“That was evident in both games,” former Maroons captain Darren Lockyer says. “The NSW attack looked clunky, but that’s because they weren’t getting any ruck speed and the Maroons were in their face a lot.
“There’s no doubt that if your line speed is good, it takes time away from the attacking team. It obviously takes metres away, too.
Tyson Frizell is wrapped up by Queensland’s fast-moving defence in Origin II.Credit: Getty
“If you are meeting the attacker well before they get their top speed up, then you start to dominate.
“I look at someone like Payne Haas, who dominates in the NRL but he just doesn’t get time to breathe [in Origin]. He played better in game two, but if your big men aren’t moving forward and getting a lot of momentum, it puts a lot of pressure on your backs.”
The importance of limiting the opposition’s pre-contact metres, via good defensive line speed, is a key focus for many in the game. Ramy Haidar, an NRL analyst and consultant to several clubs, believes it is the biggest determinant of match results, while a leading coach described the metric as “one of the first stats we go to after each game”.
“Whether it’s pre-contact metres or line speed metres or defensive metres per carry, it’s a pretty big stat in the game and has been for us for a while,” says the coach, who did not want to be named because he was concerned about giving rivals inside knowledge on his club.
“We talk about it in terms of line speed and restricting the metres pre-contact. It’s a consistent video and training thing for most of the top teams, usually in defence.”
According to figures adapted from the official NRL statistics, the Maroons made 6.57 pre-contact metres per run, compared to NSW’s 6.11, in the first game this year. In Origin II, the Maroons again came out on top with 6.01, compared to 5.94.
While 40 centimetres per run may not seem like much, it adds up to nearly 100 metres – or the length of the field – across the full game. In very tight Origin contests, that can be the difference between glory and despair.
Meanwhile, Penrith have become famed for their defensive line speed during the past three NRL seasons.
‘The NSW attack looked clunky, but that’s because they weren’t getting any ruck speed and the Maroons were in their face a lot.’
“You think about Penrith’s success over the last few years and people’s minds automatically go to what they do with the ball,” Queensland Rugby League chief executive Ben Ikin says.
“But their defence is otherworldly. I don’t know the numbers, but I’m assuming in games played by the Panthers, the opposition’s pre-contact metres might be below average. That speaks to the quality of their defence.
“The other thing I believe about Penrith is they take this almost AFL-type approach to defence; they flood zones. There’s always a lot of people in the picture wherever the ball is.
“Anecdotally, the moment [I heard that] the next big thing is pre-contact metres, I can see the picture of what is being talked about. And that is fullbacks who don’t just jog back into the line, they’re doing everything they can to take the metres on offer, not scanning and moving across the field. It’s bang, take the ball and as much ground as you can.
“I thought of James Fisher-Harris. I don’t know where he ranks, but he gets the ball flat, at speed and chews up as many metres as possible before the defence gets to him.
“That for me spilled into the idea of quick play-the-balls, which are so important. When you think about the run you make off a quick play-the-ball, you are likely to get more pre-contact metres. It interconnects in so many different ways.”
In the NRL, winning teams average 6.7 pre-contact metres compared to 6.4 for the losers. The discrepancy of about 30 centimetres might appear small, but every bit of vacant defensive space has a bearing on the momentum of each set of six tackles.
Significantly, the metric has nothing to do with talent. Line speed, an opportunity to attack with your defence, comes down to fitness and desire.
“It’s attitude, but it’s also a habit,” Lockyer says.
“It’s not just a case of [saying], ‘Guys, we need to get our line speed going tonight’. You have got to practise it. You have got to bring your attitude. If it’s not a habit, the moment you fatigue, you start to forget it. It’s something that’s drilled into you, not just verbally but physically.”
Ironically, pre-contact metres are often derided as “cheap” metres. They are those gained before a hand has even been laid on the player, with fullbacks and wingers the biggest beneficiary from kick returns. However, they say more about the opposition’s kick-chase and general line speed. Those areas have been hallmarks of Ricky Stuart’s coaching career, particularly during his Roosters tenure. Stuart’s Tricolours sides were known for sprinting off their lines and getting numbers into tackles. It’s an area Penrith have also mastered.
It’s also an area in which the Maroons have excelled. In games played during the past two Origin series, NSW have made more run metres in every match – but won just one of those five games. Despite running for fewer metres in every game, the Maroons have dominated pre-contact metres. Save for game three last year, when NSW hammered Queensland 44-12 in Perth, the Maroons have come out on top in pre-contact metres in each game.
“I thought the other real feature of game two [of this year] was the outside backs from the Maroons; they would come out of the line to try to stop the play and then their inside men would come to cover behind them,” Lockyer says.
“You’ve got the middle of the ruck doing their bit with line speed and then outside [as well]. When you do that, you bring your outside backs up with you. The moment that the [Blues] halves pull the trigger with the pass out wide, the Maroons would be in their face as well.
“If you’re the attacking team and not getting any opportunities or seeing any space, it’s frustrating. It’s obviously a key stat. I didn’t even know that it was even measured.
“I don’t know if Billy [Slater, Queensland coach] and the guys are measuring that particular stat, but they would be focusing in training on getting their line speed right as part of their muscle memory.”
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