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'Had to buy him': Why NRL's best couldn't crack prototype centre Morris

Trent Robinson laughs when asked if he ever worked out how to attack Josh Morris.

"No, I had to buy him. That was the best way to attack him, to have him on your team."

This would prompt cynics to bring up the old Roosters salary cap gag but the well-reported fact Robinson secured the Morris twins for a steal – less than $300,000 each a season – swiftly bundles it into touch.

In the same week Morris confirmed his retirement at season's end, and also made his return from the hamstring injury that threatened to hasten his exit, Robinson described the 35-year-old as a "prototype centre".

"He's been so hard to attack against for such a long period of time," Robinson explained.

"He hasn't got one set [defensive] system.

"He's got a couple of different systems he works depending on the opposition, depending on the individual, the shape and that's that experience.

"That's why I say he's like a prototype centre."

Josh Morris' career highlights

Brother Brett has played with and against that prototype for 30 years now, from the backyard to rugby league's biggest stages.

Few wingers are considered as capable of stopping tries as scoring them, with Morris a nigh-universal exception.

So who better to break down one of the best defensive centres of the modern era?

Foundations of the finest hour

What Josh Morris has done for so long makes him a favourite among teammates, foreboding for opponents.

"I've gone into rep camps with halves or opposition teams and they say 'I just hate playing against your brother. When he's on that edge we just don't bother going there, he shuts it down too easily'," Brett says.

"I've lost count of the amount of times I've had that said to me, it's a pretty big rap and credit to him if he can throw a team off their attack with his defence, that's pretty cool."

Come Friday night, Manly's Brad Parker has the unenviable task of trying to do what Robinson reckons he never mastered, and plenty of others simply gave up on.

Pulling apart Josh Morris's defence.

"I don't know what to do really, we were talking about it the other day," Parker conceded earlier in the week.

"We might have to get Turbo [Sea Eagles superstar Tom Trbojevic – 194 cm, 102 kilos] to run at him a few times and hopefully I can get him a bit later when he's a bit tired."

Taking down the biggest body available though has long been Morris's bread and butter, right back to his formative Dragons years learning his craft from Matt Cooper and Mark Gasnier.

"I can clearly remember being 18 or 19 and J-Moz would always pick out [representative prop] Jason Ryles for wrestling sessions at the Dragons," Brett says.

"He'd go with him even though he'd be giving away 15 kilos. I was the same size as Josh and I'd be telling him 'you're an idiot'. But that's what he wanted to do.

"If he could handle Rylesy he could handle a centre was his theory and his wrestling strength has always held him in pretty good stead."

Like Cameron Smith's ability to control a game from go to whoa, Morris's ability without the ball is a tad tough to quantify. Stats data dating back to 2013 shows a host of other centres in that period miss fewer tackles as a percentage of the ones they make.

Morris's tackle efficiency has hovered above 80% across his career – typically a top bracket benchmark for edge defenders, though lining up inside young halves like Sam Walker this season or a disjointed defensive line will lower that marker.

Dane Gagai meanwhile has almost the same number of dominant tackles (96 to Morris's 97) from 27 fewer games at centre, Jarrod Croker has made more one-on-ones, and Will Chambers trumps Morris for try saves.

Laurie Daley's inner monologue from Origin I, 2014 says what the statistics can't.

Morris tackles Inglis from the depths of injury

"I remember Josh being down, and Greg Inglis being away," Daley tells of the most famed moments in Blues history.

"I'm thinking we're shot. Queensland has seen it, we've seen it and they went to that edge because we're a man down and Josh is with the trainer being told he's ruptured his ACL.

"The tackle's made and you took a double take? 'Who was that? J-Moz? F--- me, how has he done that, where has he come from?'

"Brett's busted his shoulder and played through pain as well that game.

"We don't win that game if they don't because we're down two players and trying to cover two backline players, and we went on to win the series. It was just remarkable by both of them."

The fundamentals

Alongside a rare competitive drive that picked Morris up off the floor with what turned out to be a ruptured PCL, comes a rare grasp of his defensive craft.

"For a centre in defence, the biggest thing might not be what you actually do, it's making sure your winger or your half know what you're going to do," Brett says.

"To be a good defensive centre you need to be in sync with your teammates and all loving that defence and your role in it.

"Throughout the week at training Josh is very thorough and always talking to his half or his winger. If this happens we do this, if this happens I do this.

"When you've got 15 years of experience you can read and work out where an offence is going.

"What decision to make and when to make it, Josh picked that up very quickly and he's always had the element of anticipation too."

Josh Morris concedes physical toll prompted retirement

Lining up on the same edge as his brother, be it for Canterbury, the Roosters, NSW or Australia, ranks as "one of the easier defensive jobs" Brett had in his career.

"It's almost at the point where we didn't need to speak to know what each other was doing. We know each other's games inside out."

For all the changes in their games too, and an NRL at large that has been sent into hyperdrive by six-again rules, Daley and Morris see the fundamentals enduring.

"There's a lot more video these days, but the good defensive centres, they still understand what's going to be thrown at them," Brett says.

"And they understand their option A, B and C to handle it.

"Josh has always been able to adapt on the run and whenever he came up against an in-form centre or someone making headlines, he'd take it personally and try to play over the top of them."

During his time coaching against Inglis and a rampant Maroons outfit, Daley would see options A, B, C play out in real, rapid time, with Morris invariably picking the right one.

"He was one of the first guys you'd pick because defensively he's one of the best decision makers we've seen," Daley says.

"Whether it's jamming in, staying out or balancing numbers, he so often just made the right choice in a period where he was defending on Greg Inglis and Justin Hodges.

"He didn't fear them, and we had trust in him he could do the job. I don't think you can undersell how well he defended a guy like GI.

"I think his best asset is summing up an opponent's strengths and weaknesses straight away.

"Inglis for instance had the big fend, so Josh would be going high and knocking the fend down at the same time to get in at his waist.

"Others you could tackle ball and all or get low, but a guy like GI could just shrug you off and pass, so Josh had his ways of trying to nullify him."

Maybe that's as good a summation as any given Inglis will long be regarded as one of the most brutal attacking forces of his generation.

Josh Morris was the man picked more often than not to stop him.


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