last 5 matches against the French.
While England have failed to sparkle so far in the tournament, they have exhibited a “Rod Macqueen era Wallabies” like ability to get themselves out of jail, sealing both their wins over Argentina and Scotland with late tries. France have been in disarray and statistically come into the quarter finals as the worst performing group stage team ever.
All signs point to another England World Cup victory over the French.
Tip = England
Ireland vs Wales
The winner of this clash will be in unknown territory – Ireland have yet to win a Quarter Final in 4 previous attempts, and while Wales have won 1 of 3 quarter finals, that victory was in the first World Cup in 1987.
These teams have met twice in World Cups, Wales winning in 1987 and Ireland in 1995.
Wales lead the all time record 63 – 47 (6 draws), however Ireland hold a 3-2 edge in the last 5 matches between the sides.
Both sides have impressed so far in RWC 2011. Ireland won Pool C in style by defeating Australia and thrashing Six Nations rivals Italy, while Wales has displayed some brilliant attacking Rugby during their campaign and pushed reigning world champions South Africa to the wire in their opening match.
The bookies have Ireland as favourites, and the grind it out style they displayed against the Wallabies seems tailor made for the latter stages of the World Cup. However I’m backing the Welsh loose forwards to supply enough quality ball to their backs to enable them to ensure victory.
Tip = Wales
South Africa vs Australia
These nations boast the two strongest World Cup knockout round records; South Africa having won 7 / 9 to date and Australia 9 / 13. Neither has ever missed the Quarter finals. South Africa has won 3 / 4 Quarter finals to date while Australia has won 4 / 6.
So far in World Cup history the record stands at 1-1. South Africa beat Australia in its first ever World Cup match in 1995, and Australia more than repaid them by winning the 1999 semi final 27 – 21 in extra time.
South Africa have historically had an edge over Australia, leading the all time series 41 – 31 (1 Draw), however Australia have had the wood on their Tri Nations rivals in recent years, winning 4 of the last 5 encounters.
This match is going to be extremely tight. Australia’s recent strong record against the Springboks has bookies judging them slight favourites. With the weather and refereeing likely to favour the South African’s forward dominated play, I give a slight edge to South Africa
Tip = South Africa
New Zealand vs Argentina
This is New Zealand’s 7th quarter final, and they had been undefeated in their first 5 quarter finals until their shock loss to France in 2007. This will be Argentina’s 3rd quarter final; their record to date is 1 from 2.
New Zealand has never lost to Argentina, winning 12 / 13 encounters (the other was a draw) including the last 5 by an average margin of 29 points. They have only met once in previous World Cups, New Zealand recording a 46 – 15 victory way back in 1987.
While Argentina has often been competitive against the All Blacks at home, in New Zealand it is a different story, with the All Blacks winning the seven encounters to date by an average margin of 48 points.
Difficult to see anything other than a comfortable New Zealand win, providing them with a great chance to acclimatise to life without Dan Carter.
Tip = New Zealand by 30
 Jinx Jinx Jinx Jinx Jinx….
As we prepare for the commencement of the business end of RWC 2011, it is worth looking back at an exciting pool stage which can lay claim to being the most even ever.
This may seem a strange claim to make in light of the 8 separate 50 point thrashings handed out, and given the fact that we have a quarter final line up which is largely as expected.
However in the context of the rugby World Cup, which for such a large and successful sporting event has generally lacked an element of uncertainty and competitiveness, this year’s tournament can be considered a step forward, and vindication of the belief that the global standard is improving and the gap between the contenders and minnows is at least somewhat closing.
How can we measure competitiveness?
Firstly, let’s look at the frequency of upsets. To compare this to past tournaments, I’ll define an upset by dividing the competing nations into three broad categories:
– The “Contenders”, all of which have made the final in the past and who generally have designs on winning the tournament (Australia, England, France, New Zealand, South Africa).
– The “Competitors”, comprised of the remaining members of the Six Nations, the Pacific Island teams and Argentina. These nations generally enter World Cups aiming at qualification for the knockout stages (Ireland, Italy, Scotland, Wales, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Argentina).
– The “Minnows”, made up of all the remaining nations, who enter each World Cup aiming for competitiveness and a victory to head home with
An upset is then defined as a victory for a team over a nation residing in a superior category. This is a narrower version of an upset than is often used, but appropriate for the purposes of having a comparable definition over the 24 year history of the tournament.
