2018 Season Results:
Head-to-Head Tipping: 112/192 (58%)
Line Betting: 39/84 (46%)
2017 Season Results:
Head-to-Head Tipping: 66%
Line Betting: 55%
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NRL Finals Week 1 Tips and Previews
Storm v Rabbitohs
Offense VOA: Storm 3.84% (8th), Rabbitohs 42.08% (1st)
Defense VOA: Storm -27.97% (2nd), Rabbitohs -17.86% (3rd)
The finals open with a Friday Night Football clash between the Storm and the Rabbitohs, in what everyone expects to be one of the games of the season.
Though the Storm are coming off a disappointing loss to Penrith, AND were well beaten by Souths the last time they met, it’s worth noting that this particular Melbourne team bears very little resemblance to the side that played in either of those losses. Notably absent from the Storm’s loss to Souths were winger Suliasi Vunivalu and utility Brandon Smith. In addition, they’ll be regaining superstars Billy Slater and Cameron Munster following the loss to Penrith. The return of Vunivalu in particular is crucial, given that in both matches, the overwhelming majority of their opponents’ attacking success came down Melbourne’s right flank, where Vunivalu would otherwise have been defending. Against the Rabbitohs, they leaked 4 line breaks and 3 tries down that corridor; against Penrith it was 2 and 4. In total, that’s 6 line breaks and 7 tries in just two matches – Vunivalu has conceded just 12 breaks and 8 tries all year.
So if we assume that the Storm’s right edge will tighten right up, the next question will be whether or not they can score a few points. To that, the answer is a resounding yes. We know that, because we’ve already seen them do it before. In their previous loss to South Sydney, they still managed to score 20 points (and it would have been more if Cameron Smith had his boots on the correct feet, given that they scored 4 tries). To put that into perspective, the Storm’s defense is so good, that 20 points would be enough to tie or win 19 of their 24 matches this year. If the return of Vunivalu has the positive effect on Melbourne’s defense that we think he will, then all they have to do is perform equally as well on offense, and they should be sweet.
Which means that for South Sydney, the result is likely to hinge on the performance of their defense. While winning is easy when you outgain your opponent by over a kilometre, as they did last week against the Tigers (that’s not an exaggeration), they’re not likely to see anything like those video game numbers here. The Storm are a distant 1st in RMCVOA, and have only been outgained by over 200m on 3 occasions all year (though one of those was the Rabbitohs game). Notably, the Storm lost the possession battle in all of those matches, highlighting the importance of discipline here for South Sydney. If Souths can control possession and deny the Storm decent field position, they can put their own defense in the best possible situation to succeed.
In a close game, that makes us lean towards the home team. Though the Rabbitohs aren’t generally too poorly treated by the referees, they can be punished away from home, with the team having conceded double-digit penalties 5 times this year in just 12 games away from ANZ. In contrast, the Storm have hit that mark just twice when playing at home. We like Melbourne’s defense to contain the Rabbitohs to a catchable total, and expect they’ll be handed every opportunity to get the points they need.
Our tip: Storm
Panthers v Warriors
Offense VOA: Panthers 6.34% (5th), Warriors -2.44% (9th)
Defense VOA: Panthers 2.42% (9th), Warriors -0.03% (8th)
We acknowledge that we run the risk of offending our entire Penrith fan-base by saying this, but we’d have no integrity if we didn’t: the Panthers weren’t very good last weekend.
Sure, they beat the Storm; and yes, they did it despite being reduced to 12 men for a quarter of the game (which is admittedly impressive against any opponent). But while we admired their resilience, they were still a long way short of their best footy. For a start, while the return of James Maloney was expected to spark their offense, they looked just as clueless with the ball as they were the week prior (against this week’s opponent, the Warriors). They were held to just 2 line breaks for the second week in a row, despite having the good fortune of facing what was essentially a second-string Melbourne side. They seemed to be making a concerted effort to attack through their strike forward Viliame Kikau, but were failing to create any indecision in the defenders, and were instead just tossing him the ball and hoping he’d bust through tackles (and generally down the shorter side of the field, where the defense wasn’t even stretched). This has been a hallmark of their offense of late, and we’d hoped to see a bit more enterprise with the return of Maloney. That didn’t eventuate.
