Five and a kick: Hasler’s pain game, RTS is a choke point and why Souths should give Demetriou a month


Anzac Round is done and another NRL touchpoint is ticked off amid the onward march of the 2024 season.

It helps to see things like that: you get your run to Easter, then Anzac, then Magic Round, then oblivion, as all the lovely sample size you build up over time goes up in smoke to play out Parochial All Stars, as we’ll be calling Origin from here out, and ignore the meaningful competition.

Call it Pommy bias, but I like my rugby league competitions without a third of the season ruined.

This is the best time of year, because every side is in the fight – whatever their fight might be – and thus every game has a story to be told and a tactical narrative to follow.

Here’s what we learned this week.

1. Des meditates on pain

Last week, we introduced the concept of sufferball into rugby league – nicked off soccer, of course – in relation to the Dragons and their new found ability to withstand pain.

The point wasn’t that they had been defending well (and the invoice is in the post, Trent Robinson, for puffing up their tyres) but rather that one of the things a defensively-minded coach could do in a short time was to increase the willingness of the group to compete, even if better defensive structures would take time to bed in.

Des Hasler is in the same boat as Shane Flanagan, and on the evidence of his team’s win in New Zealand, he’s bringing in the same mentality.

Life is suffering for both the Buddha and Dessie, much as their hairstyles might say otherwise, and his teams have always been known as fighters.

Installing that into the Gold Coast is the toughest of asks for a club with the fortitude of a well-cooked piece of asparagus, but it was hard to watch the last 20 minutes of their win in Auckland and not see it.

Structures will take time. Any edge defence that includes Brian Kelly will be porous. Nirvana was not achieved in a day. But, just maybe, something is changing.

(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

2. Roger might be a problem

Let’s be real, however. The defence was good because there were shapes to defend and, for once, it looked like the Titans had seen them before.

Against Manly, they seemed shocked by the idea that Tom Trbojevic might turn up in a right side shape, somewhat quaint given Des coached him for four years.

This time, however, they’d done their homework and, despite conceding twice in the opening ten minutes to moves we’ve seen a hundred times, they did eventually kick into action.

What helped was that the Wahs have been running a lot of the same stuff for a whiel now.

There’s two pet plays – one to Addin Fonua-Blake, the other to Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – that they love, and once you start to stop them, there doesn’t seem to be much that follows.

Intrinsically, the Andrew Webster edition of the Warriors has been quite conservative.

 They’ve got the lowest pass-per-run ratio (PPR) in the league, 1.16, tied with the Sharks and Broncos, but differ in that they also have one of the lowest hit up percentages (HU%).

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What does that mean? If you look at the PPR of an expansive side, it’s either because they’re hitting the edges early – Manly, for example, are miles ahead on 1.36 – or low, because they play one-out for the first few tackles, then go wide, in which case you’d get a high HU% to go with it, as in the case of the Sharks and Bronx.

New Zealand have a low PPR and a low HU%. They also have an 81% completion rate, suggesting a focus on error-free footy over risk.

That’s lead to multiple games where they’ve piled on pressure, but not broken opponents. Cronulla, Canberra, Manly and now the Titans have made this side struggle.

An issue to follow is Roger Tuivasa-Sheck. His personal PPR was 1.2, with 15 runs from 18 possessions, compared to Rocco Berry, who was a round 2 with five runs from ten possessions.

Obviously, RTS is a great set starter, but it also speaks to a guy who isn’t getting the ball to the man outside of him.

Is that him? Is that defences knowing that he likes to step inside? Either way, it’s a block in their attack at the moment and one that Webster has to try to solve soon.

Nicho Hynes. (Photo by Brendon Thorne/Getty Images)

3. The kids are alright at Canberra

Ricky Stuart has been around a long time and doesn’t need anyone to tell him how to survive as a coach, but let’s do it anyway.

Coaches live or die based on two things: success, or the feeling of success to come.

If, like Anthony Seibold at Manly, you’re playing a way that fans enjoy, you get a potential third option, though enough defeats will land you can at part one again.

Sticky’s sides have never really been razzle dazzle, but this year’s bunch stand out as one of the more expansive (or at least, less attritional), and for the first time in a long time, they do qualify for the second category.

Though defeated heavily by the Sharks, there was a lot of youth on the field and fans are getting to see the future of the Raiders at a time when there has been a growing feeling that the generation of 2019 was whimpering away.

