Left, Right or Centre: Where Will The NRL Teams Focus Their Attacks In 2021?
With only two more footy-free Thursday's left before Round 1 of the 2021 NRL season, it's time to recap the 2020 try location data and look at what's to come for all 16 teams.
For the Storm, Roosters and Rabbitohs, we can expect much of the same as the three best attacking teams from last season. The Eels and Tigers kept pace with them to start the year, but failed to keep it up through to Round 20. They will be looking to develop sustainable attacking model's this time around. Meanwhile, the Broncos can only get better after finishing 16th in points per game to claim the wooden spoon.
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2020 Try locations: Left - 35%, Middle - 19%, Right - 46%
The Brisbane Broncos scored an NRL-low 13.4 points per game last season. With Anthony Seibold's meticulous planning and unwillingness to adjust his game plan to players and form, the Broncos never looked like turning a corner with the ball in their hands.
The fortunes of one player sum up Brisbane's flailing attack best.
Corey Oates had registered double-digit try totals in the five seasons prior. In 2020, he scored just twice, and neither of them came while wearing a wingers jersey number.
There is little chance new coach Kevin Walters over-coaches this group like his predecessor. Walters is old-school, and for better or worse, he'll subscribe to the cliches: play what's in front of you, eyes-up footy etc.
The Broncos are still relatively young and have lost one of their most potent strike weapons in David Fifita. However, with more freedom in attack to play a more natural game, the anticipated improvement in Anthony Milford's form can start to make up for the loss of Fifita ever so slightly.
2020 Try locations: Left - 42%, Middle - 33%, Right - 26%
The Canberra Raiders scored 33% of their tries in the middle of the field. Their 29 tries in the middle were the most in the competition, while no other team scored more than 24% of their total tries in the area.
With the intention of shrinking the defence before trying to get Jack Wighton one-on-one with his defender, dropping big bodies off in the middle became a staple of Canberra's game plan. Every so often, those big bodies crashed over the line.
Wighton's left edge scored 37 tries to account for 42% of Canberra's total. Just 26% of their tries went down the right edge. However, there's a good chance that gap closes in 2021. With George Williamsplaying in his first NRL season and a disrupted preseason in regard to developing combinations with John Bateman and Curtis Scott, we didn't see the Raiders right-edge at its best. They look better-balanced heading into this season.
2020 Try locations: Left - 49%, Middle - 16%, Right - 35%
Only the Broncos averaged fewer points than the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs. Once again, their attack let them down scoring just 14.1 points per game.
We can't read too much into last season when looking ahead to 2021. Kyle Flanagan will command the team down the right side, so the Bulldogs are likely to increase the number of possessions down that edge. Although Corey Allanthrived down South Sydney's left-edge and is likely to drift over to that side in good ball areas.
With Nick Cotric an attacking threat, and Jake Averillo a chance at securing the number six jersey as a running five-eighth, the Bulldog's profile totally differently in 2021.
It may take some time to iron out the creases though. Securing the early release of Matt Burton would change things too. But the Bulldogs should finally start to see improvements in attack after ranking in the bottom-four in attack across each of the last four seasons.
2020 Try locations: Left - 27%, Middle - 24%, Right - 49%
For the third consecutive year, Shaun Johnson's right side scored more tries down that side of the field than any other team in the NRL. While he only managed 16 games, the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks five-eighth piled up a whopping 23 try assists to lead the NRL alongside Jarome Luai (23 games).
That level of dominance is unlikely to follow Johnson for a fourth year, though. He's out with an Achilles injury and isn't expected to return until at least Round 5. When he does, players aren't usually back to peak performance until two years after an Achilles injury.
Matt Moylan is healthy and Wade Graham is surely primed for a bounceback year. Braydon Trindall is an exciting prospect to fill Johnson's boots to start the season too. However, Johnson's recovery will determine whether or not the Sharks can replicate their 23.8 points per game in 2020 (5th in the NRL).
Gold Coast Titans
2020 Try locations: Left - 53%, Middle - 16%, Right - 31%
The Gold Coast Titans looked like a different team after AJ Brimson returned from injury. He adds another dimension to the Titans attack and frees up space for Jamal Fogarty and Ash Taylor - two willing runners of the football.
They targeted the left side for 53% of their 64 tries in 2020. Taylor dominated with his boot and started to return to form, while Fogarty looked like a veteran in his first full season. However, we can expect a few changes to where the Titans attack in 2021.
Fogarty and Taylor have switched sides, while David Fifita is an attacking threat in his own right. Tino Fa'asuamaleaui is no stranger to the try line in the middle of the field either.
