The Doug Nicholls AFL Indigenous Round preview

This year is the first Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous Round. It’s not the first Indigenous Round, but the first one named for the very influential (and important) former Carlton player, although that undersells his achievements quite significantly. Nicholls was the first Indigenous Australian to be knighted, he was the first Indigenous Australian to hold vice-regal office, and an active worker in the struggle for equal right for Indigenous Australians. Football does not define Nicholls; it merely provides yet another facet of his rich life.

Nicholls got his start as a top level footballer at Northcote, a VFA club that has historically struggled since its entry into the competition, but with another important link to Indigenous football history. The Brickfielders, either intentionally or unintentionally, was the club to debut the man generally recognised as the first indigenous footballer at top level in Australia, way back in 1903 – more than six decades before Indigenous Australians were counted in the population of Australia.

And Joe Johnson

Joe Johnson is one of the most forgotten names in football history, at least when considering his achievements. Johnson was the first Indigenous footballer at VFL/AFL level, the first Indigenous footballer to win a premiership, (likely) the first footballer from NSW to win a premiership and a player who played in a grand final in every one of his seasons at VFL/AFL level. In 1906, he was considered to be in the top 10 VFL footballers going around, which was his last season at VFL level. It’s undeniable, when looking at his record and reading the match reports of the day, that Johnson was a star of the nascent competition, a player with the ability to play all around the ground and excel.

Johnson left Fitzroy after the 1906 season to re-join the VFA, and to break even more new ground as the first Indigenous captain and coach of a top level football club. Under Johnson Brunswick saw unprecedented success, making two grand finals and winning one, making Johnson the first Indigenous player to captain or coach a premiership winning team.

Johnson left Brunswick after the 1909 season, and ended up back at Northcote again in 1912. In 1916 Johnson went to war to fight for Australia, his football career over. Details are relatively scarce about Johnson’s later life, but it is conceivable that he stayed in contact with his first club Northcote, the club that became the home for Nicholls later on. Three further generations of Johnson’s family played football at the VFL level, most recently Scott and Trent Cummings in the 1990s.

There is a significant academic argument as to whether Johnson ever identified himself as Indigenous (Barry Judd in particular has done a large amount of fantastic work in this field). After reading a large number of newspaper articles of the time (via Trove) HPN could find no mention of Johnson’s Indigenous status, which would have been noteworthy at the time. It’s likely that Johnson was the first Indigenous footballer at VFL level, but also that extremely few people knew he was Indigenous. When judged on an even playing field, without race as an issue, Johnson was considered a star of his day, an opportunity denied to almost all Indigenous footballers for the first six decades of the VFL. More importantly, Johnson was considered as a leader both on and off the football field, a rarity in football history for an Indigenous man.

Indigenous leadership in modern football

Since Joe Johnson’s coaching days very few Indigenous men and women have followed in his footsteps as coaches. HPN’s primary research only shows two Indigenous top level head coaches of VFL clubs – Barry Cable and Graham “Polly” Farmer. Currently, there are only two Indigenous assistant coaches at AFL level (out of 178 total according to an The Age piece earlier this year). That means roughly 1% of all AFL coaches are Indigenous, down sharply from the roughly 10% of indigenous players currently on AFL lists. There are no Indigenous members of the AFL Commission, and the league is currently without a Indigenous Commissioner, with the most senior Indigenous staffer in the AFL ranks, Jason Mifsud, stepping down earlier this year.

The AFL has been increasingly active in encouraging on-field involvement of Indigenous players, and ensuring that their contributions are respected without abuse. HPN isn’t saying that this goal has been fully achieved, but it’s certainly the case that Indigenous footballers are valued and treated equally more now than any other time in football history.

What has been lacking, however, are concrete strategies to ensure off-field involvement by Indigenous players. There are currently no Indigenous umpires, nor any Indigenous recruiters at any club. The Age article mentioned above presents several good options that should be under consideration by the AFL, but the most critical one is that Indigenous coaches should be given a chance to perform. In the corporate world unconscious bias is considered to be a significant obstacle to finding the right person for the job; perhaps that’s also the case in the football world.

Other, Less Important Things

North Get No Respect

It’s not enough for the HPN Ratings to disrespect them; because apparently the fans do as well. Have a look at this chart, via AFL Tables:


North currently sit last for attendance, both home and away, for all Victorian clubs. Perhaps this is argument against the old chestnut that fans love a good bandwagon.

Toby McLean, Man in Green?

Well it rhymes anyway. Toby McLean, through the first nine rounds of the season has yet to have a free kick paid against him and has received 20 himself. Across his short career to date, McLean has had only two free kicks paid against him. If he can keep this up, McLean is on record-setting pace for free kick avoidance.

Hot take of the Week

This is really a lifetime achievement award but would you just look at this column on the AFL’s own website:



The concept behind this column is that each club gets an “if-then”statement that’s supposed to be a conversation starting, agenda-setting series of big calls and hot takes. The result is more often a confused, grammatically-tortured set of Bigfooty topic titles.

This week alone the author manages to insult North Melbourne’s integrity as a club for doing the right thing and analogise Carlton to a foreign doping scandal. We also get the bleeding edge observations that Richmond are erratic, Fremantle are underperforming and GWS have high quality young depth. What’s the point of all this again? And who is this “we” Damien keeps referring to?

Rating and not rating North Melbourne

The pundits are, for the moment, right about North Melbourne. For a side sitting two games clear on top of the ladder, they don’t present as an overwhelmingly strong side, and their weak schedule must be factored in when looking at where they sit.

This year we’ve been rating teams after each round in terms of three strength measures defined based on inside-50s. Midfield strength by the balance of inside-50s gained and conceded, forward strength by scoring efficiency, and defence strength on opponent scoring inefficiency.

