This week for ‘Your Edge’ we preview both games coming up in Week 3 of the NRL Finals, explore Dylan Walker’s weird role, and find the best value plays of the weekend.
Melbourne Storm v Penrith Panthers
It’s all about Nathan Cleary for the Panthers this week. If he isn’t front and centre and making things happen with the ball, they’re unlikely to trouble the Storm defence often enough to win the game.
He touches the ball more than any other half in the NRL. Unlike, say, Mitchel Pearce, Cleary is never talked about as over-playing his hand or stalling the attack by taking too many possessions. While Cooper Cronk excelled as an organising halfback towards the end of his career without the ball in his hands, Cleary controls his side by passing teammates into position.
His 20 try assists are good for 5th in the NRL while Jahrome Hughes is just behind him at 19. The difference outside of the five extra games Hughes played this year is in the touches. The Storm halfback averages a whopping 24 fewer touches per game than Cleary.
Hughes is a running halfback. He averages 106 running metres per game and has broken the line 19 times this season. Whether his runs create opportunities for himself (9 tries) or others (19 try assists & 13 line break assists), he is at his best when he is putting his foot down and taking the line on. That isn’t to say Cleary isn’t a running half; he averages more metres per game (113 metres) and has dished out more line break assists (14) this season. However, Cleary runs the ball with the intention of turning defenders and passing at the line. So much of Cleary’s best work is attributed to others on the stats sheet two or three tackles later.
The two halves take very different approaches to their game to produce similar results. Despite the gulf in touches, they both average just short of three attacking involvements (tries+try assists+line breaks+line break assists) per game. While Cleary faces the huge task of leading the Panthers to victory over an elite Storm side, his first job is to outplay Hughes. It’s difficult to imagine the Panthers causing an upset if Cleary can’t produce more than his opposite number on Saturday night.
NRL Value Plays
Liam Martin is the model’s top value play and projected to score 44 Draftstars points at $9,040. With Viliame Kikau under an injury cloud and the left edge sure to be a heavy feature of the Panthers attack, Martin’s ceiling could rise further should things break the right way.
Meanwhile, Nathan Cleary’s 76 projected points are the highest of the weekend. The Panthers are going to be put under a lot of pressure through the middle of the field with Cleary expected to kick them out of trouble. He kicked for over 800 metres last week and will go close to that figure again if the Panthers defence can hold out the Storm attack.
Check out our NRL Draftstars Preview for Week 3 of the NRL Finals.
The Sea Eagles are going to look left early on Friday night as they look to build a lead over a Rabbitohs side in good form defensively. Tom Trbojevic will certainly be a feature of Manly’s early actions which brings Reuben Garrick and his $13 to score first into the frame.
On Saturday, Brandon Smith is always an option in the first tryscorer market. He has crossed the line first seven times already this year and will have one eye on Dylan Edwards in the defensive line in good ball areas.
Alex Johnston is the NRL’s top try scorer and plays on the end of the best left edge attack in rugby league. Cody Walker will assume most of the creative duties with Latrell Mitchell unavailable and Blake Taaffe looks most comfortable plugging himself down that side of the field. Despite knowing they’re going left all season, teams haven’t been able to stop Johnston and the Bunnies from scoring. The Sport Tech Daily Try Scorer Model has highlighted Johnston as outrageous value at $8.50 first and $1.90 anytime.
South Sydney Rabbitohs v Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Des Hasler has always had a Mad Scientist reputation as an NRL coach. He is never afraid to try different things and the 2021 season is a prime example of his out-of-the-box thinking translating into good footy.
The role of middle forward has been changing for a little while now. Every year they’re tasked with developing more of a passing game and moving away from simple carries up the guts. Hasler has Jake Trbojevic, Marty Taupau and Sean Keppie making regular passes, is playing a five-eighth on the edge, a hooker also on the edge, and a fullback/centre in the middle off the bench. All are making the most of their skills as ballplayers.
Locks, in particular, act as a third half in some instances with Victor Radley and Isaah Yeo especially active as ballplayers in the middle of the field. The two #13’s lining up for this one will be crucial for their respective teams. Jake Trbojevic and Cameron Murray are both high-volume passers at their positions, but they’re used in different ways. Whether or not the opposition can close them or the players they pass the ball to down will have a huge impact on the result on Friday night.
Trbojevic is especially active in Manly’s yardage sets. He takes the ball in the middle of the field, straightens and engages the line before passing to Kieran Foran out the back of shape. His straightening and engaging of the line is crucial as it stops the defence from sliding across. If Foran reads the defence and completes his pass to Tom Trbojevic out one spot wider, the Sea Eagles are soon flying down the sideline. Melbourne’s ability to close Trbojevic down is what won them the match in Week 1 of the Finals.
Murray, on the other hand, is most effective in good ball areas. His carries to the left post are often the trigger to a left shift that ends with Alex Johnston in the corner. If Murray isn’t the one taking the carry leading up to the shift, he is at first receiver and acting as the link man between the hooker and Cody Walker. That extra pass is what creates the space for Walker to do Walker things.
Whether it be through inside pressure on Trbojevic and Murray or a jamming defence targeted on the recipient of their passes, how the two #13’s are handled will be a big reason for whichever result transpires on Friday.
Manly does have a backup to Jake Trbojevic, though…
Walker’s Weird Role
In one of the strangest transformations in recent years, Dylan Walker has become a key feature of Manly’s middle. Playing primarily as a lock forward off the bench following 150 NRL games spread across the halves, centres and fullback, Walker has packed some punch as a bench forward in recent weeks.
In fact, when you put him beside full-time locks this season, he is running for as many metres per game as Jake Trbojevic while passing the ball as often as Cameron Murray.
Walker plays roughly 45 minutes a week and does need the big boys in front of him to lay a platform if he is to come off the bench and make the most of a tiring opposition defence. Still, he’s an x-factor player that could cause South Sydney’s defence some problems late in the first half and into the second.