NRL Grand Final: Tactical Preview

The Raiders will head into Sunday nights decider as the 3rd biggest underdog in the last 10 years, the two teams who were heavier outsiders; the 2017 Cowboys and the 2014 Bulldogs were defeated by 28 and 24 points respectively. It’s a tall task for Canberra, but if there was a game built for the underdog, it’s Rugby League.

Boil the game down to one core element and it becomes clear the above all else winning starts with one thing, contact. It’s part of what makes the game so fascinating from a tactical and statistical standpoint, that as much as we try and romanticise the more intellectual aspects of the game, often it comes down to the opposite. This becomes even more apparent in the biggest games of the year where teams are dialled-in and territory is at a premium.

When quantified through metres per run, contact and territory in Grand Finals paints an eye-opening picture. In the 12 Grand Finals since 2007, the team who has bested their opponent in meters per run has won the game 9 times. The only 3 teams to have outperformed their opponent in this metric and not won the premiership are the 2015 Broncos who lost in Golden Point, the 2013 Sea Eagles who lost 26-18 and the 2011 Warriors who lost 24-10. Broken down into raw total run metres and the trend remains the same; the team who has generated more metres has won 10 of the past 12 Grand Finals. The team who wins contact and territory on Sunday is more than likely taking home the premiership.

Across the 2019 season the Roosters have generated more metres per run than their opponent in 21 of their 26 games, including both games against Canberra and have currently won this metric in their last 14 consecutive games. The Raiders are a solid contact team themselves winning 16 of their 26 games at an average 9.07MPR generated and 8.81MPR conceded, however it pales in comparison to the Roosters 9.51MPR generated and 8.67MPR conceded.

The Roosters generate 0.84 metres per run more than their opponents compared to the Raiders 0.25. These numbers aren’t insurmountable for Canberra, but it helps provide context to just how big a task they’re facing; it’s unlikely they’ll win without besting the Roosters in contact, and besting the Roosters presents a just as unlikely challenge. Before considering any other granular tactical components of the game, this is ground zero for Canberra if they want to compete on Sunday.

Outside of raw contact the tactical the key for both teams’ likely centres around one side of the field, the Roosters left. Per Statsinsiders Try Location Index the Roosters have scored 57 of their 117 trys down the left edge, the most in the NRL for any side of the field. It’s on the left where the Roosters have built the foundation of their attacking success, and the man largely responsible is their five-eighth Luke Keary. Keary is directly responsible for 30 trys this season through assisting or scoring while also playing a role in a handful of others; he’s the man the Raiders must try and stifle if they want to close the Roosters attacking engine-room. Keary is one of the more difficult covers in the NRL, plenty of halves can generate opportunities for others through taking the ball to the line, but not many do it with the seer pace of Keary. Scarcely will you see a half attack the line at full-tilt, Keary does this multiple times per game; not only is he looking to put others through holes, he’s simultaneously trying to poke his own nose through the line as well.

The above play is standard for the Rooster number 6; dummy’s to the man cutting under before setting off at full-speed towards the defensive line. What happens next is what largely separates Keary from the rest; some players in that situation would look to put their head-down and try and break the line, others would look to slow down, hold the ball and draw a defender before passing on the outside. Keary doesn’t do either; he attacks the line while always keeping his head-up looking for an opportunity for his outside man.

Canberra play an aggressive defence which will aim to scream off the defensive line to try and limit Kearys time and space, one of the few ways to limit his opportunities. While sensible in design the Roosters will be prepared, if the Raiders are going to try and limit Kearys space they’ll put him in positions to use that to his advantage. Here’s a play from earlier this year when the Raiders played the Roosters in Magic Round.

As expected the Raiders fly off their defensive line, but what’s interesting is how the Roosters structure their attack. Keary starts directly behind the play the ball shaping as if he’s going to swing right to begin a large sweep, yet just as the ball is played he does the opposite, cuts back on the inside at full-speed creating an extra number before stepping on the outside of the tackle and giving Latrell enough space to cross the line. If the Raiders elect to continue their aggressive coverage opportunities like this will present themselves to the Roosters. While it can be successful in closing down some of their larger sweeping plays, the short-sides will vulnerable, and the Roosters know how to exploit them. The Raiders right-side defence has only conceded 23 trys all season down that edge which ranks as 2nd in the NRL, and while they’re certainly capable the margin-for-error will be slim.

