Try, try and try again: How much of the scoring in the NRL’s opening round was sustainable?


Welcome back, NRL – all 51 tries of you.

50 might have been a little more cute, and that late penalty try for the Cowboys was certainly on the generous side from the Bunker, but an average of 6.3 per game is pretty good going at the time of year when, theoretically, attacking combinations are being made.

We saw a fair few upsets, and for those interested in performances over results – hint: this should be everyone at this time of year – that creates an interesting throughline.

It’s pretty much impossible to judge sides off one game alone (and the Wests Tigers haven’t even got that far yet) but those aforementioned 51 tries do give us a decent sample size on how the league looks in the category that matters most and, just maybe, can tell us something about which results are replicable over the rest of the year.

The relationship between points and performances is one that plenty of people have tried to crack.

In this publication, we have the xLadder, a proprietary model designed to take key metrics that correlate with winning (run metres, line breaks, total sets) and allocate points based on those, with the hope of discerning the best performing teams over a whole season.

Others, like Rugby League Eye Test, have Expected Points, that use location-based data to project how many points a side should score given the opportunities they had.

Stats, of course, are great and objective and don’t care about your feelings, but only one half of the equation.

Without analysis, particularly video and tactical analysis, they’re just numbers on a spreadsheet.

Looking into one game of each team is generally quite pointless from both a statistical and analytical perspective, but looking into 51 individual tries and working out, tactically, how they occurred, however…that might tell us something.

Anyone who has seen Steph Curry sink a rake of three-pointers, Mitch Starc run through the tail or an Ange Postecoglou team score off a cutback knows that sustainability is really important in sports.

Rugby league is no different and, in general, sides with repeatable patterns have done better than most in the six again era.

Where once teams could have a plan to get out of their end, then hand over responsibility to their pivots to do the rest, now more and more are working off a script that sees them run through multiple rehearsed moves with ball in hand to attack designated spaces on the field.

With that in mind, we analysed all tries scored across the split round, with the idea of working out where they came from.

Caveats come straight at the top, and this is just one analyst’s view, with purely subjective measures. It couldn’t be otherwise, but between this kind of analysis and the existing, objective stats, a synthesis can hopefully be found.

The basic parameters were as follows: created v uncreated, team v individual, kick v set play v open play, shift v shortside v midfield, short v mid v long range, qualitative v quantative, attacking error v defensive error v no error.

That’ll take some unpacking, so here goes.

Created v uncreated is perhaps the most important, because that answers the question of whether the try came from something that a team could expect to happen time and again through their own controllable efforts.

Uncreated includes intercepts, of which there were a few, crashovers of which there were plenty, kicks that were largely someone bombing/grubbering and hoping for the best and, of course, that one penalty try which was a bit of it all.

Team v individual came down to who was the major contributor: Latrell Mitchell carrying four men over the line and Luke Metcalf scything through Cronulla are obvious examples at one end, the sweeping move that won that same game for the Sharks though be the opposite.

Latrell does it on his own! ????#NRLManlySouths #NRLVegas

— NRL (@NRL) March 3, 2024

Kick/set play/open play is self-explanatory, and only worth further explanation to point out that just one try was scored from a set move, Manly’s first in Vegas, which surely much be an outlier.

Location is done on rugby league terms, not geography. We split between open side shifts, short side plays and midfield.

Distance is easy too: our lines are red zone, aka 0-20m, then midrange, from 21 to halfway, then long range from further than that. This refers to the location of the play the ball at the start of the play.

Qualitative v quantitative has been discussed in the past but is basically whether a team seeks to outnumber a player/team in a certain area (usually aimed at the corner) or to isolate big v small, fast v slow.

The errors category is easy on the attacking side (intercepts) but in defence is very subjective. Kyle Flanagan’s try is a good example of an easy one – he doesn’t score unless someone makes a terrible error – but in others can be failings that the attack still has to notice then exploit.

Eyes up footy from Flanagan! ????#NRLTitansDragons

— NRL (@NRL) March 9, 2024

Theoretically every try requires some sort of error – to paraphrase the Italian manager Annibale Frossi, the perfect soccer match ends 0-0 – but we’re more lenient and accept that sometimes attack is too good and thus points are scored.

So what did we learn?

Over in Vegas, the results mightn’t be as bad as it sounds for the Broncos and Souths.

