HPNXmas – Our favourite sport writing of 2016

The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.

Today, we conclude our run of 12 posts over the 12 days of Just After Christmas with a roundup of some of the writing we liked and thought was good across the sporting world in 2016.

AFL Writing

The AFL has plenty more than a trophy at stake in 2016 – Ryan Buckland, the Roar

Ryan Buckland takes about the most in-depth look at the issues around the upcoming AFL collective bargaining agreement of almost anyone, and the piece largely holds true nearly a year later.

Goal Kicking Accuracy Maps – ExpScoreA Model to Predict and Rate Shots by Quality and Match Analysis Using Shot Quality – Rob Younger, Figuring Footy

A series of posts detailing Younger’s groundbreaking analysis of shot quality, shot accuracy and probability as a tool to analyse football.

Classifying players’ positions using public data – Matt Cowgill, The Arc

Matt’s posted some great stuff this year, including his repeated trolling of Fremantle fans but our pick is this attempt to machine-learn himself a year-to-year classification of player positions from the basic AFL statistics available to the public

Eddie McGuire, Caroline Wilson and violence against women: the AFL must act – Erin Riley

Important and timely article that not only hit the right fiery note but also helped kickstart a broader conversation in the mainstream footy media about something which might otherwise have disappeared without a trace. Can’t ask for much more from a piece of writing, really.

The Exorcists – How the Western Bulldogs captured a nation’s adoration after years of disappointment – Jay Croucher, the Roar

One half of HPN will never read this because his own memories of that day are of expensive and crushing disappointment, but allegedly it’s the best read on the topic.

Swans coach John Longmire played a key role in Buddy Franklin’s recovery – Caroline Wilson, The Age

About Franklin’s recovery in the specific instance, but also a good look at the prevalence of mental health issues in football more broadly.

Non-AFL Writing

EXPOSE: Players open up about W-League conditions – Ann Odong, SBS Zela

The sadly departed Zela did some great work, possibly none with more profile than Odong’s writing on W-League playing conditions, at a time when women’s sport is making great advances in Australia. There’s a number of other great pieces you may have missed on the Zela front page.

They came, they rallied, they won – Jarrod Kimber, Cricinfo

Remember when the West Indies won both T20 World Cups in succession? This is a brilliant encapsulation of that joy and of the strengths and hopes of West Indian cricket.

Lit pitches, murdered wickets – James Coyne, The Cricket Monthly

Coyne files dispatches about cricket from Central and South America, an interesting beat for a writer. This piece, about cricket in Belize, is ultra-vivid about life playing the game in an ever-developing backwater.

Pakistan’s National Baseball Team Just Wants You To Know They Exist – Lindsey Adler, Deadspin

The story of Pakistan’s extremely new and inexperienced baseball team at the World Baseball classic. Spoiler alert: they didn’t win, but it also didn’t matter.

Inch For Inch, Inika McPherson Might Be The Most Talented Jumper On The Planet – Sarah Barker, Deadspin

Fascinating profile of a unique character at the Rio Olympics and her wild and winding path to get there. In an age of even per-fabricated “rebel” athletes (we see you Nick Cummins), McPherson has truly lived a different life to not only most professional athletes, but also people.

The Art of Letting Go – Mina Kimes, ESPN

Charming in depth look at Korean baseball’s history and development through the lens of the post-hit “bat flip”, a taboo behaviour in American baseball.

What Are The Worst Olympic Sports? – Walt Hickey, FiveThirtyEight

Presents some random head to head survey data to confirm, among other things, that the horseys are the worst sport. Because horseys are the worst sport.

The Secret History Of Tiger Woods – Wright Thompson, ESPN

ESPN The Magazine has a lot of hit and miss content, but anything Wright Thompson does for it is pretty top notch. This is a long read on Tiger’s going off the rails which tells, among other things, of his obsession with experiencing Navy SEAL training.

Vertical Descent Adventures in Synchronized Swimming – Elisabeth Donnelly, VQR Online

Yo, so synchronized swimming isn’t that great, right? That piece from Hickey above confirms it. But this piece here is gold. Well worth the read.