It will look a little bit different in 2021, but the Titans attack is sure to improve on their 17.3 points per game last season.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
2020 Try locations: Left - 45%, Middle - 22%, Right - 33%
Like Johnson at the Sharks, the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles attack hinges on one man: Tom Trbojevic.
They've scored 22.6 points per-80 minutes with Trbojevic on the field over the last two seasons. Without him, they've scored just 18.7 points per-80 minutes.
He's an elite fullback that changes the way Manly attacks. As a dangerous ball-runner and handy ball-player, Trbojevic can influence the game in any manner. Even without the ball, the defensive line is always wary of the fullback. Manase Fainuavailable would add some much-needed creativity out of dummy-half as well. However, with Trbojevic's injury history and Fainu's off-field issues, neither can be relied upon across a full season.
Nor can Kieran Foran who returns to the club for 2021. He formed an excellent combination with Raymond Faitala-Mariner at the Bulldogs last season whlle there's no doubt that he can still lay on a try for a teammate. His issue, like Trbojevic, is staying on the field.
With Trbojevic, Foran, Daly Cherry-Evans and Fainu in the spine, the Sea Eagles look like a Top-8 team. Whether or not we see all four on the field often enough in 2021 is a different story.
2020 Try locations: Left - 40%, Middle - 22%, Right - 38%
The Melbourne Storm led the NRL in scoring at 27.2 points per game in 2020. Since then, they have lost the greatest player of all time in Cameron Smith. He touched the ball 116.6 times per game and acted as the deciding factor on almost every Storm attacking set. Remarkably, Melbourne have replaced the best hooker in the game with Harry Grant - now arguably the best hooker in the game.
Grant adds a different element to the Storm attack. He looks to dart from dummy half and isn't quite so subtle close to the goal line. They might struggle to match their 22 tries scored in the middle without Smith's genius in good ball areas.
Melbourne otherwise played both sides of the field relatively evenly, splitting their scoring down the left and right edge into 40% and 38% of their total tries. Despite losing Smith, expect much of the same in 2021. The most likely change is a slight increase in focus towards Cameron Munster's left edge given his form and the leadership he takes on sans Smith.
2020 Try locations: Left - 51%, Middle - 24%, Right - 24%
Kalyn Ponga spent more time on the Newcastle Knights right side than he had done previously to start the 2020 season. But by the end of it, the Knights had returned to their winning formula with 51% of their tries coming down Ponga's favoured left side.
The Knights attack will be asked to do the best it can without Ponga and Blake Green to start the season. Green is the perfect link for Ponga on the left side and they won't be together until at least Round 4 or 5. Meanwhile, Connor Watson'srole in the attack might look different to start the season while waiting for Green and Ponga too.
Newcastle will continue to hit the left edge. Bradman Best is good enough on his own to warrant spending more time on that side of the field. But we won't get a strong indication of the Knights attack overall until roughly halfway through the season.
North Queensland Cowboys
2020 Try locations: Left - 34%, Middle - 21%, Right - 45%
The North Queensland Cowboys struggled for points in 2020. Despite Paul Green being shown the door and the return of Valentine Holmes, many of the same old-school structures remained in place. Veteran playmaker Michael Morganonly managed six matches all season too.
Now, with Morgan fit and a new coaching staff in place, there's reason for optimism in North Queensland's attack. Morgan, Scott Drinkwater and Holmes make up a dangerous trio in key play-making positions, while Reece Robson and Reuben Cotter aren't afraid to take an opportunity out of dummy-half.
The edges still lack variety where the Cowboys are concerned, while three of the four outside back spots are still open ahead of their Round 1 clash against the Panthers.
While new coach Todd Payten has his work cut out for him, but there's enough potential in the Cowboys attack to flirt with a Top-8 spot this season.
2020 Try locations: Left - 45%, Middle - 24%, Right - 31%
The Parramatta Eels played two seasons in attack last year.
Season 1 (Round 1-11): 22 tries down the left edge made up 50% of Parramatta's total tries scored. Dylan Brown, Shaun Lane, Michael Jennings and Maika Sivo tore right-side defences to shreds, while Clint Gutherson also made timely cameos.
Season 2 (Round 12-Finals Week 1): Nine tries made up just 33% of Parramatta's total tries scored. Brown missed time, but the downturn was already in motion when he limped off the field in Round 16.
With defences proving capable of controlling the left edge attack and Jennings no longer part of the quartet, Parramatta will need to change things up if they're to improve on what ended up as the 9th-best attack in the NRL, scoring 20 points per game.
2020 Try locations: Left - 50%, Middle - 19%, Right - 31%
Only the Rabbitohs scored more than the Penrith Panthers' 50 tries on the left side.
