Statistical Prediction of the 2017 Super Rugby season

Last year we looked at the fixture unnevenness and indulged in a simple win-loss and luck based projection of the 2016 Super Rugby season.

This year we’re going to try to apply a Pythagorean approach to strength rating and apply the method to project 2017. The projection involves three steps:

  1. Pythagorean strength accounts for close game luck
  2. These strengths are used to isolate the draw effect in each team’s 2016 performance, to obtain a “fair draw strength” from their record
  3. These “fair draw strengths” are applied to the 2017 fixture to come up with expected wins in 2017

We do not account for personnel changes, for travel loads, for intangible changes to preparation or coaching. Those bits of knowledge and context are of course vital, and should be applied to the projections to make educated guesses about where the raw numbers are likely going to be wrong. All models are wrong, some are useful, and we think this approach adds some important context to the expectations of each team.

How we did last year

Below is a table showing our 2016 projections. We show both the simple “win loss” strength of schedule approach, and one where we accounted for close game luck. We’ve also gone back and retroactively applied the Pythagorean expectation method, and observed that it gets a bit closer to the pin on average than the simpler methods we used last year, on average missing by 1.6 wins versus the 1.9 and 1.7 wins of the previous methods.

Note that in all three measures we assumed the Jaguares were a 9-win team and the Sunwolves and Kings 2-win teams (in line with the bookies markets), in order to predict in an assumed strength for them.

2016 results.PNG

All in all, the models did okay. The Lions emerged as a bolter last year – our methods which accounted for 2015 luck (they won a lot of close games) all underrated them as a result, because they sustained results rather than regressing to an assumed mean. The Jaguares were a bad miss, but this was largely a punditry and betting markets failure.

The Blues also improved markedly on our expectations. Having won 3 games in 2015, they were projected to win between 3 and 5. Instead they won eight and had a draw. This sort of change illustrates the limitations of projecting based solely on previous data – teams can and do improve or decline markedly for reasons not observable in fixture effects or scoring outputs.

Pythagorean expectations at the top end tended to be less optimistic than pure win-loss measures and this turned out to be more accurate since no team won more than 11 games. The Hurricanes and Stormers had projected to barely lose a game on pure strength of schedule measures, but accounting for luck and score outputs placed them more accurately.

The “k” value HPN has used for Super Rugby is the same as the NRL one outlined by Tony Corke here. As the number of teams, rule differences and competition make up of Super Rugby drastically shifts from year to year, it is hard to find a stable sample to analyse to find a more accurate “k” value. HPN opted for the NRL “k” after doing some initial testing, and noting that the rules, average scoring and win distributions of the two codes are similar.

There was also consistent over-estimation at the bottom end, with nearly every team in the bottom half of the standings expected by all our projections to win more than they actually did. This is kind of a feature of Pythgorean expectations – they tend to have trouble with teams who could quite reasonably be expected to barely win a single game, and right now, Super Rugby has several teams like that.

2017 ratings

Below is a table showing the two-stage process of obtaining a strength figure for each team in the Super Rugby competition. First, we apply the Pythagorean expectation calculations to work out how many games each team “should” have won in the 2016 season (based on their scores achieved and conceded). Second, because the Super Rugby has a very uneven fixture (more on that in a moment), we take the derived strengths of every team’s opponent set and use that to adjust each team’s rating up or down to obtain a “fair draw strength”. Those figures are below.

strength ratings.PNG

The “fair draw strength” is an indicator of how each team would be expected to perform playing entirely even opponent sets. We can see, for example, that the Stormers and Blues were actually very similar, and both look like middling sides if tested in the vacuum of a fair draw. In reality, they were separated by two wins in actual results, they maybe should have been three wins apart given average luck, and of course the Stormers won their conference and hosted a quarter final while the Blues missed finals altogether.

Note that this calculation assumes a fair draw is 0.500 for all teams, meaning it doesn’t take into account the fact that teams don’t play themselves. Stronger teams inherently face a weaker draw in an even fixture because they don’t play themsleves. The Force and Chiefs both facing a 0.522 opponent set in 2016 therefore means that the Chiefs faced a fixture more skewed to the difficult side.

Inescapable inequality

The Super Rugby format is inherently uneven due to the existence of double-up opponents and teams not playing each other. Anything other than a single round-robin with all teams playing each other once is going to result in skewed fixture difficulties.

Some of the blame for this falls on the conference system. As we can see below, the gulf between the collective strength of Australian and New Zealand teams is the driving factor in the fixture unevenness.

conference-strength

However, we can’t entirely blame the 18-team structure and the conferences, as these inequalities existed before the expansion due to New Zealand and Australian teams preferring to face their compatriots more often. New Zealand teams are basically handicapping themselves for the sake of commercial and travel considerations. This will persist as long as the strength imbalance remains and the league persists with double-up national derby games.

