Everyone said it much to the denial of many Roosters fans, but deep down many of us know it’s probably true: Mitchell Pearce levelled off last year and needs to step it up.
I blame a lot of this stunted growth on the poor coaching of Brian Smith, whose game plans changed from game to game, and in some cases from half to half. An attacking set on the line often resulted in the forwards hitting it up for five tackles before a chip to the wings or a flat pass on the line.
While the Roosters could still display some of that in-their-own-half potency – as evidenced by their win in round one when Pearce started the movement from in his own half which led to Mini’s spectacular try – on the line they were simply inept.
It wasn’t all Pearce’s fault, and don’t get me wrong, he’s still the best halfback NSW has to offer despite what the media would have you believe, and he’s still only 23. He takes on the line, he’s the best defensive halfback in the comp, he’s a superb passer both short and long and his long kicking game is among the best in the league
FACT: In 2012 Pearce finished fourth in try assists behind only Benji Marshall, Cooper Cronk and Matt Bowen, who all made the finals. Out of the Roosters’ piss-poor total of 82 tries for the 2012 season, Pearce assisted on 25 of them, or 30.4 per cent.
By comparison, media darling Adam Reynolds – being pushed by the click-hungry media as better than Pearce – assisted on 21 of the Bunnies’ 102 tries, or 20.5 per cent.
Mitch runs it more, tackles harder and is more involved. Sure, he’s been playing top grade since he was 17 and Reynolds was a rookie last year, but Pearce is still developing.
Or at least I thought he was.
Where the majority of halves have the edge over Pearce is the forcing of dropouts. I can’t remember the last time he put a grubber into the in goal whereas someone like Reynolds can put one behind the line in his sleep.
I can’t find many stats on it, but according to the NRL’s Supercoach section, Pearce doesn’t even rate in the top 10 in forcing dropouts:
I don’t need to tell you this, but the more time spent in attack means less time spent in defence. Forcing dropouts means your forwards can rest without doing a beep-test every time there’s a tackle. Forcing repeated drop-outs means you are tiring the defence. Forcing a dropout is a consolation prize if nothing is on.
More importantly, having the ability to put a grubber behind the line forces the wingers to come back in anticipation that they may have to clean up: bombs allow them to stay home and mark their opposing man.
For the last three years the Roosters rarely if ever applied pressure through repeat sets, and if they did it was because a defender batted a bomb dead.
I am hoping that Brian Smith coached the Roosters to go for the try every time, probably quoting some stat where a bomb/chip to the wings was just as likely to result in a try as a set after a line dropout.
Why do I hope this? Because the alternative is either a) Brian Smith coached this ability right out of Mitchell Pearce, or b) he never had it.
Option A implies that he’s been poorly coached for the last three years, three of his formative years at that, and has picked up poor habits and forgotten good ones.
Option B implies that he simply does not have the skill to be able to play what a defence gives him. Which would suck considering, you know, he’s a halfback.
I tend to believe it’s A, which is the more palatable of the two. Braith Anasta used to have a great grubber which banana’d around over the line and back towards the attacking team, making it difficult for fullbacks to predict the roll and make a decision. You don’t remember it? That’s because he hasn’t done it for three years.
However, it could be B, which means he needs to learn how to read a defence to take that next step.
Mitchell Pearce needs to dominate a game, and the great halves know how to apply pressure and control a game on the line with a combination of chips, grubbers, cutouts, shortballs and running it.
Not having all of those attributes cuts down the totality of the threat that he poses. If he doesn’t grubber — ever — wingers know to expect either the bomb or cutout but also know they don’t have to come in off their wing – of course limiting the effect of the cutout passes because there isn’t any gap out wide.
Joey Johns reckons the penny drops for great halfbacks when they are 25 or 26. Mitchell Pearce is approaching that age and has more experience in the top grade than the majority of halfbacks already there.
He truly needs to begin to dominate; otherwise he’ll simply be known as a very good, but not quite great, halfback. Which is OK for most players, but not for someone with the tools Mitch has.