Shanghai isn’t an AFL expansion attempt – it’s much more interesting than that

When Port Adelaide announced last year that it had struck a three year “partnership” with Chinese business, the dominant reaction was probably confusion or derision. With a game now having been played for premiership points in Shanghai, now is a good time to try to get to grips with what exactly is going on.

While expansionism is often at the forefront of the minds of many ambitious footy fans who are keen to prove that the Australian game is the best game in the world, a much simpler answer is likely afoot: soft political power and raw cash.

A brief history of the AFL in China

The AFL-China linkage hasn’t come out of thin air. The idea of connecting foreign sports with Chinese money and audiences has been around for a while. Those with a long memory may recall that in 2010, China-linked Russian company Kaspersky paid Melbourne $300k to play a preseason game in Shanghai. Woodside, a then-Fremantle sponsor who export gas to China, also came on board as a sponsor of the game.

China’s history with the game before then was minimal, with the first local amateur championship played in Beijing in 2009 – just a year before the Melbourne-Brisbane preseason game. Since the mid 1990s, local leagues and Auskick programs (with some limited AFL support) have been springing up across the country – but on a relatively small scale to other international sporting programs in China. China had the 15th strongest national team at the 2014 International Cup, a standing that has not changed much since their first entry in 2008.

The AFL has long nurtured dreams of substantive international expansion, but they’re not naïve enough to think it starts with spending a lot of money to play games in China. As best as our research shows, the AFL isn’t footing much of the bill in China, and even groups like Tourism Australia have kicked in. The South Australian Government has even contributed $250,000 for a 25-part TV show on AFL for the Chinese market. For Port Adelaide, six staff members are listed as currently working in their “China and Government Relations” division – a substantial investment commensurate with the financial gain they are obtaining from the project.

Broadly it could be said AFL ventures overseas have three interests – financial gain, intergovernmental relations, and actual expansion of the sport. Initiatives like playing games in New Zealand and drafting from the United States seem to be far more serious ventures for expanding the reach of the sport. Those things are really what international expansion means to the AFL right now, not so much Port Adelaide playing in Shanghai.

Who is Shanghai CRED?

This deal certainly isn’t an isolated or random measure for the Chinese partner, Shanghai CRED. They are a real estate company with about $3 billion AUD in assets, led by a billionaire named Gui Goujie who is described in at least one article we’ve read as “affable”. Shanghai CRED seems to be a private company that used to be a state agency. Like many business elites Gui is embedded in the government establishment. He sits on the Shanghai committee of the People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and “has been assigned by the Chinese government a major role in linking state and private companies, and in building Chinese investments overseas.”

Make no mistake that this sort of philanthropic engagement by expansionist Chinese business interests has official blessing. Many private businesses are of course closely linked with the state in China, and the Premier of China himself attended a game with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull earlier this year, during an extended Australian visit.

The company has a lot of other interests in Australia and elsewhere in the western world such as New Zealand and China. Last year Shanghai CRED was a minority partner with Gina Rinehart’s Hancock Prospecting in a joint venture bid to take over large swathes of S. Kidman and Co. cattle group land across Australia, a move approved by the Treasurer Scott Morrison in December 2016, after earlier bids by other foreign interests were rejected. Rinehart, naturally, attended the match at Jiangwan Stadium yesterday.

The key thing to note here is that the Shanghai game happened because of sponsorship of Port Adelaide by Shanghai CRED, and other firms to a much lesser degree. The money is substantial in AFL terms – reportedly worth $6 million in new revenue so far with more expected – but a rounding error compared to a major agricultural property deal or CRED’s $3bn asset portfolio.

The AFL as subject, not object

There’s been a lot of pretty funny press around the match, rather justifiably making the AFL and its teams look like absolute rubes in over their heads. From Port’s captain Travis Boak being roundly mocked for claiming to be the first western pro sport to play for points in China…

…to the truly weird spectacle of the Age’s photographer chucking a murky yellow filter over their photos, making them look smoggy…

…to antiquated racist jokes on Fox Footy, and the reporting of the Suns bravely surviving minor flight delays, it’s all been a bit of a cringe-fest as a resolutely local sport discovers the joys of long haul international play.

