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Five and a kick: Joey Manu is not the Roosters' best fullback, unless they want to run him into the ground

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15th April, 2024
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1. Manu is not No.1 at Roosters

Everyone knows Joey Manu is a really good fullback. He’s probably in the top five in the game, but not in the top one at the Roosters, which is why he plays in the centres.

Every time Manu plays in the 1 jumper, there’s the usual cavalcade of people suggesting that he should play there every week, because we all know that a swallow makes a summer.

That analysis usually tells you two things: one, that people don’t understand statistics very well and two, that people like to think in counterfactuals rather than actual events.

Let’s take the second part first.

Joey Manu is an exceptional fullback, yes, but he’s very much one type of fullback, as opposed to James Tedesco, who is another type of fullback and clearly the one Trent Robinson prefers.

That seems totally fine given the Bradman-esque number of runs on the board for the reigning Kangaroos, NSW and Roosters captain, not to mention that he has watched both in training together for years.

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The stats part always concerns run metres, which people consistently misuse and misunderstand.

Manu put up 348m on Thursday night, which is, obviously, a lot, and indeed the most in the six again era.

But it’s also not everything: Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad also ran for 346m a day later, for example, and nobody thinks he’s better than Tedesco.  

Manu did so off 30 runs of the footy, which is the true Stakhanovism, and one that realistically you wouldn’t actually want your fullback to do unless they were a pure workhorse, like a CNK or Dylan Edwards.

Tedesco averages 18 or so runs per game, for about 10.4m per run, which is above average, and comes with all the other fullback bits that Manu isn’t as good at.

If the Chooks wanted a workhorse 1 with a bit of magic, then Manu might be that guy. If they want an allrounder at the back which allows them to park their magic man in the centres, then they’ve got that too. It’s no surprise that Robbo opts for the latter.

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2. The Bulldogs’ big backline question

Canterbury have often struggled in recent years with an abundance of players who straddled the line between good enough and not quite good enough, especially in the backline.

Moreoever, they’ve also struggled in that they’ll have all their good backs on one side and their less good ones on the other, creating an imbalance that every defence was easily able to pick.

Thanks to a few forced hands from injury, they might just have stumbled onto something that works: Connor Tracey at the back, Jacob Kiraz and Josh Addo-Carr on the wings, Bronson Xerri and Stephen Crichton in the centres.

On Friday in Melbourne, they put Xerri to the left, shifting Crichton to the right and offering greater balance to their attack.

Tracey, in for the injured Blake Taaffe at fullback, was exceptional and might well keep that spot going forward, with a space in the 14 jumper available or, if they really wanted to get the attack firing, the 7 that is currently held by the competent but uninspiring Drew Hutchison.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 12: Connor Tracey of the Bulldogs is challenged by Xavier Coates of the Storm during the round six NRL match between Melbourne Storm and Canterbury Bulldogs at AAMI Park, on April 12, 2024, in Melbourne, Australia.

(Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images)

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Wherever they square that circle, the 2-6 has to stay as it is now. This is the best version that works.

Kiraz wasn’t dreadful in the centre, but he’s an excellent set starter and, in a team that lacks in the middle, that means a lot. Crichton locks down a whole edge defensively and that element can’t be wasted at fullback.

The Foxx is a Ferrari when he gets decent ball, and Xerri has seemed inclined to give it to him.

Cameron Ciraldo has been forced to chop and change constantly in his time at the Dogs. Now, he should take this chance to pick and stick.

3. Newcastle lacking spark

Adam O’Brien can’t do wrong for doing right at times.

He has four halves into two spots – Jackson Hastings, Jack Cogger, Tyson Gamble and the yet-to-debut Will Pryce – and, despite having from the start of preseason until now to pick and stick, he hasn’t been able to.

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It might be that the luxury of choice is killing him. When there’s one of the three playing reggies every week, there’s always a dude to come in that gets better every week he doesn’t play first grade.

When Hastings was in Cup, he brained it and forced a recall, with Gamble the man dropping out – but he’s clearly too good for that level as well.

The Knights struggled badly on Thursday night in attack, too often playing within themselves and getting to a kick – which, when Hastings was involved, was often an innocuous one – without any real spark in the side.

Kalyn Ponga was playing hurt and barely touched the ball in the first half, while in the second, the Knights had as much possession and territory as they could have wanted but actually made fewer line breaks than when they were on the back foot.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 16: The Knights look on after a Cowboys try during the round two NRL match between North Queensland Cowboys and Newcastle Knights at Qld Country Bank Stadium, on March 16, 2024, in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The Knights. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

They currently play two halves whose first instinct is to kick and control, complete high and make the opposition run it back. In isolation, that isn’t a terrible thing.

