Wednesday 16 August 2017 / 11:24 PM

NRL TRENDWATCH

As each team has passed the halfway mark of their campaign, we look at some of the trends that have emerged throughout the NRL year and what they will mean heading into the defining stretch of the season.

Second-row is now the deepest position in the league

A few years ago, it seemed as though fullback was undoubtedly the best-stocked position in the league. But going through the lists atop each position, the quality and depth of terrific back-rowers has eclipsed the field of No.1s. To think that outstanding talents like Kevin Proctor and Josh Papalii, both internationals, would struggle to crack the top five is a testament to said depth.

There is at least seven – Cordner, Frizell, Jackson, Graham, Gillett, Papalii, Proctor – players at the spot who could be considered elite (far more than any other position), plus a host of high level veterans (Thaiday, Lewis, Cooper) and some phenomenal prospects coming through (Hess, Kaufusi, Mata’utia, Crichton). More than ever, teams are looking to the edges for strike-power.

Wingers are insane

Relative to their time, it’s becoming a fair point to say that wingers today are the best ever, offensively speaking.

The conversion rate for tries attempted down the sideline, now commonly with their bodies past the boundary, is just insane, producing some spectacular tries and stretching the defence past the field of play. It’s having an impact tactically, as teams are overcommitting to guard the corner and becoming vulnerable on the inside. The kick takes have now gone to another level – just last week two games were decided on plays involving wingers pulling down kicks, with Feldt and Ferguson scoring winning tries on the flank.

This is the best it’s ever been, so don’t take it for granted. As for some of the wing defence…we’ll just let that slide for the moment.

Is the ‘momentum football’ style is dying?

Canberra, New Zealand and Penrith represent the most foundational argument for this notion.

The Warriors have struggled to replicate anything resembling their usual style, finding success (relative term) in reverting to a simplistic, completion-based game. Penrith struggled mightily through the first 10 rounds of the competition, having to reorganise their team structure, and Canberra, believed to be the most talented team in the comp, have failed to make a dent in defensive lines, let alone the competition, losing all but one close game all season.

Here’s the counterpoint — these teams’ difficulties may have something to do with their structure (or lack thereof), but that’s not the end of the conversation. Identity, team balance and finding a style that best compliments your talents are still more influential than the type of football itself.

Predictability is probably the biggest issue here, where the Panthers, who failed to build a foundation before swinging the ball across the park, were found out. The Raiders’ late-game stumbles have the pedestrian form of their halves to blame, and the Warriors, well, are the Warriors. Each case is unique.

The Roosters play a toned-down version of this, using their hulking forward pack to generate momentum for their more structured backline. The hybrid style is the future for teams that look to implement this system.

Alternate kicking options

Alternate kicking options started to emerge at the back end of last year, and after rivals saw the effectiveness of the tactic, it has quickly spread across the league. This is nothing new — Jamie Lyon was one of the pioneers of this tactic through his time with Manly, but the frequency and success when used is at an all-time high.

Forcing defensives to stay alert, it provides another option when the halves are under pressure or an opportunity to capitalise when the outside defenders clock off a play early. Cronulla were first on this trend, utilising the versatility and talented kicking of Jack Bird, Luke Lewis, and the most effective non-half kicker in the league, Wade Graham. Expect this to continue and have an impact in the finals.

Players returning from Origin

Seems to go one of two ways — rep stars either come back to clubland with a renewed energy and look a tier above from their competition, or they get injured.

The intensity of the Origin arena lifts players to new heights that makes regular club footy come so easy. Take just last week, as Frizell and Dugan starred for the Dragons, Glasby had his best game of the season on the back of his Queensland debut, and Dane Gagai has continued his rise thanks to some rep momentum, just to name a few.

But playing high intensity rugby league comes with a breaking point. Thurston, Boyd, Milford and Cordner are all gone, and a host of other players a nursing serious injuries. Either way, the Origin schedule continues to have an impact on the competition, one way or another.

Cameron Smith is the best player of all time

This could have been argued for at least the last three years, but at this point it isn’t really much of a conversation. Clearly still the far-and-away the best player in the game, here is Smith, just turned 34, maintaining his usual elite production, leading a team who has gone through its fair share of injuries to the top the table, whilst standing five points ahead on the Dally M leaderboard when voting went behind closed doors.

That’s just this year, ignoring his long list of historic achievements, including being the best winner in the history of the game and well on his way to the most appearances in first grade and Test football, along with becoming the first 40-Origin player this year. The only comparisons for him now lie inter-sport, with the likes of Richie McCaw, Tom Brady and Tim Duncan.

Thurston’s unfortunate Origin farewell should remind us of the fragility of sports careers. To have the G.O.A.T. going around at the peak of his powers is something worth celebrating. He won’t be around forever, even though it feels like he already has.

Trending Up

Jason Taumololo – While Cowboys’ injury luck threatens to strike down their campaign, JT2 has put the team on his back, hitting a purple patch over the last month, running for an average of 222 metres a game over his last five, including cracking the 300-mark, against the Storm no less.

Josh McGuire – Should be high on the shortlist of most improved player, his move to lock elevating him to a new level of football. Tremendous in club footy and both Origins, and was unlucky to not walk away with the best on ground award after Game 2. Instrumental to the Broncos’ chances.

Trending Down

St George Illawarra Dragons – Smashing their initial expectations, a rampaging start to the year had hopes of a top-four birth quickly rising. If the last month has taught us anything, it’s that regression to the mean is inevitable, and that the Dragons’ hot start doesn’t suggest they have what it takes to be there at the end. Still a top-eight team, but they play too simplistic a style to compete with the best when it matters.

Jarryd Hayne – Responded well after a dismal showing in Origin II. But therein lies the problem: Hayne hasn’t been remotely dependable or consistent, and his only two passable games have come against the Knights and Tigers, the two undisputed worst teams in the comp. The Titans are forking out too much of their cap for that.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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