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State of Origin's key questions: NSW edition

Paul Gallen's selection in Game 3 is crucial to creating a new Blues identity. (Photo: AAP)
Roar Guru
31st May, 2016
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1384 Reads

Welcome to the second part of The Roar’s State of Origin key questions series. Yesterday we considered whether the Queensland prop rotation might be a little thin, assessed the new look Queensland backline and asked whether Kevin Walters was truly ready to step into the big chair.

Today we will look at three key questions for NSW.

Question 1 – How will NSW use their bench?
Yesterday in our Queensland key questions we looked at whether the Queensland front row rotation was a little thin but, as promised, today we will look at whether the NSW middle unit is over-subscribed with high-quality big men. For NSW, the question is essentially one of mathematics.

There are 240 minutes of game time between the two front row positions and lock. NSW have selected six players, three starting and three on the bench who specialise in playing in the middle unit.

While Greg Bird is capable playing as an edge backrower (and, as we shall see, this team selection almost mandates that he spend some time there) and Paul Gallen could probably chip in on the edge if need be, the other four players are all out and out front row forwards.

But with only 240 minutes in the middle unit and only eight interchanges, it will be a challenge for Laurie Daley to get the most out of his team.

Let’s start with the minutes and come back to the interchanges. Here’s what we can be very confident of: Paul Gallen is going to want to play at least 65 minutes in this game and Aaron Woods, who plays colossal minutes for the Tigers, will probably be aiming for 50. If we take those as given, then we have only 125 minutes remaining for the other four players.

James Tamou averages well over 45 minutes per game for the Cowboys and is a first choice Australian Test front rower. It seems likely that he will also aim to play 45 minutes here. It’s now getting tricky with only 80 minutes remaining for David Klemmer, Andrew Fifita and Greg Bird to share. Even if we knock off a few minutes for each player we’re still looking at no more than 90-100 minutes for the three.

While Klemmer and Fifita are both undoubtedly earmarked for an impact role, if we are to give Greg Bird a 60-minute shift as you would expect from a starting lock, we’re down to only 20-40 minutes to divide between Klemmer and Fifita. That would not only be a huge waste but, as we shall see, it will also be difficult to manage with only eight interchanges.

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This is where we get back to the idea of utilising Bird on the edge. If Bird plays 20-25 minutes in the middle and then plays the rest of his time on the edge, we free up minutes for Klemmer and Fifita. This also has the added bonus of taking some pressure off either Boyd Cordner or Josh Jackson to play the full 80 minutes (though it is likely that one of them will need to).

As neatly as that all fits together, the problem is it is logistically challenging in an eight-interchange match. Let’s break it down.

Firstly, we have to assume NSW only really have a maximum of seven interchanges for the forwards because they need to get Dylan Walker on the field.

With that accounted for, the next interchanges to count are the starting props who will both come off once and go back on once. That’s two interchanges each and suddenly we’ve used up five of the allotted eight. Five quickly becomes seven when we assume Greg Bird will also need to come off once and go back on once.

That leaves us with a solitary interchange in case of injury. But it’s not even as easy as that because, when Bird eventually comes back on as an edge player, he is adding an interchange to the rotation as whoever is playing in his lock role needs to come back off the field to ensure the Blues have three relatively rested players in the middle unit.

It’s worth remembering at this point that NSW are very likely to move Bird to the edge because otherwise he’s going to squeeze the minutes of everyone else in the middle unit, and also require both Cordner and Jackson to play the full game, a huge ask at Origin intensity.

If all of that has given you a headache, just imagine trying to keep track of it during the game.

Finally, if you’re asking why this isn’t also a problem for Queensland, it’s because they have simplified matters by having a genuine edge player on the bench in Aidan Guerra. They aren’t trying to squeeze an additional middle unit specialist into the 240 minutes available in the middle.

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Last year, NSW made terrible decisions with their bench in Game 1 in particular. Daley used edge specialists like Jackson and Cordner in the middle and criminally under-utilised the high-motor Trent Merrin. Can the Blues do better this year with even fewer changes to utilise? I remain sceptical.

Question 2 – How will the halves pairing operate?
Our next questions concerns NSW’s halves combination, which is something like the 75th pairing the team has tried in the last ten years. For once there has not been much grumbling about the pair selected with James Maloney a consensus pick among NRL punditry and Adam Reynolds not far behind him in popularity.

But how will they actually operate as a partnership in the game tomorrow night? What role will each player fulfil?

The first thing to consider is which side of the field each player will occupy. In the modern NRL most teams utilise a split halves system with one half controlling the action on each side of the field. Depending on the team in question, the two halves will link up to a greater or lesser extent in midfield or even venture deeper into each other’s territory (Kieran Foran, for instance, regularly makes plays for the Eels in the left channel that is nominally Corey Norman’s responsibility).

