McKay vs O’Connell: a rah-rah grills a leaguie
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Yesterday, we read Brett McKay’s answers to my grilling questions about rugby union. Today, it’s my turn in the hot seat as Brett applies the blowtorch to me about rugby league.
Like Brett, I’ve been given limited time to answer these questions, along with a word restriction per answer. So my thoughts and comments are spontaneous, with no time for editing or second guessing.
Brett McKay: Is this NRL season merely a 26 round playoff to see who plays the Melbourne Storm in the grand final?
While it’s difficult to envisage the boys from Victoria not playing in the grand final, most pundits, including myself, said the same thing last year. Instead, the favoured Storm were bundled out in the semi-final by a deserving New Zealand Warriors outfit.
The Storm looked invincible earlier in the season, but a shock loss to the Sharks a few weeks ago, and the inevitable toll that State of Origin will take on the team, ensures that Melbourne are vulnerable over the next two months.
Mind you, they’ve built a nice lead at the top of the competition ladder to give themselves some breathing space, providing them the latitude to drop a few games and still be atop of the ladder.
But after the first week of the finals, it’s sudden death, and anything can happen. There are plenty of teams across many sports that have entered their respective finals as the favourite but went home empty handed.
You still have to play well when it matters most, and the pressure is at its highest.
So, that’s a long winded ‘no’.
Brett: With most teams running a single playmaker in the modern game, is five-eighth now merely a fourth backrower?
The myth that most rugby league teams now only contain one playmaker has gained serious momentum in recent times. Even the great Gus Gould has jumped on the bandwagon, bemoaning the lack of pure five-eighths in the modern game.
But the myth doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny. Or it depends on your definition of playmaker.
A list of the halves combinations in the NRL, disregarding injuries, suggests the traditional halves pairing is alive and well: Soward/Hornby, Roberts/Sandow, Burns/Walsh, Gidley/Mullen, Campese/Williams, Cherry-Evans/Foran, Johnson/Maloney. I could keep going, but you get the picture.
Where I think the myth comes from is the effects of the salary cap. With each team having a set budget, it’s sometimes not ideal salary cap management to spend a lot of money on both halves. Some teams obviously feel that it’s wiser to have one elite level half, combined with a solid first grader, thereby giving you the flexibility to purchase another elite level player in the forwards or backline.
That means that one of your halves is usually highly paid, and you’d obviously want that highly paid player with their hands on the ball a lot. That can translate to having a dominant playmaker, and a role player beside him, which may give the impression that a team is running with just the one playmaker.
I don’t think they are; they simply have a dominant half.
Brett: Is there far too much reliance on the kick in try-scoring?
There is certainly a reliance on kicking in order to score tries in rugby league. But too much reliance? I think I can debate that.
Quite simply, that’s the nature of the beast. That’s rugby league, and it’s an inherent part of the game, no different to ruck and mauls in rugby union.
I found it bewildering that many people were calling the two New South Wales tries in State of Origin last Wednesday ‘lucky’, because they came from bombs. The idea of a bomb is to put the opposition’s back three under heavy pressure from chasers, and then capitalise on any mistakes, or catch the bomb yourself.
Sure there is an element of luck in it, but is there any less luck in, for example, Carney and Uate making poor defensive decisions on the right hand side?
The attacking team is looking for defensive weaknesses to capitalise on. Kicks provide the opportunity to do just that.
We also need to recognise that kicking is the high percentage play. If teams always run the ball on the fifth tackle, then they run the risk of coming up empty handed. And I don’t just mean on the scoreboard.
The second best result, if a team can’t score a try, is to regain position via a line drop-out. And that’s impossible to do if you run the ball every time. Kicking enables the attacking team to mount pressure on the opposition; even if they should come up empty handed on the scoreboard.
Is there a reliance on kicking to score tries? Absolutely. Far too much? No.
Brett: Does interchange mean the game is too fast – will fatigue ever be a factor at the back-end of games again?
The game is definitely fast, but that is one of the game’s strengths, and I don’t think anything should be done to slow it down.
One of main attractions of rugby league is the speed of the game, so in answering the first part of the question, no, I don’t think the game is too fast. That’s rugby league’s point of difference, if you like.
As for the second component of the question, despite the interchange rules, fatigue is still very much a factor at the back-end of games.
Look no further than State of Origin as an example. The Queensland Maroons were out on their feet in the last 15 minutes of Origin one, but the Blues just weren’t good enough to deliver the knock-out blow.
With the professionalism of the modern player, and the subtle changing of body types over the years, particularly in regards to the new athletic forward prototype, fitness has never been more important in rugby league.
Already this season, we’ve seen many games won in the finals minutes, because the game opens up as players become tired, proving that fatigue is very much still a crucial factor at the back-end of games.
Brett: If you could poach one Australian rugby player to play rugby league, who would it be and why?
Before the code warmongers kick-off again, Brett and I are fully aware this is a hypothetical question. But if rugby league could get their hands on one rugby union player, I think it would be James O’Connor.
As a rugby league halfback, O’Connor would bring a lot to the table. Speed, footwork, ball skills, a super boot, plenty of x-factor, and little bit of a cheek.
He’s also bulked up considerably over the years, and his defence is brilliant.
I could easily see O’Connor playing a Shaun Johnson-type role with an NRL club, and I think he’d be an absolute sensation at rugby league.
He’s the complete package, and combined with his young age, there is no question that he would be an attractive poaching for the code.
Ryan is an ex-representative basketballer who shot too much, and a (very) medium pace bowler. He's been with The Roar as an expert since February 2011, has written for the Seven Network and NBA Down Under, and been a regular on ABC radio. Ryan tweets from @RyanOak.
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