And though defensively it’s certainly impressive to keep anyone to just 2 tries in the face of two sin-bin periods and a 42% possession share, we’re not sure how much credit we can give them, considering the hodge-podge spine the Storm were trotting out. If these numbers had come against a full-strength Melbourne team, we’d be waxing lyrical about how great Penrith’s defense was; instead, it comes with a big asterisk.
All of that being said, last week isn’t important any more. What we’re concerned with is who wins here. On one hand, the Warriors came out and thumped Penrith just a fortnight ago, 36-16. If nothing’s changed, then there’s no real reason to expect anything different. But then again, a half-strength Penrith side hammered the Warriors 36-4 back in July; if the Panthers were too good then, then surely this team – with stars Maloney, Nathan Cleary, Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Tyrone Peachey, Josh Mansour and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak all back – will be far too strong for New Zealand.
So which is it?
The key difference between those two matches is essentially just Penrith. In their win, the Panthers had a combined 14 errors and penalties, and as a result, were able to earn a mammoth 60% possession share, with which they put the Warriors to the sword. In their second meeting, they collapsed to 21 errors and penalties, leaving them with an even possession share (and just 46% at halftime), from which their sputtering James Maloney-less offense couldn’t recover.
Against Melbourne, their handling tightened back up, making just 7 errors for the first time since they beat the Warriors in Round 17. If they can replicate that – and if they don’t get refereed out of the contest, as they very nearly did last week – we expect their offense to sufficiently improve, and that they should have too much for New Zealand. But if they have concrete hands again (as they had in their 3 prior matches, when they made 15, 15 and 12 errors), they risk giving the Warriors too many rests, too many opportunities, and eventually, too many points.
We’ve got Penrith, but we acknowledge that with Penrith, we’re playing a game of chance.
Our tip: Panthers
Roosters v Sharks
Offense VOA: Roosters 12.87% (4th), Sharks 6.28% (6th)
Defense VOA: Roosters -40.03% (1st), Sharks -11.51% (5th)
The second Preliminary Final has had us agonising all week. Here, we’ll see our current competition favourites – the Roosters – meeting our 2018 ride-or-die, the Sharks (who we’d been backing to finish in the Top 4 since Round 6, when they were coming 13th).
The Roosters have been unbelievable on defense all year, allowing the fewest points, as well as finishing first in both LBCVOA (-27.27%) and TBCVOA (-20.33%). However, what really kicks them into premiership favouritism for us is that among the top sides, they’re the most dangerous team on both sides of the ball. Not only do the Roosters feature the best defense in the league, but when it all clicks for them, their offense can be close to unstoppable as well. Yes, they can be inconsistent (they’ve been held to just 3 line breaks or less in more than half their matches), but they’re also the only team this year to make 13 line breaks in a single game – and they’ve done it twice. When the Roosters are on, they have the ability to absolutely destroy teams, and have made 8 or more line breaks in a game against Top 8 sides the Broncos, Warriors and Dragons. They’re not likely to here against a typically elite Sharks defense; but nonetheless, you have to respect the fact that between James Tedesco, Latrell Mitchell and Luke Keary, they have firepower that’s unmatched in the competition (if they can only find consistency).
That being said, we still find it hard to count out the Sharks, though. We’ve been saying all year that they’re building into a really good footy team, and they have. The only question now is whether or not they’ve peaked, or if they can get even better. The great knock on the Sharks has been questions over their offense, who scored more than 4 tries in a game just twice in their first 19 matches (including 8 games in which they scored 2 or less). However, over their final 5 games of the season (which perhaps coincidentally finally saw Wade Graham, Luke Lewis and Josh Dugan on the field at once), they’ve scored 5 or more tries in all but 1 match, with a LBVOA of 37.71% (good enough for 2nd in the league, and critically, better than the Roosters). With Graham (who ranks 2nd on his team for line break assists) and Dugan (who ranks 5th for tackle breaks and 7th for line breaks, despite having only played 13 matches) back on deck, it looks like the Sharks finally have the attacking pieces around Matt Moylan to threaten the top defenses.
