Bombs away: Waqa’s record among NRL’s worst under high ball

For years Waqa Blake watched Nathan Cleary perfect the floating grenades that have haunted him all finals series, and knows he will be targeted again on grand final night as one of the NRL’s shakiest customers underneath the high ball.

Concerningly for Blake, Parramatta and wingers the world over, Cleary believes he can improve his aerial assaults even further with a warning that his best kicking game is still ahead of him.

According to Champion Data, Blake and likely Panthers opponent Brian To’o rank as two of the weakest flyers when it comes to defusing bomb kicks in 2022.

Of the back-three exponents to field 10 or more kicks this season, To’o’s 50 per cent defusal rate (10 attempts for five caught and five dropped) is the worst in the game.

Blake’s 12 catches from 17 attempts (71%) ranks ahead of only To’o, Matt Dufty (69%) and Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad (60%), but the Eels winger freely accepts his finals struggles will have him in the crosshairs come Sunday night.

After four years at Penrith watching Cleary hone his craft, Blake’s three dropped bombs in a week-one finals loss to Penrith, as well as another last week in Townsville, make him as obvious a target as To’o’s status as the shortest man on the field.

Good luck: Waqa Blake expects to be targeted by Nathan Cleary in Suday’s grand final.

“Oh yeah, 100 per cent,” Blake said, anticipating reporters questions before they were asked on Monday.

“After last game, it’s coming. So the challenge again is on me.

“We’ve be practising. The onus is just on me, I just got to catch it.

“I’ve got to do my best, get underneath it, and then other than that just move on from it.”

Cleary’s array of searching high kicks seem to get better each year, with only 50 of the 89 bombs (56%) he’s sent sky-high in 2022 caught by the opposition.

An analysis of Cleary’s kicking game by the Herald last year broke down the star halfback’s technique for floating and torpedo bombs that torment opponents to no end, with his vertical grip on the ball, as opposed to holding the Steeden horizontal before kicking, requiring years to perfect.

Rabbitohs winger Taane Milne was the latest victim in Saturday’s preliminary final, with Cleary putting in overtime on his kicking during his five-week suspension leading into the finals.

“You go through stages,” Cleary said when asked if he’s ever struck his high kicks better.

“I was striking them alright, but I still reckon I can be a bit more consistent with them. And especially with my long kicking.”

Cleary is wary of “getting too obsessed with” targeting Blake, especially at Accor Stadium, but halves partner Jarome Luai was more than happy to talk it up as a tactical advantage.

“That’s something we utilise because Nath’s got a great kicking game,“Luai said. “Why not make the most of what he’s got and his ability to kick the ball like that.”

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