Why ‘centre money’ is a problem with modern rugby league

Cam Stokes Roar Rookie

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    The recent to and fro between Dragons coach Paul McGregor and Recruitment Director Ian Millward regarding the future of Josh Dugan has been interesting to watch unfold.

    It poses a number of questions, perhaps most notably about who exactly is steering the ship at St George Illawarra these days. But it was something else that stuck out to me, the use of a new term in the rugby league lexicon that seems to have slipped into the vernacular unnoticed.

    Millward’s assertion that Dugan is only worth ‘centre money’ has been accepted by fans as a legitimate notion, but it’s one that jars with me on a number of levels.

    The focus of clubs these days in terms of building a team is clearly those important positions that form the spine: hooker, halfback, five-eighth and fullback. These are the positions, along with outstanding front rowers, that demand the big cash and take up a not-insignificant portion of a club’s salary cap.

    Josh Dugan of the Dragons

    (AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts)

    The impact, obviously, is felt most acutely by those players filling the other positions, who in the view of most clubs, and, admittedly, fans, are not worth the same in terms of pure dollars.

    Most of this makes perfect sense, particularly if you look at the success of a team like the Storm, who have built a dynasty around one of the great spines of all time. But this notion of ‘centre money’ clashes with the game of rugby league that I grew up with. That game, or at least my fading memory of it, was dominated by centres, some of my favourite players of all time.

    Your centres were your strike players, combining the pace of a winger, the hands of the halves, and occasionally the power of your backrowers, to create the most lethal attacking weapons in your team.

    We know now that the idea of a centre pairing has gone the way of contested scrums and striking at the play the ball, but it still saddens me a little that the likes of Meninga and Miles or Cronin and Ella wouldn’t even bump into each other in today’s game.

    Despite centres now playing on opposite sides of the field, they still should have the skill set to make them a focus for any team’s attacking structure. The fact we now devalue the position that was once home to those names mentioned above, not to mention the likes of Reg Gasnier, Steve Rogers and Steve Renouf across the decades, I think is to the detriment of our great game.

    It’s also no coincidence that the decline of the centre comes at a time where coaches are happy to use stopgap solutions to fill the position when the need arises. The difference between a rangy backrower and a big-bodied centre is almost negligible, and the likes of Alex Glenn and Tohu Harris are perfect examples of the modern footballer who can plug into the centres when required, though clearly without the grace, skill and flair of those who came before them.

    Our best young centres these days are more often than not only sitting there until a fullback spot opens up for them, which will inevitably come with a pay rise as they move into the spine. It’s no wonder clubs aren’t willing to splash the big money on a position they don’t even consider to be specialist.

    Rugby league trends ebb and flow. A recent shift away from ‘structure at all costs’ football may be exactly what centres need to find themselves back in the spotlight. Perhaps they can stop simply providing the last pass on block plays, and find the room to re-establish themselves on the positional pecking order.

    I can only hope that people can watch a performance like the one James Roberts put on against the Panthers a few weeks ago and remember that a great centre with pace and skill is still the most exciting thing to watch in rugby league.

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