State of Origin Game 2: Tactical Preview

State of Origin is intriguing for several different reasons; the history, the tribalism, the spectacle, but also the technicalities of the game itself. Origin is the highest-quality Rugby League we see each year with many of the NRL’s best players split relatively evenly across two teams with incredible motivation underpinning their performance. Often lost in all the hype every year is the conceptual and technical reasons why a state was victorious, so with that in mind lets look forward to Game 2 of this years State of Origin series, and what likely holds the key to victory for both states

The Forward Rotation

As discussed in the Origin Wrap, the forward rotation in Game 1 was one of the biggest points of difference between the two sides.

Queensland’s was sharp, the two edges; Gillett and Kaufusi, played 80 minutes while Walters rotated his middle rapidly. The Blues rotation was messy by any measure, Tyson Frizell played 30 minutes on the right edge and then spent 40 minutes on the bench only to return in the last 10. David Klemmer played 50 consecutive minutes in the middle then did not return. Jake Trbojevic spent 30 minutes on the bench in the middle of the game despite having played every minute of Manly’s season.

The result was catastrophic for New South Wales;

Key StatisticsQLD ForwardsNSW Forwards
Run Metres776796
Post-Contact Metres202169
Metres per Run8.628.12
PCM per Run2.241.72

Their forwards lost the battle for territory as well as the battle at contact convincingly, allowing the Queensland forwards more metres per carry and more post contact metres per carry by a healthy margin.

If we thought the New South Wales forward rotation was convoluted in Brisbane, it’s about to enter another dimension.

8. Daniel Saifiti

10. Paul Vaughan

11. Boyd Cordner

12. Tyson Frizell

13. Jake Trbojevic

14. Dale Finucane

15. Tariq Sims

16. Cameron Murray

17. Wade Graham

They’ve named a 4-forward bench, which in theory is pitched as a way to gain ascendancy through the middle but in reality is much harder to achieve. How they plan to integrate all 4 bench forwards into the game is riddling. The balance of their bench also doesn’t lend itself to an easy transition throughout the game; Finucane and Murray are high-workload lock-forwards, Graham and Sims are left-edge backrowers. Sims is the closest player they have to an impact forward capable of winning contact and territory and could be the first one off the pine when the lower-workload Saifiti gets interchanged. Where they go from here is perplexing; Paul Vaughan is capable of longer-minutes at prop but this is dependent on game situation, if New South Wales are forced into a large amount of defensive work early he will need to be interchanged quickly. They’ll likely have to interchange Vaughan for one of Finucane or Murray with Trbojevic sliding into prop taking some of the stronger carries.

Brad Fittler has also been unafraid to disrupt their edges throughout the game. It’s been rumoured they need Tyson Frizell to play a role in the middle of the field and may shift him into there when interchanging one of their props with Graham or Sims taking his right-edge position. They also could bench him altogether with an eye on reintroducing him throughout the game as a middle forward. Rotating edges is fraught with danger, they’re the linchpin of a teams defence and the decisions they make defensively have ramifications for all the players outside of them. The combinations second-row forwards have with the players around them is one of the most important in the modern game and yet given the team NSW has named it’s almost necessary they rotate edges in order to find any semblance of normality through the middle.

The concern for the New South Wales forwards isn’t defensively, they have a collection of mobile defensive players through the middle who can reduce the opportunities given to Queensland at the ruck. The bigger concern is whether they can find a balanced rotation that can generate territory and win metres at contact, especially given the importance they’ve placed on getting past the advantage line with quick play-the-balls for Damien Cook and James Tedesco to utilise. There will periods of play where they don’t have a typical front-rower on the field, there could even be periods of play where they have all of Vaughan, Saifiti and Trbojevic on the bench, how they fare in those minutes will be crucial.

