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Captain's challenge: How and why teams are getting better

The NRL's Head of Football - Elite Competitions Graham Annesley was definite in his weekly football briefing on Monday as to the significance, and benefit, of technology within the game.

"It's unrealistic to expect that the game could proceed at the professional level these days without the assistance of technology," Annesley said.

"Every major sport, or [at least] most major sports in the world that are played at the professional level have some sort of technological assistance."

He made specific note of the captain's challenge process, which has seen captain's operate a success rate of over 50 percent for the first time since its introduction in 2020. Entering Round 12, there have been 148 challenges — 73 of which have been successful, 67 have been unsuccessful and eight were inconclusive.

"If we don't use technology for captain's challenges, there's 73 decisions so far this year — and we're not even halfway through the year yet — that would have otherwise been wrong," Annesley added.

Graham Annesley weekly football briefing - Round 11

"These are errors that the referees have made and there's no question about that.

"They see something, and they make a ruling, and if the captain thinks that they've gotten it wrong, they've got the ability to go to a captain's challenge.

"Yes, it's another "intrusion" by technology but look at the benefit the game gets."

As we approach the halfway mark of the season, broke down the data to see exactly what has stood out most this year in comparison to others, and why the captain's challenge is such an important tool for teams to get right.

What is different in 2022?

With 52.1% of captain's challenge attempts coming back as successful so far in 2022, it's clear that teams (and players) are getting better with the process.

In 2020, there were a total of 262 challenges that came back as either upheld (resulting in a decision remaining the same) or overturned (which resulted in a new decision being made). Of those 262 challenge attempts, 109 were upheld and 153 overturned, meaning clubs were operating at a success rate of 41.6%.

In 2021, that number rose slightly as certain teams began to improve. 

That year saw a total of 302 challenge attempts — a number which was understandably higher than the previous year given the reduced regular season because of the pandemic in 2020 — with 135 resulting in overturned decisions.

While there were still 167 "incorrect" challenge attempts, the success rate for teams rose from 41.6% to 44.7%, with most clubs making more challenges than they did the year prior. Only the Broncos, Sharks, Warriors, Knights, Rabbitohs and Roosters made fewer challenges in 2021 than they did in 2020 and, again, the data paints a telling picture as to why those clubs were perhaps more hesitant than others.

Bunker vital for captain's challenge success

Which teams are getting better?

In 2020, no team had a worse success rate at the captain's challenge process than Brisbane, who were only correct in four of their 14 attempts — a success rate of 28.6%. Unsurprisingly, their total challenge number went down from 14 to 12 in 2021 which, in turn, was coupled with an improved success rate of 50%.

Cronulla had the second most incorrect challenges (13) than any other team in 2020 despite finishing that season with an overall success rate of 40.9%.

The Sharks made more challenges than any other team in 2020 with 22 attempts, so, despite getting nine correct challenges — the second most of any team — they were still operating at a level far below fifty-fifty. 

In fact, only the Warriors had more incorrect challenges in 2020, with 14 decisions going against them from their 21 attempts — a success rate of just 33.3%.

Captain's challenges and sin bins

Those teams weren't alone, either. Half of the 16 teams had a success rate of less than 40% in 2020, but that's risen dramatically in the following two seasons. 

In 2021, the number of teams below a 40% success rate had halved — just the Dragons (35.3%), Warriors (33.3%), Raiders (25%) and Titans (22.7%).

Conversely, the number of teams who had a success rate of greater than 50 percent in 2020 has improved dramatically come season 2022. 

In 2020, only the Eels (61.5%), Dragons (70%) and Roosters (55%) could lay claim to a positive success rate with their challenges. So far, in 2022, that number has risen to 13 of 16. 

Are teams just throwing them away?

With the overall rate of successful challenges going up to above 50 percent this year, it's little surprise to see that some teams have drastically improved their tactical nous and decision making when it comes to challenging decisions.

Of note has been the success rate of teams in the first half, when the incentive to challenge a decision has far more impact than in the second half where there is less time on the clock to potentially require a challenge.

The theory is, therefore, that teams are more likely to be willing to "throw away a challenge" in the second half with the consequences of an incorrect challenge less severe than in incorrect challenge early in the first half.

While the numbers only tell part of the story here — that is, we can't dig into each specific incident to analyse exactly whether it was a genuine challenge or merely a roll-of-the-dice attempt as it's too subjective — we can see some key trends.

As expected, teams are far more liberal with their challenges in the second half as opposed to the first — in fact, every team has lodged more challenge attempts in the second half of their games than in the first half of those respective matches.

The Raiders, Storm, Knights and Dragons have a success rate of 100 percent when challenging in the first half, while Wests Tigers are also performing well at 75 percent. Compared to the second half, however, each of those sides drops down in their success rate — significantly in the case of the Raiders (16.7% success in the second half) and Dragons (33.3% success in the second half).

But that doesn't necessarily mean that clubs are just throwing the challenges away.

Penrith have made four second half challenges this year and been proven correct on every instance. Parramatta have made ten second half challenges and have had the decision overturned in their favour in eight of those ten instances.

The Roosters have made 11 second half challenges, more than any other team, and have a success rate of 72.7%. The Rabbitohs' rate is 75% from their four attempts.

So, despite the volume understandably being higher, it's important to remember that this can be a by-product of the increased significance of the moment, rather than the decreased consequence of an incorrect challenge. 

A tight call in the second half which a team believes it can get correct is more likely to decide a game than a similarly contentious moment in the first half, when there's more than half a game of footy still to be played.

Players, captains, and teams are becoming more astute in their decision-making — leading to better challenges, at better times of the game.

And it's allowing the strength of the technology to prove its worth in key moments of the Telstra Premiership, over and over again.

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