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State of Origin key questions: NSW edition

The Panthers take on Manly in the last game of the NRL regular season. (AAP Image/Paul Miller)
Roar Guru
21st June, 2016
16

Welcome to Part 2 of The Roar‘s State of Origin key questions series.

Yesterday we looked at three key questions for Queensland ahead of tonight’s game.

This included looking at whether Nate Myles is a big loss, assessing whether Queensland might consider a more expansive gameplan in home surrounds and finally asking why the Queensland Origin camp is always beset with illness and injury.

Today we’re moving on to NSW.

More Origin
» Laurie Daley doesn’t appoint the referees, but it wasn’t always that way
» State of Origin Game 2: Why NSW will win
» State of Origin Game 2: Why Queensland will win
» State of Origin Game 2: Expert tips and predictions
» State of Origin key questions: Queensland edition

Our first question asks whether the NSW coaching staff can finally get their bench rotations right. We will then look at some of the thinking that went into picking Wade Graham to replace Boyd Cordner and whether that thinking (though sadly undercut by the judiciary) might filter through to the Blues’ broader gameplan.

Finally, we will consider what sort of influence the late reshuffle to include Dylan Walker at centre and Jack Bird on the bench will have.

Can NSW get the bench rotations right this time?
Before Origin 1, we highlighted the challenge that NSW coach Laurie Daley would face in trying to use his middle unit-heavy bench in an effective fashion. True to form Daley and his NSW assistants then proceeded to mess up their bench rotations in almost comical fashion.

The evening started well enough with James Tamou starting in place of Greg Bird but it did not improve from there. Bird was then inexplicably brought on as the first substitute in the middle unit while Andrew Fifita languished on the bench until the second half.

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Once Fifita did enter the game he proceeded to terrorise the Queensland defence, so of course he was restricted to only 24 minutes despite averaging nearly 55 minutes for the Sharks this season.

Hopefully, for their sake, NSW will use the bench more effectively this time. One way to do so would be to mimic the very effective strategy utilised by the Cowboys.

The Cowboys effectively have two middle units with the starting group of three consisting of Matt Scott along with James Tamou and the destroyer of worlds Jason Taumalolo playing the opening 20-25 minutes and the closing 20-25 minutes. The bench unit of Ben Hannant, Scott Bolton and John Asiata fill the middle minutes.

NSW could easily mimic this approach by utilising the starting trio of Tamou, Aaron Woods and Paul Gallen to open and close the game. They could then use the middle minutes to unleash hell in the form of David Klemmer, Andrew Fifita and late inclusion Tyson Frizell, who is a bullocking runner in the mold of Taumalolo.

This approach would allow that potent bench unit to get a rest at half time and enjoy two influential stints either side of oranges while the starting unit gets a prolonged rest before returning for crunch time at the end.

Of course, there are alternative strategies including using Gallen for the entire first half (a strategy often used by the Bulldogs with either James Graham or Aidan Tolman) to keep an entirely fresh player for the second half (but please not Fifita) or using Jack Bird in the middle unit as a ball-playing lock.

Whatever NSW do, however, they must improve on the hodgepodge approach from Game 1 (and last season) if they are to have any hope of victory.

What does Wade Graham Greg Bird bring to the team?
Whether you agree with the suspension of Graham or not it is worth considering what his inclusion would have meant as it perhaps gives us an insight into what the NSW coaching staff are thinking (that is if we are willing to grant that they are in fact thinking).

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While Boyd Cordner is a terrific player and was one of NSW’s strongest contributors in Game 1 his value is predominantly as a ball runner rather than as a creator. Graham is an altogether different player and his selection as Cordner’s replacement had the potential to open up a new approach for NSW.

While Cordner has recorded only three try assists, four line-break assists and nine offloads in the last two seasons, Graham is a terrific creator with seven try assists, 12 line-break assists and 38 offloads over that same period (though of course Cordner has missed a lot of this year through injury).

