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Joey v Dom v Toops: Why the Roosters should ditch Suaalii from their backline for Round 1

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15th January, 2024
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Trent Robinson is not a man who is afraid of making tough decisions.

He cut his star halfback, Sam Walker, last year because he didn’t think he was playing well enough, copping an enormous amount of flak in the process.

Robbo also dropped Joey Manu and Latrell Mitchell at points, delivering the kick up the backside they needed to refocus their careers, and even last year, it was easy to see the improvement in Walker after his return from reggies wilderness.

If you go back far enough, Trent also dropped the club’s favourite son and premiership-winning halfback, Mitchell Pearce, because he thought he could do better.

The history books show that Cooper Cronk was the right choice for the Chooks, picking up premierships in both of his seasons.

Now, he might have a similarly-sized decision to make with one of his stars.

Joseph Suaalii dominated last year off the field, with his will-he-won’t-he switch to rugby union the major topic of conversation in Moore Park as Roosters results slid in the first half of the year.

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That result slide, too, was a reflection of how Suaalii was going in the NRL at the time, with his move to the centre position a clear sticking point on both sides of the ball.

Going into his final year in the sport, that issue seems likely to rear its head again, with six very good options in the backline and only five places to put them.

James Tedesco, at fullback, is going nowhere. The winger stocks are overflowing, with Suaalii and club record tryscorer Daniel Tupou joined by English superstar Dom Young, who certainly did not walk out on a good gig at Newcastle to play NSW Cup.

In the centres, there’s Joey Manu, one of the best in the world at his position (or any position), and Billy Smith.

Billy Smith of the Roosters looks on during the round 26 NRL match between Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers at Allianz Stadium on August 26, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Billy Smith. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Smith would seem the most vulnerable, but it’s worth noting that last year’s upsurge in form coinciding almost exactly with when he returned to the team from injury. Once Smith got up to speed, the Chooks won five straight.

So where does Suaalii go?

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The stats pretty clearly suggest that he cannot play in the centres anymore, especially not when Smith is fit and available.

The Roosters lost over half of his games at centre last year, and the deeper you dive, the worse it gets.

As a centre, Suaalii was worth 1.3 try causes per game – that’s the metric drawn up to assign responsibility for points against, either through poor tackling or, more often, bad reads.

That puts him among the very worst offenders in the NRL, with only Matt Timoko, Mat Feagai (Dragons), Paul Alamoti and Jake Averillo (both Bulldogs) responsible for more tries among outside backs.

That number, however, halves when he was played as a winger, and his Effective Tackle Percentage – how many he makes of those he attempts – is markedly higher as a winger, which is partly a function of having fewer to make but also of having clearer decisions to make a man further out.

With the ball, Suaalii was far more effective as a winger. His yardage numbers go through the roof, obviously – wingers do more yardage work – but his other creative stats also either stay the same or get better.

Wingers tend to have more line breaks – and Suaalii did – but he also assisted more, broke more tackles and did more off the ball in attack.

He did so while retaining the same Pass to Run Ratio, which tells you that Suaalii was essentially playing as a winger a man in when he was at centre, except with worse defence and less chance to field kicks, which is one of his superstrengths.

Compare and contrast to Smith. The centre caused tries at half the rate Suaalii did in the 3 jumper while offering more creativity, offloads and the same yardage.

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It’s not a contest: Billy Smith is a better centre than Joseph Suaalii. On the evidence we have seen so far, he has to play as a winger, end of conversation.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 03: Daniel Tupou of the Roosters is tackled during the round 23 NRL match between the Sydney Roosters and Manly Sea Eagles at Sydney Cricket Ground on August 03, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Daniel Tupou is tackled by Matt Lodge. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

This time it’s a three way contest with Tupou and Young, and it’s worth going into the different jobs that wingers are supposed to do.

With the ball, there’s yardage work and finishing, and without it, there’s defending both players in possession and from kicks.

We’ve run the numbers on four players: Tupou and Young, plus Suaalii the winger in 2023 – just about making the 480 minute sample size floor – and his entire 2022, in which he was named Dally M Winger of the Year.

This throws up some very, very interesting numbers indeed.

Firstly, Suaalii has improved massively on himself year-on-year in terms of involvement in the game and maintained his exceptionally high numbers, even marginally increasing some of them, such as Metres per Run (MRP) and Post-contact Metres (PCM).

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There’s a caveat of small sample size here, as this is just across eight games and thus could have been a hot streak, but still: for someone to post Dally M level numbers and then get better shows what a talent Suaalii is.

The problem for him is the other two blokes.

On one side, Tupou monsters Suaalii in pretty much every yardage area, both the 2022 and 2023 versions.

The veteran is just as involved in terms of workrate but is far more effective on a per-event basis, with his average run a metre longer – imagine that over a whole game, or season – and his play the ball not just faster, but the second fastest in the entire comp among wingers. As set starters go, it’s not even close.

Young more than holds his own in yardage, particularly in MPR, an area in which he’s among the very best – and achieved those stats in a team where he wasn’t the main set starter, with Greg Marzhew on the other side a freak in that particular area.

The Englishman then blows pretty much everyone in the league out of the water for finishing.

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He was the top tryscorer in the NRL last year – the only stat that matters, right? – but also ranked in the 90th percentile across the league for line breaks, tackle breaks and support play.

This is a guy who was great in space, often created his own broken play, and was there to finish other people’s breaks as well.

You don’t need stats to tell you this, though, because you have seen Young play before.

As far as top speed goes, it’s Young, Jason Saab and Josh Addo-Carr on the podium, and in gymnastics, he’d probably get the gold medal as well.

Throw in that the major improvement in Young has been his awareness, increasing his ability to get around breaks, and you have a superstar winger.

Both also offer significant advantages in defence, with Tupou and Young in the 90th percentile for tackle effectiveness among wingers. Suaalii, while he did improve on the wing compared to in the centres, is nowhere near that.

Where he is unquestionably the best is under the high ball. Tupou isn’t great in either Defusal Rate (for bombs) or Long Kick %, for those that hit the deck, and this whole area is Young’s big weakness – he’s one of the worst in the whole NRL.

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(Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

We’ve all seen enough of Suaalii’s leaping to know how good he can be there. It’ll serve him well in rugby union, but NRL teams shouldn’t pick on aerial defence when the other characteristics of modern wing play point to the other guys.

Here’s the bottom line: Suaalii is the third best winger at the Roosters and he’s the third best centre. Assuming everyone is fit and firing, that leaves him in reserve grade come the start of the year.

One could make the argument that he’s in the top ten wingers in the whole world, but only the third best at the Chooks, which really tells you how good the other options are.

The stats tell you one thing, but it is backed up by the situation and the politics of it.

What would playing Suaalii at centre say to Smith, who has fought his way back from injury to make this side and be one of its most effective players? It’s clear from both numbers and eye test that he is the better centre.

What, too, would it say to Tupou, who turned in some career best numbers last year, or to Young, the top tryscorer in the league in 2023, if either were to be dropped for a guy who is leaving anyway?

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Were it that Tupou – also in his last year – was leaving and Suaalii was staying, you could make the argument that he was the future, but now, it would look like they were leaving out a legend for a bloke who is walking out on the club.

These are the questions that Robinson has to answer. It might be that the most obvious solution is to drop Suaalii for Round 1.

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