A moment’s silence for the demise of the centre

Ben Pobjie Columnist

By , Ben Pobjie is a Roar Expert

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    Rugby league fans of a certain vintage well remember the scything pace of Steve Renouf, and the juggernaut rampages of Mal Meninga.

    Those of an older vintage can recall the dazzling grace of Reg Gasnier. There might even be a few left who saw the great Dave Brown shattering records in the 1930s, and though it’s too much to expect that any current NRL watcher was around to witness the exploits of Dally Messenger, we all know his name.

    These are men who wrote themselves into the annals of league legend, and they all have one thing in common. As do, to take a small sample, Chris Close, Mick Cronin, Steve Ella, Michael O’Connor, Harry Wells, Andrew Ettingshausen, Herman Peters, Tom Gorman and perhaps the greatest of them all: Michael Pobjie.

    Yes, they were all centres.

    There was a time when centres took that part of the stage most aptly named. The great centres combined speed, power, footwork and ball skills to be the most potent weapons in their sides. The rest of the team strived as one to unleash their devastating attacks. They slashed through defences, crunched opponents in tackles, and scored as many tries as they delivered to their grateful wingers – who were often scintillating runners in their own right.

    That time is not this time. This time is the time when Australia announces its World Cup squad, and includes a backline contingent containing just one centre. Just the one player who features regularly in a number three or four for his club, in a 24-man squad.

    To compensate, however, there are five fullbacks. There were six, until Darius Boyd pulled out and was replaced by Josh Mansour. That was six specialist fullbacks, out of eleven backs total in the squad. Plus Cameron Munster, who would probably still be a fullback if he didn’t happen to play for the Storm.

    Cameron Munster breaks through a tackle

    (AAP Image/David Mariuz)

    Mansour, incidentally, is the only specialist winger in a squad which wouldn’t contain any if Boyd had been fit. But the wing has always been the position filled by the overflow of stars inside them – that’s why most of O’Connor and Ettingshausen’s rep careers and, indeed, Boyd’s – were spent on the wing. The decline of the specialist centre – that’s a newer development.

    The writing was on the wall for centres hoping to play for Australia during State of Origin this year. After Justin O’Neill’s disappointing showing in Game 1, three out of four centres in the remaining two encounters weren’t playing the position on the weekends.

    The Blues went the whole series with non-centres in the centres. The Maroons placed fullback Darius Boyd alongside Will Chambers in Game 2, and then pushed Michael Morgan wide for the third.

    Chambers was the only centre in the NRL deemed good enough to fill the role in Origin, and now he’s the only centre in the NRL good enough to play centre for Australia. Fullback Josh Dugan, he’s good enough. One might assume that fullback Dane Gagai or fullback Tom Trbojevic or fullback Valentine Holmes might slot in there at some point. Maybe even five-eighth Munster will have a go, or halfback Morgan can go back to the position he was apparently better at than all but one Queensland centre this year.

    Whence comes this fall in the standing of the centre, all the more poignant for the fact the Cup selections were made by Meninga, perhaps the greatest centre of them all?

    mal-meninga-rugby-league-nrl-2016

    (AAP Image/Paul Miller)

    Part of it might be the modern partition of the field. Nowadays everyone has to be a right-sider or a left-sider. Centres are no longer the middle section of a field-wide backline structure, but occupants of a narrow channel on the edges. They’re expected to stay in their place and run their lines and don’t interfere with the work being done by the important parts of the team.

    Which is the other thing: the modern rugby league team is built around what has come to be called the spine: hooker, halfback, five-eighth and fullback. These four are the positions where attacks start and from where the team is directed. What this means is that if a club unearths a special talent, they rarely want to waste him in the straitjacket of the centres: you want your best players in the spine.

    This means the best players of the NRL all play in the spine. Which means when you’re picking an Australian team, there are so many great spine players that you want to fit them all in. Which means, in practice, a backline full of fullbacks.

    What it also means – what it must mean – is that centre is now considered the easiest of all positions to play. When Johnathan Thurston went down injured, the Queensland selectors never thought Will Chambers could maybe fill in. But when Boyd – who was only there because O’Neill let the side down – got hurt, it was fine to stick Morgan in his place, because while the halves are the province of specialists, when it comes to the centres, anyone can do it.

    No longer do you pick the best centre for the job, you just find the best player who isn’t already busy in the spine, and plug him in to the right side or the left side.

    Thurston-Origin

    (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    And so, while Chambers is apparently just good enough to warrant selection, the likes of O’Neill, BJ Leilua, Jarrod Croker, James Roberts, Dylan Walker, Tyrone Peachey, Michael Jennings, Jack Bird and Latrell Mitchell watch from the sidelines or take up with a Tier-two nation, knowing that as good as they might be, they’re not quite up to the standard of a fullback who doesn’t care where he plays.

    Which maybe – probably – doesn’t really matter. That centre is no longer so much a playing position as a hole to be plugged doesn’t necessarily detract any from the game.

    But a moment’s silence, please, for the demise of what was once the most thrilling position on the field, the place where the creativity of the halves linked with the finishing dash of the wings, and stadiums were set on fire by the game’s supreme athletes. And now, let us look to the future, and the beckoning brave new world of all-fullback backlines.

    Ben Pobjie
    Ben Pobjie

    Ben Pobjie is a writer & comedian writing on The Age, New Matilda and The Roar, whose promising rugby career was tragically cut short the day he stopped playing rugby and had a pizza instead. The most he has ever cried was the day Balmain lost the 1989 grand final. Today he enjoys watching Wallabies, Swans, baggy greens, and Storms.

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