FIVE METRE GAP: NRL Finals Week One

Hamish NealBy HAMISH NEAL

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from the first week of the finals.

The now-legendary Geoff Toovey blow-up over penalty counts which earned the Manly mentor a $10,000 fine wasn’t needed despite the Silvertails narrow 4-0 loss to the Sydney Roosters. The Sea Eagles won the penalty count by an astonishing 12-5 after it was 4-3 in their favour at half-time. This was the most lopsided count of the weekend with two or one the difference in the other three fixtures.

Despite the defensive intensity in their one-score loss to the Roosters, Manly was reluctant to go to their bench for reinforcements on Saturday evening. Replacement forwards Richie Fa’aoso (13 minutes,) Tom Symonds (17) and George Rose (24) were used sparingly in the game (although Fa’aoso was knocked out). The lack of play for the latter duo was all the more surprising given Fa’aoso’s injury. With the quick turnaround to Friday evening it would be surprising if the Manly’s #14-17 players were not used more against Cronulla given the physical toll of last weekend’s encounter.

Three hookers topped the match tackle counts in the first week of the finals with Melbourne and Australia skipper Cameron Smith making 51 tackles, his earmarked Queensland replacement Matt Ballin topped a half-century but Canterbury’s Michael Ennis earned his Mad Monday with 52 tackles to his name as the weekend record. The only outlier from the #9 brigade was the Cowboys’ back-rower Gavin Cooper with 43.

It was like watching Melbourne circa 2009 as South Sydney executed their task in attack with ruthless efficiency in their 20-10 victory over the Storm on Friday evening. The Michael Maguire-coached side completed 33 of their 37 sets for a 89% completion rate, the highest of for the weekend. Melbourne failed to completed ten of their 42 sets

Speaking of Melbourne, their research on the Wayne Bennett-coached Newcastle side may have turned up two targets in the Knights defence. Halfback Tyrone Roberts and Robbie Rochow each missed six tackles in the Novocastrians’ 16 point triumph over the Bulldogs. Only the Roosters Luke O’Donnell (eight) missed more over the weekend but the ease of the Knights win would have coach Bennett concerned about the figures for Rochow and Roberts.

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 26

Hamish NealBy HAMISH NEAL
Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round twenty-six

Last year’s runner-up Canterbury, plus Manly and South Sydney will enter the 2013 finals series off a last round lose, but which one was more significant? The Rabbitohs lost to the Roosters, who were hammered in the penalty count 11-5, in an emotional and fiery match for the minor premiership. The Bulldogs were beaten by a side farewelling a brace of key players in a match which didn’t in the end have a major impact on the location of their finals eliminator game. Finally Manly admittedly ‘checked out’ (at least according to Daly Cherry-Evans when speaking to Jimmy Smith on Fox Sports post-game) in a game against a solid Penrith outfit. Souths look to be coming off the biggest let-down of that trio.

Outsiders in the finals series, the Newcastle Knights, have one factor in their favour, having humbled a woeful Parramatta outfit 54-6. It was only the second time in the last 10  rounds they had pasted 26 points, the other a 32-14 away victory in Penrith during round 19. Despite the standard of opposition it’s a positive for the Wayne Bennett-coached side against teams like Manly, the Roosters and even Canterbury who have regularly topped 40 points in the final few months of the season.

Ten-try wins aside, it will be defence which wins the finals and only Manly, Melbourne and North Queensland have displayed near lockdown efficiency in the last month of the competition against fellow finals outfits: the Sea Eagles held Melbourne to eight points at Brookvale in round 25, the Cowboys held the Knights to six in round 24 up in Townsville and back in round 22 the Storm held Souths to eight points at AAMI Park.

Despite the multiple attempts to win the match, Cooper Cronk’s 88th minute field goal could be beneficial for the Victorian franchise in the next month. Having played in a finals intensity match against a Titans side, who at the point still had a chance to make the finals could be just what the Craig Bellamy-coached team needed on the eve of the playoffs. With some other sides having rolled through their final round opponents, the Storm had a tough match-up to fine tune them for the deciding weeks of the competition. .