The amateurishness, the ill-preparedness, the earnestness, the boorishness, all make a lot more sense when you realise that the push isn’t really being led by the AFL or its clubs, regardless of how they like to spin things. The AFL are very much the acted-upon party here, offered a bunch of free money in exchange for the chance to showcase their product and, most importantly, to build local links and a better image for Chinese businesses. We’re not used to thinking of the AFL – locally imperious and powerful – as a passive subject going along with other people’s plans, but that’s what’s happening here.

So Sunday’s game is probably not a hubristic attempt by a major sporting body in Australia to expand its game into foreign markets, and they’re not about to be smacked down by the cold hard reality of world indifference. The adventure is easy to mock, but there’s not much AFL investment and there’s little risk here. Port have made millions off this deal. They don’t really need to suddenly develop Shanghai into a Canberra or Launceston-style second home. Their financial rewards are upfront and concrete.

The game was a success when it was played without significant incident, and when the cheques cleared the bank.

Sport diplomacy to support the ‘Peaceful Rise’

This event is best read within the context of Chinese policy of smoothing a “peaceful rise” towards superpower status and everything that entails. The AFL and Port are the lucky recipient of a downpayment of goodwill and trust-building by the business interests of a huge and rising foreign power.

It is a small component of a much broader policy. The foremost example of Chinese soft power through sport is of course in the Global Game, where the state has plans for China to become very good at soccer and invest in other countries’ leagues  in order to improve its image and create a conduit for connecting with other countries’ cultures. But a parallel logic applies here, too.

China is a rising superpower, keenly aware of the potential conflicts its expansion could cause. It is interested in deepening its foreign ties to guarantee its economic interests. Part of the way to manage this rise is by establishing networks of linkages with other countries’ business, government and cultural elites in order to increase understanding, trust and reciprocal obligations. Gui and his company are an example of this; he is a business elite with political connections running a former state asset. Gui is tasked with engaging overseas in order to expand and facilitate his business and country’s investments.

This push makes perfect sense – American soft power is no doubt what China would like to emulate. Think about it. American culture is enmeshed everywhere in Australia and elsewhere around the world, and that enmeshment tends to make American business and policy interests very intelligible and more acceptable to others. We all know roughly what Americans think, what their government is like, what their culture is like. Chinese diplomats and businesses would love to achieve that sort of normalisation in the minds of others.

Initiatives like the Port Adelaide one make sense in this context. Connecting Chinese commercial interests with local sporting competitions – the logic runs – will surely increase Australian familiarity with China and make us more inclined to view Chinese economic power benignly. They hope it can make Australian governments more familiar and friendly with China, and reduce the political cost of policy concessions to Chinese interests. Ultimately, the hope is more cultural linkage would make Australian governments less likely to block future asset sales out of fear of bad publicity.

At the end of the day, we’re a football blog, not a foreign policy or business blog. All we’re really suggesting here is that we should view the Shanghai experiment through the correct lens. That is: the AFL and Port Adelaide are a slightly bewildered and certainly eager vessel for diplomatic exchange. Meanwhile, Shanghai CRED (and perhaps the wider Chinese political machine) wants Australian trust and goodwill because they hope that will make their own interests easier to pursue. At least one major Chinese business with political links sees our most-attended sport as a tool to help with this goal.

Is this an AFL season without terrible teams?

Last week we focused on the possibility that a lead group of between three and five teams was already separating itself from the pack. This week we want to look at the rest of the competition. There’s an evenness becoming evident this year, with a lot of ordinary sides, some of whom will make finals. Even the bottom teams don’t look as bad as the worst teams from many previous years. At this stage, there’s nobody who stands out as being abjectly terrible. There’s nobody currently rating as relatively lowly as the Bombers last year, the early years of GWS, or the hapless Melbourne sides of a few years ago. Subjectively, every bottom side has certainly shown patches of decent footy.

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This isn’t to say that nobody will implode or start truly tanking. The season is long, and there’s always the possibility that one or more of the current battlers go backwards from here. Alternatively, it could tighten up – but it’s worth noting that Essendon (the worst team last year) finished up at a rating of 86% after hovering around the 83%-86% mark all year. That 86% mark was good enough to be among the ten worst team-seasons since 1997.

