NRL | Stats That Matter: Defence wins Premierships

Paul "Bear" Bryant won six college football national championships between 1950 and 1979. Focusing on an aggressive defence, Bryant coined the now-famous phrase, "offence sells tickets, but defence wins championships".

He's right. In the years Bryant won with Kentucky and Alabama, his team averaged a defensive rank of 3.6. He used to tell his team, "if you prevent the opponent from scoring, you will not lose."

Again, he's right. You need to score points to win, though. Lucky for Bryant, his average offensive rank wasn't far behind at 5.3. 

Defence won him those championships, but his offence hardly lagged.

Earning premierships in the NRL is much the same.

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Since 2006, only the 2015 Cowboys have entered the finals with a defence outside the top three and gone on to win the premiership. The 2005 Tigers are the real outliers in the NRL era conceding 23.95 points per game during the regular season, a number that would have ranked 15th in 2019. But, for the most part, premiership-winning teams have been at the top end for an average rank of 2.7 since 1998.

The responsibility of making tackles comes down to an individual player, but keeping shoulder to shoulder, working inside out, and holding the line is a collective effort. 

Missed tackle numbers are often given too much weight in assessing a defence. The Panthers averaged the most missed tackles in 2019 with 39.1 per game yet ranked eighth overall in points conceded. Throughout the season, the Panthers accounted for four of the six highest single-game missed tackle counts in 2019 yet won three of those four games. 

Lateral and cohesive movement is crucial in maintaining the integrity of any good defensive line. The Roosters, Storm and more recently, Raiders, are experts in team defence, and it's why they will trust their defensive principles under fatigue. 

Outside of the penalty blitz in 2018, the number of penalties conceded inside a team's own 20-metre line has steadily grown every year.

Good defensive teams are more willing to concede a penalty and defend another set despite the extra effort required. 

The 2019 grand finalist Roosters and Raiders finished second and third in points conceded per game while conceding the fewest and second-fewest points per tackle inside their own 20-metre line at 0.478 and 0.541 respectively. Yet, both conceded more penalties in that area of the field than the NRL average.

Rugby league defences have evolved with rules and structure changes. Tactical penalties are one of the more recent ploys undertaken by players and coaches. However, despite often being talked about separately, how a team attacks plays into their defence. 

The two are linked more than they're given credit. 

Premiership winners in the NRL have ranked at 3.1 in points scored per game while five of the last six premiership-winning teams have finished inside the top three in running metres per game.

Elite attacking teams put themselves into favourable positions of the field to also be excellent defensively. They'll roll up the field, pin the opposition in their own end, and slowly win the territory battle.

Forcing the opposition into hard sets starting from inside their own 20-metre line shortens the travel of the forwards and reduces fatigue. With the extra energy in reserve for when the opposition side does earn a good ball set in your own 20-metre, giving away penalties to reset the line has become a worthwhile risk.

Once they repel the attacking onslaught of the opposition, the elite defensive teams then rely on their attack to work their way out of trouble.

It's why a team like the Bulldogs - whose defensive effort can rarely be questioned - eventually crumbles under the pressure their defence is continuously put under due to an attack incapable of creating pressure itself. Meanwhile, the Roosters absorbed a competition-high 29 tackles inside their own 20-metre line per game in 2019 and lifted the Provan-Summons Trophy.

So, does defence win premierships in the NRL?

History says it does. Almost every premiership-winning team in the NRL has laid claim to an elite defence. But a good attack does a little more than sell tickets in rugby league.

"Defence wins premierships, and so does attack, just not quite as much."

It doesn't roll off the tongue quite like Bryant's quote, but where NRL premiership-winning teams finish the regular season in attack isn't far from their finishing position in defence.

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Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

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