2017 derbies.PNG

The chart above shows the gulf between the two countries. Only the Blues present as weaker than average, and only barely, while only the Brumbies and Waratahs shape as viable finalists in Australia. It’s entirely possible that if the Blues were based in Tasmania, they’d be a shot to win the Australian conference. Note that the incomplete double round-robin in each country means the Brumbies and Waratahs don’t play each other twice. That’s a big fixture advantage. Meanwhile the Rebels get the bad luck of playing both those teams twice – the hardest possible Australian fixture set.

The African pools have managed to be nearly exactly even in strength, but on a rotating basis, one of them gets a huge free ride by virtue of avoiding all New Zealand opponents. Last year the beneficiary was the Stormers, who won the conference with the soft Australia-focused draw. At least, they were the “beneficiary” until finals, when they were immediately minced by 39 points by the Chiefs, the first Kiwi team they faced all year. This year, the Lions, Sharks, Jaguares, and Kings are the teams set to have the fixture edge by avoiding any trips to New Zealand.

Spare a thought also for the Sunwolves, who in addition to facing an insane travel load (even their “home” stretches involve regular flights to Singapore, the equivalent of flying from Auckland to Perth), also face all the Kiwi teams this year.

Projecting 2017

With the method and the inequalities noted, we can now take our platonic ideal “fair draw” strengths, apply them to the imperfect kludge that is the Super Rugby fixture, and do some projections:

2017 pythag projection.PNG
New Zealand

By a very small margin, our projections are putting in three New Zealand wildcards, as occurred last year, with all Kiwi teams except the Blues expected to shade both the Brumbies and Waratahs. The Highlanders came out of last  year looking in a Pythagorean view as the strongest team (due to their lower points conceded), and they project as New Zealand champions here by a fraction of an expected win. As with last year, though, the competition among the Kiwi contenders for the home quarter final will likely come down to a few bonus points.

Australia

Australian rugby is in a bit of a state, and the competition for a finals spot is presumably between the Brumbies and Waratahs. Whoever finishes second out of those teams is going to be sweating on the results in New Zealand and how they impact the spread of the three Australasian wildcard spots.

Note that the Pythagorean expectation only knows about 2016 results and isn’t aware the Brumbies are expected to decline greatly on the back of personnel losses. It also isn’t aware the Rebels, the next most likely threat, were just crushed at home by the Blues. If a challenge were to come, look towards the Reds and Force, who both underperformed last year based on their “true” strength.

Africa 1

As noted above, the Stormers came out of this conference on top last year, and would be near certainties to do so again. This conference plays the New Zealand opponent set this year, meaning last year’s results with Australian opponents were probably better than the teams can expect this year.

All of Africa 1’s expected wins are thus reduced from expectations under a fair draw, except for the Stormers who, due to not playing themselves, actually have a pretty close to 0.500 fixture set. The Bulls are presumably the threat, but the Cheetahs were the biggest “underachievers” of Super Rugby 2016, and probably should have got 2-3 more wins than they did. The Sunwolves will just be looking for a bit of continuity and improvement.

Africa 2

The Lions shape as massive beneficiaries of their opponent set. After admirably navigating the harder draw last year, and defying our expectations that a good run of close 2015 results meant they’d slip back in 2016, they now look set to lead the competition in wins this year.

On last year’s results and with Australian opponents, the Sharks should be favourites for the African wildcard spot.

The Jaguares are intriguing. Our biggest miss last year was overrating the Jaguares based on betting markets and the international credentials of their players. So naturally we’re projecting them to rise this year. Their easier opponent set adds half a win to expectations, but also, despite winning only four games on debut, they scored and defended like a team who should have won six.

AFLW Round 3 Wrap and Power Rankings

Three weeks into the AFLW and our pre-season favourites Collingwood, a team highly fancied by many, sits last on the ladder wondering what has gone wrong. Before we dig into that, here’s a chart of the depth of each team that played on the weekend and who was among their best players:

aflw-r3

Across most teams, this was a good week for their marquee and early draft picks who may be beginning to rose to the top.

We can flesh this picture out by showing who, across the first three weeks, has been among each team’s bests:

r3bestsbyteam

This is a chart of each clubs players, sorted by their selection by each club, with the number of games played and times included in the best players (as determined by afl.com.au). Whilst we disagree with some of the subjective calls made, it’s a good quick-and-dirty guide to where the contributions to each team have come through the first three rounds.

You can see that the bottom three teams on the ladder (Pies, Giants and Dockers) have had the least contribution from their top four players in terms of times named in the “bests”, although perhaps Emma King is a bit harshly done by on that front. At the other end of the scale, Carlton and Melbourne have had massive contributions from their marquee and priority picks, as well as their early draft selections. Adelaide show the edge with the biggest contribution from their bottom tier of players, with Phillips and Perkins providing a lot of value above expectation as rookie and free agent pickups.

HPN’s AFLW Power Rankings – Round Four

After our rough attempts to predict the finishing order way back in November, we’ve decided to open ourselves up to more embarrassment and combine our weekly wrap up with a power rankings of the teams through three weeks. HPN has waited this long because, as Figuring Footy pointed out last week, round three is where comparisons can truly commence.