So how do you make a call here? We actually do prefer the attack of the Sharks at this point; but oddly enough, we’re no longer convinced that their defense is in the same league as Sydney’s. Despite being a team reknowned for shutting down opponents, these days Cronulla seem to offer up more opportunities than we’d like. Just last week, they allowed the Bulldogs to make 5 line breaks; in the two months prior to that, the Cowboys, Sea Eagles and Raiders all did the same, and that’s despite Cronulla having more possession in each of those matches (and when they lost the possession battle, Penrith put 9 past them). These are lapses that the Roosters just don’t make (Sydney have allowed 5 line breaks in a game while winning the possession count just once all season).
Both teams have the capacity to punish their opponent for the slightest defensive mistake, and at this point, Cronulla appear more prone to them. However, if both teams play a flawless defense, we could be looking at golden point territory.
Our tip: Roosters
Broncos v Dragons
Offense VOA: Broncos 19.32% (2nd), Dragons -5.67(10th)
Defense VOA: Broncos -14.37% (4th), Dragons -1.72% (7th)
The last match of the weekend appears the most obvious, given the multi-month stretch of abysmal form that the Dragons are currently mired in.
Of course, there’s no such thing as a certainty in rugby league, and the Broncos will still need to strap on their boots and trot out onto Suncorp Stadium in order to progress to Week Two (whether or not they need to do much else remains to be seen). It goes without saying that Brisbane are the overwhelming favourites to win; the real question here is what the Dragons can do about it.
The good news is that St George-Illawarra finally get Gareth Widdop back, which is a step in the right direction. However, those who believe that the loss of Widdop is the source of the Dragons’ ills are mistaken – their slide started long before they lost their top playmaker (and in fact, of the 3 games he missed, they actually won 2 of them). Rather, their problem is that their forward pack, who were arguably the best in the league until Origin (four of their starting forwards were selected for New South Wales, with good reason) has been bog average ever since. Through Round 17, the Dragons outgained their opponents in 13 of their 16 matches. Since their stars got back from Origin, they haven’t outgained their opponent once.
Now, the responsibility for that doesn’t fall completely on the shoulders of their middles. In several cases (notably the Eels, Bulldogs and Knights games), their run metres issues were badly compounded by a lack of possession. Obviously, the less football you have, the less metres you’ll gain (and conversely, the more metres you’ll concede, assuming equal time-in-play). Which begs the obvious question – why are they suddenly losing the possession counts, after winning the possession battle in 13 of their opening 16 games? The answer to that is twofold.
Firstly, their discipline has dropped slightly, with the team making more errors than their season average of 10.38 (which is already quite high) in 5 of their last 8. But the more significant factor is the complete absence of repeat sets, with the Dragons having forced just 3 drop-outs in their past 8 games, while conceding (wait for it…) an unbelievable 21 over the same period. Yes, that’s an extra 18 sets that the Dragons have given up in excellent field position; which has unsurprisingly resulted in them earning 50% or less possession in 7 of 8 matches, while conceding an average of over 23 points per game.
So, can they fix it? On the forwards front, probably not. The absence of Paul Vaughan stings, and if Jack de Belin (who’s under an injury cloud as well) misses the contest as well, they very well might get steamrolled by an in-form Broncos pack (we’re sure the Dragons can’t wait to get Korbin Sims next year, he’s been exceptional of late). With regards to forcing repeat sets, you may think that the return of Widdop will help, but if it does, the benefit is likely to be minor – Widdop has forced just 8 drop-outs all year. The overwhelming majority of Dragons repeat sets have come off the boot of Ben Hunt – who’s been awful since kicking it into Row G back in Origin 2.
If they can match it with Brisbane’s forwards and Ben Hunt can suddenly recapture his early season form, then yes, St George-Illawarra can theoretically make a game of it. But they haven’t done either of those things in two months, so we’re not expecting them to start now.
Our tip: Broncos