The Forward Rotation
The forward rotation between Queensland and New South Wales was the biggest point of difference last night. Last year Kevin Walters struggled with his interchanges, specifically in game 1 where he only used 114 total bench minutes (compared to the Blues 142 minutes) and his fatigued middle was parted by Cook and Tedesco. Walters improved his bench use throughout last year, in Game 2 he used 129 minutes and game 3 the bench totalled 138 minutes.
Walters adjusted throughout the series last year and thoroughly outcoached Fittler last night regarding bench-use
Here are how both coaches elected to rotate their forwards in the first game of the 2019 series:
New South Wales’ forward rotation was perplexing. The most contentious decision was interchanging Tyson Frizell on the right edge for Angus Crichton after 30 minutes. This runs counterintuitively with a lot of what we know about the importance of edge defensive combinations, especially with Crichton being a poorer defensive player in comparison to Frizell. Perhaps Frizell, who has recently returned from an injury and received a head-knock in his last game was unable to play longer minutes, if that’s the case his selection is short-sighted. Fittler’s middle rotation was also disappointing. David Klemmer played the opening 51 minutes of the game then didn’t return for the rest of the night. Jake Trbojevic, who has yet to be interchanged in the 2019 NRL Season for Manly and has a proven track-record of success as high-workload player, spent 30 minutes on the bench while the New South Wales forwards crumbled.
The biggest indictment of Fittler’s rotation occurred during the second half. After Queensland’s forwards opened the second half lazily, Walters pulled the trigger and interchanged all 3 middles between the 50-55 minute mark, benching Napa, McGuire and Ofahengaue for Papalli, Fifita and Arrow. This unit for Queensland swung the game and managed to win the contact battle on offence and defence, generating metres and caging the Blues in their own half. During that period Fittler made 2 interchanges, Vaughan for Klemmer and inexplicably interchanging Cody Walker for Jack Wighton while his middle was drowning. Fittler interchanged a fatigued Hass for Trbojevic at the 60 minute mark and then did not make another interchange until the score was QLD 18 – NSW 8. Even during the period where NSW were down to 12 men, Fittler went the entire duration without an interchange.
Queensland’s rotation was more structured. On the edges Kaufusi and Gillett both played the whole game as they regularly do for their clubs, allowing Walters to use sharper rotations through the middle. In the first half; Arrow, Napa, Ofahengaue and Papalli shared the prop minutes evenly, and 10 minutes into the second Walters rotated his whole middle-unit with a combination that dominated a fatigued Blues pack.
New South Wales must find a more balanced rotation if they want to compete in this series moving forward. They elected to carry one true prop on their bench in Payne Haas, and it was apparent with how Klemmer played the entire first forcing them to interchange a lock and 2RF in Trbojevic and Frizell who both are capable of extended minutes. Queensland also have some selection decisions to ponder with their middle, Dylan Napa was the worst forward on the field last night and his defensive effort was woeful. Napa finished completing only 10 tackles, missing 7 in 30 minutes and was predictably lazy through the middle of the field. They also need to find a way to include David Fifita more in their rotation, his lateral agility defensively was invaluable in stifling a NSW attack content in targeting the middle of the field. Likely the best option is interchanging Josh McGuire in the first half allowing Fifita to cover the last 10 minutes through the middle while maintaining the current prop rotation.
With plenty of the focus pre-game on the left-side attacks, it was the right-side that generated the bulk of the opportunities. New South Wales’ left side struggled mightily. In the Tactical State of Origin Preview there were concerns raised about how Cody Walker and Latrell Mitchell would combine given the way they play for their clubs, that concern was well-founded. Walker doesn’t facilitate structure on an edge and as a result NSW relied on Cleary playing an unfamiliar dual role on both edges which ultimately failed. Cleary was rarely able to position the left-edge with any early ball in attacking shape and the few opportunities that did arise were from Damien Cook’s running. Walker and Mitchell were awkwardly positioned all night, both occupying similar spaces wide of the ruck while they were starved for ball, apparent by Mitchell’s 12 possessions, down from his average of 16.5. This failure in team construction raises some interesting selection questions for Game 2, while the importance of a halves ‘combination’ is often exaggerated it’s clear Walker’s style of play forces Cleary into an unfamiliar role while also fitting awkwardly with his adjacent centre. Nathan Cleary played a nice game, he was defensively solid, initiated the right-side shape and was active through the middle while never really threatening the line. Fittler is in an unenviable position, changing a halves pairing mid-series is dangerous and yet it could be untenable if they wish to retain the shield.
On the right-edge New South Wales did have more success. Queensland’s defence was notably shaky early-on with Cameron Munster shooting out of the line and Morgan unsure of his defensive positioning, ultimately culminating in this Josh Morris try:
Tedesco was enormous operating on both edges, his rare combination of sharp footwork and vision made him an impossible cover. Cleary and Tedesco were able to generate several one-on-one situations outside of Kaufusi on the right with more balanced timing and spacing.
Queensland also had some teething issues in attack. In the first-half their goal-line sets were slow, disjointed and Ben Hunt struggled to provide sharp and accurate service. When the forwards started winning the contact battle and Hunt was able to jump out of half without pressure it improved dramatically, acting almost like a second half-back. The opportunities for NSW to stifle Queensland’s attack stem from the middle, we saw Hunt struggles to operate from dummy-half with a stagnant pack. NSW played a fast edge-defence last night with mixed success. On Queensland’s left they were able to close a lot of plays trapping the main distributor Munster from getting the ball away which ultimately this didn’t work as well as expected giving Munster the freedom to hold the ball, skip across field with the fast defence providing him with ideal semi-broken where he’s at his best:
The rushing defence also came unstuck on the right with Cherry-Evans firing some long-passes outside the edge catching the Blues with their pants down on a couple of occasions. Similarly to NSW, Queensland looked better when they went right – the shorter right-side sweep allowed Ponga freedom of space that he wasn’t afforded on the left. The long sweeping left-side plays were being closed down with the exception of this wrap off the back of a quick play-the-ball finally unleashing Ponga’s left-side passing:
On the right-side, Ponga was able to take possession earlier before the defence could close any angles, and even as a left-side dominant player his vision is matched only by Tedesco. This play to set-up Gagai on the right only highlights the Maroon’s need to involve Kalyn as early as possible in set-plays:
Both teams have some questions moving to Perth, New South Wales more so than Queensland. The Blues have some structural issues to ponder with their balance offensively, including making an important decision on the future of their halves. They also need to reflect on the reasons why the game turned in Queensland’s favour, namely the woeful bench rotation. For Queensland, the structure of their team is sound and they improved as the game progressed adapting to the Blues defence. They still have problems with how their attack spluttered early when the forwards were unable to again advantage through contact restricting Hunt’s freedom to bounce out of dummy-half. This could become problematic away from home with a refurbished NSW forward pack. The reasoning behind picking Queensland to win the series have held true through Game 1, the NSW forward pack was over-soled through the media and the balance of Queensland’s offence provides greater opportunities – but this series is still close, and certainly not over.