Of course, these are all elite players and every half is capable of playing both sides to some extent. But at this exceptionally high standard, it is preferable to have players operating in their comfort zone.

With that being said, this partnership will likely see James Maloney play down the left side and Adam Reynolds down the right. Maloney has operated almost exclusively on the left in recent seasons and, as an added bonus, will get to link up with his former Roosters teammates Boyd Cordner on his inside and Michael Jennings on his outside.

Meanwhile, Reynolds has been more of a chameleon. After starting this season operating on the left he has recently switched to the right side to accommodate Greg Inglis’ move to left half for the Rabbitohs. Overall this should be a fairly natural position for both players.

In terms of the specific role each player will take, while we noted earlier that most teams play a split halves system, it is also common for a team to have one half who runs more and one half who kicks more. The following table sets out each player’s key statistics for the season to date.

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Average per game Season totals*
Runs Running metres Kicks Kicking metres Tackles Missed tackles Try assists Line breaks Line break assists
Maloney 8.7 79.9 6.6 152 16.6 4.4 6 3 4
Reynolds 6.2 53.3 11.7 299.8 19.3 1.5 4 0 1

*Reynolds has played only six games to Maloney’s 11

Reynolds and Maloney seem to complement each other. While Maloney is very comfortable running the ball, Reynolds makes his living as an elite kicker. These raw stats don’t reflect just how accurate and creative a kicker Reynolds is, particularly inside the opposition half.

Any NRL team would be comfortable with this sort of balance from their halves and coach Laurie Daley will be hoping Maloney and Reynolds quickly develop the necessary understanding to augment each other’s strengths and offset each other’s weaknesses.

It is worth addressing defence as there has been a common misconception that NSW is taking a big defensive risk with these two players. Certainly James Maloney has a well-earned reputation as a poor tackler and that is reflected in his 48 missed tackles already this season.

Reynolds, however, does not suffer from the same problem, having missed only nine tackles all season (albeit from fewer games). Even if we look back at 2015, Reynolds’ missed tackle rate was still very good at 2.9 misses per game for a total of 52 all season. Maloney missed 109 at an average of four per game.

Queensland will no doubt target both NSW little men in defence but the numbers suggest attacking Maloney will be more productive.

Question 3 – Can Matt Moylan be the missing link?
One of the biggest decisions for the NSW selectors was what to do at fullback. The selectors eventually decided to move incumbent Josh Dugan to centre and select Matt Moylan for debut at the back.

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While Dugan has subsequently been ruled out through injury, it is still worth considering the underlying thinking that led to his initial selection in the centres and the choice of Moylan at fullback. That’s because Moylan is a profoundly different style of player to Dugan and that will (or should) flow through to the entire team.

Essentially the difference boils down to this: Dugan is a power runner while Moylan is a natural passer and playmaker.

I highlighted Dugan’s struggles as a playmaker in a recent Thursday Night Forecast, and it was clear from the start of this season that NSW were going to consider shifting Dugan to centre, a role he has played before both for St George-Illawarra and Australia, and look for a more creative player to fill the number one jersey.

Moylan certainly fits the bill in that respect, having recorded seven try assists and six linebreak assists in only seven appearances this season. But those try assists don’t come out of thin air and getting the most out of Moylan will require a distinctly different approach than using Dugan, or indeed almost any other fullback.

That’s because Moylan plays like an extra half on the field. He’s recorded an average of 38 touches per game, yet he runs the ball on only 13.4 occasions each game. By contrast, most fullbacks average in the mid-20s in touches and will typically run the ball on half to two-thirds of their possessions.

The only other fullback in the competition who comes close to Moylan’s numbers is Lachlan Coote who is a key part of the Cowboys three-headed playmaking monster and also plays like a half.

It is no real surprise that, as a player who came through lower grades and age groups as a half, that Moylan gets far more involved than most fullbacks. But it will mean that if NSW want him to shine they will need to allow him to fold into the line on a regular basis. Will Maloney and Reynolds feel comfortable with that?

Moreover, while Moylan’s credentials as a playmaker are well established, there is always the lingering concern about a player on debut in the high stakes arena that is Origin, especially when that player is debuting in a critical position. Even players as transcendent as Billy Slater and Jarryd Hayne started their Origin careers on the wing.

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At his best, Moylan is capable of being a genuine extra half on the field who can add a wonderful extra playmaking dimension for the Blues. This makes him a potential match winner for NSW, but the question is will he reach that potential first time out? It will be fascinating to watch.