I’ll lay my cards on the table straight away: I am a Roosters supporter. And this post is biased. But I will at least attempt to buttress my argument using facts.
The fact is that the Roosters – rightly or wrongly – are hammered by the referees in the penalty count. This post is concerned with getting to the bottom of why the Tricolours are constantly lumped with the rough end of the pineapple where the whistle-blowers are concerned.
Since Brad Fittler retired at the end of 2004, the Roosters are the only single club in the NRL to have not enjoyed a positive penalty differential (i.e. received more penalties than they have conceded) over the course of a season. Besides breaking even in 2007, the Chooks have sustained tallies of -5, -19, -37, -50, -46, -17 and -24, which makes for sorry reading and a string of extremely frustrating afternoons spent at the ground formerly known as the SFS.
I should emphasise that the Roosters are the only club – the only club – that has suffered a negative differential every single year in the post-Fittler epoch. Not once have they won the refereeing lottery. Evidently, for the Eastern Suburbs club, penalty counts are not a lottery. There is some inherent deficiency that has resulted in endemically poor discipline, in the eyes of the whistle-blowers. What innate quality do the Roosters possess that constantly has them on the wrong side of the law?
Home ground (dis)advantage
The Roosters’ lack of a home ground advantage – playing in front of a quarter-full Allianz Stadium most weeks, or selling home games to Christchurch, Darwin, Gosford and everywhere in between – seems the most obvious cause of the clubs’ penalty horrors. But how important is it, really?
Consider Brisbane, Newcastle, and the Warriors – three clubs with vociferously partisan galleries – and their respective differentials between 2005-11. While Brisbane was reasonably consistent (-14, 10, -4, 17, 2, 16, 37), both the Knights (16, 10, -23, -46, 6, -9, -12) and the Auckland-based club (-22, -17, -3, 16, 34, -27, -8) yo-yoed violently between disparate peaks and troughs, illustrating that home-ground advantage does not ensure cushy treatment from home-town Harry referees.
It’s also true that, post-Fittler, the Roosters have performed poorly, with only two finals appearances over an eight-year period. Maybe crap teams are hammered in the penalty count, and high-flyers are the referees’ darlings?
An analysis of the statistics demonstrates that there is no correlation between ladder position and penalty differential. The 2010 minor premiers, St George Illawarra, enjoyed the best differential (37) just a year before the first-placed Melbourne Storm registered 2011’s worst differential (-29).
In the last seven completed seasons, the team with the best cumulative penalty count (8th, 9th, 5th, 11th, 14th, 1st, 3rd), or the team with the worst differential (14th, 2nd, 16th, 9th, 16th, 6th, 1st), has come from anywhere on the ladder. Ladder position has very little bearing on how the men in pink treat a side.
It would be perfectly reasonable to suggest that the Roosters’ persistently negative penalty differentials result from an ingrained culture of ill-discipline. It’s entirely possible that they simply break the rules more than other teams.
I’m happy to accept that conceding penalties has been endemic within the club. Since 2005 the Roosters have always sat in the top half of the NRL for ‘penalties against’. Discipline has often been lax.
However, the Roosters inexplicably suffer from a lack of penalties awarded to them. In the last seven years, the Roosters’ ranking on the ‘penalties for’ table has been consistently below average (9, 10, 4, 14, 16, 16, 6, average 11th in the comp).
The number of penalties a team concedes is up to them. The Roosters may well give away a stack of penalties because they are lazy or ill-disciplined or whatever, and obviously this has an influence on the Chooks repeatedly clocking a negative differential. But equally as influential is receiving fewer penalties than they are entitled to.
In the NRL, you’ll have some teams that are very disciplined and concede, say, four penalties a game. Then there’s your undisciplined teams who might give away eight, and your average sides with six. Over the course of a season, where every team plays a mixture of the good, bad and indifferent sides, every team should end up with roughly the same number of penalties awarded to them. But, post-Fittler, the Roosters haven’t enjoyed their fair share – evidenced by their persistently low ranking on the ‘penalties for’ ladder.
Why? Are we to believe that teams suddenly improve their discipline when they come up against the Roosters? Of course not. Equally, I think it would be a bit tin-foil-hat of me to suggest that the refs are institutionally biased against the Tricolours.
So the real question is, why aren’t the Roosters awarded as many penalties as they deserve?
Time after time after time we’ve seen Braith Anasta’s strained relationship with the whistle-blowers be painfully played out on the field. Before him, Craig Fitzgibbon seemed like too nice a bloke to get in the refs’ grills. Both of them have tremendous leadership qualities and deserve praise for the manner in which they’ve guided the foundation club through a tricky period, but applying the heat to the officials has never been a strong point for either man.
The influence of a strong captain – like Brad Fittler – is clear. Since the master five-eighth relinquished rep duties in 2001, the Australian captain’s club side has only accumulated a negative penalty differential twice (in 2004 and 2007). Esteemed captains typically win penalty counts, as can be seen by the NRL records of Kangaroo captains: Cameron Smith 2012 (+8), Darren Lockyer 2006-11 (+10, -4, +17, +2, +16, +37), Danny Buderus 2004-05 (-1, +16), Andrew Johns 2002-03 (+45, +2).
With four coaches filing through Bondi Junction since Brad Fittler’s 2004 retirement, the revolving door on the coaches box has probably taken a toll on the Chooks’ discipline. Ricky Stuart, Chris Anderson, Brad Fittler and Brian Smith do not have particularly poor records (indeed, in his 10 years at Parramatta, Smith’s Eels never suffered a negative penalty differential) but instability can’t have helped.
Since 2005, the coaches of the teams with the best cumulative penalty counts – including two-time premiership winner Des Hasler, Queensland Origin mastermind Mick Hagan, Wayne Bennett and his protege Anthony Griffin – form a who’s who list of NRL bosses.
The coaches of the ill-disciplined sides with the negative differentials have usually been blokes under pressure to keep their jobs, like Brian Smith the year before he was sacked by the Knights, Brad Fittler in the year he was sacked by the Roosters, and twice Matthew Elliott, at both Canberra and Penrith, incidentally now Brian Smith’s right-hand man.
What’s the problem?
The Roosters’ might have a tame home ground advantage, but that doesn’t matter. Sure, they’ve struggled for wins in the last eight years but that doesn’t matter, either. Their own poor discipline, obviously, has a bearing on their persistently poor penalty differentials but, as the stats demonstrate, the Bondi boys receive less than a fair share of penalties coming their way (when you consider, over the course of a year playing a number of teams with varying degrees of discipline, every side in the comp should have a roughly equal number of penalties awarded to them).
Why is that? Passive captains and under-pressure coaches. Brad Fittler left some very large boots to fill and, in so many ways, Fitzgibbon and Anasta have done a sterling job, besides placing pressure on the refs. As far as the coach is concerned, bosses under the hammer to keep their job don’t yield great penalty counts and with four chiefs in eight years, the Roosters unfortunately tick that box.