What The Other 14 Clubs Can Learn From The 2021 NRL Grand Finalists
The Penrith Panthers and South Sydney Rabbitohs outlasted 14 other clubs to reach the 2021 Grand Final. While the Panthers ended up on top, the 14-12 final score gives a good indication of how close these two were on the night and how one pass here or a bounce of the ball there could have made all the difference.
As players and staff of every other club sat watching on, they were provided with examples of where they might need to improve in 2022. Here's one lesson the grand finalists can impact on the rest of the competition.
Holding onto the ball
The Brisbane Broncos started to play some good football towards the end of the season.
It helped that Kevin Walters tripped his way into selecting his best pack built around speed and mobility, but most notably, the Broncos started to embrace the grind. In the matches they valued possession and didn't give the ball away cheaply, they looked like a side that could challenge for the Top 8.
Penrith's season can be defined by their patience with the ball. They suffocated the opposition of possession and used the new rules to their advantage. Few teams could keep up with them when the pack was rolling forward before Nathan Cleary rolled one into the in-goal. Brisbane, on the other hand, averaged just 47.5% possession for the season - only the Bulldogs played with the ball less.
Assuming Walters learns from 2021 and picks his best pack for 2022, his next task is to teach his side to value the football. They have the backline to produce points if they see enough possession.
Changing it up
The Canberra Raiders went to what had worked in 2020 early on this season. They crashed their way up the field through 78.7 one-pass hitups (4th) and into the opposition 20-metre line, fired a couple of shots close to the ruck, and hit Jack Wighton on the left edge. The only problem is that the defence knew what was coming. Wighton's outlier season in which he finished up wearing the Dally M Medal caught opposition defences out last year, but not this time.
When Wighton couldn't force his way over the line or impact the defence enough to create space out wide, the Raiders struggled for answers.
The Raiders right edge has accounted for only 48 tries across the last two seasons. The Panthers and Rabbitohs - two left-heavy attacks - managed 44 and 42 tries in 2021 alone. Exploring both sides of the field and troubling the defence down the right side will help Wighton play himself back into form next season.
Piling up points
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs scored just 14.2 points per game this season.
Referring to it as an "attack" is disrespectful to the game and the teams that piled up points at a record rate in 2021. So, let's talk about the Bulldogs' "time with the ball" instead.
They finished last in points, linebreaks, running metres and tackle breaks and 15th in offloads. Few teams have ever looked quite as unthreatening as the Bulldogs attack in good ball and no amount of dropoffs from the edge back into the middle of the field could save them.
While defence is the winning formula for producing premierships, it's no coincidence that the Panthers and Rabbitohs both finished inside the top four in points scored per game.
Trent Barrett has some of the game's best-attacking players arriving at the club next season. Cohesion will be an issue early, but provided the systems are in place and evident, he will be given time to iron out the kinks.
Cohesion in the halves
The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks have landed on an excellent fullback in Will Kennedy. He is a player who they can build a good ball attack around if the work is done inside him. Blayke Brailey has locked down the #9 jersey for as long as he wants it too. It's in the halves that the Sharks struggled in 2021 and it's an area they need to settle on early in 2022.
What the Panthers have done in regards to cohesion isn't possible for every club. However, it highlights how important it is to have key players consistently named beside each other. The Sharks halves changed eight times throughout the year. Injuries played a part while they also let Chad Townsend end his time at the club early. Still, the eight changes and five after Townsend's last game in Round 11 alone are a prime example of where the Sharks stumbled with the ball.
Cronulla scored 21.7 points per game in 2021 but looked closer to a 25-26 points per game side at their best. The glimpses of promise in attack kept the Top 8 dream alive until Round 25.
Nicho Hynes arrives at the club next season. He is a lock for five-eighth given his price tag and the form he displayed for the Melbourne Storm throughout the year. Craig Fitzgibbon needs to settle on a partner for Hynes early, though. They can't afford to waste another season searching for the right combination in key playmaking positions.
Gold Coast Titans
One man can't do it all
David Fifita is one of the most destructive players in the NRL. He's a cheat code and a player that can break try-scoring records for forwards if he keeps trending the way he is at the moment. However, Fifita scoring 17 tries a season is unlikely to translate into premiership contention for the Titans. Defences will adjust and if Fifita is the only consistent source of points, the opposition know who to target every week.
