Will new Parramatta centre Michael Jennings play on the same left edge as try-scoring ace Semi Radradra, or will coach Brad Arthur opt to move Jennings to the right, creating serious strike power on both flanks? What will be the implications for the Eels either way? NRL.com delved deep into the stats to bring you the answers.
With the huge announcement that Parramatta had secured Test and Origin centre Micheal Jennings from the Roosters on a four-year deal, the rugby league community was immediately abuzz with the possibility of one of the best attacking left-edge centres in the game pairing with the most dangerous left winger in the NRL.
But will they? Should they? Would it even be a good thing?
The naysayers immediately suggested that try-scoring sensation Radradra would catch a cold out on the wing waiting for Jennings to pass him the ball.
Others wondered how wise it would be to split up Radradra from his regular centre partner Brad Takairangi, with whom he combined so beautifully in 2015 to create – along with five-eighth Corey Norman – the most dangerous attacking edge in the NRL.
NRL.com decided to crunch the numbers as well as ask the men at the centre of it all for their thoughts to break down just whether or not Jennings would be best served pairing with Radradra, or moving across to the unaccustomed right side to give the Eels strike on both flanks out wide.
What happened last year?
Eels: Journeyman centre Takairangi's first season in the blue and gold his father once wore back in the '80s saw him strike up a wonderful combination with his outside man Radradra. He played his own understated role to perfection, delivering quality ball that contributed to the Semi Trailer crashing over for a club-record 24 tries (in just 18 games). Takairangi's 11 try assists – all but one of those to Radradra's benefit – were the most by any player in the NRL last season outside of the regular playmakers (the halves, hookers and fullbacks).
Roosters: Both Jennings and his outside man Dan Tupou were scintillating in attack, notching eight and 16 tries respectively. But they were playing behind two premiership-winning halves and a hugely dominant forward pack on the way to a third straight minor premiership, while the Eels' right flank was underwhelming (placing more reliance on the left edge) and their forward pack was at best competitive, rather than dominant. So how much can we read into those combinations and what the recruitment of Jennings means for Parramatta?
Takairangi to Radradra: 10 try assists in 13 games together, 0.77 per game
Let's first note that while Tupou and Jennings played 27 and 24 NRL games respectively (Origin is not included in this analysis) last year, injury limited the Eels pair to 18 games for Radradra and 17 for Takairangi – and because they were injured at different times they only played together 13 times last year for Takairangi to send Radradra over for 10 four-pointers. That's a stunning rate of almost one try assist from Takairangi for Radradra per game.
Jennings to Tupou: five try assists in 24 games, 0.21 per game
At the Roosters, Tupou scored 16 tries in 27 games. Many involved the towering 195cm winger outleaping opposition wingers under pinpoint Mitch Pearce or James Maloney kicks. Some resulted from a quality cut-out ball from one of his playmakers across the face of Jennings. Still, five times he benefited from a Jennings try assist. Tupou played in every one of the 24 NRL games Jennings played last year, so that's a rate of just over one try assist from centre to winger every five games.
(Note that while Radradra was a key focal point in attack for an Eels side that just missed the finals, the Roosters had strike everywhere – including the opposite flank in the shape of Blake Ferguson and Shaun Kenny-Dowall, so there was less need to go left for the Tricolours compared to the blue and golds.)
Passes to winger
On average Takairangi received the ball 13 times per game in 2015, and passed it on 7.2 times per game. Of 123 total passes, 26 were to his outside man (25 to Radradra and once to John Folau when Radradra was absent) at a rate of 1.53 per game.
Jennings received the ball slightly more – 16 times per game on average – and passed it 4.9 times per game. Of 117 total passes, 29 went to Tupou at a rate of 1.2 times per game.
Bearing in mind Jennings is a far more dangerous ball runner than Takairangi, and you don't necessarily want him passing as often in lieu of running himself, he doesn't actually distribute the ball much less than Takairangi. He passes roughly once in three possessions compared to one in two for the Eels centre. We're prepared to say the myth of Jennings as a ball hog has been busted.
Parramatta's likely back five for Round 1
1. Michael Gordon, 2. Semi Radradra, 3. Michael Jennings, 4. Brad Takairangi, 5. Clint Gutherson (or Ryan Morgan, John Folau, Vai Toutai or Bureta Faraimo)
The prospect of uniting Radradra and Jennings on the left flank is no doubt tantalising. A Test and Origin centre, Jennings no doubt has enough rugby league experience to judge when his outside man is in a better spot than he is and deliver quality ball, as he did on plenty of occasions with Tupou last season. The fact that Jennings is an attacking virtuoso on his own however means Radradra is probably likely to see a bit less ball – although on the flipside, the space Jennings creates could also benefit the Fijian flyer.
However, that solution would leave Brad Arthur with a relatively inexperienced and workmanlike right flank, placing a heavy reliance on Parramatta's left edge attack. Jennings should be good enough to adapt to the other side of the field, as should incoming left-edge playmaker Kieran Foran. The prospect of a Foran-Jennings-Gutherson right side, leaving what was already a red-hot left edge of Corey Norman, Takairangi and Radradra intact, is well worth trialling for Arthur.
Early indications out of Parramatta are that Jennings will indeed line up on the left with Radradra but the pre-season trials will no doubt add plenty of clarity in the coming weeks.