A cricket writer’s journey to the remote World Twenty20 venue of Dharamsala – Geoff Lemon, the Guardian

Lemon is generally a pleasure to read, here he covers the World Twenty20 in the Himalayan hinterland of India.

How I Accidentally Made The First Official Cuba-To-Florida Kayak Crossing – Brent Rose, Deadspin

How this journalist accidentally broke a record that he didn’t know existed, doing something that thousands had done before.

Where Did All The NFL Parity Go? – Scott Kacsmar, Football Outsiders

Football Outsiders consistently produce some of the most intellegent writing about American Football today (alongside Bill Barnwell and a couple of others). This one from Kacsmar dives into the seemingly disappearing parity, specifically in the AFC.

The legacy of Game 7 – Zach Lowe, ESPN

You can pretty much pick whatever Zach Lowe article you want – as Slate indicated earlier this year, he is pretty much the best American sportswriter going right now. This works in traditional Lowe fashion, sculpting the narrative at the start and supporting it with evidence throughout.

HPNXmas – What happened to Jack Fitzpatrick in 2016?

The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.

One of HPN’s favourite pieces of 2015 was the post evaluating the Jack Fitzpatrick trade to Hawthorn, in exchange for pick 94:


As Christmas is the season for giving, HPN thought that we’d provide a Jack Fitzpatrick update for the fellow FitzpatFREAKs out there.

Jacky Boy spent most of the year at Box Hill, where he played largely as a ruck/forward. Concussion curbed his contributions for much of the year, limiting Fitzy to just 8 games in the VFL.

Then Jonathon Ceglar wrecked his knee in round 22, giving Big Jack his chance in the spotlight. Which, ahem, he certainly took:

The Fitzer kept his spot in the team for the finals, in which Hawthorn were bounced in straight sets. Our man was the far from the worst for the Hawks, but that wasn’t enough to save him from the chopping block at the end of the season…


And so, all big and small fans of JackF shed a single tear for their fallen hero. Until, in late November, Jack McFitzson was told that there was another run in him yet.

Yes, Hawthorn re-drafted the Fitzmeister in the Rookie Draft, with pick 31 (about 30 picks too late in our humble opinions).

HPN believes that the list management decisions around FitzJack can be summarised…



HPNXmas – Which is the best Hurling County?

The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.

As much as we appreciate the sport as a spectacle and cultural institution, we’re not hurling exports. We can, however, use statistics and we like to rank things. As such, we’ve taken the number of clubs in each county, along with the population of each county, to try and identify which county is the best at Hurling.

Unsurprisingly, the big three counties of Kilkenny, Tipperary and Cork fill out the top spots on our “people per championship” rankings as well as “clubs per championship” measures:

While Tipperary is known as the “Premier County” and indeed as the home of the sport, it’s little Kilkenny, with a smaller population than Tipperary or Cork, and more titles, that emerges as the truly premier county. Kilkenny, with 36 titles, has won a title for every 2,753 people who currently reside there, more than twice the rate of winning as Tipperary.

At club level, Galway emerges as the most successful county with 13 wins, but on a per capita basis Kilkenny (with 11 titles) again reigns supreme. Their dominance is largely due to the success of the Ballyhale Shamrocks, who have taken home 6 All-Ireland titles, despite Ballyhale only having 335 residents. Given that there are 15 on the field at any time, roughly 5% of Ballyhale has been on the field for each one of their wins.

Cork, a comparative giant in population terms (being the third biggest city and second biggest county in Ireland), is a laggard in terms of hurling glory, barely outperforming Offaly’s four titles and Wexford’s six, once we adjust for population.

Hurling is most played and most successfully played in the southwest of Ireland. Most of the counties that have a decent population and a decent focus on hurling have won a title. Every county in Munster has won a title, Leinster winners are the huge Dublin plus the four southernmost counties of Offaly, Wexford, Laois and Kilkenny. Galway are the only winners among the five Connacht counties, and no Ulster county has won.

Another thing that jumps out from this comparison is the really lopsided results in finals for some of these sides. Tipperary have won 27 of their 40 finals, and Cork 30 of 49, giving them both a roughly 2/3rds win-rate on the big day.

