Matt Parish, NRL.com
If rugby league were a billionaire’s garage then fullbacks would be the Ferraris. Never in the history of the game have we been so spoilt for gilt-edged custodians, with their instinctive ability to break a game wide open.
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. With halves splitting to play either side of the ruck these days, the fullback becomes a ball-running second-receiver in most backline shifts.
Over the next four weeks we will have some of the hottest-contested clashes of the year as team’s fight for survival and more importantly one of two spots on the NRL’s biggest day. When it comes to tight games it is often the big play, by the big player, that gets the team over the line – and this year don’t be surprised if he is wearing a No.1 jersey.
It is my view that the Premiers this season will come out of the top four, all of which are incredibly well served at the back. Each man brings something a little different to the table but all are equally important to their team’s fortunes. One thing they definitely all have in common – experience at winning the big games.
The Roosters have the veteran Anthony Minichiello, who seems to have been playing for a lifetime. The man they call ‘Mini’ has scored six tries so far this season, averages 114 running metres per game and is ranked fourth in the NRL for kick-return metres.
Minichiello plays more of the traditional-style fullback, primarily a ball-runner who is constantly sniffing around for offloads as the consumate support player. He currently leads the NRL for the most supports by any player (with 304).
South Sydney shifted Greg Inglis to the No.1 early last season, and have reaped the rewards every since. He now 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.
On his day ‘GI’ is as good as any attacking player ever to play our game. His size and strength, combined with incredible mobility and speed, make him a nightmare for defenders. That’s reflected by his 93 tackle-breaks so far this season – the third most in the NRL. He averages a massive 156 metres per game and has scored 13 tries. In the game’s toughest arena, State of Origin, he is equally as dominant with a record-breaking 15 tries in 21 Origin games.
Defensively he doesn’t let ‘The Burrow’ down either, leading the NRL in try saves with 19, a number he shares with another handy fullback, Billy Slater.
The Storm’s energetic superstar has been consistently brilliant for a number of years, firmly holding the mantle of the best fullback in the game. His liveliness, positional play and talk behind the Storm line are major reasons for the success of Craig Bellamy’s defensive structure. Incredibly, his attack is equally impressive, with 15 tries in 21 games this season in addition to his 24 line-breaks. Need I say any more?
But maybe the most valuable and influential fullback to his team’s results is Manly’s Brett Stewart. Against the Storm last Saturday, ‘Snake’ was sensational, scoring two tries and playing a central role in their attacking structure. There is arguably no better organising No.1 in the game. Over the past four seasons, the Sea Eagles have won only half of their games when Brett Stewart was absent – pretty definitive given that overall they are victorious 65 per cent of the time.
A renowned try ‘sneak’, crossing the white stripe on eight occasions in 2013, it may surprise many that Stewart also works hard creating opportunities for his teammates, registering 15 try assists and 15 line-break assists.
If Manly are to make an impact on the premiership this year, and they are looming as a defiant threat, then Brett Stewart will need to be firing like he did on Saturday night.
Who is the pick of the bunch? That question may be easier to answer come October 6, when one of these four holds aloft the Provan-Summons Trophy.