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Zac v Tyrell: If the Dragons want to get the most out of their spine, they have to get the best out of Sloan

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14th January, 2024
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Shane Flanagan couldn’t have asked for a worse start to his time as head coach at St George Illawarra.

He lost Junior Amone, who had his contract deregistered by the NRL, and missed out on a heap of replacement signings in the halves.

When he finally got one, Ronald Volkman from the Warriors, he lasted just a week before medical issues forced the Dragons to move on.

Now, the new coach has a starting pair of talisman and captain Ben Hunt at halfback plus his son, Kyle, at five eighth. There’s no depth. That’s it.

The lack of options at 6 and 7 have essentially ended any debate over who plays where, but have instead put increased focus on the other players in the spine – notably at fullback.

Tyrell Sloan was the default there last year, missing just one game, but it had been widely previewed that Zac Lomax might move back from the centres in an attempt to get him more ball.

With improving the attack the top priority for Flanagan, it’s imperative that he makes the right call on the 1 jumper – something exacerbated by the problems in the halves.

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The fullback role can often be designated as the position for the most creative force in the team, which does open up the opportunity, especially in a side that won’t be able to depend on the halves to provide that.

Lord knows, it’s the area that St George Illawarra require the most work.

The Dragons’ attacking stats from last year don’t stand up to much, especially when one digs deeper than the headline numbers.

Their total sets were dead last in the NRL: five fewer per game than the Panthers, who topped the list – but it wasn’t just volume, as their metres per run was also the worst.

This was a team that categorically failed to make the most of the limited opportunities they got in terms of getting into field position.

Creatively, they were right down there, too.

There’s an interesting advanced stat, Assisted Line Break Percentage (ALB%), which essentially tells you how many of the breaks that a side made were done via team creation – i.e. not a player running through/around an opponent – with the goal of working out which teams were the best at putting blokes through holes.

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As it’s a percentage, it doesn’t really matter how often a team did it – the Broncos have a lot of line breaks, for example, but not a high ALB% – but how much of their attack was about passing.

Mikaele Ravalawa. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Souths, Cronulla, Newcastle and the Warriors all rank well for this, which matches the eye test in terms of their attack.

So where were the Dragons? Right down at the bottom. This is a side that relied a lot on someone winning a one-on-one battle to get through.

Now, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – the Dragons were sandwiched between the Panthers, Roosters and Storm – but it is a really bad thing if you don’t have the same levels of talent.

ALB% isn’t about good and bad, and there are no right or wrong answers, but it tells you how a team go about things.

If you have guys like Joey Manu, Brian To’o and Cameron Munster, truly elite ball-carriers, then you’re trouble.

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Stats are designed to give context, and rarely work alone or without tactical context. The teams who are low at ALB% but still successful tend to rank highly for tackle breaks, because they’re orienting their attack around getting one-on-one match-ups then winning them.

Where Souths, Cronulla, Newcastle et al try to attack through manipulation of space, Penrith and Melbourne were more concerned with doing it by getting their good guy into a favourable situation.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan watches his team warm up

Shane Flanagan (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

If you’re Shane Flanagan – or his analyst – then you might have two solutions. You either need to get more favourable situations for your guys or you need to move the opposition around more.

It’s harder to change your best guys around from the bottom of the ladder, it makes sense to use the guys that you have to create better opportunities.

St George Illawarra are really struggling in the halves, which doesn’t help, but they can do things to help their spine that are free.

Firstly, they could get the blokes they have to do a lot more off the ball.

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The Dragons were second in the league for decoys last year, but second last for supports, which suggests that they did have the energy to get around but were not doing it effectively.

Decoys have a place, but it’s no surprise that the list of the most willing non-receivers is filled with forwards, indicating both when decoys are useful in a set and how effective they are as actual deception.

Blake Lawrie and Jack de Belin, who top the list for the Dragons (and sits fourth and seventh  overall) are the sort of guys you’d like to get the ball on the fourth tackle if you’re an opponent.

Where the Dragons really lack is support play. Getting up around the ball, especially with backs, presents a totally different challenge to defences.

