The NRL Round 14 Rubdown – Stats, Contenders, the Origin Trade-off, and can Souths replace Sam?

Bulldogs Control Possession, but lose the Metres Game

It was only as recently as Round 10 where we analysed how teams perform on the scoreboard when confronted with disproportionate amounts of Possession. You will recall that the idea of Possession in terms of number of ball carries was jettisoned as unrepresentative in favour of Net Metres Gained (either positive or negative).

Why? Because the more relative metres made, the more pressure it puts on the the opposition defence, and the faster they fatigue. The result is lazy/tired inside defenders, reduced cross-field defensive cover, and usually, a greater likelihood of bent defensive lines. This is what the good ball-players are able to exploit, and it is usually telling on the scoreboard, though the better teams do have the ability to absorb a negative differential and still prevail.

The Bulldogs-Eels match highlighted this point brilliantly. The Bulldogs had 181 Runs to 146, meaning they controlled 55.4% of Possession. This is an unambiguously good thing, but the rubber screeches off the road when you don’t take advantage of it. With that much possession, the Bulldogs should have been able to overpower the Eels, particularly through their huge (and unchanged) forward pack.

This is why Metres are important – their total 1,457 metres gained translates to just 8 metres/run. This is well below the NRL average 8.6 metres/run. It looks even worse when compared to the Eels’ almost identical 1,452 metres at 9.9 metres/run (one of the highest readings all year of all teams).

In short, the Eels ran harder, were more effective and made more metres with every touch relative to the Bulldogs.  The very same analysis of the Bulldogs Points vs Metres in Round 10 was directly applicable to Round 14, and possibly a sign of things to come (again). When the Bulldogs have lost the Metres battle, they have lost the match (the exception being against the now-last Knights). And even with a Metres advantage of up to 200 metres, they have still struggled to put teams away.Bulldogs Scatter

The Bulldogs – Contenders or pretenders?

What the points made above show is that the Bulldogs need a lot more ball to be a threat in this competition, and this is going to be far more difficult to achieve in the Finals. So, they have some work to do.

The Bulldogs have been fortunate to escape with some narrow wins this year (5/7, or 71%), which is a good indicator of being able to win closely fought matches on one hand, but which are now the difference between them being 6th and out of the Top 8 altogether on the other.

The loss against Manly exposed the Bulldogs’ Achilles Heel – while their size can work in their favour, it can also work against them when the opposition is able to get on a roll (accumulating metres), and particularly on a soggy surface such as Brookvale that night. Fortunately for them, most grounds aren’t likely to be so heavy, but wet conditions might work better for the opposition generally.

There is also a depth problem, which all teams face during the Origin period. As much as coach Des Hasler tries to blame player absences for performances, he is probably better advised to deal with it the same way other coaches have – in silence and with resolve. Ranting about how unfair it is seems more likely to send the implicit message to the players that losing a match is somehow defensible because of the circumstances, which is exactly the opposite mindset of the one you want your team to have. A minor effect can go a long way in a competition as even as the NRL, where every edge counts. There was certainly no griping last year when the Bulldogs smashed an under-strength Storm!

In short, the media have over-hyped the Bulldogs’ chances, and are now acting as if a few losses are a surprise, or the harbinger of doom, when neither description is applicable. They will still be in the Finals, and can be a force if they can make some necessary amendments to their game plan.

Headline fatigue – who’s next?

This is an easy one – the Panthers.

Amidst the giddy euphoria and comparisons to the 2003 Premiers, the 2014 Panthers have now won five matches in a row. And the media won’t let you forget it! They are a solid, if not overly creative team, and their stats would surprise fans. Bottom half in Completions, Top 5 in Missed Tackle %, and so on. I thought they were running better on those metrics, so there you go …

Their five-match run has included the Knights, Raiders, Eels, Titans and Dragons. Apart from the 7th –placed Eels, this is essentially the bottom four of the NRL. Still, you can only beat who’s in front of you.

A far greater test lies after next week’s Bye, and includes the Warriors (away), an Origin- depleted Tigers (away), then the Broncos and Roosters (away). The month preceding the Finals also includes the Cowboys, Storm, Manly (away) and Warriors.

Put it this way – I think the Panthers will figure in the Finals and I picked them early for  5-8 position, but you could strike me down with a feather if they’re in the Top 4.

Are Origin Riches Feasting on Clubs’ Bottom Lines?

As Discord notes overnight, the congratulatory back-slapping that goes hand in hand with State of Origin revenues has another side – costs.

