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Targeting To'o: Risks and rewards of kicking at NSW 'nightmare'

Brian To'o shapes as the most obvious of aerial targets in Origin I, with likely Maroons rookie Kyle Feldt tipped to take flight within close range of Townsville's RAAF base.

But Brad Fittler answers questions over To'o's worrying 51% kick defusal rate with a 300-kilo stat of his own.

"It's funny, Brian was training and I was watching and talking to a few forwards and their reaction, these big, 110-kilo guys, the feedback was 'he's a nightmare'," Fittler says.

"He's a punish to tackle and put down, I think we see that just watching him.

"Everyone's going to target him, he's just not that tall.

"I think they try to affect his confidence [under the high ball] and hopefully I think have an effect on him running out of trouble and taking those tough carries."

To'o often gives away some 15-20 centimetres to opposition wingers and Wednesday night's series opener is no different with 191-centimetre tall Feldt expected to come onto the flank opposite the Penrith pocket rocket.

To'o's defusal of attacking kicks ranks as the sixth-worst of regular NRL back-three players, and he has been targeted by rival coaches to the tune of 27 attacking kicks this season.

It is the most of any specialist winger in 2021, except for Roosters aerial specialist Daniel Tupou (31 kicks defused at 83%) and the Warriors Ken Maumalo (28 at 57%).

Why teams persist with kicking to Tupou is a story for another day.

Of the other three Origin I wingers, the Maroons duo are mid-tier with Coates at 68.2% and Feldt at 60.0% while Addo-Carr is eighth-best among regular flankers with 79.2%.

Asked for his side of the To'o debate, Blues advisor Greg Alexander points to Tom Trbojevic's selection alongside him at right centre as another aerial buffer for the pint-sized rookie.

"Yeah, there will be high balls coming my way for sure," To'o tells NRL.com.

"I think I'm against Feldt, he's very good in the air and he's obviously got a height advantage.

"My whole life I think I've played against maybe three, maybe five [wingers] who are the same height as me. The rest have all been taller, some of them taller than Turbo [Trbojevic stands at 194 cm].

"It's just another challenge and I kind of enjoy.

"It gives me a bit of confidence actually. It makes me really push myself with my jumping and if I can get up to their level I'm pretty stoked. "

To'o is rather fond of his new bodyguard and roommate Trbojevic as well.

"He's always looking out for me. I don't know if you know but Turbo's the face of Nike and he keeps offering me free stuff. I love him."

State of Origin wingers Kyle Feldt, Xavier Coates, Josh Addo-Carr and Brian To'o.
State of Origin wingers Kyle Feldt, Xavier Coates, Josh Addo-Carr and Brian To'o.

To'o's peppering with cross-field kicks has a foundation in him being so productive once they've landed as well.

Five of his 13 unsuccessful defusals came against Brisbane at Suncorp Stadium in round 6, but the Blues rookie still racked up a season-high 15 busts and 272 run metres.

After watching that game, one rival NRL coach offered up the theory that by putting To'o under the high ball and taking tackle zero, it limited his involvements on tackles one and two.

When it comes to average post-contact metres for wingers and fullbacks – the ability to push through defenders, bend the line and fight for every last inch – To'o again comes out on top, just as Fittler and his forwards observed in Blues camp.

His 4.4 post-contact metres per run is best among back-three players this year.

Cleary plays provider for To'o

To'o's 14.7 metres per kick return from is also the best in the NRL (excluding players with five or fewer runs).

Frighteningly for Queensland, the man who comes in second on this list is his fellow Blues winger Josh Add-Carr, with 14.2 per return.

"He's an absolute beast coming out of yardage, I love having him there and I know all our forwards do too," NSW and Penrith teammate Nathan Cleary says.

"He's a big part of our field position game and getting our sets started the way we want to."

Cleary, Jarome Luai and Jack Wighton were among those Blues playmakers raining bombs down on To'o, Addo-Carr and James Tedesco at Thursday's training, in the rain no less.

It's a similar scene at Penrith at least once a week, with Matt Burton's booming left boot also part of the fun as To'o flies up, over and into staffers holding tackle pads.

"We put a fair bit of work into him but a lot of it is also Bizza [To'o] doing it off his own bat too," Cleary says.

"The high ball's probably not his strength but he works really hard at it and he will always compete for every high ball.

"I'm not worried about him out there."

 

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