The Roar
The Roar



Magic Round tactical preview: How to watch NRL's best in the flesh

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5 days ago

Magic Round is a great laugh. One of the best of the year, I’m told. I’m happy to be jumping on a plane up from Sydney for my first trip to the Yorkshire of the Southern Hemisphere to take it all in.

As a veteran of several of the Super League version – the original, and I’m sure you’ll agree, best version – there is a lot to be said for the colours of all the different jerseys, the constant barrage of footy after footy after footy and the carnival atmosphere.

There’s a lot to be said, too, for actual in-person footy watching. One of the best things about this gig as a footy journo is watching a lot of rugby league in person, across a lot of different teams, and in-person is the way to go if you want to understand tactics. TV coverage doesn’t always show you everything.

With that in mind, and conscious that a lot of our audience will be heading down to Suncorp Stadium for the whole thing, I thought it would be fun to produce a little tactical primer on all 16 teams to give the punters a guide to watching each team in depth.

Apologies in advance to fans of the Cowboys, Storm, Raiders and Titans – this will be my first rodeo watching your team too – because you’ll get my gleaned-off-the-telly takes, but for everyone else, here’s some insights.


Bulldogs v Knights

On paper, this is not a classic. It’s as Friday at 6pm as NRL fixtures get, but bear with me: on a tactical level, this could be one of the most interesting games of the round. It is, as they euphemistically called Serie A 0-0 draws in the 1990s, one of the purist.

See the Bulldogs: they’re one of the tactically most interesting teams in the league. They think that they’re the Panthers – attempting a middle service style of attack but with the much slower, ill-suited Josh Jackson instead of Isaah Yeo.


Instead, they should be Parramatta, and use their bullocking forwards, particularly Tevita Pangai Jnr and Luke Thompson, to generate second phase play. In this model, the role of Dylan Brown, the energetic runner, is played by Matt Burton and the role of Mitchell Moses, the kicking halfback, is played by Kyle Flanagan.

In their only win since R1, the Dogs had Jackson out with Covid and thus played a more appropriate style that bullied the Roosters pack and ultimately won them the game.

The thing to watch is if they keep playing through Jackson, or start to play off offloads. Hope springs eternal with Trent Barrett.

Newcastle, on the other hand, have a different issue. They have little go-forward, with the second-fewest metres made per game in the comp.

That might change, however. The backline was ravaged by injuries, but now includes Dom Young, Enari Tuala, Bradman Best and Edrick Lee. That’s a big, big backline and could run right over the Dogs.


Keep an eye on who takes the ball when. For Newcastle to do well, they need to roll their sets through the backline first, to create the field position for the big boppers in the middle to do their job.

This game is basically a battle of two teams who are ill-suited to the six-again era of the NRL: they have large bodies in the middle, with poor lateral movement, and try to play off one creative player, in Kalyn Ponga and Matt Burton, rather than split to both sides of the field.

Brisbane v Manly

It’s glib and it’s obvious but this is a straight-up battle of the halfbacks. Both Manly and Brisbane have a really defined way of playing that involves their 7 touching the ball a lot and dictating terms.


When I first starting watching footy seriously, my father used to emphasise watching Warrington games from behind the posts, because you could see where Lee Briers stood and thus where the team would go. If you can move your seat at Magic, do so for this game and follow Adam Reynolds and Daly Cherry-Evans.

Brisbane often have quite a strange set progression: they take a lot of one-out hit ups with the fewest general play passes in the NRL, and have a tendency to overuse their forwards, Payne Haas in particular. They get the fewest tackles inside 20 of anyone. When it stalls, they get rescued by Reynolds, the longest boot in the comp by a distance.

Manly have a quite clear plan to follow. They try to force the ball into the hands of Tom Trbojevic – most runs in the comp – to the point where they overwork their fullback. DCE does basically everything, but is especially tasked with forcing dropouts (most in the NRL) and building pressure.

It’s two ways to skin a kicking cat, and we’ll get the best two exponents of it on show on Friday night.

MUDGEE, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 26: Lachlan Ilias of the Rabbitohs is tackled by George Burgess of the Dragons during the Charity Shield NRL Trial Match between the South Sydney Rabbitohs and St George Illawarra Dragons at Glen Willow Sporting Complex on February 26, 2022 in Mudgee, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Lachlan Ilias during the Charity Shield. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Warriors v Souths

Souths have a problem with kicking. The Warriors have a problem with kick returning. Something has to give here. When watching the Warriors, you have to see how many hit ups are taken by their back three, because it probably isn’t enough.

Marcelo Montoya is back this week, and he’s their best at it, but the rest of the unit are well down on the league average for both net runs taken and metres per run: Reece Walsh, flashy in attack as he is, is 14th in the NRL for fullback runs per game and 15th for kicks returned.

They might get away with it, because Souths have total fewest kicking metres – but they might never get a better chance to change that than on Saturday lunchtime.

Cody Walker is, in terms of try involvements per try scored, the best attacker going: that is to say, when Souths score, it’s almost certainly his doing. But pare it back and you can see what Lachlan Ilias does.

