The Antidote: How these Three NRL Teams Can Revive their Season
The NRL world is rife with debate over how the new rules are impacting on-field performance.
While some attribute every bad game down to the changes, those that implemented them refuse to acknowledge their influence. It's a merry-go-round of opinions that's unlikely to come to a halt any time soon.
So, rather than picking apart the state of the game and going in circles, let's take a look at where it's all going wrong for the strugglers, and how they can get their season on track.
The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles, Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and North Queensland Cowboys are historically bad at the moment. They make up the first trio of teams to ever have -100 in the points differential column after only four rounds.
The Sea Eagles concede a whopping 39 points per game for the competition's worst defence. Trent Barrett hasn't taken his attacking talents from the coaches box in Penrith to Belmore, with the Bulldogs failing to score a point over the last three weeks to average just four points per game so far this season. Meanwhile, the Cowboys score just five points more than the Bulldogs (9) and concede only four-fewer points than the Sea Eagles (35.35) per game.
These teams are diabolical and bordering on unwatchable.
So, other than the obvious elements of the rule changes contributing to the growing gap between good and bad, where is it all going wrong for the these three strugglers?
One thing stands out for all teams straight away: Yardage.
Last year, we looked at the importance of running metres and how often the yardage game translates into success for the Stats that Matter series.
Right now, the Cowboys, Sea Eagles and Bulldogs are 14th, 15th and 16th in running metres per game.
The Bulldogs are the furthest behind the pack averaging just 1,398 metres per game.
As much as the talking heads might like to say there is "less structure" and all of the buzzwords they themselves applied a negative connotation towards in recent years, teams running set plays and playing in shape still dominate the game.
The Bulldogs are not one of those teams.
They're 15th in supports, 10th in decoy runs and a long way last in points per game. Barrett's men don't throw anything at the defensive line anywhere on the field. Middle forwards are sent out on their own in exit sets and make an easy single target for the defence. In good ball attack, the defensive line knows three settling hit-ups before a shift on fourth tackle is coming. The shift is often basic with little in the way of decoy runners. As a result, the defence simply slides across the field, and unless a Bulldogs player beats his man with an individual effort, the shift is shut down with ease.
Kyle Flanagan needs to be the one that triggers a change in how the Bulldogs work with the ball. Send another forward up with the ball carrier and throw some doubt into the defensive line for a start. Next, engage the line himself to create some instability. Flanagan has engaged the line only eight times this season. For some perspective, Cowboys prop Jordan McLean has also engaged the line eight times in 2021...
The Bulldogs will be in the wooden spoon conversation all season long, but it doesn't need to be this bad. If Flanagan can have the pack working together before putting his body on the line to create in attack himself, they will start to see some improvement and at least challenge teams with the ball in hand.
It's all pretty simple for the Sea Eagles: Start making some tackles.
Many would assume that a side conceding 39 points per game need to "stop missing tackles". While that is true in this case - only the Cowboys miss more - the Sea Eagles need to start making tackles.
|Points Conceded||Tackles||Missed Tackles||Ineffective Tackles||Tackle Efficiency|
|39||336.3 (12th)||35 (2nd)||14 (12th)||87.2% (5th)|
Missed tackle numbers can be misleading. Halves might technically miss a tackle, but that one missed tackle doesn't tell us whether or not a hulking back-rower has been isolated onto them with the halves job being to do no more that get in the way to slow the ball carrier down until help arrives. Similarly, defenders need to be in a position to even miss a tackle.
Manly spends a lot of time under the sticks - you don't attempt tackles there. Still, their 336 tackles made per game suggests they're not always in position to make them. We don't have numbers publically available, but the eye test tells me that their kick-pressure is poor, positioning around the ruck is loose, and opposing teams are consistently creating a numbers advantage on the edges.
Kick-pressure is all about effort; positioning around the ruck and issues numbering up can be helped with an elite fullback barking orders. Dylan Walker isn't that fullback.
Most of the chat around Tom Trbojevic returning centres around what he offers in attack. However, his organisation at the back might be what gets Manly back on track.
The Cowboys managed to crack a handful of preseason NRL Top 8 predictions before Round 1. It wasn't too difficult to imagine this group stringing a few wins together, and if everything broke the right way, sneaking into finals footy. However, the reality is a lot different.
Terrible on both sides of the ball, the experienced Cowboys pack isn't doing the job through the middle, translating into the second-worst defence in the NRL. Their high-profile attacking names don't have a chance when starting on the back foot.
Like the Bulldogs, the Cowboys are among the worst in decoy's (16th) and supports 42.8 (16th). They compare well to the Sea Eagles defensively as well to miss the most tackles and play with the second-worst tackle efficiency in the competition. But their biggest issues are coming in the error count.
North Queensland hand the ball over 14 times per game (2nd-most in the NRL). As a result, they're averaging just 44.5% possession each week. No team has finished a season averaging less than 46% possession since the Raiders in 2015.
We've mentioned the Cowboys turnover in the backline and the cohesion issues that come with it. They've introduced Todd Payten into the coaches box to re-focus their attack this season too. Both of those wrinkles require on-field reps to iron out, but the Cowboys aren't giving themselves a chance with how often they're handing over possession.
Even with a 0-4 start, few would argue against this roster being too talented to be part of the wooden spoon race. If they can hold onto the ball and build some pressure, the points will finally come while making things a lot easier in defence too.
It's difficult to imagine any of these three teams putting things together well enough to make a run at the Top 8. Although, the Stats Insider model has awarded Manly with the easiest remaining schedule in the NRL, with the Cowboys only two spots lower on the list. If Trbojevic can influence the Sea Eagles defence and the likes of Scott Drinkwater, Valentine Holmes, and Jason Taumalolo are able to string some sets together before the Cowboys spill the ball, maybe, just maybe, one of these two teams can complete an unexpected rise up the ladder.
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