But when it’s the only gear you have, it’ll be a problem. Most teams only carry one such player for that exact reason, because if you have another, more creative half available, then you pair that bloke with the organiser.

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Newcastle have two who want to do the same thing and a third who is adequate and doesn’t let you down, but also doesn’t offer the magic that you might want from a five eighth.

The extent of Ponga’s injury is yet to be seen and Pryce went down in the opening stages of the Knights’ NSW Cup win on Thursday, so Tuesday’s team list might be hamstrung by who is available.

The Bulldogs on Sunday is a good barometer on where this side is: they won 66-0 in last year’s edition, kickstarting a rise up the table that ended in a home final.

2-3 to start the year isn’t terrible by any stretch, but the next five games are against the Dogs, Dolphins, Tigers and Titans, all away, plus the Warriors at home before a bye. It’s a crucial block of fixtures for O’Brien.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 06: Taniela Paseka of the Sea Eagles is tackled during the round five NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and Penrith Panthers at 4 Pines Park, on April 06, 2024, in Sydney, Australia.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

4. Are Manly Bazball?

There’s a drive in all media to immediately compare any side doing things differently to Bazball.

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As your humble columnist is overtly emotionally invested in the fortunes of both the England cricket team and the Manly Sea Eagles, this is something that was front of mind at about 3.39pm on Saturday as Luke Brooks through a needless speculator into the grateful grasp of Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, who returned it to the house with gay abandon.

The mind drifted to a series of similar midafternoon mishaps in the UK summer, when England would get to within ten minutes of an interval in good shape, having happily bazzed the ball around for two hours, only to try one last heave that ended up with poles everywhere/caught on the boundary/stumped/whatever.

The thing about aggressively attacking style, whether McCullum’s or Seibold’s or, say, Postecoglou’s, is that there’s a time and a place.

The default is gung ho, and that’s fine, but there is usually a point at which the sensible thing is to play sensible and take a breath.

Losses like that at the Dragons, where things go wrong and passes don’t stick, will happen under this style of football. It’s baked in and you cop it.

But this is the second incidence where a position of huge superiority has been wasted through commitment to the bit.

Against Parra, Manly turned down an easy two points at 14-6, then barely touched the ball for another half hour. Against the Warriors, they had a 16-4 lead going into the break that could have been insurmountable.

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It’s not a massive thing, because they played well and a point on the road in Auckland is good going for anyone. But it’s a lesson to be learned.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND - MARCH 22: Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the Warriors is brought down during the round three NRL match between New Zealand Warriors and Canberra Raiders at Apollo Projects Stadium, on March 22, 2024, in Christchurch, New Zealand.

(Photo by Kai Schwoerer/Getty Images)

5. Will the Wahs’ attack let them down?

In that same game, there was a sinking feeling going around Mt Smart that would have been very similar to one they got in Round 1 of this year, when the Wahs failed to overcome a resilient Cronulla.

Fans might remember it from last year, when the Warriors stumbled at home to both the Roosters and Souths, too.

There’s just the slightest of feelings that their attack is really good against bad teams, but might not quite have it against those who turn up with enough fortitude to make life difficult.

It might be that Nicoll-Klokstad isn’t quite creative enough as a fullback, that their right is a lot, lot better than their left and that Te Maire Martin isn’t on the same level as Luke Metcalf, leaving Shaun Johnson with a lot to do on his own.

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Andrew Webster has proven a master at solving problems collectively rather than by getting in better individuals, so he’ll be all over this.

Their defence, too, ensures that they’ll always be in a game, as evidenced by the comeback on Saturday afternoon.

For a side that currently tops the metre count, however, they are solidly midtable for linebreaks and actual tries, which has to be a concern in an era where accumulation is increasingly less incentivised.

They’re on a line break every 9.1 sets, which is worse than the Bulldogs (7.1) and comparable to Souths (9) and the Knights (9.2), none of whom anyone thinks are great shakes with the ball.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

And a kick … Dolphins up the creek

Wayne Bennett might be getting admiring glances from South Sydney for next year, but he has a mighty task on his hands in the here and now at the Dolphins.

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They are slammed in the playmakers department, with injuries and suspensions, not least to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Herbie Farnworth, leaving the side looking even more toothless than usual.

This is a pretty boring side to watch at the best of times, which is by design and, largely, has worked. They rarely beat themselves and thus every other bad team tends to lose to them.

It can, however, be very one note with the ball. On Friday night, they had plenty of chances to attack but failed to make them count, and once the Broncos got even a sniff of possession, it was game over.

Now, things might be about to get very difficult indeed. Redcliffe already depended on individuals to score them points, and their best players are dropping like flies.

Parramatta this week just went from a 50/50 to a huge ask.

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