What would AFL State of Origin look like in 2018?

Every year there are a nearconstant series of calls for the good old days of State of Origin football, usually on Wednesday nights or Thursday mornings after the NRL equivalent. The reasons that it isn’t currently on the AFL schedule are plentiful. They include overscheduling, injury concerns, a likely competitive imbalance and no financial incentive. But what if state of origin did exist?

As part of researching and writing for Footballistics (a book HPN contributed to), we undertook research into player origins, to help answer the question “which state is most into footy?” For the final verdict on that question you’ll need to get yourself a copy from June 18, but this post is this a deeper dive into our state of origin research.

HPN has primarily used Fan Footy‘s player information as a starting point, editing playters to hew more towards their actual origins over the club or Melbourne boarding school they were immediately drafted from. It’s an evolving dataset and HPN continues to correct for things like a player being drafted from Werribee (Ben Brown) or Scotch College (Cyril Rioli) even though they’re clearly from elsewhere.

Currently, the distribution of player origins in the AFL looks like this:

As it happens, correctly re-assigning a few players to the NT puts them above Victoria in terms of player production per capita, but Victoria still reigns supreme over the other big footy states. Victoria has produced over half of all current players, and at a per capita rate higher than all other states. However, something we didn’t really address in Footballistics is whether this numerical predominance means that they’re also producing the best players. Does a Victorian state team still automatically defeat teams from the other states?

To test this, HPN has called on our Player Expected Results Tipping model (PERT), which is a model based on using selected player quality rather than team ratings. PERT will be used to evaluate our selected State of Origin teams against each other just like our projections of club games.

Qualification for a state team has largely been determined using the NRL State of Origin eligibility rules, with a bit of fluidity applied at times. If a player can qualify for two states, HPN has assigned him to the one where he fulfills more of the criteria, however if he wouldn’t merit selection in that side he becomes free game. This is why Eddie Betts has been selected for SA, as he would not crack the WA team on current form.

To select the teams, HPN focused on picking the best side available according to marginal Player Approximate Value (mPAV) and PERT, with respect to their performance against an “average” team. HPN only considered games played in 2018 and tried to look at overall team balance, while optimising the sides to be as strong as achievable for team projection purposes. We’ve ignored current injury lists.

For Victoria and WA, missing more than half the season to date also meant that you were missing this side – for the other states that bar had to be lowered. Indeed, for some teams HPN has had to estimate a strength for players outside the AFL system.

Victoria

Back: Tom Stewart, Heath Shaw, Robbie Tarrant, Jake Lloyd, Jamie Macmillan, James Sicily
Mid: Clayton Oliver, Dustin Martin, Trent Cotchin, Jack Macrae, Patrick Dangerfield, Adam Treloar, Shaun Higgins, Luke Shuey, Marcus Bontempelli,
Ruck: Max Gawn
Fwd: Tom McDonald, Jeremy Cameron, Jarrad Waite, Josh Caddy, Robbie Gray, Luke Parker

Victoria has a stacked side, which is unsurprising given they have nearly 54% of the player base to select from. While every defender has been a solid contributor, it’s the midfield and the whole-team offence which are particularly strong. Along with three key forwards and our notional smalls in Caddy, Gray and Parker, Victoria have a plethora of other mid/fwd hybrids, players like Martin, Dangerfield and Bontempelli who create mismatches wherever they go.

HPN chose to omit the potential second ruckman Stefan Martin given both he and Gawn basically ruck the whole game. Toby Greene missed the cut having only played 3 games this year, but if fit would make the side even stronger.

Western Australia

Back: Alex Rance, Jeremy McGovern, Tom Barrass, Nathan Wilson, Mitch Duncan, Elliot Yeo
Mid: Tom Mitchell, Nat Fyfe, Patrick Cripps, Stephen Coniglio, Dom Sheed, Tim Kelly, Jaeger O’Meara
Ruck: Nic Naitanui, Callum Sinclair Paddy Ryder
Fwd: Lance Franklin, Josh J. Kennedy, Jack Darling, Jesse Hogan, Mark LeCras, Michael Walters, Sam Menegola

Note: We originally stuffed up and classified proud Victorian Callum Sinclair as a West Aussie. He’s not. He’s from Victoria. Paddy Ryder qualifies for both WA and NT, and gets the nod here instead of Sinclair. The projections barely change as a result.

