STATS INSIDER: Each of the NRL finals contenders has a fatal flaw that could prove their undoing in 2011. Here they are.
The business end of the year is well and truly here and the teams currently occupying the top eight seemingly have the finals at their beck and call.
Of course, a handful of contenders outside the zone aren’t quite ready to give up the chase but the odds are firmly against the Panthers, Bulldogs and Rabbitohs winning a minimum four of their last five to have a chance… and they are even higher about the Sharks winning five from five.
The five highest-ranked teams appear to be the ‘Glory Bound’ squads at this stage – Melbourne, Manly, North Queensland, Brisbane and St George Illawarra are the most likely to do the victory lap on the first Sunday in October.
Still, the Warriors, Knights and Wests Tigers cannot be discounted, as any sort of momentum from here on in could be ridden all the way to the premiership bank.
So now that we have a rough idea who will be fighting it out at season’s end… let’s have a look at why they won’t win. Every team has their flaws – be they minor or major. Here we pinpoint the vital statistic that could kill off your team’s premiership dream.
The Storm have been dominant despite having a much thinner roster than years past. Their stats read like flowing poetry, so finding a legitimate weakness is hard. On face value it appears they let in a few too many long-range tries (nine from over halfway) and they don’t offload much (11.2 a game, fifth fewest)… but their major issue is penalties. The Storm have been penalised 121 times this season, the third most in the league and by far the worst of the current teams in the top eight. If they lose critical penalty counts in finals games it could be the death of them. However – in their favour is the fact referees tend to put the whistle away in finals matches.
The Sea Eagles are quietly going about their business as they find the balance between a grinding defence and a sometimes-blistering attack. They look extremely capable of taking out a second title in four years with a gritty halves pairing, a great fullback and some hard-working forwards. Des Hasler would be aware the Sea Eagles have a bit of a flaw with their right-edge defence – opposition sides have scored a quite-high 21 tries on the left edge. But the danger stat for the Manly boys is their limited impact from tackle-breaks. The Sea Eagles rank 12th in the NRL – by far the least-damaging of the current top eight. They average 31.9 a match, more than two a match less than the next contender – and almost 10 a match less than the leading Knights. Why is this important? Well, tackle-breaks lead to line-breaks or offloads etc; the more you make, the more attacking opportunities you will generate. And you only get so many chances in finals matches.
The Cowboys have maintained form even without Johnathan Thurston in recent weeks, stamping them as a legitimate contender. At full strength, with Thurston and the newly re-signed Matthew Bowen calling the shots, and assisted by Willy Tonga and Brent Tate, they have untapped attacking brilliance out wide. They also have a world class prop in Matthew Scott and a young firebrand in Tariq Sims. Not a great surprise then that they have scored more points than any other side in the NRL. But they are missing too many tackles (35.6 – fourth most), allowing a few too many offloads (fourth most) and line-breaks (seventh most) – plus critically they can’t seem to be able to defuse cross-field bombs. The Cowboys are successfully taking care of just 32 per cent of these kicks. Naturally, this means the opposition have a 68 per cent chance of a result when they hoist the ball across-field… odds we’re pretty sure all teams will take in the big matches.
As Darren Lockyer’s magnificent career winds down we can’t help but think back to 2006 when Shane Webcke called it quits. That season Lockyer was the king of the world, winning everything on offer from club footy to rep footy. Despite Melbourne dominating the regular season, it was the Broncos who were victorious when it counted. Could it be déjà vu? Their issue in the early part of 2011 was scoring points – but they have lifted this to a respectable mark and are now sixth in the NRL. Where they do fall down against their peers, however, is in making offloads. The Broncos produce just 9.5 offloads a match, ranking them 15th in the NRL. Teams have won a title without second-phase play before but if the strong defensive units like the Storm, Dragons and Sea Eagles shut down the Broncos’ attack in a big game they need to find a new way to get through. Offloads can be the creative tool to unlock a dead-bolted defence.
St George Illawarra
The reigning champions have hit the skids of late and have looked a little de-motivated and tired in the post-Origin period. Can they lift themselves and make a run at back-to-back triumphs? The Dragons are usually defensively sound but can be a little weak up the middle of the ruck when forced to back-pedal. It’s why their weakest stat is the key to beating them. The Dragons rank 13th in the NRL in metres conceded. They are allowing 1376.2 metres each week, giving teams the chance to camp in attack and get multiple chances. Their defence is sensational at its prime but it only takes a few slip-ups when an opponent is on a roll (like the Raiders and Souths in recent weeks) and the match can be lost. Finals are do or die – this is a genuine concern. Plus, 74 per cent of the tries the Dragons have conceded have come from close range. They need to stop opening the door.
The boys from across the ditch have had a Jekyll and Hyde year so far, with bunches of wins followed by bunches of losses, but they seem to be on track for a finals berth. Their biggest problem is their missed tackles. The Warriors are the second worst in the NRL when it comes to missed tackles with 37.4 a match! Only the Rabbitohs miss more. Their problems with this are self-explanatory!
As the gritty Knights continue to head towards a finals appearance the year before supercoach Wayne Bennett hits town the somewhat luckless Rick Stone will be looking to tighten up one major issue: offloads conceded. The Knights concede the second most offloads; it could kill off any shot at glory. Teams are putting up 13.5 against them every week and the attack off the back of these second-phase opportunities could be lethal.
The Tigers’ major obstacle to appearing on the premiers’ podium is a flimsy right-edge defence. They have conceded 19 tries on the left fringe (one man in from the corner), way more than any other side in the NRL. This means the right-side defenders are failing to get the job done. Time is running out to fix the weakness.