The middle pack

With Melbourne still looking above-average, the six teams below them continue to jostle and perhaps to separate a touch from the lower group. Collingwood (up 4 places) and North Melbourne (down 4) were the biggest movers, but really, the spread between West Coast (99.9%) and Fremantle (97%) is very small.

None of these teams look brilliant and we can point to flaws in all of them just with a glance at the red and orange cells representing their Midfield, Offensive or Defensive strengths. However, this group logically has to produce finalists, and we have no idea if anyone is going to step up. If not, two of them will stumble into September regardless. This could potentially be a season with a finalist with 11 or less wins, if results break the right (or wrong) way.

Looking further back, we see Essendon, Gold Coast and Sydney slipping back a touch. This maybe suggests that Essendon are about as good as they were in 2015, before their players weer banned. The Swans, amusingly, rise a spot in the ratings despite probably watching their hopes of a quick recovery go up in flames over the weekend, and in spite of their actual figure itself moving backwards. The Swans benefited from Gold Coast slumping a touch more, the swap is largely reflective of changes to the grading of their past opponents. Gold Coast have played Hawthorn and Brisbane who had bad weeks, whilst Sydney have Collingwood, West Coast and the Bulldogs in their history.

But about the Crows…

We do need to look at the top as well, because the Crows can’t be ignored. This time last year, this rating system had the eventual preliminary finalists as a top 4. This includes the Bulldogs, though they did drop off later in the regular season for us, replaced by Adelaide. A word of caution – Geelong briefly looked nearly as good as Adelaide does now in ratings terms after Round 8 last year, but that slumped back to the pack pretty quickly. Samples are still somewhat small at this stage.

Richmond’s previously league-best adjusted defensive strength rating took a relative battering under bombardment from Adelaide’s historic offence and midfield. Hilariously, though, Richmond weren’t disgraced in their twelve goal loss to Adelaide, and only suffered a modest downgrade with no loss of relative position to the competition, still sitting 5th overall and presenting as a probable finalist. The story here is not Richmond, but rather that Adelaide’s performance continues to be stratospheric.

The challenge for the Crows will be maintaining it, but the season they’ve produced so far is a truly rare vein of form, including against good opposition. The Crows have played our current 2nd, 3rd, 5th best teams as well as 13th, 15th and 18th – a slightly above average set of opponents overall, especially considering that they couldn’t play themselves. We want to stress that this isn’t like North Melbourne’s false run at the top of the ladder last year, our system never really rated North. When they were 9-0 last year, North looked about 5th best on raw strength ratings and 8th best with scaling for opposition strength. If the back end of the ladder looks happier than recent seasons, the Crows are currently out on their own at the top.

Who is your AFL club death-riding this year?

The introduction of future draft pick trades in 2015 has given us, the footballing public/nerds, the wonderful spectacle of clubs quite literally taking bets on each other and then “death-riding” them the following year in the hopes of securing a better pick.

In 2016, for example, Collingwood’s struggles resulted in the pick they traded for Adam Treloar turning into pick 8 (in addition to the pick 7 from 2015), significantly more than they would have hoped to have paid for him. By contrast, Melbourne took a bet on themselves last year and traded their 2016 first round pick for a 2015 one from Gold Coast, a deal that ended up in Melbourne’s favour due to their moderate rise up the ladder.

Thus, we give you, a death-riding chart for 2017:

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We’ve kept this to the first two rounds as there’s probably not a lot to be gained from pick shifts in the third and fourth rounds.

St Kilda stand to win handsomely from the Hawthorn trade even if the Hawks end up premiers, but if the Hawks miss the eight it will turn from a bargain into an outright heist. Here’s what we said at the time of the trade:

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St Kilda, for their part, effectively split their first rounder into two useful second round picks while retaining a first rounder of currently unknown quality. The pick split is a move we think works in isolation due to the greater expected output of two picks in this range vs a typical pick 10 but the addition of a 2017 selection is a massive bonus.

St Kilda gave up pick 10 for multiple good picks, and right now there’s a chance that Hawthorn’s first rounder by itself could land around the pick 10 they gave up.

Hawthorn, in a frenzied final day’s trade, were left holding just one pick in the first two rounds, and it’s tied to GWS’ finishing position. This was due to the Hawks swapping the equivalent of more than entire draft in multiple moves to obtain O’Meara. Currently GWS are one of two teams sitting 1-1 so on our death-ride chart the pick looks better, but the Giants are still one of the presumptive premiership favourites (Matt Cowgill at The Arc has them with a 15% chance of finishing in the top 2). If that pans out it leaves Hawthorn entering the draft at pick 36.

