NRL | Something or Nothing: Some Things Remain The Same

It's all overreactions or blind optimism to start an NRL season.

Most good wins are met with uncertainty about repeating them the following week, while every loss can be explained away with rust and a slow start to the year. Still, some conversations are worth having as we navigate the early rounds.

Despite dreams of little men breaking the line at halfway and scoring long-range tries under the new rules, props and hookers linked up to have a field day close to the line in Round 2. Cameron Munster and Brandon Smith, on the other hand, couldn't get on the same page throughout an uncharacteristic Storm loss to the Eels.

And as much as the game is changing every week, some things remain the same. For better or worse, the Cowboys and Panthers are looking very 2020-like to start the 2021 NRL season.

Front row filling the try-scorer list

Props and hookers regularly crossed the line throughout Round 2.

Junior Paulo, Jarrod Wallace, Jaimin Jolliffe, Tevita Pangai Jr and Marty Taupau put props on the try-scoring map from close range this week. Meanwhile, Jayden Brailey, Lachlan Croker, Damien Cook, Jake Granville and Jacob Liddle all skipped over the line from dummy half. Wayde Egan incorrectly had a try disallowed from the same position as well.

The meat pies flowed for the front-rowers, but is it something that will continue for much longer?

Defences are still adjusting to the way the game has changed under the new rules. Attacking teams are shrinking the defence through the middle on the way up the field before sending it wide. With the lock position now doubling as an extra ball-player for most teams, the ball is getting wide quicker than ever. That has forced defensive lines across the field equally as quick. Too quick, sometimes.

Hookers, in particular, are making the most of an over-eager sliding defence to dart over the line from dummy half. When a player's first movement is to the side rather than straight forward, the little blokes behind the ruck take notice. 

Cook's try on Saturday night is a prime example with both the marker and A defender shooting off their line at an angle, providing the Bunnies hooker with enough of a gap to score.

Players and coaches will adjust. It takes a few weeks to identify new trends in the game and change the approach to defending accordingly. But hookers and props linking up around the try line is something to keep an eye on in the coming rounds.

A storm in a teacup

The Melbourne Storm looked out of sorts on Thursday night. The typically cool, calm and collected club folded late with visible displays of frustration a talking point post-match.

Cameron Munster and Brandon Smith weren't on the same page - a totally new feeling for Munster who has played most of his career with Cameron Smith at dummy half. The most telling moment came late in the first half when Munster sprayed Brandon Smith twice for not feeding him the ball on the left edge.

After throwing shape at the Eels left edge with Kenny Bromwich drawing Marata Niukore and Dylan Brown into the tackle, Munster is frustrated not to receive the ball with Junior Paulo and Shaun Lane in front of him and Ryan Papenhuyzen beside him. With Bromwich now also in shape on the left edge, Munster doesn't receive the ball after the following tackle either. When Smith finally feeds his five-eighth, the service is poor, and the play breaks down.

Lucky to earn a repeat set, Munster was able to activate his original plan. He threw the same shape at the Parramatta right edge, only this time, Bromwich came in underneath. That allowed Munster to get on the outside of Brown and create an overlap. Only a Clint Gutherson boot stopped Melbourne from levelling the scores.

There was clearly a breakdown in communication between the two players on this occasion. It's something we're not accustomed to seeing out of Melbourne. Visable outbursts have been particularly rare over the last decade. However, this is nothing to worry about for the Storm. It's early days in a new era, and the hooker to lead them into the future isn't even on the field yet.

This is a hiccup Craig Bellamy, Munster and Smith will undoubtedly address during the week and have sorted by Round 3.

Cowboys can't crack it

Scott Drinkwater, Michael Morgan, Valentine Holmes, Esan Marsters, Kyle Feldt, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Reece Robson.

They are all players known for what they provide a team in attack. Still, the North Queensland Cowboys have recorded an NRL-low two linebreaks in the first two rounds.

Regardless of what happened in 2020 and the introduction of a new coach in 2021, two linebreaks in 160 minutes of action is a grave cause for concern. Both came as a result of individual plays with the Cowboys yet to register a line break assist. Even the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, who have scored fewer points than North Queensland, have three linebreak assists to their name.

Perhaps it's a lack of familiarity slowing the Cowboys down? 

The backline changed 32 times throughout 2019 and 2020, Morgan only played eight times in that period, Holmes is still getting back into the swing of regular first-grade football and Drinkwater's encouraging form last season came predominantly at five-eighth. As a result, the Cowboys lead the NRL in errors at 15.5 per game. 

A lack of variation makes it easy to defend North Queensland's shifts too.

With backrowers featuring heavily in attack across the NRL, Mitchell Dunn and Coen Hess have been largely ineffective. They've combined for just 184 running metres in two weeks. They're not holding up the defensive line in front of them, allowing the opposition to slide and cover what is outside Dunn and Hess with ease.

If the Cowboys have a plan in attack, we're not seeing it.

Something needs to change this week against the Gold Coast Titans if they're to begin distancing themselves from the wooden spoon. 

Panthers defence does it again

They played with the best defence in the NRL in 2020 and have played two of the worst attacking teams in the competition to start 2021, but the Penrith Panthers defence is something to keep an eye on.

Penrith became the first team ever to keep their opponents scoreless throughout the first two rounds of the season with a 28-0 shutout of the Bulldogs in Round 2. While the Bulldogs attack offered little and rarely looked like troubling the defensive line, keeping firm for 80 minutes is a testament to their commitment to the Panthers system. The two competition points had all but been added to the ladder after 60 minutes.

Defensive coach Cameron Ciraldo hit the nail on the head after the game: "If we're dominating field position and possession then defence becomes a lot easier."

Penrith occupied possession for 63% of the second half while holding 82% of the territory per Fox Sports Lab. They kept Canterbury pinned in their own end and didn't let up.

The Panthers face a much tougher challenge this week, though.

In a rematch of the 2020 NRL Grand Final, Penrith's defence this week is something to consider when assessing their premiership chances after three rounds. Right now, the Stats Insider Futures Model has them on the second line of the premiers probabilities at 19.4%.

Did you enjoy this article? Join our free mailing list to get the best content delivered straight to your inbox, or join the conversation by leaving a comment below or on the Stats Insider Twitter or Facebook page.

Jason Oliver

As far as Jason is concerned, there is no better time of year than March through June. An overlap of the NBA and NRL seasons offer up daily opportunities to find an edge and fund the ever-increasing number of sports streaming services he subscribes to. If there's an underdog worth taking in either code, he'll be on it.

Related Articles
For The Newcastle Knights, Their Revolution Must Start Now
NRL 2021: Stats Insider's Team Of The Month - April
Toothless Tigers: Where Has It All Gone Wrong For Wests?
NRL 2021: Sharpest and Sloppiest Goal Kickers after Round 7
See All Articles
A new version of Stats Insider is now available! You'll see it when you next reload the page, or you can click here to go to it now!