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Too old, too slow: Do these two stats explain why Souths have fallen off a cliff in 2024?

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15th April, 2024
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South Sydney, if you’ve had your head in the sand, aren’t in the best of shape.

They looked better on Saturday night in defeat to the Sharks on a nightmare night of injuries, but still lost and are 1-5 to start the year.

The pressure has been on coach Jason Demetriou, with talk of his dismissal filling up column inches and chat shows for weeks now.

Most of the chat has centred around his interpersonal skills – do Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker have too much power, etc etc – and potential successors, from Mal Meninga to Michael Maguire and, of course, Wayne Bennett.

That isn’t surprising: no club rates like South Sydney (no, not even the Wests Tigers) and no player rates like Latrell (no, not even Jarome Luai) and literally nothing sells in rugby league like a soap opera.

For all the eyeballs on Souths, there has been relatively little discussion of why a team that was top of the table a third of the way through 2023 is now bottom despite ostensibly adding to what was already a very strong squad.

We like to chat about power dynamics between famous people, but rugby league doesn’t actually work like that most of the time, and the answer tends to lie in systems, tactics and recruitment far more frequently than who is or isn’t offside with who.

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For the record, we can put the ‘they let Mitchell get away with anything’ angle to bed relatively quickly with a simple quote.

“I never let him down and he never let me down I love the larrikin player. I love their courage. I’d love to do what they can do, but I can’t…I love the larrikin because I have so much fun around them. And I love the way that they can get away with it.”

That’s Wayne Bennett, former and potentially future South Sydney coach, on Allan Langer, in between several pages’ worth of drunken fun in Andrew Webster’s recent biography, The Wolf You Feed about how Bennett let Alfie do pretty much whatever he wanted during his Broncos pomp because he was good enough.

Latrell isn’t half the misbehaver that Langer was in the 1990s, and the quote is included to point out that the best coaches treat superstars differently to everyone else all the time, meaning that when things go wrong, it’s rarely because the coach gave a superstar too much rope.

That’s the soap opera boxed off with, so what about the systems?

Souths’ problems can probably be put into two baskets, one of which you might take issue with Demetriou for and the other you might say is either beyond his control or, at the very least, a problem bigger than the head coach.

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Let’s take the first bit first.

Souths’ defence is quite bad this year and was fairly bad before that, meaning that they struggle to defend the many errors that they make.

Defence was the area that John Morris looked after last year before leaving for the Wests Tigers, and which the head coach has now taken under his own control.

Even when Souths went to the Grand Final in 2021, they were only the sixth best defence and in the two completed years of Demetriou, they have been eighth in points conceded – not ideal when your goal is to be first.

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In the limited moments when there has been discussion of the on-field issues at the Bunnies in 2024, their line speed has been mentioned, and correctly so.

It’s not great, and one key statistic bears it out: pre-contact metres.

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Pre-contact metres (PRCM) are calculated by subtracting post-contact metres (PCM) from total run metres (RM) – if you take out the yards gained after the tackle, you’re left with the ones gained before, which is a strong proxy for how well a team is getting up after a play the ball.

The specific numbers on it don’t mean much – every provider gives different metre counts, so it’s hard to directly compare – but the important detail is the differential between sides in individual games, which you certainly can track.

The Roar ran the numbers on every games of Jason Demetriou’s tenure, analysed the raw data on a per carry basis to equalise for possession differences and then created a rolling three-game average to give a broad picture of what has happened over a long time without getting lost in the nuances of week-to-week.

The results don’t make great reading for South Sydney, because even when the Bunnies were winning, they regularly lost the line speed battle.

Here is the data: the metres per run differential (MPR) is in green and the pre-contact metre differential is in red.

Credit: The Roar

What you can see is that, for most Demetriou’s tenure, the PCMR that corresponds to line speed has been worse than the team that they were facing: only in for two periods, one brief one at the start and another longer one midway through last year was it consistently better.

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The net MPR was sometimes better or at least close to their opponents, but remember, that includes the metres that Souths made in attack themselves, which were often strong.

Pre-contact metres are mostly controllable by the Bunnies’ defensive actions alone – they can’t do much about the other team’s line speed – and that part has always been a problem.

The logical question to follow would be around how much difference that makes to a result.

Most people with a vague understanding of stats in rugby league know that team run metres is one of the most important metrics around, and those who know a little more than the average punter might also be aware that run metres conceded is the most important subsection of it.

PRMC is a subsection of a subsection, then, which doesn’t sound that massive, and PRMC per run is a is a subsection of a subsection of a subsection.

But when you extrapolate these tiny shifts of the needle, it can reveal a lot.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

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If your line speed is bad, it’s not terminal, because it’s only one part of a whole, that much is true.

When Souths were good, it was largely because they held onto the ball better and thus didn’t do as much defending, which lessened the impact of continually losing this particular statistical battle.

When they begin to drop the ball more and more, however, things could escalate quickly.

They’re not alone in this. Parra can be top four with the ball but regularly bottom half without it, and collapsed in much the same way as the Bunnies did.

But Souths are uniquely vulnerable to it as they need to play expansively to stand a chance, which brings inherent risk.

On top of that, their style of expansion is often based on playing faster than their opponents, which lengthens the amount of time they spent defending relative to the amount they spent attacking.

In the best versions of Demetriou’s Souths, this was a huge plus point.

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They regularly caused the statistical quirk in which their total sets ( i.e. how many attempts they had to score) were higher than their opponents, but their possession split (calculated based on time spent in possession) was lower.

That’s generally a good thing, as they were using their time with the footy to play quick, were doing so at a speed that few could cope with and playing wide, which forced defences to play sideways as well as up-and-down.

