Take the Repeat Set: Finals Week 2
Here’s your Repeat Set for Week 2 of the NRL Finals.
Here’s your Repeat Set for Week 2 of the NRL Finals:
Raiders roll on
There’s always next season for…Roosters
Plays of the Round
Annesley’s Briefing Summary
The South Sydney Rabbitohs have rallied in the face of double-figure deficits in consecutive sudden-death finals games as they ended Parramatta’s 2020 season on Saturday with a seesawing 38-24 victory.
After giving away a 14-0 lead to the Knights the week before, the Rabbitohs fought back from 18-8 down against the Eels to book a preliminary final with the Penrith Panthers this weekend. While their tendency to leak points is somewhat of a concern, South Sydney have impressed with their ability to absorb pressure and keep themselves in the game and within reach of a few moments of individual brilliance.
Rookie Jaxson Paulo is one such individual.
The young winger has had an unspectacular start to his NRL career since debuting in Round 10, but his breakout performance was undoubtedly on Saturday night as he made a number of big plays that turned the game on its head for South Sydney.
He was unlucky not to get an early four-pointer when the Rabbitohs botched a right side backline shift in the preceding set, but he finished off a slick scrum set-piece shortly afterwards thanks in no small part to the work of Corey Allan on his inside:
Allan continues to impress with the subtleties of his game - he tucks the ball under his arm here which draws George Jennings in off the wing before releasing a perfectly timed pass to Paulo who dives low to finish in the corner.
Souths went on to give up that eight-point lead as a flood of Parramatta possession allowed Clint Gutherson to run riot, scoring two tries and setting up another in a 10 minute period where the Eels made just three tackles to Souths’ fifty-three. But the Rabbitohs didn’t panic, fighting back into the grind to halt the flow of points at 18-8.
Then, when Mitch Moses put up a mid-field bomb in the 35th minute, Paulo plucked it out of the air in his own red zone and sprinted 50 metres upfield, breaking the deadlock and swinging the momentum back towards Souths:
The Rabbitohs didn’t score off the back of this, but Paulo’s kick return relieved some of the pressure on South Sydney and allowed them to finish the half on the attack and enter the sheds well and truly within reach of Parramatta.
After wrapping them earlier in the week, South Sydney’s forward pack made us look good in the second half as they won the yardage battle and unleashed Damien Cook through the middle third of the field. Cook’s growing combination with bench forward Keaon Koloamatangi has been particularly enjoyable to watch, and is something we’ll look at more closely in our Finals Week 3 Preview later in the week.
But it was Paulo who again had a starring role to play in the Rabbitohs’ second-half comeback.
With less than 20 minutes to go and Souths in front, Parramatta looked to level the scores up when Mitchel Moses had a very-kickable penalty goal attempt… but we all know what happened next:
There’s plenty of luck involved in this play, but Paulo had the energy and skill to win the race to the loose ball before sending Jed Cartwright a further 20 metres upfield - and it proved to be a massive turning point. Four tackles later, Cook was again scheming from dummy half and earned a result when Gutherson fumbled Cook’s grubber and Bailey Sironen pounced on the loose ball to score.
These little effort moments were all overshadowed, however, by Paulo’s flashy intercept in the closing stages of the game to seal the result for the Rabbitohs:
Four big plays from the rookie winger, in the biggest game of his young career, that arguably proved the difference in what was otherwise a tightly fought contest. We can’t - and won’t - expect performances like this from Paulo each week, but the Rabbitohs are showing an encouraging ability to stay alive in games they wouldn’t have earlier in the season.
It goes without saying that giving away big leads to a team like Penrith next weekend is a whole other story. But this Rabbitohs team is full of confidence and belief in their ability to compete in the grind, while their scintillating offensive form of late means they’re never completely out of the race.
Raiders Roll On
The Canberra Raiders just keep doing it.
Their 22-18 win over the Sydney Roosters on Friday night is a perfect example of a team playing to their strengths and working hard to shut down those of the opposition.
Oscar mentioned the variation of the Raiders attack last week and we saw the best of it in this one.
Josh Papalii continued to give the Roosters nightmares just as he has done all season. In a sign of things to come for the match, Papalii found space in behind the ruck early on to get the Raiders up the field on this run:
As the Raiders looked to barge through around the ruck close to the line through Papalii, Hudson Young and Siliva Havili, Papalii eventually ran just a touch wider to take possession one-on-one with Boyd Cordner. His fast feet and sheer power were too much for the Roosters captain as the big prop forward crossed for the first try of the game:
Then game the 100-metre team effort that carried a lot of the same qualities as a similar setup last week.
