Playing the Moldovans at Rugby

Perplexed by the iRB Player of the Year Awards?  So were we.  So after tweeting about the nominations, and appearing to have a better understanding of the whole crazy thing than us, we asked ummm, to write about it for the site. 

Much has been made of the announcement of the iRB shortlist for the 2012 player of the year, and a lot of it a little bit frothy around the mouth. It’s understandable, the inclusion of a player nobody had been particularly gushing about all year raised eyebrows and objections in equal measure.

I have to admit I feel sorry for Owen Farrell. He’s like the poor kid at school who gets a compliment from teacher and immediately becomes the butt of every joke for the rest of the month, or even year, you know how kids are.

The teacher in this case is a select group of players who have singled out a short list of Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Frédéric Michalak and – yes, that boy – Owen Farrell, and now have to listen to all and sundry give them a better list. But again, like Farrell, this isn’t really their fault either. This is the result of a poor selection system, not the selectors themselves.

Selection itself is simple. Each selector picks three stand out players from each match, ranked 1, 2 & 3. From this they arrive at a group wherein the cream has, it’s assumed, risen to the top. But a little analysis shows this to be entirely flawed.

This process considers all matches equal, and all opposition in these matches equal. Whether you play the top or the 10th ranked team in the world, if you’re in the top 3 you’re on the list. But if you’re 4th best in a tough match, sorry son, the guy who played well in a facile
match is better than you. And if you’re consistently 4th best, you might get lots of nice things written about you, but you’ve got zero points for the year.

So forget asking “What about Lobbe?” or someone else. Lobbe would have needed to outplay 13 All Blacks, Aussies or South Africans just to get a ranking point in some matches this year, the deck is stacked against him. Meanwhile Owen Farrell kicked some goals against Italy and, according to the system, is therefore a better shout for the player of the year. Not right at all. With much tougher opposition Lobbe’s efforts on a losing team are, according to this system, no different to those of a replacement getting 5 minutes at the end.

Fans of American sports will probably be aware of the Bowl Championship Series, a system that uses a computer to decide who got to play in what was effectively the college finals (Ok, it’s not, but it’s more complicated than that). The maths graduate in me has nothing
but love for numbers and algorithms, but even I know this is a soulless and ultimately unsatisfying way of choosing a deserving winner. After enough uproar the system was modified, the BCS still uses algorithms to select teams, but now takes into account opinion polls, including from coaches.

Many good articles about the short list have been ruined by missing out on an analysis of the process. Much has been made of the fact that the selectors “should” have picked this player or that. Maybe they should have (Ok, they absolutely should have), but the fact is, they
couldn’t. They couldn’t because of a set of criteria that are fundamentally broken, but nobody is pointing this out. Articles that miss this out misinform the reader and lead to the general air of ignorance of the underlying problem.

Another issue is deciding what matches to watch. In 2009 Richie McCaw won the player of the year award. The selectors made their choice after reviewing 49 matches. Which seems a lot, but is it?

There are 15 6 Nations matches a year, in 2009 there were 9 Tri-Nations games. In November each of the 6 NH teams would have played 3 home games, 18 in total (give or take, I’m ignoring teams adding on an extra match.) In July each of the Tri-Nations teams also would have played 3 home games. This adds up to 51 matches. So not all of these matches were viewed, possibly because as a Lions year the Australian and New Zealand matches weren’t all considered, and that’s before you ask yourself what about Argentina, Samoa, Fiji, Tonga, Japan and others. It’s speculation on my part, but does that mean the squads for those teams weren’t considered worth a look when deciding the player of the year? Effectively it would seem the shortlist is made from a long list of 6 Nations plus Rugby Championship.

I suppose you have to draw the line somewhere and a player such as Finland’s Ilkka Tuomaala is never going to really be in with a shout, but still. Samoa are ranked in the top 8, were their players ignored while 12th place Scotland’s players were ranked by the system?