Jarome Luai's breakout season translated into 23 try assists and a lethal left-edge attack. While only 31% of Penrith's tries came down Nathan Cleary's right side, he perfected the tempo of his runs to create opportunities on both sides of the field.
With much of the same squad returning for 2021, particularly in attack, there's nothing to suggest the Panthers won't once again be among the best-attacking teams in the NRL (26.3 points per game in 2020 - 4th).
South Sydney Rabbitohs
2020 Try locations: Left - 50%, Middle - 16%, Right - 34%
The South Sydney Rabbitohs scored 52 tries down their left edge in 2020. No team in the NRL scored more tries in any area of the field.
Even as opposing defences had a full week to scheme against an attack that, for the most part, kept doing what worked, the Rabbitohs continued to run in tries down the left edge. If it wasn't Latrell Mitchell's silky hands shifting the ball wide for teammates to score, it was Corey Allan filling in at the fullback position better than anybody anticipated.
But to ensure it didn't become too predictable for the defence, Souths started to send Cody Walker over to the right side.
Souths can score from anywhere on the field, and on any side. They finished 2020 in blistering fashion to score 27 points per game across the season (3rd) and come into 2021 with expectations to improve.
St George-Illawarra Dragons
2020 Try locations: Left - 24%, Middle - 17%, Right - 59%
The St George-Illawarra Dragons loved the right edge in 2020. No team recorded a higher proportion of tries anywhere on the field than the Red V's 59% down the right. Much of that came down to Zac Lomax who thrived after being played in one position for an extended period.
The 21-year-old scored 13 tries in 20 games while also handing out seven try assists. Starting the season at fullback in Round 1 before landing on the wing for Round 2, Lomax looks at home in the centres.
Moving Lomax ended with Matthew Dufty at fullback. Finally living up to the hype, Dufty scored 13 tries and recorded 12 try assists in 18 games. Dufty's long-ball down the left edge did become somewhat predictable by the end of the season, though. The Dragons scored just 15 tries down that side all year.
The Dragons look very right-side heavy again going into 2021. They'll need to add some variety to avoid the wooden spoon many are tipping them to receive.
2020 Try locations: Left - 40%, Middle - 19%, Right - 41%
The Sydney Roosters splits sums up their attack perfectly.
They are always in shape and ready to pounce. Hunting in packs, the Roosters can identify a weakness in the defensive line and target it in one motion. Victor Radley's return will only help the Roosters get the ball wider, too.
Kyle Flanagan is being talked about as a big loss. His struggles after Radley went down suggests he's replaceable with Lachlan Lam being given the first crack. Luke Keary will swap the number six jersey for a seven, but little will change in his attacking style. Short sides will continue to be a target, particularly with Angus Crichton moving to the left edge.
The Roosters scored 27.2 points per game last season to be alongside the Storm at the top of the list. Somehow, they're coming into 2021 with little fanfare.
New Zealand Warriors
2020 Try locations: Left - 41%, Middle - 18%, Right - 41%
The respect given to the New Zealand Warriors for keeping the competition alive last season papered over some of their on-field cracks. Their 17.2 points per game, in particular.
Blake Green's departure signalled a change at the club, and while Chanel Harris-Tavita showed promise, the Warriors lacked a leading ball-player. Kodi Nikorima's best moments came when he got downhill and linked up with Eli Katoa. He's not a half that grabs a team by the scruff of the neck, and it showed in matches the Warriors were beaten in the middle.
A change in how they used Roger Tuivasa-Sheck didn't work either. Confirmed to be playing his final season for the club, expect him to revert back to running the football rather than taking on more playmaking duties than he's accustomed to like last season.
While Sydney's very similar percentage splits highlight their variety and dominance in attack (102 tries), the Warriors splitting 41% left and right with 18% in the middle (62 tries) makes clear their need for improvement. Or, at least, the uncovering of one area of the field they can consistently score points.
The club has added plenty of power to the middle of the field. Whether or not they can turn the assumed go-forward into points out wide remains to be seen.
2020 Try locations: Left - 40%, Middle - 14%, Right - 46%
Like Parramatta, the Wests Tigers started the season scoring points but struggled to keep it up over the second half. West's 24.5 points per game put them among the better-attacking teams in the NRL. However, the eye-test suggested there was too much luck involved to rely on that level of output all season long. Their 19 points per game from Round 11 onwards confirmed as much.
Wests have the individual talent to score points, however it's putting all of the pieces together to produce repeatable actions that proves a challenge. A turnover in spine players didn't help in 2020, and will remain an issue to start in 2021. There are questions over how well the pack can work its way up the field too.
If Luke Brooks can recapture his form and take control of the team, the Tigers can improve over the long-term this season. If not, they're in for another up and down year.
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