The most underrated players in the NRL

You might have missed it, but earlier this week, a massive signing was made. It barely made a ripple, but it might go down as one of the most important of the 2023 season, and beyond after that.

Souths, who haven’t signed a single new player in this off-season, tied down interchange forward Siliva Havili on a two-year extension. It comes on the back of their re-signings of Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker, plus halfback Lachlan Ilias – so it perhaps isn’t surprising that it got lost in the news cycle somewhat.

And yet: when the Bunnies went out to the Panthers in last year’s Preliminary Final, Havili was name-checked specifically by coach Jason Demetriou as one of their biggest misses from that game, alongside pack leader Tom Burgess. JD knew what they were missing.

It’s an interesting jumping-off point for a chat about who the most underrated, or if you prefer, undervalued, players in the NRL are. Havili might be the champion of it.

We’ve spent the last month or so going through the entire comp in search of Smart Signings – read all about it – and it’s amazing how often the same names come up time and again. So much so that it’s worth making a team’s worth of players that fly under the radar.

One of the interesting things about building Smart Signings as a concept was that it involved a huge amount of data work, turning publicly available stats into useful ones.

By that, I mean equalising data and controlling it for things that the player can have little control over. Widely-consumed stats (missed tackles, tries, try assists) are often outcome-focused, because they only count when a certain result occurred, which might be irrelevant to the usefulness or otherwise of a number.

Players don’t miss tackles on purpose, but forcing a player to go another way might be useful even if no tackle results – see Dane Gagai throughout Origin last year – and line breaks/line break assists are a much better gauge of creativity, because if you put someone through a hole but they get tackled, you still put them through a hole.

Controlling for possession, too, is vital. Lots of good players in bad teams get far fewer opportunities to be good because they get less ball. Volume-based statistics (run metres being the worst culprit) overvalue making a lot of efforts rather than making useful efforts.

Dylan Edwards is a good example of this: he was making 192m per game (83 in kick return metres) because he was making a huge amount of runs and return, compared to (for the sake of argument) Reece Walsh, who made more metres controlled for the number of opportunities given to them to make metres.

That’s not to say Edwards wasn’t useful, but without the frequency context the stat doesn’t work that well: he was regularly receiving the ball on the full from poor kicks, make from disadvantageous positions, enabled by him playing behind the Panthers’ excellent linespeed. Walsh, suffice to say, wasn’t getting that.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 02: Dylan Edwards of the Panthers makes a break during the 2022 NRL Grand Final match between the Penrith Panthers and the Parramatta Eels at Accor Stadium on October 02, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Our undervalued team, then, will heavily feature guys who either are in good teams making contributions that nobody mentions – see, Havili – or in bad teams making good contributions that probably would stand out more if the other blokes around them weren’t rubbish.

If you’ve been about this site for a while, you might have seen a piece flying about last year that focussed on unicorns – the most statistically weird players in the NRL – and there’s more than a little crossover between the two, because weirdness is usually a positive thing.

That piece extolled the virtues of Blake Lawrie – also extended on Tuesday, to more fanfare than our Siliva – who is the NRL’s leading decoy runner and an example of someone who is exceptionally good at one specific thing, but not much else, whereas this one is for those who are good at lots of things, even if people don’t really notice.

1 – Tyrell Sloan (Dragons)

I don’t know if Tyrell Sloan is undervalued anywhere more highly than in his own team, where it takes four guys going down to get a game in his proper position.

The big knock on Sloan is that he can’t tackle, but as far as I’m concerned, that’s not really an issue for fullbacks, who make by far the fewest tackles per game: Scott Drinkwater, to coin a phrase from the old country, couldn’t tackle a fish supper, and he goes great.

His returning stats aren’t superb either, but then, neither are Ryan Papenhuyzen’s, and he seems to get by. It’s all about what you ask your fullback to do.

When I ran the numbers for fullback creativity, Sloan was right next to Drinkwater in the analysis, because his per-touch output is absolutely great. He’s the most creative fullback outside of the top 8 and in a team that gives him nothing to work with. Imagine if he was in a good side.

2 – Dom Young (Knights)

He might be less underrated than previously after a breakout World Cup, but Huddersfield’s own Dom Young skyrockets to the top of the tree for young wingers on the back of 2022.

He’s in the top 25% of wingers for tries, metres, post-contact metres and tackle efficiency, and above average for line breaks, offloads and tackle breaks, while having a faster play-the-ball than most.

The knock on Young has been that his defence and errors are not great, and that is true to some extent, but the numbers do lie a little here.

Break causes, for which he ranked in the bottom half, are notoriously misleading for wingers as the cause is recorded out wide when the mistake usually happened further in, while errors tend to occur from kicks, of which he faced far more than the average. When you equalise for how many Young was asked to deal with, he is in the top third.