Looking to 2014 for teams not in finals contention,  this week we will take a brief look at the Panthers. The return to the NRL of Jamie Soward after his brief interlude with the London Broncos will be significant, however the shift of back-rower Elijah Taylor to the foot of the mountains could be just an influential. The 23-year-old workhorse will need to break into a combination of Lewis Brown, Sika Manu and Ryan Simpkins who finished the season in a side who won three of their last four games. But the St Paul’s College product could be in for an improved season back under Ivan Cleary’s tutelage.

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 21

Hamish NealLike the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round 21.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong for Canberra as they were humbled 68-4 by the reigning title-holders the Melbourne Storm on Sunday. Trebles to wingers Sisa Waqa and Mahe Fonua suggest a flimsy defence out wide but the Raiders were also exposed in the middle of the ruck and in the air. One would wonder what benefit a video session would even have for the Green Machine given they face a rampant Roosters outfit next. Sometimes teams just need to (cliché alert) put it behind them without reflecting as they normally would and change their weekly preparation.

Friday night’s draw in Newcastle saw some monumental efforts including four players who topped 50 in the tackle count. Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough made 67 tackles in his 52 minutes on Hunter Stadium. Opposition forward Chris Houston made 62 tackles but he had 20 more minutes on the park. Brisbane’s Josh McGuire (51) and Corey Parker (55) were the other two players to crack the half-century.

As the Cowboys ran away with a 30-12 win in Townsville and the Rabbitohs had injury problems with John Sutton’s ankle concern they also had some defensive issues with centre Bryson Goodwin a target of North Queensland in attack. Goodwin, 27, was forced into making 22 tackles as the Cowboys attacked Souths’ line with eight more sets of possession than their opponents.

In another of the weekend’s big wins Penrith fullback Matt Moylan suffered a horror night as a steady stream of Roosters try-scorers breezed in for the seven tries that made up their 42-6 win. 22 year-old Moylan, who has been the subject of much attention due to the ongoing debate about the second-tier salary cap, missed five tackles in the Panther’s eleventh loss of the season.

Facing a fifth loss in succession, Gold Coast were able to dispatch the abject Wests Tigers on Sunday afternoon at Skilled Stadium. A make-shift halves combination saw the Titans add some extra force in attack and defence as representative back-rower Ashley Harrison was named to play next to Aidan Sezer. Using the extra bigger players on the edges and with players like Luke Douglas and Dave Taylor making 16 hit-ups each (despite starting off the bench), John Cartwright’s men were able to ride roughshod over a short-handed Tigers who started the game without Aaron Woods up front and then saw Robbie Farah suffer a dislocated knuckle .

 

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 20

Hamish NealLike the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round 20.

Penrith-bound Elijah Taylor is learning plenty from a new team-mate with the Warriors forward crediting Storm premiership player Todd Lowrie with his increased input on attack. Known primarily for his defensive work, 23-year-old Taylor told Kiwi broadcaster D’Arcy Waldegrave on Radio Sport this week he was “getting as much information out of him (Lowrie) that I can before I leave.” The attention to detail of the future Panther is paying dividends with Taylor now an off-load threat to go with his work-rate which has consisted of the following tackles/runs breakdowns in the last three matches (30/10, 44/11, 43/10.)

When at their best, Cronulla are excellent in making ground up the middle but even without Paul Gallen, they had some great examples of that in the win against Penrith. In the lead-up to the first try, Ben Pomeroy took the first tackles and was able affect a quick play-of-the-ball. That allowed John Morris a fast burst out of dummy half, which laid the platform for an Andrew Fifita hit-up, giving the Sharks great field position after three tackles. That, in turn, also allowedthe side’s halves Todd Carney and Jeff Robson to focus on the ‘red zone’ attacking options which resulted in fullback Michael Gordon’s try.