Semi Valemei and Jordan Rapana take two tough carries to get the Raiders out to the 20-metre line before Nick Cotric and Papalii angle in behind the ruck. Cotric finds space and breaks enough of the tackle to earn a quick play-the-ball. With no markers in front, Papalii is able to take Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad’s pass and attract three defenders behind the ruck as he releases an offload:
Bateman continues down the same path. With Siosuia Taukeiaho still not back in the defensive line after making the tackle on Cotric and Kyle Flanagan failing to fill the space left by Jared Waerea-Hargreaves who was involved with Papalii, Nicoll-Klokstad wrong-foots a desperately sliding Flanagan to break the line. A simple draw and pass finishes off the 100-metre set with George Williams going over under the posts:
It’s not only in attack that the Raiders thrived on Friday night. They also did an excellent job in shutting down the Roosters’ greatest strength: attacking down the short side.
A few little things helped the Raiders. Cotric works especially hard from marker here. His inside pressure on Luke Keary allows his outside defence to keep sliding and push Morris to the sideline:
Morris was either forced over the sideline or went very close to be forced over a few times throughout the match.
The Roosters set up a lot of their short side raids by first sending a back rower at the inside shoulder of the halfback. That forces the defending back rower to get involved on the inside and can create the numbers advantage on the short side. But Williams sits very deep at marker here - probably too deep for some couch referees. While messy, the four Raiders defenders close down the space and force a Roosters error on this one:
The right Raiders all stepped up when they needed to on Friday night. They stuck to a well-crafted game plan and, quite frankly, dominated a Roosters side that never looked like winning in the end.
Whatever the Raiders lack in talent, they make up for in cohesion, resilience and overall effort in 2020. They’ve talked about going one better than in 2019 since this win. Given what we’ve seen over the last 12 months, you would be brave to write them off.
Goodbye - Parramatta Eels
It’s another case of one game summing up a season for Parramatta in 2020, as their seesawing loss to South Sydney in Week 2 of the Finals highlighted the Eels’ inability to compete for the full contest and win the big moments.
In a virtual parallel of their season, the Eels started strongly with their star-studded forward pack marching unchallenged upfield before the creative brilliance of Mitchell Moses or Clint Gutherson did the rest. But just as they slipped away in the second half against the Rabbitohs, so too did Parramatta’s season slip away at the back end following an impressive 12 wins from their opening 15 matches.
The absence of Maika Sivo, Blake Ferguson and Michael Jennings in the game that mattered most certainly didn’t help, but none of those three would have helped fix Parramatta’s inability to close out the game on Saturday night.
Two big moments from that match were, for me, turning points for Parramatta and areas they must look to for next season:
32nd minute, 18-8 to Eels
The Rabbitohs are on the ropes and Parramatta have all the momentum attacking Souths’ line. On fourth tackle, Gutherson throws a double cutout to George Jennings on the wing but the pass goes awry and all pressure is released. You could argue that the pass was on, but Souths were gassed and Parra just needed to complete their sets and maintain possession rather than go for the kill shot here. Instead, the Rabbitohs get out of their own end and finished the first half on the attack.
61st minute, 18-20 to Souths
Mitchell Moses misses a fairly simple shot at goal and a chance to level the scores. Instead, Souths go the length and score for what was effectively an eight-point turn-around. Moses will be hammered on the socials for far too long over this, and in reality, it was just one small moment in the game - but one he needed to get right.
Parramatta’s lack of execution in those big moments - and from their big-name players - will be at the forefront of Brad Arthur’s season review in the coming weeks.
Unfortunately, we’ll have to get through another summer of speculation as the socials argue over Moses in particular, and his position at the club moving forward.
There’s no arguing the Eels have the quality on paper to win a comp, but it seems there are still a few pieces of the puzzle missing.
The Parramatta Eels exited the finals in straight sets again with plenty of questions already being asked about their future, if they have the coach to reach their goals or the halfback to produce the plays on Grand Final night.
They’re a difficult team to assess in the aftermath of a disappointing end to the season. Starting the year so well, Parramatta were talked about as premiership contenders. While unconvincing throughout the second half of the season, they continued to win games - offering hope of a resurgence come finals time. They ultimately came up short, though.
However, despite ending at the same point, 2020 is a slight improvement on 2019. Key players in the middle of the field made significant improvements - the sort that should stick through to next season. Reed Mahoney has taken a leap in his career while Clint Gutherson led from the front all year. Healthy Dylan Brown was arguably their best playmaker for much of the season.
Parramatta can take plenty of positives out of the season.
But then there are the 12 points per game Parramatta scored between Round 12 and 18.
There are the 37 points per game they conceded in the finals.
The Eels didn’t sustain their early-season form despite being in a favourable position to do so.
While every team is forced to deal with injuries, Parramatta had some luck there too.
Courtesy of Rugby League Project (become a Patreon if you care about keeping a good record of rugby league history), you can see how often Parramatta was able to play with their first-choice 17. Moses and Brown both missed time, but overall, Parramatta used the fewest players (26) of all 16 teams and can count themselves relatively lucky in the injury department.
Parramatta set the table for a promising season by starting with eight wins and one loss to be at the top of the ladder after nine rounds. Their left edge attack dominated to pile up points while their defence was among the best in the competition.
