Left, Right or Centre: How Teams Are Structuring Their Defence In 2021
The top teams are pulling away from the bad in the NRL, and while we're seeing the points pile up like never before, it's still the top defensive teams that are looking most like premiership contenders.
Only one team has won the premiership with a defence ranked outside the top three since 2006, and that's unlikely to change with the two heavy favourites in the Panthers and Storm already 1st and 2nd in defence this season.
But there's still a long time to go until September. Lucky for the Rabbitohs, in particular, teams still have time to fix their issues in preparation for finals footy.
Try Locations: Left - 29%, Middle 29%, Right 42%
The Brisbane Broncos right side has lacked consistency at the centre position and it shows in the proportion of tries they've let through in that area.
They're a below-average defensive team already, but with Tesi Niu, David Mead, and Jesse Arthars all unsuccessfully spending time defending at right centre, 42% of Brisbane's total tries conceded have come through the right edge. It is the main reason behind their 14th ranked defence conceding 27.8 points per game.
Depending on where Kotoni Staggs plays upon his return, it may not get better anytime soon either. Staggs is a poor centre defensively. He is repeatedly caught out and struggles in his decision making. He is due back from an ACL injury within the next month, so Brisbane's issues in defence on the right edge may yet get worse.
Try Locations: Left - 30%, Middle 25%, Right 45%
A turnover in key defensive positions hasn't helped the Canberra Raiders navigate what has been a rough six weeks on and off the field.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad's effort and energy at fullback has been sorely missed since he suffered a neck injury in Round 5. Meanwhile, Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera have chopped and changed on the right side while Elliott Whitehead has been called in off the left edge to fill in at halfback at times.
Their right edge is leaking the most often. However, it's in the middle that will have Ricky Stuart worried. After conceding just 12 tries in the centre-third last season, the Raiders have already allowed 11 through the middle in 2021.
Try Locations: Left - 30%, Middle 39%, Right 30%
Getting your body in front is a basic of NRL defence. Even smaller players can act as a speed bump if they're prepared to put their body on the line. James Maloney made a career out of it while Sam Walker continued to get in front of a barnstorming Tevita Pangai Jr only last week.
The Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs missed that U10's training session, though.
Their 22 tries conceded in the middle of the field is the most in the NRL. To allow 39% of the 59 tries conceded to come through the middle is the biggest indictment on their NRL-worst defence conceding 30 points per game.
Mentioning 'soft' in rugby league circles always raises eyebrows. It's arguably the worst thing you can say about a team or a player. What else do you call Canterbury's defence in 2021?
Try Locations: Left - 44%, Middle 25%, Right 31%
Josh Dugan, Jesse Ramien, Connor Tracey, Mawene Hiroti, Teig Wilton and Will Chambers have all been named in the centres at some stage this season.
Tracey, Hiroti and Wilton aren't traditional centres, Dugan doesn't like playing there, and Ramien has never been considered a defensive force. Chambers is the only Sharks centre with a reputation in defence, but the 33-year-old is playing in the NRL for the first time since 2019. It's no surprise that Cronulla has struggled in defending the edges.
But it's not all doom and gloom. The Sharks have made considerable improvements in the middle of the field. Diabolical in 2020 while conceding 2.1 tries per game, the Sharks have allowed just 1.1 tries in through the middle per game in 2021.
It's not perfect, but it's a start.
Gold Coast Titans
Try Locations: Left - 43%, Middle 24%, Right 33%
The Gold Coast Titans have their sights set on a Top 8 spot, but their defence isn't yet at Top 8 quality. They're conceding 26.1 points per game at the moment. Worryingly, they're allowing opposition teams to go on lengthy point-scoring runs.
The Titans struggle to stay in the arm-wrestle when the opposition gets a leg up and starts to roll down the field.
Manly ripped through them early for 26 points in 24 minutes in Round 6.
South Sydney scored 30 points in the second half to win in Round 7.
Brisbane scored 36 unanswered points to peel back a 22-0 lead in Round 8.
Wests Tigers got within a sniff to be 36-28 behind after trailing 36-12 in Round 9.
The Titans need to find ways to slow down the opposition as one of these poor periods in September will end their season - if they get that far.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Try Locations: Left - 37%, Middle 19%, Right 44%
There is pre-Tom Trbojevic and post-Tom Trbojevic for the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles this season.
Before their first-choice fullback returned in Round 6, Manly conceded 33.6 points per game. The 156 points they conceded through the first four rounds is the most in the club's history and planted them at the bottom of the NRL ladder at that point.
Since then, the Sea Eagles have conceded 13 points per game, won five of their last six, and now sit at 6th on the ladder.
Trbojevic's attacking stats have been circulating for weeks, but his work behind the line in setting numbers and scrambling across the field can't be measured in numbers or highlight-reel plays.
It's going to be interesting to see how the Sea Eagles look defensively once he is called into the State of Origin side.
Try Locations: Left - 32%, Middle 20%, Right 48%
As usual, the Melbourne Storm are towards the top of the pile when it comes to NRL defence. They concede just 12.4 points per game and don't display any significant weaknesses anywhere across the field.
While you could point to the 48% of tries going through the right edge as a relatively big number, the 12 total tries they've conceded through that edge is the second-fewest in the NRL.
Even with injuries and suspensions shuffling players in and out of the 17 every week, the Storm know how to defend as a unit and make things difficult for the opposition regardless of who runs out onto the field wearing purple.
