Is The Gap Between Super League And The NRL Getting Bigger?

This weekend sees Super League champions Wigan Warriors take on the Cronulla Sharks, the NRL premiers, for the World Club Challenge (WCC) crown. This is also the third year that extra teams have taken part to form the World Club Series (WCS), with Warrington Wolves set to face off against Brisbane Broncos.

The Super League competition came in for some criticism following last year’s WCS, with the NRL teams claiming all three games in an extremely one-sided weekend. Not only were the outcomes disappointing for the English sides, but the manner of defeats created cause for concern regarding the quality of the Super League. The aggregate score of the three games came in at 28-118, a difference of a staggering 90 points in favour of the Aussies.

With the recent dominance of the NRL teams when facing their Super League counterparts, the question has to be asked – is the gap between the NRL and Super League getting bigger? TSZ will look back to see how far the NRL’s dominance goes, as well as exploring various factors that could potentially quantify why the NRL sides are better prepared than the Super League sides when it comes to the WCS.

The NRL sides have claimed 11 of the last 14 World Club Series games (78.6%), including the last eight games in a row. That dominance is backed up by the NRL sides racking up a positive points difference of 156 during those 14 games, highlighting a big difference in quality. With this in mind, does points difference across the respective leagues play a part in answering why the NRL has been so successful recently?

When we look at the teams who have taken part in the WCS, it’s interesting to note their points difference for the previous domestic season. Although the format has changed from the WCC (when it would just be the Super League champions vs the NRL premiers), all teams that have taken part in the new format other than St. George in 2015 (they finished 11th in the NRL in 2014) would be classed as having a competitive previous league campaign.

The Super League participants have combined for a positive points difference of 4553, with the NRL teams combining for 3035. It’s clear from the numbers that the Super League sides have, on average, enjoyed more comprehensive seasons in general. However, does this also suggest that Super League is a weaker competition overall?

If we examine the team in each competition who ended the season with the highest points difference and break this down to a per game average, we see that the Super League team with the highest points difference has had a higher figure in nine of the 11 seasons we’ve looked at. In some years, there were significant differences between the two numbers with 2011 a prime example of this (24.85 in Super League, 8.88 in NRL).

Now looking at this from the angle of teams who ended the season with the lowest points difference, the Super League side with the lowest points difference has been a lower number than the NRL side in eight of the 11 seasons, with some significant differences again. 2014 (-29.59 in Super League, -11.63 in NRL) and 2015 (-22.91 in Super League, -8.21 in NRL).

The most noticeable figures, however, come last season in 2016. The NRL team with the lowest points difference averaged a points difference of -20.63 per game, whereas the Super League side only averaged -7.48. Super League also had a slightly lower figure than the NRL in 2016 for the team with the highest points difference (10.87 in Super League, 10.88 in NRL) which is the only season going back to 2006 (in the seasons we’ve looked at) where Super League has posted smaller figures in both categories.

In terms of the overall picture, what can we read into this? Well, the lower these figures are could suggest a more competitive competition, which backs up why the NRL sides have been so successful in this period. However, with the Super League competition seemingly improving last season in terms of being more competitive, does this give the English sides more of a chance in this year’s WCS?

There is a saying that “you’re only as good as your weakest player” when talking about individual sports teams. If we take this term and apply it to the actual competitions, it allows us to investigate the difference between the team with the highest and lowest points difference. Super League has consistently shown a greater difference between the team with the highest points difference compared to the team with the lowest points difference. From 2006 to 2015, this was the case. Only last season in 2016 was the NRL’s difference greater, again highlighting that perhaps the Super League is becoming more competitive in itself, as the weaker sides in the competition are capable of making games into more of a contest than the NRL’s weaker teams.

The difference of 422 points between Warrington’s +250 points and Leeds’ -172 was in fact the lowest number we recorded. However, it is also worth noting that the 756 difference in points that the NRL posted in 2016 was also their highest figure, but that was still lower than any other Super League difference from the seasons we’ve looked at.

Another way to measure the competitiveness of each league is by looking at the average winning margin per game. We’ve looked at this over the course of 2016 and found that Super League had a marginally lower figure. The average winning margin in Super League last season was 14.02, compared to 14.11 in the NRL. Those numbers are intriguing for two reasons. Firstly, it suggests both competitions are extremely well matched in terms of competitiveness. On the other hand, it is surprising that the figures are so closely matched, despite the difference between the Super League side with the lowest points difference compared to the NRL side as mentioned earlier.

It’s difficult to determine what quantifies a strong team or league. In rugby league, do we associate good defence with being a good side or being the best side? Is it the side who scores the most tries? Less missed tackles, more metres made, more breaks, more offloads? The list goes on but it’s something we’re keen to explore in more detail and will aim to investigate in a future article.

England Head Coach Wayne Bennett recently highlighted that some of his England squad would need to take part in "more intense-type training”. This comment was aimed solely at the English based players and made no reference to those playing in the NRL. This is another example of determining what has given NRL sides an edge in recent years – do they have better training methods than the Super League teams?

If the NRL sides have been facing tougher games each week, be it that they believe their training methods are more advanced or just that their weaker teams are stronger than Super League’s weaker teams, that means they’re getting tested to a higher standard more often than the Super League sides, which could explain some of the recent results in the WCS. Whilst the NRL has clearly enjoyed the better of the WCC and WCS over recent times, the figures we’ve produced seem to indicate that the Super League is becoming more competitive as a competition, which could help the English sides when they face off against their NRL counterparts this weekend.

Warrington Wolves are still missing a few key players, including captain Chris Hill, and may find it difficult to overcome Brisbane Broncos on Saturday, so it could be down to Wigan Warriors to put an end to the NRL’s winning streak in the competition when they meet Cronulla SHarks on Sunday.