Andrew Bryan, NRL.com
Johnathan Thurston has won two man-of-the-match awards at the 2013 Rugby League World Cup, but according to the Australian players, it has been the fullback position that has led the way in both games.
Billy Slater was nominated the players’ player in the 28-20 win over England, scoring a crucial try at the end of the first half with his trademark speed before brilliantly saving a 40/20 and then setting up another try in the second half.
Greg Inglis assumed the No.1 jersey in the second game against Fiji and was nominated by his peers as the best on ground in the 34-2 victory. Among the features of the match highlights reel were his pulsating try assist, where he bounced off four would-be tackles before offloading to Michael Jennings, and his extraordinary try-saving tackle in the second half.
But it was the hard work both fullbacks did at the back coming out of trouble that earned them the praise of their teammates. Thurston polled votes from his teammates in both games and was undoubtedly brilliant, but it was the fullbacks who earned the two players’ player awards.
“The fullbacks have their work cut out – obviously both are superstars and they handle it really well,” assistant Australian coach David Furner told NRL.com.
“In those sorts of conditions, your back three – the two wingers and the fullback – are going to get plenty of work. High balls, long balls, in those conditions, the teams are nice and compressed so there are a lot of hard yards for the back three to make.
“We were relying on Billy and GI to get those metres, they are really tough and important.
“It is why they have so much respect from their teammates – they help us get into good field position.”
Coach Tim Sheens picked Inglis at fullback to get him more involved in the game after a quiet performance against England in the opening game of the World Cup. It also allowed Slater to have the week off.
Australia is spoilt for choice at fullback.
There is no question Slater will play at fullback in the bigger games of the tournament, but it is a great luxury to have the option of using Inglis if required. Not to mention Knights custodian Darius Boyd, Eels No.1 Jarryd Hayne, or either of the Morris brothers who have played fullback for their respective clubs.
“Tim wanted GI to get him involved in the game,” Furner explained.
“Sometimes if the ball is not coming your way at centre you have to go looking for it, GI is one of those players – as much as possible – you want him with the ball.
“So potent is his running game and his strike-power... you saw it against Fiji with that try he set up – he is a freak.
“When he is at centre you have to find ways to get him the ball, whether it is longer shifts or short-side raids, you need to get him into the game.
“Obviously when he is at fullback, as we know, the ball finds him.”
Inglis was brilliant against Fiji in the Kangaroos’ second game, but Slater was equally as good in the game against England at Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.
Two amazing fullbacks, both unique in what they do, bringing different styles of play and qualities to the Australian team.
Inglis has the size, the step and the ability to fend at will. Slater has the sizzling pace, swerve and organisational play.
But ultimately, both have courage in abundance.
“They both have to do a lot of get out-sets” Furner said. “More often than not they are running into a 12-man line in defence. They are running one-out a lot of the time – you have to have a lot of guts to be able to keep doing that.
“That is why they won the players’ player award – they put their body on the line, no matter their size.
“It is the stuff the fans don’t often recognise, they do it time and again on top of the tries they set up and score themselves.”
• The Kangaroos team to take on Ireland at Thomond Park in Limerick on Saturday will be announced on NRL.com on Thursday.