The long gap between Rounds 8 and 9 of the NRL hasn’t been uneventful by any description. There’s been enough to keep us all busy and entertained, and it has very little to do with representative football, though there were some gripping contests in that arena too. Whether it was players getting themselves into strife on and off the field, the NRL announcing marquee player allowances and other initiatives, or just commentators drawing targets on themselves, Rugby League has proved once again there are no quiet periods – ever. (For a more humurous coverage of this aspect, along with a preview of this match, take a look at 26rounds).
But there can be such thing as too much of a good thing, can’t there? So, while this round of controversy and headlines take a break before morphing into another set of (as yet) unforeseen replacements, let’s shake off the cobwebs and squeeze in a bit of football. You know, that stuff that goes on at the fringes of the Soap Opera we call Rugby League.
I’ve picked three matches across Round 9 that promise to be engaging, high quality contests, and ladder position isn’t the sole determinant. Each has its own brand, history and unique atmosphere, and one of them isn’t Manly vs Storm, which is always a gripping contest in itself!
Beginning with Friday night’s Top 8 clash between the Roosters and Tigers, we have the 4th and 5th-placed teams facing off in what promises to be yet another extravaganza of free-flowing footy. It doesn’t seem to matter where these two teams reside on the ladder, a pulsating contest seems to be the default result, and don’t let the fact that the Roosters have held the upper hand in recent years fool you.
Both teams have shown extreme volatility and inconsistency in recent years, but there is an added gravitas to this year’s match-up. The Premiership-winning Roosters have come back to the field somewhat and are attempting to rediscover their 2013 form, yet still have shown enough class to lay 5th.
The Tigers, on the other hand, fresh from a full tilt at the wooden spoon in 2013, have surprised everyone (except possibly themselves) by not only notching victories against two of last year’s heavyweights, the Rabbitohs and Manly, but have mixed a new-found focus into their laissez faire style. This is what I like to see – repeatable performances based on solid structure. The results have been positive, and they will be keen to account for not just another of 2013’s Top 4, but the reigning Premiers.
There is no doubt that the match will be fiery given the recent snubbing of Roosters’ Kiwi stars for the Anzac Test and, as it happens, the elevation of the Tigers’ Marty Taupau to replace Jared Warea-Hargreaves in that game. Add to that a very average start to the season from some Roosters players, particularly SBW, and the presence of Blocker Roach in the Tigers dressing room ensuring the angry pills are on drip-feed, and this game promises a contest that even the imagination couldn’t script.
Of course, there are injuries on both sides, particularly in the 5/8th position, where James Maloney is not not fully fit, and Braith Anasta is available at all. The absence of James Tedesco and Robbie Farah means that the Tigers are more unsettled than the Roosters, and recent performances prove it.
The Stats so far …
The Roosters have missed last year’s early season spark, but now appear to be settling into their business. This is a must-win match for them if they have ambitions of staying in touch with the Top 4. Origin season means they will have an important block of players unavailable, making it a less than ideal period to make up lost ground, which only serves to increase pressure in the countdown to the Finals. As you can see below, there is a lot of red in the comparison to last year (final column):
It hardly seems possible that they could be a in a less favourable position than last years with repect to Penalties, yet the numbers don’t lie. Penalties received are down 15% on this time last year, and their Penalty Ratio stands at 0.75 (per opposition penalty). On the flipside, the opposition is being awarded 2.3 Penalties for every one received. This shows up in their Metres, Possession and Work Ratios (based on Tackles made), which are relatively similar to last year, but still ceding ground to their adversaries.
An area of some concern must be the Missed Tackle Percentage – it is up over 50% on last year, which isn’t ideal when you’re habitually surviving on less ball than your opponents.
Offloads are down (against allowing the opposition more), line breaks are down (while, again, the opposition’s are higher), and Tries are down – and not insignificantly.
The Tigers, on the other hand, have an envious set of stats:
The comparisons to last year are almost uniformly positive, and those that are negative are precisely the ones the Tigers would wish to be that way – less Tackles made, lower Work Ratio, and less Errors (though that is not a good predictor of success).
The Tigers are making an average 283 Tackles vs their opposition’s 321 (the almost exact opposite of the Roosters so far), though the fact that they concede as many Penalties as the Roosters means that they cannot rely on such a lopsided count this time. This is potentially quite dangerous, because if season 2014 has shown anything, it has been the Tigers’ susceptibility when Possession is against them. In short, if they don’t control Possession, they don’t come close to winning, a problem the Roosters simpy don’t have. The plots below show clearly that the Tigers will struggle of their net Metres gained is negative.
The main reason for this is that the Tigers still have a very high Missed Tackle Percentage:
One area the Roosters are sure to target is the Tigers’ halves, and not just because of Luke Brooks’ match-winning ability. Last year I noted that the most successful teams had something in common – their halves pulled their weight in defence. This meant less fatigue for the bigger men and ball runners. If 2014 is a guide, the Tigers’ halves are not doing this, and shoud therefore expect wave after wave of large edge runners zeroing in on them, forcing them to. This is where the battle for Metres will be won, and likely the match.
I’m tipping the Roosters to have a comfortable win on Friday, and there are a couple of standout reasons.
First, they are running into form at the same time the Tigers are flatlining (even regressing) without Robbie Farah and James Tedesco. While the Tigers score an average 23 points per game, they also let in an average 22 points, which is too high for a Top 4 side. The past three weeks, however, has returned an average score of 14-22, and they are going to need more than 14 points to defeat the Roosters.
The Roosters, on the other hand, have averaged a 22-15 scoreline over the opening eight rounds, and even improved slightly on it in the last three matches (23-15).
The second reason is that the Roosters team is a juggernaut. Points are scored regularly, just like last year, and there are no distinct, habitual drop offs in defence (see charts below). This is not something that can be said for the Tigers, whose Points Difference (blue) line are unlike that of any other team.
Check it out:
When you put the two together in the context of this game, the short history of the current season’s performances looks like this:
The Tigers will need to find a way to address their poor performance in the last quarter of matches if they are to win on Friday as the table below shows. The path to being a credible Finals contender, and perhaps even a heavyweight themselves, depends upon it. I’m confident they are up to the challenge, nut a lot has to go right for them, and this week is unlikely to be their week. Further, I still want to see how they cope with the inevitable adversity after a promising start to the season. We may well be in that period.