"How good is Josh Hoffman" is a question being asked by a lot of people within rugby league right now, including the brains trusts at the Brisbane Broncos. Is he among the current crop of star NRL fullbacks, or simply a quality finisher on the wing?
Hoffman played the final seven games of the 2013 season at fullback for the Broncos, after playing 15 of the previous 17 games on the left flank (the other two were at centre). But the arrival of 2012 Dally M winner Ben Barba at Brisbane next season is likely to see Hoffman bumped back to the wing again – if not out of the club altogether. There has been talk of Hoffman's management discussing a possible exit from the Broncos since late October, but the club has insisted he will fulfil the remainder of his contract.
At the World Cup Hoffman's troubles only continued. He played at the back in two of New Zealand's three group matches – scoring a try and creating two more in the win over Samoa – but lost the Kiwi fullback spot in the finals matches to Kevin Locke (another player likely to lose the No.1 jersey at club level thanks to a new star recruit).
And that was after his clubmate, injured Kangaroos centre Justin Hodges, described him as being "not the right guy for fullback".
In an era when the role of fullbacks has increased dramatically – just look at the rise of South Sydney after Greg Inglis was moved out of the centres and into the custodian role – is Hoffman too good a player to be shunted onto the wing?
Broncos legend Darren Lockyer has supported the idea of moving one of Hoffman or Barba into the five-eighth role next season, but at the time of writing it was unknown where – if anywhere – Hoffman will be playing in Round 1.
There can be little doubt about the quality of Hoffman's running game. He made more tackle breaks than any other player in the NRL in the 2013 regular season (a bragging right that was Barba's the year before). He can also do the job in defence, ranking third in the league for try saves last season.
Hoffman crossed for 15 tries in 2012 – seven more than any other Bronco – while also leading the club for line breaks and ranking second (behind Kangaroos workhorse Corey Parker) for metres gained.
His trademark move: The criticism Hoffman has faced – even from teammates like Hodges – is based on his lack of a creative passing game, but that's not how he earns his crust. Hoffman is a born ball-runner; quick, strong, and with a knack for exploiting weak points in a defence and finding the best way to the tryline. His tendency to cut inside from the left wing frequently brought rival defences undone last season, catching wide defenders flat-footed and unable to stop the Broncos' top tryscorer.
His key play of 2013: Hoffman's 28th-minute try against the Eels in Round 23 – the only try of his seven-game run at fullback – was a great example of his ability to create something out of nothing. Taking a pass 40 metres out from Parramatta's line, Hoffman sidestepped one defender who had rushed out of the defensive line, shrugged off the attempted tackle of another and broke clear. A swerving run and a sharp right-foot step was enough to take Hoffman past Eels fullback Jake Mullaney for a solo try that looked all-too easy.
Previous How Good Is profiles: