Papenhuyzen v Meaney v Faalogo: How can the Storm fit all of their fullbacks into one team?
Having three excellent options for one of your key positions is a decent problem to have.
For Craig Bellamy and the Melbourne Storm, the last few years have been a little challenging.
It’s not that they’ve been bad, they’ve just not been elite – and for a team like the Storm, that represents a drop in standards.
Central to that fall has been the long absence of Ryan Papenhuyzen. He’s had not one, but two horrendous, unfortunate injuries that have kept him from the NRL so long that it’s hard to remember quite how good he once was.
At the start of 2022 and for most of the two seasons before that, Papi was greased lightening, the cherry on top of an excellent Storm side.
Bellamy’s attacking system largely relies on his great players to be great, and Papenhuyzen’s combination with Cameron Munster and Jahrome Hughes certainly was that.
Those three, plus Harry Grant scheming from behind the ruck, made the Storm one of the best teams to watch and created perhaps the most likely team to topple the Panthers.
Then, with one hard charge from Jack Wighton, it all fell apart.
Melbourne, however, are made of tough stuff. The ‘next man up’ thing is as cliché as it gets, but the Storm do it as well as anyone.
Into the breach stepped Nick Meaney, who was brilliant in 2023, cementing his place as one of the most underrated players in the comp.
While he was up in the top grade, rumours spread of the next next man up, Sua Faalogo, who impressed in Trials, tore up the Queensland Cup, debuted in the NRL and then blew everyone out of the water for Samoa in the Pacific Championships.
The bad thing about losing your best players is that you lose your best players, but every absence is an opportunity. Now, Melbourne have three fullbacks they could play, and probably have to find somewhere to put them all in the 17.
If Papi is fit, he takes the 1 jumper to start the year. Meaney can’t not play, so will have to go somewhere. Sua is too good to spend much loinger in reggies. He needs first grade games to reach his sky-high potential.
So what is the solution to get them all in? And what can the data tell us about the best arrangement?
We have Meaney’s 2023, of course, and we’ll use Papenhuyzen’s 2022, the last time he made enough appearances for a decent sample size to see what the Storm have been missing.
Just for fun, we can also grab Papi’s 2018 Q Cup stats and compare them with Faalogo’s, in an attempt to see just how much needless expectation we should heap upon the debutant.
Meaney has great utility value in the backline, but the likely set-up this year is that he will play centre, given the departure of Justin Olam, the prominence of Will Warbrick and Xavier Coates on the wings and the fact that he has to play somewhere.
The issue is that Meaney has started just one game in the NRL as a centre, so instead, we can look at key metrics for that position and wonder aloud about how transferable those skills might be.
Right: here goes nothing.
Papenhuyzen’s 2022 was, obviously, exceptional and would immediately jump him up into Tom Trbojevic/Scott Drinkwater level of fullback for Creativity Value (CV), the advanced stat that measures positive creative output.
It wasn’t quite in the Reece Walsh/Kalyn Ponga bracket, but then literally nobody is.
Most interestingly, Papi is almost exactly where he was in 2018 in the Q Cup, proving that all the potential he showed in the lower grades translated into the NRL once he had sufficient experience, which is pretty much exactly what you’re looking for in a young player.
Dig deeper into the mulleted fullback’s stats and it only gets better. He’s got a split across both creating for others and for himself, but it is his running that is most impressive.
Papenhuyzen’s line breaks would have been the best of any fullback in 2023, more even than Walsh and Ponga, but notably he does it with very average tackle-breaking ability. This is all speed.
This is even more stark when one considers Attacking Metres – net metres minus kick return metres – which are, by a distance, the best in the NRL. Papi wasn’t in the team to start sets, but he could certainly finish them.
Meaney, comparatively, is absolutely nowhere, and it’s a little bit unfair to make the comparison because elite creativity isn’t his game, but it is worth pointing out to illuminate further what the Storm lost in attack from Papenhuyzen not being there.
What he was is actually quite positive, because the skills he brought are much more transferable elsewhere.
Where Papenhuyzen can’t really go anywhere but fullback, Meaney’s yardage work would more than allow him to transition into the centres.
We can’t use stats to tell if he can defend there, as the task of defending at fullback is so different, but in attack, one could point to Metres per Run (MPR) that are almost identical to Olam – who was dropped for his defence, not his attack – and tackle break stats that equal Reimis Smith, the other Storm centre.
In attack, then, we could assume that he is at least not a massive drop off on what was already there.
We could throw in that his passing game came on leaps and bounds in a year as an elite side’s 1 and that Meaney also was forced to do a whole lot of other donkey work at the back that he couldn’t be asked to do in the centres.
Meaney also achieved those numbers while at a bodyweight designed for the long runs of fullback rather than the shuttle sprints of a centre, so he could conceivably have bulked up if he knew he would be defending in the front line in 2024.
What about the other guy then?
Faalogo only has one game of NRL behind him, but based on his Q Cup, we should be very excited indeed.
His creative stats, both for himself and for others, are better than Papenhuyzen’s at the equivalent stage of his career, with top level tackle breaking, an excellent pass, a willingness to take on the line and, crucially, yardage work too.
There is a minor data caveat in that Faalogo’s numbers are from 2023, with the Six Again in play and Papenhuyzen’s are from prior to the rule change, but even so, these are as good as it gets for young fullbacks.
Looking at the numbers, it’s not at all surprising that Faalogo was so impressive at a higher level and, really, if he was in another system, it’s likely that he would have played a lot more first grade than he has.
Bellamy’s big challenge is getting enough footy into his young gun.
At 20, it’s certainly possible that Faalogo could continue in reggies for another year and with the Storm having added the North Sydney Bears to their feeder system, perhaps the NSW Cup – which has a slightly higher level – is a good staging post.
It might even be that a loan move, similar to the one that got Harry Grant vital game time, is the best option, if the Storm could find a taker.
Given Papenhuyzen’s injury history, the best option might be to keep Sua up the sleeve and let him loose should anything go wrong rather than immediately reverting Meaney to the 1 jumper.
Papi at 1, Meaney at 4 and Faalogo wowing the hipsters at North Sydney Oval isn’t a bad way to start the year for Bellamy and the Storm.