Rugby League Interesting debate re Leeds Rhinos

moto748

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Sep 13, 2013
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I'm posting here verbatim what I thought was an interesting post I read today on an English forum on the Rhinos. It is long, so feel free to ignore, but I thought the guy made some good points. I don't know how much Superleague you guys see, but Leeds have been very impressive in recent weeks. Watching both comps, as we come to the business end of the season, they look like one of the sides really finding their form, along with say the Roosters and the Sharks. The off-loading style they've developed isn't too much seen in the NRL these days. It used to be a hallmark of the Warriors, but not so much these days. I know you can say, and probably will, ah, but they couldn't do it against better NRL defences, but I think the point out working over the opposition is a good one. And it's certainly good to watch!


Watching Leeds demolish Warrington tonight, after watching them demolish Saints last week, I can't help feeling that something is happening which is bigger than simply a good team hitting a purple patch. Leeds are comprehensively rejecting the orthodoxy which has dominated Super League for the last 15 years, and it looks to me like they're showing the way.

There are two components of this challenge :

It's not all about the forwards

Leeds' pack is good, don't get me wrong. But it's not miles above all others. Indeed, it has two fairly old men in Peacock and Leuluai, some kids like Singleton who are good, but not notably different from promising kids in other teams, and a couple of old pros like Delaney. The orthodoxy says that forwards grind you upfield, winning territory, and then you get over the line through a kick or manufacturing a fallover try from close range. Leeds are not doing that. Their forwards do see their role as providing for their backs, not simply by doing 4 heads-down drives for 40 metres, but by sucking in defenders with an expansive offloading game which causes havoc with set defences. Saints' pack is arguably stronger than Leeds, but how much easier must it be for defenders to prepare for Saints' big men doing their one-off hit-ups, than it is to deal with having to get three men into every tackle on a Leeds forward because if you don't, they'll offload (and they'll probably offload even if you do).

The result is that defences - whether they intended to or not - are compressing in the middle, providing Leeds' backs with plenty of space to run at a defence which is already in chaos because of the unpredictability created by the offload game. And what backs ! Leeds have the best fullback in Hardaker, the best centre in Watkins, and arguably Moon, Briscoe and Hall are all in the top three in their position. This is where Leeds' money has gone, and whereas most teams are basing their game around either the hooker (Saints), or the kicking game of a halfback (Huddersfield et al), Leeds' entire game is based around getting the ball to their prodigiously talented threequarters. It's lovely to watch, but it's also devastatingly effective against Super League defences who have been conditioned their entire professional careers to defend against the rigid structured forward-territory game.

For a long time now, fans and pundits have stated that "backs win you games, but forwards win you trophies". Leeds are turning this on its head. The Leeds game is a creative, backs-dominated game in which the role of the forwards has been redefined to one in which they support the backs not by winning yards, but by creating space in the defensive line. The last time we saw a team whose backs were winning the competition for them was possibly the 90's Saints teams of Iro, Newlove, Goulding, Albert, Sullivan, Hunte and Martyn (which, interestingly, was also a team with a decent but not exceptional pack, which included some offloading mavericks like McVey). The unquestioned orthodoxy of backs feeding off the scraps forwards leave behind is being turned on its head, and the other super league teams can't handle it.

It's not all about percentages

I can't give Leeds sole credit for this. There's a team in Australia which has adopted a similar tactic, and there was a little-remarked-on thread on this site with a link to the story a while back (sorry, can't find it). The orthodoxy says that you play percentages. You don't push the pass, you don't risk errors, you play the arm-wrestle, and possession is everything. This is one reason why we've become such a forward dominated competition. Then a team in the Aussie second tier competition got the idea that what mattered was not the number of times you had the ball, it was how long you had the ball. If you play an offloading game - like Leeds do - then your time in possession is higher than if you don't - even with the same number of sets. Leeds run defences ragged, because defending takes a lot more energy out of you than attacking, and if you manage to actually force the defenders to make contact and then offload, then you're getting them to make more than 6 tackles. In some of those sets Leeds had tonight, and against Saints, the Saints and Wire defenders were making twelve or more tackles. Leeds defenders rarely had to make more than five when defending a set against the orthodox percentage attack. That's a huge energy advantage and one which then creates tired defences.

It's misleading when pundits talk about people getting tired in the last 10 minutes of each half. You get tired after each tackle, because it takes effort out of you, and even for a very fit athlete, it can take several seconds to recover breath and composure after a heavy collision. Much of that recovery is traditionally done when you're defending to the left of the PTB and you see the ball go right. So you switch off, breathe deep and jog slowly back the ten. Against Leeds you can't, as they're going to offload and come back at you. You have to be on the balls of your feet all the time. When they have the ball, there's no respite at all. After three tackles of scrambling around the middle, the defenders are going to be less reactive than they would be against a more structured and predictable attack. This is why gaps appear at all times in the game, not just the last ten minutes. It might only be 15 minutes in, but that bloke at C defender has already had two collisions and scrambled for another, and his feet are temporarily leaden; run Watkins at him.

Leeds might put the ball down occasionally (although clearly they practice very hard to ensure that there are men ready and able to take offloads), but when they do, their opponents are so knackered and disorganised from defending against the Leeds attack that they are unlikely to offer much in attack which Leeds' competent defence can handle relatively easily. They are absolutely not playing the percentages, and what they do would have the other 11 Super League coaches snapping their pencils in frustration at the risks. It's a credit to McDermott that he is willing to allow and encourage his players to do this.

It's quite possible that what we're seeing is more than just a very good team hitting great form - we could be seeing the emergence of a new style of rugby league which is going to require a fairly radical shift in thinking by coaching staff and talent scouts in all our clubs : stop training all your 6'2" athletes to be forwards - train them as threequarters; and stop demanding your forwards win ground and a fast PTB - teach them how to offload and support.
 

moto748

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Saying all that, we have beaten Leeds 2-1 in three games so far this season... :p
 

Northern_Union

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I'm not one of these Australian muppets that discounts the ESL purely because of what the media keep saying. I have been a fan of the English game for as long as i can remember. There have always been two styles of play that differ between the ESL and NRL and unfortunately for the game globally the Australian style has won out. The Australian style is the no mistakes, eat the meters, play the percentages and wait for a mistake. The ESL style is more get the ball wide and offen, stretch the defence and if they catch us on the edge with defenders try and put a ball playing forward through the middle. Thats a very generalized description but fairly accurate i think.
I've always been of the belief that the top 6 sides in the ESL can match it with any side in the NRL....problem is the bottom 6 to 8 would struggle week in week out.
As for Leeds style of play i think it should watched by every ESL and NRL side. Thats the way to entertain crowds!