Positions of Power
IN TODAY’ S RUGBY LEAGUE, IT’ S HARD TO PICK THE PLAYERS APART–AND THE ROLES THEY PLAY –ON BODY SHAPE .( WHAT IS A LOCK, ANYWAY ?) WHEREVER THEY INTEND TO LINE THEM UP,NRL CLUBS ARE LOOKING FOR JASON TAU MA LO LO AND HI SILK TO FILL THE SPOT.
The likes of Jason Taumalolo have smashed the mould of rugby league’s traditional roles, literally.
Rugby league evolves quickly. Like those fish that emerged from the primordial swamp to breathe oxygen and then walk and talk and drive around in late-model sedans, rugby league players adapt to their environment. And thus today, they have giant legs and high speed and flick passes, and are more than one man.
Rugby league players’ body shapes, athleticism, speed, power, skills, fitness, just about everything, have adapted to each change in the game. Even the little rule changes have a flow-on effect as sharpeyed players and coaches look to exploit each nuance of the contest. Consider headknock laws – if you can convince the bloke on the sideline you need a concussion test, and pass it (because you’re not concussed) your team gets a “free” interchange. It’s a rort. It happens. It’s understood.
The interchange and, to a lesser extent, the depowering of the scrum is why rugby league has crawled out of the swamp and given us the sometimes gob-smacking athletic spectacle it is today. But the nomenclature for what people do needs an upgrade. We still have “hookers” and “second rowers” but it doesn't describe what they do.
Now, not to lament the “good old days” because they often weren’t, and scrums were a dog’s breakfast and there were penalties from scrums that decided games, and people
hated them. But there was a time forwards contested scrums and grew tired. And this was no bad thing.
There was a time centres stood next to one another, as they do in rugby union and there’d be a big, long shift and cries of “Spin it wide!” And they’d pair the centres depending on their body shape. Steve Ella could play inside centre; Andrew Farrar and Gene Miles outside-centre. That’s how they picked them – little one inside big one.
Today they’re pigeon-holed left or right, and apart from Tyrone Peachey and Jarrod Croker at a pinch, there are no little ones. They are mostly behemoths.
There was a time everyone was Tyrone Peachey. The multi-skilled Penrith “utility” is shaped how they used to be: a fit though normal human being. There was a time the only freaks were Mal Meninga and Paul Sironen. There was a time when Allan Langer was the scariest man on the field because he could spot a tired forward from a thousand yards, and exploit him.
Today, the Cowboys take off Jason Taumalolo and replace him with, effectively, Jason Taumalolo, another giant thunder man whose gig is to run over the other mob’s premium playmaker; and seek to destroy him all game.
“We’ve gone down a path based on coaches’ ‘structure’, and we’ve lost a lot of what you’d call ‘natural’ footballers,” reckons former Dragons ace, now Fox Sports pundit Mark Gasnier. “Once we started to recruit on body shape, fitness tests, physique, strength, and almost went the American football model of testing speed, agility, we stereotyped guys based on these numbers into a position.
“Back-rowers weren’t always six-foot-four, 130kg with certain skin-folds, beep test numbers. They didn’t have to achieve all these certain targets. Arthur Beetson would have been in the ‘Fat Squad’!”
The interchange and meaningless scrum means the physical, fast, 20-minute “athlete” is much in vogue. Gasnier and others would like the interchange wound down or even disbanded. “The interchange has to be adjusted to bring back the natural footballer. Fatigue’s not the devil. Fatigue created champions and made them.
“Positions have been stereotyped now on the recruitment of body shape, size, speed, agility, all those things. And on the coaches’ philosophy about structure.”
Coaches are unromantic, cynical, hard. They care not for frippery. Well, you can frip about all you like. Frip away, as long as it contributes to the winning of games. Benji Marshall was the game’s foremost frip merchant. But the “W” column was all-important. “Entertainment” is okay as a by-product. But as many a sacked coach will tell you, “Winning isn’t everything, yes it is.”
With an interchange that rewards impact minutes by massive battering rams (called “metre eaters”, an odious term), forwards are now “middle men” or “edge runners”. There are no front- or second-rowers,
"Positions havebeen stereotyped nowonthe recruitment ofbody shape,size, speed."
though they call them that. Locks can be middle men or ball players who defend inside the outside edge. Halves form a “triangle” with the hooker or fullback in attack, the four combine in a unit called “the spine”.
