It’s a truism as old as Rugby League: complete your sets if you want to win the match.
It makes sense. Completing your sets means you’re not making errors. It means you’re getting further down the ground, closer to the try-line, in better position to either score, or get a repeat set. And most teams in the NRL treat this truism with reverence. The completion is king.
Except maybe not everyone.
Ben and Shane Walker threw this concept out when they took over the Ipswich Jets in the Queensland Rugby League. They’ve embraced ‘contract football’, a concept that begun in the 1920s based on the premise that you should pass the ball to someone in a better position that you. Apart from rarely using decoy runners, and using short kick-offs and short drop-outs on the regular, they also could not care less about completion rates. They care more about possession percentage. They want to tire the opposition through making them tackle. They want to get the most opportunities to score as they can in any game.
Team A had the least errors in the competition (213). They completed 76.5 per cent of their sets, good for fourth best in the competition.
Team B had the most errors in the competition, with 289, a full 3 more per game than Team A. Their completion percentage was 72.9, 13th in the league.
Going by convention you’d assume that Team A was probably a playoff side. Maybe even a contender. Regardless they would or should have finished above Team B right?
Team A was the Canberra Raiders. Team B? The Sydney Roosters – only the side who led the league in points for and against, tries and line breaks in the regular season. Oh yeah, and they were the equivalent of a twenty-win side and were minor premiers.
Maybe completions aren’t so important.
The Walker hypothesis is, what matters more is the length of time you have the ball – your possession percentage. This makes sense – the other team has to make more tackles, they get tireder, you do better. When we look at the top sides, we find they all have high possessions percentage in common.
Table 1 – possession percentage (teams above 50)
Here we have our 4 preliminary finalists, 2 top 8 teams and the Panthers.
Now none of these sides have adopted the Walker style attack – players running sideways, zero use of decoy block-runners and the abandonment of the wrestle in defence to ensure the game moves quickly. I’ve never seen any of them attempt one of the short, swerving, drop-outs that Marmin Barba shot at the Newcastle Knights New South Wales Cup side on Grand Final day.
You see, not all sets are created equal. We watched many Raiders games this season. The Raiders adopted a tactic of kicking themselves out of trouble, often early in the set. As a matter of completion percentage, kicking on the 4th from your own 30 counts just as much as scoring a length of the field try. Errors were kept to a minimum, but so was time in possession.
Good sides recycle the ball. They hold the ball for longer, both within sets (through offloads and enterprising play) and between them (through earning dropouts, and to a less frequent extent, through 40/20 kicks).
And when we look at the worst sides in terms of possession percentage:
Table 4 – possession percentage (bottom 6)
Here we find the reverse also holds. There’s five teams there that didn’t make the post-season, and the Bulldogs. The Raiders poor possession percentage might provide an explanation as to why our Pythagorean Expectation thought they should have won two more games than they did.
None of this will shock you. Of course having more ball than the opposition will lead you to do better. It’s just sometimes sides focus too much on being ‘safe’ with the ball and completing sets, and not enough holding on to the ball for long periods. The Walkers have shown that a commitment to time in possession over completions is a way to bridge the talent gap at the second level of rugby league. This year’s NRL showed that commitment works at the top level also.
 This is where you say ‘yes we know how rugby league works dickhead’
 Defence and injuries matter here I think. But let’s not start making excuses to fit our numbers.
 Man this would be such a ‘cleaner’ point if the freaking Panthers and Doggies could just swap their possession percentages. I
[…] rather than watching games. For the uninitiated, narratives are the stories we tell about the game. Completions are important? It’s a narrative, not a fact. Queenslanders are always loyal? Another narrative. […]
[…] completed more than 75 per cent of their sets they were 11-2. In the past we have written that possession percentage is a better predictor of success. The Raiders had the 11th worst possession percentage in the competition. Of the sides in the top […]