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NRL Friday Night Forecast: Dragons vs Titans

Gareth Widdop's injury could derail the Dragons' final chances. (AAP Image/Action Photographics, Robb Cox)
Roar Guru
14th July, 2016
12

Origin is over. Praise the maker. While State of Origin may be in many respects the pinnacle of rugby league it inevitably reaches a point where it feels like Origin has become a ravenous beast that consumes club football.

=With that beast now sated for another year its time return to regular season action as the chase for the top eight resumes.

That chase begins tonight with an eighth versus ninth matchup, the winner of which will have gained a critical leg up in the battle to lose in week one of the finals. For St George-Illawarra it is an opportunity to establish a four-point gap on the ninth-placed Gold Coast whilst the Titans can leapfrog the Saints with a win given their superior for and against.

Recent form
With those high stakes in mind both teams enter this game after a loss. At first glance though the Dragons recent record is a little better with two wins from the previous three games.

However if you look a little closer you notice that those wins were against the hapless Knights in Round 16 and a Storm team in Round 15 that was missing seven or eight first grade regulars including both their Origin legends and other vital role players such as Cameron Munster and Blake Green.

Whilst the Red V were also without Origin players on that evening, and have had their own injuries to manage, the reality is that the 36-6 loss to the Sea Eagles in Round 17 is probably a more accurate reflection of the team’s form than the two previous wins.

The Titans, meanwhile, are on two-game losing streak after an understandable loss in Auckland followed a lacklustre home performance against the Raiders in round 16. Whilst there is little doubt that they have over-achieved compared to expectations now is the time when they must turn their performances up a notch if they want to make the finals.

Team sheet

Dragons Position Titans
Josh Dugan Fullback David Mead
Jason Nightingale Left winger Nene Macdonald
Euan Aitken Left centre Josh Hoffman
Kurt Mann Right centre Konrad Hurrell
Kalifa Faifai Loa Right winger Anthony Don
Gareth Widdop Left half Ashley Taylor
Benji Marshall Right half Tyrone Roberts
Russell Packer Prop Luke Douglas
Mitch Rein Hooker Nathan Peats
Tyson Frizell Prop Ryan James
Joel Thompson Left second row Chris McQueen
Jacob Host Right second row Zeb Taia
Jac de Belin Lock Greg Bird
Tariq Sims Interchange Eddy Pettybourne
Leeson Ah Mau Interchange Leivaha Pulu
Dunamis Lui Interchange Agnatius Paasi
Jake Marketo Interchange Nathan Friend
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Starting with the Dragons and there were initially just two listed changes to the team that lost to the Sea Eagles. In the backline Tim Lafai had originally been dropped to NSW Cup after a poor performance against the Sea Eagles. However with Josh Dugan’s injury against the Maroons on Wednesday night we can expect a late change with Lafai likely to get a reprieve whilst Kurt Mann will likely switch to fullback.

In a further blow to the Dragons Benji Marshall was also a late injury withdrawal on Thursday afternoon in what would have been his 250th game. At the time of writing it was not yet clear who would replace Marshall in the team.

In the forwards Origin star Tyson Frizell has been named at prop for the first time since 2014. Frizell was arguably the best thing to come out of another losing series for NSW, especially when playing in the middle unit.

With a power running game similar to other representative standouts such as Paul Gallen and Jason Taumalolo, this role seems like a perfect long-term fit for him. Whether it is front row or lock, one hopes that Coach Paul Macgregor keeps him in the middle of the park where he can use his bullocking running style effectively. . .

The Titans also have a host of changes starting with the return of fullback David Mead after eight rounds on the sidelines. Mead’s return sees Josh Hoffman return to the centres whilst Konrad Hurrell also returns at right centre. In a huge boost rookie of the year contender Ash Taylor also returns in the number seven jersey after a week off through injury.

In the forwards the front row is unchanged but Chris McQueen, who was forced to move to the centres against the Warriors, returns to the back row where he will join spurned Origin lock Greg Bird who will presumably be keen to share his feelings about missing Wednesday night’s game.

Finally, on the bench, Eddy Pettybourne returns to join Agnatius Paasi and Leivaha Pulu along with veteran dummy half Nathan Friend.

