Without a major upset in Round 21, The Obstruction Rule turns its eye to the battle of the premiership heavyweights – the Melbourne Storm and the North Queensland Cowboys, in this edition of The Greatest Game of All.
Setting the scene
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Cronulla have won a bunch of games. Canberra have their moments. Canterbury do too. However, the two sides that The Obstruction Rule considers to be the best in the NRL are Melbourne and North Queensland, and Round 21 saw them do battle for a second time this season following the Storm’s one-point victory in Round 10. Looking at the VOA ratings entering the match, the two sides couldn’t have been more even. Although Melbourne had a slight edge in both offense and defense, both sides were far and away better than any other team in the competition and Cowboys fans would have been hoping that their home crowd fans could tip the match in their favour. Unfortunately for North Queensland, they had one slight hiccup just before kickoff – Johnathan Thurston was ruled out.
The Cowboys ain’t no one-man-team
Though the Cowboys could have been forgiven for rolling out the welcome mat for the Storm in the face of such adversity (and indeed, North Queensland sides of old would have done exactly that – you can read about some of those lemons here), this Cowboys team had absolutely no intention of making life easy for the Victorians. Borrowing from the Storm’s modus operandi (and by the looks of it, their wardrobe), the Cowboys set in with a game plan built on good discipline, forwards laying a solid platform and backing that up with unrelenting defense. With no points scored in the second half, fans may have thought that neither side was throwing much at their opponent. However, the VOA ratings for the match tell a different story:
(If this is your first visit to the site, you can learn more about VOA-based stats here)
What we can see is the result of two incredible teams at the top of their game. Even though the match was low-scoring, both teams actually performed far better than average, considering the high quality of their opponent.To suggest that the Cowboys struggled because of the absence of their star halfback would do them an absolute injustice. The Cowboys didn’t struggle at all, and in all likelihood would have beaten any other team in the competition the way they played on Saturday night.
As an aside, you may have noticed that the tackle break VOAs are both below average. It’s worth pointing out however, that both sides have negative VOAs for tackle breaks on the season anyway. So, negative numbers in that area are not out of character, and instead reflect the attacking styles of these sides. Both teams’ offenses revolve around winning field position as a priority, and their elite halves capitalising by creating opportunities for their outside men with well executed plays. Neither side relies upon individual efforts or improvised football to score tries. As a result, Melbourne and North Queensland sit 8th and 12th respectively for tackle breaks (and for that matter, 9th and 16th for offloads).
The Melbourne Storm played like the Melbourne Storm
The Storm, on their part, did what they always do. Their attack was sharp, particularly considering the calibre of their opponent. Their opening try came via a beautiful short pass from Cooper Cronk to Kevin Proctor who was running a hard unders line, designed to isolate Rory Kostjaysn at close range. Their next came through a 2nd Man Play to the left, exposing a poor read from Justin O’Neill. Indeed, only their third try would come from a kick, and even it had all the look of a classic Melbourne Storm set move – Cooper Cronk running to the right to lead the fullback out of position, before grubbering back against the grain to the now vacant space in the in-goal. Billy Slater’s heart would have no doubt started racing at the sight of that kick.
Their defense, similarly, was exceptional. They conceded just the one try (the result of a stunning draw-and-flick-pass from Lachlan Coote), and weathered an extraordinary amount of pressure during a torrid second half. Watching the Storm defend throughout the match (in particular the ability of their inside defenders to quickly transition into cover defense), it’s no wonder that they rank as the number one defense in the league.
So, how do you actually beat these teams?
It’s one thing to declare these two sides the best in the competition, it’s another altogether to declare them unbeatable. They’re not. In fact, the blueprint for beating these two sides has already been written, and can be found by looking at back at the losses suffered by them already this season (excluding the three losses when their players were unavailable due to Origin).
The Storm and Cowboys have cumulatively lost seven matches in non-Origin weeks. Within those seven losses, they’ve won the possession battle just once. Winning possession against these two teams is critical for two reasons. Firstly, because they boast the two best offenses in the NRL, beating these teams hinges on minimizing the points they score against you. The simplest way to reduce their attacking opportunities (and in turn, their points) is to reduce their time with the ball.
Secondly, in winning possession, it’s critical for teams to reduce their own errors and penalties. This has the additional benefit of affecting field position. Both teams feature elite forward packs, who typically win the run metres battle (and subsequently, field position). Against the Storm and Cowboys, allowing them to begin their set further upfield (as they would following an error or penalty) almost guarantees that they’ll finish their set in an attacking position, due to the large number of metres they are likely to gain per set. Therefore, an error or penalty conceded is even more costly. By reducing your own errors and penalties you not only take reduce their time in possession, you also affect where they have that possession.
Play them away from home
Of the seven non-Origin losses, only twice have the Storm and Cowboys lost at home. It may well be that travel fatigues players (and these two teams in particular travel further than most), it may be that referees favour the home team (though it’s beyond the scope of this article to prove that) or it may just be that when footy players travel they really miss their wives. For whatever reason, playing at home does appear to be a factor in sport, and playing these two sides away from home will help in beating them. Conveniently, the grand final is played at ANZ Stadium in Sydney, so if a team comes across them in the big one, this box will already be ticked.
Defend like your life depends on it
As already mentioned, these two sides feature the sharpest attack in the league. As a result, even the smallest defensive lapse is likely to lead to points being conceded. Now, let’s look the list of teams who’ve defeated the Storm and Cowboys in non-Origin rounds, and their defensive VOA rating:
Melbourne (x2) – 1st
Cronulla (x2) – 3rd
Brisbane – 4th
Parramatta – 5th
Canterbury – 6th
Neither the Storm nor Cowboys have lost to a defense ranked lower than 6th. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that when they lost to Parramatta and Brisbane, these defenses were both ranked higher than they now are (their ranks have dropped due to their recent form struggles). Defense is critically important, again due to the ruthless efficiency of the two sides’ offenses. While The Obstruction Rule isn’t saying that a team necessarily MUST be a Top 6 defense, they at least will have to defend like one.
The Obstruction Rule is of the opinion that Saturday night was a Grand Final preview, featuring the two best sides in the competition. Many disagree, with Cronulla the popular choice to win the competition. While that is completely possible, it’s a reality that any team with aspirations of winning the title will have to beat at least one of these two teams, if not both, to get there. And, after watching Saturday night’s barn burner, that must be an intimidating prospect for any team. However, if they’re going to, at least we now know how.