This is a subjective ranking, but one informed by different data points we have looked at. For purely statistically based rankings of AFLW, HPN suggests looking at the fantastic work of James Day and FMI.

1. Adelaide

While you can mount a case for Brisbane at number one, the standout side so far has pretty clearly been Adelaide. Despite a scare last week against Carlton, the Crows have operated with surgical precision up forward and in the midfield. We’ve already written about their strong recruiting approach, but what is perhaps more impressive is their ability to work as a unit considering their lack of experience playing (or even training) together.

The Crows have placed a serious emphasis on moving the ball by foot, with the highest kick-to-handball ratio of the AFLW. Whereas other clubs try to work the ball around a little more, the Crows seem to look for distance whenever possible, to find their gun targets in an open forward line. It is pure, simple footy, like a hammer to the forebrain.

2. Brisbane

It turns out that cohesion has mattered to Brisbane, with the Queensland state squad (plus a couple of extras) fitting together like parts in a well-oiled machine. The Lions are clear league leaders for forward efficiency. They have had the fewest disposals in the competition, the second fewest hitouts and centre clearances. This has translated into the lowest amount of inside-50s in the competition, but they’ve managed to capitalise when the ball does go forward.

Tayla Harris has lead from the front so far, and leads the league with nine contested marks – four ahead of Jakobsson in second. Whilst Harris and Frederick-Traub are the focal points of the Lions attack, it is perhaps the most well-balanced in the competition to date, with four multiple goal kickers (no other club has more than three).

3. Melbourne

Melbourne took a while to get going, with their first 10 quarters together as a team (including the preseason game) achieving just three goals. Since then, however, they have been a comparative offensive juggernaut, kicking 12.9 across their last six quarters. This puts the Dees on pace as the most potent attacking side in the league, but the Small Sample Size light is flashing furiously just for the moment. Melbourne happen to lead the league in inside-50s, but until halftime in the Collingwood game they looked totally unable to capitalise on it.

The Dees also caught a break last week with Katie Brennan missing for the Dogs. Whilst Brennan might not have clawed back the 14 point difference on her own, playing a team without their leading goal-kicker is a good spot to land in.

This week the Demons are similarly lucky, facing a Carlton defence with the dominant Davey and Sarah Last. Whilst Carlton recorded an easy win in their preseason match, most of the damage was done in the final term, and Davey is a massive loss. If the Dees play their cards right, they could be coming into form at the right time.

4. Carlton

As mentioned above, Carlton face a challenging two weeks without Brianna Davey, and with Sarah Last to miss the rest of the year. This means that the Blues will be understrength in the backline, at a time when they face two relatively strong attacks (Melbourne and the Dogs).

Fourth might be a harsh rating for a side that has only lost one game, and that one by only three points to the ladder leaders. It is true that Carlton seem to do everything pretty well, leading the league in disposal efficiency, equal first in goals, equal second in marks, second in hitouts and third in tackles.

Like the Demons, the Blues have leant heavily on their elite talent, and so far they’ve responded strongly. Looking at the table above, the Blues’ first four picks have nearly monopolised the “bests” lists with all of Davey, Vescio, Arnell and Jakobsson featuring all three times. This concentration may suggest a bit of a vulnerability if those elite players are curbed. If Vescio gets double teamed, for instance, and without the strength of Davey down back, Carlton’s second tier could be tested.

The Blues defence has been a strong point so far, holding the otherwise free flowing Crows to just two goals last week, one of which booted from 55m out. If Carlton can get through the next two weeks (Melbourne and the Bulldogs) with two wins, they will firmly remain in contention for the Grand Final. In that case, the Lions matchup in round 7 potentially decides their fate.

5. Western Bulldogs

The Bulldogs have played some of the best football of the season, but have had significant flat spots as well. Blackburn and Kearney have been stellar through the middle, and Brennan (as mentioned elsewhere in this article) is as deadly up forward as anyone in the competition. The loss to Melbourne last week, however, makes it very hard for the Bulldogs to make the Grand Final.

In the short season to date, the Dogs have been the most inaccurate in front of goals, kicking 12.19. They’re also last in the competition in tackles, and for marks. Compared with the rest of the competition, the Dogs employ a much heavier emphasis on moving the ball by hand, averaging 18 more per game than the average team. They also sit second for running bounces.

This week they face the Pies, who they accounted for in their preseason match. If they can get a win this week, they will keep their small hopes of finals alive.

6. Fremantle

Fremantle have been a little disappointing to those at HPN Central so far, but perhaps some of that was misplaced expectation. The Dockers lost a lot of elite talent through the marquee and draft process, including some of the standouts of the AFLW to date. Donnellan is the one marquee that the Dockers were able to field this year, and her form has been outstanding to date, nearly dragging the Dockers over the line last week in Blacktown. Chuot, whilst not named in the best for any week, has been a strong rebounding presence so far, both repelling the opposition and setting up counter-attacks.

