Achilles Heel: Analysing Every NRL Contender's Weakness
The Stats Insider Futures Model has highlighted four major players in the premiership race heading into Round 25 of the NRL season.
Despite the slight downturn in recent form, the Melbourne Storm are significant favourites ahead of the Penrith Panthers, South Sydney Rabbitohs and Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles.
But the last month of football has shown us that any team can win it on their day.
All four are leaps ahead of the rest of the competition and expected to at least play out an exciting Preliminary Finals round. However, no team is perfect and these premiership contenders all have a weakness or two that can be exposed in September.
There is a little bit of the 2019 Storm about this group.
That year, Brodie Croft spent 22 rounds at halfback before being dropped for Jahrome Hughes with Ryan Papenhuyzen shifting into fullback. They certainly looked better for the move in general. As we know now with Hughes and Papenhuyzen both top players at their position, it was the right decision in the long run. The debate still remains whether or not it was right for the Storm to change things up so late in the season, though. After all, they did lose in Week 1 of the finals before eventually bowing out for the year following a 14-6 loss to the Roosters.
While Papenhuyzen made a claim for a State of Origin jersey through some superb early-season form, the Storm have played their best football this season with Nicho Hynes at the back. There is every chance Melbourne would have won 19 on the trot with a fit, firing and confident Papenhuyzen at the back, but the fact of the matter is, he hasn't looked the same since returning from injury and nor has the Storm overall.
Hynes has put up some incredible numbers this season for a guy that received such little interest in 2020 that he had to sign a one-year deal with the Storm for 2021.
Only Clint Gutherson has acted as a support player more times than Hynes this season. He is active around the ball and has a knack for popping up in the right place at the right time. With seven tries, 17 try assists and 26 line break assists (second-most in the NRL), Hynes also has a knack for coming up with the right play in those moments too. Meanwhile, Papenhuyzen is struggling to recapture his form since returning to the starting side. With only one try assist and one line break, he isn't having the same impact he had earlier in the year, or what Hynes has in recent weeks.
Papenhuyzen still has Round 25 to play himself into form while Melbourne will also have two chances to reach the Preliminary Final. They are deserving premiership favourites and should lift the Provan-Summons Trophy on October 3. However, if they fall short and continue to look uncharacteristically clunky in attack, those comparisons to 2019's lack of continuity will only grow louder.
It's as though the Penrith Panthers had known for years that Peter V'landys was going to swoop in and recalibrate the game around fatigue and speed. Ivan Cleary's side is perfectly put together to dominate such a game.
They're strong and mobile through the middle but boast enough ballplaying to move the ball wide at speed. On the edges, they have the ability to rotate through the destructive Viliame Kikau, hole-punching Liam Martin, ballplaying Kurt Capewell, and more recently, the offloading Tevita Pangai Jr. Whatever the game calls for out wide, Penrith can adapt. In the halves, Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai provide the perfect balance of patience, subtlety, skill and flare.
If you're putting together a collective skill set to dominate PVL Ball, you're looking at the Panthers for inspiration.
Penrith are relentless at their best. They lead the NRL in running metres, post-contact metres and kick return metres. They work their way up the field to earn an NRL-high 32.9 tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line per game. While so many tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line per game can be a sign of inefficiency with the ball, their NRL-high 2.3 forced dropouts per game suggest it is more to do with Penrith adopting a patient buildup than it is suffering from a failing attack. The Newcastle Knights are fourth in tackles inside the opposition 20-metre line with 27.7 per game but average ten fewer points than Penrith's 27.7 per game.
The problems for Penrith may start to arise if that patient approach doesn't produce enough points. They haven't been forced into a Plan B often this year.
They only scored 12 points against an unsettled Storm side in Round 3. Penrith then breezed through the year when at full-strength with their only defeats coming against the Sharks in Round 14 and Storm in Round 20 without Nathan Cleary.
Patience has produced against most teams in the NRL this year. The gap between good and bad is so big that Penrith knows they simply need to keep piling on the pressure before the opposition crumbles. However, the Storm don't crumble in defence. The Sea Eagles and Rabbitohs have displayed big improvements in defence recently, too.
