Battle plan for beating Benji Marshall
Phil Rothfield, Sports Editor-at-large
From: The Daily Telegraph
September 05, 2011
HOW do you stop the mighty Wests Tigers?
Benji Marshall and Robbie Farah are in career-best form, Tim Moltzen is on fire, Robert Lui is playing as well as any halfback and they’ve now won eight in a row.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan invited Sports Editor-at-Large Phil Rothfield into the Cronulla camp to find out what it’s like to prepare and play against the NRL’s most feared attacking outfit.
On Friday afternoon I meet Flanagan in the Sharks dressing sheds. He shows me the same tip sheet and edited video highlights that the players have seen.
It takes about 40 minutes and he starts on Benji.
“Benji’s got four or five options on all the shapes. But there’s structure to his game, too,” Flanagan explains.
"I’ve got 10 video clips for our left edge and same for the right showing the different things he can do.
"If we’re defending from our cage (inside their 20m line) we’ve got to get up off our line and make an up-and-in read.
“Gal’s gotta take Benji, He’s gotta travel with him and not stall on the bloke coming under him.”
I interrupt to ask the obvious question. Won’t Benji just step him?
"He’ll have Douglas or a middle forward looking after his inside shoulder. It will be covered.
"So Gal goes to Benji, Wade takes the lead runner, Besty jams on the bloke out the back and Hot Dog (John Williams) will jam the next one and we’ll leave one over.
"If you stay square and everyone sticks we should handle him.
"Trouble with Benji if you defend one way, he’ll attack another.
“If you go up-and-in he’ll throw over the top to his winger or kick in behind you.”
I ask how much of defence is technical and how much is
“Working together and keeping in your systems is important,” Flanagan explains.
"You can be a really good one-on-one defender but you’ve got to be able to work with the others.
"You’ve got to make good reads as much as you’ve got to
“Most of the time if you turn up with a good attitude, you’re going to be a chance but they’ve got to have their minds on as well to stick to the system.”
The other threats
Marshall, Farah, Moltzen and Lui are the main focus of the pre-game tapes.
But there’s also an edited package on the forwards.
“Heighington’s offloads, the Pommy (Gareth Ellis) offloads in the line, Gibbs won’t offload,” Flanagan points out.
"They played Monday night so I don’t think they’ll change much.
"Tuesday recovery, Wednesday they would have done a bit of review, Thursday off, and they would have trained Friday.
“So I think their plan and their attack will be pretty similar to what we’ve seen and what we know.”
On Friday afternoon when we were going over the tape, Flanagan shows a scrum ploy the Tigers have been successfully using for a couple of months to milk penalties.
From their own feed, one of the back-rowers uses his feet to hold the ball in the scrum for a couple of seconds, like a rugby union scrum or maul.
The opposition breaks early, moves up and by the time the Tigers have cleared the football, they’re penalised for being offside.
The Sharks have a plan.
“If they try that we’re going to shove and try to push them off the football,” Flanagan explains.
Towards the end of the match, Cronulla are down by two.
A scrum is packed 40m from their own line. Robert Lui feeds. It’s time for the shove.
The Sharks put on the big heave and successfully win possession against the feed, as planned.
Inexplicably, the referee calls it back because prop Luke Douglas breaks from the scrum too quickly.
It doesn’t matter that front-rowers have been breaking quickly in every game for 26 rounds and not been penalised.
Again it highlights the appalling inconsistency of refereeing
I join Flanagan and his coaching staff in the box. This is where it gets exciting.
If it’s 15 degrees outside, the tension makes it feel 30 degrees inside.
So much for systems and everything Flanagan had spoken about 24 hours earlier.
The Tigers had two tries on the board to Moltzen and Farah in the first 10 minutes.
Flanagan is going ballistic. He throws his pen then grabs the walkie-talkie and sends a spray to Anthony Tupou, via the runner.
If I had a dollar for every swear word inside the coaching box, I’d have sufficient cash to retire.
I have a prior agreement with Flanagan not to run quotes when his emotions are raging and language that is too colourful for this newspaper anyway.
"Go and tell Wade (Graham) to make his tackles, put a rocket up Bomber (John Morris),: he says, "C’mon dee-up boys.
"Get in that touch-judge’s ear. Gibbs is off-side every play.
It’s a joke.
"C’mon Jez (Jeremy Smith) force a bloody error.
"Keep on Stapo (fullback Nathan Stapleton) to watch Marshall’s 40/20 but if he drops back too far they’ll shift the ball.
"Don’t worry about Farah kicking, Millsy’s covering that.’’
The Sharks fight back with tries to Williams and Mills. Flanagan is much happier but Lote Tuqiri scores before half-time.
Tigers lead 20-12 at the break.
“We haven’t got a penalty. Can you believe we’re playing a
perfect team,” Flanagan says.
Sharks centre Dean Collis bombs a certain try.
Again Flanagan goes nuts but John Williams makes up for it and scores in the left corner a few minutes later.
“Look who’s doing the lead-up– it’s the forwards,” he says.
“Where’s my seven, where’s my six. Where’s my nine.”
The Sharks’ defence has improved. “We’re now doing what we practised,” Flanagan says.
The Cronulla mentor is now more worried about the attack.
"Hey, Elk (the trainer) go and bloody tell them not to try and solve problems on their own like Gal just did.
“Heads up and get some field position. They’ve got 19 minutes of their season left.”
The Tigers are leading 26-18.
“I’d love 26-24 and we could have a little dabble at them in the last 10 minutes.”
He sends a message out to get the ball to Gallen to attack Blake Ayshford on the left side, a suggestion from Toyota Cup coach James Shepherd who is also in the box.
“Hit that way and have Stapo on Gal’s back for the pass.”
But time runs out. Farah scores the match-winner, his third try and the Tigers win 30-22.
Cronulla’s season is over. The Tigers march on.
Now it’s Wayne Bennett’s turn to try to stop the juggernaut that is the Wests Tigers.