The ridiculously unfair 2018 NRL draw needs to be redone

Tim Gore Columnist

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    If the NRL was hoping to dispel fan sentiment that some clubs seem to get all the lucky breaks, they won’t be doing it with the 2018 draw.

    I was initially okay with the 2018 draw, as on first inspection I found it to be friendly to the side I support.

    However, on detailed examination, it shows a number of sides – the Storm, Broncos and especially the Roosters – have received extremely favourable draws. Conversely, a number of sides have been screwed.

    There was a lot of fanfare at the beginning of October when the complete home-and-away draw for next season was released, as it was the first draw for quite a while over which the competition had total control.

    For the last however long, the broadcasters had control and as I’ve examined before, it led to some very poor scheduling.

    NRL CEO Todd Greenberg hit Twitter to discuss the 2018 draw with fans and was asked, “What’s the hardest part? Balancing clubs, TV, fairness or fan expectations?” His response was pretty straight up.

    As he suggests, there are many factors that must be taken into account, and the schedule can never be completely even – it isn’t possible – so some cold realities have to be accepted.

    Free-to-air games
    Given broadcasters pay a great deal for NRL rights, there needs to be consideration for putting on games that draw the biggest ratings and generate advertising revenue.

    The Broncos, Eels, Bulldogs and Rabbitohs rate well. They are going to get a lot of free-to-air games.

    However, free-to-air exposure has a great bearing on a side’s marketability, which translates directly into the amount of sponsorship a side can get. The more sponsorship – including the all-important third-party deals – the more chance a club has of being successful.

    If teams receive too large a share of the free-to-air games to please the broadcasters they can become entrenched as successful, while those who get little or no coverage conversely become pigeonholed as unsuccessful.

    This aspect has commonly been seen as the main barometer of draw fairness, which is why Greenberg highlighted that aspect. However, it’s just one of three main components.

    NRL CEO Todd Greenberg

    (AAP Image/Dan Peled)

    Repeat opponents
    There are only 24 games per side in the home-and-away season. To play all sides twice there would have to be 30. That would lengthen the season by a month and a half, which – along with State of Origin and internationals – would make the season too long and the demands on players far too high.

    This means each team only plays six opposition sides once, which can have a large bearing on a team’s chances.

    Location and travel
    Nine of the 16 clubs are in Sydney. This, by definition, means that they will not have to travel as much or as far as the Storm, Titans, Knights, Raiders, Broncos and especially the Cowboys and Warriors.

    While the draw can allow for this, it can’t make it level. However, the more travel a side has to endure, the less likely they are to win – especially if they are coming up against well-rested, stay-at-home sides.

    The NRL must create a draw that limits this type of inequity using the five-day turnaround.

    The geographical realities also have impacts on free-to-air game allocation. As the Cowboys and the Warriors travel the largest distances most frequently, in order to stop them having short turnarounds between games, it makes sense to have their games consistently on the same days.

    Saturday has no free-to-air games but is the most logical day to schedule these sides, so as to avoid short turnarounds.

    The NRL has the challenge of balancing all of these aspects to create a draw which sees no sides receive too much benefit, nor any get a completely raw deal.

    They failed. Let’s look at why.

    The spread of free-to-air games in 2018
    Greenberg was quick to sing the praises of the 2018 draw upon its release:

    Upon first inspection, it seems an achievement worth crowing about in comparison to 2017. However, when compared to 2016, the draw isn’t that fantastic in the free-to-air respect.

    In 2016, an average distribution of the free-to-air games equated to nine games a team – 37.5 per cent of each team’s home-and-away games.

    Nine teams achieved or bettered that mark, while the Broncos doubled it. Of the Sydney clubs, only the Sea Eagles (eight) and the Sharks (four) had less than average free-to-air games.

    In 2018, the only Sydney-based side that has less than ten free-to-air games is the Sea Eagles, with seven. Once more it is non-Sydney sides that get royally screwed.

    The Raiders get just five free-to-air games – which is half what an even share would be – the Titans get only three, and the Knights and Warriors get just two.

    That’s a pathetic effort. While the Warriors’ seven 6pm Friday night slots translate into 8pm primetime across the ditch, you couldn’t blame the Knights and their fans if they thought that the NRL could not give a damn about them. The club that has won three consecutive wooden spoons and really could use a leg up is getting just two free-to-air games.

