How subtle tactical change has propelled Penrith even higher

You probably don’t have to be an expert to understand how the Penrith Panthers are using Isaah Yeo. Just watch them for five minutes and you’ll see him take a lot of first-receiver passes.

It’s been fairly widely noticed because it’s been going on for a while, and was a major contributor in their premiership win last year and no little part in the Blues’ dominance in Origin, too.

Last year, the biggest factor wasn’t where he took the ball, it was where it ended up. His most effective use of the football was with the long pass, which allowed him to release Viliame Kikau and Kurt Capewell wider on the field.

It was crucial to getting good ball to strike edge players and isolating them one on one, using depth and length of passing to transition from centre to wide faster than defences could cope with.

That was 2021, though. In 2022, there’s another angle to it that hasn’t been talked about much at all. Yeo isn’t just starting the Panthers’ attack: he’s running it.

Whereas he once made his impact by swinging the point of attack, now he is the one setting it, choosing the angle and counting the numbers.

The subtle difference between Yeo’s position caught my eye early in the Bulldogs game a few weeks ago. The position of the main tracking TV camera has at CommBank Stadium is directly next to the media box, so this image is almost exactly what I could see. Look where Yeo, No.13, is standing.

Whereas last year he was often stationed wider, enabling that long pass, the lock was deep behind the play the ball, choosing the direction of the attack.

If you read my piece last Friday about numbers, then it won’t have escaped you that this is a vital role: typically the halves, or a single halfback, are constantly considering the numbers on each side of the field and making directional decisions based on how the defence is split.

It seemed, from my vantage point at least, that Yeo was now doing this from behind the ruck. I put as much to Ivan Cleary in the presser after the match and once he caught the drift of the question, a wry smile immediately formed.

“I dunno, what do you think?” he joked. “I can’t give up too much information but it’s fair to say that Nat and Yeoey have a really good understanding and can interchange.

“I think there was one try tonight, I think Marto’s (Liam Martin) where he’s doing Nathan’s job. The more you play, the more teams are going to break you down, so we try to mix it up.”

Nathan himself kicked in: “Having Yeoey there is like having another halfback and we’re constantly checking in with each other about what we want to do.

“It’s up to us to release the rest of the team. He’s a freak of a player, and for someone who gets through that much work to be constantly thinking a couple of plays ahead certainly makes my job a bit easier.”

I collared Jarome Luai and asked him about where Yeo came into his team’s playmaking plan.

“He’s got the IQ, and he knows that if we need the ball on our side, he’ll call for it,’ said the five eighth. “He’s another ball player throughout our team and it adds another dimension.

“It’s a different role for him to play with Nathan and for me to do what I do. We scored one over here (for Taylan May) off that.”

It’s worth digging down into those tries mentioned by Ivan Cleary and Luai, which were Taylan May’s in the first half and Liam Martin’s in the second.

First, the Taylan May try. For the left-edge play that results in Luai catching out Brent Naden with a long pass, Yeo calls the numbers, picks the play and then gets the ball to where it needs to be.

In short, he does what Nathan Cleary usually does: except the defence isn’t expecting Cleary, because it’s Isaah Yeo, not to mention that they have to be accountable for Cleary elsewhere.

It’s the sort of move that you might be coy about if you were Ivan Cleary.

On Martin’s try, the orchestration is even more obvious. On play three, Yeo is directly behind the play-the-ball and sends the play to the left, and even though he doesn’t touch the football once, he is the one calling the shots through to Api Koroisau at dummy half.

Then, as it comes back, Yeo is the third receiver and gets the halves’ money ball to put Martin through a massive hole. He transitions from orchestrator to executioner.

It’s not that this is a radical new idea. In fact, it’s quite an old one. It hasn’t been seen much here – probably not since Daniel Wagon in the early 2000s – but in the UK, the torch of the playmaker loose forward continued to burn.

Paul Sculthorpe, for example, made a career out of having the playmaking authority and deftness of touch of a halfback, while also running around in a 1.90m, 100+ kilo frame and a 13 on his back. He retired in 2008.

Kevin Sinfield did it too, but almost never after 2011, when he transitioned full-time to playing in the halves. Since then, basically nothing.

Let’s be clear here: we’re not talking about locks who can ball-play, we’re talking about locks who are leading the team around.

For as much as people think there is a return of the ball-playing lock, it isn’t really the case, because only five teams are really doing it and only two are using their 13 as a playmaker.

