2018 Season Results:
Head-to-Head Tipping: 93/152 (61%)
Line Betting: 34/67 (51%)
2017 Season Results:
Head-to-Head Tipping: 66%
Line Betting: 55%
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NRL Round 21 Tips and Previews
Bulldogs v Broncos
Offense VOA: Bulldogs -15.28% (12th), Broncos 9.71% (4th)
Defense VOA: Bulldogs 0.97% (9th), Broncos -7.69% (5th)
Hats off to the Bulldogs – though their management effectively gave up on the season when they sold off Moses Mbye and Aaron Woods, the team has done anything but; and were rewarded last weekend with a well-earned victory.
Yes, the Tigers were rubbish – they had the same disjointed look to their offense as they did through the season’s opening three months – but on paper, this was a game that the Bulldogs had no right to win. It’d take the most cold-hearted rugby league fan to not wear a small smile at the sight of the Bulldogs scrapping their way to victory. That win alone may save them from the Wooden Spoon, and rightly so – they’ve played the season with too much spirit to finish below some of the pea-hearted sides below them.
Now, they get a sterner test in the form of the Broncos, although we’re not about to write them off altogether. After having their defense repeatedly torched for 4 weeks in a row (they conceded 30 line breaks in 4 weeks between Rounds 15-18), the Bulldogs have done really well over the past fortnight, conceding just 2 line breaks and 3 tries over their past 2 matches combined. Even more impressively, both of those 1 line break efforts came against opponents who’d made 6 the week prior (the Eels against the Knights, and the Tigers against the Rabbitohs). It’s only a very small sample size, but there’s an argument that the Bulldogs’ defense has been among the best in the league over the past two weeks.
And here they’ll be facing a Broncos offense that in truth has been struggling for traction over the past 3 weeks, despite running up a half century against Penrith. After being held to 1 try by the Warriors, the Broncos got more than half their points against the Panthers via intercepts, chip-and-chases and a penalty goal (or to put it differently, unreliable points), and then their offense earned just 1 try against the Sharks (their other came from an intercept, once again). Over that period they have a LBVOA of -37.85%, which would put them last in the competition. The point we’re making is that while they’ve been winning games, we’re expecting a negative regression at some point for their offense.
The question we’re most interested in though, is whether or not that negative regression comes here. To that end, we’re not quite comfortable taking the Bulldogs head-to-head (though at $3.70, we think they’re generously priced). Holding us back is the fact that as bad as we’re arguing the Broncos’ offense is, the Bulldogs’ isn’t any better. Since punting Mbye and Woods, the Bulldogs’ own offense has a LBVOA of -29.04%, and unlike the Broncos, they don’t have the individual talent of guys like James Roberts and Anthony Milford to compensate for a lack of effectiveness in their structured attack (while Will Hopoate is the only Bulldogs player with more than 37 tackle breaks, the Broncos side has six).
It’s that opportunistic ability to find points when they need it that has us backing the Broncos in here, but we think it’s far closer than the bookies have it, and we wouldn’t be completely shocked if we saw a boilover.
Our tip: Broncos
Knights v Tigers
Offense VOA: Knights 3.32% (8th), -16.25% (13th)
Defense VOA: Knights 19.52% (15th), 8.80% (12th)
Forgotten in all the hoopla surrounding the Sea Eagles’ spectacular capitulation last Saturday was that the Knights had a decent-sized meltdown of their own 24 hours earlier, blowing an 18-6 halftime lead to the Cowboys. In the Knights’ case, it could all have been so very different; had Danny Levi not had a brain snap and taken a quick tap with 20 seconds remaining before halftime, the Knights would have kicked a penalty goal and taken a 14-point lead into halftime, likely breaking the Cowboys’ spirit (as it turned out, North Queensland’s hard-fought comeback only saw them win by the very 2 points that Levi forwent). We’re not trying to throw Levi under the bus – when you have a team as young and inexperienced as the Knights, you have to accept lumps like these, and hope that the side learns from them (the fact that this particular loss could contribute to them missing the playoffs is unfortunate, but not the end of the world in the bigger picture).