    While the Raiders and Titans get an ordinary hand in regard to free-to-air games, the Novocastrians get a far worse one.

    The free-to-air winners and losers

    Result Games
    Massive winners Broncos* – 16
    Big winners Bulldogs – 13, Eels -13, Dragons – 13, Wests Tigers – 13
    Winners Roosters – 12, Storm – 11, Cowboys – 11, Panthers – 11
    Even Sharks – 10, Rabbitohs – 10
    Losers Sea Eagles – 7
    Big losers Raiders – 5
    Massive losers Titans – 3, Warriors* – 2, Knights – 2
    • Eight of the Broncos’ free-to-air games are on Thursday. The Brisbane crowd – especially those with young children – don’t like this time slot, which is really for the benefit of broadcasters.
    • The Warriors’ seven 6pm (AEST) Friday and four 2pm (AEST) Sunday games are in New Zealand primetime.

    Repeat opponents – How the draw works out for each side
    There is some simple maths applying to the draw.

    Unless you were in the top four, the most games you can be drawn to play against the previous season’s top four sides is eight. If you were in the top four, it is six.

    The fewest games you can play against the previous year’s top four is three.

    Unless you were in the top eight, the most games you can be drawn to play against the previous season’s top eight is 16. If you were in the top eight, it’s 14.

    The fewest games you can play against the previous year’s top eight is seven.

    The same goes for both the bottom eight and bottom four.

    With those concepts in mind, have a look at how the 2018 draw works out:

    vs bottom four vs bottom eight vs top four vs top eight result
    Roosters 8 15 4 9 Massive winners
    Storm 8 13 4 11 Massive winners
    Eels 6 14 3 10 Big winners
    Raiders 7 12 4 12 winners
    Panthers 7 13 5 11 winners
    Dragons 7 12 7 12 Even
    Sea Eagles 7 12 8 12 Even
    Broncos 6 12 5 12 Even
    Sharks 5 12 6 12 Even
    Cowboys 5 12 7 12 Even
    Rabbitohs 5 12 7 12 Even
    Bulldogs 5 11 7 13 Even
    Titans 5 10 7 14 Losers
    Knights 5 10 7 14 Losers
    Wests Tigers 4 12 7 12 Big losers
    Warriors 4 11 7 13 Big losers

    On inspection of this table, one could be forgiven for thinking Trent Robinson and Nick Politis created this draw themselves.

    They didn’t, of course. But the Roosters play the 2017 bottom four sides the maximum amount possible, and the 2017 bottom eight sides just one less than the maximum.

    Further, they play 2017 top four sides just one more time than the fewest possible, and 2017 top eight sides just two more times than the fewest possible. That sort of blatant imbalance should have stood out to the NRL before they released the draw.

    The Storm isn’t doing much worse, and the Eels should be pretty happy with their lot.

    Now look at what the Titans and Knights got and you’ll notice it’s almost the reverse.

    If the share of free-to-air games were unfair, then this is diabolical. How this was allowed to pass muster is anyone’s guess.

    Five-day turnarounds
    Sides having to back up and play again after just five days find it tough to win. If there is significant travel involved during those five days, then the side rarely ever wins.

    In 2018 there will be 16 occasions where sides endure five-day turnarounds without significant travel. There will be seven incidents where sides must endure it with significant travel.

    Five-day turnaround with significant travel Five-day turnaround without significant travel Result
    Wests Tigers 2 1 Massive losers
    Dragons 1 2 Big losers
    Bulldogs 1 2 Big losers
    Warriors 1 1 Big losers
    Eels 1 0 Losers
    Cowboys 1 0 Losers
    Storm 0 2 Losers
    Raiders 0 2 Losers
    Rabbitohs 0 2 Losers
    Panthers 0 1 Even
    Sea Eagles 0 1 Even
    Broncos 0 1 Even
    Sharks 0 1 Even
    Roosters 0 0 Big winners
    Titans 0 0 Big winners
    Knights 0 0 Big winners
    Total 7 16

    *Significant travel is any significant transit, i.e. not Sydney to Canberra, Sydney to Newcastle, Sydney to Wollongong or Sydney to the Central Coast.

