Who's The Wildcard? Examining Every NRL Contender's X-Factor
It's the time of year where the best players in the game stand out from the rest.
They've already established themselves throughout the season and dragged their team this far into finals footy.
Jahrome Hughes has turned himself into the best running halfback in the game. Nathan Cleary is arguably the best player in rugby league right now, but if it isn't him, it's Tom Trbojevic. Or is it James Tedesco?
Cody Walker is setting records with the ball in his hands while Clint Gutherson has completed a typically high-energy season at the back.
The Stats Insider Futures Model has pegged Hughes' Melbourne Storm as heavy favourites to get the job done for a second consecutive season, but the remaining five teams aren't out of it.
Each one has a player or two behind the superstar that can raise their ceiling across the last three weeks of the season, and it's those players that are likely to determine which team lifts the Provan-Summons Trophy on Grand Final day.
Melbourne Storm: 39.9%
Jahrome Hughes has been Melbourne's best and most consistent throughout the year. Brandon Smith rates a considerable mention too. The pair have been the most influential players in a side that finished on top of the NRL ladder but from here, it's Cameron Munster time.
Munster showed his class in Week 1 of the finals. Playing out a relatively quiet season by his standards, the 27-year-old stood up when it mattered to lead the Storm to a convincing 40-12 victory over the Sea Eagles. He took the line on down the left edge to give Daly Cherry-Evans, Haumole Olakau'atu and Morgan Harper nightmares. Looking long and playing short, finding the right player at the right time more often than not, he played the game in slow motion.
The bigger the game, the easier it looks for Munster.
He helped to set up Ryan Papenhuyzen's second try of the night by getting onto the outside of his man and isolating Justin Olam onto a sliding Harper. With two line break assists, two try assists and 129 running metres, Munster has the numbers to show his influence in attack. However, it's his kicking game and leadership that will be most important from here.
The Storm don't have a 400-game veteran touching the ball 100 times from dummy half anymore. Any time a game has threatened to get away from Melbourne over the past decade, Cameron Smith has been there to pull it back. Hughes isn't a traditional #7 which leaves a lot of the organisational and game management duties to Munster.
No player has completed more weighted kicks than Munster's 30 this season per Fox Sports Lab. He doesn't force many dropouts. With only ten so far in 2021, he's not in the Top 10 and is significantly behind the likes of Nathan Cleary (19), Jarome Luai (19), Daly Cherry-Evans (16) and Cody Walker (14). Munster's five kick errors is among the fewest in the competition, though. If he isn't rolling it in to force a drop out, he's leaving it short and forcing the opposition to travel 95+ metres with the ball if they're to score.
From distance, he can spot a winger out of position and drop it in behind him for a 40/20.
Munster is going to create points whether it be for himself or others. His running game is especially effective in destabilising the defensive line while his ball-playing brings everybody around him into consideration. However, it's Munster's game management that will be the deciding factor as they search for back-to-back premierships.
South Sydney Rabbitohs: 20.2%
Cody Walker is South Sydney's best player right now and their most influential when it comes to scoring points and winning games. His numbers are off the charts, and now, he is taking on more of the load with Latrell Mitchell sitting in the stands. However, it's Adam Reynolds that will be the one to put the cherry on top of any close wins from here.
We saw his value in Week 1 of the finals when he didn't touch the ball enough throughout the last ten minutes.
South Sydney defended their way to victory but it didn't need to be quite so difficult late in the match. Two opportunities went begging as Cody Walker and Alex Johnston both opted to put the ball on their foot rather than passing to a teammate close to the line in back-to-back sets. The ball went to the ground from dummy half too often and Souths didn't look comfortable trying to ice the game.
"They're all over the place, Souths. They don't know how to wrap this up." - Gus Gould
That is where Reynolds needs to come in.
He's a veteran of 229 appearances and plays with one of the best kicking games in the competition. The Rabbitohs will be better served by jabbing their way through the final stages with astute kicks and field position dominance rather than looking for the knockout blow out wide.
Reynolds is an excellent game manager and plays his part in directing the side around the field and straightening the line in the search of points. However, Walker is the key figure to start. He can get the Rabbitohs in front and playing with a lead. From there, it needs to be Reynolds calling the shots and ending sets.
He has been there and done this all before. Let him do it one last time in a Rabbitohs jersey should they be faced with a similar situation to last week.