Tongan international Sam Moa is proving one of the buys of the season and should Trent Robinson have second thoughts about his starting 13, Roosters fans could see more of him in the coming fortnight due to the enforced absence of Sonny Bill Williams. In cricketing terms Moa’s strike-rate off the bench has been a useful tool for the tricolours. In 34 minutes on the weekend in Newcastle he made 21 tackles and had ten hit-ups. In the previous week, also off the bench, he ran for 146 metres against the Sharks,

What seems to have been lost in the Mitchell Allgood-Steve Matai drama, which will see Act Two in round 21, is the improvement in the Eels forward. Allgood, 24, in his return from suspension, made 100 metres in his 15 runs as a bench replacement in the 40-12 loss to the Bulldogs. Added to this recent efforts which have included 12 runs, Allgood has been reliable off the bench for a wavering Eels pack, often nearing on 20 tackles in about 45-50 minutes of action each week.

The euphoria of Maroons’ Origin triumph has given way to the northern wasteland of the NRL, highlighted in recent weeks by the Cowboy. However, Five Metre Gap has honed in on a recurring problem for the Titans after their 32-4 lose to the ladder-leading Rabbitohs. Midfield general Albert Kelly is again going missing in defence, have missed some of his defensive bodyguards in recent weeks due to Origin duties and injuries, the 22-year-old is lacking confidence and missed six tackles on the weekend of his 24 attempts.

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 19

Hamish NealLike the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round 19.

Manly ran riot, scoring eight tries in a 38-20 win over Gold Coast on Sunday but Queensland squad halfback Daly Cherry- Evans wasn’t a feature in the try scoring or try-assist statistics. Now that former Blues fullback Brett Stewart has returned, Manly has an extra bow in attack. In addition to his own try, Stewart had three try assists on the weekend and Kieran Foran had two. The extra threat of Stewart chiming in from fullback could cause opponents problems in the run up to the finals.

Raiders rookie Sami Sauiluma was dynamic in the cold as the Raiders toppled the Eels 14-0 on Saturday. The 22-year-old winger broke nine tackles in running for 147 metres from his 12 runs. With plenty of attention on Anthony Milford, who has been playing in a utility role, local junior Sauiluma has stepped up in the absence of fellow flyer Edrick Lee.

The return to the NRL of Craig Gower has created plenty of attention, not least about how he is used off the bench for the Knights. However it was Chris Houston with the impressive numbers for Newcastle in their 32-14 win over Penrith for those not starting the match. The NSW south-coast junior played 58 minutes for Wayne Bennett’s side and registered 32 tackles for 17 runs. The Knights also got solid work from Neville Costigan and the returning David Fa’alogo as the other big men on the bench.

Elsewhere in work-horse land, coming off the disappointment of the Origin loss NSW forward Trent Merrin started off the bench for the Dragons as the joint-venture side upset Souths in golden point. Waiting all weekend for the match didn’t seem to dull Merrin’s enthusiasm when injected. Playing 67 minutes the 23-year-old Shellharbour junior made 37 tackles and ran for 173 metres from his 20 runs.

Nex year’s Eel, Nathan Peats, gave a glimpse of what he will offer Parramatta fans when South Sydney thrashed Ricky Stuart’s men 30-10 in round 15. Granted a release from Souths during the week, Peats was playing in a slightly different role just over month ago on the edge to his normal hooking role but the versatile City Origin rep still produced 32 tackles along with 10 runs and two tackle breaks. Peats is sparingly used in games (in recent matches he has clocked as little as three minutes) but the blue and gold faithful will be heartened by the analysis of what the 22 year-old can do as an eighty-minute player.

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 15 & Origin II

Hamish NealLike the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round 15 and an Origin II golden point bonus.

Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson is giving Stephen Kearney one almighty headache when it comes to Sonny Bill Williams. Should the dual international make himself available for the World Cup, a case could be mounted for Williams, Shaun Johnson and Kieran Foran all starting in the halves for the Kiwis and that’s before considering World-Cup winning Benji Marshall! The ex-boxer’s adaptability across the park will mean it’s likely he won’t play in the halves but the tricolours’ win over the Bulldogs would have given the ex-Eels boss food for thought.