Perceptive readers will note that in the table below, we rate the undefeated North Melbourne’s performance on as the eighth best in the league once adjusted for their opponents to date:


The bright red bar lighting up North’s opponents’ scores highlights the key feature of North Melbourne’s schedule – a soft opening half. In fact, North have beaten only two sides currently in the top eight (Adelaide and the Bulldogs), and no other side in the top 4. They’ve beaten no side higher than 15th on the ladder, or 16th in our ratings, at either one of their home grounds.

This suggests a much tougher draw yet to come.

They’ve done what they needed – win all 9 games – but these figures suggest they haven’t been dominating those teams by as much as would be expected of a top side. To get an idea of how much North Melbourne’s down-scaling has impacted them, here’s the raw ratings without opponent adjustment:


North Melbourne now rate above West Coast, Adelaide and Hawthorn. The Hawks, in particular, look much worse without considering their opponent set (as do Brisbane and, to an extent, Fremantle). Sydney and the Bulldogs are modestly downscaled having also had slightly easy draws, but they retain their third and fourth place rankings.

On raw scores we can see that without considering opponent, North have basically broken even in the midfield this year, have had a forward line nearly as dominant as Adelaide’s, as well as a reasonably strong defence. With scaling, the North midfield moves down to 92% of league average and forward and defensive measures also scale well down. In short: North have been only good against (mostly) very bad teams.

And the upshot is that yes, North are undefeated, but that they’ll need to improve to maintain their ladder position going forward. If they continue to do well, these ratings will rise as their draw gets more difficult. If they start struggling, it will be a reflection of the lower underlying strength that we think we’ve identified here.

They are, however, on the way up after a strong performance this weekend, the biggest ratings riser amongst teams that aren’t Collingwood:


Notable here is also that Sydney dropped slightly and Hawthorn rose. We turned out to be correct in our guess at how the game would go based on our ratings:

Sydney looks much stronger in defence but a little weaker in the midfield and forward. Hawthorn we assume are starting to build like they usually do, and Sydney have had two bad performances in a row. The ratings suggest a game where the Swans concede a few more inside 50s but contain Hawthorn to a lower score by virtue of defending them much better.

Specifically, Sydney lost the inside-50s but then defended them extremely well. The shots they gave up were mostly poor quality ones, illustrating the degree to which Sydney’s defense won the game:

(Source: Footy Live app by Sportsmate)

As a result, Sydney’s defensive rating rose but the other two measures fell, and the opposite happened for Hawthorn. Hawthorn appears to have a significant issue in their defence, which any number of armchair commentators predicted with the departure of Brian Lake. But as it sits, we suggest that the Hawks brains’ trust would also kill for Kyle Chaney back as well.

Premiership windows

We’ve noted that these measures correlate pretty well with success, and two weeks ago we looked at where teams this year are sitting in relation to the past on our 3-measure strength ratings.

Only two premiers since 1998 have finished below league average (100%) on any one of the three measures – Sydney’s forward line in 2005 at 98.9% and North’s midfield at 96.6% in 1999. The lowest aggregate rating for a premier was those same two sides; Sydney 105.0% and North 105.9%.

On the basis of these minimums, currently the teams tracking for premiership contention are GWS and Geelong, who are both clearly above average in all three measures and the strongest looking teams overall.

Five other teams have overall scores in this +105% range – Bulldogs, Sydney, West Coast, Hawthorn and (barely) Adelaide. However if we also consider individual component scores, the Bulldogs have serious questions over a very low offensive efficiency and Hawthorn over their defensive efficiency. No team has made a grand final with an individual component score that low in any category.

Sydney and West Coast’s forward strength and Adelaide’s midfield strength are around the 97-98% mark of those past two “weak” premiers with below-average ratings components, suggesting an uphill battle for them as well.

North Melbourne, meanwhile, come into consideration only on the basis of their raw scores, not their adjusted scores, at this point. As we discussed earlier, their movements over a few more games will tell the tale.

In short, despite Geelong’s stumble against the Pies, right now sit with GWS as the most well-rounded of the contenders in the season to date.

Lay off the Suns, a look at the biggest clanger merchants, Round 9 Preview

The Suns’ list of injured players might be better than the players they have available

Gold Coast are once again in a severe injury crisis and we think the hot take machine (for example this effort by Mick Malthouse) needs to take a bit of a look at just how depleted this Suns team is right now.

In May last year Rodney Eade was calling the Suns’ injury list the worst he’d seen and saying the reserves would likely have had to forfeit if they didn’t have a bye, because only 20 blokes could even train. Shockingly and disturbingly the Suns are headed in the same direction almost exactly a year later with 21 players injured or in doubt this week (from a list of 39 plus 7 rookies). Here’s a look at their list ahead of team selection against Adelaide:


This has crept up reasonably quickly. A fair indicator is the turnaround in three weeks against the Giants’ reserves. On April 23 the Suns reserves beat the Giants by about four goals. Their best players were six senior-listed AFL players. Three weeks later on May 12, they lost by about 12 goals and their best player was an American playing his second game of competitive football (after a game for Labrador in the QAFL), with a 197cm 16-year-old also starring in the ruck.

Right now, the fit version of the Suns’ injury list above looks like it would at least be competitive against the Suns’ available players in an intra-club match:


A striking feature in the available player list is that it’s overloaded with small and key defenders and lacks any recognised rucks beyond Brooksby, key forwards beyond Lynch, and is missing most of the Suns’ best midfielders. This leaves the Suns with little flexibility and not much hope of fielding a side balanced how they might like it to be.

Suffice it to say, the Suns are running on empty. There is simply no way a team with this much missing should expect to be competitive or be criticised when they’re not. Talk of rebuilds and failures and foldings and mergers need to be dialed the hell back and given some context. We have rarely seen what this list can do with fitness and maturity. In 2015 they were torched by injuries, in 2016 the same thing has happened again. Even in 2014 they were in the frame for finals (9-6 and sitting eighth after 16 rounds) before losing Ablett, Dixon and a few others in the run towards finals.

