Come Sunday afternoon the national selectors for the Kangaroos and Kiwis will each get together to pick two extraordinary teams full of the best talent the NRL has to offer.
The sides for the one-off Test at Skilled Park on May 6 will be picked with a mixture of loyalty and form in mind. And while they will be impressive teams, there will – as ever – be a handful of critics who’ll bemoan the exclusion of a player who has started 2011 on fire.
It is always the case; incumbency has its detractors but also its supporters. It promotes unity in a team – and it has certainly helped Queensland over the past five years!
But what would the two Test teams look like if selections were based on a completely clean slate? What if we had never seen the likes of Darren Lockyer or Benji Marshall weave their magic, and we only had 2011 stats to go by?
At the risk of starting a massive debate around the water cooler at your office, Stats Insider has devised a crude but effective formula to achieve just this. Each position on a rugby league field has its own core (or key) stats. For fullbacks, kick-return metres are important… but props obviously don’t need to tally high here. For them it is more about general metres, minutes and tackles. Halves need to attain high scores in try assists and line-break assists; centres need to make the line-breaks and score the tries. A good back-rower can pop an offload… you get the drift.
With this ‘patented’ system, we have scoured the NRL and scored the best in their respective positions. The result is two Test line-ups that are likely to be poles apart from the squads announced on Sunday afternoon. (The only proviso is players have to have played at least four of the seven games so far this year, in the respective position.)
Who would win this trans-Tasman battle? That’s for you to decide…
Australia: Here is our first surprise. Welcome to your Test debut… Will Hopoate! Filling in for Brett Stewart for a month at fullback for Manly, the young ‘Hoppa’ has taken to the role like a pro. His average metres playing fullback are 177.2, with the kick-return component an impressive 91 metres. This sees him lead the NRL fullbacks in terms of averages.
He is also averaging close to a line-break and line-break assist a game – and it helped him pip out Billy Slater by just .05 points in the fullback formula! While you can be pretty certain his name won’t be read out for Australia – perhaps City Origin has a new star?
New Zealand: Lance Hohaia retains his Test jumper… but a disclaimer here – he is the only player to qualify under the scoring system for the boys from across the ditch! His numbers are well below plenty of Aussie contenders like Slater, Ben Barba, Matt Bowen and Jarryd Hayne, but with Kiwi blood he gets the nod. For comparisons with Hopoate, he is averaging 106 metres a game and 47 metres on kick-returns, while his playmaking stats aren’t anything to write home about.
Australia: Brett Morris retains his wing spot despite only grabbing his first try of the season this past weekend. He gets in with great average metres and solid kick-return metres. But, more impressively, he barely misses a tackle and has minimal errors for a winger.
But he was not the best statistically performed winger – in fact he runs behind the two Kiwi selections and also the other Aussie selection. Newcastle dynamo Akuila Uate – who is a good chance to actually make his Test debut – is hands-down the form Australian winger, with a great try and line-break strike rate and some big metres in games. He misses a few more tackles than some others, but makes fewer errors – he has just one this year!
New Zealand: It probably comes as little surprise to many but Jason Nightingale retains his wing position on the back of solid stats. He rates as the leading winger in the NRL with a good try rate, solid line-break ratio, big metres and just one error all year. He also only misses a tackle every two games.
But who would fill the other wing in the Kiwi ‘stats’ side? Well, the third-best winger in the competition is a former teammate of Nightingale’s. In fact, it is Nightingale’s fault this kid is no longer a Dragon, as he left to get opportunity. Rookie Kalifa Faifai Loa, a Kiwi under-16s representative, has been a revelation on the end of the Cowboys’ backline through Round 7. He is amassing great metres, not missing tackles and has a pretty good strike rate for tries and line-breaks.
Australia: With plenty of quality centres to choose from in the NRL, selectors really couldn’t go wrong. Statistically the strongest this season are both Aussies, they’re teammates – and they have played in the green and gold together before.
Dragons’ duo Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier get the nod here, tipping out Bulldog giant Jamal Idris and Bronco Justin Hodges. Cooper is scoring tries, breaking the line, making tackle-breaks and countless amounts of tackles, while just missing less than a tackle a game.
Gasnier is creating line-breaks for teammates and making even more metres and tackles than Cooper. Both have minimal errors also.
New Zealand: In this case the form centres are actually a big chance to be the actual centres. Last year’s centre of the year Shaun Kenny-Dowall is the best statistical Kiwi centre and is certain to retain his place in the Kiwi line-up. He is scoring tries, making a heap of tackle busts and is adding good metres each week.
