After Parramatta all but ended Manly’s finals hopes, The Obstruction Rule takes a look at how it happened, digressing into Dylan Walker’s struggles at five-eighth and the excitement machine that is Bevan French.
Setting the scene
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Although Manly entered their Round 21 contest as hot favourites on the back of four consecutive wins a glance at the VOA Ratings of both sides show a demonstrably closer contest than the bookmakers expected. The two sides ranked virtually even in offense, and it was actually Parramatta who held a significant edge in defensive performance. That previous success had long since been forgotten however, as the Eels’ injury-ravaged squad haemorrhaged points over the previous four weeks, leading many prognosticators to assume that Manly would have their way with the wayward Eels. This assumption would prove to be wide of the mark.
A scrappy game of football
This was not a match fitting of the title ‘the greatest game of all’. Punctuated by errors and penalties (there were a combined 23 errors by both sides, and a further 14 penalties), the match was a stop-start affair that never reached any great heights. Neither side ever really managed to gain any offensive momentum or sustain much attacking pressure, and as a result neither side’s defense was really tested. If we look at both sides’ Offensive VOA numbers, we can see just how little they actually threw at each other:
Both sides were disappointing, in particular in their combined ineffectiveness at creating line breaks. This could be put down to strong defense, were it not for the fact that both sides have struggled in this area all season long:
Manly Season LB VOA: -16.37% (14th)
Parramatta Season LB VOA: -13.29% (12th)
Why are these sides so poor at breaking their opponents’ line? Parramatta, for their part, were missing both their first choice halves on Friday night and performed accordingly. Disturbingly for Manly though, the halves responsible for their flaccid display were their preferred choice in Round 1.
The Dylan Walker Experiment
Here at The Obstruction Rule, we try to avoid making bold, negative statements about individual players, instead preferring to focus on the things that they do well. For his part, we’re sure Dylan Walker is a very nice person, and probably has many incredible talents. Playing five-eighth however, is not one of them.
The table above features the per game averages of the various Manly halves in 2016 (with a minimum 5 appearances) for line break assists and try assists. In comparing the numbers of this motley crew, a couple of points require discussion.
Firstly, Dylan Walker is completely ineffective as a half. If we consider the creation of tries and try scoring opportunities to be the main role of a half, Dylan Walker is the least effective of the options used by coach Trent Barrett by some margin (granted, other skills like attacking kicks are also very important, though he’s not real flash at those either). For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the Sea Eagles struggled for any sort of offensive effectiveness against the Eels. They’d struggled against all teams when they were relying on Walker to create scoring opportunities. This isn’t to say that Walker is a terrible football player – he’s not – but simply that he’s a terrible five eighth. Walker’s strength is running the football. He’s quick, possesses good footwork and is strong enough to frequently break the first tackle. Unfortunately, he lacks the ability to read a defense and his first instinct is typically to dummy and run, regardless of what look the defense shows him. Essentially, he’s a perfectly serviceable centre being played in a position he’s completely ill-suited to, and selecting him at five-eighth is like selecting him as a super-sub – and nobody in their right mind would do that (OK, one guy would do that, but he doesn’t win a lot of games either).
Secondly, notice that despite Walker’s complete failure as a half, he’s somehow been selected there twelve times (thirteen including the Eels match). If Jason Taylor is to be dragged over the coals for his non-selection of Robbie Farah, then surely Trent Barrett deserves to be similarly criticized for crippling Manly’s season by stubbornly persisting with the Dylan Walker experiment for so long(before finally returning to it in Round 21 to completely kill their season off). The decision to attempt to manufacture a five-eighth out of Walker is even more perplexing when you consider that Barrett has a Grand Final-winning five-eighth in his squad (Jamie Lyon), but for some reason it took him until Round 13 to actually try using Lyon there (all the while, Walker was being about as effective as a pot plant). The Tigers, on the other hand, currently sit four points clear of Manly with an arguably weaker roster, but for some reason it’s Jason Taylor who’s the media punching bag. Go figure.
Bevan French is outstanding
2016 has been a year to forget for Parramatta. Between a salary cap scandal and their marquee signing walking out on the club, everything that possibly could have gone wrong for the Eels has. Rather than talk about their misfortunes (and mismanagement), instead let’s take a moment to reflect on just how good Parramatta have been at uncovering wingers.
In 2014, Semi Radradra announced himself to the world at the Auckland Nines, and by season’s end had established himself as a household name (albeit a commonly mispronounced one), scoring 19 tries in just 24 appearances and giving hope to long-suffering Parramatta fans. In 2016, the Eels did it all again.
This time, the star of the Nines was Bevan French and after making his debut in Round 12 against Newcastle, French has rapidly become a bright spot in an otherwise dark season. In just eight appearances he’s become the talk of the league due his electric speed and nose for the tryline. James Roberts is widely accepted as the fastest man in the league, but Bevan French must be a close second and we’d love to see them in a foot race to find out (though all we’d likely see is a puff of dust and a trail of scorched grass). To get an idea of just how well French has performed, let’s compare the two electric Eels’ 2016 strike rates:
Radradra himself was having a career year prior to injuring his knee, with his early season form seeing him justly rewarded with selection for his native
Fiji Australia. French, however, has been equally as impressive since making his NRL debut and, at least in terms of try scoring, has actually out-performed his better-known wing partner.
Though their skill sets are quite different, French and Radradra make far and away the most exciting wing pairing the NRL has seen in years. While the Melbourne Storm have arguably the best long term record at manufacturing wingers, Parramatta’s uncovering of these two superstars surely gives their fans something to smile about in a season filled with frowns.