Theoretically this is a really strong forward-line, but the combination of four tall forwards as well as two rucks in Naitanui and Ryder would demand pretty careful planning of rotations, positions and tactics to be successful. Hogan and Franklin likely spend a lot of time up a long way from goal in this side. It would be almost impossible for any of the other sides to shut down this attack, and in reality it may do better than this projection indicates – if they can supply enough ball. 

Aaron Sandilands is the highest rated playes to miss out, which illustrates the ridiculous ruck quality available to the West Aussies. Mitch McGovern and Sam Powell-Pepper are the most valuable non-ruck players this year who have been left out.

South Australia

Back: Tom Jonas, Shannon Hurn, Rory Laird, Bailey Williams, Hamish Hartlett, Trent Dumont, Justin Westhoff
Mid: Bryce Gibbs, Lachie Neale, Luke Dunstan, Cam Ellis-Yolmen, Jack Redden, Shane Edwards, Jared Polec
Ruck: Brodie Grundy, Scott Lycett
Fwd: Daniel Menzel, Eddie Betts, Brennan Cox, Sam Gray, Chad Wingard, Orazio Fantasia

Scratching together a 2018 South Australian side from its 100ish players in the league was surprisingly tough. A lot of players who would make it on reputation just don’t have great numbers this year under PAV. Bernie Vince, Brad Ebert, Paul Puopolo and Caleb Daniel all seem to be having down years, for instance.

Heath Grundy may get selected in a real Origin team, but his strong defensive rating is offset by large negative ratings in the other areas. SA still has decent key position depth, with Jonas, Hurn, Westhoff and Hartlett at a pinch able to cover taller opponents. Lycett in this side probably spends a lot of time forward given Brodie Grundy’s dominance and the relative lack of tall forwards for South Australia.

Eddie Betts would have been eligible for WA as first priority, but doesn’t make that team, so here he is playing for South Australia where he was born (but didn’t spend much time growing up). Betts also played for Victoria Metro as a junior.

New South Wales

Back: Dane Rampe, Dougal Howard, Jeremy Finlayson, Jarrad McVeigh, Callum Mills, Matt Suckling, Sam Gilbert, Taylor Duryea
Mid: Isaac Heeney, Isaac Smith, Anthony Miles, Jacob Hopper, Daniel Howe, Kieren Jack, Harry Cunningham
Ruck: Jarrod Witts
Fwd: Tom Hawkins, Taylor Walker, Luke Breust, Todd Marshall, Jacob Townsend, Charlie Spargo

At this point HPN had to start relaxing the constraints on who was selected. There’s 42 NSW-origin players in the league by our data, but quite a few are pretty marginal or have barely played this year. Todd Marshall and Anthony Miles get in on 4 games and 1 game in 2018 respectively, while vaguely AFL-level players like Will Langford and Daniel Lloyd are omitted. Swans defenders McVeigh and Mills would likely rotate through the midfield rotation here to make up the numbers.

Most of the side (all but seven) originate from the mixed-code and AFL-predominant areas of the state stretching from Wagga Wagga to the south and west. Nobody currently playing in the AFL is from Wollongong or southern coastal NSW, nor anywhere north of Newcastle, except for the case of Sam Gilbert. (Edit: This is incorrect – Swans players Sam Naismith, James Bell and Jake Brown are from Gunnedah, Coffs Harbour and Shellharbour)

Gilbert’s state of origin is perhaps the most debatable in the entire league. He was born in NSW and his AFLQ junior club the Coolangatta Tweed Heads Blues is literally based on the border, and he spent time in both cities as a kid.