That said, you live and learn, and Newcastle have a viable shot at redemption this weekend against the Tigers, who had a disappointment of their own last weekend. This match presents as a particularly interesting matchup – both sides play an exciting brand of attacking football these days, though they’re built very differently. In the case of the Knights, they’re a team built to attack very specifically towards the edges. This is partly out of necessity – their forward pack is so bad that they rarely win the play-the-ball, so attacking back towards the ruck would be suicidal; but you also need to appreciate just how good the Knights are out wide. If you’re a long-term reader, you’ve hopefully already been indoctrinated to believe that Kalyn Ponga is the best attacking player in the competition (and if you haven’t, it’s time to accept it and get on board), however, we want to draw your attention to how well their entire edge attack is traveling as a result. For example, you may be surprised to learn that maligned Knights five-eighth Connor Watson ranks 2nd among NRL five-eighths for line breaks (11). Borderline-anonymous winger Ken Sio ranks 11th at his position. And perhaps the best of all, Lachlan Fitzgibbon leads all NRL second-rowers with 13 (yes, that puts him ahead of his more-hyped contemporaries Tariq Sims, Viliame Kikau and Coen Hess). Quite simply, when the Knights attack the edges they bust the line – which is important, because the Tigers can’t defend there to save their lives.
That isn’t to say that the Tigers are bad defenders; rather, edge defense just isn’t their strength. The Tigers defend extraordinarily well in the middle third, where noted defenders like Elijah Taylor and Ben Matulino ply their trade. As a result, they’ve done better that most at shutting down the league’s best forward packs (in matches against noted packs like the Panthers, Rabbitohs, Dragons and Cowboys, the Tigers have yet to concede more than 16 points). However, when teams attack their edges, the Tigers are significantly more vulnerable. Luke Brooks is the worst offender, ranking 3rd worst for line breaks conceded among NRL halfbacks, though Corey Thompson is spared only by a lack of games in the front line (he’s conceded 12, despite having only played 11 games in the line). Of course, the Knights are no better (Shaun Kenny-Dowall has actually passed Peta Hiku to rank last in the league, though only because Hiku got dropped), however what we’re interested in is who’s best equipped to take advantage of their opponents’ weakness, and by that measure, we have to favour the Knights.
Which isn’t to say that the Tigers can’t win (not by any stretch). The Tigers’ forward pack is perhaps the most underrated in the competition (they rank 4th in the league for RMVOA), and there’s potential here for the Tigers to easily win the battle between the 20s, and leave the Knights treading water as they try to get out of their own half. To that end, it’s absolutely crucial that the Tigers reel in their discipline. Over their past 9 games, the Tigers have given away 8 or more penalties on 7 occasions – something the Knights have done just 10 times all year, and just once since Round 13. Given the Knights’ difficulties earning field position (and their attacking potency in the red zone), giving them a free ticket into your own red zone can be a particularly disastrous misstep.
It’s hard to anticipate exactly how this game will go – we think they’re very evenly matched, and with both teams being so defensively frail, it’s certainly plausible that either side could run in a few tries early and end the game before it becomes a contest. Assuming it turns into a shoot-out though, we’ll keep ourselves firmly in the Knights’ camp, mainly because they’re as well-equipped as anyone to attack the Tigers’ edges. But honestly, this could play out in any number of ways, and has the potential to be a low-key game of the week.
Our tip: Knights
Rabbitohs v Storm
Offense VOA: Rabbitohs 42.81% (1st), Storm -0.66% (10th)
Defense VOA: Rabbitohs -13.23% (4th), Storm -32.76% (2nd)
The Friday night blockbuster has been hyped as a test for the Rabbitohs to see how well they’re traveling, though we think that undersells the Bunnies a bit. To be fair, the Rabbitohs are quietly sitting in 3rd place themselves, come armed with the game’s most lethal offense; and as far as tests go, it’s worth pointing out that the Storm will need to beat an elite team at ANZ Stadium if they’re going to win on Grand Final Day – so in some ways, this is every bit the test that the Storm need, too.
That being said, we agree that the Rabbitohs are probably the underdogs here (though only marginally). Our main concern with the Rabbitohs is their persistent struggle to beat teams who are tight in the middle third of the field. The Tigers completely shut them down a fortnight ago with good middle defense, as did the Dragons in Round 5, and the Panthers in Round 2. Further, although the Rabbitohs have been winning all season long, their results have been far less convincing against teams who are able to limit their run metres. Twice they went within 1 point of losing to the Cowboys while posting 2 of their 3 lowest run metre totals for the year; in their 2nd lowest, they went within 2 points of losing to the lowly Titans. This is all important, because it happens to correspond with the Storm’s greatest strength.
