Taylan v Sunia v Paul: It’s a threeway race to replace Crichton – could it be the Panthers’ forgotten man?
They used to say of fast bowlers that, when England needed a new one, they could just whistle down a coal mine and the next Harold Larwood would walk out.
For many years, Penrith seem to have had the same relationship with outside backs: when one leaves, they could simply look to their superb junior nursery in Western Sydney and find someone equally as good.
There’s the big three of Jarome Luai, Stephen Crichton and Brian To’o, of course, fresh off the Mt Druitt pipeline, but it has been the quality of the supporting cast that has kept the show on the road.
Izack Tago, Taylan May and Sunia Turuva have all come in and picked up seamlessly.
Now, with the departure of Crichton to the Bulldogs, there’s a new spot in the backline and, for the first time ever, no obvious candidate to take over. Ivan Cleary has some serious thinking to do.
May missed the entirety of 2023 with an ACL injury, which allowed Turuva to take over his spot on the wing, and for the first time in a long time, the Panthers have gone external too, with Paul Alamoti going the other way along the M4 from Belmore.
There would be nothing more Bulldogs than a hugely touted local junior from Bankstown being unceremoniously ditched in his debut year, only to become a world beater at the Panthers, but that is a realistic possibility with Alamoti.
Towards the start of last year, Josh Addo-Carr described his then-inside man as having the potential to be one of the best in the world, and even if you take a little bit of that as a very enthusiastic man talking about his teammate, it didn’t sound totally ridiculous either.
Alamoti had been an absolute standout in NSW Cup, looked more than up to the job physically and was just 19 – in fact, he still is, turning 20 next week.
His undoubted potential creates something of a selection dilemma for the Panthers.
They have two excited young outside backs on the books already who have done absolutely nothing wrong and deserve to play.
Neither has any great experience at centre. Tito featured there for Fiji in last year’s Pacific Championships and in the World Club Challenge, but that’s it as far as top level experience goes, while the best that Tiny has to offer is three NSW Cup apperances.
Alamoti might not have the runs on the board that the other two do, but he is a centre and a centre only, with 19 games of NRL and 20 in reggies.
The centre role is an interesting one.
It has been one of the most maligned in the last decade or so as wingers become more involved in yardage and locks take over on the creative front, but in the last year or so it has roared back, with the likes of Crichton, Herbie Farnworth and Joey Manu sparking a mini-revival of what was once a real glamour position.
The archetype has changed considerably, too.
Critta was a deluxe player, equally adept in yardage and creativity as well as perhaps the best defensive centre around, and Manu is too, with a skillset that might see him play fullback in any other team except one that also has James Tedesco.
But beyond those two, there’s the elite runners, like Farnworth and Matt Timoko, who specialise in tackle breaks and destructive carrying, but also creative players like Zac Lomax and Bradman Best who look to put other guys through holes as much as themselves.
There’s also what you might call ‘second wingers’ – Dane Gagai, Valentine Holmes – who play much the same as the guy outside of them, as well as a whole heap of other guys that don’t fit neatly into holes, like converted forward Siosifa Talakai and defensive specialist Campbell Graham.
Which of the three options the Panthers want, then, will largely depend on what sort of centre they think fits.
It’s impossible to replace Crichton, who is one of the best in the world, and all of our trio have strengths and weaknesses.
Their diverse backgrounds does make them hard to compare, but we’ll have a red hot crack anyway.
For Turuva, it’s pretty easy: we take his 2023 stats as a winger and try to discern what that might mean as a centre.
For May, we’ll do the same but with 2022, as he didn’t play at all last year and for Alamoti, we can be clever.
He had one year of first grade as a centre at the Dogs, so that goes in, but just for fun, we can also add his 2022 of NSW Cup, when he played in a more dominant system and with a supporting cast that wasn’t made of wet cardboard defensively, like the 2023 Doggies were.
So who stands out? Well, if you were picking 2022’s Paul Alamoti, it’s him all day.
Imagine he was college redshirted out of 2023’s disastrous Bulldogs team and you’d still be talking about him as an elite prospect.
This is a guy who was clearly way too good for the NSW Cup and, in a more functional system, we could have seen a lot more.
Let’s talk the good stuff.
As a runner, he was only behind Turuva for metres per run, and that got even better when kick returning was taken out.
Alamoti also had the fastest play the ball, which he carried up to the NRL, and actually won a more rucks at first grade level, according to his win/loss percentage for PTBs.
His offloading was a notable upside in 2022 – his NSW Cup numbers from 2022 would have comfortably topped the NRL in 2023 – but he was clearly told to put that part of his game away on moving to first grade.
As far as creativity was concerned, the 2022 version was equalling Joey Manu and Zac Lomax for line break assists, while also showing an excellent ability to get up and around the footy, with an Off Ball Value (OBV) – an advanced stat designed to measure push supports and decoys – that was in the top 10 of all centres.
The big knock on Alamoti was his defence. Even in NSW Cup, his Effective Tackle Percentage (ET%) dipped below 80%, which dropped yet further in his transition to grade.
His stats for line breaks caused were also pretty dreadful, in the ten worst in the NRL in 2023, another drop-off from his Cup numbers.
Taken against the other two options, however, things might look different. Turuva’s ET% was barely better than 2023 Alamoti, despite facing half as many tackles per game.
What would happen if he had to do more? May is a lot better than both, but much the same could be asked of him.
Defence is the aspect of the game most dependent on other players, and the closer you get to the wing, the more pronounced that is.
Alamoti made a lot of bad reads in defence, sure, but he also played in a highly disfunctional defensive unit.
How much of that was him being a bad defender and how much was the general Bulldogsitis that affected the whole team?
Given that he isn’t yet 20 and is now part of a much better collective, it would be a reasonable expectation that he could improve that part of his game.
The stats are clear that Turuva is the best winger of the three – better than May was in 2022 – and given how the Panthers play, it might be that their best option is to keep him where he is for now.
May’s centre potential is interesting, because he can match either version of Alamoti as a ball-carrier, with exceptional numbers for tackle breaks and a PTB Win % that suggests that a move inside could certainly work from a yardage perspective.
What he has never had to show is a pass, however, or positioning in defence. Alamoti’s is pretty bad, at least from what he has shown so far, but May is an unknown quantity there.
As we have seen from Joseph Suaalii, the transition inwards can be hardest without the ball and between the ears.
The modern winger has a fairly simply job – start sets and finish them – whereas the centre has to juggle more parts of the game, with defensive reads, attacking movement and support play a lot more complicated.
With Crichton gone, Penrith lose a guy who is elite in all three, and it might be that they need to rethink their attack to choose the next guy.
If Ivan wants to replace Crichton’s attacking output, especially in the offensive 20m zone, then a bustling, offloading, creative centre like Alamoti – especially if he can reproduce the form he showed in 2022 – would be their man.
If they want a more conservative option, a guy who can keep the rolling barrage out of the backfield going, then Tiny May is the more proven quantity, with established connections and, at 22, space to grow into the role as well.
It’s telling that, if Alamoti had left to the Panthers last year and played in NSW Cup, we’d not be having this discussion. He’d be the next man up from a long line of next men up.
Instead, we have a negative sample as well as a positive one. Where the Panthers go next should be fascinating to watch.