Traditionally, he’s been the star of the show: the little general directing plays and employing cheeky tactics to keep the oppositions on edge. Yep, it’s the No.7s who are the focal point of attacks in the NRL… or so we thought.
Last season, the four top teams boasted quality names such as Billy Slater, Ben Barba, Greg Inglis and Brett Stewart – four players who each wore the No.1 jersey.
Barba’s exciting and free-flowing style of play secured him the Dally M Medal in 2012. It was the third time in four years a fullback won the award, following on from Billy Slater (2011) and Jarryd Hayne (2009). That’s significant given seven of the previous 10 Dally M Medal winners were all… halfbacks.
Slater, Barba, Inglis, Stewart and also Matthew Bowen – their freakish play, supports and ball-playing have completely re-defined the role of fullback.
Most recently Souths shifted Greg Inglis to the No.1, and the move continues to reap rewards. Inglis is now a game-changer; he touches the ball a whole lot more every 80 minutes, instead of being stuck at left centre where his attacking prowess was limited to whenever the play drifted his way.
Teams need their best players touching the ball as many times as possible. The modern-day fullback often loiters around the middle of the ruck, sweating on a quick play-the-ball or a lazy marker. But he can still sense the opportunity to chime in out wide to create the extra man in attack. He’s more involved than other playmakers.
The new-age fullback is now the most potent attacking weapon on the field. He does it all. And there is no doubt that the number of quality fullbacks around at present is higher than any era of the past.
So where have all the good halfbacks gone? Has it got something to do with the way most teams play these days, splitting their halves and playing left side and right side?
In the Raiders’ golden era of the ’90s, who could forget Ricky Stuart firing those long spiral passes to a running Laurie Daley at pivot. Or the ’80s, when Peter Sterling created opportunities for the elusive Brett Kenny at five-eighth?
Could the game possibly have changed that much?
It’s interesting to note that Johnathan Thurston, who won two Dally Ms playing in the No.7, now wears the No.6 where he often plays at second receiver.
And plenty of Manly’s recent success falls to their dynamic young halves pairing of Kieran Foran and Daly Cherry-Evans, who predominantly play left and right sides of the field respectively.
While acknowledging the skills of emerging stars like Adam Reynolds, the question must be asked: where have the quality halves gone? Are we not developing or coaching them like we used to? Or has the changing world had something to do with it, when young boys used to come home from school, throw their school bags into their rooms and charge down the park and play footy with their mates until dark, honing their skill set; whereas nowadays young men instead spend plenty of time in front of computers and Playstation games after school.
This is the school of thought of many good judges – and the reason why some clubs have actually started specific ‘halfback schools’ to help develop and fast-track young generals to become more-dominant players.
But for now at least, the fullbacks are the go-to men.
Sonny side up
Never bag champions! Sonny Bill Williams was never going to come back and immediately take over from where he left off in our game.
SBW hasn’t played NRL since 2008 and the game has gotten quicker and stronger every year since his exit.
Let’s look at SBW’s off-season, the time when players gain most strength and practise and develop their individual and team skills.
Williams had pectoral surgery in October, which would have required a lot of rehab and greatly restricted any training for any sport; then he fought in a brutal 10-round boxing match some 26 days before his NRL return – it takes most boxers a month to recover after any fight!
He played 53 minutes against Souths, who I consider was the most impressive team in the first round. He made 26 tackles – with no misses – and made seven runs for 65 metres and scored a try.
There was no doubt that he looked fit – but he did struggle with his strength, particularly in the wrestle after contact in the tackle, something that comes from months of weight work and training techniques in the gym.
Personally I thought given his circumstances, his first-up effort was fantastic, and I believe SBW will return to be one of the NRL’s best players – we just all need to be patient while he trains for the specifics of rugby league.
Matthew Parrish is an assistant coach at the Parramatta Eels and also the New South Wales Blues.