After a week off for representative round, NRL action returns tonight with the first game of the season at Jubilee Oval, a fourth ‘home’ venue for the St George Illawarra Dragons.
For the Canberra Raiders, it is the first appearance on free-to-air television, meaning that every team will have enjoyed the razor-sharp analysis that comes from Channel Nine.
With the representative round intervening, it feels like a lifetime since there was NRL and both teams would probably like to forget their last games.
For the Dragons it was an ugly performance, going down in Auckland to a New Zealand Warriors team missing seven or eight first-choice players through injury and team suspension.
The Dragons once again struggled to post points scoring 10 and taking their season tally to 89. That translates to less than ten points per game putting only the utterly derelict Newcastle Knights in a similar, yet slightly better position. The third worst attacking team are the Sydney Roosters, at over 18 points per game.
Meanwhile, the Raiders were victims of their own inconsistency in Bathurst against the Penrith Panthers. They allowed two painfully easy tries and played remarkably disorganised football in the final five minutes when the game was there to win. Coming only a week after the team had run riot against the Wests Tigers this game was a reminder of how much further this young team has to travel before they can be considered a genuine contender.
We have of course also seen many of the players in tonight’s game involved in games on representative round with Josh Dugan and Josh Papalii appearing for Australia and Jason Nightingale for New Zealand while Leeson Ah Mau and Kurt Baptiste played for Samoa and Papua New Guinea respectively.
Elsewhere Jack Wighton, Jarrod Croker, Shannon Boyd, Paul Vaughan, Aidan Sezer, Jack de Belin, Euan Aitken and Tyson Frizzell all appeared in the City v Country fixture.
Given that the City vs Country game was played late on Sunday afternoon in Tamworth, you have to wonder exactly how much thought was put into scheduling any game four days later.
It should have been clear to anyone how many players, particularly from these sides were likely to be involved and forced to back up on little rest. But then again speculating about the NRL draw is a swift path to madness.
|Josh Dugan||Fullback||Jack Wighton|
|Jason Nightingale||Left Winger||Edrick Lee|
|Euan Aitken||Left Centre||Jarrod Croker|
|Tim Lafai||Right Centre||Joey Leilua|
|Kalifa Faifai Loa||Right Winger||Jordan Rapana|
|Gareth Widdop||Left half||Aidan Sezer|
|Benji Marshall||Right Half||Blake Austin|
|Leeson Ah Mah||Prop||Shannon Boyd|
|Mitch Rein||Hooker||Josh Hodgson|
|Mike Cooper||Prop||Paul Vaughan|
|Tyson Frizell||Left Second Row||Josh Papalli|
|Joel Thompson||Right Second Row||Elliott Whitehead|
|Will Matthews||Lock||Shaun Fensom|
|Russell Packer||Interchange||Kurt Baptiste|
|Dunamis Lui||Interchange||Joe Tapine|
|Siliva Havili||Interchange||Luke Bateman|
|Jacob Host||Interchange||Clay Priest|
There are a number of changes to the Dragons team that ran out in Auckland 12 days ago. It begins with the return of Josh Dugan to his natural position of fullback and Tim Lafai returning to the centres.
The team also welcomes the return of left side back-rower Joel Thompson but his return is offset by the loss of Jack De Belin to a long-term injury suffered during the representative round. De Belin has been arguably the Dragons best forward averaging well over 100 metres per game to go with over 42 tackles, playing over 70 minutes.
Meanwhile, for the Raiders Ricky Stuart has, given recent form, unsurprisingly stuck with the same 17 for this game, selecting the five Raiders players who were involved in the fixture on Sunday along with Josh Papalii who played in the Test match.
The unchanged line-up also means that there remains no room for veteran forward Frank-Paul Nuuasuala who earned the ire of the coach with a series of poor performances earlier in the season.
However, as is Stuart’s tradition of using the team named on Tuesday as a smokescreen it should be expected expect this is unlikely to be the team that plays. While both Shannon Boyd and Paul Vaughan have been named to start, do not be surprised if one or both of them is shifted to the bench. Another possibility is the early return from a broken arm for the halfback assassin Iosia Soliola.