Looking through Fremantle’s statistics, the main conclusion to draw is that they just can’t score. They’re fairly middling (3rd to 6th) on most midfield stats and for inside-50s, but have displayed little ability to convert opportunities. They should have comfortably beaten the Giants with 13 scoring shots to 8 but of course they drew due to kicking 6.7 to 7.1. One clue may be their league-leading running bounces – is this an attacking tactic or aimlessness in the absence of targets?

This week they host the unbeaten Crows; a side they beat in their Darwin pre-season practice match fairly comfortably. As Greg Jericho pointed out on Twitter, the Crows were missing Phillips, but the differences in each team’s performance to date have been stark.

It will be interesting to see which one is the anomaly.

7. Collingwood

If the Crows have been the surprise packets so far, then the Pies have been the biggest disappointment of the young competition. A lot of that blame has fallen on the shoulders of Moana Hope, including accusations of being a “flat-track bully”. Most specifically, an article in The Age stated that Hope had kicked just four of her 106 goals against ladder leaders Darebin, which is accurate in isolation but devoid of any contextual information, such as that Darebin only conceded 61 goals in the regular season, period.

Yes, Hope kicked a majority of her goals (61 goals) against the bottom three sides, but this was a competition with a sixfold difference between the 439 points conceded by Darebin and the 2453 points conceded by Knox. The bottom three teams, Knox, Cranbourne and Geelong, conceded almost as many points as the top seven. Nearly every leading goal-kicker in the VFL last year had a similar goal feast against those three weaker opponents:

aflwgoalkickers

Hope is being double- and triple-teamed almost at every turn – and as a lead-up forward she is being given little room in which to work, and she isn’t as tall as some of the better contested-marking forwards in the league. In this situation, you would expect that the rest of the Collingwood forward line, including top VFL goal kickers Garner and Cameron to step up and provide alternative targets given the space that they have inherently been given. The Pies may also consider a second ruck in Lou Wotton to provide another target if they feel that’s an issue.

Girls Play Footy have excellently outlined all the issues that Collingwood face right now, and that Hope’s lack of production isn’t really one of them. GPF have rightly identified that Collingwood’s midfield hasn’t been providing a great quality or quantity of forward opportunities to date, with Sarah D’Arcy providing perhaps a sole shining light moving the ball forward. Collingwood have a league low three (3) goal assists through three rounds, which shouldn’t be the case with a dominant leading forward like Hope.

Things look a bit bleak for the Pies right now, but there’s a lot of footy left in the season to go.

8. GWS

GWS have looked better and better each week, and last week’s draw was a great result for a club that most (including HPN) thought would struggle to rise off the bottom of the ladder. Emma Swanson, in her first game for the club, made a real difference for the club on the ground, and the performance of Emma McKinnon in the ruck so far has been revelatory.

As the season has progressed some of GWS’s local talent has stepped up in intensity, and their results reflect this.  The way they’ve gelled together and spread their workload has been quite impressive. As in the “bests” table above, no Giant has finished in the best for all three games; indicating a relatively well rounded roster, perhaps just short on truly elite talent (with apologies to Dal Pos, McWilliams and now Swanson).

This week they travel to Brisbane to face a red-hot Lions side who beat them in the pre-season in a dire, rain-sodden game. The Giants should circle their away trip to play Collingwood and their home game against the Dogs at Manuka as real opportunities to strike for their first win.

AFLW Round 2 – What HPN learned (including how the Crows built their team)

First up, here’s a chart showing each team’s selections and who was named in the bests this week (according to afl.com.au):

AFLW R2.PNG

Adelaide d Western Bulldogs

Like many other observers, we underrated the Crows’ chances before the season and after their triumph over putative premiership favourites the Bulldogs on their home patch, the Crows deserve a thorough look to see what’s gone so right.

Most of us underrated the Crows due to the historical weakness of the South Australian women’s football talent pool. South Australia lost to the ACT in the Division 2 grand final of the 2013 championships and beat NSW/ACT by just 2 points in last year’s representative fixtures. The Crows have overcome that lack of talent pool admirably, with only about a third of their best side coming from the local competition.

Beyond intangibles such as effective coaching, conditioning and preparation which we assume have also worked well for the club, three other things seem to be in play:

  • That core of about half a dozen top SA players have been very effective
  • The Crows nailed their interstate and non-traditional selections
  • Northern Territory players are contributing strongly

The SAWFL contributors on the list number about 11 in total, and have been headed by a known quantity in SA captain since 2011 Courtney Cramey, and by star teenager Ebony Marinoff. Marinoff has starred for the Crows both weeks so far, getting the Rising Star nomination in round 1 and being best-on-ground for the winners in round 2. At the age of 19 she is perhaps the brightest prospect coming out of recent SA talent development, and perhaps the biggest rising star nationwide. Those two were the only former All-Star players from SA, but Deni Varnhagen, Rachael Killian and Jessica Sedunary have very effectively rounded out a core SA contingent along with Justine Mules who was named in the bests in round 1, omitted for round 2 and is currently on the extended bench in round 3.

The Northern Territory is an isolated player pool with limited representative results to analyse, and there must be questions about the representativeness of the NT’s results given the travel load for amateur players. The Crows have secured 8 players from the Top End including several strong early contributors. Chief among them were Abbey Holmes, one of the best in round 2, and  priority pick and round 2 goalkicker Angela Foley.