The Panthers went through this with Viliame Kikau in 2019. Their reliance on him made for a predictable attack averaging just 17.2 points per game. But they have made adjustments over the last two seasons and expanded his game. Kikau is no longer a battering ram being lined up on smaller men. He acts as a support player, wraps around a lead runner in shape before tipping the ball onto Brian To'o, he finds the ball more often in yardage and is a willing decoy in good ball.
The Titans know what they have in Fifita and he is a bonafide matchwinner. One matchwinner will only get you so far, though.
"Using Fifita as a decoy can open up opportunities for others outside him. The Titans are experimenting more and more with Fifita as a decoy and the signs are there for it all to come together sooner rather than later. This shift doesn't amount to anything, but it won't be long before AJ Brimson is beating edge defenders to score." - Tactical Change: How have the Titans Revived Their Season?
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
To be the best you've got to beat the best
The Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles exceeded every expectation set for them this season. Talked about as a possible Top 8 team before Round 1, they were among the genuine wooden spoon contenders after Round 4. They've not played out a worse opening month in attack and defence in the clubs history.
However, 20 rounds and three finals matches later, they are among the premiership contenders for 2022.
The release of the NRL draw is typically overblown but the Sea Eagles will surely be circling the Storm, Panthers, Rabbitohs and Roosters. Of the eight games Manly played against the four top tier teams, they won only one. That win came against a banged-up Roosters outfit that will look a lot different when the two sides meet next.
Manly have quickly become one of the best teams in the competition, but they will need to start beating those around them on the ladder if they're to take the next step.
Time your run
The Melbourne Storm couldn't have done much more in 2021.
They were the best team throughout the regular season and premiership favourites heading into the Preliminary Final. However, they saved their worst for last as an uncharacteristic performance led to a surprise 10-6 loss to the Panthers.
While the Storm won 19 on the bounce and cruised through most of the season, the Panthers' path wasn't quite as smooth. State of Origin impacted form and results while an injury to Nathan Cleary stalled Penrith's progress between Rounds 16 and 21. In the end, the Panthers saved a few tricks for the Preliminary Final and timed their run to October 3rd.
If any team is going to turn things around and learn from their mistakes for next season, it's the Storm.
Why change a winning formula?
The Newcastle Knights scored 51% of their tries down the left edge this season. Following Kalyn Ponga's return in Round 16, the Knights scored a whopping 62.5% of their tries down that side of the field. Still, it felt like they went searching for points down the right side too often throughout the year. It looked forced and took Ponga away from his tried and tested left edge.
The Rabbitohs, on the other hand, scored 55% of their tries down the left edge. Despite every team knowing South Sydney's greatest strength and spending all week training for it, few could stop them from scoring.
Perhaps the plan to spend more time attacking was by design? Adam O'Brien may have been looking to the future by instructing his side to explore with the ball across the field. After all, with their season on the line in Week 1 of the Finals, the Knights went back to what worked and scored three of their four tries down the left channel.
North Queensland Cowboys
It's the first word North Queensland Cowboys players need to hear when they turn up to preseason training in November.
Diabolical without the ball, North Queensland conceded an outrageous 31.2 points per game in 2021. Almost 20 points more per game than the eventual premiers.
Todd Payten struggled to land on a first-choice 17 this season. He tried different combinations across the field but hadn't found the winning formula by Round 25. Regardless of who is named and where for Round 1 in 2022, the Cowboys must display significant improvements in defence early. For all of the exciting players they have in attack, history suggests that they won't get anywhere near premiership contention without a top tier defence.
Find what works and stick to it
Both the Panthers and Rabbitohs had clear approaches to their game.
The Panthers looked to strangle their opposition and suffocate them of the ball until the points came. Their NRL-best defence ensured they wouldn't concede too many points while being patient in attack themselves.
The Rabbitohs put their foot down from the start to charge through the middle and earn opportunities to attack from inside the opposition 20-metre line where few could hold them out.