Queensland

Back: Harris Andrews, Rory Thompson, Jarrod Harbrow, Max Spencer, Joshua Wagner, Jesse Joyce
Mid: Dayne Beams, Dayne Zorko, Corey Maynard, David Armitage, Brad Scheer, Tom Bell, Jack Bowes
Ruck: Tom Hickey, Zac Smith
Fwd: Charlie Cameron, Eric Hipwood, Josh Thomas, Charlie Dixon, Alex Sexton, Sam J. Reid, Lachie Keeffe

Queensland’s best AFL side has plenty of quality talls even with Nick Riewoldt and Kurt Tippett retired. Former Suns Hickey and Smith are our genuine rucks, reunited for their state. Dixon and Hipwood as key forwards and Thompson and Andrews in defence are solid lynchpins for a marginal talent producing state. Meanwhile, Keeffe is still technically an AFL player.

The omitted Queensland players are a pretty fringe lot, mostly very inexperienced players like Jacob Allison, Wylie Buzza and Brayden Crossley. Brendan Whitecross and Aliir Aliir are the two who might make it into a real Queensland side on reputation, but they just haven’t played any good footy in 2018.

Tasmania

Back: Jimmy Webster, Liam Jones, Jake Kolodjashnij, Kade Kolodjashnij, Aaron Hall, Lachlan Weller, Tim Mohr, Alex Pearce, Jeremy Howe
Mid: Mitch Robinson, Hugh Greenwood, Jackson Thurlow, Jesse Lonergan, Maverick Weller, Robbie Fox
Ruck: Toby Nankervis, Andrew Phillips
Fwd: Ben Brown, Jack Riewoldt, Brody Mihocek, Josh Green, Tom Bellchambers

There are 29 Tasmanians in the AFL in 2018 according to this handy guide. Of those, precisely 22 have played senior footy in 2018. So that’s our team.

It’s a tall side, with Nankervis and Bellchambers both serving as solo rucks this year, and Phillips either going solo and splitting time with Kreuzer at Carlton. Bellchambers was a pretty handy forward in 2013, averaging over 1.5 goals a game, so it falls to him to work out how to serve as a tall forward while staying out of the way of Riewoldt and Brown.

The side is quite defensive, with more players having positive defensive mPAV ratings than, say, Western Australia or Victoria. That’s largely because the sort of role-players who get overlooked when you have 400 players to pick from are selected here by necessity. Tassie will have to shift the magnets around a bit, maybe sending Jeremy Howe forward and Aaron Hall and Lachie Weller into the midfield, or alternatively running a couple of spares in defence.

Grant Birchall is the one experienced player we’ve left out. He hasn’t played this year and adding him to this team doesn’t exactly solve the issue of having a glut of defenders.

Northern Territory

Back: Steven May, Ryan Nyhuis, Curtly Hampton, Dom Barry
Mid: Steven Motlop, Shaun Burgoyne, Brandan Parfitt, Jed Anderson, Jake Long, Nakia Cockatoo, Zac Bailey
Fwd: Cyril Rioli, Daniel Rioli, Jake Neade, Willie Rioli, Ben Long, Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti
Ruck: Tony Olango (yet to debut)
Also includes four state level players

The only vaguely ruck-shaped Northern Territorian in the AFL is the rookie Tony Olango who has unsurprisingly yet to debut at West Coast. This team is otherwise mostly pretty small. There’s no true key position forwards and they would probably ask Ryan Nyhuis to play centre half back. McDonald-Tipungwuti has played stints at full forward for Essendon, and it has worked in patches.

Northern Territory would be one of the most extreme experiments in “small ball” seen in elite footy, even compared to the funkier exploits of the Western Bulldogs. It could be fun against relatively lacklustre, exhibition game defensive intent.

Shaun Burgoyne gets a run based on his birthplace and father-son considerations. Although Willie Rioli was drafted from Glenelg in South Australia, he originally comes from the NT.

As only 18 players from the NT are in the AFL system as far as we can determine, the assumption has been made that some state players get a call up for the Northern Territory. Here we reach a methodology note, on how to rate players without AFL records. For PERT, debutant players are assigned a notional “replacement level” mPAV rating, which is roughly equal to the 396th best player in the AFL, meaning the replacement should on average be the 23rd best player on a list.

