After countless hours on the training paddock and in the gym, and 28 rounds of fantastic football, just four teams remain. The Sea Eagles, Broncos, Storm and Warriors have given their all through the heat of summer and the frost of winter and have been rewarded with a chance to make the grand final.
Every two-horse race has a favourite (in this case the number one- and two-ranked Storm and Sea Eagles) but on any given day in the NRL a team spring an upset. Finals football is no exception. Plenty of experts had the Wests Tigers and Dragons surviving to this stage of the competition, but they have exited after dramatic losses. As they say in the classics, it ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings!
Now we are down to Manly against the Darren Lockyer-less Broncos, and the Storm fronting the Warriors. When predicting a winner in rugby league there are plenty of factors to consider – form, roster, injuries, weather and history, but as is customary for this column it is the stats we’ll focus on.
Coaches have analysed countless hours of video footage trying to identify the weaknesses of the opponent – it’s not guesswork, as some basic stats identify exactly what to look for.
Where a team scores and concedes their tries is a huge indicator. And so it’s time we had a look at this week’s games. The rugby league field is divided into five sections lengthways for this very analysis – left and right sidelines, left and right edges, and then, of course, up the middle.
Manly v Brisbane
The Sea Eagles have scored 105 tries so far this season, the most in the NRL and the only team to reach three figures. For the Manly boys, their bread and butter has been the left edge of the field where they have scored 33 tries. They have 21 on the right edge, 20 on the right sideline and 19 on the left sideline, leaving just 12 for up the middle. In other words the Broncos’ right-side edge defence (opposites as they face each other) better be ready to defend this Friday night. Steve Matai lurks out on the left, while halves Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans also love running the ball on the edges. So while it’s a safe bet the Sea Eagles will send some traffic to their strength (don’t think Jamie Lyon’s right side will be quiet) does it mirror up with the Broncos’ weakness? Brisbane has conceded 69 tries this year, the fourth stingiest in the league. A total of 17 opposition tries have come on the right edge, 16 on the left edge, 13 on the left sideline, 11 on the right sideline and 12 up the middle. The good news is they are pretty stable across the board so Manly has no real chink in the armour to pick away at – instead they just need to focus on their strengths and hope it works.
On the other side of the ledger the Broncos have scored 98 tries this season. They have scored 27 on the right sideline, 22 on the right edge, 21 on the left edge, 19 on the left sideline and nine up the middle. What does this tell us? Obviously the Broncos love going to the right to find Justin Hodges and Jharal YowYeh. The service won’t be as crisp without Locky but you can bet they’ll still hunt the right side hard and often. The numbers also show the team is no slouch going left though. Look for 2012 captain Sam Thaiday to be hitting the edges on both sides.
Does the Broncos’ strength come up against a Manly weakness? The Sea Eagles have conceded 63 tries – 22 of those have come on the left edge, 15 on the right edge, 11 on the right sideline, 10 on the left sideline and just five up the middle. So the short answer is not exactly, as the Sea Eagles’ weak spot is the left edge, or their right-side defenders. While Matai and co. are great in attack, they still leave room for improvement defensively. You can be sure Peter Wallace will be marshalling some attack left right at the erratic Matai, who can be sucked out of the line on occasion when he hunts his big hits. The Broncos’ back-rowers like Alex Glenn could be in for a big game.
Melbourne v Warriors
In the other big match, we see the Storm has scored 92 tries this season. A total of 27 of those came on the right edge, 18 on the left edge, 17 on the left sideline, 15 on the right sideline and another 15 up the middle. The Melbourne boys have fared better on the right edge than anywhere else, where Cooper Cronk likes to go to the line and bring players like Kevin Proctor into play. Of course it is also on the right edge Cronk likes to attack when he runs that direction and no-look passes back inside to a flying Billy Slater.
The Warriors have conceded 81 tries this season with 20 of them coming on the right edge, 17 the left sideline, 16 the left edge, 14 on the right sideline and another 14 up the middle. What does this spell? Trouble. The Warriors have shown the right edge as their weakness and the Storm as its strength. If the Warriors’ left-edge defenders (remember they face each other) can’t lift their game it could get ugly. There is a big onus on the tight forwards to also watch the ‘gap’ between the middle and the edges – if players such as Russell Packer or Sam Rapira are forced to move laterally to get to a speeding Slater they’ll have big problems.
The Warriors’ attack have scored 94 tries this season – 24 of those on the left edge, 23 on the left sideline, 20 up the middle, 17 on the right edge and just 10 on the right sideline. Ummmm, anyone want to bet against them attacking to the left? The left side is, of course, where “The Beast” resides! Manu Vatuvei is waiting on the left sideline and is an obvious target. The 20 tries up the middle are also significant as it represents equal second in the NRL for four-pointers up the guts. Plenty of times this is from a forward popping a nice pass or making a half-break before finding one of the halves who have a knack of supporting breaks.
The Melbourne defence, though, is the best in the league. They have only allowed 54 tries all season long – 15 have come on the right sideline, 11 have come on the right edge and 11 up the middle, 10 on the left sideline and just seven on the left edge. Translation – the Warriors’ attacking strength is coming up against the Storm’s defensive strength. Perhaps the Warriors need to target the middle of the ruck. In saying that, Krisnan Inu might just be an X-factor on the right side, where the Storm are at their weakest.
So there you go. These figures give you an insight into what you might expect on the weekend. Can the Warriors get through the eye of the Storm and can their left-side strength overcome the might of Melbourne? Can the Sea Eagles’ right side be good enough in attack to nullify their weaknesses in defence? Or can the Broncos’ right side, including Justin Hodges, get enough ball to slip past the Sea Eagles? Only time will tell.