The big three’s historical winningness of course means a lot of other counties have had a rather poor success rate at crunch-time. The main historical victims have been Wexford who sit at about 35%, Dublin at 29%, and poor Galway whose 4 titles from 23 starts is 17%, basically a cruel multiplication of St Kilda’s dismal grand final record.

At Interprovincial level, Munster reign supreme with 46 Railway Cups, ahead of Leinster on 29, Connacht on 11 and Ulster on 0. On a per capita basis, Munster is the most successful province, ahead of Connacht.


HPNXmas – A social class taxonomy – posh and non-posh Rugby Nations

The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.

It’s well known in Australia (well, at least north of the Murray) that Rugby Union tends to be a sport enjoyed by the wealthy and privileged, a class divide emphasised in its contrast with the more working class Rugby League.

In its birthplace of England too, Rugby Union is also regarded as a posh game (although in the very west of England this is less the case). Indeed, the very name derives from the elite school of the game’s origin. But the same isn’t true everywhere in the Rugby-playing world. HPN has been endeavouring to work out where Rugby is stereotypically the game of the elite, and where it has other roots. Below is the taxonomy we’ve pieced together about where the sport fits into different countries in each currently rated as a “high performance” band country:


(We should note that for some countries this is inference based mostly on limited external research – such as on Wikipedia, reddit and message board discussions)

Along with Australia and England mentioned above, Rugby Union is also very much the domain of the elite and well-to-do in Scotland and Argentina. Using the descriptions of those caught up in the Uruguayan Rugby plane crash, we can reasonably assume that, like in most things, Uruguay is a tiny version of Argentina in this respect. We note that the game has working class pockets in parts of England such as Cornwall, but this doesn’t seem significant enough to alter its overall character and its contrast with English Rugby League.

In Ireland the game has more significant differences in its bases – in Northern Ireland it’s mostly Protestant and middle to upper class, and around Dublin it’s also the domain of private schools. However, in the west of Ireland in Connacht and Munster (especially Limerick and Cork) it has a more mixed base. This can all be well observed in the mix of “fee-paying” versus public schools at the top of school rugby in each of the four provinces of Ireland.

There is a strong university and corporate character to the game in Japan, where university leagues are traditionally the most popular and now the game has strong corporate backing.

On the other side of the stereotype coin, Wales is the archetypal working class rugby country, the game most strongly associated with southern Welsh towns, coal miners, farmers, and the like.

In New Zealand, Rugby Union is popular across all class lines as the clear number one sport in the country, though League remains stereotyped as a specifically working class game. In Tonga, Fiji, and Samoa, too, the game has wide appeal as a true national sport.

As for Russia, we’re actually really not sure. The game was banned as bourgeois in the Soviet Union by Stalin, and later, the USSR team was strongly Georgian in composition. So the sport is pretty niche, but they claim to have more registered players than Scotland. One would assume interest in such a niche sport was the domain of elite cosmopolitan types, but we just don’t know.

Romania is a special case, deserving a bit of attention, as although we labelled it too niche to know, the country used to have a very strong team.

Rugby in Romania became closely identified with the Ceausescu regime which used sport in its propaganda a lot. The sport was heavily funded, the best local teams were those of the army and the police. The international team were quite successful in the 1980s, being strongly considered for top level competition and beating sides like Scotland and Wales.

Then Romania experienced the fall of European communism’s only violent overthrow. Six members of the national team were killed in the violence (some at their day jobs, one star was mistakenly shot at a roadblock). Romanian rugby was then gutted by professionalisation as everyone moved to France or Italy to play – absent state resources and with a professional standard abroad, Romania lost its previous edge. We actually don’t know about the social class associations of Romanian rugby these days, but the place of the game seems to be mostly that people are indifferent and participation is at a small fraction of its former strength.

Canada and the USA seem to be a bit of a mixed bag in where the niche sits. Canada has a bit of a fee-paying school rugby circuit, but it’s unclear how dominant this is relative to other influences such as French and British migrants. In the US there’s college and club rugby, but also a strong recruitment of former mediocre American footballers due to the relative lack of amateur organised sport for adults in the US. We are curious but ignorant about the role of American Samoa in American Rugby.

