NRL: Storm warning for defence

By Andrew Alderson

On defence, the Warriors will need to be aware of speedy Melbourne fullback Billy Slater. Photo / Getty Images
On defence, the Warriors will need to be aware of speedy Melbourne fullback Billy Slater. Photo / Getty Images

Big question marks over defence and the arrival of the NRL's top-of-the-table team shape as formidable challenges when the Warriors host the Storm this afternoon.

It has been an enigma how a team that had gone try-free in the final quarter for six out of seven matches (between rounds six and 13) could give away four tries in that period in each of the last two rounds. Against the Tigers and the Cowboys, they conceded three tries in eight minutes midway through the second half.

To make matters worse, the Warriors concede the most line breaks per match of any NRL team (5.1) and miss the most tackles (38.3). The Storm concede the fewest line breaks (2.6) and miss the fewest tackles (26.3), highlighting a key difference between the competition leader and a top-eight battler.

Obviously concentration has lapsed during the final 20 minutes of the last two matches. Former Kiwis and Warriors back rower Logan Swann says reaction times are a problem.

"If you're on your heels, not moving up off that tryline, you make it harder to stop teams scoring. Getting to the point of impact a step late has a huge influence on whether effective tackles are made.

"If you've got a big rig attacking a defensive line on the edge, like a Frank Pritchard or Gareth Ellis, you're not going to be able to stop him if you're one or two metres to your tryline." The first part of the defensive plan is controlling the ruck speed, an area where the Storm are masters. It has seen them accused of applying illegal wrestling techniques such as chokeholds this season.

"The Warriors need to get the opposition ball-carrier on his back as much as possible to create time," Swann says. "Apart from the last couple of weeks, the Warriors have impressed me defensively. It's great to see guys on the edge buying into the coach's defensive structure by having faith in their teammates on the inside. [Until round 14] they were winning the wrestling contest and tackling like a premiership-winning side."

Tackle completion rates and losing Micheal Luck have also contributed to the Warriors demise. Against the Cowboys, the Warriors completed just 44 per cent of their tackles in the second half and 59 per cent for the match. They made 116 more tackles than the Cowboys and missed 50.

Luck's absence means the Warriors are deprived of valuable leadership and an average 39.3 tackles per game. His replacement Elijah Taylor hardly shirked the task - with 46 tackles last week - but is still gaining first-grade experience.

That has prompted captain Simon Mannering to move back into the second row, closer to defence HQ in the middle of the park. Consequently it puts pressure on Shaun Berrigan who returns to the centres for the first time since the win over the Rabbitohs in round 11 when he missed six tackles.

"Defence has been a problem and it's all the more worrying because it's been in the last 20 minutes," Mannering says. "Whenever the other side has that many opportunities, it is deflating ... there needs to be an awareness to settle down and return to what was working in the first half of the season."

It's a simple message - but Swann says that can be hard to implement, especially against an outfit with the Storm's flair.

"It's complicated - in different areas of the field, you need to adopt different defensive patterns but you should always be dictating terms. For instance, inside the opposition 20m line you should compress your line defensively and put pressure on by rushing off the line while the opposition have fewer players behind the ball after a good kick-chase. The communication starts from the ruck and goes through the second rowers to the halves, centres and wings. "If the play-the-ball is in the middle of the field, you typically need five each side of the ruck plus two as markers with the fullback in behind this line directing players. Every player must be communicating and anticipating what might happen next. On your own line you've got to get up quickly, once the dummy half has been nullified by the markers and try to take at least 10 metres off the opposition for a buffer."

Swann says the Warriors should benefit from the return of Brett Seymour. "Brett will improve the defence. As a senior player and good communicator he knows what's required to stop tries and direct play effectively," says Swann.

One school of thought suggests players take three to four seasons in first grade to bulk up enough to take the weekly punishment on defence. That has left Shaun Johnson vulnerable in recent weeks and even James Maloney is still developing as a defender, despite it being his third season.

One option the Warriors could use to protect their halves is an umbrella defence which has the team arcing out from the middle of the park, allowing certain players to drop back further. That could also have the advantage of forcing Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith to chip or grubber kick behind the Warriors line.

Alternatively if the Warriors wanted to adopt an aggressive approach, they could employ the likes of Ben Matulino and Taylor as hitmen, coming up out of the line and unsettling the opposition with the odd big tackle, much like Tariq Sims last week for the Cowboys. Either way, the spotlight will be on the Warriors' defence today - to see if they have righted themselves before the Storm hits.

- Herald on Sunday

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