Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 25 2015

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, looking at the points you may have missed from round 25 of the NRL.

Future Newcastle Knight Trent Hodkinson has played his last game for this season due to a wrist injury and his absence is set to have a huge impact on the finals chances of the sixth-placed Bulldogs. Since Des Hasler hasn’t shown faith in Hodkinson this year, and due to Origin commitments, we do have a few matches to look at from when Hodkinson has been absent for the Belmore-based franchise to look at the possible impact. In their last four games sans Hodkinson Canterbury have won two and lost two but, significantly, neither of those two wins were against finals-bound sides. The most recent fixture was round 18 which saw Canterbury beaten 16-8 by Brisbane in Sydney. With Moses Mybe and Josh Reynolds (who is expected back this weekend) in the halves the Dogs scored two tries. Three weeks earlier they beat Penrith four tries to two 24-12. Notably this was when Penrith were not as injury-ravaged with Dallin Watene Zelezniak, Jamie Soward and Peter Wallace all featuring in this game so the win has merit. The week prior was another loss this time 28-14 to the Gold Coast when the Bulldogs scored three tries. A 41-34 triumph over Canberra was the first victory in this block of four games. They did score seven tries in that encounter but again the opponent isn’t in the top eight so this loss doesn’t bode well for Hasler and co heading into the finals.

As our note about how Cameron Munster may be a better option at fullback was roundly ignored by Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy when Billy Slater inked a new deal with the Storm our other key note on fullback options this weekend also went ignored with disastrous consequences for South Sydney. Now Alex Johnston losing the ball close to the try line did mean Brisbane’s Corey Oates got the ball to race nearly 100 metres to score in the 13th minute but Dylan Walker’s attempts to stop the Brisbane forward-come-winger from scoring was woeful. Walker did the good work to get there but must now own the record for the longest ongoing tackle attempt (30 metres) that ended up in failure. Experimenting is meant for trial games and not two weeks from the finals. I’m not quite sure what Michael Maguire has achieved by this positional switch as Souths were beaten 47-12.

When beaten 20-6 by Newcastle in round 24 the Melbourne forward pack came in for heavy criticism from coach Bellamy. None of the big men ran for over 100 metres against the Knights as pointed out by Andy Raymond during the Fox Sports coverage in Saturday night’s fixture against the Cowboys. The message was received loud and clear. On a wet night in the Victorian capital Jesse Bromwich ran for over 100 metres (116) in the first half alone as Melbourne saw off Cowboys 14-6. The Kiwi international finished with an impressive 196 metres from 20 runs. He was joined in the ‘100 club’ by brother Kenny (115 metres) Tohu Harris (113) and Kevin Proctor (103.)

As the Roosters put Manly to the sword on Friday night at Brookvale Oval the value of James Maloney in the coming weeks was highlighted. Not only did the Cronulla-bound pivot pick up two try assists in the 46-10 victory his direction on attack proved invaluable. At one stage the Ourimbah junior forced an error from Manly winger Peter Hiku with one of his first half kicks which lead to a Brendan Elliot try in the eight tries to two triumph. As 19 year-old Jackson Hastings becomes more comfortable in the halfback role the contribution of Maloney, 29, when the pressure is on the Roosters in the coming month or so could be the difference between the Roosters winning back the title they secured in 2013 or the title favourites getting bundled out.

Former NSW Origin winger Akuila Uate was shown up by mature age rookie Nathan Ross on the opposite flank on Saturday night as the Knights fell 20-18 to the Bulldogs. Coming into this game in 20 games this season Uate gained 2735 metres in attack with an average of just under 137 metres per match whilst teammate Ross in four games has averaged 142 metres per fixture. Whilst Ross’ five metre better difference per game isn’t hugely statistically significant given the volumes we are talking about that Uate, a senior player and an international, didn’t lead these categories comfortably compared to his vastly inexperienced club-mate is worrying. Against the Bulldogs Ross not only scored a try but outgained Uate by 73 metres (193 to 120). In addition to this Uate has also been exposed defensively during the month of August missing ten tackles to Ross’ three to go with his howler on Saturday night. Older than Ross by only 11 months the Fijian international despite scoring 12 tries this season would find it hard to make a case for a ‘dead cert’ wing spot in 2016 no matter who the new coach is for the Knights. As we say in fantasy… droppable.

