This week for ‘Your Edge’ we check back in with the four spines remaining in the competition, who is making the most impact off the bench, home teams in Week 3, and the influence of referees in the 2020 finals.

Attack From The Spine

The spine players once again proved the difference in Week 2 with their importance only growing as the pressure builds leading up to the 2020 NRL Grand Final.

Jack Wighton and George Williams both crossed the line in Canberra’s 22-18 win last week while Williams also handed out a try assist. Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad was everywhere for his 276 running metres and registered the try assist which created Williams’ try. Meanwhile, it was Damien Cook and Corey Allan’s turn to do the damage for South Sydney in their 38-24 win over Parramatta. Cook scored a outstanding individual try while also recording two try assists and a line break assist. It was Allan’s draw and pass down the right edge that allowed Jaxson Paulo to score the opener on Saturday night.

Outside of the Roosters, the four best spine’s in the competition remain with differing styles to determine the victors in Week 3.

Melbourne’s plug and play style translates into a relatively even share of tries+line breaks and try assists+line break assists. However, they face a Raiders outfit that dominates through Wighton and Williams, in particular, scoring tries and breaking the line. Meanwhile, the assist-heavy approach of Penrith’s spine goes up against a South Sydney foursome that is doing a bit of everything at the moment.

Premiership winning teams always have a top tier half leading the way. Five-eighths have won the last two Clive Churchill Medal’s while spine players have won 15 of the last 21 on Grand Final day. While all four teams take a different approach to their attack, they’re equally important to deciding the two games this week.

Bench Forwards

It can often be the bench forwards that lay the platform for a spine to pile up points either side of halftime.

Melbourne, in particular, has plenty of firepower sat on the pine to start a match. Tino Fa’asuamaleaui, Brandon Smith and Nelson Asofa-Solomona rank 2nd, 3rd and 4th in metres per game off the bench among the four remaining teams. Likewise, Penrith – the other favourite this week – have Zane Tetevano, Moses Leota and Spencer Leniu in the list of top bench metre eaters. We touched on what Leota can do in short bursts last week.

Canberra has had to deal with a handful of injuries throughout the year and have seen a regular rotation of players through their bench. This week, Siliva Havili (or Tom Starling if there is another late switch), Dunamis Lui, Hudson Young and Corey Harawira-Naera are tasked with matching an excellent Melbourne bench. Young’s 96.8 metres per game off the bench puts him at 11th across the season, but his recent form is good for 5th at 115.6 metres per game. The 22-year-old has been in excellent form and added another 163 metres last week after being elevated to the starting side. The Raiders lose nothing if he switches with Iosia Soliola again on Friday with the veteran offering 99.8 metres per game in those he starts on the bench.

While the South Sydney spine and the attacking prowess of the side overall rates the biggest mention, it’s the bench that quietly offered so much last week.

Bench production: Finals Week 2

They’ve been doing it all season with Liam Knight, Keaon Koloamatagi and Mark Nicholls all providing Wayne Bennett with high-quality minutes in the middle of the field. In fact, South Sydney lead the four remaining teams in metres per minute thanks in large part to Koloamatagi’s 3.21 metres per minute. Just in the last four weeks he’s recorded stints of 4.9 metres (167m), 3.46 metres (90m) and 4.3 metres (86m) per minute.

Running metres per minute of bench players in 2020

With fatigue such a focus in the game these days, impact forwards off the bench are growing in importance. There’s a good chance the two teams that advance to the Grand Final receive a strong performance from somebody that isn’t out there for kickoff.

Home Teams In Week 3

The Panthers and Storm finished 1st and 2nd on the NRL ladder before handling their business in Week 1 and earning a weekend off. While neither team is playing at their traditional home ground this week they’re listed as the home team, which historically and in conjunction with the week off, bodes well for the pair.

Teams playing at home in Week 3 have won each of the last four preliminary finals. The Cowboys incredible upset of the Roosters in 2017 is the only time in the last four seasons that the Week 3 home team hasn’t taken the chocolates. With home teams carrying a 65% winning rate into this one since 2000, the Panthers and Storm look good to meet at ANZ Stadium on October 25.

Influence Of Referees

Graham Annesley excitedly told the waiting media on Monday that referees are influencing the game less and less and that it is in large part due to the six again rule. He highlighted the decline in penalties throughout the season, and narrowed it down to a further decline in penalties across the first two weeks of the finals.

It all looks relatively straightforward. Penalties are, in fact, down on last season from 13.15 per game in 2019 to 10.04 in 2020. Penalties in finals matches are at the lowest mark since at least 2013. But are referees really “staying out of the game” this year more than others?

The 8.33 penalties per finals game look great in isolation, but when you’re adding the 6.66 ruck infringements per game to it all, you’ve got the referee influencing the game 15 times. That’s more than any other finals series since 2013 while the only time officials had more of a say on the game in the last eight years came during the 2018 regular season penalty blitz.

Plenty of people support the introduction of the six-again rule. Many others don’t. But whatever stance a person takes, referee’s aren’t having less of an influence on the game.

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