If there’s questions to be asked, given this exact crisis occurred last year, those questions need to be looking at the Suns’ medical and training staff, the club’s facilities and resources, whether the sorts of players that have been recruited might be a bit fragile. It may just be a wretched run of luck, but sustaining the league’s deepest injury crisis for two years in a row starts to look careless.

The clanger merchants

While disposal efficiency is a popular measure of player ball use, we also feel that clangers maybe don’t get enough of a run. Clangers are more an indicator of actively terrible ball use. They measure silly mistakes and turnovers, and as opposed to disposal efficiency they show clear mistakes rather than sub-optimal use of the ball.

Clangers include free kicks and 50 metre penalties against so to get a truer picture of how often a player truly butchers the footy, we’ve deducted Free Kicks Against from their clanger totals. Below, then, are the best and worst players in terms of clangers per disposal:


We can see that excluding free kicks, Nathan Grima has in his two games had a clanger rate of about 1 per four possessions. Rhys Stanley leads the league in clangers per disposal at 0.42, but a lot of these are free kicks conceded which we assume includes ruck infringements. Ted Richards, as a key position defender, is showing a rather alarming rate of clangers given that key defenders are expected to be clean and low-risk with the ball.

At the other end of the spectrum are a number of players who have barely made a serious mistake with the ball. GWS and Hawthorn feature heavily on the list and note that Shane Mumford moves from near the top of “clangers per disposal” to best 20 in the league once we remove the large number of free kicks he has conceded.

Things to watch

1. A quiet blockbuster

Our own rating system places currently places the Bulldogs and Giants second and third, presenting their Sunday afternoon match as a much more tantalising prospect than it would have looked pre-season.

R8 ratings

Interestingly, this is the first time the Bulldogs have travelled to the Sydney Showgrounds, having played three matches against the Giants at Manuka instead. If you’re a believer in the impact of ground dimensions, the Showgrounds is 4 metres longer and 1 metre narrower than Etihad.

In terms of team strengths, the Bulldogs have produced an amazingly strong inside-50 differential this year, which we label as midfield strength (although it of course includes non-midfielder contributions such as those by running defender types). However, GWS seem to have the Bulldogs shaded inside both arcs, converting their inside 50s into scores much more efficiently and also defending their opponents’ inside-50s more effectively. Unless the Bulldogs can outperform their record in these areas then we’d expect the game to come down to whether the Dogs’ midfield work gives them enough of a differential in opportunities to overcome the Giants. With the players the Dogs are missing, we’ll be tipping the Giants but this should be a very telling game.

2. A week of mockbusters

With matches between Hawthorn and Sydney, Collingwood and Geelong, Port Adelaide and West Coast and Fremantle and Richmond, the AFL must have been looking at this round pre-season and anticipating a series of spectacular and pivotal matches between teams of similar strength and promise. None of these seem to have quite panned out as such but several still look intriguing.

Rather than the clash between rising teams it would have seemed, Collingwood v Geelong is now widely expected to be a walkover after the Cats’ superb start to the year and Collingwood’s much-storied struggles.

Fremantle v Richmond is looking intruging after the Tigers’s shock upset of the Swans and the Dockers maybe stopping the bleeding a little, but what looked pre-season like a clash of top 4 aspirants instead shapes as a desperate slugfest to assuage two anxious supporter bases.

Hawthorn v Sydney shapes as a game that could go anywhere this weekend. Both teams are 6-2, Sydney looks much stronger in defence but a little weaker in the midfield and forward. Hawthorn we assume are starting to build like they usually do, and Sydney have had two bad performances in a row. The ratings suggest a game where the Swans concede a few more inside 50s but contain Hawthorn to a lower score by virtue of defending them much better. But don’t hold us to that.

 3. Narratives flying high

With high pre-season expectations of Port Adelaide, their fixture vs West Coast would have looked tantalising in March but now the main interest is likely as fodder for any number of yarns and stories about the woes of the Eagles, who still look like a top 8 side pushing for top 4.

Such narratives include:

Port Adelaide meanwhile rate as almost exactly league average in our ratings. They’ve had a mixed bag of performances with their really bad losses to GWS and Geelong looking better with every passing week. There’s nothing about Port that looks particularly threatening, the main difference in our ratings between the Eagles and Power is a stronger midfield strength for the Eagles. That is, the Eagles get more inside-50 opportunities than Port do relative to opponents.

With all that said, if Port Adelaide get in front early and stay there all day, then all three West Coast narratives might be reinforced – they’ll suffer an unexpected loss away from home, they may still look like flat-track bullies after failing to beat a genuinely mid-tier looking side at their own fortress, and they’ll have added more fuel to the “front runners” analysis.

If West Coast win against an average Port Adelaide, they will at least notch an away win but probably won’t manage to shake any of these narratives either, unless it’s a comeback win contra the front-runners tag. Fun times ahead.

What chance does an AFL bottom 4 side have of rising up the ladder?

The entire theory of a closed-entry league like the AFL, with salary caps, with a draft, is that success should be roughly cyclical. The clubs down the bottom of the ladder have the tools available to improve faster than clubs near the top. The hope bottom clubs can realistically sell to supporters is one of the strongest features of the cap and draft closed-league system.

If this theory holds then we should see a lot of movement across a period of a few years as teams take turns “bottoming out” and then rising up the ladder. This would be due to their draft bounty and ability to make recruitment decisions using the freedom of spare salary cap space.

To test the cyclicality of ladder positions we’ve taken every bottom four team since 1997 and then plotted where they were in each of the following four seasons. The results are as follows:


Represented another way, here’s a graph of the same information:


Cumulatively, we can say that 39% of teams (29 of 64) who finished bottom between 1997 and 2012 went on to make the top 4 at some point in the following four seasons. 11% did so the very next season.

The churn in the middle of the ladder is even clearer – 73% of teams who finished bottom 4 made the finals within the following four seasons.

All bottom sides are not the same

These counts are entirely naive and do not take into account the different circumstances of football sides. It’s not a huge stretch to say that there have been a group of sides who have gotten caught in what might be described as a “vicious circle” or “rebuilding trap” that has resulted in extended periods of sitting at the bottom of the ladder, and the crisis this can engender.