Steve, the Smiths and Lord Richie – My All Blacks 31

@hamishneal

By law, and to retain my New Zealand passport, here is my 31 for the All Blacks squad due to be announced on Sunday August 30. Steve Hansen’s team will endeavor to retain the Rugby World Cup title they won in 2011 at Auckland’s Eden Park.

Forwards Backs
Woodcock Aaron
Coles Dan
Rettalick Jules
Whitelock (Sam) Ma’a
Kaino Conrad
Lord Richie McCaw Nehe
Read Ben
Mealamu Tawera
Crockett Sonny-Bill
Laulala Charles
Romano Tawera
Vito Beauden
Franks x 2 Malakai
Taylor Lima
Messam
Cane

*Obviously we used first names for all the backs because there are too many Smiths and it would just be confusing

Despite his performances in the final Bledisloe encounter earlier this month and endless pleadings to Steve Hansen Dan Coles goes as a hooker not an outside centre.

The props/hookers are amongst the easiest to pick with a fairly experienced core group in the front-line and scrummaging department.

The only forward battle was decided by way of a thumb way between Nepo Laulala and Charlie Faumuina. The 24 year-old future Chief won best of five 3-2. Bad luck Charlie.

The outside backs/utility roles are generally considered the contentious positions. I have two players who started the season as hopeful to be regular Super Rugby players heading to England and surrounds for the four-yearly showpiece

Israel Dagg made a late bolt at the squad with a hat trick in the ITM Cup recently but is marked down for his quite frankly awful dancing in the All Blacks Air New Zealand safety video. I mean really if that’s what made the cut how bad were the out-takes?

With some many wingers/fullbacks sadly I could find no room for Cory Jane but gladly his replacement is a fellow Hurricane.

Shares in Fijian super-cure medicines will plummet when Waisake Naholo misses out despite rumours last week he was close to making it.

Those that miss will be given a first class ticket to Paris by NZR before mysteriously all getting analyst jobs with Welsh, Scottish, Irish and French TV broadcasters.

No doubt Messrs Hansen, Foster, and Fox will make me look silly with their final selections but remember not mater what Stephen Donald is hold up somewhere near Bristol fishing on the River Severn and ready to save us all.

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 24 2015

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence looking at the points you may have missed from round 24 of the NRL.

Our forward review this week is in aid of the title favourites the Sydney Roosters who have lost Jared Warea-Hargraves for the season due to an anterior cruciate ligament injury as the Tricolours won 12-10 againast Brisbane on Saturday night. As the game progressed and due to more key injuries the roosters emptied their bench with every bench player playing at least half an hour. With Waerea-Hargreaves out for the balance of the year Kane Evans, the least used interchange player shapes as the probably replacement. Evans, in his 31 minutes, made 17 tackles and logged 10 runs for 99 metres. The week prior against the Eels Evans in 39 minutes was hugely impressive with 12 runs which racked up 157 metres. During that 28-18 win the Fijian international broke the most tackles, six, of any forward in the match bar Waerea-Hargreaves. Hopefully if you are playing fantasy finals the Roosters forward and co-captain Mitchell Pearce aren’t in your team.

Sharks hooker Michael Ennis might have a big fat zero in the try assist category from the weekend but he was key as Cronulla saw off the Wests Tigers 40-18. For Cronulla’s second try he sold a huge dummy to the open-side which deceived the Tigers defence before Sosaia Feki barged over in the left corner. Eight minutes later another dummy later didn’t fool Aaron Woods or James Tedesco but the 87 kilogram rake still forced the ball for a try to help Cronulla lead 20-6 at the interval. Shane Flanagan’s side withstood a Tigers comeback in the second stanza to get themselves to 30 points and finish the weekend in fifth spot on the ladder. Ennis did miss a few tackles, five, but his attacking output more than covered those blemishes on this occasion.

It was reported last week that the Melbourne Storm was set to offer 32-year old Billy Slater a further two-year deal but I wonder if the form of his recent replacement Cameron Munster has given coach Craig Bellamy pause for thought. Munster, 20, coming into Monday night’s game against Newcastle had averaged 220 run metres per game and 22 runs. He broke at least five tackles in each of those games and on Monday night added to his burgeoning resume when he scored a try early on (although he did only run for 97 metres in a surprise 20-6 loss.) Contrast this with Slater who in his last three games at fullback averaged 98 run metres and at the most ran 13 times. Both custodians made a total of four errors across this brief analysis with Slater missing two more tackles (four) than Munster. Whilst it is worth noting Slater was feeling the effects of injury for which he ultimately had surgery on if he has chosen to play he is at an acceptable standard and should be judged on his performances. Given the Storm pay four representative backs, five if Tohu Harris plays in the centres, letting Slater leave to offer upgraded deals to secure others such as Munster and finding a replacement for Cameron Smith (who shares Slater’s birthday) isn’t the worst idea.

