In the danger zone
Penrith, St George Illawarra and the Gold Coast are the trendsetters when it comes to scoring exciting long-range tries – a big turnaround from their 2008 seasons and a major contributing factor to their success in 2009.
With the likes of Michael Jennings, Brett Morris and William Zillman tearing up the turf from inside their own halves, the three teams are proving much more dangerous in attack and have their opposing sides on notice from anywhere on the park.
All three teams have notched six tries from inside their own half so far in 2009; considering the Titans scored only three long-range tries throughout 2008, the Dragons six and the Panthers 12, each club looks set to finish well ahead of their previous campaign.
“We don’t actually promote looking for long-range tries and it’s a surprising stat as in years gone by we haven’t been known for scoring long-range tries, we’ve been more of a close-range team,” Titans coach John Cartwright tells NRL.com.
“But I suppose it helps having some pace added to the squad with players like William Zillman, Kevin Gordon, Esi Tonga and Chris Walker. It’s about finding space. We are probably doing things similar to the past but we have some instinctive players and we have pace and those sorts of attributes add up to more long-range tries.”
In order to score tries from distance teams need to be prepared to throw the ball around, which can add to the risk of errors. Errors are bad at the best of times – but made in a team’s own territory they can be fatal.
At the foot of the Blue Mountains, Panthers coach Matt Elliott is working on the balance of risk-and-reward.
“We consciously set out this year to play some constructive footy and be happy to play with the footy so that does create some opportunities. But it also creates increased risk of error, so we are trying to get the balance right,” Elliott says.
“In some games it’s come off for us, while in others it hasn’t. It’s something that we believe we can manage. There are obviously things we know we need to be better at and we understand we might need to go through a little bit of pain to get the risk management spot-on but we all agree it’s pain worth going through.
“With speed in your side it is something you can take advantage of.”
Cartwright believes the risk is limited, as opposition defences aren’t always on their guard when defending outside their own half and a nice early spread can find some great yards on offer.
“Sometimes sides aren’t quite as on-their-bike defending around the 20- to 30-metre line as they are on their try line… they are a little more relaxed and there isn’t as much cover defence coming across,” the Titans mentor explains.
“You can’t really plan to score long-range tries but you can go after easy yards. Sometimes you can be whacking away up the middle but sides compress hard on you so it’s not so risky to put it through some hands and get it to space and get the defence sliding.
“Then if the try is on offer, we like to grab it.”
In 2008 the Canberra Raiders, coached by Neil Henry, were by far the most prolific long-range try scorers with 28 for the season. Now Henry has moved on to the North Queensland Cowboys but he hasn’t taken the long-range philosophy with him, despite having the likes of Matt Bowen and Johnathan Thurston in his side.
The Cowboys are yet to score any tries from their side of halfway – and have in fact conceded more than any other side with eight posted against them.
“I’m not too worried or concerned about it but I know we have been burnt a few times by long-range tries on the back of decision-making or execution or oppositions taking opportunities to go long-range against us, like Brett Morris did the other day,” Henry admits.
“We hold a pass and we probably score – but instead Morris goes the length to the other end. You can’t do much about that other than execute a bit better.
“We have done that a couple of times this year, which has been disappointing. It’s a great momentum-changer when you go from looking like you’re going to score to standing behind your own goalposts, down a try.
“Those particular tries are very hard to defend against because you are running one way and when the opposition takes off they’re always going to have the jump on you.
“Matty Bowen is also invariably running the ball in the line or as a support runner so he’s not thinking about cover defence, he’s thinking about being involved in a try. It then becomes a foot race but if you give someone 15 metres head start it becomes very hard to pick them up.”
Henry also concedes other sides might see his side as one to target from long range.
“A couple of sides probably try to get tries from inside their own half but a lot of sides including us don’t move the ball too much from our own half,” he says.
“We have a bit of movement in us but we rely more on the backs to start our sets and the forwards to roll forward on the back of that.
“If you are relying on tries from over halfway, you are drawing a long bow anyway.”