After losing Jayden Brailey for the NRL season, Newcastle have secured a major coup by signing Brisbane hooker Andrew McCullough for 2020.
Welcome to the very last Thursday Forecast of 2016. It has been great producing these all season and it’s fitting that it’s a meaningful game to finish off the first year of Thursday Night Football.
While the Brisbane Broncos are more than likely going to finish in fifth regardless of the outcome of this game, there remains a slim possibility that a bad loss could see them drop to seventh and lose their home final.
For the Broncos, Round 25 continued a strong return to form that began in Round 22 with a scrappy win against the Dragons but has continued through increasingly assured performances against the Eels, Bulldogs and was topped off with an impressive win over the Storm in Melbourne.
With six players involved in State of Origin it was inevitable that the Broncos would face a challenging middle third of the season. However, they have bounced back in admirable fashion and seem well set for the finals.
Meanwhile the Roosters had been enjoying a revival of their own. After a forgettable and injury-riddled season, the team put together a streak of three wins in four games including strong wins over the Broncos and Cowboys.
However, the streak came crashing to the ground at Shark Park on Saturday night as they were completely outgunned by a reinvigorated Sharks outfit.
|Darius Boyd||Fullback||Blake Ferguson|
|Corey Oates||Left winger||Daniel Tupou|
|Tom Opacic||Left centre||Dale Copley|
|James Roberts||Right centre||Shaun Kenny-Dowall|
|Jordan Kahu||Right winger||Latrell Mitchell|
|Anthony Milford||Left half||Connor Watson|
|Ben Hunt||Right half||Mitchell Pearce|
|Josh McGuire||Prop||Jared Waerea-Hargreaves|
|Andrew McCulloch||Hooker||Jake Friend|
|Adam Blair||Prop||Dylan Napa|
|Sam Thaiday||Left second row||Ryan Matterson|
|Matt Gillett||Right second row||Aidan Guerra|
|Corey Parker||Lock||Isaac Liu|
|Jarrod Wallace||Interchange||Sam Moa|
|Tevita Pangai Jr||Interchange||Kane Evans|
|Jai Arrow||Interchange||Mitchell Frei|
|Alex Glenn||Interchange||Nat Butcher|
Let’s start with the Broncos, who have named an unchanged line-up from last Friday night. The finals are well and truly in sight. Wayne Bennett has apparently settled on his preferred line up for the finals, with the same team selected three weeks in a row.
Meanwhile, the Roosters’ song sadly remains the same with injuries calling for yet another forward pack reshuffle as Boyd Cordner and Siosiua Taukeiaho miss out this week. Ryan Matterson and Isaac Liu will take their places in the starting line-up.
Matterson has impressed in a variety of roles in 2016 and he looks set to be a key part of the club’s rebuilding process in 2017.
With Matterson and Liu elevated to the starting line up their places on the bench are taken by youngsters Mitchell Frie and the debutant Nat Butcher.
What to watch for
With the finals only possible for the Broncos it makes sense to focus on them.
The place to start is to assess the team’s win in Melbourne and examine whether it holds any lessons for tonight’s game.
Something that was pointed out repeatedly in commentary during the game and that was the markedly different style they used against the strong middle unit of the Storm.
It’s well established that few teams have success in the middle third of the field due to the well-drilled Storm defence led by Cameron Smith. The team has built its reputation and its status as a perennial contender on the back of a robust presence in that area of the game and it is extremely difficult to go through the Storm.
Recognising this, the Broncos deployed a far more expansive style than usual, being prepared to chance their arm and change the point of attack regularly.
One statistic that demonstrates this is the number of Broncos carries that were considered “runs” for statistical purposes as distinct from “hit ups”.
To clarify a hit up is exactly what most rugby league fans would expect it to be, a typically straight ahead run from a player who receives the ball directly from the dummy half.
A “run” meanwhile is any run that comes from two or more passes. Dummy half to halfback to second rower or centre for instance. Or even dummy half to forward, to another forward.