Staying with fullbacks who play for Queensland and Greg Inglis will be missing for Souths at least in the next week but how will this impact the reigning premiers? In his last three full games in the number 1 jersey the former Storm player averaged 132 run metres and was influential on attack but it may surprise that his likely replacement Alex Johnston outstrips the 28 year-old from the last three weeks he played when covering the position during the Origin period. Johnston last featured at the back in round 17 and in his last three games as custodian averaged 165 metres. Inglis broke an average of three tackles in his last three games whilst Johnston averages over five in that category. Admittedly the two do change during games at times but Johnston’s attacking statistics won’t be a problem for Michael Maguire. Where the issues may come is the communication in defence. Souths’ left-side has, in particular, been worrying in recent weeks and Johnston will need to be ready to help out to that end.

Back in the side playmaker Gold Coast Kane Elgey helped the Titans secure a morale-boosting win on Sunday when they beat Canberra 28-12 on Sunday. Elgey, NYC Player of the Year in 2014, was instrumental in ‘closing’ the game. Firstly he took a penalty shot with 14 minutes to go ahead by eight points against a side who have had a few comebacks this season. Elgey then produced a 40/20 kick before the sides traded errors prior to Kalifa Faifai Loa staging a run deep from his own half to set up good field position. Elgey provided an important flick on for Nene Macdonald to score with ten minutes to go which helped push the scoreline out to 26-12. Whilst the ‘loss’ of Daly Cherry-Evans is a blow for the Gold Coast side it could be a blessing in disguise for Elgey as it will be more incumbent on him to elevate his game earlier in his career as he showed on Sunday. However with the form Tyrone Roberts is in and another rising star Ashley Taylor joining the club Elgey will have some competition for a starting spot in 2016.

Minto’s Hayne not yet up there with Penrith’s NFL product

@hamishneal

Jarryd Hayne! Right, now that I have got your attention. Hayden Smith!

Penrith-born Smith has already done something Hayne aspires to – play in an actual NFL game after making the 53-man roster of the New York Jets back in 2012.

Smith came to the NFL via rugby union and, like Hayne, is an international in that sport having won over 20 caps for the USA Eagles and represented them at the 2011 Rugby World Cup in New Zealand.

The Second-Rower (Rugby) slash Tight End (American Football) actually presents a great case for Australia’s best current product in terms of multi-sports athletes.

The likes of USA star Babe Didrikson Zaharias, England’s Max Woosnam, and Australian Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker (Google them) will not be seen again, at least in terms of the volume of sports, so Hayne and Smith are the latter-day pioneers of the other-sport-to-NFL progression. This is discounting AFL players who have become punters, as the roles Smith and Hayne play are generally deemed to be harder, given the breadth of plays they have to know and time they would spend honing their skills.

Australia has had dual athletes of note in recent years. Paralympians Richard Nicholson and Jessica Gallagher have represented in two sports, with Gallagher going across Paralympic Games as both a summer and winter Paralympian, in athletics and alpine skiing respectively, but the man from the foot of mountains presents a case for the best Australian-born multi-sport athlete of this century to date.

Smith joined the Jets and came through training camp without the hoopla and hyperbole which has been seen for the former New South Wales fullback, probably largely because Smith isn’t as well known amongst the wider sporting public on the east coast of Australia.

As proplayerinsiders.com reported during his time in the NFL, the now 30 year-old came to the Jets after having been looked at by four other NFL franchises including Washington, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and the famed Dallas Cowboys. He officially joined the Jets in April of 2012.

Smith seemed to be somewhat of a victim of the uncertainty the Jets had with their offense, as evidenced by the fact his sole NFL catch as a Tight End was from Quarterback Greg McElroy, who was never considered the Jets best option at QB whilst at the club. This illustrates somewhat of the problem Hayne faces in that with players experienced in the sport fighting it out for a spot, Smith was not seen as reliable in an offensive pattern in a team which was under constant pressure. The 49ers face the same issue with new coach Jim Tomsula seemingly wedded to a conference-winning-but-inconsistent QB in Colin Kaepernick. Smith was cut from the Jets in 2013, but there is actually some sort of lustre to his short NFL career. One catch. 16 yards.