They either scored, forced an infringement or handed the ball over in good areas, and when the other team got a go, they were often so fried from having have to defend multiple quick rucks and extensive lateral movement that they weren’t in a position to attack. Souths’ poor line speed was there, but it wouldn’t matter as much.

When the balls started to go to ground, however, things could go, if you excuse the pun, south.

The Bunnies had almost no negative possession, the term for when a side has the ball simply so that the other team doesn’t have it.

We like the idea that a team tries to score all the time, but there’s value in knowing when to speed it up and when to slow it down. It’s why everyone nods approvingly when Penrith take four hit ups from outside backs then kick the ball away on their terms.

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Adam Reynolds in the 2021 NRL grand final

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

South Sydney have generally been poor at this. Mitchell, Walker and Damien Cook aren’t negative possession guys, and it never looked like Lachlan Ilias was told to play like that where, instinctively, Adam Reynolds might have done.

Brisbane and Manly play a lot like Souths, but both Reynolds and Daly Cherry-Evans control the speed and have never been afraid of drilling the ball into touch and walking to the restart.

So if Souths have bad line speed and are asked to defend more and for longer, you can see where it all could go wrong.

That falls on the coaching, which ultimately falls on Demetriou.

Whether sacking him would make it any better is for debate, though likely a change of play style at this point wouldn’t work so it probably makes sense to let this one play out with the brains behind it to see if other outside factors – injuries, schedule to name just two – are to blame, not to mention the lack of an obvious successor.

The second factor, which goes above Demetriou, is the roster – and the ongoing line speed might be symptom of this.

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The Roar carried out a second analysis, based on age and experience, to see where South Sydney sit in terms of age profile.

Again, it’s not great reading.

We did two separate analyses, one using NRL games as a metric and the other using just player age at time of writing, and compared Souths to sides they have played this year: the Bulldogs, who they beat, plus Manly, Brisbane and Cronulla, who beat them.

All 27 players who have featured this year (plus Campbell Graham) were streamed into one of four categories: Rookie (fewer than 25 NRL appearances in the experience analysis, younger than 22 in the age analysis, Emerging (25-75 games/22-25 years old), Prime (75-175 games/25-29 years) and Experienced (175+ game/29+ age).

Ideally, you’d want the bulk of your players in their prime, plus a decent crop of emerging and only a few in the rookie and experienced categories, with extra points if you had guys playing ‘up’ a bracket so to speak – young in age, but also experienced in game time.

The golden number of appearances for an NRL player is somewhere between 50-75, by which point basically everyone is as good as they’re going to be. If they’re not in rep contention, for example, by that point, there’s a more than decent chance they never will be.

Here, the imbalance in the Bunnies’ roster is there for all to see.

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Souths have the worst of both worlds, with just a quarter of their roster in the Emerging or Rookie category by age, but 50% of it Emerging or Rookie by experience and 70% of their roster in Prime/Experienced by age but only 50% by experience.

Essentially, that means they are old physically but don’t get the benefits of that age in-game smarts.

It’s generally a good thing to have the likes of Tom Burgess, Alex Johnston and Damien Cook leading the side around, but there’s no reason to continually play the Richie Kennar, Michael Chee Kam, Izaac Thompson and Taane Milne guys. They just fill a spot that a younger bloke could be taking.

We know their worth on the field, and at their age, it’s a reasonable expectation that they aren’t getting better and, as everyone does, are actually getting worse with age.

Crucially, there’s almost nobody in the Emerging category, and those that are aren’t on the field. Ilias, Graham and Isaiah Tass would be these guys, but only one of them is playing at the moment.

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The Broncos, for example, have 34% of their roster in the Emerging category by experience and, crucially, several of those – Reece Walsh, Ezra Mam, Selwyn Cobbo – are playing up on their actual ages.

The Bulldogs have zero players in the over 200 appearances bracket and only two, Kurt Mann and Viliame Kikau, aged over 29 – and Kikau turned that age two weeks ago.

The whole roster skews young, but still has 80% in the Prime or Emerging categories. There might be method in Phil Gould’s madness after all, at least when it comes to setting a side up to grow together over time.

Manly and the Sharks are even better set up, primed to win now and tomorrow.

They have 47% and 57% respectively in the Prime categories, and at the Sea Eagles, the three over 29s are DCE, Luke Brooks and Jake Trbojevic, all of whom are genuine stars, plus Aaron Woods, who is on a development deal. Cronulla have just one, Dale Finucane.

Compare and contrast to the roster at Souths, who have been allowed to grow old together.

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While the debate has been about letting Reynolds go and trying to fit Mitchell, Walker, Cook and now Jack Wighton under the salary cap, it might have been better to ask why so many mediocre players were extended at, presumably, lower wages to keep those top liners around.

Rugby league is the weakest of weak link sports, in which you are only as good as your worst player.

Souths have lots of good players, but have also fielded a raft of quite old, quite mediocre guys. The best sides aren’t good because of their stars, rather because of players 18-30 in the roster, who they lean on in the toughest of times.

It’s no good having Latrell and Cody (whatever their influence in the sheds, positive or negative) if you also have Chee Kam, Milne and Kennar blocking what should, theoretically, be someone else’s pathway.

No wonder the line speed is a problem. The decline over time has been there to see in the underlying numbers, and it just took results a while to catch up on a roster that has needed a clearout for a long time.

That’s a little bit on Demetriou, who has an input on recruitment and retention, but it’s a much wider problem than just hit. The tactical stuff is on the coach, but if you’re limited in who you can put on the field, then tactics become secondary.

The thing with coaches is that you either have to win or to be seen by the fans to be doing something that will lead to wins in the future.

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At the moment, Souths are doing neither. With this stay of execution, Demetriou gets a chance to stop the spiral and start it moving the other way. If might be that it is already too fast for him to do so.

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