While the Parramatta Eels spent a lot of time towards the top of the NRL ladder and played some good football throughout the year, they moved away from what worked too often. The 'good' Eels compressed the middle through 1,752 running metres per game (3rd) and broke down the defence on the edges through the ball-playing of Mitchell Moses, Clint Gutherson and Reed Mahoney. Meanwhile, the 'bad' Eels looked for the easy way around the opposition. They didn't put in the work through the middle and no amount of ballplaying from Parramatta's creative players can pile up points on a defence that can slide from side to side with relative ease.
Parramatta knows what works and proved as much against the Storm in Round 23 and Panthers in Week 2 of the Finals. They need to stick to that plan more often in 2022 if they want to keep up with the contenders.
St. George-Illawarra Dragons
Force the opposition to make some tackles
The St. George-Illawarra Dragons averaged 365.5 tackles per game throughout the 2021 season - the most in the NRL. With the way the game is being played at the moment and the difficulty in which teams are struggling to wrestle back control of a match once they lose it, spending so much time on the back foot in defence makes it difficult to hang in games.
Ben Hunt's injury didn't help matters, but the Dragons didn't spend enough time inside the opposition 20-metre line this season. Where the Panthers finished first in tackles inside the opposition with 31.5 per game, the Dragons managed just 24 per game (15th). Their inability to force repeat sets allowed the opposition off the hook more often than not which translated into an attack scoring just 19.8 points per game (11th).
The Dragons overachieved in 2021. However, if they're to build on this season and flirt with the Top 8 again in 2022, they need to find ways to build pressure with the ball and spend less time in defence.
Getting the balance right
The Sydney Roosters have finished four of the last six seasons averaging the most errors per game. They throw the ball around and understand that the reward of a dodgy pass here or there often outweighs the risk. Once again, the Roosters topped the error count with 11.7 per game.
Throwing the ball around has worked for the Roosters in the past. They topped the count when winning the premiership in 2018 and committed the fourth-most errors per game when backing up that premiership a year later. However, the game has changed a lot over the last two seasons. Possession is more valuable than ever and 11.7 errors per game saw the Roosters hand over the ball cheaply too often. They finished 16th in completion rate (75.3%) and 10th in possession (49.4%).
Not every team can play the possession game like the Panthers can. Particularly a side that seemed to lose a key player to a long-term injury every week. But the Roosters will need to find a better balance in 2022 should these current rules remain in place.
New Zealand Warriors
Grow from within
Rugby league's obsession with "local juniors" doesn't make it across the Tasman to quite the same extent that it circulates Australia, but it should.
The Warriors 'should' have one of the best junior nurseries in rugby league and they should be trotting out the "he's a local junior" narrative for every other club debut.
Gus Gould was brought in to help develop junior pathways in the same way he did at Penrith but received a better offer and signed on to help Canterbury in their front office. Still, the Warriors should remain focused on emulating Penrith's junior pathways and developing a system to promote junior development.
The Warriors don't feel it is their responsibility to grow rugby league in New Zealand (classic rugby league) but they stand to benefit the most if the game grows to be as strong as it could be. NZRL, Auckland Rugby League and the Warriors need to look at Penrith's success and step back from the urinal. The pissing competition has gone on for too long. Coming together to develop young talent and feeding it into a Warriors system will benefit everybody.
Do something in defence
And the streak continues...
No, not Wests Tigers NRL-long finals-free drought that now extends a decade, but the streak of premiership winners and their overall rank in defence.
The Panthers played with the second-best defence in NRL history this year and lifted the Provan-Summons Trophy on the back of it. That is now 14 of the last 15 premiers that have finished the season inside the top three in defence.
Lazy beyond belief in defence throughout the 2021 NRL season, the Tigers conceded 29.8 points per game to end the year with the second-worst defence in the competition.
"This playing group wasn't interested.
To be first in supports and first in decoys suggests this group is active around the ball. They're pushing up with teammates and running lines on the edges. Those are effort areas in which the Storm, Panthers and Roosters all feature beside the Tigers towards the top list of per-game averages." - How Michael Maguire Can Fix The Troubled Tigers
They have made some promising signings for 2022. Tyrone Peachey is also rumoured to be signing on and provides them with one of the better bench utilities in the game. However, these promising new signings won't make a difference to the results if the team doesn't improve on the defensive side of the ball overall.
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