In South Africa and Namibia the game is strongly associated with white South Africans and particularly Afrikaners (most of the Namibian international side is also South African-based), and the history of violent segregation means there’s only recently been much effort to bridge that racial divide. However, despite the relative wealth of the white population of these countries we are not sure to what extent we can call the Afrikaner population posh or “elite” so we have given them their own category.

In France, Rugby Union is a strongly regionalised game, most popular in the south and especially the  west of the country, with strongholds in Toulouse and the Basque Country, while the game also has a (possibly more marginal and educated) presence in Paris.

France used to have a League/Union divide which went along the same class and political lines as elsewhere. However, this was basically ended by the fascists, and we do not exaggerate. Rugby League never truly recovered from being banned under the Nazis and Vichy France for its left wing character. It lost most of its assets in favour of the collaborating Union organising body. Whilst Rugby League is slowly building in France again due to the establishment of the Catalans Dragons in the Super League, it is starting from a long way back. This means the game doesn’t have a strong class element to it in southern France these days, as Union is so dominant.

In Italy, too, Rugby Union is regional – mostly centred on the northern Po Valley, an industrial heartland of Italy. This is by a large margin the wealthier end of the country, but we can’t really describe the whole region as posh or elite.

Finally, Georgia is sort of a mirror image of Romania’s experience. In both cases the game was introduced by French communists but whereas in Romania the game became associated with regime propaganda, in Georgia it struck an accidental chord by being very similar to a folk game called Lelo which seems to be Rugby with  heavy ball and forward passes:

Which is in turn derived from this where hundreds of people murder each other trying to move a 16kg ball through a village:

Rugby as a whole could learn something from Georgia, we feel.


HPNXmas – The 2016 HPN Mailbag

The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.

Over the last year a lot of people have found HPN via Google, attempting to find answers to questions that they’ve had for a long time but couldn’t find an answer for.

Today, we thought we’d sit down and try to provide an answer to these absolutely real questions for those in need.

If you have any questions for us for future editions of HPN Mailbag, you can email us at HurlingPeopleNow [at] gmail [dot] com, ask us on twitter at @hurlingpeople, or search on Google and click on a HPN link.

Q. “perth wildcats world best team

HPN assumes that the person is not referring to the actual ability of the Perth Wildcats, as they are almost certainly not even the best basketball team in the world. Instead, we suggest they are referring to the much vaunted Wildcats playoff streak of, in which we mythbusted earlier this year.

From the best of our research, the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos had a streak of 34 consecutive seasons in the playoffs. In the world of basketball, FC Barcelona Bàsquet currently hold a streak of at least 32 seasons in the playoffs in Spain’s top league – two years ahead of the Wildcats. It’s unlikely that Barcelona will miss the playoffs anytime soon, and the Wildcats look in real trouble this season, so Perth probably won’t be the “world best team” anytime soon.

Q. “list every sport output”

Goal. Point. Try. Kick. Penalty. Tackle. Handball. Dribble. Steal. Rebound. Maul. Scrum. Free Kick. Short Corner. Fault. Over. Behind. Wicket. Error. Powerplay. Run…

On second thoughts, no. We can’t do this…

Q. “how to draw afl goal post”

Draw a line. A vertical line. Paint is pretty good for this, if you want to cheat a little.

Step 1:

Select the line tool.


Step 2:

Left-click on the “canvas”. Hold down shift at the same time.


Step 3:

Pull the cursor up whilst still holding shift and holding the left mouse button down. Let go of the button and shift when the line has reached a reasonable height.


Step 4:

Admire your handiwork. Maybe draw a few friends for the lonely post to create a full set of goals.

Q. “rugby sunwolves composition

Again, this is something we looked at last year. From the post:

“This is what we have gathered to be the composition of the Sunwolves squad:

  • 11 players from Japan’s 2015 World Cup campaign
  • 4 other internationally-capped Japan players
  • 1 tier one foreign international (Tomás Leonardi – Argentina)
  • 3 tier two foreign internationals (Fa’atiga Lemalu and Tusi Pisi from Samoa and Andrew Derutalo from the USA)
  • 4 players with experience in Japan’s U20 side, all previously playing for universities
  • 3 Super Rugby experienced players (Ed Quirk – Reds, Liaki Moli – Blues, Riaan Viljoen – Sharks)
  • 13 players with top level domestic rugby experience in the Japanese Top Rugby or elsewhere such as New Zealand’s provincial competition”

That was for the 2016 season, and for 2017 (the official HPN preview is coming soon) the Sunwolves radically changed their squad to give it a more local feel, increasing their number of homegrown internationals, acquiring a couple more Super Rugby-experienced Japanese players from other clubs, while shedding all their foreign internationals.

