Tried and proven tactics put a strangle hold on the chain-passing revolution
Frustrated … Sam Kasiano. Photo: Brendan Esposito
GIVEN the time-honoured tendency for NRL teams to follow the tactical lead of the premiers, a Canterbury victory in last Sunday's grand final could have led to a sea change in the way the game is played.
The Bulldogs pioneered a chain-passing brand of football with their forwards this year. It was a welcome change to a quarter century of watching the big men play the role of ''yardage gobblers'' charging forward with the ball with no thought of passing it.
Furthermore, the Bulldogs brand would have discouraged gang-tackling and the scourge of wrestling-type holds such as grapple tackles and chicken wings.
If defenders are facing a line of big men willing to link the ball, it's difficult for three tacklers to key off on one player, tackle him, then hold him down until the defensive line is reset. But forwards are not as skilled as halves in linking the ball and this is why the Storm won the grand final and halted the promised revolution.
As Melbourne fullback Billy Slater said after his team's 14-4 victory: ''If they [forwards] want to play like halves, treat them like halves.'' That is, move up swiftly in the defensive line, cut down their thinking time and force the error.
Bulldogs prop Sam Kasiano was particularly vulnerable to a swift moving defence and became frustrated. He lacks start-up speed, making him a target for a speedy second marker to rush forward and halt his progress until another defender can assist in the tackle. Nor do his mates in the pack have the catch-and-pass skills and speed of hands and feet of halves such as Melbourne's Cooper Cronk and Gareth Widdop.
Just as the Storm may have stalled the future, Storm coach Craig Bellamy suggests Melbourne's victory may have preserved the past.
''Do you want to drive the little men out of the game?'' he asked rhetorically in the dressing room after the grand final. ''Do we want forwards replacing halves?''
His assistant, Kevin Walters, who is a former Australian five-eighth and long-term Broncos player, was equally defiant.
''There will always be a place for little men in the game,'' he said. ''Cooper Cronk showed that. He was a notch up on the Canterbury halves. If forwards could play like backs, they would push the little men out, but they can't play like backs.
''There have been skilful forwards in the past who were good at passing but they didn't take the place of halves. Short passing in the forwards is good if you can consistently do it under pressure but it fell down against the Dogs because we worked on it.
''The two years since I have been in Melbourne, I have picked up so much in the art of coaching defence. I have been amazed at the detail and the time spent on defence by Craig.''
This is not to say the Bulldogs depended exclusively on forwards chain-passing to become minor premiers. They have one of the most potent long-range attacks in the NRL, via the speed of fullback Ben Barba and centre Josh Morris. Had Canterbury not lost the ball twice on the first tackle with length-of-the-field tries beckoning, they could have led at half-time.
Asked if rugby league was undergoing a tactical change, as his former teammate and Queensland Origin coach Mal Meninga has claimed, Walters said: ''I'm not sure it's going through a revolution. Andrew Johns, Johnathan Thurston and Cooper [Cronk] learnt their trade as No.7s. The big kids in their teams were given jumpers with No.8, 10, 11 and 12.
''For rugby league to have a big half 20 years from now, a junior coach right now would have to put him in a No.7 jumper. I don't know any coach prepared to do that now.''
But Walters does concede that forwards at most clubs have become one dimensional in attack. It probably began 20 years ago when Walters's then Broncos coach, Wayne Bennett, saw forwards as lead boulders in an avalanche.
''Wayne didn't want Glenn Lazarus, Shane Webcke or Petero Civoniceva to pass the ball,'' Walters said. ''He just wanted yardage. They were not encouraged to use their skills.''
Somewhere in between the Bulldogs' passing rush in the forwards and the Storms' pack meterage attack is a more varied game than the tryless second half of the 2012 decider. It's a grand final Sunday not too far away.
''There is no doubt Canterbury's forwards will get better at passing under pressure,'' Walters said. ''They have opened up a window there. I know the Storm will be doing more in the forwards next year.''