History will often show that 4-forward rotations are hard to implement, and 1 player is normally lost in the shuffle playing significantly reduced minutes and having a limited impact. Brad Fittler has named a 4-forward bench without any true props and no defined roles, this could be a disaster. The key will be how Vaughan and Trbojevic are used through the game, Vaughan is defensively mobile and capable of winning contact, Trbojevic is one of the best defensive middles and his ball-playing when engaging the line offers value offensively beyond any of his replacements. If either player gets lost in the shuffle and spends long minutes on the bench as Fittler struggles to integrate his patch-work middle rotation, it’s hard to imagine how they generate enough go-forward to win.

For Queensland, life is much easier;

8. Dylan Napa

10. Josh Papalii

11. Felise Kaufusi

12. Matt Gillett

13. Josh McGuire

15. Jarrod Wallace

16. Tim Glasby

17. David Fifita

Barring injury they will roll with a more traditional rotation, the edges will play long minutes while the middle will be rotated relatively evenly among the remaining 6 forwards. From Game 1, Joe Ofagengaue and Jai Arrow have both been excluded through injury with Jarrod Wallace and Tim Glasby taking their place. Both of these players offer different skills, Glasby is a defender and his primary role will be tightening the ruck late in the first half. Jarrod Wallace who was much-maligned in last years series is a high-workrate player who is defensively sound, can win contact, and can engage the line and make passes through the middle providing Queensland’s offence with initial shape.

As it was in Game 1, the key for Queensland will be rapid middle rotations. Dylan Napa and Josh Papalii are both large bodies who can be targeted through the ruck if fatigued. Napa had a poor Game 1 and looked out-of-place in such a high-intensity environment; he finished with 10 completed tackles, 7 missed tackles and his benching early in the second half was the catalyst for Queensland’s domination through the middle. Josh McGuire can also be sloppy around the ruck under fatigue and while Queensland only used 2 interchanges in the first half of Game 1, given the success of David Fifita it could be amiss not to interchange McGuire in the last 10 minutes in Perth. Kevin Walters will need to do everything possible to limit opportunities presented to NSW through the ruck, they were split open a handful of times in Game 1 and were lucky to recover, if he misses a rotation in Game 2 and Damien Cook manages to slip beyond a fatigued forward they mightn’t be so lucky.

Goal Line Attack & Defence

The attacks of both sides in Game 1 were a mixed bag. The left edges were billed as offensive juggernauts for both teams yet struggled to find a cohesive rhythm.

For New South Wales there were structural issues, Cody Walker played as a wider five-eighth relying on Cook and Cleary to generate the initial shape and opportunities were scarce. The left was largely starved of ball, Cleary playing as an unfamiliar dominant half failed to engage the left side and the spacing between Latrell Mitchell and Cody Walker was awkward as they both occupied similar roles. Queensland’s left side attack was clunky throughout, the service from Ben Hunt was often slow and even when positioned adequately, Munster/Ponga/Morgan failed to combine in a way that questioned the New South Wales defence. The longer left-side sweeps were poorly timed and often broke down at the initial point of attack leaving Munster with possession, it’s telling the only try generated from Queensland’s left was a wrap where the shape is generated with a stationary ball held by Kaufusi as opposed to relying on the timing of moving players;

The right had more success for both teams, the shorter sweeps from the middle allowed the ball to find the second-man quicker, in this case Ponga and Tedesco, and both were able to generate opportunities through ball-playing.

Both of Queensland’s edges remain unchanged which will only aid in developing combinations, offensively they will line-up like this;

On the surface their left edge of Cherry-Evans, Kaufusi, Munster, Ponga, Morgan and Oates looks potent but it’s interesting to wonder if again the right-edge might have more success given the defensive matchups. James Maloney despite all his accolades is an exceptionally poor defender by any measure and is flanked by Jack Wighton playing in an unfamiliar defensive position. These two players will have to contend with Kalyn Ponga coming off the back of a Cherry-Evans generated sweep.