    The Wests Tigers get the rough end of this pineapple, while the Dragons and Bulldogs wouldn’t be impressed either.

    However, there is finally a win for the Titans and Knights. Neither side has to endure a single five-day turnaround of either variety.

    Another team that will not suffer a single five-day turnaround is the Roosters. Once more, the Bondi Boys are on the good side of the 2018 draw.

    Latrell Mitchell Sydney Roosters NRL Rugby League Finals 2017

    (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

    But wait, there’s more…

    Teams receiving sides on five-day turnarounds
    If it’s difficult for a team to win when they are enduring a five-day turnaround, then it follows that the side they play on those occasions is likely to get up.

    So which sides in 2018 will play the teams on five-day turnarounds?

    Playing teams with significant travel Playing teams with no significant travel Result
    Storm 2 0 Big winners
    Cowboys 2 0 Big winners
    Roosters 2 0 Big winners
    Rabbitohs 1 2 Big winners
    Broncos 1 2 Big winners
    Warriors 1 0 Winners
    Sea Eagles 0 3 Winners
    Bulldogs 0 2 Winners
    Panthers 0 2 Winners
    Knights 0 1 Even
    Wests Tigers 0 1 Even
    Eels 0 1 Even
    Titans 0 1 Even
    Raiders 0 0 Losers
    Dragons 0 0 Losers
    Sharks 0 0 Losers

    The Raiders, Dragons and Sharks play no sides on five-day turnarounds. Further, the Knights, Titans, Eels and Tigers get only the slightest taste of this kind of advantage.

    Manly play three teams on five-day turnarounds in 2018, but none of them will have had to endure significant travel. Adding significant travel is what makes the five-day turnaround particularly difficult.

    In 2018 three sides will have the large benefit of playing two sides each that are on five-day breaks that include significant travel: the Cowboys, Broncos and – yes, you guessed it – the Roosters.

    Overall winners and losers
    Let’s look at the overall picture, by placing all of these factors together and scoring the results for each as follows:

    • Massive winner = +3
    • Big winner = +2
    • Winner = +1
    • Even = 0
    • Loser = -1
    • Big loser = -2
    • Massive loser = -3
    FTA allocation Repeat opponents Five-day turnarounds Playing against five-day turnarounds Total
    Roosters 1 3 2 2 8
    Broncos 3 0 0 2 5
    Storm 1 3 -1 2 5
    Eels 2 2 -1 0 3
    Panthers 1 1 0 1 3
    Cowboys 1 0 -1 2 2
    Rabbitohs 0 0 -1 2 1
    Bulldogs 2 0 -2 1 1
    Sea Eagles -1 0 0 1 0
    Sharks 0 0 0 -1 -1
    Dragons 2 0 -2 -1 -1
    Knights -3 -1 2 0 -2
    Titans -3 -1 2 0 -2
    Wests Tigers 2 -2 -2 0 -2
    Raiders -2 1 -1 -1 -3
    Warriors -3* -2 -2 1 -6

    With the scales I’ve used, the maximum possible score a side could get is ten.

    The wash-up: It’s a bad draw
    The football supporting public expects – demands – that if a side has a distinct disadvantage or advantage in one area of the draw then the NRL will even that up in another area. Ideally – using the above metric – no side should be outside a range of plus or minus one.

    Presently, only five of the sixteen sides sit within that range, while the Roosters have received an armchair ride into the 2018 top four via this draw.

    That one side can be allowed to gain such an advantage by the draw, while others are disadvantaged, is unlikely to go down well with the league-loving public.

    How this draw could get the NRL’s stamp of approval and be released is beyond me.

    There are just under four months until the 2018 season is set to kick off. The NRL must go back to the drawing board immediately to create a draw that is much fairer than this very poor effort.

    Tim Gore
    Tim Gore

    Tim has been an NRL statistician for ABC Radio Grandstand since 1999, primarily as part of their Canberra coverage. Tim has loved rugby league since Sterlo was a kid with lots of hair but was cursed with having no personal sporting ability whatsoever. He couldn't take a hit in footy, was a third division soccer player making up numbers, plays off 41 in golf and is possibly the world's worst cricketer ever. He has always been good at arguing the point though and he has a great memory of what happened. Follow Tim on Twitter.