Richmond have ended up with Geelong’s first round pick after it changed hands no less than three times. First it moved to Carlton in the Tuohy-Smedts swap, then went to GWS in the deal that moved Marchbank and Pickett. Finally, GWS traded it to Richmond in the swap for Deledio. The end result is that the Tigers will be hoping Dangerwood fails to repeat last year’s preliminary final appearance.

Brisbane acquired Port Adelaide’s first round pick in the Pearce Hanley trade, where the balance of traded goods roughly values Hanley at whatever the Port pick nets them:

hanley swap.PNG

Port Adelaide had pick 9 in the first round last year after finishing 10th and popular opinion (although not that of HPN) had them getting worse and regretting giving up that first rounder this year. However, on early season form that looks less likely.

After a subsequent, perfectly weighted swap with Sydney, Port took four picks in the first 33 last year, including round 1 Rising Star Sam Powell-Pepper. The others, Todd Marshall, Willem Drew and Joe Atley haven’t been seen yet. If Port can get some use out of those other draftees, they’ll be pretty happy with their 2016 trades even before we consider a potential jump up the ladder devaluing their first rounder.

GWS ended up with St Kilda’s second round pick for Jack Steele, which as we noted last year, was a win-win, with the Giants getting extra value from a pick and the Saints getting more from Steele than the Giants would. A Saints preliminary final appearance (or complete collapse after their 0-2 start) would probably be required to alter the pick value enough to change this equation.

The Giants also got Collingwood’s second round pick for Will Hoskin-Elliott, and that bet remains one between Collingwood’s ladder expectations vs Will Hoskin-Elliott’s potential.

Gold Coast are sitting on a glut of second round picks, and should be variously tracking the fortunes of Fremantle, Hawthorn and Richmond this year. They got the Hawks’ second rounder as part of the swap for O’Meara and the Tigers’ pick for Prestia.

Most interesting is probably the Fremantle pick, which was a mundane pick swap and represents a pure bet against the Dockers improving:

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HPN’s AFLW Grand Final Preview

The first AFLW Grand Final participants have been decided, after a weekend of relatively wacky results. As we outlined last week, Melbourne needed a record-setting win to maximise their chances of making the big game. Whilst the Dees managed the record-breaking 70 points, and a big 54-point win, it wasn’t quite enough to make Adelaide worry about the margin of their win. The Dogs summarily took care of the Giants in Canberra to ensure GWS would take the wooden spoon, which set up Sunday for a frantic finish to the season.

Right up to the last quarter Collingwood looked like they would win the game – that is until Phillips, Perkins and co. took the game away from the Pies. With their four goal win, the Crows cemented their place in the last week, and killed off the chances of Melbourne, Collingwood and Carlton. Finally, although they were eliminated from finals contention, Carlton turned up to play, ending Brisbane’s winning streak at 6.

HPN’s AFLW Team Ratings

Last year HPN developed a team rating method for the AFLM competition. We thought we’d have a look at how they would stack up for the first AFLW season:

AFLWRatings

As an explanation, the different scores are based on:

  • OffScore: Points per inside-50.
  • DefScore: Points conceded per inside-50 conceded.
  • MidScore: Inside-50 per inside-50 conceded.

Each rating tells a slightly different story. The MidScore broadly describes how effective a team is at creating scoring opportunities for their side, and denying those of their opponent – a ball movement index in essence. The OffScore describes how efficient a team is once the ball is pushed up forward, whilst the DefScore explains how good a team is at stopping their opposition from scoring. All three measures are presented relative to league average, of 100, so a score of 105 is above average, and a score of 95 is below average.

As you can see, the ratings largely match the final overall places of the ladder. While the margins are slim, Adelaide and Brisbane rate as the two highest rated teams overall, slightly ahead of Melbourne (who were relatively unlucky to miss the GF). The Bulldogs were probably a bit better on paper than their final win-loss record suggested, while the Blues (led by Darcy Vescio) were the most potent team up forward by a considerable margin.