If Hayne ends up with even this level of ‘success’ in an actual NFL game, you can pretty much guarantee he’ll be smiling on the inside.

Whilst Smith’s stint in green was short-lived (his NFL career is literally 15 seconds, and not minutes, of fame) and he exited after one season at the Meadowlands complex, his achievement wasn’t over. A return to rugby union in late 2013 with Saracens saw Smith feature in the LV Cup final last season (2014/15) when his side beat Exeter Chiefs in the final of the knock-out cup competition, which features English and Welsh top-flight sides. Saracens came from fourth to win the final of the Aviva Premiership (the main English domestic rugby competition) against Bath, that’s the Bath former Rabbitoh Sam Burgess plays for. Whilst Smith didn’t feature in that decider, the fact he has been able to come back and pick up a squad spot in one of the best sides in European Rugby is an illustration of his athleticism and versatility.

If Hayne, now 27, was to replicate Smith’s to and fro and back again journey, he would need to start this season in the NFL and return to the NRL/Superleague within the next two years and win a trophy. Plausible? Yes, but it would mean Hayne would have to return to a club not called Parramatta. Is it probable? No.

If flipping between two technically very different sports wasn’t impressive enough, Smith actually got his break in a US college via a Basketball scholarship. As the Americans would say, a ‘Three-sport star.’

Hayne’s efforts to come this far in the NFL deep into pre-season are impressive, but in the annals of multi-sports athletes don’t rank, yet, with Smith or others latterly or the likes of Baker historically.

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 23 2015

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, looking at the points you may have missed from round 23 of the NRL.

As ladder-leaders Brisbane romped to victory 32-6 over the Dragons on Friday night recruit Adam Blair was amongst the most dynamic forwards all night. Not only did he get through a mountain of work with 33 tackles and 11 runs which saw him rack up 103 metres he managed four off-loads, one of which was critical in the build up to Lachlan Maranta’s try. No other forward, bar St George Illawarra’s Trent Merrin, managed an off-load all night and Blair is proving a key player for Wayne Bennett’s side.

South Sydney hooker Issac Luke was influential for the Bunnies as they beat North Queensland 31-18 in Townsville. We already know Luke won’t feature in round 24 against the Bulldogs and the Kiwi rake could end up serving a longer sanction having pled not guilty to a shoulder charge which came only two minutes after he up-ended Lachlan Coote. This will be big loss for a player who laid on the ball for Jason Clark and Thomas Burgess to cross and made nine runs for 100 metres. Only once in his last four game has Luke failed to run for 100 metres or more. Despite the plaudits which were given to one of Luke’s potential replacements in the form of ex-Titan Paul Carter his dynamism will be missed against Canterbury at least. Also what’s worth remembering Luke’s ability to target experienced players like Johnathan Thurston could be missed against a relative rookie in Moses Mbye. Luke zipped passed Thurston on Thursday night when the halfback was caught napping catching a breath directly behind the markers before Souths’ final try.

Heading into Monday night’s game top four aspirants Cronulla had several recent high profile scalps but disappointed in failing to cross the stripe as they were beaten by Melbourne 30-2 in the Shire. More puzzling Ben Barba who has turned games off the bench this year wasn’t called upon until into the final quarter of the game. The former Bronco’s first play resulted in a shallow chip which allowed Melbourne to launch an attack into Cronulla’s half from which they ultimately scored. Not quite the desired impact for coach Shane Flanagan but with Jeff Robson not known for taking on the line and Jack Bird still inexperienced where does Flanagan turn to when the Sharks need creativity in coming weeks?

In what has become a weekly look at the impact of bench forwards it’s not a suspension or player rotation which saw our focus this weekend but a retirement due to concussion-related concerns. Penrith forward Nigel Plum, who had signalled his intention to retire at the end of this season, called an immediate halt to his top-flight rugby league career on Saturday night. Citing immediate concerns around his short-term memory Wagga Wagga native Plum made 34 tackles and ran for 107 metres as the Panthers saw off the New Zealand Warriors 24-10. An immediate replacement appears to be 28 year-old Jeremy Latimore who with 134 metres ran the most of any bench player in his 44 minutes on the park. Latimore also made 28 tackles. What Ivan Cleary does heading into 2016 is to be determined but in a side that was consistently impacted by injuries this season and will see the departure of forwards like Lewis Brown in the off-season a replacement for Plum is another challenge but this news gives Cleary a fast forward option to look at Latimore this weekend at least.