Though the Storm aren’t necessarily noted for their aggressive line speed, their ability to get multiple defenders into a tackle and work over the ball-carrier has the same effect – limiting their opponents’ run metres (without a quick play-the-ball, the subsequent hit-ups are constantly being met by a set defensive line). As a result, the Storm are actually the best team in the league at limiting opposition run metres, with an imposing RMCVOA of -9.83%. Add in the Storm’s ability to deny opposition line breaks (they rank 2nd behind the Roosters), and it’ll be interesting to see how much success the Rabbitohs’ offense has.
Which isn’t to say that South Sydney can’t win; but rather, that if they are to win, they’ll likely need to find a different way to get the job done. That was a bridge too far a fortnight ago against the Tigers – it’ll be interesting to see what else they’ve got up their sleeves this week. We like the Storm, but will be watching the Bunnies with interest.
Our tip: Storm
Dragons v Warriors
Offense VOA: Dragons 9.60% (5th), Warriors -4.61% (11th)
Defense VOA: Dragons -2.90% (6th), Warriors 10.79% (13th)
What a weird little game we have here – two teams who were the dominant forces of the season’s opening two months, but neither of whom bear much resemblance to those teams now.
We warned you in last week’s preview that the Dragons defense had hit the skids, and that a thumping may have been on the cards. The Roosters didn’t disappoint, with Latrell Mitchell in particular blowing up Euan Aitken like he’d been filled with Mentos and Coca-Cola. After taking 5 weeks to concede 9 line breaks at the beginning of the season, the Dragons have now conceded that many in a single game, twice in the past 4 weeks (granted, they were against two of the best sides in the competition, but that doesn’t make it any less concerning). Similarly, after winning the net yardage in their first 11 games of the season, they’ve now lost it in 6 of their last 8; and again, this an issue of defense. After holding every opponent they faced to under 1400m in their opening 7 matches (in which they won their first 6), they’ve now conceded that in 4 of their past 5, at an average of 1529m per game (and unsurprisingly, they lost 3 of those, with the exception being their lucky win against the Eels).
But fortunately, all hope isn’t lost. If there’s good news for the Dragons, it’s that the Warriors aren’t in great touch, either. They’ve won just 1 out their last 5, have plummeted to 8th spot, and are coming into this clash after getting a touch-up from the Titans. Unlike the Dragons though, the Warriors’ issues have been offense-related. In their 4 recent losses, they haven’t scored more than 15 points, and have a combined 7 line breaks across all of those outings (in contrast, they had 7 line breaks alone in their single win against the Broncos). In some cases, their struggles have been excusable (they were always going to struggle last week after Isaac Luke was a late scratching), but in others, they’ve been straight-up terrible (who can forget their obliteration at the hands of an Origin-affected Panthers, when a full-strength Warriors spine could only muster a single try?).
And unlike the Dragons, the Warriors probably don’t have the defensive aptitude to compensate if their attack isn’t firing (it’s not a coincidence that in every game this year in which they’ve scored 18 points or less, they’ve lost). If the Dragons’ defense is struggling, we’d at least give them a shot at winning a shoot-out (as disappointing as they’ve been lately, the Dragons have still scored 18 or more in 6 of their past 7).
Which is why we’re taking St George-Illawarra. If the Dragons’ defensive woes continue, we still think their offense could find a way to win. But if the Warriors’ offensive woes continue, the Dragons should easily get it done.
Our tip: Dragons
Eels v Titans
Offense VOA: Eels -27.36% (16th), Titans -21.51% (14th)
Defense VOA: Eels 6.75% (11th), 48.26% (16th)
If the Eels are ever going to win a game, this needs to be it.
Should they lose here, the Wooden Spoon is almost certainly theirs (3 of their last 4 games are against sides currently in the Top 4, and they have the worst points differential among teams in the Bottom 4). The good news is that they’ve got the Titans; the bad news is that the Titans are actually playing alright.
Though many were surprised to see the Titans come out on top last weekend, we barely raised an eyebrow (though we tipped the Warriors in our preview, that was before Isaac Luke and Tohu Harris were ruled out). While the Warriors attack was predictably hopeless (they’ve now scored just 12 points in 2 combined games without Luke), the Titans’ offense was equally effective. It’s gone largely unnoticed, but the Titans’ attack has been humming along quite nicely for a while now – last weekend was actually the 5th time in their last 6 matches that they’ve made 5 or more line breaks, and though those have mostly come against Bottom 8 defenses (the Roosters were the only Top 8 defense in that list, and the Titans were shut out by the Broncos), it’s still a giant leap forward for an offense that’s struggled for most of the year.
