Keen followers of St George Illawarra’s impressive start to the season may have noticed a few changes to the side’s attacking focus in 2011.
Once renowned for their favourite left-side play in which fullback Darius Boyd wraps around a decoy runner before firing a pass out to either Matt Cooper or Brett Morris, the Dragons have mixed it up this season on their way to four wins from their opening five games.
And a simple look at their decoy running tells the story.
Last season the NRL premiers ranked second for total decoy runs – behind only Canberra – with 677 for the year, but find themselves way down in 12th spot so far this year with just 70 from their five games.
More telling is that back-rower Ben Creagh was by far the most prolific decoy runner in the competition in 2010 with 134 (well clear of second-placed Shaun Fensom’s 105) – but he isn’t even in the top 15 this season. No Dragon is.
The reasons for this are two-fold.
The first comes down to simple opportunity – decoy running is a ploy most used in the attacking zone and St George Illawarra haven’t dominated field position this year like they did so often in 2010.
But it is also a sign that the Dragons are mixing things up in 2011, with right-side trio Beau Scott, Mark Gasnier and Jason Nightingale seeing a lot more of the football.
“I think the past couple of seasons we’ve had a lot of attack on our left edge where I’ve been running leads for Darius a fair bit,” Creagh told NRL.com ahead of Monday’s clash with South Sydney.
“But over the last five rounds we’ve definitely mixed our attack up – not just running that same play but doing a lot of different things as well. We’ve also been attacking more on our right side with ‘Gaz’ and Beau Scott going great. Jason Nightingale has been scoring a lot of tries… we’ve definitely been trying to attack both sides and mix up our attack rather than just using the same play all the time.
“Having said that, we haven’t put that play away or anything like that. It’s still going to be used and it’s still a play that will work at times.
“It’s just that we’re definitely trying to attack both sides and mix up what plays we do on both sides of the field. Sometimes that lead-extra play isn’t the play that’s going to work. I think it’s good to have that variety in our attack.”
Creagh also promised that decoy running remained an important part of the Dragons’ attack this season, with coach Wayne Bennett having employed a strict structure to the squad during his three-year tenure.
Notably, decoy running in general has increased by a whopping 30 per cent across the NRL over the past five years (up to 7178 last season as opposed to 4796 in 2006).
Although decoy runs themselves aren’t necessarily a primary focus of any club, Creagh said the Dragons spend weeks each pre-season learning what lines to run – and when.
“It’s something we spend a lot of time on at training because there are a lot of different plays and a lot of different lines a player can run off the halfback or off the fullback out the back,” he said.
“We do plenty of practice for different plays in different areas of the field. We’ve been practising since November, basically, and this team has been practising for a few years now with similar plays, and a few new ones we chuck in there.
“I mean, I wouldn’t say decoy running is a massive part that gets spoken about a lot. It’s just part and parcel of a wide-running back-rower’s job.
“You have to make sure that you time it well, that you’re not offside and that you run the line properly to try and hold the defender in.”
Creagh also suggested that the Dragons’ decoy stats would likely rise as the 2011 season progressed, “because it can also come down to the amount of attacking sets going to the try line, which we haven’t had that many of this year.
“Just looking back over the first five rounds, except for last weekend, we haven’t had a lot of ‘good-ball’ sets. We’ve had a lot of sets coming out of the back of the field and kicking long trying to kick-chase, rather than attacking sets off taps.
“There might be a little bit of that because leading is very important in ‘good-ball’ attack. But I wouldn’t say there has been a big shift away from leading (decoys) because it’s a good play in certain situations – it’s good to try and hold up the defender.”
2011 Decoy Runs
S Fensom (Canberra) 36
D Johnson (Nth Qld) 28
G Cooper (Nth Qld) 25
N Plum (Penrith) 25
N Hindmarsh (Parramatta) 23
G Hall (Cowboys) 21
S Thaiday (Brisbane) 20
A Tolman (Bulldogs) 20
A Watmough (Manly) 19
S Dwyer (Wests Tigers) 19
J Galuvao (Manly) 19
T Payten (Wests Tigers) 19
A Fifita (Wests Tigers) 18
K Galloway (Wests Tigers) 18
A Ryan (Bulldogs) 17
2010 Decoy Runs
B Creagh (St George Illawarra) 134
S Fensom (Canberra) 105
D Stagg (Bulldogs) 92
A Harrison (Gold Coast) 87
L Bailey (Gold Coast) 78
S Bolton (Nth Qld) 78
T Payten (Wests Tigers) 77
A Ryan (Bulldogs) 77
J Picker (Canberra) 76
B Hannant (Bulldogs) 74
T Thurling (Canberra) 74
G Ellis (Wests Tigers) 73
A Tolman (Melbourne) 71
L Fulton (Wests Tigers) 69
A Watmough (Manly) 68
D Tilse (Canberra) 68