They have shown their hand a couple of times throughout the year with a few variations to their attack when up big so the Panthers still have tricks up their sleeve. It's whether or not they're well-practised enough when the pressure is finally put onto them that will determine how their season ends.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
The issues are on both sides of the ball now that Latrell Mitchell's season ended prematurely. He is a key feature to their attack on the left and right edges and had more recently taken on a Trbojevic-inspired role around the middle in good ball areas.
There have been far too many times in which Walker has played without Mitchell over the last two seasons. Each time, Walker has popped up in different spots, often where Mitchell would be in the attack, and filled the role as best he can. With or without Mitchell, the Rabbitohs still have plenty of points in them.
Still, as it has been all season, South Sydney's defence will determine how far into September their season goes.
Fourth overall conceding 19 points per game, the Rabbitohs have improved without the ball. They conceded 22.9 points per game across the first 11 rounds of the season. Remarkably, Souths had 50+ hung on them twice in that span. However, since turning things around from Round 12, the Bunnies have conceded just 15.4 points per game.
There is no doubt that with their attack firing on all cylinders that the Rabbitohs defence has produced better numbers. The cause for concern is the moments they switch off throughout a match. The Bulldogs and Warriors scored 24 and 22 points respectively in Round 18 and 19. While those games had been won before leaking points, the top tier teams don't often produce those lulls in defence. Faced with the best defensive team in the NRL and with their attack not doing so much of the work in defence, the Rabbitohs gave up 25 points to the Panthers in Round 23. You can circle Api Koroisau's try in the 79th minute with the result already decided as one that blows out the scoreboard, or use it as another example of the Rabbitohs switching off.
Losing Latrell has put a big dent in South Sydney's premiership hopes because of what he does with the ball. As we've seen throughout the year, that influences team defence. While we all consider ways in which the Rabbitohs can make up for Mitchell's absence in attack, it's their defence that needs to be the focus.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
The biggest strength of the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles is also their biggest weakness.
Tom Trbojevic is playing out one of the best individual seasons in NRL history. Whether it's better than Jarryd Hayne in 2009 or Ben Barba in 2012 will be debated for years to come, but whenever you're mentioned alongside those two in this conversation so deep into the season, you know it's something special.
His numbers are simply incredible. Trbojevic is towards the top of the list in almost every attacking area and has only played 14 games this season.
|Tries||Try Assists||Line Breaks||Line Break Assists||Running Metres|
|Total||22||25||24||34||215m (per game)|
Finally fit and with the new rules playing into his hands, Trbojevic is the best player in rugby league right now. But as we've seen throughout the year, the Sea Eagles aren't nearly as strong without their superstar fullback.
Manly played out their ever worst start to an NRL season after four rounds while waiting for Trbojevic to return. With just a one-point win over the Warriors to their name when Trbojevic took to the field for the first time in Round 6, a spot in the Top 8 looked long gone already. As we now know, the 24-year-old has been that good.
However, the step down in quality has been evidenced again in the matches he has missed. Round 23 against the Raiders, in particular.
Manly aren't as crisp with the ball when Trbojevic isn't on the field. Daly Cherry Evans and Kieran Foran know exactly where he is going to be and when. Throughout those games Trbojevic isn't playing, we've seen balls go to ground as the halves pass to a spot their first-choice fullback would typically fill.
We caught a glimpse of how teams might handle Trbojevic in the finals when the Sea Eagles lost 28-18 to the Storm in Round 21.
While he still ended up with two try assists, it's the best we've seen a team keep a lid on Trbojevic all season. They didn't do anything special. In fact, simply calling his name and focusing the defensive line onto him whenever he was near the ball is the only major change Melbourne made to their usual defensive structure. In doing this, Melbourne put the onus on the rest of the Manly side to produce point-scoring opportunities and they failed to do so for the most part.
Similar to Penrith, Manly's Plan B will be crucial in September. Trbojevic will undoubtedly influence games and still find a way to manufacture points himself, but he is unlikely to do so at his current rate. It's up to the rest of the team to shoulder the load and take the chances that could pop up as the defence over focuses on their man at the back.
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