Rise of the robots: Only unpredictability can prevent most predictable of grand finals

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A robot could predict the match plans for the four teams left in the NRL premiership race with near certainty. The small remainder outside the scope of artificial intelligence includes the possibility of a revolutionary tactic. Given the dominance of Penrith and Brisbane, an early try from a secret move might be the only way to beat them.

AI is capable of consuming huge amounts of NRL data via video analysis and myriad statistics to produce the standard match plan adopted by most coaches. But it can’t predict a try rehearsed clandestinely and never seen on film.

All play today begins with the back five returning the ball from the kick-off. The fullback, wingers and centres make the early runs, while the forwards take three tackles to walk to position, conserving energy for their later hit-ups and tackles.

Teams then rely on an error, or the referee signalling a repeat set or a penalty, to reach a position on the field to use what some term “good ball”, invariably using block plays. Most NRL teams embrace a type of swinging gate play, where they move the ball to one side of the posts, then “play long,” swinging it back the other way, with the fullback joining a pivot and a centre in the link.

The side of the field attacked usually depends on a perceived weakness in the opposition centre, or the superiority of one of their own. Coaches liken the early play to a washing machine, where the back five return the ball, followed by a kick to the opposition who repeats the process. The game cycles round and round until someone creates an error and is spun out to dry.

It is rare for a team to employ a move from a scrum. Ditto with tap kicks where it’s unusual to see a team build to a special play. Also, when a team is reduced to 12 men – a common occurrence today – teams don’t have a rehearsed strategy to exploit it. The Roosters had their fullback and captain, James Tedesco, sin-binned against the Sharks in an elimination final, but Cronulla persisted in playing the same sideways football, trying to run around the opposition.

Nathan Cleary runs the ball against the Warriors in week one of the finals.Credit: Getty

Penrith play more direct football than the rest, utilising the superb ball distribution of halfback Nathan Clearly. He is in stellar form and his pass selection on the line against the Warriors was sublime. Add lock Isaah Yeo to their two halves and the Panthers have three ball distributors. Cleary, big by the physical standards of No 7s, is extremely capable of playing pivot but prefers to run the ball.

So, apart from the Broncos who depend on the special talents of halfback Adam Reynolds, how do you beat Penrith? Given everything in today’s game starts with the back five, a fullback with the feet of a cat burglar and the hands of a magician who can carry his team deep into opposition territory would be a start.

A more realistic option would be a special move from a scrum, similar to the Sharks’ successful play in their 2016 grand final win. The Storm had done their homework on Cronulla but the try from the scrum-base move, one of only two the Sharks scored, shocked Melbourne.

Only three Sharks were aware it would be called and it was not rehearsed at the captain’s run. Then-Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan later joked he suspected opposition coach Craig Bellamy might have a camera secretly filming in the grandstand. Because the move had never resulted in a try throughout the year, it was not on tape.

Over the past three years, the NRL has encouraged scrum moves by allowing teams to set them in the middle of the field. Initially, it didn’t result in more tries because defenders continued to break too quickly, extinguishing any rehearsed clever plays.

The NRL responded by making a full penalty of this breach. So, if a team is leading by a point in the preliminary final and the opposition has a scrum set between and near the posts, it would be an ideal opportunity for a Sharks 2016-type move.

The defending team would be loath to break prematurely from the scum and incur a two-point penalty.

Machine learning can game-plan the washing machine-type play for most of a match but the Storm and the Warriors will need the special suds of a secret move to triumph over the Panthers and Broncos.

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