It may have come on a rainy night in Campbelltown in front of small crowd but Wests’ marquee buy Adam Blair put in a stirling effort to help lift the Tigers to just their fifth win of the season . The 27-year-old made 25 tackles and ran for 140 metres in his 20 hit-ups. With Aaron Woods away on Blues duty, the Kiwi forward played 70 minutes and it was a marked increase in input from a similar game in round 10 when he played 72 minutes for 26 tackles but ran only four times.

As Parramatta was humbled 30-10 on Sunday, Ricky Stuart was quick to criticise the penalty count against his side. However, the Eels’ lack of direction in attack continues to be a key reason for their position of last on the ladder. Chris Sandow (three runs) was again limp in attack but aside from the runs and the other main measures of a team’s attacking dominance, one number did stand out for the Eels on the weekend: one.  One kick to force a goal-line drop-out and it was made by centre Ryan Morgan in the last ten minutes of the game.

Storm five-eighth Gareth Widdop had already made 20 tackles in his 51 minutes on the park before he suffered a dislocated hip against the Gold Coast. The Titans had successfully blunted the Storm attack and despite debutant Ben Hampton’s moments of brilliance, John Cartwright’s side laid a very solid attacking platform running at Widdop, one of the visitors’ chief play-makers.

Origin-affected rounds get plenty of criticism, primarily due to the fact the big names are missing and quality is perceived to drop off. Whilst the first of those two points is factual and the second could be disputed. What the competition continues to deliver is contests which are in doubt right up until the end. Three of the games from round 15 were decided by six points or less so whilst the action may not always be of a high standard during the Origin period, the NRL is delivering great drama.

A golden point from Origin: Penalty counts, sin bins and horror debuts aside, Queensland completed their first 12 sets and that laid their platform to score a runaway victory. NSW’s failure to force an error in that period coupled with Queensland’s discipline meant the Blues were blown away well before half time.

FIVE METRE GAP: Round 16

Hamish NealBy HAMISH NEAL

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, reviewing the points from the NRL you may have missed from round 16.

After his game two Origin snub, Canberra prop Dave Shillington was a major contributor in a beaten side as the Raiders were thrashed 32-2 by Souths. In his 41 minutes on the field the 30-year-old made 21 tackles as well as producing 20 runs which tallied 186 metres. Should injury hit Queensland at all in the lead-up to game three it will be interesting to see if that effort will be enough for a recall.

Still shorn of a host of regular first-graders (including Braith Anasta, Keith Galloway and Lote Tuqiri) the Wests Tigers turned in a sensational effort to defeat the Melbourne Storm on Saturday evening at Leichhardt. With around seven regular first-graders and a host of fringe players missing the 22-4 win was an impressive effort. Despite the storyline about who the Storm was missing (Cameron Smith and Gareth Widdop), the players missing and the positional changes Mick Potter’s made meant the performance of the lesser-experience Tigers had to be one of the wins of the weekend, if not the season.

Warriors centre Konrad Hurrell produced a match-winning length of the field effort as the Auckland-based side stretched their win streak to five matches in defeating the Broncos 18-16. The barnstorming youngster ran 16 times for 247 metres, including his 71st minute try, and busted three tackles but significantly for the developing outside back he didn’t miss any tackles. Hurrell was a lot clearer in the execution of his defensive responsibilities with the 21-year-old having spent time in the NSW Cup to improve that aspect of his game this season.

One shining light in the Dragons’ loss to the Panthers was the form of debut centre Charly Runciman. Whilst light on in his statistics output mainly due to his side’s lack of go-forward 19-year-old Runciman produced an over-the-shoulder pass to set up Chase Stanley’s 65th minute try in a terrific piece of brilliance. This gave the visitors a chance at victory until they were eventually beaten 25-10. The NSW Under 20s representative’s performance against Penrith should see him with some further first grade opportunities.

During Monday Night Football, plenty of attention was on Manly’s Justin Horo when he was placed on report for what appeared to be an unlucky tackle on the Roosters Jared Waerea-Hargreaves. Nothing came of that decision after the match, however. What wasn’t widely acknowledged post-match was his 80 minute effort. Horo, 26, is not normally a full match player and racked up 33 tackles plus 13 hit-ups in a significant increase in his game time in a match which saw the Sea Eagles back row each play the entire encounter.