What happens if we identify a few of these clearly forlorn “no hoper” teams and isolate them from the sample?

The teams we will remove from the following tables are as follows:

  • Both recent expansion sides
  • Carlton 2002-2007
  • Richmond 2002-2010
  • Melbourne post-2006
  • Brisbane post-2010

These are teams who had extended stays in the bottom four, sitting there for several years. The remaining sample still retains a couple of pretty poor teams, notably Fremantle 1998-2002, but we would argue this is a decent list of consensus genuinely terrible sides who have had extended stays down the ladder.

Here’s the data excluding these six teams:


The pattern here is pretty stark. Simply by excluding four periods where an individual club was a basket case for a long time, as well as the special cases of GWS and Gold Coast, we can see that over half (57%, 25 of 44) of cellar-dwelling teams make the top 4 at some point in the following four years. Looking at finals entries, 95% of teams – virtually all of them who don’t stay in the bottom 4 for a long time – make finals in the following four seasons, with 64% sitting in finals three years down the track from their bottom 4 finish.

The implications of this are pretty seemingly pretty simple. As long as a team doesn’t fall into a rebuilding black hole, wherein they remain anchored to the foot of the ladder for a number of seasons, they can expect to be nearly certainly playing finals again soon. They won’t tend to max out at ninth, for instance. Rebuilding successfully matters, but most temporarily weak clubs appear to get it right enough, using the tools at their disposal, to at least make finals again.

The trick, of course, is identifying such a black hole early on. We’ve already placed Brisbane in one, and Gold Coast is a special case whose struggles may or may not be a long term problem for them. Carlton at the start of this year might have been said to have been at a fork in the road where the decisions they are now making are crucial to their fate.

Essendon’s case is exceptional. They boasted before their doping violation suspensions of returning to the top 4 in 3 years but they may well be historically terrible this season. The question then is, will Essendon’s unprecedented crisis galvanise it and let it continue to behave, when it gets its players back, as a normal non-broken side in 2017? Or is Essendon’s crisis one that might condemn it to spiral in the manner of Melbourne, Richmond or Carlton in the previous decade?

If they can recover and be “normal” again then they can probably still say that they have a 36% chance of a top 4 berth within three years, with an 84% chance of at least playing finals again in that space of time.

Post round 8 team ratings – losing well

One of the interesting features of the inside-50 and scoring efficiency based ratings system we’ve been running this season is the way ongoing changes in each team’s opponent strength adjusts their rating.

This week we’ve had two sides who lost to more highly fancied opponents rise up in their overall rankings. Melbourne gained 1.7% and Essendon gained 1.5% after losses to the Bulldogs and North Melbourne respectively.

R8 movements

The explanation for this is twofold – neither team really lost horribly, and the addition of a stronger opponent to their mix of opponents adjusts the scaling of their season as a whole and thus their own strength rating.

Melbourne is the most striking here. The Bulldogs rate as the strongest midfield team (ie, with the most lopsided inside-50 count) in the league and the Demons lost that battle 62-48. This lowered their unadjusted rating for the year from 1.13 to 1.08 inside 50s per opponent inside 50. However it also adjusted the rating of their schedule on this measure, from a relatively soft 89% of average to a more typical 98% of average. The Bulldogs sheer dominance in this measure (they’ve had 1.46 inside-50s per opponent inside-50) means the Demons did better than might have been expected by keeping the Dogs to about 1.29 inside-50s per Melbourne entry. With expected forward and defensive outcomes, the result is that Melbourne lost well enough to rise two places over a disappointing Port Adelaide and St Kilda.

A similar thing occurred in the case of Essendon’s midfield and defence against North Melbourne, with the gap between the two sides being less than projected based on their ratings to date and thus Essendon’s rating improving.

R8 ratings



Next, here is the weekly ratings in chart form. Geelong and GWS remain the only two sides rated above the league average in all three measures, and as we noted last week, history suggests such teams are generally the ones figuring in premiership consideration.

West Coast and Sydney are still near average on their weakest rating (offensive) while the Bulldogs (forward strength), Hawthorn (defensive strength), North Melbourne (midfield strenfth) and Adelaide (midfield strength) are further adrift from average on their weakest measure.

Of those sides the Bulldogs midfield and Adelaide’s forward strength are such a long way above average as to present intriguing questions of how their strength is compensating for weaknesses.


R8 Mid OffR8 Mid DefR8 Off Def


The Revenge of Levi Casboult, and other round 7 #AFL preview tidbits

Some teams don’t love the contested ball (but that’s not always a bad thing)

At HPN, we have a pretty “glass half full” view of statistics. We think they’re pretty cool, and can often tell you a lot of things you didn’t know, or help to explain things you already did but didn’t know how to explain before.

Sometimes statistics can indicate outcome, and sometimes they can just indicate a deliberately chosen sub process. See for example this table here:

2016 AFL R7 CP

This chart is sorted by contested possessions as a proportion of total possessions by team in ascending order, a stat that would be considered by most to be a sign of “toughness” at the ball. Note that the “worst” team here is Essendon, and the third-worst is the Bulldogs.

It’s no secret that the Dons are terrible this year, except for in the key category of breaking Demons fans hearts and indirectly their TV screens from yet another frustrating loss. Their contested disposal ratio is the lowest for any team since 2009. But the inclusion of the Bulldogs shows that this particular statistic isn’t necessarily an indicator of performance, but of chosen process instead.

By one of our favoured measures (inside 50 ratio) the Bulldogs are having one of the most dominant seasons of the last 18 years, and by clearance ratio they are also leading the league by a fair way. They are, both subjectively and objectively, a great midfield.

Perhaps one explanation of this difference is the sheer extra number of disposals that the Bulldogs have gotten compared to the Dons, an extra 336 to date. However, if there’s any lesson to take from the statistic above, it is to always question the data laid out in front of you.

