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'Cam set a pretty high bar': Why quality hookers are at a premium

James Segeyaro is expected to attract interest from NRL clubs seeking an experienced hooker after being given permission to commence training with a new team from April 3 ahead of a return from his 20-month doping ban.

Segeyaro, who has made 164 appearances for the Cowboys, Panthers, Sharks and Broncos and played five Tests for Papua New Guinea, is banned until June 2 for a breach of the NRL’s anti-doping policy in 2019 but he has been cleared to resume training with an NRL club in less than three weeks.

The availability of the former rep star is likely to be welcomed by clubs struggling for depth in the No.9 jersey following a changing of the guard in the hooking ranks and the impact of new rules aimed at speeding up the game.

Cameron Smith’s recent retirement, Cameron McInnes’s season-ending knee injury and a full-time move to lock next year, Segeyaro’s suspension and the fall from favour of Nathan Peats, Issac Luke, Danny Levi and Michael Lichaa has resulted in a dramatic drop in hooking experience across the NRL.

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Canterbury were last week forced to seek an exemption to select 26-year-old school teacher Brad Deitz from outside their NRL squad for his debut against Newcastle, while Lachlan Croker started his first match at hooker for Manly against Sydney Roosters.

The Broncos, Titans and Warriors are among other clubs gambling that their first choice hooker doesn’t suffer an injury because they don’t have a specialist back-up dummy half in their squad.

“It is quite noticeable and the difference between the top clubs and the teams who aren’t doing so well, for me, comes down to the person who touches the ball most,” former NSW Origin hooker Robbie Farah said.

“It is a bit of a concern because it is such an important position and there are a lot of clubs struggling with that position.

“For me it is a specialist position, and to excel at that position week in and week out over the course of an NRL season you need to be a specialist player, and I think the clubs that don’t have that specialist hooker are going to be effected a fair bit this year.”

With the retirement of Farah at the end of 2019 season, Smith last week and Luke being unsure if he has made his last NRL appearance, the top three hookers of their generation are currently sitting on the sideline.

The only clubs with hookers who have started at dummy half in more than 50 Telstra Premiership games are:

·         Cowboys - Jake Granville (118)

·         Dragons - Andrew McCullough (254)

·         Eels - Reed Mahoney (51)

·         Knights - Jayden Brailey (74)

·         Panthers - Api Koroisau (110)

·         Rabbitohs - Damien Cook (98)

·         Raiders - Josh Hodgson (117)

·         Roosters - Jake Friend (228)

·         Titans - Mitch Rein (152)

“Obviously there have been a couple of us who have moved on in more recent times and there don’t seem to be as many quality hookers coming through at the moment,” Farah said.

“We went through a period where the game was so structured and, for me personally, the way I played early in my career compared to the way I played towards the end of my career was a lot different because of the way you were coached or the game plans were so structured.

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“I think the style of hooker has definitely changed in the last five years or so. In the early 2000s, there was Cam and myself and others, who were almost like a halfback playing out of dummy half, creating a lot of the time, whereas now the position has changed.

“I was always that eyes-up or instinctive player and I would be counting numbers but with a lot of hookers these days it’s either pass to your halves or run off a quick play-the-ball, rather than creating.”

Brailey goes it alone

At the Cronulla season launch two weeks ago, the players were bought up on stage in groups according to their positions, but when it came to introducing the hookers for the club's 2021 campaign Blayke Brailey was the only one.

Brailey and his brother Jayden, the Knights co-captain, are considered among the best next-gen hookers, along with Mahoney, Harry Grant (Storm), Sam Verrills (Roosters), Jacob Liddle (Tigers) and Tom Starling (Raiders).

Kyle Paterson, a 21-year-old Queenslander who joined the Sharks from Canberra last year, is Brailey's deputy but he is yet to make his NRL debut.

A number of other clubs have rookies as their back-up hookers, while some are relying on utilities to cover for injuries, but the Raiders showed the benefit of having depth in the position last year after losing Hodgson with a ruptured ACL.

Starling and Tongan hooker Siliva Havili filled the role and helped Canberra to fifth place, finishing behind the fourth-placed Roosters on for-and-against.

“I think if you look hard enough there are good hookers but it depends what the coach’s expectations are,” Raiders recruitment manager Peter Mulholland said.

“Cameron Smith has set a pretty high bar but I just think we have got to be more patient. There is a propensity to try and turn halfbacks into hookers but the best hookers are natural hookers.

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“The Michael Bolts of this world, and George Peponis or Steve Walters and Kerrod Walters, they were all bought up as hookers – they weren’t converted - but there is a desire to want to do that.

“Newcastle have shown the right way with young Brailey. He is a great player and his brother at Cronulla is a great player. They have never played anywhere else."

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Manly have signed injured Warriors hooker Karl Lawton but he is expected to be sidelined until July by an Achilles injury, leaving Croker or Cade Cust to fill the role while Manase Fainu remains stood down.

Both Croker and Cust usually play in the halves but after opting against re-signing Levi this season Manly have no other hooking options until Lawton or Fainu become available.

"The thing that was probably in my head the most was that I hadn't done it before," Croker told reporters on Monday after playing the full 80 minutes at hooker in last weekend's 46-4 loss to the Roosters.

"Last year I didn't play 40 minutes straight as a hooker. That is probably what I was most nervous about, how much I would have in the tank and during the game I was happy with how I was feeling."

By releasing Lawton, the Warriors have cleared a roster spot to sign another hooker and the likes of Peats, Levi and Segeyaro are looking to revive their careers, although they are not believed to be interested in any of the trio.

Brandon Smith, who has worn the No.9 jersey in just seven of his 63 appearances for the Storm, is the biggest name hooker on the market in 2021 and it is believed a number of clubs are keeping room in their salary cap for the Kiwi international.

Smith has been linked to the Broncos, Titans and Bulldogs but Melbourne will only release him from the final year of his contract if they can secure a like-for-like replacement.

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"The good sides have still got good hookers so they are around but sometimes they get into clubs and they get stored up behind people," former South Sydney GM of football Shane Richardson said.

"Melbourne have got two outstanding hookers, the Roosters have got Jake Friend and Sam Verrills is going to be a really good hooker, Souths have got a plethora of young hookers behind Damien Cook and Canberra have got a few good ones.

"It was refreshing on the weekend to see young Liddle from the Tigers has got over his injuries and played well, and there other some wunderkids out there.

"The Brailey brothers are outstanding, Reece Robson in North Queensland has a big wrap on him and Wayde Egan is going alright for the Warriors." 

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.