This week for ‘Your Edge’ we prepare for the 2021 NRL Grand Final by looking into the all-important yardage game, Cameron Murray’s influence, the battle between two elite halves, and find the best value plays of the weekend.
The biggest games in Rugby League tend to be an arm-wrestle early. Both sides are looking to gain the ascendency by hitting the advantage line through the middle and waiting for the opposition to make an error. An opposition error doesn’t need to lead to points. The field position, extra tackles and the pressure they’re put under early can pay dividends later in the game if it remains close.
Yardage will be key to the start of this one and we have the two best yardage teams in the game going head-to-head. The Penrith Panthers lead the NRL in running metres with 1,805 metres per game while the South Sydney Rabbitohs are second on the list with 1,769 metres per game.
But just as important as metres gained are metres conceded. It’s in defending running metres that the Rabbitohs make up the difference to be the best net yardage team in the competition.
South Sydney face their toughest task of the season on Sunday against a Penrith side that leads the NRL in metres per run.
Five Panthers forwards average over 9.5 metres per run to the Rabbitohs’ two. Spencer Leniu, Viliame Kikau, James Fisher-Harris, Moses Leota and Liam Martin all run close to ten metres every time they put their head down. They have the best yardage man in the game in Brian To’o averaging 246 metres at 10.7 metres per carry at the back starting their sets, too.
The yardage game is going to be crucial early, and as we prepare for a tight opening 20 minutes, we see that the two teams are perfectly matched up to lock horns.
Penrith’s NRL-best go-forward v South Sydney’s top of the table net running metres will go a long way to deciding this one.
Cameron Murray is one of the best #13’s in the game and proved as much through his superb performance against the Sea Eagles in the Preliminary Final. Into everything, Murray made an impact on both sides of the ball to feature heavily in South Sydney’s early attack while also finding the energy to set their line speed.
Interestingly, he touched the ball 30 times across his 62 minutes. For context, he averaged 20 touches per game heading into this one and had only surpassed 30 touches once throughout his 101-game career (40 – Round 15 v Broncos).
Murray didn’t take on more of a ball-playing role with the extra touches. Despite Adam Reynolds nursing an injury and Murray taking the ball at first receiver more often, the 23-year-old wasn’t used in a Victor Radley-like role. In fact, his pass to run ratio is the second-lowest of his 2021 season.
He is dangerous with the ball and capable of tipping a teammate onto a defender but Murray is using his ability as a ball carrier to set up the Rabbitohs attack. His 123 running metres per game in 2021 is a career-high. He has broken 40 tackles in 19 games for another career-high while also contributing over one offload per game along the way.
That tackle break and offload ability makes him especially dangerous in good ball. Whether it is a strong carry and quick play-the-ball to the right post or an offload that creates a second phase and scrambles the defensive line, Murray is often the first piece of the puzzle put into place when the Rabbitohs attack down the left edge.
Murray’s battle with Isaah Yeo is of mouthwatering potential. Yeo took home the Dally M Lock of the Year award on Monday night but plenty would make a convincing argument that Murray should have won it. Nonetheless, it’s Sunday that matters and both are a chance at the Clive Churchill Medal should their team lift the Provan-Summons Trophy.
Cleary v Walker
The 2021 NRL Grand Final is headlined by two of the most creative players in the game.
Nathan Cleary is the best #7 in the world and is the most influential player in this Panthers side. He’s the captain of the ship. He organises the players around him in yardage, barks orders in good ball, and actions their shifts when looking to throw a punch at the line. The 23-year-old has scored ten tries, handed out 21 try assists, broken the line eight times, and sent teammates through the line 14 times.
Meanwhile, few would argue against Cody Walker being the best #6 in the world right now. He is on another planet with the ball in his hands to have 15 tries, 33 try assists, 11 line breaks and 44 line break assists. Walker’s 33 try assists is equal with Johnathan Thurston’s effort in 2015 while the 44 line break assists is the most by any player since at least 2013, beating Thurston’s 33 also in 2015.
Cleary and Walker have the potential to turn this game on its head at any moment.
What is interesting is how they go about their work. We looked at how Cleary compared with Jahrome Hughes last week and the disparity in their touches. Both produced attacking involvements (tries+try assists+line breaks+line break assists) at a similar rate per game, but Cleary did so with 24 more touches of the ball. This week he is up against Walker who leads the NRL in attacking involvements and does so while averaging 31.2 fewer touches per game than Cleary.
Both need their forward packs to lay a platform before producing these attacking involvements. We’ve covered how close that contest will be to start the game already. However, Cleary will have a lot more of an influence on how his team gets up the field than Walker. Where Cleary can push and pull the defence around the field into spots he wants them, Walker is ultimately playing the waiting game until those inside him set up the attack for him to fire.
The two halfbacks will take very different approaches into the game but can be equally influential on the result. They’re the two favourites for the Clive Churchill Medal for a reason.
NRL Value Plays
The Stat Bible highlighted Liam Martin as the value play of the round last week and he produced the goods for 50.8 Draftstars points. Martin is a value option again for the Grand Final with a projected score of 45 points.
Nathan Cleary is expected to lead the way on Grand Final Day with his 76 the highest projected for Sunday but it’s Viliame Kikau’s ceiling of 84 points that stands out. Projected to score 42 points, the Fijian can go well beyond that number if the Panthers look to explore the edges in yardage and find him a try in good ball.
Cameron Murray touched the ball early and often last week and can be expected to do so again on Sunday. A tackle breaker and regular carrier of the ball on 4th tackle close to the line, he is a good chance at crossing first in this one. The Wicky Try Scorer Value Finder has spied some outrageous historical value in his $31.
Alex Johnston is worth investing in any time you see him towards the top of the value list. He is the leading try scorer in the NRL and no side scores more tries anywhere on the field than the Rabbitohs do down their left edge. In the biggest game of the year and with points at a premium, there is no reason for Souths not to explore down their best-attacking edge on Sunday.
With so much of the focus on Johnston and South Sydney’s effort to move the ball wide, Blake Taaffe tucking the ball under his arm and taking the line on himself is an appealing prospect at $4.50 (Sportsbet).