Breaking down the Grand Final

Quick hat tip – there has been some really solid AFLW work undertaken by FMI, PlusSixOne, Footy Gospel, Girls Play Footy and probably a bunch of others we are forgetting here. If you are as excited for this weekend’s showdown as we are, take some time to click a few of those links.

The Crows-Lions match-up not only presents the two strongest teams of AFLW playing off against each other, but also two teams with considerably different styles. As demonstrated above, the Crows have been, by a very long way, the best MidScore side in the competition. They have not only got the ball inside 50 at a prodigious rate, but denied their opponents from doing so. For the Crows, Erin Phillips, Ebony Marinoff and Chelsea Randell have led from the front, all sitting in the top 6 for inside 50s competition wide.

Brisbane, by contrast, has been phenomenal at defensively soaking up opposition attack after attack. We don’t have an inside-30 stat, which would possibly be more relevant to the AFLW’s usual scoring range, but anecdotally we’d suggest the Lions also keep the ball out of that tighter arc extremely well, with a lot of inside-50s being shallow entries.

Whilst the Lions’ defenders were not highly credentialed coming into the competition, Kaslar, Virgo and co. have established themselves as the form unit of the entire competition. When the pressure becomes overwhelming, the Lions have a tendency to throw Harris or Frederick-Traub down back to limit the option of the high bomb, forcing their opposition to find another way to goal.

This dichotomy of strengths is similar to last year’s AFL Grand Final, which pitted the defensively outstanding Swans against the ever-swarming Bulldogs midfield. For that game HPN suggested that:

“HPN usually refrains from picking outright results in games (as not to look like pontificating fools), but instead tries to pick the paths to victory where possible. For the Bulldogs to win, they must dominate the territory battle between the arcs, deny the Swans chances to get the ball forward, and to wear down the Swans defenders with repeat entries.

For the Swans, they must aim to turn a likely superior ruck performance into an increased number of inside-50s (as compared to last week against the Cats). The Swans must exploit their apparent advantages up forward, and trust that their defence will hold up to repeated (but not constant) attacks down back.

It should be a fascinating game to watch, given the differing strengths of each team.”

We suggest that a similar story might emerge from the game on the weekend, with different names involved.

For the Crows to win, the weight of inside-50 entries will have to be immense to breakdown the Lions’ defensive wall. Adelaide will also have to rely on multiple paths to goal, both small and tall, to counter Brisbane’s multifaceted defensive approach.

For Brisbane, the key will be slowing down Phillips, Marinoff and Randall, a feat easier said than done. If they are unable to do that, the game becomes tough for the Lions – but not impossible. The Lions would then have to rely on their aforementioned defensive prowess, but perhaps more importantly maximise on their few entries forward to score.

The last time these two sides played, in early March, the Lions took a slim three point win against the odds and away from home. The Crows massively won the inside 50 count (36-18), but were utterly unable to turn the repeated pressure into scoring opportunities. Adelaide was only able to secure four marks inside 50 from their plethora of entries – with Brisbane getting the same from half the number of forays.

If there is a silver lining from that game for Adelaide, it is that they had more scoring shots but lost; a sign that they were able to at least get the ball into position to score. The Crows will likely win the battle at ground level, and if they can do slightly better in the air they should be able to take the premiership.

For the Lions, their biggest positive sign is that they were able to win without a single goal from the two marquee forwards (Harris and Frederick-Traub). Both players had an impact on the game, but they were able to still score in other ways, such as through the severely underrated Kate McCarthy and Emily Bates.

With all said and done, the AFLW Grand Final shapes as a fascinating battle between two well-matched teams.

Best player leaderboards and a look at potential All-Australians

The following table shows the number of games played and the number of times named in the AFL.com.au bests for every player in the league. While the bests lists are seldom perfect, the repeated emergence of the same names should tell us who are some of the best players most likely to be fancied for MVP and AA honours.

r7 final bests

The notably hard-done-by players tend to be those with less fashionable roles such as rucking and defending. Leah Kaslar at Brisbane (zero nominations) may have been in the best couple of defenders in the league, while the two premiere rucks in the league, Emma King at Collingwood (two) nominations) and rising star Erin McKinnon (zero) were also overlooked a few times.

