Centres used to be the attacking strike weapons of a rugby league team, the go-to men in the backline when a team wanted to split the defensive line. But with wingers being bigger, stronger and more skillful than ever, has the role of centres diminished in the NRL?
This week we reported on Queensland's lack of big-name centres, and it's a trend that's catching on throughout rugby league.
Our list of the top 50 players in the NRL we named at the end of last year didn't include a single specialist centre – but did include three wingers. Three years ago the same list included four centres and just one winger.
Today, we debate whether wingers are now more important than centres on the footy field, and why the trend has come about.
Dominic Brock (NRL.com Production Editor): Tony, you wrote the article that inspired this week's roundtable, about how Queensland's centre stocks appear to be at an all-time low – and yet it hasn't really hurt their State of Origin chances. The top NRL teams no longer need big names wearing the No.3 and No.4. In short, what's happened to all the superstar centres?
Tony Webeck (Chief Queensland Correspondent): They've been caught between a rock (back row) and a hard place (the wing). Cowboys assistant coach and former Maroons centre Josh Hannay made an excellent point that young centres with a big build are being pushed into the forward pack and the centres with speed are being converted into wingers. The shocking may have actually happened; wingers are no longer the least important players on the field.
Andy Bryan (Deputy Editor): The champion centres era seems to be coming to an end. Greg Inglis has moved to fullback, Jamie Lyon and Justin Hodges have retired and before them was Mark Gasnier. Not that there aren't a lot of talented players in the No.3 and 4 jerseys now, but the position has changed a lot in recent times. Wingers definitely seem to have more of an impact over the course of 80 minutes, with the centre role's main job now to make defensively sound decisions.
Martin Gabor (National Correspondent): Queensland's stocks may be dying, but we're doing just fine south of the border. Croker, Leilua, Jennings, Bird, Ferguson, etc.
TW: So why do they insist on picking fullbacks in the centres?
Chris Kennedy (National Correspondent): I think the changing structure and style of the game overall – as well as the changing build of wingers – has been a big factor. Think of the ridiculous tries wingers can score these days, and the massive impact a good winger (think Mansour or Radradra) can have carting the ball out of trouble and the importance of a good flanker has grown substantially. The creativity meanwhile comes much more from the fullback than it used to (obviously the halves are still the starting point) meaning a try-creating centre like Lyon or Gasnier is less a focus these days.
MG: I still see a need for quality centres, and there are still plenty of them running around. The problem with centres is they don't tend to do the flashy stuff that gets noticed. CK is right. Every position on a footy field has a defined role these days. That's not the case with centres. It's become almost a stop-gap position.
AB: The Raiders pairing of Jarrod Croker and Joey Leulia certainly proved that centres can have a massive impact on the game, but they were the exception to the rule. Croker will most likely end his career as the highest point-scorer in the game's history, while nobody really saw Leilua's season coming. He's always had talent, but his transformation into consistent gamebreaker was a something to behold.
CK: Canberra are very much the exception though. With due respect to the players involved, Ricky Leutele and Cheyse Blair both played centre in last year's grand final. Good players, no question, but clearly neither was making much of a dent in their club's salary cap.
AB: I think the fact Josh Dugan can still play a role in representative teams in the centres shows the changing aspect of the game. The role has certainly transformed a lot in recent times. A strong ball-runner with a solid tackling technique can now prosper in that position. It's pretty common – we might see Jarryd Hayne back in the centres for NSW this year as well.
TW: Centres no longer have space to create but have to barge their way through the defence and create opportunities with offloads. As long as teams play with halves on both sides of a ruck that rarely leave the middle third, the centres will always be coming back on the angle rather than trying to go around.
CK: You look at the good centres now – Jennings is a great runner but not a creator. Dugan (when he plays there) is similar. At rep level Inglis is great but too good to play there at club level. We've still got a few – like Will Chambers, Josh Morris and Dean Whare – who are good in both attack and defence and rarely play other positions, but often now they are utility backs or fill-in players too.
MG: I thought two of the best players on the field in last year's GF were both centres (Chambers and Bird). Reed and O'Neill were very good in 2015. Jennings and Lyon good in 2013. The list goes on. Centres have also performed very well in Origin over the years, so I think there's still hope for young centres coming through.
TW: That's the other issue though Martin. Because of the way the game is being played at elite level the "young centres coming through" are being pushed to other positions where they are deemed to be of more value.