Anything really except a straight “one out” run (there are other sub categories such as kick return run and ruck run but they are less important for this analysis).
You can already picture the difference then between what a game plan based on a lot of hit ups looks like compared to one based on more runs.
The hit up game plan is, when executed well by a powerful forward pack, a staid and effective strategy. It can build field position and pressure by reducing errors and simply grinding the other team down.
It is also very unlikely to work against a methodical middle unit such as the Melbourne Storm.
Which is presumably why the Broncos changed up so dramatically to feature far more runs than usual. This chart shows the Broncos last six games and you can see immediately the significant jump in runs against the Storm.
|Round and opponent||Runs||Hit ups||Total carries||% of total as “runs”|
|25 v Storm||55||62||162||34%|
|24 v Bulldogs||51||78||179||28%|
|23 v Eels||38||74||152||25%|
|22 v Dragons||43||100||197||22%|
|21 v Roosters||50||71||159||31%|
|20 v Panthers||32||70||129||25%|
Two things jump out at you immediately on this chart. The first is that the percentage of runs against the Storm is noticeably higher than all but one other game and hit ups is noticeably lower as a consequence.
That’s when the second aspect comes into play because the other game in which the Broncos used a higher proportion of runs compared to hit ups in recent weeks was against the very same Roosters they face tonight.
The Roosters also present a formidable middle unit challenge and it only makes sense that the Broncos would deploy a similar strategy to match them. Indeed the theory holds when we look at the next team on the list, the Bulldogs, who also boast a strong middle unit.
However, it’s worth noting the strategy on Saturday night wasn’t as simple as trying to go around the Storm.
We have seen time and again in the modern NRL that teams that attempt to go wide before establishing the right to do so have generally failed. What the Broncos did was more subtle than that, with variations and angles rather than simply see-sawing from side to side.
The team recorded only 362 total touches for the game on 136 play the balls. This translates to about 2.6 touches per play which is at best mid-range for an NRL team, and in fact is a little low compared to truly expansive teams who might register over three touches per play the ball.
This suggests that while the team employed a lot of runs beyond the simple hit up, a significant portion of those must have been after only one further pass or otherwise the touches to play the ball statistic would reflect significantly more touches per play.
This is where the comparison with the last game against the Roosters breaks down. In that game the Broncos had 384 touches on only 115 play the balls, a very expansive 3.3 touches per play.
But that tells us exactly what we need to look for tonight. On that occasion all that passing was for little gain as the team was blown away to the tune of 32-16.
The Broncos like to counter a strong middle unit by avoiding the one out run through the middle and we know that they’ve tried it previously against the Roosters.
The thing to watch for tonight is how careful the Broncos are about it.
Will they replicate their previous encounter with the Roosters and fling the ball around wildly or will they employ the more subtle approach they used against the Storm last Friday night?
First try scorer – Corey Oates
It is fitting that we get one more chance to nominate Corey Oates who was our first try scorer tip way back in Round 1 and was also literally the only player to come through for us all season.
Yes, that’s right. If you were relying on these first try scorer tips to pay your bills then I can only say I’m deeply sorry.
Also I’d like to question your judgment.
Prediction – Broncos
With so much more to play for, and with the home ground advantage it is hard to go past the Broncos in this one. Moreover, the team has recovered well from their Origin period lull and looks to be heading towards a peak at just the right time.
With a revitalised forward pack finally providing some front foot ball, Antony Milford and Ben Hunt are again relocating their attacking swagger and look primed for a fresh tilt at the competition.
Meanwhile, on Saturday night against Cronulla the Roosters looked every bit a side that had run their race.
After starting relatively brightly the team fell away quickly, at one point making five errors in ten sets in the middle portion of the game while also conceding far too many penalties. With key forwards Cordner and Taukiaho missing it is hard to see how the Roosters will be able to compete in this one.
Season Record – 18 – 5