What to watch for
For the Dragons one of the most interesting things to consider is the selection of Josh Dugan who has returned to fullback after playing centre against the Warriors, and for Australia.
While the decision to play Dugan at centre was no doubt influenced by the unavailability of Tim Lafai, the Warriors game was not the first time this season that Dugan has appeared at centre. Previously coach Paul Macgregor selected him there in rounds one and two with recruit Kurt Mann playing fullback with disappointing to abominable results.
Regardless of the form of Mann in those games there were serious questions about the decision to select Dugan at centre. These are only reinforced when we consider Dugan’s centre statistics compared to his fullback statistics thus far this season.
The following table contrasts Dugan’s mediocre centre statistics with his phenomenal performances at fullback on a per game basis:
|Touches||Runs||Metres||Line breaks||Tackle breaks||Errors|
It’s hard not to look at this table and want to ask Paul Macgregor why? Even in the unfortunate situation of being without a first choice player at centre, why would you go back to a choice that didn’t work very well the first time and involves the move of the NSW representative fullback to a position he has only played a handful of times?
Dugan not only gets far more involved at fullback – but he also uses his touches more effectively, racking up some incredible metres and tackle breaks. Surely there was a better option?
But even if we give Macgregor the benefit of the doubt with respect to injury forcing his hand in Round 9 what is the case for playing Dugan at centre and someone else – whether Kurt Mann to start the season or Adam Quinlan last weekend – at fullback?
It is easy enough to poke holes in the strategy but we have to recognise McGregor and his assistants did have a strategy in mind for moving Dugan and it was relevant to the future success of the team even now after Dugan has been moved back again.
Part of the answer may be in the key statistical categories you don’t see in the table above – categories like line break assists and try assists. The reason you don’t see them is because Dugan has recorded zero of either in 2016. Dugan is a wonderful ball runner but he is, on the statistical evidence available to us, no playmaker.
Virtually every other fullback has recorded at least one try assist and only one other regular fullback has recorded neither a try or line break assist.
Surprisingly that player is Brett Stewart who has long been one of the best playmakers. Oddity aside, Dugan’s playmaking irrelevance is a huge concern for the Dragons and reflects a trend throughout his Dragons career with only two try assists and three line break assists in 2015, and three and four respectively in 2014.
Quinlan meanwhile recorded six try assists and nine line break assists in only 12 appearances for the club in 2014 before departing for St Helens in 2015 so one can imagine the thinking of the Dragons coaching staff is ‘if we’re down a centre anyway why not get as much of Dugan’s running game as we can from right centre while still getting some playmaking at fullback?’
It is an intriguing theory, but does it hold up in practice? Does the lack of playmaking from the back result from choices Dugan is making or is it related to the overall structure of the team and the strategy in attack? One can make a case that while Dugan may have a run first attitude, that the team is poorly set up to accommodate a pass first fullback anyway.
One key indicator does suggest that there is a gap between a stated desire to get “more ball playing” from fullback and actually achieving that.
Though not a statistic displayed on the official NRL website, the number of touches per game for each player tells an interesting story about the role of a fullback for any given team. The table below sets out the average touches and average runs per game of the three Dragons fullbacks this season along with the four leading playmaking fullbacks in the competition.
|Games||Avg. touches||Avg. runs||Try assists||Line break assists|
The number to concentrate on here is the gap between touches and runs. So while Dugan and Mann were running the ball between two-thirds and three-quarters of the time this percentage is considerably lower for the other fullbacks listed.
The difference is remarkable when we look at Lachlan Coote and Matt Moylan in particular who both touch the ball as often as most halves, and pass just as often too. But even James Tedesco and Darius Boyd who are more inclined to run than Moylan or Coote, still pass the ball more frequently than Dugan or Mann.
Beyond the percentages it is clear also that Mann at least simply did not get enough opportunities with ball in hand to have any genuine impact in attack.
