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Sets appeal: Is this the secret to Broncos’ resurgence in 2022?

At the start of the year, I wrote a piece about the soccer stat xG, and what aspect of rugby league data might be best to use as a cipher for who was going to win the game.

I rang around a fair few people who know more about this than I do – The Roar’s own Tim Gore chief among them – to canvass opinions.

The general consensus was there wasn’t one “advanced stat” that was a good indicator, because rugby league is far more complex than that, but a fair few pointed out kick return metres as a decent way of understanding the 2021 version of the game.

They all also pointed out kick return metres were useful, but also that it was a case of fighting the last war: Penrith had just won the premiership and they were the best at kick returns, so it looked very important in hindsight.

The whole episode got me thinking. Even though kick return metres is not the master stat, because no such thing exists, perhaps it did point us in the direction of where certain teams were better than others.

My colleague, George Clarke of AAP, then pointed out when returning kicks, Penrith forwards were not even trying to get onside. They were letting the backs bring the ball to them.

Having been tipped to the Panthers do it, I noticed that the Bulldogs do it too – not surprising, really, given that at the time, they were coached by the Panthers Attacking Guru™ Trent Barrett.

One side, however, have stood out in the unusual way that they start their sets: the Brisbane Broncos. It’s probably the aspect that they have improved the most in 2022.

The Broncos’ back five of Selwyn Cobbo, a resurgent Corey Oates, an even more resurgent Te Maire Martin and hard-running, tackle-breaking centres Kotoni Staggs and Herbie Farnworth have lead the team in set starts, not to mention the impact of Adam Reynolds in set ends – as detailed extensively here.

Though Brisbane are not the only team to do it, they perhaps have benefitted the most. With the Panthers, they were already good and are several years ahead of Brisbane. They are obviously the best but they’re the best at everything as evidenced by their 15-1 record in 2022.

With Barrett’s Bulldogs, they never picked the right team and couldn’t attack, so no matter how good their set starts were, it never materialised into points.

With the Broncos, it’s been the defining reason that they have gone from a bottom four side to top four contention.

Before we go into why Brisbane have been so good at this, I should explain what ‘the transition’ is and why it matters so much.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Imagine the traditional ‘grind’ or ‘arm wrestle’. We think of this as two phases: Team A attacks, while Team B defends, and after a kick, Team B attack and Team A defend. This goes on until there’s an error, an infringement, a line break or someone scores.

There’s nothing really wrong with that. It’s logical that we split the game based on who has the ball. It might not, however, be the most indicative in terms of who is getting on top, which is where the transition comes in.

It’s a whole third of the game, at least in even periods, and one of the most influential factors in determining field position – which, obviously, correlates very highly with winning.

We like talking about who is good in set starts, and the importance of turning over the ball well, or indeed who is good at simply reaching the end of their sets to hand the ball over. When we say Team A is winning the ruck, what we might better say is that they are winning the transition.

Team A get two plays of ‘set start’, two plays of ‘attack’, then a kick. Then Team B start their set with two plays, might run two plays of attack and then kick again.

When you hear a coach talk about completion rates, they’re not really talking about completing sets – repeat after me: the Roosters won two comps with the ‘worst’ completion rate – but more about not making errors in transition.

Coaches, at least good ones, don’t really care about completion rates and errors, they care about transition errors. Losing the ball in yardage, ‘gifting field position’, ‘inviting them in’ and the other cliches for it.

If a team had a completion rate of 70%, but made all their errors on the last tackle trying to score in good ball, then the coach probably wouldn’t be that fussed.

If a coach completed at 80% but made all their errors in yardage and failed to throw the ball around, they’d be the 2021 Canterbury Bulldogs.

Credit: Fox NRL

Clearly, transition matters. So who is good at it? Well, obviously, Penrith. They trust their transition so much that the big lads don’t even bother getting back on side of the ball.

