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Schuster v Schuster: If Manly can bring back 2021 Josh, they'll have one of the NRL's best backrowers

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18th January, 2024
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If you’re good, people expect more of you.

This has pretty much always been the problem with Josh Schuster: his talent, even when fleeting, is there for all to see.

We hold him to a higher standard because there’s the feeling that he’s a lot better than he is showing – not least because when it works, Schuster makes it look incredibly easy.

The Samoan international has a round 50 NRL games and, after a bright start, it’s been pretty so-so ever since.

Of that 50, there’s been a pretty much even split between five eighth and second row, and that somewhat speaks to the problem.

He’s either a big-bodied 6 or a backrower with exceptional creative skills, but it’s hard to say which one is his best position.

There’s another level to this, too.

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Of his 50 appearances, just under half were in 2021, when attack was heavily incentivised by the rules and Manly were one of the earliest teams to notice what might be possible with more space in the game.

Since then, Schuster has had fitness issues that limited him to 13 games in 2022 and 15 in 2023, with long periods out due to injuries and poor conditioning.

Going into 2024, it’s put up or shut up time.

Manly are going to play an expansive style under Anthony Seibold, likely the closest to that favoured by Des Hasler in 2021.

He’ll have a settled spine on the inside of him with Luke Brooks added to Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic, plus pace to burn outside in Tolu Koula, Reuben Garrick and Jason Saab.

Schuster will likely feature on the left, with Haumole Olakau’atu on the right, and the pair make interesting statistical bedfellows.

Olakau’atu is a much more conventional edge forward in that he will almost always opt to run first, posting elite numbers for metres per run (MPR) and tackle breaks per run.

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He is, however, much more than just that.

(Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

Haumole had the sixth most Creativity Value – the advanced stat that measures all attacking output – of any second row in the NRL last year, with the list was topped by David Fifita and Briton Nikora – and their differing skillsets tell us a lot about what the edge forward is meant to do with the ball.

Nikora was almost completely playing for himself, with 18 line breaks and just five assists, a function of his exceptional line running, while Fifita was much more balanced, with nine line breaks and a league-leading 11 assists.

Olakau’atu has an almost 50/50 split in where he creates opportunities, proving what a threat he can be, and what is possible if he gets more advantageous ball to work with.

It’s not unrealistic for the Manly backrower to be the best in the comp – and that’s the standard that Schuster should be aiming for as well.

It’s not total pie in the sky that he could make it. We’ve seen all the talent and hte unique skillset he can bring on an edge.

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Schuster wasn’t actually that terrible last year – at least, not the worst in the whole comp – but, as ever, his is a failure relative to expectations.

His CV stats sat alongside Cameron Munster and Jack Wighton, but that was averaged for possessions, of which he got far fewer. When he bothered he tended to do alright, but that happened so infrequently.

In Manly’s system, Chery-Evans is always going to dominate the ball, but Schuster’s 39 possessions per game is pretty low for a half, especially if you consider that DCE gets 80 (2nd for all non-hookers) and Turbo was also on 39 (2nd for fullbacks).

The hierarchy was clear and what Schuster needed was actually economy of effort and, in that regard, he was massively underwhelming.

It was running, in particular, that left a lot to be desired.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

His MPR was fifth worst of anyone to play halves regularly last year – right between the ball-carrying behemoths Kyle Flanagan and Brandon Wakeham – so hardly a good return from a bloke topping 100kg.

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As mentioned, his CV was good, but when you break down the inputs into the advanced stats, it is clear that it almost all came from passing and not from running, which is pretty much the opposite of what it should be from a guy like Schuster.

All the other supplementary you might expect from a half – support play, game involvement, line engagements – were all dreadful too, in the bottom 20% of the comp.

His pass per run ratio was pretty much the same as Cherry-Evans, who is an organising half and considerably smaller.

Far be it from anyone to suggest that a player isn’t interested, but if you’re not doing the free stuff like supports, you’re not taking on the line and you’re not running, it will certainly give the impression that commitment and application are the issue.

Schuster, then, had managed to turn himself from an edge forward with good hands to a pass-only five eighth, and not a particularly good one at that.

In 2024, where Brooks will come in and take his possessions away, the question will be if he can revert to the run-first edge forward with a killer pass.

To understand what that looks like, let’s take a trip in the Spreadsheet Time Machine – less interesting than a hot tub, but that’s what we have – back to September 2021.

Back then, celebrity Souths fan The Kid Laroi was riding high in the charts, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (no, me neither) was leading the box office and those of us in Sydney were about to emerge from our long, extended lockdown.

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Josh Schuster had run Sam Walker close for Rookie of the Year and appeared to have the NRL world at his feet.

So how good was that 2021 version of Schuster, and what did it look like?

Firstly, he was really, really involved in the game. Even accounting for the one game he played as a five eighth, 18 possessions per 80 is a lot for a second row, more than any backrower in 2023.

He still ran very differently to any second row in 2023 – his PPR highest and MPR lowest – but brought far more purpose to his carries.

Schuster broke tackles at the same rate as prime Olakau’atu, topped the charts for line engagements and was rewarded with a CV that would put him above Haumole for one of the best in the league.

The stats are backed up by the eye test.

Go back and watch tape of Schuster and you’ll see a player who took the ball to contact, using his size to draw defenders in, then got the ball away at the latest possible moment.

The no-look passes, the late footwork, the offloads – they were all made possible because he played close enough and carried enough weight – both metaphorically and literally – as a running threat to be taken seriously.

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(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

This is the player that Schuster has to return to in 2024. Last year it was as if he’d read his own hype as a ball-player, with the net result of playing too far from the line, which allowed defenders to simply slide along.

Seibold was a huge fan of Schuster before becoming Manly boss and will have been severely disappointed in how their first season together worked out.

He’ll remember that it was the backrower version of Schuster that everyone fell in love with, and it’ll be that player that he will be trying to bring back.

The player himself struggled with conditioning last year, as well as legitimate injuries, but should be able to come back to a less active role in the team at a higher bodyweight, as well as a confidence to go and be one of the best backrowers in the comp.

If he looks across the field, he’ll see that already in Haumole. They’re not the same player, of course, but as a combination, they could be one of the best in the NRL.

It’s up to Josh to make that happen. He’s got all the talent in the world, and for a brief period, he showed it. He can do again.

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