Hot Take of the Week

This one may not exactly be hot, but it is a take. OK, it’s a little bit spicy.

“LEVI Casboult is somewhere between an average key forward and an elite one.”

Translation: Levi Casboult is a tall football player. Which he is. He’s about two meters tall in fact. And he plays football. He has an AFL Tables profile. So off to a good start then.

“Casboult in the best contested mark in the competition but his goalkicking is among the worst.”


“Now into his fifth AFL season, Casboult’s goalkicking is as erratic as ever with six goals from 19 set shots, which includes six attempts that have missed altogether.”

Which is great, but his scoring shot accuracy (admittedly without OOFs) is 55.7%, which is slightly above the AFL average across that period.

“Commentator Brian Taylor, who kicked 527 goals in 140 games with Richmond and Collingwood, said Casboult’s wayward kicking will cost him the chance of a lucrative contract.

“If he’s a marking forward, as he is now, and a goalkicking specialist, he is a $700,000-a-year forward in the market as distinct from a $500,000 (forward),” Taylor said on Triple M this week.”

Good to see noted economist and list manager Brian Taylor giving his two cents. Turns out the “kicking goals” part of being a forward is only worth 2/7ths of the value of being a forward. Who knew?

So yeah, Levi Casboult is a tall footballer who plays forward who could be an “elite” player if he was better at football. Thanks.

Things to watch this week

  1. The Irwin Medal

At the start of the year HPN introduced the Irwin Medal, named after Warwick Irwin, a former Fitzroy/Collingwood/St Kilda forward who managed to have two of the most prolific yet inaccurate seasons of all time. The winner of this medal will be the player with the worst goalkicking accuracy, minimum 30 attempts on goal.

The leaderboard is a bit sparse as yet, but we do have an early leader: Josh Kennedy (the West Coast one), with 20 goals and 17 behinds. With an accuracy of greater than 50%, it is extremely unlikely he will hold the lead for much longer.

Looking to the currently ineligible players, Daniel Menzel is shaping up with a wildly inaccurate shot at the top of the leaderboard with just six goals from his 18 scoring shots, good for 33% accuracy on goal. Not far behind is Joe Daniher with seven from 19 and Pearce Hanley with seven from 17. With gaps this small, the lead could change hands any day now.

  1. What is the value of teamwork?

Goal assists are often glossed over, but we thought we’d have a look this week at both for and against goal assist ratios, described as goal assists per goal scored:

2016 R7 AFL GA

For anyone looking for a trend in teamwork, this is not the place to look…

  1. The decline of active Brownlow medallists in the AFL.

With Nathan Fyfe’s season ending injury, we are hitting a low-ebb in the number of Brownlow medallists currently available for selection. Only two of the last five winners will line up for their sides this week, one of whom (Ablett) seems to be struggling with injury. Overall, only four former winners of the Brownlow are likely to play a further part in the season. Could this be indicative of a changing of the guard with respect to the upper echelons of the league?

How do the strongest teams of 2016 compare to past great sides after 7 rounds?

This year we’ve been trialling a fairly simple method of rating team strength based on statistics derived from inside 50s, which correlate strongly with winning teams. The premier usually sits near the top of the pile in these measures, as we’ll see later in this post.

The ratings are three simple statistical ratios:

  • Midfield Score (inside 50 ratio)
  • Offence score (efficiency of inside 50 conversions)
  • Defensive score (inverted efficiency of opponent inside 50 conversions)

These measures are then adjusted for opposition strength and converted to a percentage relative to the league average, which are presented in these charts:


These charts show that Geelong and GWS are the only teams who are above average in all three of our measures and rate as the strongest sides across the season so far.

A number of other contenders seem to have one main shortcoming this season. Sydney and the Bulldogs show as below the league average on forward efficiency and therefore succeeding through defence and through volume of inside 50 opportunities. Hawthorn show as lacking in defence, rating quite lowly in terms of their ability to defend against inside 50s once they occur. Adelaide and North Melbourne rate as below average in the midfield, apparnetly compensating for lower inside 50 counts by using them very efficiently.

Club showing as above average in just a single measure include West Coast (midfield strength), Port Adelaide, St Kilda and Carlton (defensive strength) and Melbourne, Brisbane, Fremantle and Gold Coast (forward strength). The remaining sides in Collingwood, Richmond and Essendon appear as below the league average across all of these measures.

If we compare these to historical data, we can see the fairly strong correlation between these three inside-50 based measures and premiership success:


Every premier since 1998 had an above average midfield strength (inside 50 ratio) except North Melbourne 1999, while only Sydney in 2005 were below average in offensive strength (scores per inside 50). No club since 1998 won a flag with a below average defence (conceding more than average, per inside 50).

A small number of runners-up ended up slightly below average on one of these measures as well – West Coast 2005, St Kilda 2010 and Sydney 2014 on offence and Melbourne 2000 and Port Adelaide 2007 on defence. Interestingly the teams on this list include two very close losses and the losers of three of the most lopsided grand finals in modern memory.

Below are the top twenty highest rated sides of the 1998-2015 era. This tells us than an all-in score of 110% is very good, that over the last 18 seasons about twenty sides have managed to be a combined 10% better than average on these measures:


Interestingly, the Essendon side of 2000, often regarded as the best side of the modern era, also sits on top of the pile here in terms of how much better than their competition they were. Several pairs of grand finalists both feature here – Hawthorn and West Coast in 2015, Geelong and Collingwood in 2011, Hawthorn and Geelong in 2008, suggesting two sides that were both a long way above their peers in those seasons.

Adelaide in 2005 stand out as a huge outlier – Neil Craig’s ‘Crowbots’ of that season look very strong defensively and in the midfield, but very impotent offensively compared to pretty much any other top sides They present as both a higher quality but more extremely imbalanced side than the similarly defence and midfield focused Sydney of 2005.