They’ve made the first phases into a masterpiece, with huge metres out of the backs and maximum bludging out of the forwards. Here’s their game at the SCG a month or so ago.

A long kick goes over and Dylan Edwards picks it up. He trucks it in, then comes Brian To’o. Look in the background: the pink jerseys are strolling back. Two plays later, Moses Leota wanders into the shot past the play the ball. On the last Nathan Cleary kicks, and you know the rest.

As mentioned, the Broncos have also made this into an art form. I live in NSW and they mostly play in Queensland and this is something that is much easier to spot in person than off the telly, so I’ll have to take you back to Magic Round for an example.

Brian To'o of the Panthers is tackled

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

In the 11th minute, Daly Cherry-Evans kicks and Corey Oates catches on the full. He runs it back, then Herbie Farnworth takes the next.

In the middle phase – transition over, this is now the attack – Payne Haas, Corey Jensen and Pat Carrigan take hit-ups, winning play the balls that allow Reynolds to put in a weighted kick that Tom Trbojevic doesn’t get to return, because he can only catch and be tackled.

The Broncos forwards then smash the Sea Eagles, who can only make it from their 10 to the 30 before Cherry-Evans has to kick again. He finds the floor, because DCE is the best in the NRL at doing that, but here comes the transition again.

Te Maire Martin, then Selwyn Cobbo, then Kotoni Staggs all take hit-ups before they get to run attack and kick. When Staggs takes the ball on play 3, his forwards are only just getting back onside.

Credit: Fox NRL

The 2022 Broncos hover around fifth and sixth for most of the key stats that indicate winning transitions: kick return metres and one person hit ups from the back, plus first for kick metres and second for long kicks. They’re really good at starting and ending sets.

Bear in mind: while being fifth or sixth at something doesn’t sound great, the Broncos were generally right at the bottom of these things previous, so it’s a huge climb. They were 14th for kick return metres in 2021 and dead last in 2020.

A key read on this might also be the amount of minutes that their forwards play. Either the Broncos are on drugs or they’re doing something else, because Haas and Carrigan can keep up a workrate on both sides of the that most props and locks simply can’t.

Haas is a freak in every capacity and very few locks do the combination of runs, tackles, metres and minutes that Carrigan does.

Souths are quite a comparable team in many ways, and none of their props average more than 43 minutes while all but one of Brisbane’s manage at least that.

The mind turns to the Broncos wins over Souths (twice), the Bulldogs (twice) and comebacks against the Titans and Knights where that extra energy was put to great use late on.

I had previously seen this emphasis on hard carries from centres as a flaw in the system, because it denied opportunity to strike players such as Kotoni Staggs and, prior to his injury, Herbie Farnworth, to impact the game.

The knock on Staggs for ‘not getting involved’ and ‘not having his hands on the football’ is a bit unfair in this light. It should be the next evolution, where he gets more good ball to go with the bad, because in terms of total touches, he is 25% down on elite centres. That will, hopefully, will come.

It’s the last frontier of this tactic, the one that Brisbane are yet to broach. Brisbane still lack polish in attack – not surprising, given they’ve had about ten different halves – but they seem to have sorted two of the three phases out.

They’re scoring below what they create, and failing to turn good transitions into concerted pressure: they’re last for tackles inside 20 and second last for forced drop outs.

The Panthers can provide some hope here. They debuted To’o in 2019, the king of kick return metres, and had ranked fourth for the metric in that year, but it took until after the Covid break (and the six again introduction) for their points scoring to catch up. They, too, were once good at transition but not attack.

The idea of making this a calling card of a side’s system is not new. The obsession with set starts has been around for about a decade, and there is a cautionary tale out there for Brisbane.

Gareth Ellis

Gareth Ellis lifts the 2017 Challenge Cup. (Photo by Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

The most comparable example to what the Broncos are doing now might be found on the other side of the world, a team who went from crap to great and back to crap again because they couldn’t push on.

