Fox Sports Lab data reveals reasons behind NSW Blues major squad overhaul after Origin I

The Blues’ major squad overhaul for Origin II was driven by these glaring statistical factors, writes LACHLAN MCKIRDY.

Brad Fittler’s new look Blues: The data driven decisions that selectors couldn’t ignore. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Brad Fittler’s new look Blues: The data driven decisions that selectors couldn’t ignore. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

The panic has set in if you believe those north of the Tweed.

After the Blues went within centimetres of levelling Game I, Brad Fittler has made six changes to his starting side for the must-win match in Perth on Sunday.

Many have spoken about Fittler’s supposed loyalty but history has shown that he is willing to make mass changes after a loss. Of the six games he has lost in charge of NSW, Fittler has on average made six changes to the squad for the next game. Three of those games were for the first match of the series, which must be considered.

Blues changes under Fittler.
Blues changes under Fittler.

The most obvious correlation is NSW’s squad in Origin II, 2019 which was also played in Perth. After losing the series opener, Fittler made seven changes to the side heading over to Western Australia, a decision that resulted in a massive win for NSW.

On average, Fittler has made more changes per game to his side than his predecessor Laurie Daley. The changes that NSW has made this year directly correlate with the main area in which they were outplayed in Game I: the ruck.

Jake Trbojevic is a player who shares Fittler’s win-at-all-costs ethos for the Blues and a quick examination of his stats for the Sea Eagles this year shows that tactical edge he will provide NSW.

One-on-one tackles.
One-on-one tackles.

Of all the forwards used by Fittler this series, no player has made more one-on-one tackles in the NRL this season than Jake Trbojevic’s 44.

His ability to single-handedly stop a play will be crucial on Sunday. The Maroons showed in Game I that when players like Harry Grant or Cameron Munster isolate a defender, they have an uncanny ability to break the line and/or create space for a teammate.

It’s no surprise that two other players who Fittler has brought into the 17, Api Koroisau and Angus Crichton, also lead the Blues’ forwards in that statistic this season.

Having Trbojevic and Koroisau starting in the middle is set to shore up the Blues’ defence around the ruck and will give Fittler more confidence that they will be able to withstand Queensland’s pressure.

“Just the way the game went in Game I, I think we needed someone defensively-minded,” Fittler said of Trbojevic’s selection in particular.

While Damien Cook was sound in defence, his output was down in Sydney.

Cook will be looking to up his Game I stats as he starts from the bench for NSW. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Cook will be looking to up his Game I stats as he starts from the bench for NSW. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Cook averages six runs for 65 metres so far this year for the Rabbitohs. He only ran three times for 24 metres in Origin I, and they all came in the second half.

While Koroisau isn’t a noted runner of the ball, only averaging 33 run metres a game for Penrith in 2022, Fittler will hope that he will be able to get quicker service to his Panthers teammates Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai.

That quick ball only comes off the back of fast play the balls, a measure that the Blues were soundly beaten in by the Maroons a fortnight ago.

Fox Sports Lab’s numbers show seven Maroons forwards had more than 50 per cent of their play-the-balls considered ‘fast’ in Game I (measured at 3.5 seconds or less) as opposed to only three from NSW.

Quick play the balls.
Quick play the balls.

Of all the Blues’ forwards, the returning Angus Crichton registers the highest proportion of fast play the balls in the NRL this season at 65.19 per cent. Trbojevic, Jordan McLean and Victor Radley, the other inclusions to the Blues’ squad, also average better than 55 per cent this season.

That stands in direct contrast to the Parramatta trio of Junior Paulo, Ryan Matterson and Reagan Campbell-Gillard, who have all had less than 50 per cent fast play the balls.

Campbell-Gillard, in particular stands out, with only 38.07 per cent fast play the balls and 21.32 per cent slow play the balls.

Crichton’s speed out of the ruck may be key to the Blues success in Game II. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Crichton’s speed out of the ruck may be key to the Blues success in Game II. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

Trbojevic also has one of the lowest percentages of slow play the balls in the team with only 9.9 per cent. Debutant Talakai ranks even better with only 7.85 per cent.

While it’s clear Fittler is hoping to speed up NSW around the ruck and get quick ball to his halves, he is taking a risk by having a lot less size in his pack.

Haas and Paulo are the Blues’ only genuinely big middle forwards and may struggle in the territory battle against the likes of Lindsay Collins, Josh Papali’i, Tino Fa’asuamaleaui and Patrick Carrigan.

Who will do the heavy lifting?
Who will do the heavy lifting?

While Trbojevic brings a defensive-minded approach, the Manly forward only averages 53 run metres on the year. He has had more of a ball-playing role for the Sea Eagles in 2022, but the numbers of Isaah Yeo (101 metres), who plays similarly for Penrith, almost double his Manly counterpart.

With no Matterson on Campbell-Gillard, Fittler has opted to go without two of the most consistent forwards. The Parramatta pair both average over 130 run metres this season.

The most interesting selection is set to be Siosifa Talakai. The Origin rookie has predominantly played for Cronulla at left centre this year and, as a result, has seen many of his attacking stats improve.

Cronulla debutant Siosifa Talakai will be closely watched by the Maroons. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images
Cronulla debutant Siosifa Talakai will be closely watched by the Maroons. Picture: Paul Kane/Getty Images

But Fittler has already indicated he is willing to use Talakai in several positions, including centre, versatility that Stephen Crichton didn’t offer from the bench.

Not only does Talakai lead the Blues’ forwards in terms of run metres (155 metres per game), he also consistently makes plenty of post-contact metres. Across the last three weeks, Talakai has averaged 65 metres a game after contact.

While many have questioned whether Fittler needed to make as many changes as he did, there’s no doubting that each serve a purpose. But there is a danger they’ve put all their eggs in the defensive basket and there’s only so much Talakai will be able to do off the bench if they find themselves losing the territory battle.