Finally, here’s the actual tables from our 2016 ratings including movement from last week to compare to the above list:

current scores

According to overall scores, Geelong, GWS, the Bulldogs and Sydney are all tracking pretty similarly to our above list of top past teams and all with a different mix of attributes from GWS’ evenness to Sydney’s defensive efficency focus to the Bulldogs and Geelong’s lopsided inside 50 ratios.

(Essendon are on track to be among the bottom ten or so sides from this same period)

Bear in mind that these are relative measures, showing how far above the competition average different clubs rate on these measures. Also, since we’re adjusting for opposition here the results are not strictly comparable with the above, meaning that if we’re underrating the softness of draws then we’re overinflating the quality of their opponents and vice versa.

Regardless, however, these measures suggest both a clearly dominant but even top end of the AFL ladder may be where we’re heading this season. This is especially the case when we also factor in Hawthorn, Adelaide and North Melbourne which show considerable strength in some areas, especially the Crows with their nearly unprecedented inside 50 efficency.

HPN’s Round 7 Preview, featuring a lot of GWS talk #AFL

Port Adelaide are keen to cause bounces, but awful at winning them

Usually a team with a dominant ruckman is somewhat keen to get them involved. With a dominant ruckman, a team can get first use of the ball and go back on the attack. So it stands to reason that the worst teams in terms of hitouts usually try to avoid the umpire’s intervention.

Since Matthew Lobbe was dropped and subsequently injured, Port have been horrific in the ruck. Going from winning hitouts at roughly a league average rate with Lobbe, they are now the worst in the competition with respect to hitout ratio:

2016 R6 AFL HOR

Dougal Howard, their first choice ruckman for the last two weeks, has been dropped this week, with part-timer Jackson Trengove leading a hodgepodge attack with Charlie Dixon and Justin Westhoff. So far this year those three have combined for 31 hitouts, or only eight more than Brisbane ruckman Stef Martin gets per game. One can only think that this will end badly if Port keeps tying up the ball.

Thing about Melbourne is, they always try and walk it in

As pointed out by several people during the week, Melbourne’s scoring shot conversion rate/accuracy is off the charts this year. Right now they convert 66% of all scoring shots, which would be the highest conversion rate this millennium, and by a considerable margin. According to the Footy Live app (which is free, and we aren’t affiliated with), they convert an extremely high number of goals from the goal square (hence the “walking it in”). Right now Fremantle have had 130 scoring shots (excluding rushed behinds), and Melbourne have had 129, yet Melbourne have scored 174 more points from those shots.

Melbourne have also shown the patience to pass up more borderline attempts at goal for chances that have a higher point return, even if they aren’t a direct shot themselves. They are also lucky in the fact that their two KPFs are relatively accurate shots at goal from distance (Hogan and Watts, despite the opinions of a certain former Melbourne forward of the 90s) and a creative forward that can manufacture goals from almost anywhere (Garlett).

Melbourne are seemingly sacrificing shots for certainties, a strategy that almost always can’t be upheld in the long run. It’ll be interesting to see if they can manage to do so this year, and if it leads to success.

Let’s talk about GWS

(Warning – This piece is long. Please skip if you don’t care about GWS and/or are Eddie McGuire. TL;DR potential here. Don’t say we didn’t warn you. This is also Hot Take of the Week)

She deleted the tweet but Emma Quayle probably had the right of it here:

There’s been two elements to the hysterical overreaction to GWS being quite good now:

  • They had too many startup concessions
  • Their ability to get (market rate first-refusal) access to players from the Riverina area of NSW will perpetuate that dominance forever

We don’t think either of these are anywhere near the concern or injustice being claimed.

First, let’s look at the startup concessions through the lens of the team GWS fielded in their demolition of Hawthorn. This is the 22 players they fielded, and how they were acquired:

Patton, Jonathon 2011 draft, pick 1
Coniglio, Stephen 2011 draft, pick 2
Buntine, Matt 2011 draft, pick 5
Haynes, Nick 2011 draft, pick 7
Greene, Toby 2011 draft, pick 11
Cameron, Jeremy 2011 Prelisted 17 year old
Shiel, Dylan 2011 Prelisted 17 year old
Wilson, Nathan 2011 Prelisted 17 year old
Kennedy, Adam Preselected in 2011 (had previously nominated and gone undrafted)
Davis, Phil 2011 Uncontracted player signing
Palmer, Rhys 2011 Uncontracted player signing
Scully, Tom 2011 Uncontracted player signing
Ward, Callan 2011 Uncontracted player signing
Williams, Zac 2012 zone pick from Riverina (before zone picks gave away to Academy bidding)
Whitfield, Lachie 2012 draft, pick 1 (earned by sucking)
Kelly, Josh 2013 draft, pick 2 (obtained via Tyson trade who was Pick 3 in 2011)
Lobb, Rory 2013 draft, pick 29 (acquired via pick shuffling in Polec trade)
Steele, Jack 2014 draft, pick 24 (GWS Academy, from Canberra)
Johnson, Steve Traded for nothing (de facto DFA)
Patfull, Joel Traded for pick 21 (which was originally the Brennan compo pick to GC and changed hands several times)
Mumford, Shane Traded for pick 35
Shaw, Heath Traded for Taylor Adams (who was pick 13, 2011 draft)

GWS only have 17 first round picks that they drafted on their list. One of those is Cam McCarthy, who looks unlikely to play for GWS again at this point in time.

The bolded players, 14 of 22, were acquired during GWS’ extremely astute use of nearly the same concessions entry year Gold Coast also got:

  • Picks 1,2,3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, and 15 in their first draft.
  • The ability to pull 17 year olds born in January-April out of this same draft pool a year earlier.
  • The ability to sign uncontracted players
  • The ability to sign or trade draft prospects who had previously nominated and gone undrafted
  • Zone picks from the NT and the Giants’ share of NSW
  • Unlike Gold Coast, GWS had mini draft picks to trade (O’Meara and Crouch) which netted them picks 4 and 10 as well

These were all very useful concessions, but the key thing to note is that for GWS to nail most of their draft picks was a massive win for them. They left Wingard, Longer and Docherty on the table among the early picks and two of those guys have since been traded for less than what they were drafted with. GWS also turned their high profile departures into wins (Tyson became Kelly, Adams became Heath Shaw, Boyd became Griffen).

