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Wing: Why Sharks have crucial bench advantage

If a finals game is played as you would expect, then each team is fighting hard to execute well and maintain their fair share of the ball.

There are few errors, the pace is frantic and the intensity builds to pressure-cooker proportions. Each team is sweating on the opposition to show the first signs of cracking and the result of the game can usually be traced to a few key moments.

As we head into the final three games of the season, the four remaining teams are all so closely matched that any slight advantage is vital. Often that may be on the bench.

The Sharks have arguably the most experienced and well-rounded bench while a couple of key outs means the Roosters may have arguably the weakest.

In finals footy, as is the case with Origin, the bench is equally as important as any other unit on the team.

At the 20-30-minute mark when fatigue has settled in and the arm wrestle for control is in full swing, the starting guys begin to take a spell. The last thing you want to do is give up any form of momentum by taking a step back with your bench. Conversely, if you can up the tempo and take things to another level, you might just get the break you need.

Craig Wing in action for NSW in 2009.
Craig Wing in action for NSW in 2009. ©NRL Photos

It's always a tricky one because you want your main guys to be out there. If a coach is worried he's losing something by bringing someone else on, or he's simply got a man acting as a cover for a "what-if" situation with no set plan on how to use him then either way, it's going to put additional strain on the other players.
In the 2003 grand final, the Roosters used three bench players who combined for just 27 minutes - Ned Catic (nine), Chad Robinson (12) and Andrew Lomu (six). I don't think Ricky Stuart used the bench as much as he should have on that night and maybe that lack of bench impact was one of the reasons why we lost to Penrith.

So what makes a good 'benchie'?

Bench players can't afford to go on with the mentality they're just trying to do an equal job to whoever they're replacing, and nor should they – they're fresher and have an undeniable advantage.

I always played the bench position in Origin with the frame of mind it was a specialist position. Both as a young buck and as an experienced campaigner, I always held a firm belief I wasn't the second best option and my job was not to simply go onto the field and do the same job as the guy I was replacing.

I believed I was the best option to be used at a strategically better time and I needed to do a better job, a more effective job that made my coach feel hesitant to take me off. My goal was to raise the tempo, pick up the intensity, so my tiring teammates could jump on the back of my energy and enthusiasm. That mentality got me in the right headspace.

Bench players can't afford to go on with the mentality they're just trying to do an equal job to whoever they're replacing.

I prepared differently, warmed up differently, and sat on the sideline keeping my adrenaline in check. I identified the opposition players that were getting tired, the ones I would target in attack, as well the ones that were causing us the most trouble, the ones I could make a name for myself on in defence.

In my time, my fellow bench warmers I noticed who seemed to naturally show these qualities usually fell into two groups. 

Experienced players that had been around a fair bit and had a belief deep down they could or would be starting at another club. They play tough and lead when they come on, and make good decisions in key moments too.

Or a young gun full of enthusiasm and energy with a deeper belief they are destined for a starting position and play like it too.

The trick is finding the sweet spot between the two and often it's not about equal numbers of each.

For Cronulla, Aaron Woods, James Segeyaro and Jayson Bukuya have got the experience, and Scott Sorensen has the energy. Having a Test prop in Woods to come on from the bench half an hour into a game is a massive advantage.

In the back of his mind, he would be trying to play better than the guy he's replacing. In James Segeyaro they have a tricky little hooker that can attack the ruck when you need it as the opposition is getting tired, lifting the tempo of the game.

Jayson Bukuya can play centre or middle and has some footwork and speed. Then they've got Scott Sorensen who has shown he has a high work rate and you don't lose anything when he comes on.

At the other end of the spectrum you've got the Roosters with Zane Tetevano and Ryan Matterson their more experienced players (and solid players too) but who would still be considered green against the likes of Cronulla. Nat Butcher and Lindsay Collins are showing some good early signs but are still new to the equation. Due to suspension they're light on experience and will most likely be relying on Tetevano, Collins and Butcher more than they'd like to.

In between you have the Storm and then the Rabbitohs.

Melbourne have Kenny Bromwich and most likely his fellow international Nelson Asofa-Solomona on their bench. If Ryan Hoffman starts Joe Stimson will be there too and he has proven he can more than hold his own. Sam Kasiano has plenty of experience and may even miss out, such is the quality the Storm have to call upon. Brandon Smith is the tough-as-nails youngster who might not be the craftiest of players but more than compensates with sheer effort.

Murray reflects on his 'lucky' strip

Souths have Cameron Murray who has been outstanding recently, especially in their last two matches, and is a young gun clearly destined for bigger things. Jason Clark is the experienced campaigner who I think is having one of his best seasons. They also have Hymel Hunt who went unused the last two weeks and Dean Britt who is a bit of an unknown quantity.

So how much bearing does all this have on the outcome? Stars are born in big moments and there aren't too many bigger than finals footy.

With the right mindset youth, experience and track record become irrelevant, because every second on the field is a chance to rewrite the script. Before too long I'm sure there will be a number of these guys that don't even get a mention when we're talking about who makes up the bench next year because they didn't just go out and do their job this finals series – they did more. 

 

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