Centres of excellence
Is it possible to go unnoticed in a back to back Premiership juggernaut?
You should be thankful that I’ve held off talking about my beloved Penrith Panthers for six weeks of the season. The truth is, after a sluggish start as the reigning premiers adjusted to life without Api Koroisau and Viliame Kikau (among others), there wasn’t much to say.
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The departure of Kikau and the preseason torn ACL to Taylan May savaged the once-vaunted left side attack, while lovable cult hero Mitch Kenny was thrust into full time hooking duties (partly timesharing with Soni Luke), and while he’s been fine, he’s no Koroisau.
But all of that was expected. There’s no storylines there.
By now, Penrith’s game style is hardly a great mystery undetectable to all but the most prudent observers. The plan? Dominate the middle of the field, slow down the ruck, lean on the back three to make all of the hard metres, and bludgeon teams to death.
Dylan Edwards, Sunia Turuva and Brian To’o have all been praised and studied over the first part of the season. It’s just the nature of racking up video game numbers in running metres. Whatever your opinion on run metres as a metric that holds any weight, it’s undeniable that, at the very least, Penrith’s custodians have done what is asked of them with great aplomb.
But no one is here to read my propaganda piece about Dylan Edwards for State of Origin or how Turuva is the runaway rookie of the year (although if you do, hit me up and we’ll talk).
It’s time to talk about Izack Tago and Stephen Crichton.
Penrith’s play style requires a lot of brute force and repetition. The reason they’ve been so successful over the last few years can be attributed in no small part to their willingness to stick to their plans and execute, safe in the knowledge that their superior fitness and discipline will eke out wins even on off nights.
It’s a style of play that’s clinical and robotic, soulless and crushing. It’s not the razzle dazzle throw-it-around style that tends to endear to the neutrals.
The Penrith centres aren’t crucial in their yardage work. Usually by the time the back three have gone through their run-by-committee approach, the team is nearing halfway with all the forwards back onside and ready to go, which makes it even more insulting that the centres like to go for a canter anyway.
Tago is more proficient in yardage than Crichton, averaging 165 metres a game with a season low of 133 in the demolition of Canberra, while Crichton is down at 111 a game, with two games below 70.
As I said, the pair aren’t critical to Penrith’s work coming out of their own end, but their willingness to get involved anyway leaves the forwards fresh. Penrith have been an impenetrable defensive side over the last few years, and a key reason is the work of their outside backs allowing their middle forwards entire sets to rest and get ready for a defensive workload.
Penrith can go 2-3 set blocks at a time without getting a single carry from a forward, contributing to lower meterage and total hit ups from guys like Moses Leota (116m per game) and James Fisher-Harris (90). The tradeoff though is a stingy middle, with the two bookends up front only missing 5 tackles each through the first 6 rounds.
Where Penrith’s centres shine, however, is in good ball sets and in chaotic strings of broken play.
You’ve probably heard the phrase “he needs to get early ball,” right? Usually it’s uttered nonsensically by a commentator desperately trying to get in a word count and falls back on the idea that just feeding an outside back the ball repetitively in time and space is the secret to unlocking the puzzle box.
Except it is kind of Penrith’s left side attack now with Jarome Luai and Izack Tago.
With Kikau gone, Penrith no longer have that rampaging triple threat at the edge forward position. Kikau was lethal as a ball runner, deceiving as a decoy and classy as a link between the halves and outside backs with his soft hands.
Luke Garner, Jaeman Salmon and Scott Sorensen, who have all played left edge for Penrith so far this season, are not that, and it’s contributed to some assessments of Luai as being quieter than normal as he adjusts to a new personnel grouping outside him.
If you go back and watch the last two weeks specifically, you’ll notice that whenever Penrith shift left now, instead of digging into the line or threatening a short ball to a damaging back rower, Luai is now more content to simply play provider and give the ball to Tago with room to move.
I’ve always thought one of Luai’s strengths as a half was his ability to not overplay his hand, and it’s shown up recently as he’s settled with Tago as his number one option instead of his second rower.
Tago is one of the best movers in the competition, a converted back rower himself from the junior system, he lacks the size currently to transition into the pack on a more permanent basis, but has fashioned himself as a matchup nightmare with his speed and footwork.
But while Tago is an elite ball runner, Crichton is a bit more nuanced in the way he attacks his matchups.
A languid and effortless athlete, Crichton’s penchant for big game intercepts has seen him gambol away into open pastures more often than most other players. He possess strides a gazelle would be proud of, and it never looks like he’s exerting any real effort, until you look at the chasing pack and realise they’re not getting anywhere near him.
Crichton is also a more versatile and polished product than Tago, which sounds ridiculous to say given Crichton himself is barely 22 years old, a two time Premiership winner, State of Origin representative, and World Cup finalist.
Where Tago is more direct as a runner, Crichton balances out his elusive style with great craft as a passer, possessing both silky hands and the vision necessary to put Brian To’o in space over and over. Penrith’s right side combination has been forged and honed through several years together, while the left is still somewhat patchwork as a new back rower and winger integrate, lending credence to the idea that the right will be more interconnected as a unit.
Especially proficient in short side operations, Crichton’s repertoire was on full display against Manly, giving Brad Parker a hellish night. No moment, however, was finer than some dummy half craft that the great rakes would blush at, as, after a Cleary run that left him just short of the line down the right, Crichton scooted to dummy half and fired a precision spiral to To’o to go over in the corner, cutting out two Manly defenders in the process.
(Looks like Twitter is still in a war with Substack and won’t embed so click through for the video).
Crichton’s unique skillset has him tabbed as a fullback of the future, a projection that has seen the Bulldogs jump at the chance to bring him to Belmore given Penrith’s successes with Dylan Edwards.
Given his talent, it’s entirely likely Crichton follows the path of fellow Penrith to Belmore graduate Matt Burton. Stuck behind an entrenched incumbent on a premiership threat, he’ll be given the chance to forge his own identity in his position of choice. And given all he’s accomplished already in just 80 games and at 22 years of age, it’s an investment for the next ten years.
The glimpses we’ve seen of Crichton at fullback during injuries to Edwards have been mixed, though. While Crichton is a more creative attacking influence at the back than Edwards, he still needs to master the dirty side of the position, namely his positioning, but that could also just be a stylistic juxtaposition with the all-hustle approach of Edwards compared to the laconic Crichton.
Crichton and Tago are both stars of the future, but are also stars of right now. Rusted on in a premiership contender and walk on starters for Samoa, the NRL’s most vibrant centre pairing provide a splash of colour to the industrial Penrith machine.
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