GWS also certainly were lucky that the whole first round looks like it was a strong draft at this stage (especially considering that Treloar, Cameron, Shiel and Wilson were also in this pool). The first true miss might be Josh Bootsma at pick 22.

Cameron and Shiel also turned out better than any of Gold Coast’s prelist 17-year-olds (Matera, McKenzie, Nicholls) although the Suns made better use of their zone to produce Thompson and several tall players who are now at other clubs (Dixon, Hickey and Smith)

In addition, getting their uncontracted player signings (Ward, Davis, Palmer, Scully) right really sets them apart from the Suns as soon as we remember that Campbell Brown was arrested for assaulting teammates and/or drunkenly disgracing himself in three different countries.

To sum up, GWS assembled the core of their team in year one, managed their exiting players very well and have also supplemented themselves very effectively with subsequent general draft picks and signing of older players from other clubs.

They used their entry concessions extremely well but we also question whether the level of concession is excessive for a startup side. It’s certainly not unprecedented. Consider that West Coast and Adelaide had untrammelled access to an entire state’s talent in an era when the draft was a crapshoot and Victoria’s metropolitan area was still zoned. Such access netted the expansion sides four out of ten flags in the 1990s and has to be considered fairly generous in its own right. Port Adelaide also won a flag with heavy influence by players acquired from their entry concessions.

And as for the academy

GWS get access, via their Academy development program, to first-refusal rights to players from a productive football area called the Riverina, but actually encompassing areas usually referred to separately as Murray and Riverina. Maps vary but we’re talking about roughly the two areas of Murray and Riverina depicted here:


It’s mostly a core AFL area, although Wagga Wagga and north and east of there are pretty mixed or starting to become Rugby League predominant. There’s maybe 250,000 people in the entire region, so it’s half the size of Tasmania, and it has produced a steady trickle of talent over the years including the Danihers, Wayne Carey, Paul Kelly, Dennis Carroll, John Longmire, Leo Barry, Shane Crawford, Brett Kirk, and Sam Rowe.

People are probably right to be concerned about the level of talent being accessed here but we want to emphasise something that’s been lost in the debate – the opportunity cost of obtaining this talent in a draft system, and how GWS’ ability to exploit this year’s talent is directly linked to how well they used their startup decisions to stockpile surplus talent.

GWS’ successful drafting and recruiting has left them such a surplus of talent that that they were never going to keep it all. As such, GWS have been steadily dispensing it back to the rest of the league. They’ve been conducting what we called in 2014 a “fire sale” to convert that stockpile into useful goods. They’ve been trading many players less than fair value, and there are now an entire team worth of former Giants at other clubs. It’ll keep happening too, as we note that even whingers-in-chief Collingwood are openly discussing who they can get. This is right and natural.

The rationale is simple – as much as GWS started with, they can’t put more than 22 players on the park at one time, they can only pay so many players highly under a salary cap, there’s only 4400 games a year to play at a club.

This year there is by all reports a huge glut of players available to GWS through their academy from the Riverina area. Some are claiming there’s five top-30 calibre picks there at this early stage.

But under the academy bidding system, GWS have to pay for all the players they acquire, by matching bids and paying market value on a points system the AFL and clubs have backed as sound. It won’t be cheap, they’ll have to match whatever any other club is willing to pay for players and given the level of complaining, we assume these clubs have a strong interest in these players.

What it does mean is GWS are playing a different list management game to everyone else right now – they’ve got an unparallelled stockpile of talent they can’t retain or use, and an unparallelled stockpile of talent in the academy portion of the draft this year who they want to bring in for the future.

If they’re going to bring in five blokes, they need to shed others from their list. They’ve already done the preparation work for this in 2015 – trading out Treloar, Hampton, Lamb, Sumner, Phillips and Plowman and getting back Collingwood and Geelong’s first round picks and Adelaide’s second. By our reckoning they’ll need to do more trading or delisting this year to make the space on their list for the players they want, and in terms of points, if clubs genuinely rate players highly and bid for them, then the Giants will likely either need to let kids go or maybe go into points deficit in the 2017 draft.

What GWS are going to do is to launder a lot of their startup material into this glut of academy products this year. They’ve been preparing since last year. But the level of currency they currently have to pay for these players is a onetime bonanza. In future, even if GWS keep this zone, even if it produces another glut year, they simply won’t be able to afford to take as much as they can now.

Even this year, if it’s true there’s ten National Draft level prospects (which would be either a big outlier or such a boom as to suggest the academy is adding to the draft pool like it’s supposed to), they’ll leave very good players on the table. And in future they won’t have the Treloars and the Plowmen and the Tomlinsons and the McCarthys just sitting there to be swapped for the picks needed to pay for new players.

Our point here isn’t to suggest that the system is necessary or equitable. There seems to be no obvious need for talent development in this region, and accessing players who are boarding in Victoria seems contrary to that aim as well. GWS have already lost access to one guy for being insufficiently linked to their academy.

What we do want to stress is that GWS are still trading on their startup talent, and that’s a self-limiting commodity. The academy helps them to use this stockpile better by converting it to younger players, but that’s it.

In future, even assuming the zone is kept with better rules around kids boarding in Victoria and the like, GWS will have to pay much more to meet market value for very good Academy kids. They’ll have tough decisions and tradeoffs like everyone else.