Maloney is a flyer; he doesn’t have the size or defensive capability to play in a sliding defence and to compensate he screams off the line and tries to jam the ball handler before he has time to get on his outside. This tactic is high-variance, if Maloney misses the mark on a couple of occasions he leaves a 3 on 2, but if he’s successful he can stifle the ball-handler. In any game of footy Maloney will miss plenty of tackles but his team doesn’t need him to make them, they just need him to buy enough time so his inside defence can recover. If there was one player custom built to exploit this defensive tactic, it’s Kalyn Ponga. Kalyn is at his best when defences are rushing towards him, his ability to change direction through stepping is unrivalled and he showed in Game 1 his left-right passing and decision making is more than adequate;

This match-up could be fatal for the Blues and it’s something Queensland will need to heavily explore on Sunday. The left side could also have its opportunities. While clunky in Game 1 they remain unchanged and the importance of continuity in fostering attacking combinations cannot be undervalued. The Blues were able to close down the left-side attack of Queensland in Brisbane, often trapping Munster without any outside options. Ironically this defensive tactic gave Munster the freedom to drift back to the right in semi-broken, stagnant play where he excels, busting them open twice. New South Wales have their best defenders lining up against Queensland’s left; Frizell, Cleary and Tom Trbojevic are all above-average defenders and Ferguson while making some poor defensive decisions on occasion is a big body to help cover Corey Oates. This said, their margin for error is slim, given any space or opportunity players like Munster and Morgan will capitalise as ball runners with instinctual passing games. If the rumours about Tyson Frizell being rotated through the middle are true this could become a problem for NSW, Tariq Sims or Wade Graham would likely take that role and both usually play on the opposite side of the field. One small misstep with players like Munster and Ponga patrolling the left could be catastrophic.

The Blues are taking a completely different offensive look into Game 2;

The balance James Maloney provides the NSW attack is important. While most modern offences relegate the five-eighth to an edge almost exclusively, Maloney plays with more freedom and often drifts in-field taking the reins through the middle and playing an important role in facilitating shape. This will be vital in helping engage the left edge which was starved of opportunity in Brisbane. If needed Maloney will drift in-field and facilitate early-ball to the left allowing Tedesco and Wighton space to attack the line. They’ll also have plays where Cleary plays that facilitating role for the left and Maloney slots in as a traditional wider five-eighth asking questions of Queensland’s defence.

This is a more structurally sound attack compared to Game 1, they won’t be heavily reliant on Cleary playing as an unfamiliar dominant halfback and he can resume his role operating on the right. With Maloney controlling a large part of the offence they may have a tendency to send their attacking plays to the left. This could be a mistake, the combination of Cleary and Tedesco on the right-hand side was timed nicely in Brisbane and now with Tom Trbojevic replacing Josh Morris, targeting the shaky defensive combination of Munster-Morgan-Oates could provide significant opportunities.

Prediction: Queensland

In every State of Origin game both sides have exceptional talent and reasonable paths to victory, but Queensland are largely undisrupted heading to Perth while New South Wales have some key questions that still need answering. The Blues forward rotation was perplexing in Game 1 and only looks to be more convoluted on Sunday. They’ll have to find a way to win at contact and progress past the advantage line to have a chance of opening Queensland’s ruck defence while providing their attack with enough territory to generate points. Given their struggles in Game 1 and the balance of their bench in Game 2 it’s difficult to have confidence in them piecing together enough go-forward to accomplish this. Queensland have another training-camp to help develop some key combinations and the experience gained from Game 1 for out-of-position players like Ben Hunt and Michael Morgan should only move to improve their quality. While their ability to defend the middle will again be the key to success, with sharp bench rotations they have the tools to nullify a large component of the Blues game-plan while also being better equipped for generating territory. The sky-is-falling narrative that’s followed the Blues could be misleading, they have an exceptional team with a real chance of winning, but it’s difficult to have faith in a team that has more questions than answers.