What to watch for
For the Dragons, a team who we have forecast several times already this season, the problem remains the same as it has been all season: scoring points.

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How bad is it? Well the team has scored only 215 points all season, fractionally more than the last-placed Knights and significantly in arrears of the next worst team the Roosters. That’s how bad.

What’s worse is that the team is also last in try assists, second last in line breaks and line break assists (again leading only the Knights in both categories). This is wholesale failure and it bears further examination.

As we’ve discussed in previous Forecasts involving the Dragons, a key part of the problem with respect to playmaking specifically is the low involvement of the team’s collection of fullbacks.

In an era in which most teams use the fullback as a third creative option, the Dragons are getting very little playmaking from their number one, whether it is Josh Dugan, Kurt Mann or even Adam Quinlan. Thus far in 2016 the team has only one try assist from a fullback and one line break assist. By not utilising the fullback effectively as a play maker the team is cutting their options significantly.

However it is not just pure playmaking where the team is struggling to generate point-scoring opportunities. The team also has the fifth fewest tackle breaks and is a low-offload team. Whilst neither tackle breaks nor offloads are themselves directly responsible for try scoring, both tackle break and offload numbers can help us understand the team’s overall game plan when considered in context with other relevant factors.

The one thing the club does do well, or at least does a lot of, is run from dummy half. The team is the leading dummy half running team, with Mitch Rein recording the most of any player despite playing the full 80 minutes in only half of his appearances so far this season. Beyond Rein the club also gets a lot of dummy half runs from outside backs with Kalifa Faifai Loa and Jason Nightingale two of the top three non-hookers for dummy half runs (with the other unsurprisingly being Raiders wrecking ball Jordan Rapana).
While dummy half runs are not themselves an indicator of success or failure, they do add another brushstroke to the overall picture of the team’s game plan.

One final statistic to consider as we build our overall impression of the team’s game plan is the team’s average touches per play the ball, which is very low by NRL standards. For instance over the last three games the team has averaged138 play the balls per game whilst racking up an average of 318 total touches per game.

This translates as a mere 2.3 touches per game, which is extraordinarily low per game. For context, remember that you get two touches just by the action of a dummy half passing to a receiver who then hits it up.

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Once again we will extend the caveat that you don’t have to multiple players touch the ball per play to be successful, the same way you don’t need to offload a lot to be successful. But it is useful context. Some plays such as kick returns and dummy half runs do use only one touch, so the fact that the Dragons are so close to only two touches on average adds yet another layer to our understanding of their game plan.

So with all those elements in mind what impression do we get of the Dragons’ game plan? We have a team that runs from dummy half a lot, a team that passes the ball less than average and a team that rarely breaks tackles or creates second phase play via offloads. Not only that but the evidence also suggests that their playmakers aren’t especially good at creating try scoring opportunities via either out and out try assists or even line break assists.

Put it all together and these factors point to a remarkably conservative game plan. That doesn’t have to be a problem in itself – conservative doesn’t have to mean bad. Except that in this case the correlation is pretty clear.

Quite frankly the conservative approach does not seem to be working. Whether it is an over-reliance on dummy half runs, failure to use the fullback as a playmaker or an inability to break tackles or find offloads the team seems stuck in the mud compared to most teams in the competition.

At this point contrarians may wonder what the big deal is when the team is currently on the fringe of the eight despite this poor offensive performance? Surely the team can rely on that renowned defence to see them through?

But the reality is that the team’s defence is not good enough to overcome these shortcomings, especially with three of the top six teams coming up in the next six weeks plus fellow finals battlers the Titans tonight and Tigers next weekend. The team’s for and against is terrible, at minus 125, and they are currently conceding 21.25 points per game, more than four points more than their average of 17 from 2015.

They say defence wins championships but with an offence that is this anaemic even good defence will not win this Saints team a championship. Until or unless the Dragons can find a way to score more points, their finals hopes will remain dim.

Moving on to the Titans and if the Dragons have in many ways gone backwards from 2015 the men from the wrong side of the Tweed have undoubtedly exceeded expectations. After being tipped by many experts (including this one) to finish in the bottom four the team can, with a win this evening, go into the eight as the home stretch approaches.

