Well the 2021 NRL season started with a bang as the Melbourne Storm put on a clinical performance for the first 30 minutes of the opener. However, the matches and results from that point didn’t have many out of their seats as favourites cruised and the margin of victory ended up at roughly 18 points just as it did last year.
Still, there is plenty to talk about in the buildup what everybody hopes is an exciting Round 2. This week for ‘Your Edge’, we’re keeping an eye on Ryan Papenhuyzen’s involvement and anticipating a bounce back in Round 2 for both Damien Cook and Jason Taumalolo.
Passing to Papenhuyzen
Ryan Papenhuyzen kicked his 2021 NRL season off with a bang as he ran right through the Rabbitohs in Round 1. Finishing up with 18 points (2 tries and 3 conversions), one line break, two line break assists, a try assist and 175 running metres, there was little doubt over who was taking the three Dally M points away from this one. However, 47 is the interesting number from the night.
It’s the number of times Papenhuyzen touched the ball.
He’s only recorded two games with more than 47 receipts throughout his career. The first dot in the spike above came in Round 14 last year with Cameron Smith and Cameron Munster both on the sideline. The second came a week later, again without Smith and Munster, but Jahrome Hughes missed that one too.
Papenhuyzen’s 47 touches in Round 1 could be a sign of things to come for Melbourne this season. They don’t have the greatest player of all time touching the ball 110+ times behind the ruck every game. While Harry Grant and Brandon Smith will still be occupying dummy half and touching the ball roughly 100 times per game, the playmaking roles within the side will be shared around. It’s an area Papenhuyzen, in particular, hasn’t had to feature quite so often throughout his career so far.
If Round 1 is anything to go by, Papenhuyzen might end up as one of the best ball-playing fullbacks in the game by the end of the year.
“Just run the ball”
If you cast your mind back to the early rounds of last season, you’ll recall Shaun Johnson being hammered from pillar to post after the Sharks won just two of their first six games. They ended up playing finals footy thanks to Johnson’s NRL-high 23 try assists during the year.
Shaun Johnson in 2020:— Jason Oliver (@JasonNRL) June 21, 2020
Try assists: 8 (1st in NRL)
Line engagements: 53 (1st)
Forced dropouts: 6 (2nd)
Running metres: 90.4m per game (career-high) https://t.co/0gVqPWtg6s
The old trope of “he just needs to run the ball” was repeated ad nauseum despite his career-high 90.4 running metres per game at the time. It’s lazy analysis, and now Damien Cook is hearing similar things about his game.
Cook ran for just 25 metres in Round 1. Nevermind the fact that his Rabbitohs side could barely put one foot in front of the other without dropping the ball in the first half. This is said to be proof of his “alarming decline” despite leading all hookers in running metres per game last season (min. 15 games).
Cook’s yardage is obviously important to South Sydney’s overall performance. He averaged 82.4 metres per game in losses and 101.7 metres per game in wins last season. But a lot more than ‘just running the ball’ occurs to allow Cook to accumulate those 101.7 metres and the resulting wins.
Admittedly, he hasn’t set the NRL on fire like many thought he would under the new rules. That’s because the game didn’t change in the way most expected. Rather than the little man ‘coming back’ and skipping through the middle of the field, more teams are shrinking the middle defence through one-pass hitups before sending the ball to the edges as fast as possible.
Cook hasn’t been at his best throughout the 2020 finals and start to 2021. His decision making at times leaves a lot to be desired. However, demanding he run the ball more no matter the situation will only result in more bad decisions from behind the ruck.
Taumalo-low’s Round 1 Flop
SuperCoach isn’t always an accurate reflection of performance, but players being traded in and out can give us an idea about how a player might be perceived at the time. Along with Cook, Jason Taumalolo had a game to forget in Round 1. He ran for just 73 metres in 51 minutes, offered a lazy effort in defence, and copped a bake from his coach in the post-match press conference.
Cowboys Jason Taumalolo and Rabbitohs Damian Cook being the 2 most traded out players this week so far and we know what that normally means #NRLSupercoach 🤞— Wacko’s Whispers (@WackosWhispers) March 16, 2021
Is there anything more Round 1 in the NRL than panicking about one performance by the best forward in rugby league?
Taumalolo has only managed fewer than 73 metres 15 times throughout his 197-game career. Remove the occasions in which he played fewer than 40 minutes, and only two games pop up. A 56-metre effort in just the 12th game of his career and an uncharacteristic 54 running metres against the Raiders in 2016. He ran for 209 metres in his next match after the Raiders. Another reason to anticipate a big improvement this week: The Tongan has failed to run for more than 100 metres just twice since that Raiders game. He managed 264 metres and 295 metres in the following matches.
Don’t make any hasty decisions, SuperCoach players.
It took a little while for the Rabbitohs to start holding the ball for their attack to take shape, but when it did, boy did it look good. The left edge came together like most thought it would with Latrell Mitchell scoring down the left edge while Alex Johnston added a double. Floating around and waiting for his chance was Dane Gagai.
He has jumped between wing and fullback since the start of 2019 and is no stranger to crossing the line first in that time. Alex Johnston is the more recognised try-scorer but has dotted down first only four times to Gagai’s.
Gagai as an anytime try-scorer ($2.75 – SportsBet) is an appealing option given the defensive display the Manly Warringah Sea Eagles put forward last week, but the value is in the Rabbitohs centre scoring first.