Your Edge – NRL Finals Week 1 Preview

Your Edge – NRL Finals Week 1 Preview

Week 1 of the 2022 NRL Finals is here and so is Your Edge. This week, we’re looking at all four games and highlighting where the game could be won and lost.

Panthers v Eels

Week 1 of the NRL finals kicks off with a beauty on Friday night. The premiership favourite Penrith Panthers host a Parramatta Eels side that has clicked into gear at the right time. Parramatta has beaten Penrith twice already this season and just produced a convincing 22-14 win over the Melbourne Storm in Round 25 – the sort that suggests there might just be a premiership threat in this Eels side yet.

However, Brad Arthur’s side faces the sternest test in rugby league to open the finals. While they haven’t been at their best in recent weeks, Nathan Cleary has been suspended, and they sent out an unrecognisable team onto the field last week, there is little doubt that the Panthers are overwhelming premiership favourites.

The Panthers dominate through their yardage game. They generate an NRL-high 1,735 running metres per game to earn the most tackles inside the opposition’s 20-metre line of all 16 teams. We know they’re going to use their wingers and back three to start sets, the big forwards to finish them off, while Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai plot for points out the back. Still, few can defend it all over 80 minutes.

The Eels are one of the few teams that can, though.

Second in the NRL in yardage at 1,704 running metres per game, Parramatta can hold their own in the centre-third and limit the opportunities Penrith has to attack close to the line.

In Junior Paulo, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Shaun Lane, Isaiah Papali’i and Ryan Matterson, Arthur has the cattle to cause trouble in the middle.

Add their NRL-high 13.3 offloads per game to generate second phase and break down the defensive line, and the Eels are capable of dominating an area of the field the Panthers are rarely troubled.

Rugby league is a simple game. Win the middle of the field and you often come away with the result. It’s not a coincidence that the Panthers have led the competition in yardage across each of the last three years to make a Grand Final, win a premiership, and be favourites for another in 2022. If the Eels can play to their potential in this area – more importantly, if they can keep patient enough to play to their potential in this area – we might have an upset on our hands.

Halves Battle In Melbourne

The Melbourne Storm finished outside the Top 4 on the NRL ladder for the first time since 2015 and will be forced to take the long road to the Grand Final if they’re to get there at all. First up, they host a Canberra Raiders side that has a spring in their step.

While the Storm have struggled through to the end of the regular season as they juggle injuries in key play-making positions, the Raiders are finding their feet. The Green Machine has won seven of their last eight games to book an unlikely spot in the Top 8. They’ve done so behind the incredible play of Joseph Tapine who has played out a career year to average 164 metres per game.

We can trust the Raiders will keep up with a middling yardage side in the Storm on Saturday. The major difference between the two sides comes in the halves where Melbourne holds a significant advantage.

Jahrome Hughes returns this week to join Cameron Munster in the spine. Exactly where Munster spends most of his time seems to be up in the air heading into every game. While he may defend at fullback, he occupies five-eighth-like roles in attack and will continue to link up with Hughes and Harry Grant in the same ways he has done all season.

The Raiders, on the other hand, don’t pack the same punch.

While Jack Wighton and Jamal Fogarty have improved as a pairing in recent weeks, they will need a lot to go their way on the night to outperform their opposites. It starts with Tapine, Josh Papalii and the Raiders pack. However, even in dominating the middle, the Storm defence is still among the top four in the NRL. No team averages more points per game than their 27.3 either.

The Raiders have turned up and played spoilers in Melbourne before. Those previous results will give hope to another in Week 1. This looks like a game that will be won in the halves, though. And there, it’s advantage Storm.

Dearden & Kennedy

Chad Townsend and Nicho Hynes run the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and North Queensland Cowboys. Scott Drinkwater (11 tries, 15 try assists) and Matt Moylan (5 tries, 12 try assists) have produced moments of brilliance to cross the line or send a teammate over to score all season.

However, it’s Tom Dearden and Will Kennedy that can decide this one.

Dearden is playing out a career-best season. He has the numbers in eight tries and 15 try assists, but it’s the little efforts that often prove valuable. It’s the passes he doesn’t throw that separates him from a lot of other diminutive halves in the NRL. Where others would send the ball wide and force the ball back into the middle on the following tackle, burning a tackle in the process, Dearden takes the shot. He keeps the ball tight and allows Townsend and Drinkwater to link up on the right side.

Meanwhile, Kennedy makes his return following a lengthy spell on the sidelines due to suspension. With it, the Sharks have their glue guy on the edges. He doesn’t have the individual numbers; Kennedy is behind all of the notable attacking threats in combined tries, try assists, linebreaks and linebreak assists. Still, he’s a key figure in how the Sharks attack down the edges. Their slingshot attack relies on soft hands and quick decisions in his position, an area of Kennedy’s game that has developed well in recent years. He doesn’t offer a lot of support in the middle and his yardage game is unimpressive at only 115 running metres per game. Watch for where he pops up in the Sharks’ most dangerous attacking actions, though. If they manage to pile up points on a good Cowboys defence, Kennedy is likely to be a feature.

They’re not the most high-profile names running out there for this one, but I like either Dearden or Kennedy to play a leading role in deciding who will be resting during Week 2 of the NRL Finals.

Locking Horns

Cameron Murray v Victor Radley is worth the price of admission alone on Sunday afternoon.

Murray is one of the best trigger runners in the NRL with his ability to hit the line and produce a quick play-the-ball ahead of a lethal long-side shift to the edge. Meanwhile, Radley is excellent one off the ruck. He hits the ball at pace and looks to play teammates onto isolated defenders in yardage. The two will play a key role in how the South Sydney Rabbitohs and Sydney Roosters attack in this one and feature heavily in yardage both with their feet and their passing game.

Their yardage and usage numbers are fairly similar: Murray is averaging 115.4 metres and 26.8 touches per game while Radley is churning out 114.2 metres and 26.3 touches per game.

Murray has clearly taken on some of the 40.9 touches per game Adam Reynolds left behind when heading to Brisbane. He is still a threat in good ball as a runner, but as his three try assists in 15 minutes against the Warriors a few weeks ago suggests, he’s looking to ball-play a little bit more with the extra touches. Radley has given up a few touches of his own but looks a lot more comfortable this year than he did towards the back end of the last.

This game is stacked with superstars. The spine of both sides is fantastic with Latrell Mitchell and James Tedesco likely to be the ones that produce the highlight reel plays and big numbers. However, it’s the work of the lock forwards that will go a long way to deciding this one.

NRL Value Plays

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