But in the end, Parramatta’s 20 points per game ranked a decidedly average 9th in the NRL while their 4th-ranked defence conceding 16.5 points per game was absent in October.
It was a season of two halves for Parramatta. The challenge is determining which half of the season is real when looking ahead to 2021.
There’s Always Next Week (Year) For…
We stuck by them until the very end, and what an exciting end it was for the defending premiers whose fairytale attempt at an NRL three-peat came to a close on Friday night at the hands of the Canberra Raiders.
Roosters fans will be excused for feeling like they beat themselves last weekend, as uncharacteristic errors and a lack of cohesion in the biggest game of their season meant the tri-colours looked likely without looking convincing for most of the game.
Anyone who tries to suggest that James Tedesco is no longer the best current fullback in the NRL should be promptly directed towards a replay of this match, as the tireless number one put the team on his back only to fall desperately short:
Luke Keary - while still being one of the Roosters’ most dangerous players with the ball in hand - had an off night, with a number of passes hitting the deck despite Keary creating the overlap already. His early-game concussion may have had an effect on this, but what Keary’s HIA-enforced 15 minute break highlighted more so was Kyle Flanagan’s shortcomings on the big stage.
Flanagan is a player likely to attract plenty of criticism over the offseason - most of it unwarranted - following a relatively disappointing first finals series. Head Coach Trent Robinson will certainly be looking for ways to support his halfback next season, and injured lock Victor Radley looms as the primary candidate.
A quick look at Radley’s numbers from last season compared to his 2020 season form highlights an interesting trend. He averaged 6.6 passes from 18.6 receipts across the Rooster’s last three matches in 2019; fairly standard numbers for a lock forward in today’s game.
But in the 2020 season, Radley averaged 16.3 passes from 27.5 receipts in the six games he played. Over the offseason, Radley tripled his passes per game, while greatly increasing his involvement on the ball to become one of the Rooster’s most valuable attacking players. And most importantly, he alleviated some of the pressure off Flanagan as a rookie playmaker.
It’s no secret that the Roosters missed Radley this season. He can be a game-changer in defence, while the way Robinson had him acting as a ballplayer in the middle third has been emulated by more than half the coaches in the NRL since. Not to mention the energy he brings on both sides of the ball - fatigued images like this as Jack Wighton crossed for the match-winner have been few and far between over the last two seasons:
We’re not a fan of the whole “Roosters ran out of gas” angle here at RLW, but maybe there was an element of truth to this in the tired, closing stages of that match against the Raiders. Or in isolated moments throughout the season. Regardless, this is an elite roster, at an elite club led by an elite coach. They’ll be well and truly in the conversation again next year - of that, we have no doubt.
Plays of the Round
The Rabbitohs left edge made up a lot of the pregame conversation, but it’s the right side that produced key plays with the game in the balance; one in defence and one in attack.
In a move perhaps inspired by what Walker and Reynolds have been running with on their right edge in recent weeks, Moses swept over to the left side. The intent is great. There isn’t a better ball-playing big man to run this shape with than Junior Paulo. The idea is to force the opposition back rower into turning in on Paulo while Shaun Lane drags the halfback to the sideline with a late overs line, but having seen Walker and Reynolds do something similar on his outside shoulder so often over the last two months, Jaydn Su’A read it like a book:
It’s a massive tackle at that point of the match. With the Eels hot on attack and a chance at extending their lead back out to double-digits, Su’A closes it down with the Rabbitohs eventually cleaning up a Moses grubber. From there comes the attacking play that got the Rabbitohs rolling into the preliminary final.
We touched on how much more Reynolds is running the ball before Souths played Newcastle in Week 1. Perhaps unaware of how often Reynolds has put his head down of late, Andrew Davey doesn’t come off his line square and instead heads straight out to Corey Allan. Lane isn’t particularly eager out of marker either. With one quick dummy and step Reynolds is through the line, Cameron Murray is over the white one, and the Rabbitohs start to take over on their way to a 38-24 win:
Graham Anselsey’s Briefing Summary
Despite not being ones to spend a lot of time focused on referees and measuring the impact a single poor decision can have on a game, we want to offer a summary of Graham Annesley’s weekly reviews that doesn’t deliberately mislead or misuse quotes to generate further controversy.
Not a lot from Graham Annesley this week…
"None of the incidents fell into the category of generating controversy that would necessitate us talking about them today."
Instead, Annesley wanted to show some of the positive numbers that have come out of the NRL Finals so far.
"Games have been closer."
"The quality of the game is reflected in some of these statistics."
Annesley talked further about the increase in points, tries, linebreaks and offloads per game and decrease in penalties per game throughout the 2020 finals series compared to previous seasons.
On Nicoll-Klokstad's high tackle on Josh Morris: He effectively called it a judgement call.
"It really comes down to a matter of personal opinion."
Subscribe to Rugby League Writers: Two articles on a Monday to recap the round, and another two on Thursday to preview the next one.
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