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SMITHY: Tigers and Cowboys and the modern reluctance to attack

The Cowboys will need to play out of their skins to break Wayne Bennett's grand final record. (Photo by Colin Whelan copyright © nrlphotos.com)
Expert
25th May, 2015
43
1182 Reads

As a very young coach at Souths in the 1980s, I remember listening closely at a press conference to a coach answering a question about his team being very focussed on defence.

His answer? “Well there is not much else you can do when you haven’t got the ball is there?”

This flashback came to mind following the very strong favourite for lowest-scoring game of the season so far, Tigers hosting Cowboys on Saturday night.

>>>Read more from Brian Smith on Smithy Speaks.

When Tigers coach Jason Taylor answered tough questions about his team failing to trouble the scorers, in his typically honest and frank method, he told us all that defence is king and “has been for a decade or so in the NRL”. Bells started ringing for me.

JT had made it clear his team’s focus on Saturday night was on defence and had been since he arrived this preseason.

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Having forced myself to watch it through again on replay, it was obvious the team’s focus was solely based on defence. Unlike times preceding statistics and video when some players saved energy for attack by going missing in defence, this analysis of Saturday nights game showed two teams saving energy in attack!

I am not sure if there was a world record set for one-out plays in this match but it sure would have been in the playoffs. Not just for the losers either – the Cowboys played similarly.

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But it wasn’t just the no-error attitude that made this match so horribly tough to watch. There was absolutely a lack of any subtlety or support when either team had possession.

The Tigers set their stall out with the selection of Dene Halatau as captain Robbie Farah’s replacement at dummy half. There was never going to be any requirement for creative attack from the ruck, reading the defence to find weakness or lack of numbers with a makeshift in that all-important attacking role. But to be fair, the live wire Jake Granville did not seem to have licence to set his team’s attack alight as he can do almost at will if encouraged.

It was hard to find a set of possession other than from a penalty in the other team’s end, where either team spread out off the ball, to offer some sort of threat to the defence. Instead it looked like mini footy much of the time. You could have thrown a blanket over them.

Almost no energy in attack or enterprise to create something for something else was apparent even in the opening minutes. They all seemed to be saving up for defence.

So if a team doesn’t focus on attacking their opponents when in possession, what can they expect? Firstly, not much in the way of points on the scoreboard or in premiership points. If you lose a match in which you have not played attack you should surely expect to finish on zero. The Tigers got that result, but don’t forget the Cowboys scored one lousy try in the last minute of the match off a fullback error.

I am not sure that some people involved in high places in the NRL get the most fundamental part of the game. If you want to score points you need to attempt to create something that will deplete the opposition of energy or mental capacity. If you don’t do that each time you get the ball, the opposition will be more than capable of dealing with whatever little attack you throw at them. And ditto if the other team does the same, and we the viewers and spectators go home wondering how they thought they could both get away with it.

Yes I know the Cowboys did – they got the break and the competition points. But in the longer term development of their team how are they set for next time they play without their Origin stars?

And the Tigers? Well it seems they have a philosophy set for the season which will make them easy meat for any team prepared to have a crack at attacking them and depleting them of energy. The Tigers seem to be set on holding the ball for six and kicking without asking serious questions of their opponent’s defence.

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Unless your club has a team full of a blockbusting individual ball carriers this will not work. The Roosters of 2013 were good enough to get away with it due to the brilliance of their team when in the good end of the park – especially Sonny Bill Williams.

Without a plethora of physical specimens this theory of not attacking when in possession is doomed. And so it should be.

Failing to support the ball carrier, spreading out quickly after gaining possession to offer opportunity to move the ball, utilising creative halves and dummy halves, and combinations of all of these aspects of quality attacking play, play after play, set after set, is what half the game is all about.

Performing all of that without making heaps of errors takes skill and concentration and energy. But it results in points and a team more confident in its ability to play well.

It also takes way more energy out of those in the opposition trying to defend it, so as that D goes into attack how do they feel? Way, way less energised than dealing with that one-out, predictable stuff we saw on Saturday night.

So it works in reverse for those teams who dare to attack. It makes defending easier for them.

This ‘no attack’ footy theory is demeaning to the guys playing it. It’s saying, “let’s take our chances on jagging a couple of tries off lucky bounces from kicks and broken play rather than team development of the skills and talents in the crew wearing your club colours.”

This is not a blast on Cowboys and Tigers – it’s rife in the NRL, particularly around Origin time.

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It’s coaching down, not up, and it’s very short-term in focus.