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Little men back to causing big problems

Cast your mind back a couple of years when the nightmare scenario for a coach was the sight of another fresh forward being sent back into the fray to target his small men in the defensive line.

Most clubs' benches were packed with behemoths who'd punch out 25 minutes at the start of the game and then cool their jets on the bench before re-entering the game in the second half to go full tilt for another 25 minutes.

Targeting opposition halves who'd been trying to fell giants the whole game was quite often the first, and second, option.

There was no respite for the little man playing the full 80 minutes in the defensive line and still trying to find the energy to attack when his team had the ball.

Coming at them was a relentless barrage of well-rested big men eager to turn them into a speed hump and leave them physically spent and counting the bruises by full-time.

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Fast forward to 2021 and the new rules have ushered in a fresh dawn for the blokes with the 6, 7, 9 and 14 on their backs.

Now a coach's worst nightmare is a dynamic playmaker running rings around his big forwards, who've had their energy sapped by the extreme pace of the game under the six-again rule.

The big boys would kill for the 60-second breather a scrum used to afford them.

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Three years ago a coach would lick his lips when he stared down at his interchange bench from on high and saw two props, a back-rower and a back-up hooker.

So skewed was the game to the big man back in 2014 that Des Hasler even threw 123kg Bulldog Tony Williams the No.7 jersey in a win over Manly.

When it came to recruiting players, "big is beautiful" was the catch cry, and it worked a treat for the Roosters in their charge to back-to-back titles, with Isaac Liu, Dylan Napa, Zane Tetevano and Ryan Matterson riding the pine in 2018 and then Angus Crichton, Nat Butcher, Siosiua Taukeiaho and Jake Friend in 2019.

In 2017 the Storm deployed Kenny Bromwich, Tim Glasby and Nelson Asofa-Solomona from the bench with devastating effect as they belted the Cowboys into submission.

And the year before that, Cronulla had broken their 50-year title drought with Chris Heighington, Sam Tagataese, Jayson Bukuya and Gerard Beale on the bench and a giant named Andrew Fifita producing the most dominant performance of his career at starting prop.

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Five years on, and with the new rules turning the pendulum back in favour of the dynamic small man, Fifita can't even get a game at Cronulla as John Morris favours the more mobile Braden Hamlin-Uele and Aaron Woods in the starting side and Connor Tracey and Billy Magoulias bring impact off the bench.

The furious pace of the game means many of those big blokes who were all the rage a few years ago could literally be run out of the game as clubs go in search of speedy little men who can exploit defences stretched to the limit by six-again calls and the reduction of scrums.

As the re-emergence of the little man continues at warp speed, we are seeing hookers like Cronulla's Blayke Brailey and the Eels' Reed Mahoney come into their own, while creative halves Mitch Moses, Dylan Brown, Kodi Nikorima and even the old master Benji Marshall have revelled in open spaces around the rucks.

And rather than packing their bench with an army of giants, coaches are looking towards a versatile 89kg livewire like Newcastle's Connor Watson or an 88kg ball of energy like Parra's Will Smith, who can cover fullback, five-eighth or hooker with ease.

Of course, there will always be a place for mobile big men like Gold Coast's dynamic duo David Fifita and Tino Fa'asuamaleaui, who seem unfazed by the frantic speed of the modern game.

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And enforcers like Junior Paulo and Josh Papalii found a way to remain dominant and destructive and even chase down runaway halfbacks if the need arises.

The beauty of our great game is that there has always been a home for players of all shapes and sizes and, regardless of how much we tinker with the rules, that will forever be the case.

What the six-again rule and the end of scrums has given us is the re-emergence of the dynamic little man, revelling in the extra room to move and relishing the fact they are not being bombarded by rested and rampant giants all game long.

 

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