They’re also going to have to contend with Dally M Medallist James Tedesco roaming on both sides of the field. The role Tedesco plays within the Roosters attack isn’t revolutionary, as a fullback he’s often the 2nd or 3rd sweeper from a standard block-play set, but how he generates scoring opportunities is unique. Tedescos greatest asset is his ability to change direction, which is seen throughout his highlights this year;

Of the tries he scores from a standard block-set, most of them aren’t from beating his outside man, but rather cutting back on the inside wrong-footing sliding defenders. This example, again from Magic Round against the Raiders effectively summarises the danger of Tedesco, he doesn’t often burn his defender on the outside, but rather gets past them through shifty change of direction;

The Raiders will again try and challenge Tedesco through their aggressive defence in attempt to limit his time with the ball. It’s probably the correct move, but unfortunately, it’s high-variance. It only takes one small misstep or one sluggish defender and he’ll have enough time to exploit their hyperactive defence with running or passing like this;

The Raiders attack isn’t as slick or tactically astute as their counterparts and yet it’s still capable of finding points when needed. A few weeks ago, this website published an article talking about the NRL’s attacking revolution and how teams who have unshackled themselves from structure are flourishing. While they weren’t mentioned, the Raiders also fit into this category, evident by the two players on their team with the most Try Involvements; Jack Wighton and Josh Hodgson. Both players are successful without structure for different reasons, Wighton for his size and unpredictability, and Hodgson for his intelligence and situational awareness.

Josh Hodgson leads this Raiders team in try-assists as a Hooker, but functionally he acts as their halfback. It’s common-place for Hodgson to drift across field from dummy-half in search of ball runners on his outside or inside. His ability to work angles near the ruck is second only to Cameron Smith, often his goal is to get the defence sliding as he drifts across the face, before finding a dynamic ball-runner cutting against the grain as seen here with Josh Papalii:

These plays are essential for the Raiders attack, while they lack pure creativity from halfback Hodgson consistently asks questions of their opponents middle defenders. There’s no doubt Hodgson will be at his crafty best this weekend, and it could be the Raiders one and only mismatch from an attacking perspective. The Roosters concede the most trys by percentage of total through the middle of the field (34%) per StatsInsider and there’s no better man to try and exploit it. If Hodgson doesn’t manage to break through the ruck their next best option might be to fire early-ball towards their other attacking weapon, Jack Wighton.

Wighton is unpredictable, and it’s this unpredictability which makes him so hard to defend. While his game is built on his powerful ball-running it’s his ability to gamble which makes him a threat, it’s hard to defend a player when you’re not sure what’s going to happen next. Like any gambler, sometimes it doesn’t pay off as we saw in State of Origin Game 1 when he threw the game losing intercept;

But sometimes it does. Here, against the Roosters in Magic Round, Wighton puts in a grubber to himself on the 4th tackle and conjures a try from nothing.

There’s only a handful of halves in the NRL willing to take a risk like that. While on the surface it’s worrying that the Raiders have such a risk-taker in a key position, in many ways it makes them an ideal team to topple the Roosters defensive juggernaut. This Roosters defence is unlikely to be broken in conventional ways, and some Wighton generated chaos might be their ticket to a premiership.

While it’s easy to construct a game-plan based around these potential opportunities both South Sydney and Melbourne, two of the better attacking teams would’ve taken in similar game-plans, and both failed. In the Roosters last 5 finals matches across 2018 and 2019 they have conceded; 12, 4, 6, 6 and 6 points against some of the best attacking teams in the competition for an average of 6.8 per game. In their last 400 minutes of finals football they have only conceded 5 trys. No team in the NRL era has conceded as few points in the finals over a 5-game stretch as the Roosters. This team isn’t just good defensively, they could be as their song suggests, the best we’ve ever seen.

Despite the giant task they face on Sunday there’s something inspirational about being the underdog, and that’s exactly where the Canberra Raiders find themselves. Nothing seems to galvanise and motivate like the expectation of a loss, and the beautiful thing about Rugby League is just how much difference that can make. The Roosters are deserved favourites, but if favourites always won sport wouldn’t be worth watching. The Raiders are not expected to win on Sunday, but sometimes when you’re the underdog you’re forced to innovate and try things you would’ve never attempted. Luckily for Canberra, that could be exactly what they need.