The nutty statistic that has Manly’s mad professor on cusp of grand final

Manly coach, Des Hasler, is rugby league’s last remaining Mad Professor, an endearing sight at press conferences, tie askew and hair uncut and uncombed, in an era where most executives turn up in a “I earn half-a-million dollars a year” uniform of blue suit coat and unbuttoned crisp white shirt.

He’ll be at his enigmatic best after Friday night’s preliminary final against South Sydney, given the myriad explanations for the ways games are won and lost.

He has an assistant, Ramy Haidar, whose official title is “innovation consultant”, although Haidar prefers “synthesist.“

If Hasler is a demon for numbers, trawling through statistics in the early hours, Haidar is even more fixated.

“I like to collate information and search for correlations,” he said. “My focus becomes extremely narrow.“

He adds, by way of explanation in a code where missing teeth are more common than university degrees, “I have been diagnosed with Asperger’s.”

Sea Eagles coach Des Hasler is one win away from another grand final.Credit:NRL Photos

The joint research of Hasler and Haidar suggests they are close to “synthesising” the field position versus possession conundrum which to some football coaches is equivalent to the unified theory of physics which stumped Einstein.

Over the past decade, in most team ball sports, possession has become more important than field position.

In rugby union, the ball in hand is everything with endless phases on the opposition line, whereas in the past it rarely went past the five-eighth without being kicked by the No.10.

In the AFL, players kick backwards to teammates to maintain possession, rather than boot the ball downfield and risk losing it.

“Teams with higher completion rates tend to lose more often, while those who use the ball, win.”

Only dear soccer, the world game, still values position equally, given it is impossible to kick a goal from your own line.

The NRL has propelled the game further towards possession, with a six-again rule replacing a penalty which previously allowed a team to kick for territory.

NRL coaches, following a loss, will give more attention to “our poor completion rate” than “playing the game in the opposition half.“

Yet, consider the paradoxes. This year, the Bulldogs, came last, yet had the highest completion rate in the NRL.

The NRL’s better teams throw the ball around more, which leads to more errors.Credit:Getty

The 2019 Roosters won the premiership, yet amassed a whopping 311 errors through the season.

The 2021 Bulldogs did little with the ball, opting for conservative play, whereas the 2019 Roosters embraced risk.

The better teams play more expansively, passing the ball more often, leading to more errors and lower completion rates.

Haidar reached this conclusion after being tasked by Hasler to feed multiple statistics into a computer, such as metres gained, line breaks, tackles made, penalties, and isolate the most significant factor in a win.

Haidar found that in the period between 2017 and 2021, across the NRL, the correlation between “possessions” – the number of times the ball is received in hand- and win percentage was 0.76, a close relationship.

Yet over the same period, the correlation between the standard “completion rate” and win percentage, was a negative 0.27, an inverse relationship.

That is, teams with higher completion rates tend to lose more often, while those who use the ball, win.

So, for a man who obsesses about small things, the fifth “s” in possessions is very important.

According to Haidar, “possessions” is the amount of ball receipts, whereas “possession” measures total time with the ball.

There are echoes of the 2019 premiership-winning Roosters side in Des Hasler’s Sea Eagles outfit.Credit:NRL Photos

A Lebanese Muslim, Haidar is one of many young men of similar background who have contacted me over the years seeking more knowledge of rugby league.

In Haidar’s case, he likens himself to the Moneyball character who used overlooked statistics to build an Oakland Athletics team low on recognised stars but only eliminated by eventual World Series champions Anaheim.

Haidar won a media award for catching out the A-League’s Newcastle Jets for buying fake followers online.

Hasler hired him at the beginning of the year after Wests Tigers, who also showed interest via coach Michael Maguire, were slow in contracting him.

Asked how advanced he is in creating a statistical map where all the game-day variables synthesise, he admitted to trying to collate everything into a unified theory.

Given the significant role referees have in rugby league, this would seem a doomed venture. But he remains fixated on the task.

Asked if his statistical analysis could point to the 2021 premiership winner, he mentioned the 2019 premiers, the Roosters, who made most errors in the season.

So, which NRL team had the lowest completion rate at the end of the 2021 regular season?

Manly.

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