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Friday Night Lights
Let's go back to last Friday's match between the Gold Coast Titans and the Brisbane Broncos for a moment. It's the second half and the game hangs precariously in the balance. After throwing everything they have at the Broncos' defence, Titans' fullback William Zillman makes a break and charges to the line. Gerard Beale cleans him up in a covering tackle that stops Zillman only inches from scoring. With the try saved, the Broncos go on to close out the match and claim victory.
It's a familiar story: a stunning piece of try-saving defence that has a dramatic influence on the final outcome of the game. Beale's tackle on Zillman is among many; Parramatta's Nathan Hindmarsh collaring Canterbury's Michael Ennis with the try line in sight back in the 2009 preliminary final; and the most famous example of all in recent times, that tackle: Penrith's Scott Sattler collecting the Rooster's winger Todd Byrne around the bootlaces and taking him into touch in the 2003 Grand Final.
There are teams who favour their attack, and there are those who favour their defence. Defence, and how to unlock it, is the key to victory in both games on Friday night.
Both Brisbane and the Manly Sea Eagles have won their last two games on the back of their defence. Brisbane has grafted its victories through a stubborn defensive line; Manly have literally bashed its opposition out of the contest by attacking with theirs.
Neither team has set the League alight with their flashy ball play like the Wests Tigers and their five-eighth Benji Marshall have, but with the way that their defence is performing, they don't have to. As the Titans proved last week, a team can have sixty percent of possession and one of the game's best halfbacks at their disposal, but against a confident and determined defensive side, those advantages are nullified.
Manly's main threat to their defensive form is the left-side attack of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, which finally clicked into gear last week. If they can shut the likes of John Sutton, David Taylor and Greg Inglis down, they will go a long way towards gaining victory. But as these three players proved last week, if the Rabbitohs left-side combination is on song and the ball continually travels to that edge, anything is possible.
How South Sydney will handle an in-your-face defensive barrage in the same vein as what Manly has dished out to both the Roosters and the Newcastle Knights in recent weeks will be riveting viewing indeed.
Defence is Penrith's second priority against the Broncos up at Suncorp Stadium; their first should be to hang onto the ball. Last week's performance against the Cronulla Sharks was diabolical. If any team coughs up that much ball they're asking for a toweling, and Cronulla responded by doing just that.
But if you need more proof that defence will dictate the terms of these two games, just look at the statistics: the largest score that Brisbane has let in is 16; Manly's is 18; South Sydney's is 40; Penrith's is 44.
That's a big defensive difference of nearly four converted tries between Manly and Brisbane and their opponents. This may not predict a wash-out score line, but it does illustrate that in both games there is a team that has displayed more intensity in their defence so far this season. That may be the difference between conceding a line-break and forcing a knock-on, surrendering a soft try in the corner or driving a player into touch and winning a scrum.
What a team does in defence can swing the momentum of a match like nothing else. If Beale didn't stop Zillman short of the line, there is a good chance that the Titans may have run away with the match; if Hindmarsh had missed Ennis, the Eels may not have made it to the 2009 decider; and if Sattler hadn't pulled off one of the most memorable moments in Grand Final history, the Sydney Roosters may have been the first team since the Broncos of '92 and '93 to win back-to-back titles.
But that is all academic, and that's the beauty of a quality defence. It leaves nothing to chance.