Something or Nothing: The Power of Cohesion

Rugby League is so often about the biggest and best players, those with X-factor and the cream of the crop that can single-handedly win games. 

They may be the superstars of the game, but they are nothing without the 16 other players around them.

With most of the talk centred around the elite individuals, team cohesion is a somewhat underrated aspect of rugby league. It's rarely mentioned in the analysis of a team as fans and pundits grow accustomed to the INs and OUTs of weekly team lists that are forced to respond to the physical nature of the sport. 

We look at a club like the Knights, note that they have added players in positions of need over the summer, and anticipate an immediate improvement. As we now know given Knights' sub-par start to 2019, those players need time to gel and grow accustomed to their new surroundings.

The Melbourne Storm is the NRL's best example of a cohesive unit and the success it can generate.

Setting The Bar For Cohesion

The Storm's success has spanned over 17 years, and while only one of the Big 3 remains, Cameron Smith, Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater is where the cohesion really began for the Storm.

All great players in their own right, playing together for so long brought the best out of them and created a culture in the club that will live on for years after they're gone.

They started playing together as 17-year olds for Storm's feeder club, Norths Devils. Moving through the grades and combining for 1,035 games for the Storm, the Big 3 acted as the chassis to one of the most dominant periods the game has ever seen.

Few doubt the trio wouldn't have thrived as individuals at separate clubs, but they certainly benefited from playing within the cohesive unit at the Storm they themselves conceived.

Smith mentioned how the trio could play without communication in Billy Slater's recent autobiography:

"When it comes to game time, we don't need to talk that much. We know each other that well. It's all on instinct and knowing what the other guy is about to do. The whole friendship, on and off the field, is based on trust."

As we so often saw, the ability to play without offering any hints to the defence caused havoc for opposition teams.

While different players came in and out of the squad over the years, Smith, Cronk and Slater filled the key playmaking positions and Craig Bellamy remained in the coaches box. Between them, they created a cohesive unit that allowed players to move in and out of the playing 17 with minimal downside.

New players are forced to subscribe to normative behaviours. If they don't adjust and adapt to how they approach their football and fall in line with what is expected at the club, they're sent packing.

It's been the crux of their consistency in defence for years. High cohesion teams defend better with the Storm finishing inside the NRL's top two defences in 12 of the last 14 seasons.

When it comes to filling individual positions, Melbourne has always found willing forwards capable of doing their job. However, the fullback spot provides the best example for the Storm so far in 2019.

Scott Drinkwater was set to start the season at the back before tearing his pec prior to Round 1. Jahrome Hughes stepped in and played brilliantly up until he left the field with a concussion on Saturday night. At 20-years old and in just his fifth first-grade game, Ryan Papenhuyzen slotted straight into the role without a hitch.

The Storm tick all the boxes for cohesion over a long period, but we're also provided with a more recent short-term example this year.

Broncos v Rabbitohs

The well-documented coaching swap has worked a lot better for the Rabbitohs than it has the Broncos at this point, and it can again be put down to cohesion, or lack thereof.

When Seibold arrived in Brisbane, he promptly removed long-serving and key staff members and players.

Already losing a 304-game Sam Thaiday to retirement along with Korbin Sims to the Dragons, Seibold was reportedly consulted before the club let go of Josh McGuire, and more recently, pushed Jordan Kahu and Kodi Nikorima out the door of Red Hill. That's a combined 799 games worth of first-grade experience gone, 723 games of which came wearing Broncos colours. Reports are he isn't desperate for 131-gamer, James Roberts, to hang around for much longer either.

Left with a young, albeit exceptionally talented forward pack, the lack of leadership and experience has been evident throughout the opening two months of the season.

Combine that with the changes in style Seibold has demanded from this side compared to the 2018 version, and the results speak for themselves at this point.

They've won just three of their first nine games to be 11th on the ladder.

While the injuries, suspensions, and turnover in the spine have undoubtedly had an impact, it's on the defensive end where Brisbane's lack of cohesion is most evident. 

Their goal line defence is the worst in the competition conceding 1.09 points for every tackle the opposition team has inside the 20-metre line. Significantly higher than the NRL average of 0.72 points, the Broncos have a worse efficiency than famously bad defensive teams in the Bulldogs (0.97) and Titans (0.91).

Conceding 21.7 points per game through nine rounds in 2019, the Broncos are on pace to record their worst defensive season since they conceded 23.5 points per game in 2009 and 22.9 points per game in 2010. 

Coincidently, 2009 was the first season in 20 years Bennett wasn't the head coach.

The Broncos have fallen grossly short of expectations to start 2019, and are running the risk of missing finals football for just the third time in 28 years.

Bennett and the Bunnies, on the other hand, are thriving.

They're up with the Roosters at the top of the ladder and one of the favourites for the premiership.

Bennett took a different approach upon arriving at Redfern. Much of what was already in place remains. The team is largely intact, and the style of play resembles a healthy combination of the shift-heavy attack the Rabbitohs ran with in 2018 along with Bennett's direct style that has brought with it so much success.

The Rabbitohs are playing a little more direct than they were in 2018 with less of an emphasis on shifting the ball. Walker and Reynolds are still tasked with sending the ball wide, but they're taking the line on more and doing it on the back of an NRL-leading 82.2 one-pass hitups per game.

Like last season, it still starts in the middle for the Rabbitohs. They lead the NRL in running metres with 1,675 metres per game. They're earning the metres and taking better care of the football under Bennett.

The Supercoach has Cody Walker playing the best football of his career, Adam Reynold is back in the fold for Origin, and helped Damian Cook add more to his game to avoid becoming a one-dimensional threat out of dummy half. Bennett has taken the players he was given and is getting the most out of them.

Some of South Sydney's cohesion comes down to luck. They've only needed to use 21 players so far this season - the joint-fewest in the NRL - and had named the same 17 players for five rounds straight before Alex Johnston was ruled out for Round 10.

All the premiership winning teams need a little bit of luck along the way, and right now, Souths are at the very least a contender.

Bennett coaches his 823rd match against the Raiders this week. He's the greatest the game has ever seen and an elite man-manager. The 69-year-old has taken a relatively cohesive unit, sprinkled some 'Greatest of All Time' knowledge onto it, and developed it into a premiership contender.

Meanwhile, Seibold, heading into the coaches box for just the 37th time on Friday night, is learning some harsh lessons early on. Too many changes to what many considered a top-four side has them reeling.

Cohesion is a dynamic process that is reflected in the tendency for a group to stick together and remain united in the pursuit of its goals and objectives. 

When it comes to the Rabbitohs and Broncos coach swap, one has kept the group together and is headed down the right path. The other has pulled bits and pieces from different areas, and right now, they're coming apart at the seams. 

Drop a comment at the bottom of the page to participate in discussion with like-minded-sports-and-data-nerds 👇

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.

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