Almanac League: Five Metre Gap – NRL Finals Week One 2016

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from the opening weekend of the NRL finals. Melbourne and Cronulla secured themselves the week off, and head straight into a preliminary final, with the Titans and Bulldogs eliminated by Brisbane and Penrith respectively. The Cowboys and Canberra will now host semi-finals this weekend after they suffered defeats to the Storm and Cronulla respectively.

Five Metre Gap’s wrap of round 26 highlighted the efficient work of the Melbourne Storm in completing their sets and the adherence to the basics again laid the platform for Craig Bellamy’s on side on Saturday evening when they beat the Cowboys 16-10 in Melbourne. The result was a stalemate at halftime (6-6) after Cowboys’ winger Antonio Winterstein notched a four-pointer almost of the bell but it was a rare blemish in a half when Melbourne missed only three (!) tackles. Compare that with the 32 missed by North Queensland all match and it pinpoints the bedrock on which Melbourne base their game. Melbourne missed 14 tackles in the match, which was the best from all the finals sides on the weekend. Even allowing for the fact this statistic doesn’t note players who misread a play and fail to make the right effort to affect a tackle at all the figure is an important one from the minor premiers on a weekend when some sides who won games missed over 30 tackles.

Cronulla were the only side to win away from their home city on the opening weekend of the finals edging the Raiders 16-14 in Canberra. However one interesting aspect late in the game was coach Shane Flanagan’s decision to replace halfback Chad Townsend for tactical reasons. The former Warriors playmaker made way for Gerard Beale with Jack Bird shifting into the halves and Beale to centre. The following evening Fa’amanu Brown, who has featured for the Sharks in the top grade this season, guided Cronulla’s second-tier outfit the Newtown Jets to a 22-18 win over the New Zealand Warriors’ reserves. Brown, 21, laid on a deft left-foot kick for the Jets’s second try and the Christchurch-born playmaker displayed a clever general kicking game late in the match to run the clock down as the Jets secured the right to play the Illawarra Cutters (Dragons reserves) next Sunday in Lilyfield. If Brown can guide the Bluebags into the NSW second-tier decider Townsend’s spot could be shaky for the preliminary final in just under a fortnight.

In a beaten team Raiders bench forward Joseph Tapine was impressive running for 113 metres on Saturday evening in the ACT. Tapine was only seven metres short of starting forward Josh Papalii who was the Raiders’ best in that regard with 120 metres and the former Knight made some strong runs as Ricky Stuart’s team tried to get a decisive second-half try. The impact of Canberra’s bench forwards will be crucial against Penrith next weekend as the likely absence of hooker Josh Hodgson means the delivery from dummy half, whilst adequate from Kurt Baptiste is unlikely to be as crisp as the Englishman. Penrith will use everyone opportunity to compress Canberra in attack next weekend but the lime green forwards must not only make metres but provide quick play of the balls.

On the subject of Hodgson’s likely absence the loss of the former Hull KR rake was crucial from an attacking standpoint as the Raiders fell to Cronulla, and will be even more so for the Raiders if Blake Austin is also missing for the clash with Anthony Griffin’s team. It was notable that despite the absence of Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen (who was a pre-game withdrawal) and the injury to Wade Graham that forced him from the field early in the game the defence from the replacement players as long as it was the same or just below in terms of efficiency provided enough of a platform to starve Canberra of good attacking chances but allow the fight Cronulla playmakers to, even if they didn’t score freely, make easy ground in attack. The was highlighted by the fact two Sharks forwards Andrew Fifita and Matt Prior made over 200 metres each.

Of the two games coming up this weekend it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that each of the top four sides that will feature (the Cowboys and Raiders) could exit the finals in straight sets – losing both their matches. Brisbane, for all the controversy around their 44-28 win over the Titans, displayed great attacking prowess and have only lost to Melbourne since the start of August. In that period the Cowboys suffered a defeat to the Roosters, scoring only 10 points in that game, and have had far more travel to deal with than the Broncos. However Brisbane’s attack is heavily reliant on Anthony Milford with the playmaker running on 16 occasions in Friday night to fellow half Ben Hunt’s two runs. Bar only one occasion, Penrith and Canberra having been free-scoring recently having notched at least 22 points in each of their games since the start of August. The only exception to this for Penrith was their 15-14 golden point win over the Titans in round 25. Whilst for Canberra their 14 points on the weekend was their lowest total in the last month and a half. There is something about this Penrith side that impresses me and I’m not sure Canberra can win a semi-final if both Hodgson and Austin are missing.

This review first appeared on From the sideline of sport

 

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About Hamish Neal

Born in Lower Hutt New Zealand Hamish is forever wedded to all things All Black, All Whites, Tall Blacks and more. Writing more nowadays in his 'spare time' (what is that anyway?) but still with a passion for broadcasting. Has worked in various sports development roles in England, Northern Ireland and Australia.

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