Round 8 is fast approaching and it kicks off with a ripper. If it’s a close one, we’ve got a fair idea which players will be involved late in the piece. Meanwhile, we’ve got some good news for the Bulldogs and bad news for the Tigers in the strength of schedule ratings.
Thursday Night Blockbuster
Round 7 injuries to Cameron Munster, Sam Verrills and Victor Radley have taken some of the shine off the Storm v Roosters blockbuster on Thursday night. Munster had really started to come into form while Radley’s appointment as the new darling of rugby league media had his face plastered over every piece of pre and post-match coverage produced.
While two of the big stars miss this one, plenty still remain. It’s now more important than ever for the likes of Cameron Smith, James Tedesco and Luke Keary to step up and create the highlight reel a clash of this magnitude demands.
Think of Jake Friend’s try, two line breaks and monster 68 tackles of Round 1 last year. Or Munster’s try, three line breaks, nine tackle breaks, try assist and 123 running metres against the Rabbitohs in Round 21.
Go back one more season to Valentine Holmes running for 323 metres in Week 1 of the Finals against the Roosters. Back one further and we land on Semi Radradra scoring four tries and running for 258 metres against Broncos side sitting 3rd on the NRL ladder at the time.
They’re the two best teams of the last decade and meet in a prime time slot. Who will be the next to produce an outlier performance in a top four clash?
Clutch NRL Performers
We don’t often use the word “clutch” in NRL circles. It’s a term used often within American sports with clutch-specific statistics regularly used to inflate or diminish the impact of certain individuals. While it’s not typical to identify clutch performers in the NRL, we can get an idea of who stands up in the biggest moments.
Finding the line
Remarkably, teammates in Kyle Feldt and Gavin Cooper found the ball to score with the game in the balance (six-point margin either way in the last twenty minutes) more than anybody else between Round 1 in 2017 and the 2019 Grand Final.
Somewhat surprisingly again, 22-year-old Nathan Cleary has had an uncanny knack for scoring at the right time. We saw his late-game influence in a close one just last week as Cleary sealed Penrith’s 20-12 win over South Sydney.
Getting into the backfield
Seeing which players crack the line open and get into the back field late in games doesn’t throw up too many surprises at the top.
Josh Addo-Carr – arguably the fastest man in the NRL – has speed to burn as opposition forwards tire in front of him. Likewise, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has some of the deadliest feet in rugby league. He’s made to dominate late in games as would-be defenders attempt to reel him in with tired arms tackles. Kalyn Ponga is a middling combination of both as a potent late-game attacking threat.
However, Marcelo Montoya is not a name people would guess to be alongside Ponga. The Bulldogs are a poor side and don’t play in many close games. Still, a ridiculous 21% of Montoya’s total line breaks throughout the three seasons before 2020 came in the final twenty minutes of a close game. Maybe that’s why Dean Pay has welcomed him back into the starting side this week?
Splitting the posts
If there is one player the NRL public may anoint as a “clutch” performer, it’s Adam Reynolds.
He kicked three field goals in the final 11 minutes of the Rabbitohs’ 13-12 semi-final win over the Dragons in 2018. Reynolds has knocked over seven late-game field goals in total over the last three NRL seasons. Queensland fans may suggest otherwise, but Daly Cherry-Evans isn’t shy of a field goal late in the piece. Nor are Chad Townsend and Mitchel Pearce.
But there he is again: Nathan Cleary.
If he’s not scoring a late try to seal it, he’s kicking the field goal. Again, we’ve only just seen him do exactly that against the Storm in Round 6.
The Panthers beat the Roosters in Round 1, and as we look for the next team to threaten the defending premiers’ crown, Cleary has stood up in back-to-back weeks to claim victory. Premiership winning teams always have a superstar halfback. Cleary appears to be a winner in-waiting.
Strength of Schedule
After sending out a word of warning to the Raiders and offering some hope to the Trbojevic-less Sea Eagles last week, it’s the Bulldogs and Tigers fans that will be most interested in the latest strength of schedule ratings.
The Bulldogs are sitting dead last on the NRL ladder. In a year that doesn’t give them as much time to make their usual late-season run and offer hope for the following season, the Bulldogs need to pick up a few wins – fast.
With the Rabbitohs, Broncos, Dragons and Knights to come over the next month, our strength of schedule ratings award the Bulldogs with the second-easiest schedule up to Round 11.
The Tigers haven’t played finals football since 2011. Their fans deserve the chance to reacquaint themselves with that finals feel. But, despite sitting 6th on the NRL ladder through seven rounds, the Tigers face the hardest remaining schedule in the competition if they’re to still be in the Top 8 after 20 rounds. Eight of Wests’ final 13 games are against Top 8 teams with two of the remaining five against the 9th-placed South Sydney.
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