A good big man will always beat a good small man
If 2009 was meant to herald the return to dominance of the little man in rugby league, then to borrow a phrase from our tourism board, “Where the bloody hell are they?”
The game was meant to be faster, meaning we were going to see more players like Matt Bowen carving up tiring forwards.
However, what coaches have found is that, while it might be easy to find someone the same size as the North Queensland speedster, finding someone with the same level of skill is an entirely different proposition.
Which means that as you look down the team sheets for this weekend’s matches, you’ll find that most coaches are still going for the tried and true formula of three forwards and a hooker.
Furthermore, when they have a hooker that can go for eighty minutes, like the Bulldogs’ Michael Ennis, they are opting for a extra forward rather than diminutive game-breaker such as Ben Barba in the ‘Dogs case.
Even the big units aren’t looking to trim down.
Penrith’s Trent Waterhouse, who is playing his best football since 2003, is doing so with an enlarged physique. The Panthers coaching staff admitted earlier this season they got it wrong when they thought forwards would get smaller and they felt that stripping down Waterhouse had probably lead to his drop in form.
So the past off-season was all about adding the bulk.
The same can be said for Greg Inglis. For all the Storm’s science, if the game was for the elf this season, why turn Inglis into the biggest ever five eighth?
I’d argue that the big boppers are the ones enjoying the game in its current form. Just look at how many are scoring tries.
Barely a game goes by without a prop forward crashing over (or, in the Knights Danny Wicks case, sailing over) and it is due to the speed at which the game is played, which makes it is so hard for the defence to get set on the line.
Particularly the little man.
Chris Sandow and Preston Campbell are just the sort of players that attacks will focus on, and so often the big forward will be hurtling at them just as they have got back the ten.
There is nowhere to hide.
Not only will opposition coaches look to target the weaker defenders, they are even breaking it down to which shoulder they should run at. So player A might be suspect but if his inside shoulder is even worse than his outside, they’ll go that way.
The big players are also playing more minutes, allowing coaches to be more judicious with their bench.
Remember when Glenn Lazarus was a freak in the modern game for playing 80 minutes? Now every club has a few forwards that can play without a break.
Coaches also used to bemoan having their bench reduced to, say, fifteen players. Yet, some, like the Dragons’ Wayne Bennett, are choosing only to use fifteen for large parts of the game.
Bennett has twice this season kept an unused substitute – Matthew Head both times – on his bench for the entire match.
Small players with freakish skills have always had a place in rugby league. And that will always be the case.
But with all other things being equal, a big frame will still catch the eye of recruitment managers and coaches.
The key word is agility. So long as you can pick that bulk up and turn it around, you’ll still enjoy a good career.