Finally, the Crows’ other big point of difference has been the strength of their recruiting beyond SA and NT football. While smaller in number, nearly every one of these selections has been a quality addition.

From interstate the Crows have gotten their WA marquees, Chelsea Randall and Kellie Gibson, who have been critical contributors all across the ground during the young season, with Gibson contributing a goal both weeks as well. The ACT’s Talia Radan has thus far been a minor contributor but also forms part of the interstate picture.

The Defence Force also did their bit for the Crows, with the Navy’s Rhiannon Metcalfe, formerly of Gungahlin in the ACT, relocated to Adelaide and slotting in as ruck. Metcalfe has provided a hit outs advantage both weeks. The pink-helmeted Heather Anderson has been a livewire on the outside of contests, and is a formerly Canberra-based army medic, now based in Darwin.

Also from outside the SAWFL comes Erin Phillips and Sarah Perkins, who have formed a devastating forward pairing. Phillips comes from basketball but has a strong football background as the daughter of 8-time Port Adelaide premiership player Greg Phillips. She’s also managed to draw 9 free kicks in two weeks, the most of any player in the competition. Perkins was overlooked by Victorian clubs in the draft despite her well-demonstrated goalkicking credentials. The Crows landed her as an undrafted free agent, she currently leads the competition for marks inside-50 with 5. Jenna McCormick, a South Australian who played soccer for Canberra United, also slotted straight in with a goal in round two.

In short, the Crows’ wide recruiting net has left the Pride of South Australia with a side which is mostly not South Australian, and is all the better for it.

Carlton d GWS

GWS putting up a strong fight, and leading into the late third quarter, was both a huge surprise and fantastic for the potential competitive shape of the competition. GWS’ absences are well documented and include both marquees and a priority pick and they are likely to be the wooden spooners, so their ability to produce an effort like this is welcome.

The Giants, like Adelaide, draw heavily from other states even with those absences. Victorian priority pick Jess Dal Pos led tackles and disposals and was clearly best-on-ground for GWS. Ashleigh Guest and Phoebe McWilliams from Victoria and Aimee Schmidt from WA also carry a heavy load.

Despite the reliance on a cream of imported talent, another good sign for GWS was the strong contribution of local and Canberra players. Rebecca BeesonJacinda Barclay and Maddy Collier from UNSW were among the best players and young ruck Erin McKinnon broke even in that department. Ella Ross and Britt Tully from Canberra also made decent contributions while Hannah Wallett turned one of her two touches into a quality goal.

Despite the spread of heartening local contributions and the endeavour and desperation GWS showed, the fact that Carlton still brushed them aside after being jumped should tell us plenty about the pecking order. We’d be keen to see what the Giants team could do with all their top-end talent available, but this week’s margin was probably deceptively close. At most the Giants look like they can only hope to jag an upset win at some point.

As for Carlton, they confirmed their quality by coming back after a poor and possibly complacent half and then holding the enthusiastic Giants at arms’ length. They are undefeated and have some serious star power – their marquees Brianna Davey and Darcy Vescio, their priority pick Lauren Arnell and their first draft selection Bianca Jakobsson have all been among the best in both of their games, as has soccer and Darebin Falcons “rookie” Nat Exon. Against GWS, the turning point appeared to be Kate Shierlaw‘s increasing involvement in the proceedings, opening up the Carlton forward line and giving the midfield another target than just Vescio.

If that sort of top end output keeps up, they should expect to outclass most opponents. GWS showed the silky Blues might be vulnerable to harassment and pressure, at least for a time. But still, in the first two weeks the Blues have had more of the ball than anyone, scored the equal-most goals, and easily the most contested marks in the league.

Melbourne d Collingwood

Again, HPN isn’t in the business of repeatedly pointing out its failings, but we might have jumped the gun on rating Collingwood so highly based on a well-credentialed spine. Their biggest strength is also their biggest problem: Moana Hope and how to use her.

Hope got off to a promising start, getting a couple of early marks and even a goal. She was able to do this, largely, because she was given space to operate by the Melbourne backline who stuck in single coverage at the start. Once Melbourne dropped an extra back to look after Hope and/or the space she was working in, her influence on the game waned. After this happened, it became apparent, like the practice game against the Dogs and last week against Carlton, that the Pies didn’t really have a solid plan B.

Melbourne had forward problems of their own. For the first two quarters of last week’s game, they looked absolutely unable to land an attacking blow. This wasn’t for lack of trying – Melbourne seemed to rotate a large number of players up forward in a variety of combinations but with little to no success. Stephanie Chiocci seemed to be in everything for Collingwood early, and it was looking like she was the pillar for an impenetrable Pies wall. When the floodgates did open, it wasn’t due to a dominant forward presence, but more similar to the men’s team attacking resurgence.

Yes, they started to walk it in.