The same notional “replacement level” value from the regular PERT system has been used here for state league players. HPN has done some limited testing, and it seems that mature age draftees are often around (or slightly above) this level, meaning that the next step down should be roughly at replacement level.

Possible state league candidates from the NT could include the NT Thunder’s main 2018 ruck, 30 year old Ryan Smith, overlooked draft prospect Adam Sambono, 194 cm former AFL player (and ruck) Liam Patrick, and of course the now veteran cult figure, 32-year old Richard Tambling

Australian Capital Territory

Back: Phil Davis, Joel Smith, Logan Austin
Mid: Jack Steele, Aaron Vandenberg
Ruck: Ivan Soldo
Fwd: 
Josh Bruce, Harrison Himmelberg
Also includes 14 state level players

Here’s where things get very notional indeed. HPN has claimed that there’s 8 players from the ACT in the AFL. The team has then been filled out with an assumption that they can find 14 replacement-level state players with plausible ACT roots available to the side. That… may not be true, but let’s charge onward anyway.

There’s more or less an AFL-grade spine here. Phil Davis only moved to South Australia as a teenager after playing footy with Marist in the ACT, and fits fully under Origin rules. Aaron Vandenberg and Harrison Himmelberg were drafted from Ainslie and Eastlake respectively, but would be considered NSW by Origin rules. However, as all Canberrans know, the status of being Canberran is a very sticky property – it is easily gained and never lost. The ACT has also claimed young defender Joel Smith, son of Shaun Smith, under the father-son provision. They also thought about pinching Hugh Greenwood based on his four years at the AIS for basketball… but Tasmania needs him too.

To bolster our ACT side, former Blue and Bulldog Jason Tutt can be penciled in – he was delisted last year and is playing VAFA this season.

Beyond that, the team would be looking at state league players, especially within the Canberra Demons NEAFL side. The Canberra Demons go okay. They have beaten the Lions, Suns and Giants reserves this season, and sit 5th of 10 sides. The best Canberran state league players do play regularly against AFL and ex-AFL talent, and the assumption can be made that they would more or less fit the profile of mature agers who can at least cope at AFL level, if not thrive. Think of Vandenberg or Harry Himmelberg in their first few games, for instance. Many of Canberra’s younger players have also come via the GWS Academy, having spent time topping up the Giants reserves side.

There’s a number of zero-game former AFL-listed players at the Demons, including their leadership. Demons playing coach Kade Klemke was Essendon-listed in 2009, captain Aaron Bruce was at Sydney in 2008. Sam Fisher was at Sydney last year.

There are also a bunch of players around the semi-professional traps who were once considered AFL draft prospects, but were never selected. Those include Canberra-based Jack Powell, Kaine Stevens, Nathan Richards, Jordan Harper and Tom Faul, as well 2016 Central Districts best and fairest winner Chris Jansen, now at North’s VFL side.

There’s probably a bit of an over-estimation of the ACT ring-ins’ potential strength in the model, but it doesn’t really matter, as we’ll shortly see.

Internationals

Back: Zach Tuohy, Aidan Corr, Conor McKenna, Mark O’Connor, Ciaran Byrne, Conor Glass, Majak Daw
Mid: Andrew McGrath, Jason Johannisen, Pearce Hanley, Shane Savage
Ruck: Rowan Marshall
Fwd: Mason Cox, Aliir Aliir
Also includes 8 players on lists who haven’t played this year.

Scratching together a team of players who were born overseas, (including those who moved to Australia while very young and have other Origin eligibility), reveals a side that’s long on pacy smaller defenders, okay for versatile talls, and stuffed for everything else.

Some of those running backmen will obviously need to move into the midfield. Allir has been sent forward based on his (sometime) NEAFL role and he and Daw can chop out the ruck. Full time large person Rowan Marshall is primary ruck out of necessity. The game plan here is obviously to put plenty of numbers behind the ball and then run hard, trying to isolate Mason Cox (or Daw, Marshall, Aliir) in the goal square at the far end.