Try Locations: Left - 29%, Middle 19%, Right 52%
The Newcastle Knights have struggled for points with Mitchell Pearce, Kalyn Ponga and Bradman Best all spending lengthy periods on the sideline this season. However, their 12th-ranked defence conceding 26.5 points per game is a far bigger issue.
Newcastle's right side, in particular, needs a lot of work.
They've conceded 52% of their 52 tries conceded down the right edge. It's the highest proportion of tries conceded in one area in the competition with the 27 total tries conceded down that side the most of any area across all 16 teams.
Adam O'Brien talked about his side not knowing how to win recently. The real problem is that they don't know how to defend.
North Queensland Cowboys
Try Locations: Left - 34%, Middle 25%, Right 42%
The North Queensland Cowboys won just one of their first five games of this season. They conceded 34.2 points per game and presented as a historically poor football side at the time. Now, they're 10th on the ladder and will end Round 12 no lower than 9th with a win over the Warriors on Friday.
While they haven't been able to string a full 80 minutes together at all this season, North Queensland has been making positive improvements week-by-week. They've conceded 22.3 points per game over the last six weeks, and while that still has them in the bottom four in defence overall, they're trending the right way unlike the other teams around them (Titans, Knights, Broncos, Tigers and Bulldogs).
Todd Payten has finally made his mark on this playing group and it shows in their defensive improvements more than anywhere else.
Try Locations: Left - 37%, Middle 17%, Right 47%
We highlighted the right edge as an area the Parramatta Eels needed to improve before Round 1 kicked off.
Round 11 is all the proof we need to say that those improvements haven't eventuated.
The Sea Eagles ripped through Manly's right edge to score five tries on Sunday afternoon. Waqa Blake found himself repeatedly caught out as the Sea Eagles attack picked him to pieces - forcing him in and out before making the appropriate pass.
The Eels have played well to start 2021. They're a better team than they were this time last year. However, gaping holes in their defence are stopping them from making the leap into genuine premiership contender status.
Try Locations: Left - 33%, Middle 33%, Right 33%
The 2021 Penrith Panthers may end up as the best defensive team in NRL history.
They've conceded only 84 points through 11 rounds at 7.6 points conceded per game.
Like the Storm, they don't display a clear weakness. In fact, they've conceded 15 total tries so far this season: Left - 5 (33%), Middle - 5 (33%), Right - 5(33%).
Defence wins premierships, and the Panthers are the cream of the crop.
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Try Locations: Left - 27%, Middle 23%, Right 50%
History tells us that a team really needs to land inside the top three in defence to win the premiership. Right now, the South Sydney Rabbitohs are down to 7th conceding 22.9 points per game.
While the 'no team has conceded 50 points in a season and gone on to win the premiership' stat is stupid, to concede 50 points in a season twice is a massive cause for concern.
Wayne Bennett knows how to get his teams up for big games and time his run into September. However, the last month suggests he has a lot more work to do in the buildup to finals football than first thought.
Injuries and suspensions aren't an excuse to have 50 points put past a side of this quality. Something is wrong at Souths on the defensive side of the ball and it needs to be fixed. Fast.
St. George-Illawarra Dragons
Try Locations: Left - 28%, Middle 31%, Right 41%
The St. George-Illawarra Dragons have performed relatively well on the defensive end so far this season. While they allow too many running metres and miss the most tackles in the NRL (34.6 per game) the 20.5 points they concede per game ranks 5th in the competition behind only the Panthers, Storm, Eels and Roosters.
They've been a tough side to evaluate all season and their performance in defence so far is another example. The numbers shouldn't look this good, but they do...
Try Locations: Left - 23%, Middle 29%, Right 48%
Cohesion is a huge part of team defence. It's remarkable that with so many players going down with injuries or having the NRL come down hard on them with suspensions, the Roosters still rank 4th in defence conceding 16.5points per game.
They scramble exceptionally well and do a good job of filling any dodgy areas in the line. Tevita Pangai Jr found the 78kg Sam Walker a few times in Round 11, but for the most part this year, the Roosters have been able to protect him while defending him out wide.
The Stats Insider Futures Model has the Roosters at just 6.9% to win the premiership. However, their elite defence that turns up almost every week will ensure they at least extend their season beyond Round 25 (94.5%).
New Zealand Warriors
Try Locations: Left - 39%, Middle 27%, Right 35%
The New Zealand Warriors have had a few defensive issues at times this year.
Reece Walsh was targeted and exposed by the Sea Eagles while defending in the line in Round 9.
Kodi Nikorima struggled against the Eels and Tigers in Round 10 and 11.
However, it's the Warriors middle that has been the biggest problem. When the Warriors are playing poorly, it has been easy to circle where and why.
Nathan Brown moved Tohu Harris and Ben Murdoch-Masila around depending on whether or not the Warriors were on attack or defence. It didn't appear to help. The return of Addin Fonua-Blake in Round 14 might, though.
Try Locations: Left - 41%, Middle 20%, Right 39%
Michael Maguire has been desperately searching for his first-choice 17 all season. Unsurprisingly, it has led to leaky edges with a regular turnover of faces filling the centre position making it difficult to form partnerships.
Joey Leilua has swapped sides, been dumped, recalled and dumped again.
Having played 137 games in the centres, James Roberts is lining up on the wing in Round 12 for the first time since 2013.
Tommy Talau and Asu Kepaoa have both swapped between wing and centre.
It has got to the point that Maguire's best player, Adam Doueihi, who played the best football of his career in the halves to start the year, has been ushered out to the edge where he isn't going to have the same impact in attack.
The Tigers have a lot of problems. Fixing their defence needs to be at the top of the to-do list, though.
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