Melbourne’s strength is in its star smaller players’ ability to bullock the ball forward, and to eventually capitalise through weight of disposal and superior run. It might not always be the prettiest thing to watch, but when it comes off it looks pretty good. They don’t take a lot of marks around the ground or inside 50 (8th for both measures), so the running game has to be the plan for them. This run also nullified the enormous advantage Collingwood gained through the ruck (44-16 in Hitouts) led by Emma King.

Unfortunately, both sides look unlikely to contend for the final in AFLW 1. The Dees lost their second highly-regarded player to a season ending injury in Meg Downie, and the Pies with roadtrips and strong opponents ahead look out of chances already to climb into the top 2.

Brisbane d Fremantle

Speaking of forward line plan-B’s, no side has a better one right now than Brisbane. Sabrina Fredrick-Traub and Tayla Harris probably shade Phillips and Perkins at Adelaide as the best forward pairing in the league, and it’s a great spectacle to watch. Fremantle won the battle in the middle for the majority of the game, but it was the efficiency of the Brisbane forward line that won it. Also key was Harris’s ability to move around the ground in the last quarter to secure the win with key marks at both ends and then a goal. Harris has taken 8 contested marks this season, with the next best being 3 by Jakobsson and Vescio at Carlton.

In the end, the scoreline probably flattered Fremantle given that two of their three goals came from 50-metre penalties.

For the second week Fremantle get to console themselves by having played good footy for the most part, yet losing due to offensive impotence. Compared to last week when they were beaten in the measure by a ratio of 2:1, the Dockers at least got their share of inside-50 entries (22-26) but most were fairly comfortably repelled by the Lions.

It appears that the exodus of WA players may have taken its toll on the Dockers’ elite stocks, with five of ten WA players who have played for other clubs having been named in their respective bests in round 1 or round 2. Whilst there is a chance they can make the Grand Final, the Dockers like Collingwood now nearly have to win out to do so.

Brisbane, on the other hand, has looked impressive and may be this week’s HPN favourite for the competition. They have a settled line-up composed almost entirely of their first 22 draftees, they have an experienced coach, and seem to be adept at combining to defend or move the ball.

The less said about the previous two HPN competition favourites (Collingwood and the Dogs) the better.

Round 3 teams

AFLW R3 teams.PNG

GWS look set to gain marquee Emma Swanson for the first time this year pending fitness, along with mid-range draft pick Kate Stanton who was a late withdrawal last week, replaced with the now-omitted Hannah Wallett. The omission of defender Alexandra Saundry seems a little harsh on the face of it. Their opponents Fremantle have had two changes forced with long term injuries, but Ebony Antonio returns from suspension while they’ll be looking to proven goalkicker Kira Phillips to boost their ailing attack.

Brisbane again go in unchanged, a continued sign of their settled lineup. Their opponents Collingwood have dropped former retiree tall Lou Wotton, while bringing in a top-up, Georgia Walker.

In perhaps the biggest news of the round, the Bulldogs lose superstar Kate Brennan to a minor ankle injury. At least they regain top draft pick Jaimee Lambert from injury, as well as Kirsty Lamb from suspension. Laura Bailey is a forced change due to suspension. Melbourne replace the injured Downie and the omitted Jolly with gridiron crossover Richelle Cranston (back from suspension) and Aliesha Newman who also played but was basically unsighted in round 1.

Carlton bring in 18-year old key forward Isabella Ayre for her debut in their game against Adelaide. The Crows have lost Sophie Armistead for the season to injury and could bring back either Mules or Hollick after omitting them in round 2. Mules was among the best players in round 1.

AFLW R2 squads depth chart

The chart below shows named round two teams sorted by the order in which they were drafted. This gives an indication of how close to full strength each team may be.

AFLWR2.PNG

According to this, Ebony Antonio (Freo) and Jaimee Lambert (Dogs) are the highest profile outs, with Lambert injured and Antonio suspended. Adelaide appear to have strengthened their team while Carlton bring in some lower draftees due mostly to injury and also give rookie Kate Shierlaw (basketball and javelin) a run.

Both Canberra United players, Jenna McCormick and Ellie Brush, make their debuts for their respective clubs of Adelaide and GWS.

Brisbane go in potentially unchanged, while Fremantle adds Olympian Kim Mickle (javelin) to their extended bench.

What we learnt from round 1 of the AFLW

When HPN wrote a power ranking of AFLW teams back in November last year, we took a very simple approach, examining where former All-Star players were drafted and trying to apply past representative results to discern the strength of each state’s draft pool. Central to our take was the following:

elite2

So, a week into the season, let’s run through the games and see what we can learn.

Depth Chart

First, let’s take a look at who played. Below is a list of every player in the league, sorted by club for the order in which they were selected by their clubs.

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It’s worth noting that the three marquee players who didn’t play last weekend were all out with injury, two of which (Bowers and Forth) being season-ending injuries.

Carlton d Collingwood

HPN was originally impressed by the Pies’ recruitment of a high number of former All-Stars, specifically around their key position stocks. We also noted that that Carlton had less heralded players and a likely dearth of tall talent. We said that:

“more than any other club, the Pies are gambling on the strength of their spine over that of their midfield”.