Both beat their opponents in the sort of tries you might be able to score sustainably week-to-week, with Manly and the Roosters benefitting from intercepts, while the Sea Eagles also got a dummy half crashover and a try off a kick, both of which could be suggested to be at least contributed to by luck and poor defending.

Newcastle are in the same boat: they created both of their tries in a way that we have seen them do before, while Canberra did their usual thing of relying a lot on kicking.

Jackson Hastings’ late try, where the assist belonged to a superb push support from Kai Pearce-Paul, showed the shape that the Knights ran several times and, on the other side, had resulted in their first of the night, to Tyson Frizzell.

Ricky’s Raiders’ won’t care, of course (and might pin this article to the sheds wall alongside other messages), but for the record, they lost the stats battle on our model, too.

Zac Hosking takes flight #NRLKnightsRaiders

— NRL (@NRL) March 7, 2024

Despite the Raiders’ best effort, kicking made up just 20% of all tries which, though good this weekend, you’d have to suspect is not a plan that is viable long term.

Then again, Canberra are kryptonite to all modelling. Heaven forbid Jamal Fogarty get injured or, indeed, they just stop being as lucky with kicking as they have been for the last 12 months.

The Sharks and Warriors created all their tries bar one – Jesse Ramien’s crashover – as did the Eels and Bulldogs, bar the late Bailey Simonsson turnover try, which bodes well, especially if Canterbury were to get more ball and actually be able to use it.

Penrith and Melbourne only had one try and were otherwise incredibly close, so not much to read into there, leaving the other two big wins, the Dragons over the Titans and the Cowboys over the Dolphins.

What was most interesting is that all the subjective analysis suggests that Redcliffe and the Gold Coast absolutely beat themselves, with only three of the 15 tries ‘created’ and all but four directly attributable to defensive error rather than attacking prowess.

That’s neither team’s fault, and everyone would love to play an opponent who tackled badly, but it might be worth pausing for thought before booking the open-top bus parade.

For the final two games, the results likely say more about the teams that lost than the ones that won.

Across the round, around 50% of tries were more defensive issues than attacking skill, as opposed to 75% in those two games, and the created/uncreated split was about the same.

Watch the dummy from Laybutt! ????#NRLDolphinsCowboys

— NRL (@NRL) March 10, 2024

At this time of year, simply playing the territory game and awaiting mistakes is a perfectly decent way of winning footy matches, but it’s one that likely won’t be good enough the longer the season goes on.

69% of tries were from short range, which on eye test alone seems high, but might speak to differing strategies at this time of year.

Further to that, the split between quantitative advantage and qualitative was a straight 50/50, suggesting no specific focus either way, though given that a quarter of the games were played on a tight pitch, that might be expected to rise when returned to regular programming – especially for Souths, the Broncos and Manly, who like to play wide.

If that rises, then you’d expect the number of tries from further out to go up too, as those three and Cronulla (who basically got no ball) are among the most likely to attack from deep.

Brooks goes straight through! ????#NRLManlySouths #NRLVegas

— NRL (@NRL) March 3, 2024

Another interesting Vegas aside is that only seven shortside plays resulted in tries, but five of them were in the Manly v Souths game, a match-up in which one might usually have expected both teams to favour the wide ball. Manly got four of them too, clearly planning to attack when the Bunnies thought they’d go the other way.

Of course, this is just one round, and any sample size is going to be very noisy. And yes, Raiders fans, kicking is a perfectly legitimate skill and you are allowed to score from kicks as much as you like.

But it’s worth considering that if 56% of tries come from ‘created’ attacking moves in Round 1, it’s likely that the number will go up as both attacking cohesion and defensive efficiency also improve.

A strong hypothesis would be that the later a season goes, the better you have to be to score and the more likely it is that teams with strong systems will prevail.

This might not yet be an issue for Canberra, who get a first game Wests Tigers next, or the Dragons, who play Round 1’s weakest team, the Dolphins, at the weekend.

The Cowboys, with recently recruited attack coach James Maloney, could have added a more structured, repeatable function to their offence, but we’ll have to wait and see on that one given how helpful Redcliffe were on Sunday afternoon.

On the other hand, we get the most expansive teams playing on rugby league fields from now on, and another week into the Panthers after another humbling at the hands of a Super League side.

Rugby league is increasingly systematised and repeatable – and that was there to see from Round 1.

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