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Million-dollar question looms for finals halfbacks

Where once a five-star No.7 was considered a non-negotiable in a premiership tilt, the 2018 finals series will kick off crying out for a dominant halfback to take charge of the competition.

The most open NRL season on record has seen a shift in dynamics at the scrumbase, to the point where Melbourne just missed out on the minor premiership despite Craig Bellamy juggling three inexperienced halfbacks throughout the year and still sizing up a "horses for courses" approach in September.

Of the eight remaining halfbacks in the competition most command top dollar in their respective rosters, but none have had what premiership-winner and halves coach Brett Kimmorley would describe as a "dominant season".

Johnathan Thurston's 20 try assists this year tops all comers, but only Dragons pin-up turned punching bag Ben Hunt (15), Warriors magician Shaun Johnson (13) and South Sydney scrapper Adam Reynolds (10) have registered double figures among the finals-bound halfbacks.

Hunt (11) and Johnson (10) are the only halfbacks to have cracked 10 line-break assists going into the semis.

Of the creative types to have truly shot the lights out this year - fullbacks; Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Kalyn Ponga and Valentine Holmes; and ball-runners Cameron Munster, Luke Keary, Damien Cook and Isaac Luke have been the NRL's dominant force.

Numbers never tell the whole, but the part is plain. Million-dollar Roosters buy Cooper Cronk is warming to his task, but freely admits he has taken time to adjust to his surroundings.

Cowboys legend Johnathan Thurston.
Cowboys legend Johnathan Thurston. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Hunt's form has fallen off a cliff post-Origin while Nathan Cleary's was not as dramatic but heading in the same direction at Penrith, casting doubt over his value amid million-dollar predictions.

Reynolds and Cronulla counterpart Chad Townsend have been consistent conduits for their teams, but neither are the out-and-out centrepiece of their respective attacks. 

Johnson is growing into that role more and more as the Warriors' highest earner. But he's not there yet.

Kodi Nikorima meanwhile has bounced back in tune with the Broncos this last month to arguably be the form halfback in the NRL, though is hardly a traditional game-managing, contest-dictating No.7.

For the past 20 years champions Thurston, Andrew Johns, Allan Langer and Ricky Stuart, and even slightly lesser lights like Matt Orford, Craig Gower and Cronk were the be-all and end-all.

Canberra's star-studded side sat first with a week remaining in the 1993 regular season, only to fall in a spectacular heap when Stuart did the same with a broken leg against Parramatta.

But throughout 2018 the load has been shared more evenly across each contender, to the point where Melbourne can rely on Cameron Smith's game-management to guide a fullback-turned-halfback in Jahrome Hughes to the pointy end of the ladder.

"I think it's a different game now," Kimmorley says.

"The days of Johnathan Thurston winning games on his own, or even Joey is as far back as you go of a No.7 winning games without a hell of a lot of talent around him.

"These days you've got to have the full package as a premiership contender; it's just that tight and defences are that good now.

"Different clubs depend on the other players they have different strengths. I still think you need to have a dominant seven or a true general who does your kicking and calls the shots.

"There's not a dominant seven in the game that just owns contests regularly, but there's definitely still a place for a halfback that does 60-70% of the kicking and I think there can still only be just the one general on the field still, calling all the plays."

Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk.
Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

Cronk looms as the obvious circuit-breaker in this discussion, with four grand final wins, almost 350 first grade games and renown as one of the finest halves of the modern era.

He still stands a class above his competitors. And yet the Roosters' most dangerous attacking play is whenever Luke Keary gets Latrell Mitchell one-on-one with his opposite down their left edge.

History has proven there's more than one way to skin a cat – see Shane Perry, 2006 Brisbane premiership-winner and perennial trivia question.

Cronk is doing just that with the Roosters, and is philosophical when the theory of halfbacks and title tilts.

"I don't think there's a blueprint," Cronk says.

"We all understand there may be a philosophy but sometimes the way that I play doesn't suit a certain type of team.

"One way or another [that] a halfback plays might not suit but that's up to the coaches and playing group to work around a philosophy that they believe in.

"There's been a history of teams that have won grand finals or finals football with dominant halfbacks, no dominant halfbacks, good front-rowers, great forward packs light on their feet.

"It's just up to the coaching staff of that particular coaching staff to develop a game style that they believe can win football matches."

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