The NRL’s ambitious push to emerge from the COVID-19 shutdown has paid off after attracting its biggest television audience for a regular-season game in more than six years.
After a week off due to travel commitments the NRL Friday Night Forecast series is back this week with a look tonight’s Eels versus Roosters match-up.
Sadly for both the NRL and Channel Nine this game, which at the start of the season may have presented as a marquee match-up, will be a battle between the 13th and 15th placed teams on the ladder with neither a realistic chance to make the finals this year.
For the Eels, of course, this has been Murphy’s year – where anything that could go wrong has gone wrong. With salary cap penalties, player departures and long-term injuries plus other off-field unpleasantness, the season which began so promisingly with five wins from the opening seven rounds is now all for nought despite a win-loss record that would, under other circumstances, have the team well in the top four hunt.
The salary cap predicament makes picking the team’s form challenging as they have suffered far more ups and downs than one would normally expect. This is to be expected when a team knows its fate so far removed from the end of the season. The other dramas surrounding the club only reinforce this scattered motivation.
However, aside from a last-start loss against the rampaging Sharks, the team has performed well recently with three wins in a row, albeit against some of the other downtrodden members of the league. Whether we get a fully armed and operational Eels team we won’t know until kickoff.
The Roosters, meanwhile, have also had a season to forget. After losing key players James Maloney and Roger Tuivasa-Sheck over the offseason, the club started the season without another trio of rep players in Jared Warea-Hargreaves, Boyd Cordner and Mitchell Pearce. Those losses were too much to overcome as the club lost their first five games and eight of their first ten.
However, the return in recent weeks of Cordner, Warea-Hargreaves and Pearce has seen the performances improve, if not the results. While the team enters tonight’s game on a three-game losing streak, the two most recent games against the Warriors and Bulldogs demonstrated considerable improvement compared to the early rounds. This season is lost but there is still an opportunity to head into the offseason on an upswing.
|Michael Gordon||Fullback||Latrell Mitchell|
|Semi Radradra||Left Winger||Daniel Tupou|
|Brad Takairangi||Left Centre||Dale Copley|
|Clinton Gutherson||Right Centre||Shaun Kenny-Dowall|
|Bevan French||Right Winger||Joseph Manu|
|Corey Norman||Left Half||Jackson Hastings|
|Jeff Robson||Right Half||Mitchell Pearce|
|Danny Wicks||Prop||Jared Warea-Hargreaves|
|Isaac De Gois||Hooker||Jake Friend|
|Tim Mannah||Prop||Dylan Napa|
|Manu Ma’u||Left Second Row||Siosiua Taukeiaho|
|Tepai Moeroa||Right Second Row||Mitchell Aubusson|
|Beau Scott||Lock||Isaac Liu|
|Cody Nelson||Interchange||Kane Evans|
|Kenny Edwards||Interchange||Sam Moa|
|Peni Terepo||Interchange||Connor Watson|
|David Gower||Interchange||Chris Smith|
As usual at this time of year, both teams have a number of changes to report as injuries and Origin withdrawals knock teams around on a week-to-week basis.
Starting with the home side and the Eels have lost only Michael Jennings to Origin. Brad Takairangi, who returns after missing several games through injury, will take his place in the centres.
The Eels also have a change in the halves with the recently (re)acquired Jeff Robson to play his first game back at the club after receiving a release from the Warriors. Robson is a journeyman if ever there was one but should be an improvement on makeshift half Kenny Edwards who did a reasonably commendable job in a role he was evidently not suited to.
In the forwards, the team has for the first time listed Beau Scott to start at lock with Tepai Moeroa listed to switch to the right edge. Moeroa has been largely disappointing this season as he has struggled to convert his colossal frame into effective running metres, with only one game above 100 metres all season. Perhaps Brad Arthur is of the view that he will get more opportunities to punish smaller defenders on the edge.
Tim Mannah also returns for the Eels at the expense of Daniel Alvaro, who misses out altogether.
The Roosters, meanwhile, have two Origin changes to report with Blake Ferguson somehow keeping his Blues jersey while Aidan Guerra will turn out for Queensland. Ferguson’s selection for NSW opens up a spot for the return of prodigious youngster Joseph Manu on the wing with Shaun Kenny-Dowall to move into right centre.
Siosiua Taukeiaho has been drafted into the second row to replace Guerra after a phenomenal game in the middle unit against the Bulldogs while Isaac Liu comes off the bench to replace Taukeiaho at lock. The last change for the Roosters is the debut of former Panther Chris Smith on the bench.
