Revealed: the NRL's backline defensive heroes
A couple of weeks ago we called foul on the NRL’s missed-tackle merchants. Perhaps we even embarrassed a few of the game’s stars into working a little harder on their defence. But now, in the interest of fairness, it’s time to give credit where credit is due. Just who are the best defenders in the NRL? And how do we fairly quantify this?
It’s not as easy as identifying who makes the most tackles. Of course guys defending in tight attempt many more tackles, and they also do so with help from teammates.
Those on the fringes or out wide often have to tackle one on one – which is a much harder prospect. And what about fullbacks? Often they are asked to make one-on-one tackles as an opponent steams towards them at full pace, with a distinct advantage.
First, the math: in order to get an effective tackling percentage we subtract the misses and ineffective tackles from the total number of tackles a player has attempted. We then divide the total number of attempts by this lower number (minus the misses and ineffective tackles) to arrive at their effective tackling percentage.
(For the record, ineffective tackles include those where a player just hangs on late, flops in, doesn't restrict on offload, and things of this nature – in other words, their involvement was deemed ‘ineffective’.)
To be fair, we will only compare guys playing in their designated positions.
So who are the best defenders in the NRL? Let’s find out the best (and consequently the worst… sorry guys). Are these players on squillion-dollar contracts, or are they bargain-basement contributors?
We’ll rank the first-choice players in each position at your club, with a few others who may also warrant inclusion.
With so many players to compare we will break it down over two weeks. This week we’ll look at the backs…
When we think of the NRL’s best fullbacks we invariably think ‘attacking flair’. We marvel at their kick returns and scything breaks, and also their playmaking skills as they slide into the backlines. But obviously the position they play also has a huge defensive focus. They’re literally the last line in defence – the back-up should the front line falter. Rugby league’s goalkeepers, if you will. There are no surprises at the top of this list. The Origin fullbacks are the best in the NRL. Brett Stewart leads the way, with his effective tackle rate at 80.6% just a shade ahead of Billy Slater at 79.5%. Those suggesting Matt Bowen isn’t a defensive fullback (and questioning his mooted selection at the back for Queensland in Origin III) should look at his numbers in third place. He’s effective 78.4% of the time. With Slater out of Origin III, other names bandied include Greg Inglis and Ben Barba – Inglis pips Barba in defence, 74.6% to 73.2%. Perhaps the biggest concern coming out of the fullbacks list lies with the Broncos: Josh Hoffman is the worst of the fullbacks… by a long way. He is effective just 51.2% of the time. In other words, he is ineffective almost half the time.
Brett Stewart (Sea Eagles) 80.6%; Billy Slater (Storm) 79.5%; Matt Bowen (Cowboys) 78.4%; Brett Morris (Dragons) 77.3%; Tim Moltzen (Wests Tigers) 76.3%; Kevin Locke (Warriors) 75%; Greg Inglis (Rabbitohs) 74.6%; Matthew Wright (Sharks) 74.6%; Josh Dugan (Raiders) 74.3%; Ben Barba (Bulldogs) 73.2%; Jarryd Hayne (Eels) 71.4%; Darius Boyd (Knights) 71.3%; Reece Robinson (Raiders) 67.6%; Lachlan Coote (Panthers) 64.9%; William Zillman (Titans) 64.6%; Anthony Minichiello (Roosters) 63.9%; Josh Hoffman (Broncos) 51.2%.
Some cream again rises to the top here, although there are also a few surprises. Jason Nightingale shows why the Kiwis like to have him on the flank by leading the way at an incredible 88.3% effective. Matt Utai hasn’t been known as a good defensive decision-maker in the past, but he is trying to put that to rest with an 87% effectiveness rate. Cowboys winger Ashley Graham is seriously putting up his hand for winger of the year given his try-scoring tally (NRL-high 13) and ability to defend at 86.2% effectiveness. I am not privy to Graham’s contract details but one would think he’s well below many others on the Cowboys’ totem poll and as such is turning out to be incredible value. Those who are further down the list include Akuila Uate 72.9% and Manu Vatuvei 67.5% but it’s the attack from these boys that brings them their big bucks. David Williams (61.4%) is probably the biggest name near the bottom of the pack, while the Panthers’ impressive attacking rookie Josh Mansour (60.5%) is at the bottom of the list.