On the broader point of Plum’s departure after 150 NRL games plus numerous NSW Cup fixtures and an untold amount of training sessions Plum’s departure was hastened as it was a personal impact as opposed to not been able to do his job on the field. It brings into sharper focus the impact concussion is having as an issue in professional sport. Multiple NFL players have quite in the middle of multi-million deals in the last 12 months. But it’s not only NFL players also top college players. That’s college as in players who have yet to, as least officially, earn any income from their chosen sport. Food for thought for clubs and leagues.

Why go European? A case for closer marquees

Five Metre Gap – NRL Round 22 2015

@hamishneal

Like the way of the five metre gap in defence, looking at the points you may have missed from round 22 of the NRL. A statistically significant round for premiership winners in recent years.

Does Craig Bellamy read Five Metre Gap? We can’t be sure but either way the return of a ‘strike centre’ helped propel sixth-placed Melbourne to a 22-point triumph on Sunday with Kurt Mann a late addition to the Storm left side against the Gold Coast. The Dragons-bound centre helped snuff out an early Titans attack and just after the break the Queenslander supplied the pass to Marika Koroibete for the Storm’s second try giving the Victorian side a lead they would never relinquish. It’s safe to say the Harris/Bromwich centre-go-round is over.

As Manly romped away to a comprehensive victory on Friday night over South Sydney there was still talk about why rising star Tom Trbojevic wasn’t retained in first grade. Realistically the least experienced player Manly had on that side of the field is Peta Hiku who has played six test matches. Let that sink in… Sides such as the Titans and Raiders don’t have one player with Hiku’s amount of representative experience The Kiwi international broke five tackles, scored three tries and ran for 211 metres (the most of any player in the match) as his Sea Eagles beat Souths 28-8. Significantly he was part of a defensive unit who only allowed one try with two minutes to go and the game well and truly in safe keeping. If Manly was out of contention and Toovey was coaching next year at Brookvale Oval maybe an argument can be made for ‘needing’ to play Trbojevic but they aren’t and he isn’t so play on Geoff we say!

Staying on the peninsula and it was a bad night for the premiers with their defensive trio of Bryson Goodwin, Aaron Gray and Luke Keary put to the sword. Whilst the combined missed tackle count for the trio, four, doesn’t look that bad often they completely misread the play. For example Gray rushed up at the end of the play which saw Hiku cross for his first try. And it wasn’t just the defensive left for the Rabbitohs which was of concern, Dylan Walker missed seven tackles on the other side of the park. Notably Jamie Lyon missed four tackles but he had players around him in a system which compensated for that. The same can’t be said for Michael Maguire’s side.

The stability of a future deal for Trent Robinsons gave the Roosters boss no concerns about starting Jackson Hastings on Sunday afternoon in Newcastle. The Junior Kangaroo, standing in at halfback for Mitchell Pearce, missed two tackles as the Knights scored four tries in 26 minutes late in the contest but he was lively with four runs. Not short in defensive work he did make 20 tackles but was adept enough to let the Roosters players around him shine on attack as they established a 32-0 lead before winning by 16 points. The former Dragon also compared well to Pearce gaining 192 metres from six kicks. About six metres better on average than Peace’s figures last week (nine kicks, 235 metres) against the Bulldogs.

In recent weeks we have looked at how suspensions for off-field discretions and resting players would impact the Sharks and Cowboys this time it’s the turn of the Warriors. With Ben Matulino facing time on the sideline coach Andrew McFadden has a few options but it seems Raymond Faitala-Mariner is a clear pick to possibly play a full 80 minutes as Matulino, 26, did in the weekend’s 36-0 defeat at the hands of the Dragons. Matulino has played on the edge in recent weeks and Faitala-Mariner has had more impact, albeit playing more minutes, than teammates Charlie Gubb and Sam Lisone. The latter duo haven’t broken any tackles in the last two games and RFM broke three in Wellington on Saturday and gained 92 metres in runs. The week prior he had made 118 metres from 13 runs against Cronulla. The Warriors are in desperate need of Ryan Hoffman but the 22 year-old Otahuhu junior might have to be the stop-gap measure.