When these teams last met, in Round 16, the Broncos were in the middle of a lengthy form slump and the Bulldogs were arguably the form team in the NRL. What a difference two months can make.
Setting the scene
|VOA Rating||Ranking||VOA Rating||Ranking|
(If this is your first visit to the site, you can learn about our VOA-based NRL statistics here)
If we were to look purely at the season numbers, this match would look like a straightforward win for Brisbane. Both sides feature elite defenses, however the Broncos are a far more effective attacking outfit than their blue and white counterparts. However, rugby league is rarely straightforward, and the last time these teams met it resulted in a thumping 40-14 win for Canterbury, as the Broncos were mired in a losing stretch that saw them win just two matches in nearly three months.
This time around however, the result did follow the script. As two powerful defensive sides squared off, we saw a torrid, low-scoring affair that rarely opened up into anything that resembled attacking football (as well as an abysmal, error-riddled final quarter that barely resembled football, period). The Broncos would ultimately prove to be too good, running out winners 20-10. However, some questions still remain unanswered. Like what has happened to the Bulldogs to see them losing to a team that they themselves hammered just two months ago? And, have the Broncos turned the corner and returned to title calculations?
Ain’t that a kick in the head
The Bulldogs have largely avoided close examination of their recent performances due to their winning record, which sees them placed (precariously) in the NRL’s Top 4. However, when we put these efforts under the microscope, we don’t love what we see.
Yes, they’ve been winning. But, let’s start by looking at the teams that they’ve beaten since their defeat of Brisbane in Round 16. They’ve notched up unconvincing wins against Sydney, Wests, St George Illawarra, Newcastle and Manly. That’s five sides, none of whom are likely to play finals footy. In amongst those wins, they also played the North Queensland Cowboys, who humiliated them to the tune of 36-0. In fact, outside of their previous win against Brisbane (who themselves were losing to all and sundry at the time), they haven’t beaten a likely Top 8 team since they defeated the Gold Coast in Round 8. That’s our first red flag.
Our next issue with the Bulldogs’ form is the recent ineffectiveness of their forward pack. The Bulldogs are a side built to win games through the forwards, controlling field position and eventually grinding their opposition into submission. However, since they defeated the Broncos in Round 16, they’ve won the metres battle just twice. Once, in an Origin week against an under-strength Tigers team, and the other against last-placed Newcastle. And in that defeat of the Knights, they only outgained the Novocastrians by 78 metres, which is actually a relatively poor performance (to put it in perspective, the Knights have outgained their opponents just 3 times all year, and on average are beaten by almost 300 metres per match). The Bulldogs are still gaining metres at roughly the same clip that they have been all season, the issue for them is that they’re suddenly unable to contain their opponents defensively. Let’s compare the Bulldogs Run Metres Conceded VOA for the season against their performances since they last met Brisbane:
Bulldogs RMC VOA (season) = 2.93% (12th)
Bulldogs RMC VOA (Round 17-24) = 15.22% (Last)
As you can see, though Run Defense was never the Bulldogs’ strength, they were at least close to average. Recently however, they are a distant last (the next worst team, St George Illawarra, have a season RMC VOA of 8.05%).
This run metre domination is a particularly large issue for Canterbury because their offense is so poor. They rank 11th in line break VOA and 15th in tackle break VOA, and require the weight of field position to score points. Outside of Moses Mbye (who has more than double the line break assists of his halves partner, Josh Reynolds), they lack creativity in their spine positions, choosing for whatever reason to persist with Reynolds at 6 (a utility masquerading as a five-eighth) and Will Hopoate at fullback (a custodian who’s so slow that he permanently moves as though he’s just drunk a large jug of milk). As a result, they are forced to rely on the individual brilliance of players like the Morris brothers to score tries, something that’s difficult to do if you’re constantly bogged down in your own end. To make matters worse, they’ll now be without key forward Sam Kasiano for 2 weeks after he was suspended for kicking Corey Parker in the face. It’s never a good idea to write off a Des Hasler coached team, particularly one in the Top 4, but if the Bulldogs don’t improve soon they may be in for a very short finals campaign.
We told you so
Here at The Obstruction Rule, we’re not ones for indulgent, self-congratulatory praise. So, we’ll leave it for someone else to observe that a month ago in this very column, we identified the Broncos’ edge defense as the reason for their sudden collapse in defensive effectiveness (in that particular game it was their left edge specifically), and that their struggles were caused by Wayne Bennett being unable to use his preferred combination of edge defenders. It would have been easy (and, ultimately, wrong) to join in with the mainstream media and declare the Broncos’ collapse the result of “Origin fatigue” or some such, but here at The Obstruction Rule we try to stick to actual analysis rather than lazy mythologizing. The Broncos finally managed to get their preferred second rower rotation (Matt Gillett, Alex Glenn and Sam Thaiday) back on deck in Round 22, and unsurprisingly, it’s resulted in an immediate return to the winner’s circle with three straight wins (who knew?). Most importantly for the Broncos though, is the improvement in their defense.
Broncos Overall Defense VOA (Round 22-24) = -76.48% (1st)
As you can see, the Broncos have not only improved, they’ve improved almost beyond recognition from the bumbling defense they’d been showcasing over the prior two months. Now that all three of the Broncos’ best second rowers are back, we can directly compare the Broncos’ defense when they are and aren’t present, and get an idea of their value to this Broncos side.
Broncos Overall Defense VOA (WITH Gillett, Thaiday & Glenn) = -59.15% (2nd)
Broncos Overall Defense VOA (WITHOUT Gillett, Thaiday or Glenn) = -2.82% (8th)
As you can see, the difference is night and day. A comparison of their line breaks conceded is even more glaring.
Broncos LBC VOA (With Gillett, Thaiday & Glenn) = -40.26% (2nd)
Broncos LBC VOA (WITHOUT Gillett, Thaiday or Glenn) = 14.14% (13th)
This highlights specifically the problem the Broncos had on the edges without their star edge defenders. Specifically, they were being gashed for line breaks over and over, as opposing teams relentlessly abused the weaker replacement players. As we’ve explained previously teams who make more line breaks tend to score more tries, and necessarily the opposite is also true (teams who concede more line breaks will tend to concede more tries). So, it should come as no surprise that by stopping the bleeding of line breaks, the colour has returned to the Broncos’ defense. With their full complement of second rowers back on deck, the Broncos appear to have solved their defensive crisis.
But are the Broncos back, baby?
One swallow might not make a summer, but three swallows are a sure sign to bring out your cream-coloured cargo shorts and head out for some warm-weather bushwalking fun. The same is also true of defensive performances. The Broncos defense looks back to its normal self, and just in time for the finals. Granted, it’s still not enough for us to return them to premiership favouritism (here at The Obstruction Rule we anointed the Melbourne Storm premiers-in-waiting months ago, and we aren’t about to jump ship now), but we fully believe the Broncos have put their slump behind them. Granted, it’s exposed a worrying lack of depth in back-rowers at Brisbane (and highlighted why the Broncos should be doing all they can to prevent Gillett being poached by cashed-up opposition clubs like Manly), but assuming that their squad remains healthy, the Broncos may just be a premiership dark horse (no pun intended).