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From round one this season, it was clear Parramatta were going to struggle. Not because of any off field dramas, but because they had prepared the entire pre season with an attacking style that wouldn?t be successful this year, and hadn?t learned to defend against the style the successful sides of 2006 are using.
When the Eels had Adam Dykes leading the side, the favoured form of attack was a running halfback throwing inside balls to forwards rather than spreading the ball with cutout passes or second man plays, then throwing grubbers in behind the line as the primary form of close range attack. As history tells us, it wasn't successful. So last season the Eels, led by Tim Smith, were forced into an elaborate passing game by necessity (Smith had no running game). It led to long cutout passes, giving the outside backs the ball with position on their defenders, and second man plays, leaving the big, talented Eels centres plenty of manoeuvring room one on one with their opposites. Watching the side last year, it worked a treat, Timana Tahu, Ben Smith and Eric Grothe ran riot out wide causing all sorts of trouble for defenders, while Tim Smith and John Morris racked up dozens of try assists.
And now this season, Tim Smith has reeled in his passing game, throwing few second man passes, and hitting his outside backs flat footed rather than charging on to the ball like last year. The results are the worst attack in the league from the side that last year put points on at will. Smith is throwing more and more inside balls, a tactic so tired teams have an automatic defence against it now, its what they expect to happen. Teams bunch around the ruck (something Parramatta themselves do in defence), waiting for a short ball or inside pass, leaving their outside men vulnerable to one on one situations as they lack the backup of their inside defenders, who are packed in closer to the playmakers.
From the very first round this year, several teams broke free from the inside ball chains like Parramatta had last season, and started giving their outside backs room to move for the first time in years. With big, strong centres like Gasnier, Hodges (who is not coincidently having a career year now he has room to move), Cooper, Inglis and Tonga out wide, it is in a sides best interest to get them one on one with the defence. The best way to do that has become the second man pass, keeping the inside defence honest with a decoy runner onto a flat pass which never comes, instead finding a runner in full stride several metres back, and further wide, leaving him a lot of room to move outside his defender. Often sides will throw two second man passes in one move, particularly close to the line, and it is incredibly difficult to defend against. If you spread your line, those flat runners (usually second rowers) will soon start getting those passes and barging through the line at close range, but if you choose to pack the defence, you are trusting your weakest defenders, the outside backs, in one on one situations with very talented ball runners.
It takes well-drilled teamwork as much as talented players to pull these second man plays off. It is a set move, you need both a short runner timing his run well, and a second man running behind hitting the ball at pace. Watching Parramatta again on the weekend, they tried several second man plays, but the receiver often caught the ball flat footed due to a mistiming of the pass or run. Compare that to Newcastle, who from round one have been hitting Milton Thaiday and Matt Gidley (who again it is no coincidence he has hit form again with space to work) on the second man and giving them, and their wingers, space, which they have used to create one of the best attacking units in the competition, led by the greatest halfback in the world who has his team running like clockwork, while other sides, like the Eels, try and play catch-up.
It may take an entire off-season of drills to develop the combinations many sides already have, and to counter with a new defensive gameplan. Until then, we can look forward to Gasnier, Hodges and co. running amok over opposing defences, creating some of the most entertaining football in years.