Griffin: Wallace exhibiting Smith-like control
Peter Wallace's growing claims for an end-of-season Four Nations tour as Cameron Smith's deputy have been given a further boost with Panthers coach Anthony Griffin declaring his No.9 exerts similar control over a game to the Storm and Kangaroos captain.
Like Smith, Wallace's influence on a match isn't evident in numbers of line breaks, tackle busts or even try assists but in the way he dictates the tempo of a contest to the advantage of those around him.
The Panthers had complete control of last Saturday's opening half against the Titans because of the way the 30-year-old controlled the ruck, bringing his charging forwards onto the ball and slowing down the Titans with each of his 54 tackles.
On the back of Tyrone Peachey's bust he was on hand to deliver the pass for Matt Moylan to slot the match-winning field goal and is one of only two Panthers – the other being winger Dallin Watene-Zelezniak – to have played every minute of every game thus far in 2016.
In the 2014 Four Nations tournament then Kangaroos coach Tim Sheens used Robbie Farah in the opening game before introducing Broncos No.7 Ben Hunt as his utility option on the interchange bench for the remaining games.
Shifting from halfback where he had played the majority of his career to hooker to accommodate the NRL debut of Nathan Cleary in Round 13, Wallace has not only ensured a smooth transition into the top grade for Cleary and five-eighth Bryce Cartwright but allowed them to flourish.
He plays forward to get his big men over the advantage line, understands when to release the ball to his playmakers and also judiciously times any kicks in general play to put the opposition team on the back foot.
He may have taken almost 200 more NRL games than Smith to make the move from halfback to hooker but Griffin says the 30-year-old – who recently signed a two-year contract extension – has been a key component in their success in the second half of the season.
"Obviously he's played the majority of his career in the halves and that's given him the understanding of what's important in attack. How people like to get the ball and what's important when you're a dummy-half," Griffin told NRL.com.
"He just has a real calming influence in there. He doesn't get flustered, he's got plenty of time and gets us through our sets really well.
"If we had an inexperienced hooker in there with two inexperienced halves behind him it would be a lot harder to get the momentum we're getting in attack.
"He's a real calming influence in there and the boys really like having him there and playing off him."
As suggested in commentary on Saturday the obvious back-up to Smith in the pecking order of hookers is unclear.
Blues hooker Robbie Farah is in reserve grade, Michael Ennis is retiring at the end of the season, Andrew McCullough has been a strong performer for Brisbane and Jake Friend is enjoying the Roosters' resurgence but it is Wallace who most mirrors the Australian skipper.
Panthers teammate Trent Merrin played the solitary Test alongside Smith in 2015 and has no doubt that Wallace has quickly established himself as one of the game's premier No.9s and could feature in the Four Nations in England in November.
"Most definitely," Merrin said of his selection prospects. "I don't think he's looking too far ahead – we're all on the same page with just taking it one week at a time – but he's definitely been one of the best hookers out there in the comp so far.
"He's got that mature head about him and he knows how to control the middle and I'm loving every minute with him in the middle.
"He feeds you when you need the ball and he just has that calmness about him.
"I love playing with him in the middle. He's tough for his size and for a player that's never played hooker before he's taken to it with both hands and been exceptional with the way he handles it week in and week out.
"I'm not surprised about it, it's turning out to be a great role for him.
"As soon as 'Hook' (Griffin) put him in that position he took it with both hands and it's the best thing for the team.
"I'm absolutely loving it."