What to watch for
There hasn’t been a lot of good news for Parramatta in 2016. The salary cap punishment has all but ruled the team out of finals contention and two of the team’s best players, Nathan Peats and Junior Paulo, have departed. The team has also lost several key players to injury, not the least of whom is prize recruit Kieran Foran.
However, the losses both to the salary cap and to injury have had the slim silver lining of allowing the team to give larger roles to promising young players such as Clinton Gutherson and hand debuts to players of the future such as Bevan French.
Both Gutherson and French have impressed in recent weeks in attack, however the true value of giving them more exposure in this lost season will be to allow each to improve his defence ahead of a renewed charge at the finals in 2017.
It is a wonderful opportunity for coach Brad Arthur to put some time into improving these players because, as we will see, they have both struggled tremendously in defence while operating as a right side pairing.
The Sharks exploited the inexperience of the pair to the tune of four tries on Saturday evening and no doubt the Roosters’ left edge attack of Dale Copley and Daniel Tupou will attempt to do the same.
So what sort of problems are we talking about? Let’s take a look at some still shots.
Our first play comes from mid-way through the first half. As we freeze it here we see a fairly common sight in an NRL game, an attacking play directed at the edge defence.
We can see the Eels are actually well placed to defend this play as Ben Barba is too deep to be a credible threat and the Eels have two defenders in French and Gutherson to match the two attacking players Ricky Leutele and Sosaia Feki.
Yet as we wind on to the next shot we see French, perhaps through inexperience, perhaps through lack of trust in Gutherson, has decided to rush in on Leutele, leaving Feki unmarked on the outside. Eels fans, and presumably the coaching staff, would be forgiven for asking themselves “why Bevan, why?”
In the end, Leutele easily slipped the attempted tackle from French and passed off to Feki who was able to glide over untouched in the corner.
This next example, which we won’t show in quite so much detail, was another try-scoring play for the Sharks in which the inexperience and lack of communication and team work of French and Gutherson hurt Parra.
The play starts innocuously enough with a mid-field play the ball on fourth tackle. In the top left we can see Kenny Edwards and Gutherson are coming up in a neat line but as we move to the top right image we see that French is hanging back, perhaps worried about an early kick.
While wingers often hang back on tackle four, on this occasion it is debatable whether that is the correct approach. For starters, it is unlikely the dummy half will kick amidst the traffic of bodies while the first receiver on that side is Ben Barba, who kicks the ball very rarely. Recognising the opposition personnel and their tendencies is a key aspect of NRL defence.
As we move to the bottom left image we see Gutherson has compounded the error by racing up on Barba who now has an easy pass to the outside man. This creates the simple two-on-one we see in the bottom right image which also shows French belatedly attempting to join the line.
This was a tricky play to defend as the Sharks moved quickly and decisively to an aggressive run play down a short edge where they had a numbers advantage. As such it is perhaps a touch unfair to label it as just poor defence. It is certainly also good offence, but the inexperience and lack of common approach between Gutherson and French didn’t help.
It is also worth injecting a touch of positivity at this point. Gutherson and French are young players trying to find their way in first grade and defending on the edge is extremely difficult. The attacking players have all the advantages and the action happens at incredibly high speeds. Not only that, in many cases the margin for error is small and there is little prospect of help from in-field teammates.
Both players will no doubt improve and both boast the sort of excellent attacking games that will keep them in the side long enough to learn better defence.
That being said, for the time being the right edge defence of the Eels is a serious problem and the Roosters will have little sympathy for the young duo’s learning process. Look for them to attempt to target that flank this evening.
Moving on to the Bondi Boys, and it has also been a disappointing season for them. One of the key reasons for that has been the absence of halfback Mitchell Pearce. While the team has several other representative standard players, Pearce has been the anchor point for the team for several years now and his absence has hurt the team badly.
Over the course of the last three years, Pearce has averaged over 17 try assists per season while also contributing 14 line break assists in 2015 and 21 in 2014 (figures weren’t available for 2013). Pearce also kicked over eight times per game during that period for an average of around 240m per game.
All are solid stats made even more impressive when you consider that during that period Pearce was sharing the playmaking roles with James Maloney, one of the finest playmakers in the game.
However with the salary cap biting and James Maloney moving on, it was clear that if the Roosters were to be successful in 2016 they would need a big season from Pearce as he took on a solo playmaking role. Alas, that wasn’t to be as suspension and injury have kept him out of the team for all but four appearances this season.