In the middle of the 2010s, Hull FC went from mediocrity in 11th, to 8th to 3rd, 3rd against and then back to 8th and mediocrity. So not great, except for two years in 2016 and 2017, the years that they also won back-to-back Challenge Cups.

So how did Lee Radford, a rookie coach at the time, turn a mob of perennial underachievers into a top 3, double-trophy winning team? The transition.

His team was freakishly efficient and managed to eke everything out of a bang average talent pool through incredible set starts and ends, with a really defined plan. If you’re an NRL fan, strap in for some ‘that guy? I thought he was crap!’ action.

Their 2017 back 5 tells the tale. There was Jamie Shaul, a smaller-bodied but agile fullback who was ultra-reliable and made bulk metres. He’s Dylan Edwards 1.0.

Then you got Mahe Fonua on one wing and Fetuli Talanoa on the other, two blokes you might politely call ‘big-bodied’ wingers. Fonua named in the Super League team of the year in both 2016 and 2017, and it wasn’t for his speed, because he doesn’t have any.

In the centres, Josh Griffin, who at 110kg would be the heaviest centre in the NRL by a distance, and Carlos Tuimivave, a classy player in the Stephen Crichton mould, but still a big body.

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The plan was pretty simple: Shaul would take the kicks and pop it off to one of his wingers, who would take the contact. The other winger would then take a dummy half run, followed by one centre on a hit up and then the other centre on play four.

They had Marc Sneyd, who was the best kicker in the comp, but a pure 7 who offered little else beyond organisation and kicking. He was joined for 2017 by Albert Kelly, now, ironically, of the Broncos.

Sneyd controlled everything with his boot: he kicked a lot of 40/20s and field goals, forced a lot of drop outs and never saw a penalty goal he didn’t like.

He also had a strong crossfield kick towards Fonua and Tuimivave, but if that didn’t work, it was often difficult to score at all. Kelly was the top try scorer, from five eighth, usually from close range darts at the line.

The forwards would often never touch the ball in attack, allowing them to concentrate almost wholly on defence.

Danny Houghton, who was named Man of Steel in 2016 for player of the year in Super League, was also an almost exclusively defensive player and would average over 42 tackles per game, which would be comfortably the highest in the NRL in 2022.

The pack was ultra-aggressive – my all-time favourite rugby league stat is that Liam Watts, one of the props, was sent off more on his own than the entire NRL in this period – and featured what were essentially five front-rowers, with Watts and Scott Taylor rotating with Josh Bowden and Chris Green, plus a late-period Gareth Ellis as a very much non-ball-playing lock. They bashed teams up and broke them down.

On for/against, they were nothing special, but in knockout games, they were fantastic, winning two Challenge Cups on runs that involved beating all the other major teams. When it worked, it worked.

Ultimately, the rest of the league caught on and Hull were never able to add the final polish that would have seen them go further. The fans tired of a style that could be awful to watch when it wasn’t getting results.

Broncos coach Kevin Walters

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

At this stage, Kevin Walters will be happy that his team are winning, as will success-starved Broncos fans. Even if they don’t win another game all year, they can see the clear progress in developing a method.

Walters has mentioned this aspect of the game many times, usually in reference to how Adam Reynolds has helped the team improve defensively, because he kicks them out of trouble and lets the forwards create pressure through line speed and tackling.

The ideal situation going forward will be to add flair alongside Reynolds to improve the later tackles in the set, where the attack often drifts. The Broncos are second last for passes and near the bottom for offloads and line engagements. That needs to pick up.

Coaches like to talk about earning the right to play, and it’s clear that Brisbane are one of the best teams at doing that. For 2022, that will be plenty, because fans are happy to see the improvement.

The big test of his coaching will be if he can get the best out of Ezra Mam, loosen up the style and capitalise on the starts that his back five give him. They’ve got the hard part sorted: now for the rest.

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