There’s a cache of players born overseas that haven’t got games this year, from Richmond’s Markov to Hawthorn’s Heatherley. A fair number of these are untested, but some have a track record at AFL level.

How strong would each state side be?

Each team can be rated by summing mPAV for midfield, offence and defence strength, comparing these to an average AFL club team.

Four states could field teams that are, on average, better than a standard AFL team. Victoria and Western Australia are an extremely long way above any club side and South Australia’s side are also quite a bit better than the best side of the last two decades, Essendon’s 2000 team.

NSW should be able to make finals and make a dent once there, if they can exploit their forward strength. The strength of NSW puts Sydney’s radical 2005 proposal to withdraw completely from the draft and use NSW as an exclusive zone into an interesting light, because it was rejected at the time as unrealistic (rather than as unfair).

Relevant for the prospects of expansion is that a side consisting of all the current Tasmanian talent in the league, concentrated into one team, is almost exactly league average and at least capable of finishing mid-table, especially with their really good defence.

Queensland’s talent could be okay as a developing bottom 4 AFL club. The ACT and NT and international squads, with their notional non-AFL players, would be worse than the worst modern side, GWS of 2012.

Projecting State of Origin matches

Here’s how our PERT projections emerge, in both margin terms and with an implied win probability calculated thanks to a formula from Matt at The Arc.

Western Australia’s side is on paper extremely strong in parts – Rance, Naitanui, Franklin and Mitchell all might be the best players in their respective positions. However, the sheer quality of the Victorians across the park projects as slightly more likely to win. The Vics are particularly well placed in terms of midfielders and defenders who contribute offensively, which collectively matches the more concentrated offensive value of WA’s side. There is a predicted 12 point margin between Victoria and WA, giving an implied Victorian probability of about 62%. Given there’s four times as many Victorian players in the league, that’s not bad at all, and suggests a close match!

South Australia looks a step behind their big state brethren on this year’s data, and perhaps surprisingly it’s New South Wales who look like the best of the rest. NSW have more players in the league than Tasmania does, and it should be remembered that 15 of their 22 come from the southwest of NSW, a nearly Tasmania-sized population in an enclave which is mostly footy mad.

NSW v Queensland looks like quite a close match on paper – Queensland with a slightly better midfield but NSW with the better bookends. Our Tasmanian team doesn’t seem to have enough midfield quality to trouble either of them right now.

In the battle of the territories, Northern Territory having way more actual AFL players, albeit some pretty fringe ones, seems to translate to a notional 2-goal margin, roughly a 63% chance of the NT winning. Five of the youngest and most fringe NT players are actually rating below our notional debutant, while every Canberran player rates at least slightly above that level, which helps the ACT’s case here.

In practice, the nearly complete lack of height in the NT side’s AFL players, and uncertainty about the quality of state player both sides would get, means nearly anything could happen with these two sides. Maybe a bunch of plucky Canberrans with something to prove could punch above their weight!

What about the Allies?

Given the imbalance between states, practical proposals for State of Origin generally consolidate the 32% of the league from outside the Big Three states into an “Allies” side.

Def: Phil Davis, Harris Andrews, Jeremy Howe, Dougal Howard, Zach Tuohy, Jarrad McVeigh
Mid: Dayne Zorko, Mitch Robinson, Hugh Greenwood, Dayne Beams, Isaac Heeney, Jed Anderson, Isaac Smith, Jacob Hopper
Ruck: Toby Nankervis, Jarrod Witts
Fwd: Ben Brown, Tom Hawkins, Jack Riewoldt, Taylor Walker, Luke Breust, Brandan Parfitt

The spine of this team is quite solid and the forward line resembles Western Australia’s top heavy structure but with different talls. There’s quality all over the park but it turns out the Allies still aren’t likely to catch the other three teams. Even the weaker South Australia looks as though the midfield quality available to them would prevail against the Allies’ superior forward line.

