A short NRL preseason has felt like one of the longest, but it’s finally over.

The houses have been trained down, every player is the fittest they’ve ever been, and the fan base of every club believes they’re playing finals football in 2021. We’ve got a long way to go before September footy, though. In the meantime, Your Edge is coming through every week. First up, a look at how two of the best forwards in the competition are changing a winning formula, Cameron Smith is gone but things look the same in Melbourne, while rugby league could look different in general this season.

Tohu Harris – In, Jason Taumalolo – Out

The lock position in the NRL is changing. We touched on it a few times last year when highlighting the increase in passes made per game at the position. Those wearing the #13 jersey are no longer being used as a third prop. Rather, a pivot or pseudo-half tasked with moving the ball across the field from the middle. Almost all of the best teams in the NRL played with a lock forward capable of making passes.

Top 8 passes per game – locks (2020)

Jake Trbojevic’s huge number can be explained by Manly’s lack of a long-term five-eighth. Trbojevic was forced to do a lot more of the playmaking than he would have liked after averaging 11.9 passes per game in 2019. However, locks from five of the Top 8 teams in 2020 feature in the top eight in passes per game (min. 10 games) while Victor Radley would have also cracked the list had he stayed healthy.

Passes no longer come as a premium through the middle of the field. In fact, they’re now a common commodity. It’s what makes Tohu Harris’ move into the middle for the New Zealand Warriors so appealing. He spent a lot of his time in the centre-third last season despite typically being named on the edge. Still, he now has #13 on his back and is set to take his game to another level.

You can see here how much more Harris released the ball in 2020 after a fairly long period making well below five passes per game.

Tohu Harris Passes per game – career

The two spikes around the 80-game mark came when Harris played five-eighth for the Melbourne Storm in 2016 – again highlighting his ability as a ball player and the reason for his permanent move to the middle. At 195cm and 112 kg, Harris is the size of a prop but has the ball-skills of a five-eighth. The Warriors attack will look a lot different with him getting his hands on the ball more often in 2021.

In contrast, the best lock forward in the NRL is looking to spend more time out on the edges this season. Jason Taumalolo is the best ball-carrier in the game. He ran for a career-high 207 metres last season while leading all forwards in the category by 30 metres. No matter how much the position changes overall, Taumalolo is the best lock in rugby league so long as he’s wearing a #13 jersey.

Taumalolo has added a pass to his game since entering the NRL as strictly a ball-carrier. However, despite the overall trend of locks/passes going up, Taumalolo put his away somewhat last season.

Jason Taumalolo passes per game – career

Perhaps noticing that since arriving at the North Queensland Cowboys, Todd Payten is exploring new ways for Taumalolo to dominate with the ball in his hands. The rookie head coach has talked about Taumalolo drifting out to the edges for carries in the hope of isolating him onto single or smaller defenders.

So, an elite edge backrower in Tohu Harris is moving into the middle of the field full time this season. Meanwhile, the best middle forward in the NRL is planning to spend more time than he ever has out wide. The lock position evolved quickly last season, but there might be one more wrinkle to come in 2021.

Replacing The G.O.A.T

Cameron Smith has finally made a call on his NRL career. It’s over. He’s the best player of his generation, and arguably the best ever. Now, the Melbourne Storm need to replace his influence behind the ruck. An influence that featured across an NRL-record 430 games.

Harry Grant is out with an injury so won’t be out there for Round 1. However, he is the future in Melbourne. He’s an elite talent himself and the Wests Tigers wouldn’t have been sniffing around the Top 8 for as long as they were last season without him.

Grant is a different type of hooker to Smith. He’s not going to replicate Smith’s game-management or have the ability to manipulate a defensive line quite like the veteran dummy half. Melbourne’s style of play will change, but not as much as people might think.

Most don’t attribute Smith as a ‘running hooker’. The numbers tell a different story, though. He ended up 5th in the NRL in dummy half runs in 2020 with 4.7 per game. He doesn’t move far from the ruck, but as an expert in engaging markers, Smith gets out often enough to be one of the more run-heavy hookers in the competition. But there lies the difference. While Smith is pushing and pulling markers around the field to open up opportunities for others out wide, Grant is looking to expose those markers himself.

Cameron Smith v Harry Grant – dummy half running metres per game (last 15)

Grant runs the football from dummy half just twice more per game than Smith but averaged an extra 29 metres – more than Smith’s total per game average (24.9m) across his last 15 matches. The young hooker looks for players on the ground and gets himself flying downhill at the defensive line. He scrambles from behind the ruck, and in turn, scrambles the line. In a way, both achieve the same thing and aren’t too dissimilar in their approach. They do look a lot different going about their business, though.

Remarkably, after replacing Billy Slater with Ryan Papenhuyzen and having Cameron Munster take over as the lead half from Cooper Cronk, the Storm will replace Smith with the best young hooker in rugby league. Things will look different just as they did following the departure of the other two members of the big three, but the results look set to stay the same.

Rugby League in 2021

We call it the greatest game of all. Still, those in charge of rugby league are desperately changing rules to the point casual fans aren’t going to know what has hit them on Thursday night. The most notable will be 10-metre offside’s now seeing the attacking team ‘rewarded’ with six-again. It’s designed to “speed up play” and improve the “flow” of the game, but it won’t be a surprise to see even more one-pass hits-ups in 2021. Teams aren’t looking wide after the referee waves their hand in the air. They’re restarting their set.

How do most sets start?

With a one-pass hit-up.

The removal of scrums when the ball goes into touch could have the same impact. Attacking teams have lost a set-piece opportunity against a spread or split defensive line. Now, they face a full defensive line that knows what’s coming. A one-pass hit-up…

Maybe the NRL knows something we don’t and this all turns out to be a masterstroke. Regardless, it’s something we will be keeping an eye on with an update to come in Your Edge later in the year.

Value Plays

The try-scorer model has clicked into gear and spat out a few value plays for Round 1 of the 2021 NRL season.

Moses Mbye ($51 – SportsBet) has come out on top but it’s George Williams ($31 – SportsBet) that I like. The Englishman is a strong and willing ball-runner and has the Leilua Brothers in his sights. Joey and Luciano lasted only two weeks defending beside each other last season before Michael Maguire had to split them. With right-side specialist centre James Roberts now at the club, the brothers are back together and the Raiders will surely test them on Sunday.

Before Williams, though, it’s Alex Johnston ($2.05 – PlayUp) that stands out on our new Try Scorer Portal. He’s a prolific try scorer and is playing on the end of an elite South Sydney Rabbitohs left edge. That left edge is running at a new-look Melbourne Storm right-edge defence this week, too.

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