The next-best Kiwi – Knights centre Junior Sa’u – was actually left out of the side for the Four Nations final last year but might have done enough to force his way back in. Sa’u is scoring tries and making impressive line-breaks. He also rates well in tackle busts and metres… although his missed tackle rate almost brought him undone.
Australia: A huge “sorry” in advance... incredible it may be but Australian captain Darren Lockyer doesn’t make the cut! We all know barring injury (knock on wood) Lockyer will lead the Kangaroos in the No.6 jersey next week but the actual statistical leader in the five-eighth position is… the Dragons’ Jamie Soward.
A disclaimer: while Soward scored well in try assists and tackles and doesn’t miss as many as his rivals, he was boosted significantly by kick metres. If you take away this stat (which I won’t, as a standout kicking five-eighth is dynamite) then the likes of Kris Keating and Kurt Gidley jump ahead of Soward.
Lockyer, however, lags slightly behind the Dragons’ NSW hopeful.
New Zealand: No surprise here, people. Benji Marshall gets the nod ahead of Kieran Foran. Marshall is a line-break assist and try assist king; he has decent kick metres and tackle-breaks as well. The Kiwi skipper is a class above his rivals.
Australia: The incumbent Australian halfback keeps his jersey! In case you forget it was Cooper Cronk who wore the No.7 in the Four Nations Final loss to the Kiwis, as Johnathan Thurston was injured. Thurston has been on fire this season and is likely to get his job back in the real Test side, but based on stats Cronk pips him at the post. How, you ask? Well, Thurston is awesome in line-break assists and try assists but he allowed Cronk to sneak past based on kick metres and, more importantly, more missed tackles. Thurston is missing almost four a game, Cronk fewer than two.
New Zealand: The Kiwis don’t have a player who qualifies – i.e. they don’t have someone who has played four games at halfback in the NRL this season. They will obviously look to Nathan Fien… or perhaps Marshall will move to halfback and Foran will play No.6?
Australia: The in-form props available for Australian selection are unlikely to be the guys selected in the real side. But Aiden Tolman’s form should give him a look-in at least. The Bulldogs prop has been running and tackling to a standstill, with an average 61 minutes, 158 metres and 35 tackles.
The next-best prop has indicated he is done with rep football, but Luke ‘Bull’ Bailey passes muster in make-believe land. Bailey is playing 62 minutes, making 138 metres and 32 tackles each week. Impressive stuff.
New Zealand: Bet you can’t guess the number one Kiwi prop candidate? It’s Cowboy James Tamou who has been rock solid in 2011. He has 18 tackle-breaks and averages almost 100 metres and 28 tackles when he starts at prop.
He is joined by former Kiwi captain Roy Asotasi who continues to plunder his way into opposing defences. Asotasi is playing 60 minutes, making 110 metres and 28 tackles.
Australia: Another position, another Dragon. Ben Creagh is statistically the best second-rower so far this season, earned on the back of high minutes, offloads, tackle-breaks and solid metres and tackles.
He would be joined by Anthony Watmough. These two were good enough to hold off the ever-reliable Nathan Hindmarsh, Trent Waterhouse and Andrew Ryan, who are all in good form in 2011.
New Zealand: Newcastle’s Zeb Taia has the best averages of Kiwi contenders, despite only starting four games this year. Having made his debut in the corresponding Test last year but missing the Four Nations, Taia will be hopeful of a call up based on his form.
Statistically the next best is a little out of left field: Come on down Kevin Proctor – the Storm youngster who has stood up for the Melbourne side so far this season. Big tackle counts and some powerful running helped him into the side, just ahead of Bronson Harrison and Alex Glenn.
Australia: No surprise here that Paul Gallen is the statistics leader. The Sharks’ skipper is by far and away the best-performed lock forward in the NRL statistically speaking, with an 80-minute average, 182 metres a game and 26 tackles. He has numerous tackle-breaks and offloads to go with it.
New Zealand: Technically, the only player qualified for the Kiwis at lock forward is young Eel Justin Horo; however, Jeremy Smith outscores him convincingly – and would be playing lock (not second row) at club level if he wasn’t in the same team as Paul Gallen.
Australia: Another no-brainer, really. The incumbent Australian hooker wins this category hands down. Aussie vice captain Cameron Smith keeps his spot with massive minutes, tackles, kicks and tackle-breaks. Smith is easily the best hooker in the world.
New Zealand: He usually plays halfback for the Kiwis and could do so again but Nathan Fien is statistically the best dummy-half the black-and-whites could call on.
Fien beats out Issac Luke thanks to his superior tackling and kicking game. Luke is missing 5.4 tackles a game this season for Souths… one thinks he’ll be a massive target if picked for the actual Test.
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