Q. “do clubs make a lot of

Clubs make a lot of things, depending on what type of club it is. Nightclubs make a lot of drinks, RSL clubs make a lot of Parmis and money from pokies.

AFL clubs make a lot of money, but they also spend a lot too. We broke down how AFL clubs make their money last year.

HPNXmas – HPN’s worst calls of last year

The 12 days of HPNXmas is our way of giving back over the holiday period, and providing a place for some of our thoughts that didn’t get run for whatever reason during the year.

Today on this first day of 2017, we revisit some of our predictions across 2016 and see what was most blatantly wrong. A lot of these emerged from the simple adjusted strength based projections which by their nature don’t account for unexpected changes in form, but it’s still fun to look back and remember the fallibility of any and all models.

The Roosters as minor premiers

We flagged this one at the time as a product of our projections being completely blind to list changes and general club implosion. However, nonetheless, there it is – the minor premier Roosters of 2015 lost a lot of close games so we said if that normalised they’d improve. We attempted to defend this by pointing out the relatively low number of players who’d moved on relative to a 25-man squad, but obviously that’s very limited analysis as some players are more important than others and off-field turmoil can have non-quantifiable effects on team performance.

At any rate, rather than powering to an unexpected minor premiership, instead the Roosters finished 15th. We would note, however, that they fell this hard in large part due to an 0-8 record in games decided by a converted try or less. If they’d won half of those instead of none of them, they’d be around 11th spot. So 2017 should be a bit brighter for them, all things being equal.

Various Jarryd Hayne calls

We were cautious on Hayne initially, and were surprised he survived from the practice squad to make the 53-man roster at the 49ers. However, in late December 2015 (we’re counting this as a 2016 call) we argued he probably wasn’t being played late in the season for sound but obscure contractual flexibility reasons. We said:

If Hayne had been called up any earlier, his options for 2016 would have been greatly reduced.

Obviously, as it turned out, Hayne was cut and not picked up by another team. Clearly what we missed here was that Hayne’s options were apparently not constrained by sport, country or hemisphere, as he moved first to Fijian Sevens and then back to Rugby League.

Port Adelaide as “risers” – again

We projected 2016 in the AFL based on the previous year’s records, adjusting for close game luck, relative age change, and draw strength. For the second year running we had Port Adelaide improving to a top 4 position. Port hit the trifecta – a young list expected to improve more than older lists, a poor record in close games, and a softer draw than previously. For similar reasons we also had Collingwood improving from 10 to nearly 13 wins, which didn’t eventuate either.

We also had Richmond in second place (!) but that was based purely on them having won 15 games the season before, along with an assumed decline for Sydney, Fremantle and Hawthorn.

Jaguares to win their Super Rugby conference

In framing a statistical prediction of the Super Rugby based on fixture we needed to assign a strength to the newcomers. We called the Sunwolves and Kings 2-win teams and the Jaguares a 9-win team. As justification we said:

An indicator of their strength is that the Jaguares have assembled most of the Argentinian national side (the Pumas) save for several of their big guns. The Jaguares are the sort of team Argentina might field in a tour game or World Cup group game against Namibia.

We projected the Lions to regress due to their good luck in close games, sneaking the Jaguares into the top spot in the luck-adjusted projection.

Instead, the Jaguares’ 28 internationals took them to four wins, while the Lions improbed from 9 wins to 11 wins and ran away with the conference.

Parramatta should still make finals if they keep up current form

They um, didn’t.

After being docked their 6 wins from the first 9 rounds we said they could make finals by beating teams that were below them on the ladder, and noted that their draw opened up in the back part of the season. They instead won 7 of their last 15, falling 5 wins short of what we (correctly, it turns out) thought was the target of 12 wins. Oh well.