I WAS talking with a very respected rugby league colleague about which NRL team would need to be the focus of any analysis I did for the rugbyleaguecoach.com.au website and for a corresponding article here on rugbyleaguehub.com
Of course it’s only natural that we focussed on the lower teams as they need the most fixing, after all. After thre rounds, the conversation turned to the bottom four who were the Sharks, Dragons, Titans and Bulldogs. After a Facebook poll and a few debates, my mate and I whittled it down to the Dragons and Titans. I plumped for the Titans because they were close to going a full calendar year without a victory.
So the Gold Coast Titans were playing the Wests Tigers, Round four 2020. I had the pen ready and the plan in my head for this article. You know how it goes, Titans haven’t won for a year, this and that is wrong, so on and so forth.
And then they go and win! And the day after, the Dragons lost to the Bulldogs and their players and coach were saying “we can’t find the answers to our problems” and I’m thinking “I can!”
So at the time of writing, the Titans have taken the first step on what they hope is an upward climb.
Firstly, well done Titans and new coach Justin Holbrook. That must be a big monkey off the back.
Secondly, everyone on Twitter and in my friendship circle was talking about the entertainment value and the ‘great finish’ as my old schoolboy centre and fullback Phil Sami scored the winning try in the 78th minute. No wonder – they’d been somewhat starved of tight score lines since the resumption. Basically there have been one or two games that are tight in each round. I get all that and I acknowledge it and its importance.
But now let me tell you what I see.
There’s still a heck of a lot needs fixing at the Titans and with so many of the lower teams in the NRL.
Remember something key – if you win a game by a small margin you could have easily lost that game by a small margin.
The Tigers got 12 -0 up, then lost the lead and Titans levelled. Then the Tigers got up again, then the Titans caught up then got a try right at the end.
A bounce of the ball one way or the other and the Tigers would have won, and the Titans would have gone a full calendar year without a victory.
The margins between winning and losing are very small. Is this because both teams are so good and they are wrestling initiative away from each other?
Or, as I think is more likely, both the Titans and the Tigers are OK at playing in ‘patches’ but ‘hand over’ the initiative to the opposition without much of a fight, not once, but twice or more in a game?
You hand over the initiative (amongst other things) when you lose the ball because of a loose carry when exiting the footy. Your team was 12-0 up so you all started to relax and think that ‘you’ve got this’. Next thing, because of that lack of concentration, your team is not in control of the game, you’re defending your own 40 metres and under the pump. Well that was the kind of thing the Tigers did. The Titans did the same but once they got back to 12-12. They had a little snooze when the second half kicked off.
I’m going to focus on the Titans more here because that was the original intention.
I watched their first couple of exit sets, pretty basic stuff. But what struck me straight away was that they didn’t really go forward when they needed to, they instead went sideways. And vice versa.
A lot of the players were running with their bodies open, what we call ‘overs’. The disadvantage of this is that it makes it easier for the tackler to control the oncoming runner, their momentum isn’t going straight into the defender, or on their weaker, inside shoulder (for this imagine a defender sliding to his left, having to check back and tackle with his right shoulder, against the momentum of his movement.)
As a result of this, by tackle three or four, the Titans haven’t gone forward that much, so they then often do what so many NRL teams do at the minute.
The dreaded and useless pre–line pass. Often by a forward. Most of the time, it’s absolutely useless and frustrates the ‘you know what’s’ out of me when watching. Even the commentators mentioned the overabundance of ‘pre-line passing’ from the Titans.
Des Hasler’s Bulldogs did this with some success in the 2012 season and then it caught on. As a result, some props and locks now pass as much as they go forward. In my opinion, most of the time they don’t seem to know why they do it or what they want to achieve with it. At worst, it just looks like ‘I can’t be bothered running, I’ll give it to my mate.”
When they get into the other half of the field, it seems they lack leadership. They often waste too many plays before something exciting happens (by exciting I mean, more than one pass from the ruck). The common media discourse is that Ash Taylor is the problem, or that the combinations aren’t right around the spine. I don’t necessarily buy into all that straight away without digging deeper but I do expect teams to set something up in the first one, two or three plays, then use line passing to get the ball wider and expose weak or tired defenders or find space. Then, depending on how early they’ve had a shot, they might set up for another one or ‘play what they see’ against a fractured and ‘worked over’ defence.(continues below)
I don’t see this with the Titans, yet. Obviously I’m talking in huge general terms here, as there were many good facets of their play. And you can see they’re coming good in so many areas. But there’s definitely lots to work on. We also need to consider that the time away in lockdown will have scuppered their pre-season work on their combinations and every team will click back together or get back on the improvement train at different rates.
With this lack of direction in attack and the ‘reactive’ nature of what they do, it’s no wonder they struggle to maintain an initiative in a game. It always baffles me why teams do something well for a few sets and score two quick tries, and then move away from the thing that has worked so well for them to get those points in the ensuing sets.
The Titans (and indeed the Tigers) are a classic example of that in action. Surely, if something is working, you just keep doing it, don’t you? Until the opposition players and coach work out what you are doing and counter it and then you go to your plan B?
To me it seems the Titans stumbled across a formula mid-way through the first half, or more to the point, one of those predictable pre-line passes was actually timed and delivered perfectly so that someone could scream into a great big hole in the Tigers’ defence. The Gold Coast side then clearly lifted in confidence to score two back to back tries meaning they went in on level terms at half time. When they were going well, it was no coincidence that players were running with intent, putting a dent in the Tigers’ defensive line and focussing on getting down and playing the ball quickly ready for the next play. Two of the Titans first three tries were from Kevin Proctor and Keegan Hipgrave running hard and with one mission – to go forward and score.
And then there is their defence.
Despite winning this game, they still conceded 23 points. And prior to this game they had conceded 106 points in 3 games. I’ll talk about their defence in my next column.
Lee Addison is the head of performance for Spain Rugby League. You can find him at rugbyleaguecoach.com.au. He is also offering FREE four-week training programs for Coaches and Players to help recover from COVID. Please visit the ‘Rugby League Coach’ YouTube page, click subscribe and send a screenshot to email@example.com for your free programs.