Beating Dragons a tough grind for Benji
September 25, 2010
Tigers star Benji Marshall may have to make a dramatic switch tonight, writes Greg Prichard.
Benji Marshall will most likely face the biggest test of his career tonight.
The Wests Tigers five-eighth is already a premiership winner, a bona fide NRL superstar and an automatic selection in the New Zealand Test side - but tonight at ANZ Stadium he will face the best defensive team in recent history, one that will try to strangle the life out of the opposition as only the Dragons can do.
The question is, if the Tigers are forced to grind the game out to win it, can Marshall successfully adjust to the challenge? Could he play off the back foot if he had to, and be more patient in the hope that one or two potentially game-breaking opportunities come along? Or would he be unable to help himself and try to force matters?
If the game does become attritional, and Marshall still manages to lead his team to victory, it might just be his finest performance, even if it is not his most brilliant. If the Dragons apply the pressure and Marshall gets frustrated and commits errors in the search of a short-cut to victory, it might be the harshest lesson he’ll ever learn.
The playing styles of the Tigers and Dragons are mostly shaped by the approach of their five-eighths - Marshall and Jamie Soward respectively. Soward is not as gifted as Marshall but, as a result, there is less potential for the Dragon to dramatically change his approach tonight.
Soward is not your usual, running five-eighth. He doesn’t try to punch at the defensive line five or six times a half. He’s got the best kicking game in the league. He gets on the end of a set and belts the ball down the other end of the field, where his team’s relentless defence takes over. He is an opportunist who usually waits for the defence to get tired and then tries to take advantage by using his speed.
If the Dragons defend as well as usual - they kept the Tigers to 10 points in their last two matches, both for victories - Soward can play his normal game.
Statistics supplied by Sportsdata illuminate the difference in approach between Marshall and Soward. They are neck and neck in line breaks, but Marshall doubles Soward in tries, try assists and offloads, and has four times as many line-break assists. When it comes to kicks, Soward has hoofed it 361 times to 198, for twice as many metres.
But perhaps the key statistic is the fact Marshall has made twice as many errors as Soward. It’s obviously no surprise Marshall makes more mistakes - the fact he is willing to take chances inevitably leads to that possibility, and Soward plays the more conservative game. But, again, it begs the question of whether Marshall can contain himself, if he has to.
If the Tigers can somehow find a way to carve up a Dragons’ defensive line that has conceded points at an average of 11.96 per game in 25 matches this season, then Marshall and his main ally in attack - hooker Robbie Farah - will have field days. The challenge for the Tigers is to come up with a defensive effort that puts them in with a chance of winning. The figures say although they finished third in this year’s regular season as opposed to ninth last year, their defence was no better. They conceded 20.12 points per game last season, compared to 21 this season. The difference this year was that the Tigers improved to win most of their close games in the 26 rounds.
Tonight’s match-up has been described as a great attacking team against a great defensive team, but the truth is if the Tigers don’t improve their defence it will put Marshall under too much pressure to do what he does best. He wouldn’t even get the chance to grind it out under those circumstances, because it would be the Dragons doing what they do best instead.