The selectors are probably guilty of painting themselves into a corner, and for that they should shoulder some of the blame; they should have lobbied to have it changed years ago. But if we’re going to have a pop, let’s get the right target in our sights, the iRB itself for choosing to do it this way. I don’t envy the selectors their jobs, they can’t watch every match, they can’t rate all 46 players on the pitch. The amount of work involved would make it impossible. So let’s be nicer to them, and have a pop at whoever came up with this broken and entirely stupid system.

With thanks to ummm,  follow him on Twitter here for more Connacht and general rugby related stuff.

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  1. Cillian Hogan

     /  December 3, 2012

    I’m glad this has happened. Since Shane Williams won in ’08 there as been a great big dirty cloud over this award. Richie should have won that year and because they made a mess of it they gave it to him the following year at the expense of either BOD or Du Preez.

    This may finally force a fix of the system but I’m not gonna hold my breath.

  2. Mike

     /  December 3, 2012

    The whole ranking system and player of the year reminds me of Alan Partridge and his USA 94′ world cup soccermeter…

  3. Good article. It is a ridiculous system, which shows very nicely what happens when clueless fools introduce a bit (but not enough) rigour into the system to make it ‘better’
    You have a panel there with a lot of good rugby knowledge (albeit they’re chosen because they’re on the sky team which has a whole different set of criteria to fulfil): England’s Will Greenwood, Scotland’s Gavin Hastings, France’s Raphaël Ibanez, South Africa’s Francois Pienaar, Argentina’s Agustín Pichot, Wales’ Scott Quinnell, New Zealand’s Tana Umaga and Ireland’s Paul Wallace. Why not trust them to be more involved in the selection

    Straight off the top of my head

    1) Pick best two players from EACH side in any game involving any ‘big’ international team (define this how you will – e.g. top 20 world ranking). At the end of the selection period, this list is the ‘long list’
    2) Prune the ‘long list’ to a max of 3 per country. This is the ‘medium list’
    3) Each selector, in turn, nominates one player from the ‘medium list’. You now have a ‘short list’ of 8 players
    4) Every selector votes their first and second choice from this short-list. The IRB player of the year is the one with most first choices (using second choices to break a tie break)

  4. Connachtexile

     /  December 3, 2012

    Spiffy article Ummmm. Good to know why Farrell was picked.

  5. zdm

     /  December 4, 2012

    The whole process is a shambles – I don’t see why they can’t get a bigger panel and watch all the international matches that happen in a year – hell, I’d do it for free.

    In a sport as position-specific as rugby, does it even matter who is voted the “best” player in the world? For example, it would take a lot more for Cian Healey or Rory Best to win player of the year in Ireland than it would for Stephen Ferris or Tommy Bowe – these lists are dominated by back-row forwards, fly halves and outside backs because their work is so much more conspicuous.

    It’s also a bit of a sham that only international matches feature – Stefon Armitage has been tearing the Top 14 to pieces (as Mole has argued, the most competitive and aggressive league in the world) and yet Tony Woodcock has a higher score than him for an 8 minute cameo against Scotland

  6. LPO

     /  December 4, 2012

    Nice article on a ludicrous system, of which I was totally unaware, I must admit. I knew it was throwing us idiotic results, but assumed it was for other reasons. That said, can you explain how Mc.Caw then won the award in 2009 (having perhaps unjustly missed out the previous year), when Ireland went unbeaten largely thanks to the genius of O’Driscoll, against all odds, and the mighty All Blacks slumped to defeat at the hands of the French once and the Boks three times?

    • “can you explain how Mc.Caw then won the award in 2009”

      Erm, as any good maths book would say, this is left as an exercise for the reader 😉

  7. Rich

     /  December 5, 2012

    Completely agree with the notion of 8 players nominated – more scope for discussion and a wider range of player. For Farrell to e nominated shows how pathetic ex players are – looking at the panel, there had to be an English player in there to boost shirt sales……

    The best player in the world this year has been Sonny Bill – personality and money grabbing aside, the guy was sublime every minute he played.

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