Your Edge: Losing Latrell, Hail Hiku & The Perfect Panthers

Your Edge: Losing Latrell, Hail Hiku & The Perfect Panthers

This week for ‘Your Edge’ we look at how the Rabbitohs and Eels will function without two key-playmakers, a promising Warriors re-signing, and touch on the Panthers and their quest to set a new NRL record.

Losing Latrell

Latrell Mitchell only averages 107 running metres per game. He’s not close to the likes of James Tedesco (232.0m per game) and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck (222.4m per game) in yardage. He only touches the ball 28.8 times per game; considerably less than high-involvement fullbacks like Clint Gutherson (40.0 receipts per game) and Kalyn Ponga (43.2 per game). However, Mitchell’s influence on the South Sydney Rabbitohs attack has been undeniable in recent weeks. No player in the competition has quicker hands to make shovelling a pass on look easier than he does.

In hanging out the back of a block shape on the edge, Mitchell is the focus of the defence in front of him which opens up opportunities for the lead runner. If he does receive the ball, it’s gone before the outside defender can rush in and close him down. The Souths edges thrive with Mitchell in the side to pick up easy metres in yardage sets and cross the line in good ball sets. Throughout the 14 games Mitchell has featured this season, the Rabbitohs average 26.6 points per game. Without him, just 15 points per game.

Mitchell doesn’t put up the monster numbers the Tedesco’s of the world do. However, he’s handed out a try assist in each of his last four games to have 11 for the season (=7th in the NRL). In arguably his best game all season, Mitchell ran for 133 metres and broke five tackles throughout the 49 minutes he played before limping off the field in Round 16. Following a slow start to the year in which everybody other than Wayne Bennett thought his best footy would come in the centres, Mitchell has turned out to be the key that unlocks the Rabbitohs attack. His injury puts a massive dent in their hopes to complete a deep run into October. The Rabbitohs can be a good team without Mitchell. After all, Adam Reynolds, Damien Cook and Cody Walker still make up an excellent spine. But the Rabbitohs won’t be a great side without their fullback.

The threat of entering the premiership conversation lasted 49 minutes in Round 16. Mitchell’s return should ensure they’re part of it to start the 2021 season, though.

Eels Left Edge Struggles

The Eels left edge started the season as one of the best attacking options in the NRL. Sending the ball to the left edge for Maika Sivo, Michael Jennings, Shaun Lane and Dylan Brown to average 101 touches of the ball between them per game, the Eels averaged 23.1 points across the opening 11 rounds. Lane’s hole-running, Jennings’ speed and experience along with Sivo’s brute strength saw at least one of the attacking trio score in nine of their opening 11 games of the season.

Since then, they’re seeing less of the ball, have scored just one try, and the Eels attack looks a shadow of itself. Sivo’s Round 15 try against an injury-riddled Storm side is the only four-pointer to come on Parramatta’s left edge. They’ve averaged just 94.4 touches of the ball and 11.6 points per game in that span. To make matters worse, Brown is now out until at least the finals. His 49 touches per game need replacing with Jai Field offered the first crack at five-eighth on Sunday afternoon. He averaged only 28.8 touches in his three games earlier in the season.

The Eels searched down the left edge when it’s all working to plan. The more times Brown gets his hands on the ball, the more points Parramatta scores. They’ve averaged 24.1 points in the six games he exceeded his average receipts per game compared to 16.7 points in the ten he fell below it. A lot of pressure will fall onto the shoulders of Field as he looks to re-ignite the Eels left edge, but it’s Mitchell Moses that will need to carry the side through to the finals.

What Are You Waiting For, Warriors?

What started as a plea to the New Zealand Warriors to re-sign Peta Hiku earlier in the day has ended as a celebration with the club confirming they have secured his services until the end of 2021. While it forced a rewrite here, the premise remains the same: Hiku is an excellent attacking centre that the Warriors should retain.

While he has a few defensive lapses in him, Hiku has been one of the Warriors’ best throughout a trying 2020 season. Here, we’ve combined try and line break involvements of all centres (min. 5 games) to determine a per game average.

Stephen Crichton’s try-scoring feats on Penrith’s elite left edge lands him at the top while an all-time great in Josh Morris is just behind him. Dane Gagai has benefited from South Sydney’s improved attack. Meanwhile, Kotoni Staggs, Bradman Best and Zac Lomax are the three best young centres in the game at the moment. Tucked in there just behind a high-quality list of players is Hiku. He does a little bit of everything, but most importantly to the Warriors with who they have outside him when at full-strength, he leads all centres in try assists and is second in line break assists.

The man they appeared to be hanging over Hiku in their negotiations for 2021 and beyond, Euan Aitken, doesn’t come close to Hiku’s production in these attacking involvements. He averages a combined 0.83 involvements per game, has a combined three assists in 12 games, and the only category he trumps Hiku in here is line breaks (4 in 2020). Much of that comes down to Hiku’s willingness to pass the ball and Aitken’s, well, you could say refusal to do the same at this point of his career (118 games). Hiku’s 7.57 passes per game dwarf Aitken’s 2.36 per game, while in 2018 and 2019, the winger standing outside Hiku finished 1st (David Fusitu’a) and 4th (Ken Maumalo) in the NRL in total tries scored that year.

Hiku is homegrown talent and exactly the sort of player the club should be targeting. A one-year deal is an excellent result and will ensure they get the very best out of Hiku again next season.

Strength of Schedule

With the Top 8 all but locked in, it’s all about jostling for position and home finals from now through to the end of Round 20. The Melbourne Storm are well-positioned to retain their spot in the top two and a ‘home’ final away from home. Meanwhile, the Parramatta Eels have been presented with a friendly opportunity to play themselves into form in the build-up to the finals. Latrell Mitchell’s season-ending injury just as the South Sydney Rabbitohs started to fire is compounded by the fact they have a tough run into October. So too do the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks who are still in search of their first win over a Top 8 side.

But the big talking point out of all of this is the Penrith Panthers having the easiest remaining schedule. They’ve won 11 games on the bounce already, and should they win out through to the Grand Final, will set a new record for the longest winning streak in the NRL era. With the Broncos, Eels, Cowboys and Bulldogs to come, it’s not difficult to imagine the Panthers entering the finals behind a 15-game winning streak. If they drop one along the way, the Penrith faithful have the ready-made excuse, albeit a strange one, of dropping a game they “needed to lose” if they’re to lift the Provan-Summons Trophy.

Don’t expect the Panthers to take their foot off the gas over the final four rounds of the regular season.

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