It is hard to gauge much from Quinlan’s one appearance but it does seem like he is more inclined to pass. But even if he is more inclined to do so he still had far fewer touches than the genuine playmaking fullbacks.
It is important because it suggests that even if the Dragons want more ball playing from fullback the team is not set up to accommodate it. In Dugan’s case, his preference was clearly to run but when Mann and Quinlan have been there they have far too few touches to have any hope of developing a playmaking role.
This assessment is reached by a close watching of the game itself which sees many attacking plays in which one would expect to see a sweeping fullback run with only Widdop or Marshall.
For the Dragons, the key criticism all season and indeed throughout much of 2015 has been that the team has been playing with too much structure, that the Dragons playmakers are unable to shake loose of Paul Macgregor’s system to generate scoring opportunities. The limited use of fullbacks in attack would seem to confirm this theory.
The Raiders enter tonight’s game with the fourth-best attack in the competition behind the Queensland pair and Cronulla Sharks. One of the key elements in their success has been getting their big men over the line and they are second only to the Cowboys in terms of tries scored by running forwards with 11 to the Cowboys 13. For comparison the Storm and Sharks are both at nine apiece and even the high-scoring Broncos are at only six.
How do the Green Machine get so many tries from forwards? Well, one tactic to look out for is the team’s penchant for short passes to their forwards near the line. Hooker Josh Hodgson in particular routinely tests opposition defences with short, leading passes to edge backrowers Elliott Whitehead and Josh Papalii.
Against the Tigers a Hodgson special allowed Whitehead to score the first try of the game largely untroubled by the defence.
Perhaps emboldened by the success against the Tigers, the short pass at the line became a strategy that the team went back to again and again against the Panthers. As the following image demonstrates the Raiders tried a number of variations to get a big man over the line with a flat, short pass immediately before the defensive line.
While most of the passes were direct from the dummy half, on some occasions Hodgson chose to spin the ball one pass wide to halfback Aidan Sezer who typically attacked the line before finding a charging big man, here shown utilising an outside-in run from Shaun Fensom in the top left and Josh Papalii in the top right.
The two bottom images show more typical examples where Hodgson simply snaps the ball directly to either Paul Vaughan (bottom left) or Josh Papalii again (bottom right).
The only problem was that a majority of those plays failed, including at least one which came on last play when the team had options left and right. Two of them however, did put the ball runner over the line only for good defence to prevent a try.
This is probably why the team persisted with the tactic to the very end with reward finally coming late in proceedings with replacement hooker Kurt Baptiste able to put prop Paul Vaughan one on one against Panthers hooker James Segeyaro.
Regardless of the relatively low success rate for the tactic in the Panthers game the Raiders are blessed to have arguably the most in form dummy half in the competition and array of skilful big men so this tactic will be tried again.
First try scorer – Jordan Rapana
For those who haven’t had a chance to watch the Raiders this season the right edge partnership of Joey Leilua and Jordan Rapana has been nothing but fire emojis. In the last three games the pair have recorded a combined 46 tackle breaks, 13 offloads, eight line breaks and seven tries, all of which were scored by Rapana but many of which should really be accrued to some sort of combined tally.
The one thing they haven’t managed thus far this season is for either of them to score the first try. That finishes tonight with Rapana coolly finishing a movement that will probably also include Josh Hodgson or Blake Austin.
Prediction – Raiders
This is a difficult game to predict which is reflected in the close betting market for the game.
The Dragons offence has been largely awful all season but aside from the Tigers, playing against the Raiders has been pretty good for most team’s offences with the Raiders having the sixth worst defence.
However even against a Raiders defence that has been poor at times it seems unlikely that the Dragons will have enough points to overcome a Raiders team who will look to thrust themselves firmly into the middle of the eight after missing an opportunity to put distance between themselves and the chasing pack in Bathurst.
Shoe in of the Week
It’s the Raiders first game on free-to-air for the season and there’s an election campaign underway – we can be pretty sure those two things are going to be linked in a horribly unfunny and spurious way.
You can read the Thursday Night Forecast here every week or check it out along with more great rugby league analysis on Lachlan’s website Back the ten.
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