We’re left with a “leaderboard” on this count that looks like this:

bests leaderboard

The goalless Darcy Vescio probably had her first real down game even as Carlton almost rolled the rampant Lions. The other players with perfect records maintained them, and any of Phillips, Pearce, Blackburn or Kearney would be a worthy MVP. Emma Swanson, notably, also has been among the Giants’ best in all five of her outings with them.

AFLW Round 7 Preview and Power Rankings

To start off this week’s column, HPN thought we’d get to the nitty-gritty and step through the scenarios each team has before them to make the grand final:

tomake

Effectively, it’s all in Adelaide’s hands unless Melbourne do something unprecedented to Fremantle.

With that behind us, let’s get to the week’s power rankings:

1. Brisbane

The Lions enter the last week of the regular season undefeated and as the presumptive favourites for the flag. Brisbane have shown an uncanny knack of holding onto slim leads late, with constant opposition attacks being repelled. With two marquee tall forwards (Harris and Frederick-Traub), the Lions have the ability to switch one down back late to plug any holes.

Frederick-Traub in particular has been an ironwoman so far – spending just 0.8% of the total Lions game time off the ground. Harris and Kaslar are also in the top 10 in this category – the only club to play three players that heavily. Harris and Frederick-Traub are also the only two players in the competition with more than 10 contested marks – the two have more than the Bulldogs and Giants have as teams so far.

This week they don’t have to worry too much about the result, however they can end Carlton’s season by either winning or keeping the game close.

2. Adelaide

The HPN panel agonised about whether to drop Adelaide below the Dees, but in the end stuck with the ladder. Despite their loss to Melbourne last week, the Crows are still in the box seat to make the grand final. With Perkins missing parts of the game last week with injury, it demonstrated a potential weakness in the Crows forward line – a lack of depth up forward which threatens the clean, open forward-line structure favoured by Bec Goddard.

The scenarios for Adelaide to make the grand final are laid out above, but it’s pretty simple – win and they’re (more or less) in. Adelaide will know if they need to worry about winning margin by the time they play, because Melbourne play Fremantle the day before.

3. Melbourne

With a win over Adelaide, Melbourne strengthened their final credentials, but it may be a case of too little, too late. The Demons rely on the top end of their list to a very high degree. Paxman, Pearce and O’Dea are three of the top four disposal winners in the entire AFLW to date, with the Dockers the only other club to have three players in the top 10 for disposals.

While one may be tempted to suggest that they rise and fall on the play of these three (and the prolific Mithen and Hickey as well), in reality it is the lesser lights of the Demons squad is often the difference. If Mifsud fires, or Kemp jags a few marks, the Demons turn from being a good side to a deadly one.

Melbourne are in with a win and an Adelaide loss, but they’d need to break margin records against Fremantle to give themselves a chance of qualifying against a victorious Crows.

4. Collingwood

The Pies have gone from being also-rans to being nearly the form side of the competition, with their third win on the trot coming against GWS last week. Six weeks in, the Pies seem to have sorted their forwardline issues, and Hutchins has been a stabilising force down back. But, of any player in the league, Emma King might be the biggest lock for All-Australian selection, dominating in the ruck (and last week up forward) week after week.

It’s bordering on impossible for the Pies to make the grand final, but merely being mathematical shots after being winless halfway through the competition is a fantastic achievement.

5. Carlton

Last week’s loss against cellar-dwellers Fremantle has likely cruelled the Blues chance of making the grand final; as Melboune’s loss the week before to GWS did. At one point of the season the Blues were likely the best side going, up until 10 minutes left in the Adelaide game. Had they won that game, they would likely be eyeing off a spot in the grand final. Unfortunately, injuries and slight form issues hurt Carlton, as did a few close results going against them.

As indicated above, the Blues can still make the top 2; but it’s a hard task from here.

6. Western Bulldogs

In another universe the Bulldogs may be in contention for the grand final – with three losses of less than 10 points and another of 14 on their resume. The Dogs are a good side, but have sorely missed their marquee forward (Brennan) for most of it. Brennan is still second in the AFLW for most goals per game – the issue being that she has only played three games.

The Dogs play GWS this week in Canberra with the Wooden Spoon on offer – something both sides are presumably desperate to avoid, with not even a decent draft boon available from finishing last.

7. Fremantle

After a long difficult slog, with several stars on the sidelines, the Dockers finally recorded their first win. Kara Donnellan led from the front, and has likely cemented her spot in the AFLW Team of the Year.