Whilst one week is a relatively short time in football, early evidence suggests that this gamble hasn’t paid off, with Carlton’s less heralded players running Collingwood off their feet.

Collingwood’s marquee ruck Emma King didn’t provide dominant service to her mids (20 hitouts vs 16 and 14 for mid-range draftees Downie and Moody). While Collingwood had plenty of inside-50s (27 to 25) they simply could not use their forwards effectively. A lot of media criticism fell on Hope, but that forward group also will have included others such as Hutchins, Garner and Cameron. Sarah D’Arcy, who was 2011 Victorian leading goal-kicker, played in defence, so an option may be to throw her forward. Beyond talent in their forward line, Carlton appeared to always have numbers back in the contests, and often sprung counter attacks from their backline.

Carlton were a relative unknown pre-season, featuring the least number of “elite” level players of any Victorian side. We noted a focus on flankers and midfielders in priority recruitment, and a potential issue with their talls. Those first-picked players were all midfielders who featured prominently in this game, with marquees Vescio and Davey clearly the best on ground. Based solely on one game, Carlton looked like they had a far more prepared and organised setup including a system for generating clear paths to goal.

If there’s a lesson to look for out of this game, it’s that tall talent may not have been the smart bet in this competition. More evidence is needed of course.

Adelaide d GWS

We struggled to split these two sides at the bottom of the power rankings, but plumped for GWS due to a greater injection of talent from the top football states, rather than backing the Adelaide players’ greater familiarity with each other. That is not how the game panned out, with Adelaide winning easily.

GWS are wounded. The chart above shows three of their top 6 missing and the Giants were also the only club calling on a top-up from outside their squad. Renee Forth is out for the year with an ACL and Emma Swanson was a late withdrawal. Both are elite Western Australian midfielders and their absence badly hurts GWS. Louise Stephenson, the Giants’ probable first choice ruck, hurt her MCL in the practice game and is in a race to return this season. In her absence, Adelaide’s Rhiannon Metcalfe was very dominant with 17 hitouts to a combined total of 9 for GWS.

Ruck dominance combined with Adelaide’s midfield edge tells part of the story, but as with the Collingwood v Carlton game, inside-50s were fairly even (23-21 to Adelaide). Forward potency proved critical, with Erin Phillips’ ability to draw the ball and free kicks from worried defenders (and, it must be said, the basketballer’s knack for accentuating contact) nearly deciding the game on its own. Phillips had three goals for the game, and probably could have ended up with six with better kicking – which should be scary for the other clubs.

Whereas HPN built up the Collingwood forward line back in November, it was perhaps the Adelaide forward line that was most impressive across the weekend. It seems like a relative misstep by the Victorian clubs to overlook Sarah Perkins in the state draft, with the KPF continuing where she left off last year at club level.

The real question out of this game is whether we have underrated Adelaide or if GWS were just severely weakened. HPN had Adelaide ranked lowly based on the historical weakness of South Australian women’s football, but the out-of-state/football system recruits for the Crows were probably in their best handful of players (Phillips, Randall, Gibson, Perkins). It’s also worth mentioning that Talia Radan, last year’s captain of the NSW/ACT state side, lined up for the Crows and not the Giants. Whilst there were bright spots for GWS, such as the work of Jess Bibby down back and Jess Dal Pos’s workrate, it appears that it could be a long season for the Giants. The Bulldogs loom as a huge test for the Crows, which will clarify a lot about their fate this year.

Bulldogs d Fremantle

Pre-season HPN had Fremantle as strong contenders, noting that a third of the All-Star players came from WA, and suggesting that the loss of five players as marquees would only have a levelling effect. We said:

we think it’s reasonable to believe that despite the important levelling effect of marquee player poaching, Fremantle’s non-elite depth will be better than the 1/4 of Victoria available in the draft to each Victorian club”.

Fremantle started out well but the Bulldogs took control, in a match that had us questioning whether we overrated Fremantle, whether they were just disappointing on the day or if the Bulldogs were the real deal instead. Travel may have been a factor – the AFLW players are semi-professional and have day jobs, meaning they only flew over the night before the game.

One game isn’t enough to overturn perceptions that Fremantle should be strong. A glance at the “bests” listed in the chart above suggests Fremantle’s top tier players mostly underperformed. Donnellan was dominant, but Freo’s 17th-picked player Belinda Smith is the next mostly highly regarded player to have cracked the best player list. Relying on draft order here may also be slightly misleading, as Fremantle were the sole club with rights to draft WA-nominated players.

For the Bulldogs, things looked like pretty smooth sailing. HPN identified their midfield as a key strength and they won all those indicators; +22 in Contested Possessions; +15 in tackles; +13 in inside-50s. The Dogs picked three of the five current VFLW Team of the Year starting midfielders in Blackburn, Lambert and Kearney. All performed well, with Blackburn and Kearney proving particularly dominant. This is before we begin to discuss the performance of Katie Brennan, who put in a decent claim to be called the best player in the nascent competition. If, as we expect, the Dogs easily defeat the Crows they will be a popular pick for the premiership. While it is folly to predict a grand final from the first week of a competition, this could very well have been a preview of grand final.

