Stats Insider, NRL.com
What do you think you’re doing Stats Insider? There’s no way you could get any meaningful statistical trend out of just two rounds of football - you’ve got rocks in your head!
Maybe, maybe not - with the NRL introducing a number of rule changes aimed at reducing the influence of wrestling in the ruck, increasing player safety and keeping the ball in play for longer most observers agree we’re seeing a free-flowing, faster style of rugby league.
And some sides are adapting better than others.
Under the new rules that penalise the third and fourth defenders in a tackle if they attack the legs of a ball carrier, we are going to see more one- and two-man tackles being made, meaning players’ tackle techniques are under stricter examination.
We’re going to see less of a defender holding up a big galloping front-rower, waiting for the cavalry to arrive and wrestle him to the ground, and more of the textbook-style defence that made the likes of Johnny Raper and Trevor Gillmeister such valuable assets in previous eras.
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Souths a step ahead of the game
The Rabbitohs have made an impressive 72 one-on-one tackles in their two matches this year, well ahead of the next best Newcastle with 58, and they boast four of the top five one-on-one tacklers in the competition.
Forwards Sam Burgess and Issac Luke have brought opposition runners down 10 times each on their own, while Bryson Goodwin who topped the NRL last year with 59 one-on-one hits has already recorded eight for 2014.
It’s no coincidence that despite playing the two best attacking sides of last season in the Roosters and Manly, Souths have come out of the first two rounds with the best defence in the NRL, conceding just three tries and 22 points against the 2013 grand finalists in 160 minutes of football.
With referees policing ruck infringements heavily across the first fortnight of the competition, Souths are providing the blueprint on how to defend under the new laws, putting fewer bodies in the tackle and backing their one-on-one technique and line speed to keep their opposition honest out of dummy-half.
The Rabbitohs have conceded the second least amount of metres to dummy-half scoots (220m) in the first two rounds, and also rank fifth in the NRL for ineffective tackles (25) and sixth for missed tackles (50) as the Bunnies muscle up in defence and adjust as the game leans towards favouring attacking sides.
And on the other side of the coin…
Dragons' attack has been unleashed
While they’ve come up against two of the more suspect defences in the NRL (the Warriors conceded four tries a game last year and the Tigers five) you can only play what’s in front of you - and the Dragons have already racked up a competition- best 75 points and 12 tries in their two matches this season.
That's a heck of an improvement on 2013’s abysmal average of 15.8 points and under three tries per game!
The Dragons are playing the game at a quicker tempo, making the most dummy-half runs in the competition (with 58 for 437 metres), a total second only to the Panthers (474 metres from 52 runs).
Representative wingers Brett Morris and Jason Nightingale are doing more than their fare share of the work here, with 15 and 11 dummy-half runs respectively ranking them in the top 15 dummy-half runners in the competition.
The pair average over eight metres with each scoot out of dummy-half as they consistently bring their side out of trouble and put the defence on the back foot at the start of each set.
The Dragons are also breaking more tackles this year, with 61 tackle busts (30.5 a game) a handy increase on last year’s 22.5 busts per game, which ranked them second worst in the comp. Again, it’s Morris and Nightingale leading from the back, with 12 tackle breaks each placing them equal fourth in the NRL, while up front underrated prop Tyson Frizzell and English import Mike Cooper have also contributed five busts each.
Compare this with the Warriors, who were the only side worse than the Dragons in 2013 with 22.3 busts per game, and it’s clear why the two teams sit at opposite ends of the table.
Whereas the Dragons have lifted to average eight more tackle busts a game than last year, the Warriors are averaging just 20.5 tackle breaks heading into Round 3 to sit 11th in the league in this category.
For a side renowned as one of the most powerful in the competition, as well as featuring the elusive Shaun Johnson and Sam Tomkins, to fall down so badly in this key statistic suggests coach Matt Elliott is right to question his team’s commitment and desire.
Elliott has called up human wrecking ball Konrad Hurrell and welcomes back big Manu Vatuvei this week, so the Warriors should at least pose more of a threat with the ball in hand, but if the Kiwis don’t start to consistently break the line it’s going to be another tough year across the ditch.