The Dockers have a chance to spoil the Demons’ final hopes this weekend if they can manage a second win on the run. If they are badly beaten by the Dees, and the Bulldogs win a close one, the Wooden Spoon could also still be theirs.

8. GWS

Of all the teams in season one of the AFLW, the Giants may be the most unpredictable. When they are switched on, GWS can eke out a solid performance, as they did against the Blues, Dockers and Demons. When they aren’t, blowouts like last week’s or the matches against the Crows and Lions tend to happen . Next season should be better for the Giants, as they should have a second marquee ready to go from the start, and can hope for better luck on the health side of things.

Team depth and team bestsr6bests

Round 6 was another week where most of the marquees dominated, and Emma King finally got a nod of recognition from whoever writes the bests lists at afl.com.au.

Carlton again had their elite four players among their bests, but those players were still mostly less impactful than in other weeks given the loss to Fremantle. We’ve noted the concentration of workload in the Blues top end, and the potential drawbacks from that. Fremantle showed them up this week with a wide spread of contributors and plenty of pressure. 74 tackles is the league’s third highest total this season, and was met with just 37 by Carlton. Six Dockers also got into double-digits, while only two Blues did.

Vescio hit her average of seven touches and kicked her 3 goals. Davey’s 14 was well down on her usual 20 while Arnell (8) and Jakobsson (6) did not reach their usual high quality 11 and 10 disposal average. In the end, Carlton couldn’t find other support when their best players were mostly only good, not great.

For Fremantle, a side still hurt by injuries, a big bright spot was their top-up in Alicia Janz being named in the bests. The netball convert Janz is the first top-up to be so named so across the competition. In her second game she showcased her strength and aggression with some of her 8 tackles being huge and impactful ones laid at key moments.

Now let’s look to the team-by-team season tallies:

bestscountr6

We’re down to five players who have featured among their team’s best players every week, and four of them are among the biggest stars identified at the start of the season, VWFL marquees for the Victorian sides.

The fifth player to be recognise among the bests every week is a bolter – Erin Phillips in her first season of competitive adult footy. She was picked up as a rookie convert by Adelaide and we’ve written before about the serendipitous and clever Adelaide recruiting. Phillips’ versatility and impact has been immense. She’s averaging 18 disposals, has kicked 5 goals, has laid 3.3 tackles per game. Perhaps an under-noted feature of her game is the sheer volume of free kicks she continues to receive, with her 18 frees (3-a-game) well in front of Sarah D’Arcy’s 11 in second place. While as an accomplished basketballer Phillips has probably successfully “simulated” a few (especially in round one against GWS), the bulk have come from the panicky infringements she induces in defenders during the 1-on-1 contests Adelaide have consistently set up for her.

Who might win the MVP

If we’re looking for a likely league MVP (we’re assuming a 3-2-1 system for this analysis by the way), we can look to the most frequently named players in the bests:

mostbests

From this group, the Bulldogs’ Blackburn and Kearney seem less likely to take the award, having each other as competition for votes and playing at a Bulldogs side which unexpectedly sits at the bottom of the ladder. The same may be true of the well-balanced Lions, where in different games one would expect Harris, Frederick-Traub, Bates, Zielke or Ashmore to potentially take the maximum votes.

Within the struggler division, Donnellan should nearly monopolise the Dockers’ votes and Dal Pos and Swanson should do the same at GWS. Nobody at these sides is likely to take enough off winning sides to come close to the top. Collingwood haven’t had a consistent standoud all year, with Eva or King probably closest to favourite to top their vote total.

Vescio exploded onto the scene in round one and has continued to be the most prolific and dangerous goalkicker in the league, but goals aside, Davey has been much more involved in general play and they will probably play spoiler to each other. Phillips, a clearly dominant player in one of the best sides, must also be favoured to win a lot of votes at the Crows, particularly early. Marinoff, Randall and Perkins would be the competition there.

Our favourite for the unnamed inaugural AFLW best and fairest award, however, is Daisy Pearce. Pearce is such a class above her teammates (and, really, nearly everyone else), that she could plausibly poll in every Melbourne win, including multiple 3-vote games, as well as jagging a vote or two in their narrow losses to Brisbane and GWS.

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.