Graham is clearly the more creative of the two players and that could also be extended to cover Ryan Hoffman who played the previous six games on that edge for NSW.

Graham’s initial selection as Cordner’s replacement is perhaps a suggestion that the selectors may have finally realised that to beat this Queensland team you are going to need to outscore them, not out defend them.

But it gets a little confusing when we consider that Frizell has been selected to replace Graham. Frizell is even less of a creator than Cordner with only a solitary try assist and a single line-break assist to his name over the last two seasons.

Indeed, Frizell has far more in common with Graham’s club teammate Gallen than he does with Graham or even Cordner. He is a truck it up, no nonsense sort of player rather than an expansive ball player or hole runner.

Which is no doubt part of the reason (along with his considerable experience advantage) that NSW are electing to start Greg Bird on the left edge on Wednesday night. While Bird has primarily played at lock over the past 18 months for the Titans since the retirement of Ash Harrison, his prior role at the club was more often than not as the left edge second rower and that remains arguably his best position.

While Bird is a rugged ball carrier and solid defender in the middle of the field, playing on the edge reduces his defensive workload while giving him that little bit more space to operate in when in attack.

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This allows him to utilise his skilled passing game and also gives him far more opportunities to offload the ball as there are generally fewer players in the tackle on the edge than in the middle.

In his first five seasons at the Titans, years in which he was primarily stationed at left second row, Bird averaged nearly 28 offloads per season. That dropped to 19 in 2015, though he is on slightly better pace this season with 14 thus far.

Graham would have added a very new and different dimension on the left edge for NSW and reflected a positive move by the NSW selectors. Graham’s high tackle on Johnathan Thurston took that option away but at the very least putting Bird back in that role will give NSW more creativity and playmaking on that edge than they have had for several years.

What does the reshuffle of Dylan Walker to centre and Jack Bird to the bench mean?
After an ignominious State of Origin debut in which he spent 71 minutes cooling his heels on the bench before doing very little in his nine minutes of game time, Walker will no doubt be looking to make more of an impression in Origin 2.

He will now get that chance as an 80-minute centre after Josh Morris was forced to withdraw through injury.

Whether or not Walker is the next best centre in NSW remains debatable – there’s a very large, tackle-breaking, ball-offloading goofball of a character down in Canberra who might disagree. However one thing is abundantly clear, he’s much more likely to have make an impression as a centre than as a utility.

That’s because while he may not be much of a playmaker and he has no dummy half experience, he is really good at running the ball.

After debuting for the Rabbitohs as an 18-year-old in 2013 Walker established himself in the Bunnies team during the premiership run in 2014. Over the course of the 2014 and 2015 seasons, Walker averaged more than 110 metres per game, made a total of 23 line breaks, set up 17 tries and created 23 line-break assists while also scoring 25 tries of his own. All of which was done as a centre.

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Walker was badly miscast as a utility in Game 1 but through good luck, rather than good management NSW have given themselves the opportunity to use him far more effectively.

Meanwhile, the shift of Walker to the centre and the addition of Jack Bird to the bench also has the knock-on effect of making the team more balanced overall.

While Bird also doesn’t necessarily fit as a replacement dummy half, he is a genuine utility who can slot into the backrow, halves or centres. This makes him an ideal break-glass replacement in case of injury as he can cover multiple positions.

However, Bird’s value goes beyond his ability to cover multiple positions as he is also both a threatening ball runner with the ability to break tackles and get offloads, as well as skilled passer and competent kicker.

In his debut season in the NRL in 2015, Bird had seven try assists, four line-break assists and kicked the ball an average of 2.3 times per game (pretty good going for an option kicker).

Bird has primarily played on the right edge in his time at the Sharks, whether as the right edge half or the right centre. But there is little doubt he could also play in the backrow either on the edge or even as a ball-playing lock in the old mold.

Hopefully the NSW coaching staff will have mapped out several options for deploying Bird, because he has the capacity to be a game breaker if used well.