John Sutton – the most improved player in the NRL
John Sutton celebrates his team's win. AAP Image/Action Photographic, Renee McKay
Who is the most improved player in the NRL in 2012? There is no shortage of improved players across the NRL this year with Dally M medallist Ben Barba an obvious example.
The success at the Bulldogs can be put down largely to the influence of players like Sam Kasiano and Josh Reynolds who, to be fair, little was expected of heading into the season.
But while these players and countless others have enjoyed improved seasons, you can’t go past John Sutton in such a category.
A player maligned so often by his own fans, let alone the media and wider public, John Sutton has totally revolutionised his game in 2012. There were no shortage of eyebrows raised when South Sydney announced Sutton as part of their five man leadership group earlier this year, and with good reason.
A first grader since 2004 with 150 plus games to his credit, the powerful ball player had always threatened a good performance but rarely delivered consistently on his significant talents. Sutton is a 190cm, 102 kg ball player with a neat left-foot kicking game who too often defended like a 70kg halfback.
Sutton’s size and talent meant people expected him to drag Souths up the ladder for a number of years without any support, and his inability to do this made him an easy target for criticism.
John Sutton may not have entirely silenced the critics in 2012, they’re still out there hanging onto a dead and buried line of argument, but his performances have once and for all addressed the two most significant criticisms against him.
The first, outlined above, has Sutton painted as an inconsistent and ‘soft’ waste of talent. The second line of argument is that Sutton is not a five eighth. Based on his performances in 2012 you’re going to find it hard to mount a significant case on either of these points heading forward.
It would be easy to point to Greg Inglis’s move to the back as the catalyst for Sutton’s improvement but I think you would be selling the five eighth and indeed Michael Maguire short. The area of Sutton’s game that he doesn’t get enough credit for is his football IQ.
The argument is that he is 100kg, so get him in the forward pack. Indeed only this week Souths fans have taken to social media calling for GI to move into the 6 jersey. Beyond how ludicrously unintelligent it would be to move your best player from the most influential position, it’s disrespectful to the talents of Sutton.
Former coach Jason Taylor made the point a few weeks ago that Sutton’s greatest asset is his ability to read the game.
A few weeks ago he went to the line and put Nathan Merritt away down the sideline on tackle four, forcing the winger who had dropped back to make the tackle on Merritt. Sensing opportunity, Sutton pushed Nathan Peats out of the way and took the ball from hooker down the blind side, where he put a perfectly placed kick into the sport where the winger in question was supposed to be. A split second decision that is just one example, off the top of my head, illustrating his ability to read the game.
While Adam Reynolds might capture all the praise and plaudits for Souths’ improved run in 2012, don’t diminish the work of John Sutton. Sutton does a lot of the talking and directing on the football park, taking the responsibility his senior status affords him. He is the big reason Reynolds has been able to slot into the side and worry about kicking well at the end of each set.
While Chris Sandow might have been the darling of South Sydney supporters over the last few years, it was injury to Sutton towards the close of the 2010 and 2011 seasons that cruelled their semi-final chances. In fact without Sutton, South Sydney routinely looked the way Parramatta did this year, directionless and without structure.
You can argue that John Sutton is a lock – as many have and continue to – but his skillset and intelligence would be wasted in the middle of the park. In modern day football your lock plays in the tight area of the field and becomes your third front rower.
The fact of the matter is in 2012, John Sutton leads five eighths in the CVR ratings system. The system is designed to measure one’s contribution in the game and is tweaked for each position. Of all the five eighths in the competition -Todd Carney and Jonathon Thurston included – Sutton heads the field.
CVR is not without its detractors but that’s an argument for another day, I’m not solely basing my analysis on this data, rather it’s only one of many indicators of John Sutton’s improvement in 2012.
Maguire has simplified football for Sutton this year. His role isn’t to go to the line and push through a try assist with the miracle ball. All Sutton has to do is force the opposition to make a one on one tackle and if you can make a side do enough of those, you will score your fair share of points.
So confident am I in Sutton’s new found consistency that before you fire off your clichéd criticisms in response, I’ll ask you to sit down and watch Sutton play on Saturday night. The result of the game is immaterial to the argument.
Watch the way he takes the ball to the line at pace and whereas one day he would throw the miracle ball losing possession, watch him either give his runners time to take a comfortable pass or take defenders on himself, looking for a quick play the ball.
Watch Canberra kick long and into the corners and take note of who is back there to take the first tough run. Watch him pointing and directing South’s players across the park and, most significantly, watch his improved efforts in all the 1% areas of the game that he so often neglected.
Nobody can turn up week in week out and tear the opposition apart like he did to the Wests Tigers in round 21 and nobody expects that of John Sutton. All you can expect is that he turns up week in and week out to do a job for his team.
In 2012 thanks to the influence of Michael Maguire, Sutton is finally doing this for South Sydney.
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