This has left the playmaking to inexperienced players such as Jackson Hastings, Jayden Nikorima and Ryan Matterson. Those players are all fine prospects however they are no match for Pearce in terms of skill or experience.
One area in particular in which the replacement halves have struggled to replicate Pearce’s contribution is in the kicking game. For instance, Hastings, who has been the main kicker this season with 129 kicks to date, is averaging only 208 metres per game.
Now if your first thought is 208 metres doesn’t sound like much less than the 240 metres per game from Pearce I was praising earlier, remember that Pearce was splitting the kicking with Maloney, who was routinely making close to 200 metres with the boot as well.
Hastings, however, is enjoying no such support, with only Matterson averaging over 100 metres per game. This means that, overall, the Tricolours’ kicking game has been sorely lacking, down as much as 20 per cent in terms of total metres per game. This infects every aspect of a team’s performance, as a strong kicking game is essential for establishing field position.
Couple the poor kicking game with key forwards such as Warea-Hargreaves and Cordner also missing significant time (and the loss of major metre-eater Roger Tuivasa-Sheck) and it has meant that the Roosters have struggled to put themselves in a position to score points all season.
Just how influential is Pearce’s kicking game? Well, the following graphic shows very clearly the immense value Pearce adds. The graphic shows all 13 of Pearce’s in-game kicks from the most recent game against the Bulldogs. This includes identifying where he kicked it from, where the ball finished up and what type of kick it was whether a bomb, chip or grubber.
*note the Roosters ran left to right in the first half and right to left in the second half
This chart shows in explicit detail the value of an elite kicking game with Pearce’s first half performance in particular of outstanding quality. We can see here with the kicks marked in red how often Pearce pinned the opposition deep inside their own territory with five long kicks being taken within the opposition 10-metre line. That sort of precision is invaluable in putting the opposition under pressure from the very first tackle of a set.
Pearce also had one try assist from a magnificent cross-field chip to Daniel Tupou and you can bet that he will attempt the same again tonight with Tupou going up against French.
Even in the second half as the Roosters began to chase points we can still see Pearce working to the corners and creating contests, though he was let down by his left edge attack on two occasions as good kicks were turned into Roosters errors.
Overall, Pearce kicked for 373 metres against the Bulldogs and that kicking game, along with a vibrant effort from starting middle unit forwards Warea-Hargreaves and Taukeiaho, was a big part of the reason that the Roosters were able to stay in this contest. Of course, all that work was largely undone in the end by self-inflicted wounds from errors, penalties and missed tackles.
Mitchell Pearce has long suffered from a perception problem as many people have found his performances at State of Origin level to be lacking. Whether that perception is accurate or not, it does tend to obscure the fact that Pearce has long been one of the elite halfbacks at NRL level.
He is a highly experienced and talented player who knows how to execute every aspect of a game plan including the value of a deep and precise kicking game. Look for Pearce to utilise that kicking game tonight to establish field position and give his team an opportunity to score.
First try scorer: Daniel Tupou
As suggested above, Tupou will be lined up against the significantly shorter Bevan French and there is absolutely no doubt Pearce will attempt to find Tupou with a cross field chip kick at some point.
As we’ve also seen, French is not yet an NRL-standard defender against run plays either so it’s entirely possible that Tupou goes in that way also. Either way, I like him for first try.
Prediction: Roosters in a close one
This is a particularly challenging game to predict with two teams that have had up and down seasons badly affected by injuries, suspensions and other off-field malarkey. The odds makers have it fairly close and with good reason.
The Eels are winners of three of their last four. They have a solid starting forward pack, a very good halfback and a number of strike weapons in the backline. However their defence on the edges can be suspect and their bench forwards are considerably less impressive than their starters.
Which is why, in the end, I will take Easts. They have the slightly superior forward pack overall with one of the top three props in the game in Jared Warea-Hargreaves and a parade of Kiwi wrecking balls to accompany him.
The Roosters also have an equally potent backline and, as we have seen, they have an excellent controlling half back and they can count on the elite kicking of Mitcehll Pearce to help them establish field position from which to score points.
Neither of these teams has much left to play for this season but it could still be a fascinating contest and I’m tipping the Roosters to prevail in a close one.
You can read the NRL Forecast here every week or check it out along with more great rugby league analysis on Lachlan’s website Back the Ten. You can also follow Lachlan on Twitter @backtheten