Those two are Penrith and Souths, and it’s not an accident that Cam Murray and Yeo are two of the best performing players in the NRL this season.

There’s good reasoning for both teams to use this system. Souths have a rookie halfback in Lachlan Ilias, so Murray is on hand to help steer the ship because their senior (in age terms) half, Cody Walker, is less effective when he has to organise.

At Penrith, Nathan Cleary is obviously the senior half with Luai acting more as a runner, but when Cleary was out injured, Yeo came in and picked up some of the slack. Now, they are sharing the duties because it is working so well.

The stat that bears the trend out is GPP, or general play passes, which as you might expect dominated by halves. When it comes to forwards, you would think locks would be up at the top, but in truth, only five are. (Note: GPP does not include passes from dummy half, so hookers tend not to feature highly.)

There’s Yeo, Jake Trbojevic, Victor Radley and Murray between 20 and 15 average GPP, then a huge gap down to Josh Curran, Pat Carrigan and Josh Jackson on 8, which is a similar level to any other type of forward.

There’s also Kurt Mann, on 18, but he’s a back and I’m not sure if the Knights think he’s a lock in their system or not, regardless of the number on his jumper.

Beyond the Knights, it won’t have been missed that the teams who use a ball-playing lock correlate pretty highly with the best teams in the comp.

There is a causation/correlation problem here. It’s hard to say whether teams that use the lock as a playmaker do well as a result, or whether better teams have better positional talent that enables them to use a ball-playing lock.

Of the other teams that I think are attempting to use a system like Penrith’s, the most notable is the Bulldogs – no surprise, given Trent Barrett was their “attacking guru” a couple of years ago – but it certainly looks a lot worse as a tactic when Josh Jackson is trying to play the role.

The outlier among good teams is Parramatta, who use Junior Paulo and Nathan Brown (also 8 GPP, but 16 combined) as their ball-playing forwards. You can read a full dissection of this from Oscar Pannifex over on Rugby League Writers, so I won’t go into it here.

As Yeo demonstrates, there is a big difference between having a lock who can ball-play and a playmaking lock. Jake Trbojevic, the only non-halfback to touch the ball more frequently than Yeo, is a good contrast to show this.

Jake has the same number of possessions per game (both average around 28) but often acts as a disher, moving the ball horizontally. Yeo averages more runs, more metres per run, more tackle breaks, more line engagements and more tackle breaks.

Using the simple eye-test, Jake slows Manly down whereas Yeo accelerates Penrith’s attack. One exists as a ball-mover, the other is a genuine pivot player. That’s not a knock on Jurbo, by the way: Manly have Daly Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran, two old-school halves, and Jake is doing exactly what he’s meant to do in their set-up.

What this tactic allows Penrith to do – and what is so notably different from what Yeo did last year – is split the halves wider when required and drastically increase their quality of ball.

That in turn means that when it comes to executing the crucial play, they have more time and better options. Yeo is perfect for this, as he floats around the middle of the field as any lock does, but can dart to either side of the play the ball to become a first receiver and instigate attacks.

Last year, Nathan Cleary often played both sides of the field, but now, Yeo is doing that role too. If you were trying to read the Panthers’ attack, previously it was a good idea to follow Nathan and try to shut him down, but that doesn’t work anymore.

If you notice what Yeo is doing – which Brisbane, to some extent, did on Friday night – then you open the door for Cleary to come in and do what he does.

This happened for the Panthers’ first try against the Broncos on Friday: two men shot the line to pressure where Cleary and Yeo were, leaving a hole that Luai ran through against the slide.

Or Scott Sorensen’s try: Yeo took the first receiver pass with the line speeding up outside, allowing space that the second-rower stepped back through.

Go on then, a third. For Liam Martin’s try, Yeo was able to show the deftness of touch required to draw contact and then slip Martin through the hole.

The presence of Yeo, his ability to ball-play and his role in directing traffic meant that the Broncos defence was often open between the outermost inside defender, typically a back rower, and the innermost outer defender, typically a half.

The back-rower had to be accountable for Yeo, because of his size and running ability, but also was unsure whether he would pass or run. The half didn’t know whether to jump out or tuck in.

It’s no coincidence that all three tries were scored just to the side of the uprights, inside the tramlines but outside the posts. That’s the corridor of most effectiveness for a playmaker lock, as opposed to further out, where a half might do their best work to create tries for wingers and centres.

Previously teams were always watching Cleary and basing defensive decisions off what he does. They’ve all been watching the wrong guy.

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