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Opinion

Manly were right to drop Harper but right-edge problem goes way deeper than him

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28th April, 2022
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In his rugby league career, Sean Day scored 438 points, including 191 goals and 14 tries.

He signed for St Helens from amateur club Culcheth in the summer of 1984, and starred as Saints won the Premiership and Lancashire Cup while racking up the highest points-for in the history of British rugby league to that date. Day topped the individual scoring charts that year.

Day would leave the club by the spring of 1986, retired soon after and, tragically, died at the too-young age of 56 in 2019, but his name is written forever as the greatest one-season wonder in the history of British rugby league.

Saints, who hadn’t won anything for a decade and wouldn’t win anything else for another decade, has an annus mirabilis, powered by the finishing and goalkicking of Sean Day, but also by the man inside him. That man was Mal Meninga.

Day was undoubtedly a superb goalkicker, but he had the benefit of standing outside the greatest centre of all time, at the peak of his powers. All he had to do was catch the ball, plonk it down and kick the goal.

My father, who lived in a house that backed onto St Helens’ Knowsley Road ground through much of the 1980s, used to speak in hushed tones of Meninga, and of Sean Day. It was the stuff of legend, the never-to-be-repeated season.

That was a winding trip down rugby league memory lane, but if you read closely,l there’s a metaphor in there for Jason Saab. I’m hoping I’m not laying it on too thick.

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In the future, we might well come to think of 2021 NRL season as exactly that sort of annus mirabilis, where points didn’t matter and records ceased to be important. Everything will have an asterisk.

The 1984-85 season in the UK is like that: it was Brett Kenny at Wigan, Peter Sterling at Hull FC, Paul Langmack and Martin Bella at Halifax and some bloke called Hanley scoring 50 tries in a season at Bradford. It’s not just a season, it’s that season.

In 2021, Jason Saab went from being a guy who had managed seven games in two years at the Dragons to scoring 26 in 27 for the Sea Eagles. Now, seven games into 2022, he is yet to cross for Manly.

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It’s not the tryscoring that I want to focus on, however.

Tries come and go: Ryan Hall scored zero tries for the Roosters in a team where Matt Ikavalu scored five in one game, but one is one of the best international wingers of the last twenty years and one is Matt Ikavalu.

Saab could score a hat trick against Souths on Friday night and but Manly’s right edge problems would still remain.

Morgan Harper, spectacularly defenestrated from the squad after a towelling at the hands of Siosifa Talakai in Cronulla, has been the whipping boy.

But Harper is merely a symptom of a wider disease that has infected the right edge.

Last year, aided by the rules, Manly were able to massively exploit their own attacking weapons, to the point where it didn’t really matter that their defence was a problem.

The set starts were provided by Tom Trbojevic – he’s Mal Meninga in this metaphor, if that wasn’t obvious – were exceptional. Often, so exceptional that the only way to stop them was to foul, which begat further good ball.

They were able to exploit this with fast play towards the wings, invariably to the right, and invariably to Saab. It’s ironic that the best exponents of this style in 2022 have been Cronulla, with Manly the recipients.

And to give him credit, Jason Saab is incredibly fast, a good finisher and excellent under offensive high balls, perfect for the 2021 NRL when you have Tommy Turbo putting you in space and Daly Cherry-Evans with time to kick.

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I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Manly were the best positioned tactically to exploit the game as it was last year. They noticed the need to play differently early and then perfected it.

On a roster level, they had Tommy, a generational talent, plus two experienced, composed halves in DCE and Kieran Foran, plus one of the better ball-playing locks in Jake Trbojevic, plus a no-nonsense distributive hooker, Lachlan Croker (he of the fewest dummy half runs in the competition), plus a second-rower, Josh Schuster, who is actually a big-boned five eighth.

They could only play one way and that was to attack from the off. The Sea Eagles were a line break machine, second best in the NRL, only behind Melbourne but top if you cut out the first month when they were Turboless and terrible.

Tom Trbojevic was first in line breaks and line break assists per game, with Cherry-Evans and Foran also in the top 20.

Schuster was second in line break assists among edge forwards (behind Viliame Kikau) and Harper was joint third for centres alongside Joey Manu, behind Stephen Crichton and Brian Kelly.

If you wanted a guy in your team when there was a lot of open space to run into, where you wanted to engineer line breaks as frequently as possible and then finish them off, then Saab was the perfect player to have in the team.