You can’t just look at revenues alone, especially for a game that sells itself to the point where the NRL has been able to ratchet ticket prices to the stratosphere. So, what are the costs, and who bears them?

A cursory glance at the crowds over the weekend would suggest that, while the NRL scoops the Origin pool, the clubs are left to subsist on far leaner pickings when a match goes from blockbuster to just bust. The Bulldogs were stiffed on crowd numbers on the weekend. Had both teams had their full complement of players, the crowd of 24,000 might have been 50% higher (as would the Rabbitohs-Tigers crowd of 20,000).

On the one hand, it doesn’t say a lot of positive things for NRL fans if they cannot attend their team’s match because both sides are missing a few representative players. Being a fan is an investment not to be abandoned lightly. Do you leave after 5 minutes if Jarryd Hayne gets injured? Clearly not. Nor was his absence, or that of the Bulldogs players, reason to miss what was a high-quality contest.

On the other hand, losing drawcards is more likely to affect the marginal fans, so crowds are affected at some level.

So, does then NRL engage in any fiscal equalisation to offset this effect? It doesn’t appear so, but it should.

Is Bennett just defraying criticism, or is he a tackle short of a full set?

Is it treasonous to wonder if Wayne Bennett is the full quid? After all, he is Rugby League Royalty! Or is he just a master at deflecting headlines and blame away from his own failings, or those of his players, team or club?

It seems he managed to completely ignore the carnage arising from Origin 1, which not only resulted in significant injuries to both sides, but also lower level injuries and exhaustion that rendered half the Origin field unavailable for the following NRL round. His solution was to recommend playing Origin again the following week. Then again the week after. Blimey, talk about burnout!

The teams fielded for Game 2 would have been patchwork at best. And goodness knows what the attrition rate would be for the 3rd game. As far as player welfare goes, it’s counterproductive. Half-fit players would be inclined to play the 2nd match not only for the occasion, but for the 30,000 schmackers on offer too. It really is an appalling idea, 2nd only to Bill Harrigan’s splitting of Origin to start/middle/end of season matches.

Now he decides that his team has been wronged by a raised forearm by a ball-runner. If his belly-aching leads the NRL to do something about this increasing feature in general, then that would be a commendable outcome. The trend has been quite evident. Then again, we still have lifting tackles being dealt with on a softly-softly basis after a career-ending spinal earlier in the year, so there’s no real reason for confidence in the NRL on that score.

The Jared Warea-Hargeaves incident (a divisive, but soft target if ever there was one) he refers to was mild on the scale of what I have seen so far this year given the low initial contact. There have been literally scores of unreported and unpenalised incidents so far this season. He may, for example, like to explain this:Gidley

Was he not in attendance at the prior week’s match against the Tigers? Raised forearms, elbows, what-have-you, were de rigeur for the entirety of that match. And the head-hunting tactics of the Knights was extraordinary, so much so that I even felt the need to comment specifically about it last week. You could argue that JWH was probably expecting the same treatment!

So, Bennett’s attention to the practice will be a net positive if the NRL places a referee directive on such contact. They have shown no inclination to do so thus far, and are unlikely to do so, in my opinion. Even if they were to do so, the JWH incident would probably still be regarded as low-level.

How on earth can the Rabbitohs replace Sam Burgess?

Steve CooganOne can only hope, whether you’re a South Sydney fan or just an NRL fan, that heaven and earth is being moved to keep Sam Burgess at Redfern. If the Wallabies-France Rubgy Test on Saturday night is any indication, Sam might be feeling the pangs of regret already. The ‘marquee’ allowance recently announced by the NRL is another consideration that wasn’t in place when he announced his defection.

If you’re South Sydney, though, how do you replace a guy who averages 20 Runs and 2.4 Offloads per match, while making an average 174 metres per match. That’s equal with Josh Mansour, a winger who makes most of his metres on kick returns, and more than all other fullbacks and wingers. James Graham puts in an average 154 metres himself, but then you’re back to the back three players. Pretty awesome stuff.

Think about how valuable his contribution is for just a moment. For Souths, it’s the equivalent to the Roosters playing, and losing, the 2004 Grand Final without the workhorse efforts of Luke Ricketson.

It is the equivalent of the Melbourne Storm playing, and losing, the 2008 Grand Final without the leadership and tactical direction of Cameron Smith.

But for Souths, it’s every – single – week.

How are they going to replace him? I honestly don’t know.

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