NRL silly season ramped up this week, with Ryan Matterson signing with the Eels, while Latrell Mitchell has gone from the game’s hottest commodity to the kid apparently no-one wants.
State of Origin is back next week so we’re down to a condensed round with only four games this weekend, beginning with tonight’s Rabbitohs versus Eels game.
In another curiosity of the NRL schedule, this is actually the second game between these two teams in the last five weeks, with the Rabbitohs prevailing in the previous game at Parramatta stadium back in Round 10.
The Rabbitohs enter the game on a two-game losing streak and have won only two of their last eight games. Despite the frantic surge at the end of the game against the Tigers, the Rabbitohs were deserved losers on Friday night and were well beaten in all the major statistical categories.
While the team remains only two points outside the eight they have not shown much in recent times to suggest they are about to surge back into contention.
For the Eels, the dark clouds that have recently been surrounding the club abated for a little while when they overcame the Titans in Darwin. While rarely a pretty affair, the team was dogged in trying, hot conditions and were well rewarded. That said, if the Titans had simply converted their three tries it may have made for a far more nervous final ten minutes for Parramatta.
|Alex Johnston||Fullback||Michael Gordon|
|Aaron Gray||Left winger||Semi Radradra|
|Siosifa Talakai||Left centre||Clinton Gutherson|
|Kirisome Auav’a||Right centre||Vai Toutai|
|Dane Nielsen||Right winger||Bevan French|
|Cody Walker||Left half||Kenny Edwards|
|Luke Keary||Right half||Corey Norman|
|Tom Burgess||Prop||Daniel Alvaro|
|Cameron McInnes||Hooker||Isaac De Gois|
|David Tyrrell||Prop||Danny Wicks|
|Paul Carter||Left second row||Manu Ma’u|
|Kyle Turner||Right second row||Beau Scott|
|Sam Burgess||Lock||Tepai Moeroa|
|Damian Cook||Interchange||Kaysa Pritchard|
|Jason Clark||Interchange||Peni Terepo|
|Jack Gosiewski||Interchange||David Gower|
|Nathan Brown||Interchange||Rory O’Brien|
For the Rabbitohs, Origin has hit hard with both starting halves from recent weeks – Adam Reynolds and Greg Inglis – to miss the game. Whether or not you believe Inglis plays his best football in the halves, the reality is that he has occupied that spot for several weeks now so it will be an adjustment for the team to cope with his absence.
The two men slated to replace Reynolds and Walker were actually the players who started the season in the halves for the Rabbitohs, Cody Walker and Luke Keary.
Sadly the team is all too familiar without Reynolds, as he has missed plenty of football since the team captured the premiership in October 2014. He missed seven games in 2015 and has also been out for six of the team’s 13 games this season. But sadly, familiarity with the predicament won’t necessarily mean the team is more capable of overcoming it.
Reynolds is a terrific footballer and the team will miss his direction, in particular his kicking game. Reynolds’ kicking prowess, though not at its best against the Tigers, was still clearly a far better option than either Keary or Walker.
In 2016 Reynolds is kicking an average of 12.3 times per game for a very respectable 310 metres per game. Meanwhile, combining all kicks from Keary and Walker would only get you to ten per game for a little under 250 metres. This suggests that one of those two players is going to need to do considerably more kicking than usual tonight.
The absence of Reynolds and Inglis also means a shift for Alex Johnston to fullback while Siosifa Talakai has been named to start in the centres with Bryson Goodwin injured.
For the Eels the only change is Vai Toutai replacing Michael Jennings in the centres as the team persists with the Corey Norman-Kenny Edwards halves pairing that served them well enough in Darwin.
What to watch for
We have already seen that one key challenge for the Rabbitohs will be managing the kicking game in the absence of Adam Reynolds, however that challenge is compounded by a forward pack that is struggling to get the team into a position to score points.
We’ve considered this problem over and over when previewing Rabbitohs games and once again against the Tigers the Rabbitohs forwards struggled badly. Only Sam and Tom Burgess made over 100 metres carrying the ball, and the team lost the ground game by a colossal 1530 to 1155 metres. This reflects a season-long trend with the team having only two forwards, again Sam and Tom Burgess, averaging over 100 metres per contest.
With players like Chris McQueen and Ben Te’o long gone, George Burgess injured and even Tom Burgess not producing at his peak, the burden has fallen on the lesser lights and youngsters in the Rabbitohs squad.
While Nathan Brown has been a pleasant surprise (when he isn’t committing acts of thuggery) the reality is players like David Tyrell and Jason Clark are simply not producing at the level required to give the team a chance to win. Averaging only 54.3m and 74.8m respectively, neither is a tackle break or offload threat either. The two have only seven combined tackle breaks all season and while Tyrell has failed to record a single offload all season, Clark has only six to his name. Honestly, at this point the team might be better off with Margaery Tyrell than David.
If the Rabbitohs are to have any chance both tonight and in the weeks ahead they will need to get substantially more from those two players along with an incremental improvement from the Burgess brothers and others.
For the Eels, the big question for the rest of the season is whether Corey Norman can provide enough game management and playmaking on his own to make the team a credible threat on a regular basis? With a makeshift forward-cum-half in number six and a steady but unspectacular player at dummy half, the Eels will rely ever more and more on Norman and, to a lesser extent, fullback Michael Gordon, who is more suited to a support than playmaking role.