It brings second phase play into the game, for one, as every offload has to have a recipient, and increases the effectiveness of those offloads as they fall to someone who can take advantage of broken lines rather than a forward who will just shovel the ball on or die on the play.

The Dragons’ best in this regard is Sloan, who sits eighth overall, and it would help a lot if other guys were encouraged to adopt similar enthusiasm to get involves. Lomax is their second best, but it’s a big drop after that.

If you want an idea of what that can look like, skip forward to his tries against the Broncos and Dolphins here: up around the footy, oferring himself for an offload, then lightning when he gets it.

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Sloan’s statistical profile is one of the most interesting in the league in terms of fullbacks. His ability to put players through a gap was among the absolute worst in 2023, but his ability to find space for himself was elite, behind only Reece Walsh, Will Kennedy and AJ Brimson.

His run metres are poor, as you might expect, and his kick returning is the worst among regular fullbacks, as is his reading of the play – only Scott Drinkwater allowed a greater percentage of kicks faced to hit the deck – and his bomb defusal rate.

All the things that Hook saw in him as a liability are absolutely there: the kid can’t return kicks, can’t catch them and, beyond attack, might as well not be on the field.

But: what he can do in attack, in a team that really struggles in attack, is very good. All the stats point towards a player who could come on leaps and bounds if he was given better conditions by the other blokes on the field.

Interestingly, in 2022, Sloan was in the 90th percentile for line break assists, suggesting that he does have a pass in him somewhere.

Ally that to his known ability as an elusive runner and you’ve got a potentially high-creating player in a team that sorely lacks for them.

The question for Flanagan will have to be whether he is willing to empower his fullback to play his game – and whether he can shape an attack to get the best out his man.

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St George Illawarra were among the worst offloaders in the comp last year, but simultaneously among the most side-to-side: in fact, they weren’t even properly side-to-side, because no team favoured the right edge more.

It’s hard not to link the lack of second phase to Griffin’s obsession with completion rate, which did subside somewhat under Ryan Carr but remained ingrained.

When you don’t promote the footy and don’t run supports, you end up playing sideline to sideline rather than challenging the line.

It’s ironic, because few take on the line more than Hunt, but nobody was there to go with him, it didn’t really matter. Attack, just like defence, works as a whole.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 03: Zac Lomax of the Dragons and his team look dejected after a try during the round four NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the St George Illawarra Dragons at CommBank Stadium, on April 03, 2022, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

The plan – beyond ‘give it to Dozer’ – was to sling it in the direction of Moses Suli at right centre.

It was as if they doubled down on avoiding their second and third best attacking options: they had Sloan, an elite-level support runner, but gave him no broken play to work with, and Lomax, a killer right-to-left ball carrier, whom they moved to left centre and then starved of the ball.

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These are things that Flanno can fix overnight with his team selection and tactical outlook.

His big challenge with the lack of spine options is going to be finding creativity from elsewhere.

While it would be tempting to get the ball into Lomax’s hands more at fullback, it would remove the opportunity to have Sloan on the field and creating.

Lomax has shown, even in short bursts, that he can be among the most creative centres in the comp when allowed to express himself and get involved. That has to happen on the left.

Sloan has shown enormous upside in some areas, and enormous weaknesses in others. If he didn’t have the weaknesses, frankly, he wouldn’t be playing for the Dragons, and with their situation the way it is in the halves, they needed to empower his strong points and, essentially, ignore his weaknesses.

There’s teams in the comp that have done this. Scott Drinkwater offered roughly the same statistical profile – an attacking fullback with zero tackling, returning and poor aerial defence – but was trusted to play his game anyway and has improved out of sight.

Early in 2022, the Cowboys realised their issue was a lack of creativity and decided that they were willing to take the hit on defensive solidity to get Drinkwater into the team.

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For as long as Sloan has been in grade, he’s never been afforded that opportunity. Now, Flanagan has the chance to back his man and get him on the field consistently.

In a side that is crying out for a spark, Sloan could be it.

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