In football, there is a deep stat called ‘packing’, which measures how many players are taken out of the game by your actions.

We don’t have an equivalent in rugby league, but if we did, my eye-test guess would be that Ilias is very high for it: he has one long pass in particular that takes players out and, delving deep into technicalities, changes the defensive point from inside to outside shoulder.

It’s why Keaon Koloamatangi keeps finding space, and why Cam Murray so often gets his nose through the line. Walker is often the beneficiary, but further back the chain, Ilias will be the instigator.

Titans v Dragons

This game is the moveable force meets the moveable object. It’s a battle of the bargers and the bargees.

The Titans present an unusual statistical quandary. They are, on paper, the second best defence in terms of missed tackles. They don’t miss many. Yet defensively, they are rubbish, conceding the third most points.

What they suffer with seems two-fold: one, they read lines badly, and two, even if they read it they can’t tackle.

Anyone who saw the Roosters run in million tries down the Brian Kelly/Greg Marzhew edge will know this. So the obvious tactic would be to get into field position and wait for the defensive read to fail or the goalline defence to falter.

Good job it’s the Dragons. They are one of the least effective attacking sides in the NRL: they rely on Ben Hunt to do basically everything and have scored as many tries from their forwards as their backs. They love a barge.

Don’t expect much scintillating play, but instead keep an eye on Hunt and where he’s scheming. If he’s done the video, it’ll be Zac Lomax v Kelly all day long.

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Storm v Panthers

The Storm v Panthers game might well have been the highlight, but I’m not sure that it is anymore. Melbourne without Ryan Papenhuyzen from the back and seriously weaken on an edge might well lead to a bash up on Saturday night.

The traffic that is thrown at Dean Ieremia, returning to the side, and Marion Seve, in just his third game of first grade, will be crucial. The Panthers have scored a shedload along the edges and have designed an attacking system aimed at isolating tacklers one-on-one out there.

For fans, the chance to see the Isaah Yeo swingman play in action is massive. I wrote a huge feature on this a few weeks ago, but it really is something that you can catch in person. Watch where Yeo goes and you’ll have a good chance of seeing where the Panthers go.

Sharks v Raiders

Speaking of things that I have written about extensively: push supports. Cronulla are all about the men in motion along side the ball runner, and while you can pick that up on the tell (at least sometimes), it helps if you are in the stadium and can see the line forming up.

When the Sharks get to one side of the posts – what teams call ‘tramlines’ or 60 – they’ll forced the defence to split either side of the play the ball. You’ll see the Mighty Ducks style Flying V formation, with Nicho Hynes now coming from fullback and one of Siosifa Talakai or Jesse Ramien the intended target.

When they run the play through, you get deception, decoys, supports and more. It’s a great sight.

As for the Raiders … I haven’t seen Ricky Stuart’s men in person yet, and I haven’t seen anything really to interest me from what they do on the telly. They’re not very good: but to paraphrase Principal Skinner: prove me wrong, Raiders. Prove me wrong.

Roosters v Eels

If you’re a seasoned Parramatta watcher, you’ll know that the key to how they work lies in Junior Paulo, Ryan Matterson and Nathan Brown. The ability of the big man to pass close to the line has seen them able to change the point of attack swiftly and enable the likes of Dylan Brown to play in space.

Last week, it was worth 18 offloads in the game against Penrith – the highest average per game is 12.8 – and ended up as a crucial factor in Parra’s win. The Roosters forwards are, for me at least, well off the level of the Eels, so watch out for shape being built off expected offloads.

On the other side, the 9 position is usually the most interesting for the Roosters. They played arguably their best performance of the season in smashing Manly in Round 2 with an interesting spine set-up: Drew Hutchison started at hooker and used his long passing ability to shift more expansively, while Connor Watson came off the bench with a spark, enabling the headline stars of James Tedesco, Luke Keary and Sam Walker to float around, double up and play with more time.

They have named the team the other way around for this week, but it will swap during the game even if they run out as listed. Tom Opacic and Will Penisini have less than stellar tackle efficiency stats, so if the Roosters can get the ball to Manu early, there could be joy there.

Tigers v Cowboys

The Cowboys and Tigers approach attacking very, very differently. For Wests, they run everything through Jackson Hastings, to the point where people in the media who usually don’t know what possession stats are start to notice that he is top of them with nearly 20% more than anyone else.

Hastings is a good player, and a great organiser, but he often smothers his work and (for me at least) has his hands on the football too much. It’s as if he has to hold his team’s hand throughout the attacking process. Have your eyes glued to Hastings whenever the Tigers get the ball (not that you’ll have much choice).

Scott Drinkwater is like an anti-Jackson Hastings. With Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden doing the bulk of the playmaking, the fullback has been an efficiency monster.

He gets the ball about 35 times a game, pretty average for a fullback, but has the highest ratio of touches to try involvements of anyone in the league. He’s also top among fullback for line break assists per game, offloads per game, kicks per game, try assists per game…all the things.