Origin selectors with an eye on Newcastle’s Jarrod Mullen for a Blues jersey have found another reason to smile, with stats showing he is keeping pace with Johnathan Thurston as the games best “running” halfback.
Rugby league’s greatest halfbacks have all had brilliant football minds and sublime passing and kicking skills – but an ability to run and take on the line with ball in hand helped make them dominant forces.
Queensland halfback Thurston and New South Wales hopeful Mullen lead the way early in 2011 when it comes to running halfbacks – players prepared to take the ball to the line to engage defenders and create space for themselves or teammates.
Thurston is averaging an impressive 79 metres a game over the season’s opening six rounds, while Mullen is not far behind with a 75-metre average.
While it is true these figures can be slightly inflated by metres made as a support player, one can’t deny both players have made clean busts of their own (Thurston five, Mullen two) and the majority of metres have come by taking the ball to the line before unleashing teammates in space.
Mitchell Pearce, the other prime New South Wales candidate, is averaging just 43 metres a game.
At the other end of the scale, the lack of running game from their No.7 could be a reason for the poor form of Parramatta and Penrith.
Of the bottom seven ranked halfbacks in terms of running metres, five come from teams in 10th position or worse on the NRL ladder.
Penrith’s Luke Walsh, perhaps hampered a little by injury, has barely run the ball at all. While he has never been a big runner of the ball, his paltry 14 metres-a-game average means opposition teams have less to worry about when he takes control.
Surprisingly, Peter Wallace from the Broncos is the next worst with just 23 metres a game – although he has some excuse as he plays second fiddle to the maestro Darren Lockyer.
Jeff Robson from the Eels is at just 26 metres a game.
Former Bulldogs and NSW No.7 legend Steve Mortimer told NRL.com that a good halfback “absolutely” needed to be able to run as well as be a playmaker.
“He needs to be able to count numbers quickly and spot overlaps but he also needs to run towards the defence to suck in defenders to create overlaps,” Mortimer said. “It’s simple but a good halfback needs to be able to run to the line with the ball in two hands and create doubt for defenders, rather than just shovelling the ball out like some do these days.
“There is a little too much programmed or robotic football. And if you do what you always do, you’ll get what you always get. Good halfbacks need to play on instinct.
“Thurston is a class act and Mullen is playing some great football as well. Their coaches obviously nurture their individuality and don’t limit them by forcing them into a game-plan box. It’s no surprise to me they are up top of the stats.”
Cowboys coach Neil Henry has always valued the contribution of his No.7, highlighting the fact it isn’t easy to constantly test the line without getting a few bumps and bruises.
“Playing at the line means ‘JT’ constantly commits the defence and creates space for himself or his teammates,” Henry explains. “It’s been a feature of Johnathan’s game for a long time and it’s what makes him so dangerous as he gets very close to the line – whether he is looking to run, kick or pass.
“The flipside is he gets knocked over a bit for a halfback… but his toughness allows him to do it.”
Henry believes halfbacks who aren’t prepared to run make defending much easier, as players can readjust from a poor read and perhaps get out and help their mates.
He acknowledges Thurston’s metres have been boosted by some long runs – one for 80 metres from a trapped kick against the Titans for instance – but says the numbers are still a good guide for players who like to run at the line.
“A fair gauge for a half who is pretty busy and looking to run a bit would be between 50-70 metres a game. Then you know they are really having a dig at the line,” Henry says.
“If you are consistently around just 20 metres, then all you might be doing is falling on a few loose balls or getting the odd back-up play – you’re not really taking the line on enough.”
If the running numbers aren’t enough for the selectors to note, perhaps kicking metres are.
Mullen leads the NRL’s halfbacks with 421 metres on average a game, well ahead of Melbourne’s Cooper Cronk at 385 metres. He also finds space more than any other player in the competition, doing so a massive 76.3 per cent of the time.
And if the Blues’ selectors paired Mullen with Jamie Soward (530 metres kicking average) they could at least be assured of a decent kicking game!
Average Run Metres, Halfbacks 2011
Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys) – 79 metres
Jarrod Mullen (Knights) – 75 metres
Robert Lui (Wests Tigers) – 68 metres
Ben Hornby (Dragons) – 67 metres
James Maloney (Warriors) – 56 metres
Chris Sandow (Rabbitohs) – 52 metres
Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles) – 51 metres
Cooper Cronk (Storm) – 48 metres
Wade Graham (Sharks) – 48 metres
Mitchell Pearce (Roosters) – 43 metres
Scott Prince (Titans) – 41 metres
Matt Orford (Raiders) – 34 metres
Trent Hodkinson (Bulldogs) – 30 metres
Jeff Robson (Eels) – 26 metres
Peter Wallace (Broncos) – 23 metres
Luke Walsh (Panthers) – 14 metres
Average Kick Metres, Halfbacks, 2011
Jarrod Mullen (Knights) – 421 metres
Cooper Cronk (Storm) – 385 metres
Daly Cherry-Evans (Sea Eagles) – 380 metres
James Maloney (Warriors) – 371 metres
Chris Sandow (Rabbitohs) – 352 metres
Scott Prince (Titans) – 340 metres
Wade Graham (Sharks) – 328 metres
Luke Walsh (Panthers) – 285 metres
Mitchell Pearce (Roosters) – 274 metres
Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys) – 259 metres
Trent Hodkinson (Bulldogs) – 244 metres
Peter Wallace (Broncos) – 239 metres
Matt Orford (Raiders) – 171 metres
Robert Lui (Wests Tigers) – 156 metres
Jeff Robson (Eels) – 153 metres
Ben Hornby (Dragons) – 17 metres