Brisbane d Melbourne

This was not as big an upset as many observers seemed to think – that view was likely based on simple unfamiliarity, and Queensland’s status as a development market in men’s football. We had Brisbane 4th in our power rankings based on Queensland’s historical strength in women’s football, and due to Brisbane securing the third-most All-Star level players. The main lesson from this match is probably confirmation of Brisbane’s competitiveness.

It is, however, difficult to form firm conclusions from a match riven with Casey’s wind-tunnel effect which was so wet that a halt was called for lightning.

A glance at Brisbane’s depth chart shows why they should be competitive – Jaimie Stanton was 20th-picked by the club and was the most fancied player missing. This demonstrates that come draft time, Brisbane knew exactly who they wanted to play, and they drafted accordingly. The Lions are a de facto state team minus three players (former QLDers Aasta O’Connor and Katie Brennan at the Bulldogs, Jordan Zanchetta with an ACL). This means coach Craig Starcevich, formerly of the QLD high-performance program, had seen them a lot before. More than any other side, we should expect Brisbane to be cohesive and familiar with each other, and this probably showed with the organisation and understanding they exhibited throughout the game.

In terms of performers, Brisbane’s big marquee forwards understandably had limited impact (though Sabrina Frederick-Traub still found ways to impose herself) but the core of priority picks and early draft picks were all among their best as midfielders.

For Melbourne, it’s hard to tell where they stand yet. This was an even contest in most respects, and Melbourne probably dominated play before lightening stopped proceedings. Melbourne had 30 inside-50s to 19 but could not hit the scoreboard. Daisy Pearce was very involved in the play in the first three quarters, but made two turnovers that ended in Brisbane goals. And whilst the Dees largely won the midfield battle, they looked pretty harmless when they got up forward, with Melbourne having to resort to shifting Pearce to CHF in the final quarter to get back in the game. Melbourne also gave away a couple of silly 50m penalties that ended up being decisive score-wise.

Melbourne took 10 marks to Brisbane’s 27, meaning the Demons were relying a lot more on winning the ball in general play. This firstly illustrates that Brisbane might be a pretty potent marking side (they had more than the Bulldogs or Carlton had). However it also suggests to us that the Demons might go better on a dryer deck where their running power isn’t hampered by boggy conditions. Daisy Pearce in her media appearances has flagged that Melbourne regard themselves as an undersized, fast, hard running side. We need to see them in decent conditions to see how that works out – with weather permitting, we might expect them to replicate Carlton’s success against Collingwood this weekend. However, after one week HPN can’t help but worry about Melbourne’s forward line, after showing a similar inability to score as in their practice game against Carlton.

Three more things

Three suspensions is a lot

Three players were suspended for head-high contact during the weekend’s matches. That’s a lot. On the one hand this demonstrates the commitment, passion and toughness of the women’s game, but on the other hand, head injuries are serious business given what we now know about the long term consequences. If this level of head contact is to become a trend, that will be pretty concerning for everyone involved.

If we convert three suspensions in a round to a men’s round using suspensions per player minute, it works out to be as if nearly 14 players had been suspended from one round in the men’s competition for inflicting potentially concussive head impacts:

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This is something to watch to see if it becomes a trend.

Matches become sudden-death almost instantly with a 2-team finals series.

Only the top two teams in the AFLW will qualify for the finals, straight to a single Grand Final event. With a 7-round schedule and 8 teams, it’s very unlikely that a team with three losses will qualify.

Depending on how results are distributed, we could end up with both finalists on 0 or 1 loss, or we could end up with teams on 2 losses qualifying but sweating on percentage. A team on three losses could qualify for the final if several teams all ended up 4-3, with another team well ahead, but that’s not a high percentage path to glory and probably requires some biggish upsets.

That makes the situation for premiership aspirants with a loss against their name (i.e. Fremantle, Collingwood and Melbourne) already pretty risky. It turns upcoming matches into something approaching sudden death.

Stop questioning the popular appeal of women’s sport

HPN knows that one week won’t settle this argument for some, but on early returns the attentiveness of the footballing public to AFLW mirrors that of the previous exhibition games. The season opener on Friday night officially packed out (might have been able to fit one more if he was keen), and the pub from which HPN watched the action had several tables of punters engrossed in the action on the big screen.

According to FootyIndustry, the first round had 50,457 people rock up in person and 1.8mil viewers watching on TV (both FTA and Pay). By comparison, the relatively established A-League had a totally attendance of 71,638 and a TV audience of 352,000 people across five matches. The AFLW also outrated the NRL Auckland 9s and the Sydney Rugby 7s this weekend, and quite significantly so.

This is the most prominent display of domestic female sport in Australia in a very long time, if ever. The WBBL, with lesser media attention, also rated relatively well when it was shown on FTA TV. The audience is there; now is the time for broadcasters and sporting administrators to capitalise on it.