Penrith Panthers: 17.8%
The Rabbitohs did an excellent job of closing down Nathan Cleary's space last week. It forced him to move the ball early rather than run using his dangerous changes in tempo and subtle movements across the field. Cleary's 76 running metres is his lowest mark since Round 8 and his third-lowest of the season. The Panthers needed Jarome Luai to pick up some of the slack but his dip in form has continued for another week.
Luai hasn't looked like himself since the State of Origin period. It happens to young players from time to time. The rigours and intensity of a mid-season Origin series can take it out of a player if they aren't experienced in dealing with the highs and lows of the biggest occasion in rugby league.
Luai handed out 14 try assists in the first 12 games of the season while running for 78 metres per game. In his ten appearances since then, the 24-year-old has managed only four try assists with 45 running metres per game. Three of those try assists came against an Eels B team while Luai has failed to crack double-digits in running metres twice since Round 16.
This isn't the Luai that played a major role in Penrith winning their first 12 games of the season.
Cleary is going to be a target in the finals. Teams find the energy to add more inside pressure to reduce the time and space he has with the ball when their season is on the line. It needs to be Luai who makes the most of the focus on Cleary by playing direct and at the line.
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles: 14.5%
The Sea Eagles' struggles against the Storm in Week 1 of the finals is further proof that somebody else needs to raise their game around Tom Trbojevic.
Trbojevic will make or break Manly's premiership chances. He is arguably the best player in the game right now and nobody holds more of an influence over their side than he does.
That's part of the problem...
When Melbourne forced Trbojevic out of the game, nobody else was able to pick up the slack. Josh Schuster is in a prime position to capitalise on the extra attention being directed at his fullback.
Schuster considers himself a running player but only averages 83 running metres per game. More recently, he has managed just 59 metres per game across his last six.
His strength is as a ballplayer with his eight try assists the most in the competition of all forwards not wearing a #9 jersey. He is a key feature to their shifts and Trbojevic wouldn't have the space he often does without Schuster acting as a third halfback on the left edge. The 20-year-old's running game has fallen behind, though.
If Schuster can take a more selfish approach with the ball and take a few more opportunities to run, the Manly left edge will only improve and the variation will reduce the reliance on Trbojevic to be the best player in the game every week.
Sydney Roosters: 4.1%
Drew Hutchison is solid without being spectacular.
Lachlan Lam has struggled for consistency all year.
Sam Walker is a 19-year-old rookie coming off the bench.
Defence wins premierships, but so do top tier halves. While Sydney Roosters lack an elite half which is a must-have for premiership-winning teams, they're not out of the hunt just yet.
James Tedesco has picked up a lot of the slack as he takes more possessions at first receiver. He has adjusted his style to act as more of a creator with the ball this year. While he has done so for great success, it's a role Victor Radley can fill which will allow Tedesco to play wider and with more room.
No lock forward touches the ball more or completes more passes in general play than Radley.
If Radley can be the guy to pass players onto the ball through the middle or compress the defence on wide-ranging shifts, Tedesco will be put in positions to do what he does best. The Roosters have done an incredible job of getting this far given their injuries. An in-form Radley playing Tedesco into spots on the field to beat defenders one on one might just extend their season another week or two.
Parramatta Eels: 3.6%
It starts this week for Mitchell Moses. He is coming into Week 2 of the finals following one of the best and most complete performances of his career.
He actioned most of Parramatta's positive attacking actions throughout their 28-20 win over the Knights and did so using his running game. His 145 running metres is the second-most he has managed in a match this season and played a big part in Parramatta's all-important direct approach through the middle.
Moses' carry in the build-up to Waqa Blake's try is the best example of how his running game can translate into points, even if those points don't come directly on that specific carry.
He cut back inside trying to wrong-foot the two props in front of him on this occasion. While Mitch Barnett sees it coming and rushes out on him, Moses is still able to get past the Knights forward to take the space now on offer and destabilise the defensive line. You can see the slightest bit of indecision from Jacob Saifiti (8) as he looks to which side of the ruck he should line up in defence. Barnett is late in pushing him to the openside, too.
Late to the spot and now a little bit too tight at A, Jacob and his brother come off their line at an angle. The ball is already outside the pair of them by the time it hits Nathan Brown. Once Dylan Brown releases his pass, the Eels have compressed the defence to provide them with a three on one situation out wide.
Blake skips over the line with relative ease, but it is Moses' scheming run that put the left shift in a position to produce points.
We're going to hear that Moses "needs to run the ball more" throughout the week. This is an example of the sort of run we need to see from him if Parramatta are to cause an upset on Saturday night.
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