Cyril Rioli didn’t defy statistics, just poor analysis

Football players aren’t machines. Not every player wants to play until their body can take no more, until their body is a sinewy mess. Not every football player feels compelled to make football their only focus, which is a great thing in our honest opinions.

Most players study or undertake trades these days; an attempt to become more rounded people both during and after footy. Andrew McKay famously commuted from Queensland during the 1996 season, in the peak of his powers, while he was studying veterinary science.

But for some players the pull is more a want or need to be immersed in family and community.

Cyril Rioli announced his retirement this week, just before his 29th birthday. He walks away as a four-time premiership player, three-time All Australian, Norm Smith Medalist and Goal of the Year winner. Usually, the last one is left off his short form resume, and it is the thing that is not like the others.

But it’s the only accolade that somewhat quantifies the excitement with which Rioli played football; the sense of time standing still as he wove around the field. He specialised in making opposition players look silly, and capitalising on their mistakes.

There has been a popular wisdom regarding Rioli’s career that his brilliance wasn’t accurately measured in statistical terms. He never averaged more than 17.3 disposals per game in a season, and only kicked more than 2 goals per game in one year.

This line of thinking is probably best set out by former Hawthorn great Jason Dunstall, who states outright that that statistics can’t define a player like Rioli.

And he’s right, if you only consider basic statistical categories such as gross count figures of goals and disposals. Cyril Rioli didn’t defy statistics, so much that he defied basic statistics. It shouldn’t be surprising that a basic surface level statistical view didn’t do him justice. He was anything but basic. He’s the sort of “eye test” great player who compels those of us who like to analyse and quantify the game to do better than just counting touches.

Champion Data did a lot of the legwork for this piece today in the tweet above, but AFL Stats Pro can be also used to dig down into things like forward 50 tackles.

Champion Data’s flagship product, the AFL Player Ratings, has long considered Rioli as one of the finest players in the league – he sat at number 5 when it was launched in 2013. He has hovered in and around the top ten for a fair whack of the time since, with a few injury enforced dips along the way.

Here at HPN, we have developed a few tools that look a bit more at the impact and value of players by using rates and relativities between the freely available set of basic statistics. To no surprise Rioli shines in some of these measures. When you look outside of the traditional counts, Rioli rated extremely well.

The Impact Disposal per Disposal measure that we introduced earlier this year was particularly kind to Rioli. IDPD looks at how many “key” disposals players get among their total touches – think goals, inside and rebound 50s, goal assists and the like. There was a fair chance that whenever Rioli got his hands on the ball, something would happen. At the peak of his powers, not many did that better, which was a big part of that “eye test”. His small sample of games in 2018 was, interestingly, as high as he ever went on this impact to disposal measure, suggesting that he hadn’t lost his touch.

Another measure we created this year was Non Disposal Impact per Disposal. That looks at the basic statistical categories which are widely published but aren’t disposals – tackles, free kicks, bounces, one percenters. Rioli was also involved heavily off the ball in tangible ways.

Perhaps the best way to show the different, contrasting, elements of his game is with this chart combining both his impactful disposals and high impact off the ball:

Few forwards could impact the game equally with or without the ball as Cyril could. Combining these two measures with a third we created for this purpose called Tackles per Disposal (which does what it says on the tin), Rioli ranked fifth among forwards across these three measures in the most recent decade.

Forwards 2009-2017, min 50 games played

He is only behind former Lions Rhan Hooper (who also left the AFL to go back home to his family after a brief but promising stint at the Hawks) and Todd Banfield, Jeff Garlett and Charlie Cameron.

How does his career stack up?

Rioli’s relatively short career makes it a little harder to judge his total career value. At his peak, he was a worthy member of three All Australian sides, both according to popular opinion and our Player Approximate Value (PAV) method of valuing players.

We have had a look at all completed careers in our PAV dataset, which stretches back to 1988. For players with less than 200 games who debuted in 1988 or later, Rioli had the sixth most valuable overall career behind Scott Russell, Jason Johnson, Dale Lewis, Shane Tuck and Mil Hanna. Each of these players either won flags, All Australian selection, club best and fairest awards or State of Origin selection.

Players who started and ended careers under 200 games, 1998 to 2017

Note – we haven’t included PAV for the 2018 season, because it hasn’t finished yet, but Rioli will almost certainly leapfrog Hanna and Tuck by the end of the year.

Restricting to just forwards (players who got more of their PAV from the offence part of the measure than elsewhere), only Dale Lewis sits ahead. In reality, the laconic Lewis was more of a utility for the Swans than a dedicated forward, and even once played fullback on Allen Jakovich. Lewis shares something in common with Rioli – both played at St Mary’s before they entered the AFL, although Rioli came through the club as a talented junior while Lewis’ pre-AFL career was quite nomadic.

If we only consider PAV Off (instead of total PAV), Tony Modra is the standout – another brilliant yet short career curtailed by injuries. Other such as Nathan Thompson, Phillip Matera, Peter Sumich, Kurt Tippett, Jay Schulz and Billy Brownless also sit ahead of Rioli; but Cyril was surely the best player of this bunch (West Coast fans come at us).

In short, the company that Rioli shares is rare. And his impact can definitely be measured statistically – if you know how to look.

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