Rugby League’s ‘Moneyball’ players
Had South Sydney managed to surprise this writer by denying Manly victory on Friday night, this article would never have been written.
Yet the Rabbitohs confirmed a growing trend in recent weeks in the NRL: clubs carrying the higher proportion of skilled players between the 1,6,7 and 9 will win the big matches, even if the run of play seems to indicate otherwise.
We tend to focus on the teams with the most superstar players, and with good reason: they contribute the most valuable plays that swing close-fought contests.
Yet there’s another kind of player emerging who may be just as valuable in big games when defences are canceling each other out and elite players are being swamped in attack.
This player defies easy description; he’s not a yardage man, like Brisbane’s champion Petero Civoniceva, who performs a crucial task for his team.
Nor is he a pivot, providing a good kicking game or a passing link between forwards and backs (despite much overhyping, Adam Reynolds and Jamie Soward fall into this category).
The player who is proving the difference right now is the skill player. He won’t break four tackles in a run. He won’t throw a cut-out ball to give a winger easy passage to the line.
But here’s what else he won’t do: he won’t give the defence a chance to breathe with an easy, one-out run. Once he’s initiated collision, he won’t allow tacklers to break off quickly and regain their place in the line. He also won’t stop and put hands on hips having played the ball.
This is league’s skill player, a guy who, in the absence of gamebreaking brilliance, will provide footwork, ballplay and support play for 80 minutes. He’s your classic fly in the defensive line’s ointment, drawing enough defensive attention to himself to facilitate a breakdown one, two, three passes later.
South Sydney experienced this on Friday night. Much has been written about their gamebreaking ability; players like Greg Inglis (admittedly absent against Manly), John Sutton, Dave Taylor, Isaac Luke and Sam Burgess had been dominating opponents with power and/or brilliance.
Yet one only has to look at a near full-strength Sea Eagles outfit to see they are packed with skill players. Souths, on the other hand, lack depth and skill below their four or five champions.
Manly lacked ball control in the first half, but they clearly weren’t bothered; they were confident of dodging the Bunnies’ big punches and bleeding Souths with jabs and body blows all night long. I doubt that the presence of Inglis would have changed the result.
Men like Glenn Stewart, Kieran Foran and Anthony Watmough exhaust the opposition: anytime they touch the ball, three to four defenders have to stop and pay close attention, with the rest of the line having to adjust accordingly.
In the end, one of the most skillful centers in the modern era, Jamie Lyon, reaped the benefits. Manly had bled Souths in the middle of the field and space started to open up.
It’s no coincidence that Des Hasler, who built this Manly team, has infused his Canterbury team with the same approach. The Bulldogs lack a dominant half/five-eighth or hooker; consequently, Hasler has turned his big men into ballplayers.
Every time behemoths like Sam Kasiano and Frank Pritchard get the ball, their ability to pass in combination creates doubt, causing stasis in the middle of the field and jagged edges in the defensive line.
Out wide, the addition of Krisnan Inu fit Hasler’s approach perfectly. Provided he can keep his error rate down, Inu is a constant drain on the opposition.
Melbourne are clearly a leading contender, yet they struggled to defeat the Titans over the weekend. It was not surprising to see Gareth Widdop, now back at five-eighth, heavily involved as a second option to Cooper Cronk against the Gold Coast.
Craig Bellamy knows that opposition defences are resting for periods, waiting for the Storm to hit the ball up without much ballplay. The Storm then relies heavily on Cronk’s side of the field in attacking plays.
Ryan Hoffmann, one of the Storm’s few skill players outside of their big three, is vital to Melbourne’s chances. If I were Bellamy I’d be trying to combine Widdop and Hoffmann on the opposing side of the field to Cronk and Slater to keep both sides of the opposition’s line interested.
Small feats of skill pile up on the opposition; the teams with the highest percentage of these per six tackles will win out in September.
With this in mind, keep an eye on the Cowboys: if they can match the opposition defensively, they may be the dark horse.