CK: It remains a pivotal position in defence too. The centre is still the key decision-maker on an edge and crucial to what the winger does (stay out, jam in, etc.). Poor defensive centres can leave a side badly exposed. It's still very much a specialist position in that regard.
TW: What if we examined it from a Fantasy point of view? All I'm ever trying to do at the start of each Fantasy season is find a 'centre' who will most likely spend the majority of the season in the back row. Do centres hold any value in Fantasy-land?
CK: Like in real life NRL, you don't want too much salary cap tied up there.
AB: Leilua and Croker do...
DB: Like in real life NRL, they're the exception to the rule these days?
MG: Tackles or tackle breaks; that's how I pick my centres. Plus the occasional try assist, which is dropping now because centres are often the decoy.
CK: Of the four centre spots, you mostly want players who can be relied on for solid tackle counts and a few busts. Like in real life, Canberra are the exceptions but even Croker and Leilua had plenty of low scores in with the boomers last year.
AB: The attacking structure of teams may have the centre perceived as less damaging and game-changing. But CK and Martin both make excellent points that defensively, you need a rock solid centre that can control an edge.
MG: I think what's clear is that we're unlikely to focus on centre pairings as a team's main weapon. No more Matai and Lyon, Cooper and Gasnier, Inglis and King.
CK: Here's a question. If a young Mal Meninga or Gene Miles was coming through now, would they be a centre? Or even a young Jamie Lyon for that matter? Or would the current state of the game mean they would get pushed into another position?
AB: Lyon did win a premiership at five-eighth. But no doubting centre was his best position. But as we saw with Dylan Walker, the transition isn't that easy.
CK: Miles wing, Meninga back row, Lyon 5/8 perhaps? Or could they be as good now as they were then playing centre?
DB: Maybe they'd still dominate at centre like Leilua circa 2016, but Meninga would certainly seem like a better fit as an explosive back-rower these days.
TW: Gene Miles did end up in the back row later in his career; I've got no doubt that would have been fast-tracked in the modern game. Steve Ella and Andrew Ettingshausen would have been stuck on the wing their entire careers.
MG: Looking at recent NYC centres in the team of the year, Nick Cotric and Robert Jennings would start their NRL careers on the wing. The 2014 centres were Sione Mata'utia and Brendan Elliot. One of those is a back-rower and the other plays on the wing.
DB: So generally speaking we're saying the wing is now considered a more important position in an NRL side than centre (in attack at least)? If that's the case, should rep wingers like Blake Ferguson and Dane Gagai be playing on the wing for their NRL side, rather than at centre, to have a bigger impact on their team's chances?
TW: Excellent question, because the stigma is still that a centre is like a winger, only better. If I was Trent Robinson I'd quite like Blake Ferguson starting my sets from deep.
CK: I think that's the key question. We used to say guys (think Ettingshausen or even Inglis) who were wing stars at rep level were too good to be stuck on the wing at club level. Do the Fergusons and Gagais and Kenny-Dowals of the modern era stay on the wing at club level to have the biggest impact?
AB: I think at club level on a 'moneyball' philosophy you want those players on the wing, because they are more effective in both attack and defence and law of averages mean they are more likely to win you games.
MG: The Roosters are a difficult example because SKD, Ferguson and Latrell Mitchell are all bigger-bodied backs who can easily play on the wing or centre. I still think it's a horses for courses thing. Konrad Hurrell should not play on the wing, but I'd rather see Josh Dugan play wing than centre. Will Chambers is an excellent centre, but it wouldn't be wrong to see someone like Tim Simona shifted to the wing.
AB: Dugan at centre was a waste for the Dragons. But for the Kangaroos he was really good there.
CK: Clearly Dugan isn't much of a ball-player, so his biggest strength – his powerful running game particularly on kick returns – was mostly nullified when he was put at centre.
DB: Do we see this trend changing any time soon?
AB: If Canberra win the comp – monkey see, monkey do. You'd say their centre pairing would have a big role in a Green Machine premiership.
CK: I can't see it changing back. I don't know if it can evolve any further in the direction it's gone. I don't think coaches will change it but maybe if we get a crop of powerful and skilful centres all making an impact at the same time the mentality might change.
AB: It's not doom and gloom, but a majority of teams will prioritise their salaray cap on more important positions.
CK: Well yes, it's not the death of the centre, it's just shifted priority to other positions in the team (most notably wingers).
DB: OK cheers guys, interesting chat.