Jason Nightingale (Dragons) 88.3%; Matt Utai (Wests Tigers) 87%; Steve Turner (Bulldogs) 86.8%; Ashley Graham (Cowboys) 86.2%; Dimitri Pelo (Raiders) 85.7%; Bryson Goodwin (Bulldogs) 84.2%; Sam Perrett (Roosters) 84%; Jonathan Wright (Bulldogs) 83.4%; Blake Ferguson (Raiders) 82.8%; Edrick Lee (Raiders) 82.4%; Etu Uaisele (Panthers) 81.7%; Antonio Winterstein (Cowboys) 81.3%; Andrew Everingham (Rabbitohs) 80.9%; Jack Wighton (Raiders) 78.4%; David Simmons (Panthers) 78.4%; John Williams (Sharks) 78.1%; Gerard Beale (Broncos) 77%; Daniel Vidot (Dragons) 76.8%; David Mead (Titans) 76.4%; Nathan Stapleton (Sharks) 75%; Lote Tuqiri (Wests Tigers) 74.6%; Akuila Uate (Knights) 72.9%; Dean Whare (Sea Eagles) 72.2%; Michael Oldfield (Sea Eagles) 71.7%; Bill Tupou (Warriors) 71.6%; Kevin Gordon (Titans) 70.8%; Jorge Taufua (Sea Eagles) 70.7%; Matt Duffie (Storm) 70.5%; James McManus (Knights) 69.6%; Justin O’Neill (Storm) 68.6%; Ken Sio (Eels) 68.4%; Reece Robinson (Raiders) 67.6%; Luke Burt (Eels) 67.5%; Manu Vatuvei (Warriors) 67.5%; Nathan Merritt (Rabbitohs) 66.7%; Dale Copley (Broncos) 64%; David Williams (Sea Eagles) 61.4%; Isaac Gordon (Sharks) 61%; Josh Mansour (Panthers) 60.5%.
The Cowboys steal the show like bandits, with Kane Linnett leading the way for all centres in the NRL. Linnett is ineffective defensively less than 10 per cent of the time – an impressive result defending out wide. And you can be sure Linnett’s deal isn’t in the ballpark of some big-name Cowboys. Perhaps his next deal will have a few more dollars attached? The Dragons’ duo of Matt Cooper and Kyle Stanley are next in line, showing it really is attack that is the problem down in St George Illawarra territory. Dane Nielsen’s 87.9% mark would support calls for him to step up for the Maroons in Origin III should Greg Inglis be asked to substitute at fullback. Bigger names like Michael Jennings (80.6%), Shaun Kenny-Dowell (79.4%) and Justin Hodges (78.8%) sit in the middle of the pack and could certainly improve. But the guys with real issues include Willie Tonga (67%), Steve Matai (65.5%) and Jamal Idris (64.7%) – three big-bucks centres who are putting pressure on teammates by not getting the job defensively. Idris in particular would be a concern for John Cartwright given the huge dollars he’s commanding.