3 – Matt Timoko (Raiders)

Poor Matt Timoko. He might be the most underutilised player in the league. His per-run numbers are absolutely outstanding, but the Raiders play a style that seems to de-emphasise metres from the centres, with wingers doinig plays one and two and then forwards taking over.

Both Timoko and Seb Kris are well down the list for workrate. It’s a shame, because when they do get the ball, they’re both incredibly effective with it.

I could have picked either, but because Timoko is elite for metres per run, post-contact metres per run and tackle breaks per run, he gets the place: he edges Kris on most stats, but plays on the wrong side of the field: the Raiders were one of the most one-side dominant in the NRL in 2022, with only the Bulldogs (to the Addo-Carr/Burton edge) and the Wests Tigers going left more frequently.

Oh, and Timoko plays outside of Jack Wighton, who has one of the lowest pass-per-run ratios of all five eighths. . Give yer boy the footy from time to time, mate, and you might see what happens.

4 – Peta Hiku (Cowboys)

Last year was a strange one for Peta Hiku, who was crucial to everything that the Cowboys did while also flying under the radar. It’s hard to imagine that, five years ago, he was on the NRL scrapheap and playing for Warrington.

Hiku might be the best example of a player fitting a system: the Cowboys were a side that lacked leadership and grunt, and could easily be got at in defence. Hiku, now a well-travelled veteran, offered unmatched work rate – most runs of any centre in the comp – and defensive-solidity.

His efficiency numbers aren’t actually great, but he’s the exception that proves the rule in this regard: if you do twice as much work as most of the rest of the league, obviously your per-incidence rate will look back.

Hiku took more hit-ups than anyone other than Siosifa Talakai and Luke Gardner – both converted backrowers – and made bulk metres in the process. In doing so, he allowed everyone else to look better. I bet they love him up in Townsville.

5 – Nick Meaney (Storm)

Can I interest you in a guy that plays all the positions, and plays them all well? The Storm picking up Nick Meaney was the smartest signing of 2022, and that was before they lost their starting winger, centre and fullback for long periods.

He’s the ultimate utility player, because carrying a Nick Meaney allows you to play four forwards on the bench and have your utility stood on a wing, putting the ball down as many times as you can serve it to him. He’s not the biggest, the fastest, the most skilful or the most glamourous, but he might be the cleanest – his errors per touch rate was so low that he made the Unicorns team – and he kicks goals as well. He’s the archtypal Bellamy guy.

Dominic Young of the Knights is tackled

Dominic Young. (Photo by Ashley Feder/Getty Images)

6 – Luke Brooks (Tigers)

Luke Brooks must be underrated, because every rates him terribly and he can’t actually be that bad. While he will undoubtedly be the most controversial name on this list, let me make the case for a highly misunderstood player.

Luke Brooks does not pick his pay packet. He also doesn’t control the fact that the Wests Tigers haven’t been able to give him any support for years. Their all-round dysfunction as a club isn’t his fault, though he is often the most obvious scapegoat.

And yet: if you factor in the meagre amount of ball he gets compared to other halves, his return is actually pretty good. His try assists are middle of the road, but when you factor in that the Wests Tigers are far from middle of the pack, it’s probably an overperformance. His linebreak assists are elite, suggesting that he’s putting blokes through gaps, but they aren’t capitalising on it.

His per possession creativity numbers are better than Sam Walker’s, as are his line engagements and his attacking kicks too. Difference is that Walker passes them to someone good, and Brooks doesn’t.

This isn’t a knock on Walker, by the way, but a reflection of a similar, rated player who flits between 6 and 7 but in a different, better team. Context is everything.

7 – Lachlan Ilias (Souths)

So playing a good team is helpful, right? Sure, but you still have to look the part. Lachlan Ilias had only played one game of NRL before last year, and – as Jason Demetriou pointed out on the regular – hadn’t really played any footy at all in the previous 18 months due to Covid.

His pressure came from not being Adam Reynolds, which – much like Brooks – really isn’t his fault, and being asked to play fourth in a spine that included three exceptional players while theoretcially, as a halfback, being the most senior.

The good news for Souths fans is that Ilias actually outperformed Reynolds in the areas that matter to the Bunnies. His kicking is a lot worse – you could make an argument that he’s about the worst 7 in the league with the boot – but that is hidden by the waay that Souths play, and instead, his upside with the ball is highlighted.

Ilias was the second for line engagements – second in the NRL – which, along with defence, is probably the hardest thing to get used to in first grade given the different levels of contact. He backed that up with line break assists and line breaks for himself.

The try assists didn’t quite follow, probably because his short kicking didn’t generate many, but that can come. For a guy with as few appearance as he had an off the back of no footy, it’s incredibly impressive.

