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Monday Morning Fly Half: Uncertainty Principle

 

                                                


Week 4 is done and dusted, along with most everyone's predictions. In a season that has defied forecasting, this week has been perhaps the most unpredictable yet. We had four of five contests end in upsets, and three of those (at least according to Superbru odds) were dramatically so. 

Pick a Team, Any Team

A couple of weeks ago I questioned whether we were seeing parity or randomness. Hard to argue that it wasn't randomness ruling the day this weekend.

If you look at Superbru's win % expectation, only the LA Giltinis were favored and actually won. The SaberCats were relatively mild underdogs, with an encouraging 42% chance. Our other three winners, Austin, Seattle and New York, were working with 6%, 8% and 16% win expectations, respectively.

Not that this is a perfect usage of statistics or probabilities, but for fun I took a look at what those percentages implied about the overall likelihood of this set of Week 4 outcomes. Some quick math (.9 x .42 x .06 x .08 x .16) gets you to 0.03%. Or about 1-in-3,300. 

Look, upsets are exciting. Four upsets in one week is very exciting. It's entertaining! And it gives you a reason to show up and cheer for your team every week regardless of the expected outcome.

But it has to be said. A week where a 6% chance, 8% chance and 16% chance all take place...that is a flaw in the expectations. 

Whatever the reason - be it Covid, absence of preseason, coaching changes, whatever - this season has gotten off to a bizarre start. There seems to be almost no continuity in team performance week to week. Other than LA, who have consistently trounced all comers, the other 11 teams have been icons of inconsistency. 

And while a marathon of upsets makes for engaging television on a rainy (in New York) weekend, over the course of a long season it is a recipe for furstration and eventually disinterest. Fans may struggle to stay invested in teams that look like giant killers one week and giant slugs the next. It makes the sport seem either impenetrable or meaningless, no more impactful than the flip of a coin. 

After Week 2, I was a bit concerned. After Week 4, I'm starting to worry.

The Heat is On

All that said, there is reason for optimism. It's true, the first four weeks' worth of results appear to be random. But Week 4 brought a noticeable uptick in play quality. Hopefully a sign that the rust is finally shaking off and teams are settling into form that will be more consistently indicative of future performance.

Across the board, things looked better. Ball movement and phase speed got a shot of adrenaline this week, with teams like Austin and Houston suddenly looking like LA. The Giltinis play so...bloody...fast. It is relenteless, rapid and wide and so far the defenses of Major League Rugby have yet to answer. Toronto held up for some stretches this week but a yellow card to Gaston Cortes did them in.

In pretty much every contest except Atlanta v New York, the pace of play looked like someone hit the 2x fast forward button on Weeks 1 - 3.

In Atlanta, the improvements were of a different sort. Namely, Marty Veale and Dan Hollinshead took the bye week and completely reigned in the wild west attack style New York had been displaying in their first two fixtures. In Week 4, the orange and blue played a very controlled, tactically sharp game. 

In Houston, the SaberCats hosted a Robshaw-powered Legion in a delightfully fun bit of rugby. Both teams were playing with passion and skill, the SaberCats avenging two weeks in a Siberia of scorelessness. 

And the orange drinks of Austin put up another mighty defensive effort, quieting a NOLA attack that had hung a five-handle on New York before their Week 3 bye.

All told, this was the quality we want to see week-in and week-out. Hopefully it doesn't all change again next week.

Better Halves

Traditionally, you think of the fly half as the centerpiece of attack. The "quarterback" if you will. The more I watch MLR 2021, the more I think that the scrum half is our unique flavor of quarterback. 

It may be because defenses here are less organized and fit than they are in other global centers of rugby. It may be because the fly half talent in MLR today is just a bit behind the skills in the 9-shirts. But to me, it seems like the teams with the play-making scrum halves are the teams with the dangerous attacks.

With the exception of NOLA, who have yet to really find that scrum half magic this season, look at all the other scrum halves across the league. How goes the scrum half, so goes the team. Goddard in LA keeps the pace frenetic, spurring the Giltini attack to success after success. Danny Tusitala has led Old Glory to a strong opening, scoring several tries and generally creating havoc. Nick Boyer showed up in Houston and they played like a new team. Andy Ellis has been a calm leading presence for New York that has brokered many of New York's attacking chances this season. 

As I see it, the key to ball carrying success in phase play right now is to have a running 9 that presses the attack and recylces from one phase to another rapidly. Scrum halves who can do it consistently inevitably overwhlem MLR defenses. And the success or failure to generate this type of quick ball often feels like the decisive point in the success of any ground attack. In MLR today, it's the scrum halves who are truly acting as "quarterbacks."

Cocktail Cup

Don't look now, but sitting atop the standings are the Giltinis in first and the Gilgronis in second. The number one attack (LA; 142 points scored) and the number one defense (Austin; 59 points conceded).

Our EoD poll ended up tied in naming options for when these two gil-teams face off. Cocktail Cup and Last Call both registered 32% of the vote. Whatever we call it, I'm already excited for May 19 when these teams meet