Sterling Gold: Playoffs begin a week early
For two clubs involved in possible season-defining games, the performances of both Newcastle and South Sydney over the weekend were remarkably poor.
In fact it is difficult to work out which of the two were least impressive.
The Knight's defensive capitulation continued a worrying run of three second-halves in which they have not scored a point at a time when they were in the box-seat to consolidate their position in the top half of the ladder.
Looking to take advantage of the Knights' run of outs, the Rabbits headed to Suncorp with the opportunity to move into the top eight for the first time all season. With the momentum of four straight wins under their belt it was some surprise then to witness the bumbling performance they produced.
Fortunately for both clubs they have the chance to set things right in Friday night's make-or-break clash at Ausgrid Stadium – the most relevant match-up of the season when it comes to the composition of our quarter-finalists.
With major injury concerns in both camps it is even more important for the teams to find their best and not be guilty of self-imploding at the final hurdle.
For the home team the first thing that needs to be addressed is the direction of their attack, especially in the opening quarter of the contest.
In recent times the Knights have fallen into the trap of trying to go wide too early before any real advantage has been established in the middle.
One of the great attractions of the Novocastrians is their penchant to use the football, but looking to do so at the wrong time in games has been contributing to their undoing.
Whilst Jarrod Mullen usually has a great passing game (especially left to right) it tends to be more successful later in the contest when more space exists between his outside supports and the upcoming defence.
However I believe Newcastle's best mode of attack is when their ball players play straight at the line and look to pick up men with short passes both inside and out.
In Mullen, Kurt Gidley and Ryan Stig, they have three natural receivers who can recognize a hole, commit defenders and put a teammate through.
To allow this to happen, the Newcastle forward pack needs to think "run" not "pass". Any good offload is always the result of a forward looking to bust the defence on his own which may then naturally lead to an opportunity to slip a ball.
This is also the responsibility of the Souths front six on Friday to put the Rabbits' strike players in the right parts of the field.
They have some wonderfully unpredictable players who boast great pace and footwork, with 173 points in their last five outings illustrating their ability in getting the ball over the line.
Unfortunately the loss of Greg Inglis and injury clouds over John Sutton and Nathan Merritt is a worry, especially in regard to their highly successful and dangerous left-side attack.
This makes the input of “the Coaltrain” Dave Taylor even more significant and Souths should be looking to get this man mountain quick ball as often as possible when they are in good field position. For such a huge man he is incredibly good on his feet and possesses surprising speed.
I would even consider swapping him to the right side of the field at times against the Knights to deliberately target Jarrod Mullen.
Jarrod is obviously struggling with the pectoral injury he picked up against the Broncos but is bravely battling on in an effort to keep the Newcastle campaign on track.
However the discomfort has led to him grabbing in defence and he has missed tackles for tries in the last two games that he would normally handle comfortably.
Newcastle should also send plenty of traffic at the opposition No.7.
Chris Sandow doesn't mind putting his body on the line but if he gets one-on-one with a ball carrier it is often a mismatch.
The Knights should especially be aware when he is stationed next to his winger in the Rabbits' right-side defensive formation. This has been the area where teams have enjoyed the most success in running at the diminutive live-wire.
Rick Stone also has untimely injury concerns, especially in the centres with Junior Sau sidelined and Adam MacDougall and Keith Lulia struggling for fitness.
If Dave Taylor is the possible key for the Rabbitohs, it is Akuila Uate who is a potential match-winner for the home team.
The Fijian flyer is a freakish athlete who is built like a tank but runs like the wind, and with 16 tries under his belt this season he is the greatest individual threat to Souths.
With this being the case and with a shortage of outside backs the Knights would be well served to continue to play him in the centres in attack and put him back onto the wing in defence.
We have seen this move employed successfully every now and then but with everything on the line this weekend I would look to make it a definite tactic over the 80 minutes. The more the ball is in his hands the greater the team's scoring potential, but being on the flank in defence also allows him to drop back for kicks and start the return set with power.
Whilst all of these ploys may help the respective teams in their pursuit of victory it will ultimately be the best defensive team on the night that prevails.
All the tactics in the world aren't worth a dime if players don't display the necessary desire, attitude, work ethic and desperation when they don't have the ball. These are the qualities that will propel one of these teams into the finals and the other out the back door.
For what it is worth I think the final eight should already have been decided. As an advocate of a draw being an acceptable result with no need for golden point, it makes interesting reading to look at what the table would now look like:
1. STORM – 42 points
2. SEA EAGLES – 40
3. BRONCOS – 37
4. COWBOYS – 33
5. DRAGONS – 31
6. TIGERS – 31
7. WARRIORS – 30
8. KNIGHTS – 27
9. BULLDOGS – 25
10. RABBITOHS – 24
11. ROOSTERS – 22
12. PENRITH – 21
13. CRONULLA – 18
14. PARRAMATTA – 18
15. CANBERRA – 18
16. TITANS – 15