Po­si­tions of Power



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.

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