Hookers defend with the middle men. Halves out on the edge. Defences are lined up across field 1-4 and 4-1, with another four men in the middle and a fullback behind. So the winger defends at 1. A halfback can sit at 3 inside a couple of “bodyguards” – a centre at 2, a back rower at 4. Then there’s the monsters in the middle: two props, hooker, maybe No.13. But it can be fluid.
Look at Manly: Frank Winterstein (aptlyknown as Frankenstein) defends at four, attacks at three, two in from the winger. Shaun Lane does the same on the right side. If Frank stood on Shaun’s shoulders they could change a light bulb in Sydney Town Hall. Combined, they weigh a quarter ton. They are like two Paul Sironens. They are the outside-centres from hell.
“The scrum and interchange, the right and left defensive systems, the virtual elimination of the competitiveness of the scrum, that’s really changed the requirements and the opportunities that exist in the game for players,” says veteran coach Brian Smith.
“The one that’s changed the most is the fullback role. Another one is the front rower. Little fellows were in the game. Tommy Bishop would be the best example. He was a tiny little fellah but extremely competitive. He played for his country, captained Cronulla in a grand final. He would’ve weighed 75 kilos.
“The demands on the little guys have been upgraded. But every position has been upgraded. You need to be much more competitive in terms of a physical specimen. And skills, particularly fullbacks: catching, kicking, passing, bringing the ball back from kicks. If you can’t play like a half at some level you’re not much good anymore.”
Players have to be more than one player. Look at Dogs “prop” James Graham. He can play “traditional” front rower: truck it up, belt ’em. He can play the ball behind the line, pop an offload in traffic. Des Hasler has used him in the spine effectively as a halfback.
“That’s the evolution of the game,” says Smith. “Coaches will tell front rowers they’ve got to have the ability to pass. What they call a ‘tip on’ to an edge forward. Adam Blair does it. Aaron Woods would be best at it. If you’re playing a team that’s really aggressive, up-and-in style of defence, you’ve got to have more to your bow than just being a battering ram. You need variety. Which can give you quick play-the-ball which allows your halves to play footy. There’s a flow-on effect.” The game’s premier offload man is Martin Taupau. Against a staggered, “broken” defensive line, you’re more chance of breaking through. That’s why the wrestle came in to slow down play-theball, so defences could get a better look. “Winning the ground” with quick play-theball is key. Taupau pops out an arm and sets Api Koroisau and Dylan Walker free. The lock position is an interesting one. Some clubs will use it like an extra prop: Paul Gallen, Sam Burgess, Taupau. Yet Penrith’s Bryce Cartwright was a five-eighth, as was Wade Graham. And they are very handy people: high-skilled, big bodies, playmakers in the pigs. The Dragons have Jack de Belin, a skilful lock. Nathan Brown at the Eels does a lot of their set-up plays, passing, gets them to parts of the field, plus a mountain of work, tough carries. The Dragons will play Tyson Frizell in the no.13 – he’ll storm in all day. Roosters types still pine for Sonny Bill Williams –
a big, skilful, X-factor man who could play big, quality minutes. Has there been one like him? Answer: there has not. He was three players – a ball player with the lithe hands of a rah-rah No.12 (what the Kiwis call a “second five-eighth”, like Hobbits have second-breakfast, and which Williams currently is for the All Blacks) and an athletic, steel-wristed bombardier of a back rower who could barnstorm into the meat or suck in defenders like a vortex and pop pill like Beetson. Flick passes used to be a trick play. Sonny called it “passing”.
Cartwright has some of that ability, and others. Instead of locking himself on an edge and attacking the halfback, Cartwright runs set plays. He offloads, kicks behind. Such is his threat that defences have to assign an extra man to his edge. This opens up the longer side.
Footy is a numbers game. And the two best players at picking out a line short a number one side or the other – in fact orchestrating “settling” plays to make it happen – play for the same team: Melbourne Storm. And Storm are the best because of Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, and Billy Slater out the back.
Slater changed the fullback role, but so did Darren Lockyer before him. Fullbacks are playing in the line. They are equal parts link man, providing that last pass, and swooping round the back. Darius Boyd is probably the best “swooper” from out the back. Jimmy Tedesco, you want running. Roger Tuivasa-Sheck the same. Lachlan Coote was a five-eighth, and does plenty for North Queensland. And he runs silky smooth, too.
Then there’s “Turbo” Tommy Trbojevic, who can do it all. The big unit at the back for Manly will bomb about for the Blues in 2018, nothing surer. He, too, is three players – a running gun fullback, a link man to the outside backs, and a giant athlete who can truck it up and get you quick play-the-ball.