8 – Matt Eisenhuth (Panthers)

Possibly the least celebrated on the list on uncelebrated players is Matt Eisenhuth, the workhorse’s workhorse. He got 16 appearances last year for the Panthers, mostly as an interchange forward, and absolutely smashes any metric of usefulness for his team.

There’s a stat called Involvement Rate, which allocates points for runs, tackles, decoys and supports, divided by how long they are on the park. It’s not much use for starting props, because they dilute performance over time, but for bench options, it’s superb.

Eisenhuth is top, with comfortably more going on than anyone else. Throw him on for his allowted 30-40 minutes per game and watch him do all the things.

9 – Siliva Havili (Souths)

He was the inspiration for this column, so Siliva has to get a gig. Lets make him captain. Havili also made out Unicorns XIII for his bizarre skillset of being a short, squat, strong forward who plays both hooker and middle and sometimes lock, giving ultimate utility value in the 14.

Not only does he let you carry another forward on the bench – or is your extra forward, if your starting 9 seems good to go for 80 minutes – he’s also really effective as a middle, with plenty of runs and a load of offloads for a man his size, but impossible to get accurate stats on given that he plays the two most opposite roles on the field.

Either way, he’s the glue that holds South Sydney together, the key to their ability to create attacking production in the forwards over 80 minutes without a drop off. Demetriou rates him and we all should as well.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

10 – Luke Thompson (Bulldogs)

There’s another stat that I’ve invented, a riff on Involvement Rate, that rates only useful actions. The basics of involvement rate are, as mentioned above, running and tackling, but it doesn’t tell you if a player was any good at them: I could take a lot of runs and attempt a lot of tackles, but I wouldn’t make that many metres or bring anyone down.

So what happens if you control for effectiveness, switch runs made for metres made and tackles for effective tackles? Well, you get my new stat, Involvement Score (IS).

(For the purposes of completness, decoys and supports remain constant, because I know not of a stat the quanitfies whether someone was good at doing either. Did they run like they meant it?)

Shooting up the rankings here is Luke Thompson, who comes in the 92nd percentile for IS despite having the structural disadvantage of playing upwards of ten minutes per game more than anyone else even close.

He’s in the top 20% for metres per minute and tackles per minute, while also tackling at one of the highest efficiency rates of any prop in the NRL. Don’t let anyone tell you he’s overpaid: the man works for every dollar.

11 – Nat Butcher (Roosters)

It’s tough to be underrated when you play for the Roosters, who have as many stars as they can fit under Uncle Nick’s massive sombrero. But Nat Butcher certainly flies under the radar: I’ve checked and, from now on, I’ve claimed the SEO real estate on “Nat Butcher Origin” because nobody has ever writted those three words together before.

Butcher pulled it together in 2022 to record 32 tackles per game – second best on the Roosters behind Sam Verrils and joint second among non-middles or hookers – while also offering significant attacking threat, especially once Luke Keary had switched to five eighth late in the year.

Line-running is something you might more readily associate with Sitili Tupouniua, who doesn’t come close to matching Butcher’s defensive numbers, and defence is the calling card of Angus Crichton – but Butcher now make more tackles, more efficiently. Underrated doesn’t come close.

12 – Euan Aitken (Dolphins)

Second-rowers have become an ersatz attacking position in these last two season of the NRL, with the ‘strike’ back-rower superceding the workhorse as teams anaylse where to aim attacks, and what channels might find the most success.

I’m here to tell you that there’s still a place for the unsung, tackle-everything-that moves player, and that his name is Euan Aitken. As we mentioned above, Nat Butcher excels on both sides of the ball, but the new Dolphin, former Warrior, sometimes Scotland international didn’t get much chance to do a great deal of attacking in 2021 or 2022.

Instead, he geld together his edge astoundingly well, rarely being subbed and managing a ridiculous 33 tackles a game, the most of any backrower. He also trucked in ten carries per game, and while he didn’t make that many metres – which Warrior did? – he managed more than a fair share of hard yards. Wayne Bennett sees something in him. I do too.

13 – Adam Elliott (Knights)

A press box collegaue once described Adam Elliott as ‘nowhere near the best player in the NRL, but makes every 17 in the NRL’ and there’s not a lie to be found in that.

Imagine a dude that plays all the positions: he’s lined up in first grade in the second row, backrow and off the bench, while also filling in at hooker at points last year.

He’s also worth a lot of runs and tackles wherever you play him – Involvement Rate is less effective for measuring non-middles, but I would presume he’d go well for backrowers – and a surprisingly large number of offloads and tackle breaks.

It’s hard to think of many better set-and-forget guys out there, destined to be underappreciated by everyone that isn’t their teammate.

#underrated #players #NRL

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