Victoria vs the World

If things are taken a step further, we can pit the 53% of the competition from Victoria against the other 47%, following the proposed “Victoria vs All Stars” type exhibitions. These are something some have put forward as a State of Origin format that gives the Big V a fair fight.

Def: Alex Rance, Phil Davis, Rory Laird, Zach Tuohy, Mitch Duncan, Elliot Yeo, Jeremy Howe
Mid: Tom Mitchell, Nat Fyfe, Bryce Gibbs, Stephen Coniglio, Lachie Neale, Dom Sheed, Patrick Cripps, Luke Dunstan
Ruck: Brodie Grundy, Nic Naitanui
Fwd: Lance Franklin, Ben Brown, Jack Darling, Michael Walters, Dayne Zorko

This team is nearly as good defensively and in the midfield as our flashy offensive powerhouse Victorian side but loses a touch up forward. The resting ruckman and dangerous forward/midfield types like Fyfe, Zorko and Coniglio fill out the rotation up forward.

This projects to be a pretty even matchup, with the Victorians only slightly more likely to prevail.

The interesting thing here is this All-Stars team loses a bit of offensive power relative to the West Aussies by themselves, and overall only gets a little better than them. This reflects that the top 10% or 20% or so of the league is really going to be fairly even, so the gains made by replacing one star player with another get pretty marginal. In short, WA is already really good, so adding the rest of the non-Victorian talent pool world only improves them a little more.

A realistic way to resume Origin at the AFL level

There is, of course, a solution to make a form of this contest a reality, and it aligns with a very current AFL House obsession.

We made fun of the AFLX at the beginning of the year because, well, it was begging to be mocked. There were clear issues with the game, from the use as a preseason tuneup, the total lack of congestion (ha) and physical contact, to the overly repetitious play.

But imagine a version of the game, with a couple of things fixed. Gone are the 10 point goals, and let’s throw a few extra players on the field to restrict the plentiful space (make it 10, so the “X” makes more sense). It’s still exhibition football, and relatively bruise-free, but might resemble International Rules in nature and competitiveness.

It could be held in alternate years to the International Rules series, either before or after the year starts, with a filthy big pot of prize money, perhaps a couple of million to share among the winning players and a charity of their choice.

We cut each Origin list to 13 position balanced, offensively weighted teams lists, assuming 10 players will take the field. In short, here’s how the new strengths play out.

The rankings of the sides don’t shift much, but note that most of the weaker teams become relatively stronger when not asked to produce so much depth. We’re not suggesting the little guys would win an AFLX tournament, but they should be more competitive than in full 22-man competition.

As for results from this, our All Stars team actually turns out to shade Victoria by 9 points in this format, a 59.8% chance to win.

Victorian AFLX team: Patrick Dangerfield, Dustin Martin, Tom McDonald, Clayton Oliver, Max Gawn, Josh Caddy, Shaun Higgins, Jack Macrae, Luke Parker, Jeremy Cameron, Heath Shaw, Tom Stewart, Robbie Tarrant

All Stars AFLX team: Lance Franklin, Tom Mitchell, Nat Fyfe, Brodie Grundy, Dayne Zorko, Nic Naitanui
Mitch Duncan, Stephen Coniglio, Elliot Yeo, Ben Brown, Patrick Cripps, Justin Westhoff, Alex Rance

One comment

  1. I would play AFL State of Origin matches on the Wednesday of the 1st 2 weeks of finals. Then there is no incompatibility with Home and Away Matches. Players selected from teams not playing finals. Teams could be topped up with those players eliminated 1st week of finals. Prelims 1st week with 2 winners playing in the final week after. Play games in cities where no finals are being played. Teams could be announced about now (June) and changed depending on form and injuries. Modify game rules slightly to promote scoring- points awarded for “winning” quarters and total shots at goal. Perhaps reduce rotations to 40 and 1 extra on interchange.
    4 teams – Vic, SA, WA, Allies (NSW/ACT,Tas, Qld,International)

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