Kane Linnett (Cowboys) 90.6%; Matt Cooper (Dragons) 89.7%; Kyle Stanley (Dragons) 87.9%; Dane Nielsen (Storm) 87.9%; Geoff Daniela (Panthers) 87.6%; Brent Tate (Cowboys) 86.8%; Ben Henry (Warriors) 85.9%; Colin Best (Sharks) 84.8%; Jamie Lyon (Sea Eagles) 84.4%; Joel Reddy (Wests Tigers) 84.3%; Matt King (Rabbitohs) 84.1%; BJ Leilua (Roosters) 83.7%; Chris Lawrence (Wests Tigers) 83.2%; Blake Ferguson (Raiders) 82.8%; Dominic Peyroux (Titans) 82.5%; Timana Tahu (Knights) 81.5%; Michael Jennings (Panthers) 80.6%; Beau Ryan (Wests Tigers) 80.4%; Brad Tighe (Panthers) 80.2%; Jack Reed (Broncos) 80.1%; Dylan Farrell (Rabbitohs) 80%; Shaun Kenny-Dowell (Roosters) 79.4%; Ryan Morgan (Eels) 79.4%; Konrad Hurrell (Warriors) 79.3%; Will Chambers (Storm) 79.2%; Justin Hodges (Broncos) 78.8%; Ben Pomeroy (Sharks) 78.5%; Josh Morris (Bulldogs) 77.9%; Beau Champion (Titans) 77.2%; Junior Sa’u (Knights) 76.8%; Jarrod Croker (Raiders) 76.4%; Steve Michaels (Titans) 75%; Cheyse Blair (Eels) 72.7%; Willie Tonga (Eels) 67%; Steve Matai (Sea Eagles) 65.5%; Jamal Idris (Titans) 64.7%.
Rabbitohs fans are trying not to get too excited while their team sits in the top four, but why not? It’s been a while! John Sutton is leading the way defensively for the pivots at 85.4%, which has certainly contributed to the team’s success. Those who give Jamie Soward grief for his defence should probably back off… the Dragons five-eighth is effective 84.5% this season, a very good number considering how often he is targeted. Todd Carney has proven he’s not all about attack and Braith Anasta has been solid all year. Johnathan Thurston (75%), James Maloney (71.7%) and Benji Marshall (70.9%) are the ‘speed bumps’ of the five-eighths in the NRL (Marshall is also listed as a halfback below). They are required to attempt plenty of tackles each week… perhaps now it might be even more!
John Sutton (Rabbitohs) 85.4%; Jamie Soward (Dragons) 84.5%; Braith Anasta (Roosters) 83.8%; Todd Carney (Sharks) 83.7%; Kieran Foran (Sea Eagles) 82.8%; Blake Ayshford (Wests Tigers) 82.4%; Blake Austin (Panthers) 81.9%; Jarrod Mullen (Knights) 81.5%; Gareth Widdop (Storm) 81.2%; Corey Norman (Broncos) 79.7%; Josh Reynolds (Bulldogs) 78.7%; Ben Roberts (Eels) 77.8%; Aidan Sezer (Titans) 76.2%; Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys) 75%; Josh Dugan (Raiders) 74.3%; James Maloney (Warriors) 71.7%; Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers) 70.9%.
He’s about five-foot-nothing but Manly halfback Daly Cherry-Evans is a giant in the defensive game. At 88.1% effective he has every right to be chuffed with his efforts and he really does deserve the big money he is reported to have commanded in his contract upgrade. But what about the next two guys on the list? They are a coach’s dream! Jeff Robson at the Sharks and Kris Keating at the Bulldogs are hardly putting pressure on the salary cap of their clubs yet they are as reliable as the sun rising in the morning. Shaun Johnson and Chris Sandow are the boys at the other end of the list; are Eels fans happy with the huge money going to Sandow… especially watching Robson and the Sharks push for a top-four finish this season?
Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles) 88.1%; Jeff Robson (Sharks) 87%; Kris Keating (Bulldogs) 86.1%; Ben Hornby (Dragons) 85.9%; Cooper Cronk (Storm) 82.8%; Ray Thompson (Cowboys) 81.8%; Peter Wallace (Broncos) 81.7%; Adam Reynolds (Rabbitohs) 80.9%; Josh McCrone (Raiders) 80.5%; Tom Humble (Wests Tigers) 80.2%; Mitchell Pearce (Roosters) 79.9%; Luke Walsh (Panthers) 74.8%; Tyrone Roberts (Knights) 74.1%; Scott Prince (Titans) 71.6%; Shaun Johnson (Warriors) 71.2%; Benji Marshall (Wests Tigers) 70.9%; Chris Sandow (Eels) 70%.
NEXT THURSDAY: The forwards – the good, the bad and the ugly (defensively speaking)!