Game over for NRL teams who lose backs while trailing

Scott Bailey |

The Broncos were unable to recover from a first-half injury to No.1 Reece Walsh against Penrith.
The Broncos were unable to recover from a first-half injury to No.1 Reece Walsh against Penrith.

Early injuries to backs have become a death knell for NRL teams, with data showing less than 30 per cent of sides are able to win after losing a fullback or man out wide in the first half.

An AAP analysis shows teams lost wingers, centres or fullbacks to injury before or at halftime in 22 of the first 80 games of this season.

In only six of those contests has the more impacted team been able to win, leaving the rate of victories after losing backs in the first half at just 27 per cent.

Crucially, the game is as good as over for any team who loses a back while behind on the scoreboard in the first half.

No team has come from behind to win after having to replace a player before or at halftime.

The chief issue remains a lack of utilities or forwards able to defend out wide, with attacking teams able to target men out of position and points coming at an increased rate.

Concussion rules have also exacerbated the issue, with players sometimes ruled out as early as the first hit up of a match.

That was the case on Anzac Day, when St George Illawarra were beaten 60-18 by the Sydney Roosters after losing Moses Suli in the first few seconds of the match.

The issue has prompted some teams to consider playing outside backs on their bench, allowing for specialist centres or wingers to come in and defend out wide.

But Dragons coach Shane Flanagan warned such a move could create different problems.

“When I was at the Sharks, I used to carry an outside back on my bench all the time, because I had middles that could play big minutes,” Flanagan told AAP.

“But when you haven’t got middles that can play big minutes, if you leave them out there they can get injured whilst under fatigue.

“There’s a duty of care perspective as well. I’m not quite sure where we’ll end up.

“The game’s always changing and we’re always looking at how we can do things better.”

Other ideas floated include allowing the 18th man to be used for any game-ending injuries, or allowing coaches access to a six-man bench with the freedom to activate any four of those players.

Penrith have become the NRL’s specialists at picking teams apart when rivals have to replace a man outside.

They blew open Parramatta and Brisbane in back-to-back weeks earlier this year after Bailey Simonsson and Reece Walsh went down.

The Panthers also recorded wins over an injury-struck South Sydney and North Queensland, while being beaten by Manly with natural centre Ben Trbojevic filling in out wide.

“It’s a bit of a mismatch, especially when there’s a player there that hasn’t had experience there or played too much centre,” Panthers No.6 Jarome Luai said.

“It’s an obvious thing to attack that side.”