Get your kicks: The bold gambles causing chaos – and tries – in the NRL

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Josh Reynolds had watched the Dragons drive two of his Canterbury teammates back toward their in-goal in the 23rd minute.

If he took the line on himself, he’d be buried behind the goal posts. So with Ciraldo’s tentative support while hiding behind his hands in the coach’s box, Reynolds chip-kicked on tackle three, three metres from his own tryline.

“I was glad we got the ball back,” Ciraldo deadpanned afterwards, before expanding. “We’re not going to play like every other team, we’ve got to play differently. We’ve got different strengths to other teams and we’re going have to play a different way. Take more risks and move the ball around.

“Grub [Reynolds] played what he saw, and we trust that. If he doesn’t execute that then we talk about why we didn’t execute properly.

“But for him to have the confidence and the courage to take on a play like that, it says a lot about the confidence and the courage of what we’re trying to build.”

What Ciraldo builds at Belmore will take time, and more of the grit on display in Wollongong last month, when a small army of injured Bulldogs watched their teammates outlast St George Illawarra.

And thankfully for fans of chaos, more early punts in the tackle count.

When it’s used in judicious fashion, an early kick sets the cat among rugby league’s pigeons like few other plays.

Especially when modern defensive systems are honed like never before through hours of video, analysis and practice.

The fullback scrambles, the defensive line tries to turn on its heel and any observer within eyeshot edges forward that little bit, wondering what the hell’s about to happen.

At the Broncos this year, the outcome whenever they’ve put boot to ball on tackles one to three has been overwhelmingly positive.

Seven tries, a drop-out and eight regathers from 22 extra-early kicks in the tackle count make for a 72 per cent strike rate and a bit of cross-code love from Wallabies coach Eddie Jones.

It emerged this week that when quizzed on rugby union’s kick-happy tendencies Jones told a group of emerging coaches that it’s not a matter of how often you kick, but how well you do it.

Jones then pointed to Brisbane’s phenomenal strike-rate thanks to Adam Reynolds and the NRL’s best short-kicking game.

The Broncos’ 14 tries from kicks this year are the best in the league, with 12 coming when Reynolds and co have punted early in the count, on either fourth tackle or before.

The veteran half had been lined up to talk through the intricacies of how and when to pull the underrated tactical circuit-breaker, until he was heavily concussed in Thursday’s loss to Melbourne.

Reynolds is thankfully on the mend, and the numbers speak for themselves anyway.

Especially when Jahrome Hughes sealed the Storm’s win with a deft, first tackle chip across field for Will Warbrick to score in spectacular fashion.

Melbourne’s Jahrome Hughes kicks early for Will Warbrick to score.Credit: Nine

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, are finding real fortune when they turn to renowned super-boot Matt Burton for an early pressure release.

And surprisingly based on his previous 101 NRL games at Parramatta, captain Reed Mahoney.

His four 40-20s this season are again the most in the league and have all come on tackles 1-4. Mahoney’s average of 121 kick metres each game for the Bulldogs is more than double what he produced at Parramatta.

Penrith’s Dylan Edwards is well aware of the early kicking trend given the modern fullback’s role as defensive coordinator.

“You’re by yourself in those early tackles down there at fullback,” he says. “If they can get you by yourself they can try and go after you a bit. It’s also a good mindset to have – kick early and defend well. It’s happening because it’s an opportunity to turn momentum in games. Teams are starting to do it and do it well.

“You just try and recognise it, identify it. If their main kickers are getting their hands on the ball in early tackles, alarm bells can start, you realise there might be an early kick on. You’ve just got to do your video and do your homework.”

Like so much of the game in 2023, fullbacks on both sides of the ball often dictate when an attacking side takes this calculated risk.

Brisbane’s Reece Walsh has a specific target of support runs and kick chases to hit in a revamped attack this season.

He is Reynolds’ eyes and ears as much as the halfback himself when it comes to an early kick in behind the line, and is almost always sniffing around when the trigger is pulled.

For Penrith’s Jarome Luai, the game situation will often dictate. Less time on the clock, more staked on a gamble early in the set, especially if the opposition No.1 has alarm bells of his own ringing.

“You’re looking for where the fullback is, [whether] he’s in the line or not,” Luai says. “A lot of the fullbacks are these days. It’s a big cue. But we back our defence as well, so if Clez [Nathan Cleary] or myself look to do that the boys will back it up in [defence].

“Even just rolling the ball in-goal, getting another set, building pressure. I’d say every team wants to do that during the game.”

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