Post Round 6 opponent-adjusted team ratings #AFL

Last week we introduced a fairly simple method of rating team strength based on statistics derived from inside 50s, which correlate strongly with winning teams (the premier usually sits near the top of the pile in these measures). The ratings are three simple statistical ratios:

  • Midfield Score (inside 50 ratio)
  • Offence score (efficiency of inside 50 conversions)
  • Defensive score (inverted efficiency of opponent inside 50 conversions)

These measures are then adjusted for opposition strength and converted to a percentage relative to the league average, which are presented in table format below.

r6 3.PNG

The above chart compares the opponent-adjusted Midfield and Offence scores. The further to the right a team is, the better their midfield (and other players) have been at generating inside 50s relative to stopping their opponents from having inside 50s. The Western Bulldogs, Geelong, Hawthorn, GWS, Sydney and West Coast shape as the strongest here.

The further up the team is, the stronger they have been at converting their own inside 50s into scoring shots and goals. Geelong, Hawthorn and GWS have been above average on this measure as well as being quite strong in their midfield. Adelaide, North Melbourne and Brisbane by contrast have been below league average in generating entries inside the arcs, but the most efficient (along with GWS) at scoring from them.

Now let’s look at defence:

r6 4.PNG

This chart instead compares inside 50 ratio with a team’s ability to stop scores. The midfield score is the same as the above chart. We can say, then, that the further to the right a team is, the less inside 50s they have conceded relative to the ones they’ve generated themselves. The higher a team is, the lower the conversion rate their opponents have had from their own inside 50s.

Comparing to the above chart we can see that of the six teams with the strongest midfield scores, only GWS and Geelong rate as above average on both their forward and defensive efficiency. Sydney appear as far stronger defensively and with a mediocre offence while Hawthorn’s decent forward efficiency is balanced by a much weaker defence.

Note also how much Brisbane – with a Forward score rivalling Adelaide and North Melbourne – suffer on the defensive side, relative to those clubs.

The full tables

Below are the full sets of figures and an overall ranking, where we can see the above information along with how opponent strength has impacted it:

r6 1.PNG

With their above average ratings in all three categories, GWS and Geelong currently look the strongest sides.

In terms of opposition, we can see that Hawthorn, Brisbane and Fremantle’s ratings all benefits from having faced strong sets of opponents. For example Brisbane’s 0.81 Midfield score is dragged up to 0.95 by the strength of their opponents in midfield, while their forward potency is increased substantially by the league-strongest defensive opponents they’ve faced. That is to say, Brisbane have been generating scoring opportunities at an above average rate, but the strength of the opponents defence improves that rating further still.

On the other side of the equation we can see that West Coast and Bulldogs’ relatively weak schedule hurts their ratings and that Geelong, North Melbourne, GWS and Sydney have faced a pretty average slate overall.

Lastly here’s the movements from last week. At this stage of the year the movements are fairly volatile, affected as they are not only by a team’s performance but that of their opponents:

r6 2.PNG

Melbourne, who we rated last week as fairly literally average, drop badly on a poor performance against St Kilda, falling a full 5 places after a 3% drop in overall rating. Their set of opponents have now had the weakest midfield scores in the league, devaluing their own Midfield rating.

Port Adelaide by contrast is a big riser – GWS and Geelong’s superb form has adjusted how we rate their past schedule, and they had a solid win as well.

Sydney’s rating falls the most of any side on the back of a close win against a Brisbane side which continues to be rated well below average in its midfield and defence. They do however remain as the third strongest side thanks to a league-best rating for defending inside 50s, and a strong midfield generating a good inside 50 ratio. So far at least, those two strengths have masked Sydney’s average inside 50 conversion efficiency – winning by sheer volume of opportunity .

GWS and Geelong jump the Swans with big movements of their own and sit virtually even at this stage at 115.5% of league average on these scores.


Parramatta should still make finals if they keep up current form

News has broken today that the Parramatta Eels have been docked all their competition points for the 2016 season so far as well as being fined and having officials fired, as a result of salary cap cheating.

The reset of their standing to zero premiership points leaves them with 15 games in order to win enough to make the finals. Based on their record and their draw, that looks like it’s possible. The following analysis obviously depends on them maintaining close to their current strength after shedding players, which is obviously an unknowable variable.

12 wins is the target

We believe 12 from their final 15 games wins will guarantee Parramatta finals entry. The NRL is a 16 team competition with 8 finalists so a 50% win rate (12 wins in 24 rounds) should lead to finals qualification. In previous seasons, 12 wins has usually resulted in qualification for finals, while 11 hasn’t. Sometimes teams miss finals with 12 wins due to inferior point difference, but Parramatta already have a healthy point difference of +45 and if they finish on 12 wins from here, that point difference will be improved substantially due to winning a lot of games.

With the points from Parramatta’s six wins still removed from potential rivals for a finals spot (Manly and Canberra), a sneak into the finals on 11 wins might be possible this year. However, for certainty’s sake we’ll call 12 wins the target.

Parramatta’s draw opens up now

Parramatta have so far won six of their nine games, a win-rate of 66.7%. They have so far faced five games against current top-4 teams – two against North Queensland, two against Canterbury, and one against Brisbane. They’ve won three of these five games, and three of four others.

If Parramatta need to win 12 of 15, that’s an 80% win rate, which is an improvement on their 66.7% win rate so far. The teams they’re yet to play have a win percentage of 44.4% on average, compared to 57.4% for those Parramatta have played.

So Parramatta’s win-rate should improve from the 10 wins from 15 games that a 66.7% record projects to from here.

The naive change in expected wins for Parramatta, just from adjusting their current record (66.7%) for their past and future opponents combined records (44.4% vs 57.4%) gives us an expected 86.1% record from here on, or 12.9 expected wins. That is to say, if we take current NRL records as representative of strength, Parramatta should win enough to make finals from here.

If we arrange the remaining games in descending order of difficulty, we see the following:

parra draw.PNG

The games in yellow, against teams with inferior records to Parramatta, will be enough to get the Eels to the target of 12 wins. Jagging a home win against Melbourne or Cronulla would help relieve the pressure, and the last month of games against Brisbane (A), Canberra (H), St George Illawarra (H), and New Zealand (A) may prove to be the pivotal time for the Eels if they can navigate the softer middle part of their schedule successfully.