That said, the Eels haven’t been easybeats lately, either. While the Titans’ sudden burst of competitiveness has been built on their offense, the Eels have done the opposite. Here, we have a defense that was getting torched for most of the season, suddenly standing up – and unlike the Titans’ offense, Parramatta have been doing it against some of the game’s best attacking units. In the past month, they’ve limited the high-octane offenses of the Dragons and Knights to just 3 tries each (though admittedly, the Knights were without Kalyn Ponga), and the weekend just gone, they held the best offense in the league to just 6 points in the first half. It could be argued that they were unfortunate to lose that particular game – they lost the second half penalty count 9-2, which in turn led to an unwinnable 29% possession share; and in that context, giving up 20 second half points to the best offense in the league is actually a pretty decent effort.
Which makes this game so hard to pick. Both sides have found form on one side of the ball or the other, and as it so happens, each side is the worst team in the competition in the area at which their opponent excels (while the Titans attack is humming, the Eels rank last; and while the Eels defense has been reasonably tight, the Titans’ ranks last).
As a result, we’re siding with the team with the better forward pack, which has typically been the Eels (though it’s worth noting that the Titans’ middles have been better the past few weeks, too). Tim Mannah has been turning back the clock in 2018, and the Eels’ tight middle is typically effective at limiting opposition run metres (the Eels rank 6th in the competition for RMCVOA). There’s a split hair between these sides – and we could easily see either team winning – but forced to choose, we think the Eels might have a bit too much fight in a match that they have to win.
Our tip: Eels
Roosters v Cowboys
Offense VOA: Roosters 10.08% (3rd), Cowboys -24.05% (15th)
Defense VOA: Roosters -34.94% (1st), Cowboys 4.84% (10th)
If you’re reading this site, you shouldn’t need to be reminded that the Roosters are traveling pretty well. Having built their season on the solid foundation of an elite defense, they’ve recently started to click offensively too, and are rapidly positioning themselves as the premiership contenders we all thought they’d be before the season began.
If the Roosters do go on to take the silverware, they may well look back on their Round 15 hammering of the Panthers as the week that turned their season. Prior to that week, they’d scrapped their way to 9 wins from their first 14 games, while hindered by an offense that struggled to create try-scoring opportunities (their LBVOA over that period was -12.64%). That night against the Panthers though, something clicked; and since then, they’ve lost just 1 game (an unlucky 1-point loss to the Storm), as their attack has finally kicked into life, with a LBVOA of 51.32% (second only to the Panthers over the same period). With an offense that suddenly looks every bit as dangerous as their defense, it’s difficult to see exactly how teams are supposed to beat them.
That task is particularly daunting for a side like the Cowboys, who’ve struggled all season to score points, and whose defense looked laughably bad at times during the first half of their clash with the Knights (though they admittedly improved in the second half, that task was helped by a complete lack of go-forward from Newcastle, who seemed to spend the second stanza praying for the siren to sound). Prior to that second half onslaught – in which they ran in 3 unanswered second half tries – the Cowboys hadn’t done much for months, having scored more than 3 tries in a game just once since their Round 9 win over the Panthers. Perhaps they’ve played themselves into a bit of form (as the Roosters themselves did five weeks ago), but more likely, they were simply punishing one of the league’s worst defenses, and when they run into an elite defense like the Roosters, business as usual will resume.
Short of a classic Roosters implosion (which we haven’t seen for a while – their discipline has improved out of sight lately, with Sydney having made just 20 combined errors over their past 3 games, after making double-digit errors in their first 11 straight) or an offensive collapse in the absence of Luke Keary (conceivably possible, though Cooper Cronk has been looking much better of late), it’s hard to see exactly how the Cowboys win here. There’s no real area in which the Cowboys are better than the Roosters, and as a result, there’s potential here for a blowout if the Roosters are on their game.
Our tip: Roosters
Sharks v Sea Eagles
Offense VOA: Sharks 0.15% (9th), Sea Eagles 4.24% (6th)
Defense VOA: Sharks -17.00% (3rd), Sea Eagles 12.39% (14th)
The first Sunday afternoon clash will see a battle between two sides who were the better team last weekend for the majority of their games, but ultimately both lost (in variously disappointing cirumstances).
In the case of the Sharks, they finished their clash with the Broncos in front in virtually every statistical category – except the score. They made more metres, more offloads, more line breaks; they created more tries (remember, one of the Broncos’ two tries came via a pick-six); they made less errors, and they earned more possession. They did everything a team could possibly do in order to win; but lost. That’s unfortunate for Cronulla (and for their sake, we hope it doesn’t cost them a Top 4 spot), but ultimately, that’s footy.
