Defence a dying art in modern fullbacks
Mercurial Billy Slater for the Melbourne Storm in the NRL (Image: AAP)
There is no doubt that fullback is one of the key positions in the modern game. There is also no doubt we currently have a whole host of superstars that play fullback for their club teams.
Slater, Barber, Bowen, Stewart, Hayne….just to name a few.
But as coaches search for a speedy fullback that can return the ball with gusto and find holes in the opponent’s defence, there has been a drift towards accepting frail defence from the number 1.
This was clearly evident last weekend, when Lachlan Coote and Reece Robinson turned in horrible defensive performances for their teams.
Coote made only 4 tackles for the whole game, but more importantly he missed 4 tackles as well. Similarly, Robinson made a total of only 5 tackles, missing 5 tackles.
These guys therefore were a 50/50 chance of making a tackle when presented with that challenge. Luke Burt deserves a dishonourable mention as well, making 4 tackles, but missing 3.
I know fullbacks are asked to make the most difficult tackles (1-on-1), so they certainly have an envious task in defence. But this seems to be used by modern day fullbacks as excuse to not make any effort at all.
Fullbacks like Bowen and Hayne have also shown themselves to be no hope in defending a break this year.
Obviously an argument could be made that the poor defence of fullbacks in recent times is more a reflection of the improved attack (i.e. better support play, better runners of the ball etc…).
But I think coaches are opting for players based purely on their attacking ability, with not too much concern for the ability of their fullback to stop tries.
Old school fullbacks like Gary Belcher and Gary Jack were famous for their ability to bring down an opponent. But nowadays, most fullbacks are their team’s worst defender.
On the bright side
Although last week provided plenty of examples of a fullback impersonating a turnstile, there were some examples of what being a great fullback is all about.
The first example is a surprising one, as this bloke is usually a winger.
But Nightingale’s defence last Sunday was awesome against the Sharks. He made 6 tackles and only missed 1. Anyone left in doubt that Nightingale is not a superstar should have watched this game. If I was picking a squad of players from the current NRL talent pool, he would be in my top 10 without a doubt.
The other example that deserves to be pointed out (as it was far and away the best play of Round 20) was the cover tackle made by Josh Hoffman in the dying seconds of the Broncos v Warriors game on Friday night.
For those that missed it, the Warriors were down by two points in the dying seconds of the game.
Manu Vatuvei had just scooped up a great cross-field kick from Shaun Johnson. The only thing between Vatuvei and the try line (and an amazing Warriors victory) was an exhausted Hoffman.
Despite the massive size advantage, Hoffman put his body on the line and brought down Vatuvei in a brilliant 1-on-1 tackle.
The play was noted by the commentators, but it certainly didn’t make too many highlight reels. It seems that in the modern day game, scoring a try is so much more glamorous than stopping a try.
It is for this reason we are breeding a generation of fullbacks that are way too focussed on their attack and show little pride in their defence.
But the performance of Hoffman and Nightingale (and the impact this had on the outcome of those games), should send a timely reminder to all NRL coaches – the team that wins this year’s premiership will be the team that has a fullback that saves tries, as well as scoring them.
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