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Whilst great coaching and some impressive performances from forwards such as Ryan James and Agnatius Paasi have been critical factors for Neil Henry’s men, the team’s success has been largely built on the control and playmaking of the halves pairing of Tyrone Roberts and Ash Taylor. This is all the more remarkable given that had fortune not turned against them it’s likely that the pairing for this season would have been Daly Cherry-Evans and last year’s rookie sensation Kane Elgey.

Whilst the team was obviously disappointed to miss out on Cherry-Evans, the emergence of Taylor over this season has been a welcome compensation. Whilst he certainly did come with high expectations from the Broncos, the speed at which Taylor has made himself comfortable in the top grade has been very impressive.

Thus far in season 2016 Taylor has recorded eight try assists and five line break assists whilst also breaking the line four times himself and recording 19 offloads a very high number for a half. Indeed the only half in the competition to record more offloads is Josh Reynolds. He has also kicked splendidly, averaging a little over eight kicks per game for 182m per game.

For comparison in Luke Brooks feted rookie of the year season in 2014 the young Tiger recorded 12 try assists and nine linebreak assists, numbers that Taylor is well on track to equal this season. That is a high standard to match.

It is important though not to get too far ahead of ourselves, as many halves have burned bright in the first season only to fade equally quickly. Playing in the halves in the NRL is extraordinarily challenging and many players are unable to bounce back from inevitable adversity.

Brooks, for example, is only now beginning to make an impact again after his luminescent debut season in 2014 was followed by a disappointing 2015. Other players never even got as far as second chance.

Taylor however already plays like a far more mature and assured player than some of his predecessors. Already this season he is playing an almost equal role with the far more experienced Roberts, dividing the kicking and playmaking duties evenly between them.

It is this partnership, along with a solid forward pack, that has allowed the Titans to remain competitive on most occasions this season. The team may not have the explosive point scoring ability of other teams on the fringe of the eight such as the Warriors or Panthers but they are a steady, well-coached team, conducted by a pair of halves who play within themselves and within a solid game plan.

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Look for Taylor and Roberts to simply push the Dragons into the corners, move their forwards through the middle third and then kick well to the wingers. Against the Dragons that may be enough.

First try scorer – Agnatius Paasi
It is rarely a good sign for a club when you have not one, but two forwards in the top try scorers for the club. Yet that is the position the Gold Coast find themselves in with Ryan James the team’s top try scorer with seven four pointers, and Paasi not far behind him with five.

It is also not a great sign that for the game in general that I’ve picked a bench player for my first try. However, such is the defensive mindset of the Dragons it will not surprise if this one remains try-less for the first 20 or so minutes before Paasi enters the game. Also don’t be surprised if Paasi ends up starting this game after all, Neil Henry is not averse to pulling a smokescreen and making a late change to the lineup.

For his part Paasi is a 115kg ball of energy with a particular fondness for power running near the line. Look for him to score on an outside-in line at or near the posts from a short pass from dummy half.

Prediction – Titans
After spending the entire “what to watch for” section panning the Dragons’ attack it should come as no surprise that I’m picking the Titans to get the upset in Kogarah.

St George Illawarra have enjoyed a comfortable draw over the last few weeks, playing low ranked teams or teams without Origin players. When confronted by serious opposition as they were in Round 17 against Manly or back in Round 14 against the Bulldogs the team has wilted, giving up 34 points to the Dogs and 36 points to the Sea Eagles.

Moreover, the team has lost one of its two current Origin players and a starting half, who even down on form and late in his career is probably still a better option than any replacement within the club.

However with all that being said this is not an easy pick. The Dragons might be struggling but the Titans are hardly shining. They have beaten only one current top eight side all season and even that win was way back in round four against a Raiders side that had neither of their starting halves available.

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The Titans may have exceeded expectations in 2016, but those expectations were extraordinarily low. They remain a relatively weak squad and it’s far from certain that they have enough strike power themselves to create enough points to win.

But what they do have is a solid and dependable halves pairing, with Ash Taylor in particular playing with a maturity beyond his years. They also have a dependable forward pack with some good contributors off the bench and competent if not exceptional backs.

Overall I have them with a slight edge in what sadly projects to be a rather dour affair

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