The story was similar for the Sea Eagles, except that rather than being the victims of bad luck, they were the victims of either a 7-minute explosion from the Panthers, or a 7-minute self-inflicted meltdown (depending on your perspective). Though they were comfortably in front for most of the second half, watching the Eagles bomb an 18-point lead with 13 minutes to go would have been enough for the home fans to burn the stadium down (had any of them actually turned up).
The fact that all the damage was predictably done down the Sea Eagles’ right edge doesn’t bode well for their chances here. After being a late scratching last week, Wade Graham should return on the Sharks’ left edge, where he’ll be reunited with Sharks ace Matt Moylan. This is bad news for Manly. Moylan and Graham rank 1st and 2nd on the Sharks for line break assists (with 18 and 8, respectively), and unsurprisingly then, the Sharks attacking output skyrockets when the pair are on the field together. Though their season LBVOA is a reasonable 6.53%, when Moylan and Graham are playing together, that number leaps to 34.23% (which would place them 2nd in the league). As a consequence, that increase in line breaks manifests itself in more points, with the Sharks averaging 4.2 more points per game when the pair are playing versus when one or both are out – and that’s despite more than half the games they’ve played without the pair being against Bottom 8 defenses (and speaking of Bottom 8 defenses, the Sea Eagles rank just 14th).
To sum up, we don’t like Manly’s chances here. Last week’s result aside, the Sharks appear to building nicely towards the finals, while the Sea Eagles have now collected back-to-back devastating losses (albeit losses that were devastating for distinctly different reasons). We’re expecting the Sharkies to get the result they deserve.
Our tip: Sharks
Panthers v Raiders
Offense VOA: Panthers 3.55% (7th), Raiders 26.25% (2nd)
Defense VOA: Panthers -2.31% (7th), Raiders -1.49% (8th)
Could there be any two more different teams in the competition?
Here we have the Panthers – a side who are never beaten, and somehow find ways to save even the most unwinnable matches; against the Raiders – a side who are never safely home, and somehow find ways to lose from even the most unloseable spots.
To the Raiders credit, they did their fans a favour last week and spared them heartbreak by losing from start to finish; though we’d argue that they probably weren’t as bad as the scoreline looked. The problem for Canberra was really just a lack of discipline, with a combined 24 errors and penalties gifting the Storm a wealth of possession and field position, which they seemed to capitalise on with relentless efficiency. With just 43% of the ball, it was inevitable that they were going to lose to the Storm (who’ve yet to lost a game all year in which they’ve had 50% or more possession), and likely that they were going to get flogged.
Meanwhile at Brookvale, the Panthers managed to get themselves into a similarly-sized hole, though theirs was the result of a poor gameplan, more than poor discipline. There, supercoach Griffin seemed to think that with three elite second-rowers in the squad, it would be a good idea to have them all on the field at once, and shuffled Isiaah Yeo into the middle of the field for much of the game. We’re not sure what exactly his objective was, but if it was to stunt the go-forward of his own forward pack, mission accomplished. With Yeo deployed as a battering ram, his metres per carry dropped from 9.2 to 7.9, as the team was outgained for just the 2nd time all year when winning the possession count. That shouldn’t be a problem this week though, with Origin prop Reagan Campbell-Gillard due back (touch wood).
Both teams here feature exciting offenses (the Raiders rank 2nd in the league, while the Panthers’ LBVOA since Waqa Blake came back of 70.32% is 1st in the league by a long margin), and the main difference in results last week was that the Raiders were trying to run down the Storm (good luck), while the Panthers were chasing down the Sea Eagles (happy days). With both defenses roughly as good as each other, we fancy this should be pretty competitive (and appropriately, the last time they played, the Panthers snuck home at the death with a late-game field goal).
In trying to separate the teams then, there are two key areas in which Penrith have the upper hand. Firstly (and most obviously) in the forwards, with the Raiders having outgained their opponents just 6 times all year, compared to the Panthers’ 12. Secondly, we fancy the Panthers are likely to wind up with more possession, partly due to the Raiders inferior ball-handling, and partly because the Panthers Stadium boo-birds are likely to see the ill-disciplined Raiders crushed in the penalty count (only 2 teams have visited Penrith all year and conceded less than 9 penalties).
With a bit more ball and a bit more field position, that’d likely be enough to see the Panthers home; but if the Raiders can tighten it up (or if the Panthers wet the bed), this could be pretty close.
Our tip: Panthers