Leicester Tigers: confusing trends for cycles

6 May 2019  |  Rich M

My old art teacher was called Stan Graham and he was an eccentric New England Patriots fan. He complained about Patriot performances and rarely talked about art. In 1999 the Patriots were useless but more recently they have dominated. It is probable that they will decline again shortly. Should Leicester Tigers prepare for a cyclical period of mediocrity? In short, YES they should.

What’s most surprising about Leicester’s plummet is that people are actually surprised by it. Statistics reinforce what you want them to reinforce. What is not disputed by statisticians is ‘Regression to the mean’. To understand Leicester’s undignified nosedive we should consult this statistical tendency.

Trends are cycles in disguise

Regression to the mean occurs because most things in life have both a deterministic and random element to them. Humans consistently mistake ‘a trend’ for ‘a cycle’. Put simply, trends trick us into thinking they will continue forever. Cycles come around and surprise everyone (think 2008 financial crash). Regression to the mean is not a natural law but a statistical tendency. Financial markets operate in a similar fashion. As do Politics and fashion (to different extents).

Having dominated the first 15 years of professional rugby, Leicester Tigers’ decline has been grist for pundits’ mill. For instance, they cite sloppy performances, poor leadership, patchy recruitment or increased competition. Anything except recognising that Tigers’ success was part of a cycle. A cycle in which you don’t win forever.

To understand the role that luck, chance, cycles and regression play in sporting results, we need to look at things over a longer period. Have a look at these 20-year charts.


Years of good results which are starting to slide


The first decade of pro rugby was not as good as the second decade


Saints fans have had the rollercoaster treatment with a lot of mixed results

Other sports…

This is not limited to rugby. We can see examples of how teams’ fortunes are not linear. The Economist wrote this week about how Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United have given way to Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool. Furthermore, the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA for years winning 6 titles in 8 years during the Jordan, Pippen and Rodman glory days (1991–1998). Have a look at how their winning ‘trend’ was actually a cycle that reverted.

Chicago Bulls

Dynasties end, players retire and new coaches shake things up

Man City

Man City are going through a ‘win cycle’


In conclusion, the longer a trend lasts, the more likely regression will occur. There has been surprise and shock at the demise of Leicester by the rugby community: particularly their own fans. Don’t take it personally Tigers!

Tigers fans have enjoyed such a good ride you can’t blame them for expecting to be top 4. However, that is mostly a partisan, emotional reaction. Not a cold, dispassionate reality of regression. Leicester Tigers are entering a period of (likely) mediocrity.

I am now reminded of Stan Graham who will soon return to his familiar position of disappointment once Patriots quarterback Tom Brady retires. Unfortunately for Tigers fans, they should be ready for mixed results for a few years.

Further articles…