So, hypothetically, if you could assemble 17 Tom Trbojevics. Edge runners, “metre eaters”, athletes, runners. Blokes who can the play the ball and run it. Is that your perfect 17 “footballers”? Blokes with feet, a bit about ’em?
“As long as their skillset is compatible with the position they play,” says recruitment ace Peter Mulholland. “Front rowers know they’re going to get bashed, mate. And you want front rowers who are turning up at the hard end of the park. Not so much the moneyball at the try-scoring end.”
Dylan Napa is one of them. Jesse Bromwich. Gallen. Taupau wants to revolutionise forward play – become an 80-minute prop. Mulholland says you can see it in their eyes. “Watch a player in their own 20, see what they’re doing. Are they looking at the ground or in the eyes of the dummy half? I’ll ask the dummy half, did he look you in the eye?”
Mulholland says things could change again were rule-makers to drop the interchange from eight to six. “Players will adapt again,” he says. “The game adapts to it. I think four [reserves] and six [interchange] would be the greatest influence on how the game is coached, and the types of players coaches want.”
There’s a theory among the game’s thinkers that “the wrestle” would be non-existent if the game got rid of the interchange system. That players would be too fatigued. But then there’s that theory of evolution again. Players will adapt and overcome. Might the NRL one day brush the interchange? Mark Gasnier doesn’t know: “To be brutally honest I don’t think they know what they’re doing. I don’t think they know what
they want the game to look like in five years. What exactly are the ramifications for certain rule changes? I know they’ve got a hundred committees about decisionmaking, rules, regulation.
“If I’m in the players’ association, I’d say a prerequisite is that two players sit on the rules committee. Cam Smith and another, so rules-makers can get an understanding and feel for the game. To where it’s come from, heading.
“There’s got to be a reward for the smaller player. Preston Campbell won the Dally M Medal in 2001. That was the year Ricky Stuart introduced wrestling, gang-tackling, slowing down the ruck. The interchange was getting worse and they were recruiting certain body shapes.
“We need to find the balance that rewards smaller players later in the half, the back end of 80 minutes. They’ve got to wear big blokes running at them all game. Think of the Broncos’ Kodi Nikorima in the Dragons game – Joel Thompson ran at him all game. And he’s an 80-minute player.
“That little bloke should have the right, later in the half, after these big blokes have run at him all day, to say, ‘Okay, let’s see how fit and nimble you are now.’ Take you on back through the middle. That’s what made Alfie Langer, Ricky Stuart. They were too smart. Alfie could pick out a lumbering forward from a thousand yards.
“Cameron Smith has a little pet play in which he angles to the left, drags them over, grubbers hard back cross field for the in-goal, where Cooper Cronk is flying …
“They did it against Manly in round 21. Tom Trbojevic was caught in the defensive line. When they go to the short side and they have a 4/6 split – four short side, six open. Two markers, a halfback. They knew he came into the A-defender on the short side. It was set up. The backrower, Joe Stimson, landed on that spot perfectly so Trbojevic would get in at ‘A’ and then Smith would kick back inside. I called the game the week before against the Tigers. They did the same thing four, five times.”
Skillsets must still be compatible. "Frontrowers know they're going to get bashed."
When Ben Creagh first came to the Dragons out of Wollongong in 2003, he was an 18-year-old who played on the wing. Nathan Brown was then a 30-year-old, first-year coach when he mused to his mate Mark Gasnier: “This bloke will play for Australia … in the back row.”
“I laughed at him,” says Gasnier. Two years later, Creagh played for Australia in the back row. He had size, speed and power – the holy trinity. Gasnier understands the appeal of these people. But laments that rugby league may be missing out on others.
“I shouldn’t stereotype players,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, plenty of young blokes have the ability to adjust, to be a really good ball-playing lock, for instance.
“Where I reckon we fall down is when you come to the option of choosing two players. Say you’ve got a bloke like Taumalolo or Tyson Frizell, who’ve played centres all through the juniors. If you can get 60 minutes out of them, they’ll change the game in that time.
“Or you’ve got this little skinny kid, freakish ability, let’s say Bevan French, Will Smith. But they’re not the shape of what you need; they’ll buy the other bloke first. The game rewards it.”
There used to be more blokes like Tyrone Peachey, but now the JaredWaerea-Hargreaves and Dale Finucane (right) types don't just play in the middle. below right Paul Gallen, propping up at lock.
A team could do just fine with 13 Jason Taumalolos. Versatility plus: Michael Morgan, Tom Trbojevic and Bryce Cartwright.