The good news on this front is that the statistics suggest that, despite the numbers on their backs, Norman has, in fact, been the game manager and chief playmaker for the team thus far. Let’s look at each aspect separately.
Firstly, there is game management which, broadly speaking, involves such things as directing the team in attack, making good and timely decisions with the ball and kicking in general play. While it is hard to quantify which player does what in terms of directing the team around the paddock without being on the field, we can certainly see some indicators in the statistics for touches and kicks.
Norman and Kieran Foran appeared together in nine games for the Eels this season and on only one occasion did Foran touch the ball more often than Norman. Norman averaged 54.5 touches per game in those matches while Foran averaged around 43. The kicking statistics are very similar, with Foran averaging just over five and half kicks per game to Norman’s 12.3.
Those numbers are consistent with many primary-secondary halves partnerships we see around the league, except the numbers on their backs are the reverse of the more traditional arrangement.
Norman’s role as the Eels game manager is neatly demonstrated by the following graphic which shows almost every touch he had in the game against the Titans (to avoid clutter I’ve omitted some meaningless touches such as feeding a scrum or fielding a kickoff).
There are a number of interesting things about this graphic. Before we even get to Norman we can notice how rarely the Titans were able to hold the Eels within their own half before getting to a fifth tackle kick; the Eels only kicked inside their own half on four occasions. We’ve seen in previous weeks how important it is to win those yardage sets and this graphic makes it clear the Eels did very well in that facet against the Titans.
But with respect to Norman, two things become apparent. Firstly, we can see he rarely gets involved inside his own half. If you watch closely you will see that Norman is constantly hovering near the play the ball inside Eels territory but only very rarely does he actually call for the ball, preferring instead to simply issue directions. You will see him time and again standing behind dummy half Isaac De Gois pointing at where he wants his players to run.
The second thing to notice is how central Norman was in this game, taking almost all of his touches within the middle third of the field. This is a change from earlier in the year when not only did he run lots more short side plays near the left touchline, but he could also be found drifting across the field to get on the outside of Kieran Foran down the right-hand channel.
This central distribution suggests a player who is playing a very traditional middle of the field distributor role rather than operating as a more freelance or ad hoc playmaker in the way that, for instance, Anthony Milford or Shaun Johnson do for their teams, running surprise plays down short sides or linking up with the fullback or opposite side half in unusual ways. This is a mature and measured role for Norman which befits the added responsibility of carrying a team that is short on troops at the moment.
However if we can agree Norman is already a more than competent game manager we must also consider how he stacks up as a playmaker because, while it’s all well and good to orchestrate field position, it’s of no avail if you can’t convert it into points.
Again the statistics are encouraging, with Norman’s eight try assists double that of Foran (albeit from an additional four matches) while Foran has a slight edge in line-break assists (five to four). However Norman has made five line breaks of his own compared to Foran’s two. Norman also offloads the ball considerably more often than Foran, though neither is prolific in that area. Norman certainly isn’t in the elite echelon of pure playmakers but he is more than capable and that may be enough for the Eels for the time being.
Overall, we can say with relative confidence that Norman, while perhaps overshadowed by the large paycheck and reputation of his once and future halves partner, has more than held his own as a contributor to the team and is well placed to continue to do so for the rest of this season.
First try scorer: Semi Radradra
I’m happy to admit there isn’t a lot of imagination in this selection. However, sometimes the incredibly short priced favourite is the favourite for a reason. Semi Radradra is a very large and skilful player who will be attacking against a flank defensive unit of Dane Nielsen and Kirisome Auav’a that has not played together since the last time these two teams met.
How did Semi do on that occasion you ask? Well, funnily enough, he had a lazy three tries that evening, though not the first on that occasion. Tonight I’m expecting him to correct that small oversight.
In recent years, the Rabbitohs have been able to survive and even prosper during the Origin period because, while they lost Inglis and at times Chris McQueen and Ben Te’o, they still had core players like the Burgess brothers, Issac Luke and Adam Reynolds available and playing well. Now, however, they no longer have Luke to call on, Reynolds has been called into the NSW team and the Burgess brothers are not quite as phenomenal as they once were.
Meanwhile, the team’s forward pack have been poor for the majority of the season and they won’t have Reynolds’ elite kicking game to help get them out of trouble if they continue to struggle to get up-field.
Certainly it didn’t help that the team made ten errors against the Tigers, but even with those blunders accounted for the team still has the second fewest errors in the competition. As such it is very unlikely that the team will drastically improve on that front. Indeed, it is just as likely they will make more errors, not fewer. This suggests Rabbitohs fans who are of the “if we just hold the ball we’ll win these games” school of thought may be right, but they’re also likely to be disappointed.
On that basis, I will take the Eels, who seem to have settled into post-salary cap punishment, post-Foran injury life. Their finals hopes remain dim at best, with the team probably needing to win ten of their remaining eleven games to remain in contention, however the drive and competitiveness required to reach first-grade football was always bound to kick in for the Eels players. Moreover, many of them are playing for their future at the club or elsewhere in the NRL
Shoe-in of the week
You may have heard that Wade Graham was ruled out of State of Origin at the judiciary on Wednesday night. Whether you agree or disagree with that decision you can guarantee that it’s going to be re-litigated during the broadcast tonight.