He wasn’t using it as an excuse, but did mention it in the presser after the match.

“I’m not backtracking from the path we’ve taken with a lot of those younger players,” he said.

“But I didn’t expect at this stage of the season having to play so many of them altogether.

“Please don’t see this as an excuse, because these young blokes are all good players.

“There was some poor football out there today, but we got so many games sitting on the sidelines, it makes the job so much harder for those young guys to play first grade.”

He’s right. Young players gotta play, and that means off-nights will happen.

The spine had 25 Raiders appearances collectively, of which half were Danny Levi. They had 149 games of NRL total, and Levi was 124 of them.

It’s the sort of thing that only gametime can solve. Sticky should stick to his guns.

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

4. Seiboldball, baby

Here’s the good news: Manly are fourth in the table and have scored a lot of points.

On an underlying level, their metres per run (MPR) is second best, behind Brisbane, and their total sets are among the highest, proving that Seibold’s plan to play differently to everyone else – read, wider and faster – is pretty much working.

In playing the way they do, they don’t just score points, but also score points in clusters, which will go a long way in the momentum-heavy footy of 2024.

Here’s a good stat: Manly have scored 35 tries this year and 16 of them have been in clusters of  ten minutes or fewer. Like a grizzled wicket keeper chirping to his bowler, one brings two.

On a slightly less analytical note, they’re also a lot of fun to watch. That’s not easy to quantify, obviously, but this is a team that can get on top and turn the game to their style of play.

There’s huge issues that will stop them winning it all, of course, but let’s not focus on that. The edge defence is rubbish, the middle can be beat and the ability to move between manic and controlled needs work.

But as far as progress goes, it’s on track.

(Photo by Daniel Pockett/Getty Images)

5. JD should get a month more

Souths sent up a near-second grade side to Melbourne and got treated like one.

One shouldn’t go too hard on the coach as a result, because if you strip back the parts on display, he was on the ultimate hiding to nothing.

Much as it is Jason Demetriou’s job to turn his team into something better than the some of their parts, he is not a miracle worker.

Taane Milne and Jacob Gagai on both wings, Jacob Host and Michael Chee-Kam starting the back row, Keaon Koloamatangi as a prop and a half-fit Jai Arrow on the bench are all pretty much insurmountable odds for a trip to the Storm.

The Souths board have to made decisions based on where they think the club is going, but a game with that much talent not playing shouldn’t be the one that gets JD sacked.

It won’t be better against the Panthers, but here’s a reading for you: Souths have played seven of the current top eight and only one – the Warriors – of the current bottom nine.

The Dolphins, the only side they have not faced from the finals cohort, have faced just one of the current eight – the Broncos, to whom they lost – and six of the lower half of the league.

The draw isn’t everything, but it is something.

Given the plan is to let Wayne Bennett take over next year anyway, Souths might do well to let the next month play out, with fixtures against the Dragons, Cowboys, Parramatta before another bye if they want a week in which to do the deed. At least then, you’d have a fair sample size.

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

6. Turuva’s torment

When Paul Alamoti’s name appeared on the Penrith team list the week after Sunia Turuva announced a move to the Wests Tigers for 2025, plenty were willing to cite spite as a reason for his omissions.

Ivan Cleary insisted that it had been a tough week for his Rookie of the Year, and that he had been left out as a result of the off-field distraction.

“Sunia didn’t play mainly because he was going through his contract decision and still negotiating,” said Cleary after the match.

“It was something that has been sort of going on for a few weeks. I think people don’t quite understand how much that can take out of someone, especially a young man with such a big decision.

“Not just professionally wise but emotionally. That’s why we gave him the night off.”

What he might also have been doing is pointing out how eminently replaceable Tito is, just like almost any Panthers outside back.

They’ve lost the reigning Dally M Centre of the Year twice and found a new bloke without breaking sweat. The style allows it.

Turuva is a good player, but he won’t impact the Panthers. Alamoti did his job superbly on Saturday night and if Cleary announced tomorrow that he would keep that role for the rest of the year, the odds on Penrith winning the Premiership wouldn’t budge an inch.

The day the rest of the NRL realises that, at Penrith, it’s system over parts every day of the week, the better.

Only Nathan, Isaah Yeo and, maybe, Dylan Edwards and Brian To’o are irreplaceable.

We’ll find out if James Fisher-Harris is, or if the attrition of multiple members finally kicks in, but it won’t be Turuva who makes the difference.

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