This week for ‘Your Edge’ we dig deeper into the ball-playing locks dominating the game, preview a Round 16 clash of two top attacking fullbacks, and highlight the teams that have had the benefit of a friendly draw with a look at the Top 8 table.
Middle Forwards Making Passes
We looked at the pass/run ratio of lock forwards two weeks ago. Overall, the pass/run ratio at the position has increased in each of the last four seasons with locks averaging 0.39 passes for every run in 2020 up to the end of Round 13. While the best lock in the business, Jason Taumalolo, is a bruising ball-runner who does most of his damage with the ball tucked under his arm, we’re seeing the better attacking teams shift the ball from one side of the field to the other while using props and locks as the link between spine players.
Victor Radley’s numbers are somewhat skewed given his time spent at hooker in matches he started at lock, but we can highlight the importance of the 13 jersey to the Roosters attack by looking at Isaac Liu. His increase in pass/run ratio is linked directly to his move to lock after spending the earlier rounds coming off the bench and being used as a prop. It won’t be a surprise to see Liu shift the ball more often now that Boyd Cordner is back either.
As teammates succumb to injury around him, Jake Trbojevic remains as perhaps Manly’s most important player right now. He’s working hard in yardage sets for 131 running metres per game, and when he isn’t making the run himself, he’s putting others in a position to do so. His 0.92 pass/run ratio is far and away the most of all full time middle forwards and represents a steady increase over the years as his influence on the Manly attack grows alongside the trend of lock forwards releasing the ball before contact more often.
Notably, the Melbourne Storm have their starting lock and two first-choice starting props in the chart above. Melbourne isn’t a prolific passing team overall. Their 219.7 passes per game in 2020 is the fifth-fewest in the competition. Yet, Dale Finucane (0.38), Jesse Bromwich (0.35) and Christian Welch (0.25) all rank fairly high up against fellow locks and props in the competition.
The game plan Melbourne plays with to spread the ball early becomes clearer when looking at Nelson Asofa-Solomona and Tino Fa’asuamaleaui’s passing numbers. Two massive human beings, the pair tend to come off the bench and thrive in the power game. Often against tiring middle defences, Asofa-Solomona and Fa’asuamaleaui have one thing on their mind when taking possession: run hard and straight. Asofa-Solomona had passed the ball just seven times in 13 games before completing six passes while playing a career-high 60 minutes last week. Fa’asuamalaeaui has made only seven passes in 15 games this season. As usual, Melbourne have adopted the growing trend in the game, excelled in implementing it, but have added their own twist on things to ensure they remain as one of the best-attacking teams in the NRL.
Firing Fullbacks Go Head-to-head
After touching on what Nathan Cleary and Shaun Johnson do with their touches of the ball before the head-to-head clash that never happened last week, we’ve got two of the in-form fullbacks in the NRL up against each other on Thursday night.
For all of Latrell Mitchell’s perceived issues and unquestionably lazy tendencies in defence, he’s an outstanding attacking fullback when he’s switched on. He has some of the quickest hands in rugby league and they’re producing 0.77 try assists and 1.31 line break assists per game in 2020. Mitchell is creating over two try-scoring opportunities on only 29.3 receipts per game. Although, that number is slowly going up as he grows more comfortable in his new role.
Clint Gutherson has never been accused of being lazy. If anything, he can go searching for the ball too often and become inefficient with his touches. He averages 40.7 receipts per game with only Kalyn Ponga averaging more (44.3). With them, Gutherson is scoring more tries and breaking the line more often than Mitchell, but not doing quite as much for his team mates around him.
The Rabbitohs have won four games on the trot with Wayne Bennett calling their first half against the Sea Eagles in Round 15 one of the best halves of footy he’s been involved with throughout his 853-game coaching career. Meanwhile, the Eels continue to sit towards the top of the ladder despite some questioning their premiership credentials given the quality of their opposition. The clash between these two in-form teams led by two excellent fullbacks makes for a mouthwatering Thursday night.
Top 8 Table
Parramatta’s lack of quality opposition, when put against the Storm and Panthers, is clear when looking at the Top 8 table so far this season. They’ve struggled to score points against top teams with their 14 points against an injury-ravaged Storm in Round 15 a disappointing result. Yes, the Roosters have also only played six Top 8 teams, but it’s the Roosters. They have a recent history that affords them the benefit of the doubt.
Cronulla is another that has been blessed by the schedule makers. They’ve only played five games against Top 8 teams and are yet to manage a win. South Sydney are much the same. Their hot run of form has come against teams that won’t play beyond Round 20 with their win over the Sharks in Round 1 the only two points they’ve taken from finals-bound teams.
Strength of Schedule
A lot of the questions around the Rabbitohs and their quality of opposition will soon be answered. They have the second-hardest remaining schedule this season. Starting with the Eels in Round 16, Wayne Bennett’s men will play the Storm and Roosters in the build-up to finals footy. South Sydney’s tough run and Cronulla’s middling schedule offers a glimmer of hope for the St. George-Illawarra Dragons and Wests Tigers who remain four points outside the Top 8 with five rounds to play.