Go watch his 2021 try compilation: it’s a lot of a very fast man running in unopposed from a long way out. (Incidentally, if you want to see how much better footy is this year, go watch a random selection of Manly games from late 2021: it looks like a bizarro world touch footy comp played in an empty Suncorp).

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Last year, Saab and Harper basically got to play non-stop attack. The defensive frailties were there, but it really didn’t matter that much because they averaged 30 points a game scored.

Manly won games 38-32, 56-24, 44-24 and 40-22 as well as proper blowouts where the other side were so far behind that they simply chucked it.

When the other side threw back and kept them below 18 points, the Sea Eagles lost, which is why they lost to every good team they faced.

If you want some proof, watch their Preliminary Final loss to South Sydney from 2021. The first three tries, which put the Bunnies 18 up, are all on the right edge.

In the first week of the Finals, where Melbourne put 40 points past them, the first five began on the right. In Round 21, the Storm scored two tries between Saab and Harper and might have had a third, if not for a Turbo wonder tackle.

According to StatsInsider, the try locations were relatively evenly split last year in total but when the good teams turned up and stopped the momentum through the middle, guess where they went?

That brings us to 2022. Now there’s fewer easy points on offer, the defensive frailties look even worse. The right edge has posted some shocking numbers this year.

Harper leads the league in line break causes (LBC) and try causes, which are exactly what they sound like. Both are measures of poor defensive reads.

He also ties as the worst for tackle efficiency for centres who made 10+ tackles a game, so even when he did get there, he often didn’t make the contact stick. That data includes the Talakai nightmare, of course, but clearly it was a problem before last week.

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The try causes per edge are notable. The right has 19, against just 6 for the right edge, which has featured a combination of Reuben Garrick, Christian Tuipulotu, Brad Parker and Tolutau Koula.

There’s a causation/correlation issue with this. Are teams attacking that way because Manly’s right are perceived to be weak there, or at they weak there so teams that attack equally on both sides are getting more success on Manly’s right? From the media box at Shark Park, the latter looked more true than the former.

Manly actually miss the fewest tackles in the NRL, but those that they do miss are concentrated down the right, with Harper and Haumole Olakau’atu, the inside man, topping their list.

The kicking is also a massive issue for Manly, both in defending and starting their attack. It might also provide an insight into where opposition teams think the weakness is.

They kick to Saab’s wing at roughly three times the rate that they kick to the Garrick/Tuipulotu edge, where Saab has produced eight errors this year to a combined three from the other side.

The caveats for Saab are that some of those errors come in attack rather than defence, and that he will have more errors off kicks because he fields far more kicks. But fish where the fish are, right?

The targeting of Saab from a kicking perspective shows that other sides feel he is a weak link. He’s also recipient of a tactic known as ‘caging’, where teams kick to land the ball on a winger with little choice but to catch the ball and immediately be tackled.

He rarely gets to make any momentum from returns and when he does get a run, he invariably gets smashed. His body type is all wrong for yardage carries.

Compare his tall, thin frame with Brian To’o’s low centre of gravity and bustling style and you can get an idea of the varying levels of difficulty for defences.

Saab never really gets going because he struggles to move laterally quickly, a result of his long strides, which present tacklers with an easy target to hit.

The number backs this up. Of players who have played all seven rounds so far, Saab is last in average metres per game and second last in metres per run. He’s made just four tackle breaks from 59 runs so far this year.

It’s clear from the data that Manly are currently carrying Saab, which you can do when you make lots of breaks. When that isn’t happening, it’s hard to see what he adds to the team.

Des Hasler had to tough call made for him in terms of dropping Morgan Harper. His defensive performances, as laid bare by Siosifa Talakai were unsustainable for Manly.

The problem now is that the guy next to him might start to come under the spotlight. It’s not necessarily even Jason Saab himself: he’s a winger with a very specific style, and that style doesn’t exist anymore.

His speed and finishing ability remains, but both are less frequently seen for reasons beyond his control. Conversely, the aspects of his game that were already weak, yardage work and defensive ability, are now laid bare by opponents who can aim up at it with a rule set that empowers them.

Against South Sydney this week, Tolutau Koula will get the spot departed by Harper. If Hasler was to act on Saab, waiting in the wings are Jorge Taufua – who has never averaged under 100m per game across nine years in the NRL – and rookie winger Ray Vaega, who impressed in the trials.

It might be too soon to write off Saab, on the back of an exceptional 2021, but it might also be time to think about what role he can play in this iteration of the NRL. He might just be second coming of Sean Day.

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