Using this definition, this pool stage has thrown up 3 upset results out of 31 matches (not counting the 9 matches between teams in the same category, where an upset was impossible), namely Ireland over Australia, Tonga over France and Canada over Tonga. As the table below illustrates, this compares to a total of 5 upsets in the previous 6 tournaments.
It is difficult to draw a trend out of such scarce results. However the two upsets of “Contender” nations in this pool stage, coupled with the fact that the previous such upset occurred in the 2007 tournament, points towards an increase in unpredictability in the tournament in recent editions.
The other way we can measure competitiveness is in the margin of victory. On this measure, the 2011 pool stage has also improved.
The 28 point margin of victory is 2 points less than at the France 2007 pool stages, and is the lowest pool stage average margin since the tournament was expanded to 20 teams in 1999.
Looking at the Margin by match type, considering only the matches between teams from different categories (which make up 75% of all World Cup pool matches to date) we can see that the reduction in total average margin since France 2007 is driven by the increasing competitiveness of the “Minnows” and “Competitors” when playing the “Contenders”.
An interesting result is the steady reduction in margin since 1999 in matches between the “Contenders” (Tri nations plus England and France) and the “Competitors” (remaining Six Nations, Pacific Islands and Argentina). As shown in red above, the margin of victory has steadily fallen from 47 points in 1999 to 15 points in 2011. This is partially due to the increasing competiveness of Italy and Tonga, which each had 100 points put on them in a single match during the 1999 group stage.
The advent of professionalism in Rugby, coupled with the expansion of the tournament to 20 teams in 1999, saw a larger gap open up between the top echelon of World Rugby nations and the rest. This margin has now reduced as both the “Competitor” nations and “Minnows” are now also experiencing the benefits of professionalism. The aim of the IRB has to be for the Rugby World Cup to become as competitive a tournament as the FIFA version. While this dream may be still some way from realisation, recent experience indicates that the tournament is heading in the right direction.
 New Zealand 83 Japan 7, South Africa 87 Namibia 0, England 67 Romania 3, Australia 67 USA 5, Ireland 62 Russia 12, Wales 81 Namibia 7, New Zealand 79 Canada 15, Wales 66 Fiji 0
The Wallabies shock defeat at the hands of Ireland has left them needing to make World Cup history in order to ‘bring home bill’.
No team has ever lost a pool match at the world cup and then proceeded to win the tournament. In fact, very few have even managed to win a single knockout match.
Of the 23 previous world cup quarter finals in which an undefeated team has faced a team which had already suffered a loss, on only 3 occasions has the pool stage runner up emerged triumphant.
The first of these occurred in 1991, in which England lost to New Zealand in the opening game of the tournament before going on to defeat France in an ill tempered (aren’t they all?) QF at Park de Princes.
The other two quarter final upsets of this nature occurred on the same day in 2007, as England overpowered the Wallabies on a hot afternoon in Marseille, and France shocked the grey-clad tournament favourites New Zealand later the same evening in Cardiff. England had been whitewashed 36-0 by eventual champions South Africa during the pool stage.
But it is perhaps the French of 2007 to whom the wallabies current predicament could most be likened. The English pool stage losses of 1991 and 2007 had been largely expected, coming as they did at the hands of two of the southern hemisphere heavyweights. The French of 2007 however, like the wallabies of 2011, were heavily favoured to win their group and thereby earn an easier quarter final assignment. Their shock loss to Argentina in the opening match of the tournament ranks alongside Ireland’s victory last Saturday as the greatest World Cup pool match upset ever, and relegated them to facing the kiwis in Cardiff.
So the optimistic amongst the Wallabies supporters can point towards the 2007 French campaign as evidence that all is not lost, and a revival of the campaign is possible. That is where the favourable historic precedent ends however.
While two teams have gone on to reach the final after suffering a pool stage loss, neither were able to win the tournament. Judging by World Cup history, Australia’s hopes of lifting the Web Ellis trophy on October 23rd now appear to be very slim indeed.
 One quarter final, in 1987 between New Zealand and Scotland, featured 2 undefeated sides, as Scotland finished 2nd in their pool on for and against after drawing with France during the pool stages.
 New Zealand has never lost a pool match. South Africa’s only pool defeat came to eventual champions England in 2003. Australia’s only previous pool match defeat was in the opening game of the 1995 world cup to the hosts South Africa. England’s two other pool defeats were to Australia in 1987 and New Zealand in 1999, while France have only lost the pool match mentioned above. None of these defeats suffered by tournament contenders was an upset on the scale of the Irish and Argentinean triumphs.
 England 1991, England 2007