Manly have played some brilliant football in recent weeks to confirm their pedigree in the 2011 competition, with their defence against kicks a critical factor in their surge up the ladder.
While there has been plenty of talk surrounding the Dragons’ defence this season, and rightfully so, the Sea Eagles have positioned themselves in third place on the ladder with some impressive defending of their own.
Attacking kicks are such an integral part of modern rugby league; while some teams really struggle with the isolation of cross-field bombs or the pace of a chaser on a clever grubber, the Manly boys have been outstanding.
For starters they have conceded just two tries to kicks all year, a phenomenal effort. “Manly’s defence this year is developing to a point where it is on par with the Dragons,” Immortal Bob Fulton says. “Not statistically just yet, but they are improving in recent weeks and it has certainly helped them.”
Consider that the Sharks have already leaked 17 tries from the boot and you can see the difference this can make to a side’s fortunes.
But defensive woes from kicks are not just restricted to under-performing teams.
The Dragons and Cowboys have struggled to contain attacking kicks, leaking 12 and 10 tries respectively. In the Dragons’ case this has largely come about due to oppositions having little option but to revert to the lottery of the kick, such is their defensive might.
But as Manly continue to improve defensively on the ground, the fact they also are rock solid against kicks could prove a massive advantage.
It’s one thing to observe the figures in terms of tries – but let’s go deeper into the fabric of defence to attacking kicks. Which teams successfully defuse what types of kicks? Is there a particular type of kick your side just can’t seem to handle? (Definition: a kick is successfully defused when it is taken without surrendering possession to the opposite team. It is unsuccessful when an error or a try occurs.)
Not surprisingly the Sea Eagles lead the way when it comes to overall kick defusal. They are successfully negotiating 81 per cent of all kicks booted their way. The Bulldogs are the second-best side in this category, boasting 78 per cent, while the Warriors and Raiders sit equal third on 76 per cent.
At the other end of the scale the Sharks are successfully taking in just 57 per cent of kicks – in other words, if you kick to Cronulla you nearly have a 50:50 chance of getting a positive result! The Titans (61 per cent) and Wests Tigers (62 per cent) are the other strugglers.
Now let’s look at some very common types of kicks…
The Bulldogs have been the best in the NRL so far, with a 100 per cent record at taking care of the old-fashioned chip over the top – but it must be stated they have only had to contend with three all season, the least by any side. Brisbane’s 90 per cent from 10 is probably a more impressive effort.
This is one of the real problem areas for the Sharks, who have successfully shut down just 56 per cent of chips. Opposition teams have smelt the blood in the water and produced 18 chip kicks, with eight of them ending poorly for the Sharks.
The positioning of your fullback and scramble of your edge defenders goes a long way to successfully taking care of grubbers. It is extremely difficult to turn and chase quicker than an advancing chaser, making grubber kicks a very effective shock weapon. They have been the most-used attacking kick in 2011 so far.
The Warriors have been magnificent dealing with grubbers, with a 90 per cent defusal rate. Only three of 31 kicks have troubled them. The Bulldogs get another mention here with their 89 per cent success.
Once again the Sharks take out the gong at the other end of the scale with just a 68 per cent success rate. Nine of 28 grubbers have not ended well for the Sharks.
Considering the Storm have one of the best fullbacks in the world in Billy Slater it is a little surprising to see Melbourne also struggle here, registering just 69 per cent success. Those coaches looking for a weakness in the Storm’s game may just have found it!
The old-fashioned up-and-under in the attacking zone is still used constantly these days but to varying success. The Broncos are handling them best with an 84 per cent success rate, closely followed by Manly (83 per cent), Newcastle (82 per cent) and the Roosters (82 per cent).
The worst under the high ball so far in 2011 are the Wests Tigers, who get a result on just 61 per cent of occasions. No surprise that the Sharks are next worst at 63 per cent.
The cross-field bomb is easily the hardest of all kicks to contend with because of the isolation factor. Generally defending players (usually wingers) are left on their own or with very little help and they are stationary or back-pedalling, while chasers have forward momentum and are liable to make a better leap.
The Gold Coast Titans have really struggled here, with just a 31per cent success rate. They have fielded just five of 16 kicks cleanly thus far. Other massive strugglers are the Cowboys (35 per cent), Wests Tigers (35 per cent), Roosters (35 per cent), Sharks (36 per cent) and Rabbitohs (38 per cent).
Manly really shine in this category. While only four teams in the NRL are above 60 per cent success the Sea Eagles have taken it up a notch to record 74 per cent. They have managed to defuse 20 of the 27 cross-field kicks sent their way.
These kicks are certainly not common but it is worth noting the Sharks (33 per cent) and Panthers (38 per cent) have a real weakness to them, which are usually hoisted by teams as a last-ditch option more than anything.
Footnote: Not long ago you may have read about the bookie who was paying out on the Dragons to win the minor premiership with half the season not even in the books – but if the Sea Eagles can maintain their abilities across the park, including defusing kicks, they may just make that bookie consider his actions more than a little rash.